The Live Event Filmmaker’s Survival Guide – Part 1

So yesterday I was shooting an event for a wonderful client—StreetGRACE. They’re an organization that helps raise the awareness of and fight the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) in the Atlanta area. Yesterday was “Lobby Day,” an annual event where StreetGRACE and other organizations like A Future Not a Past and Wellspring Living organize a rally at the state capitol. Over 600 participants showed up. My company Dare Dreamer Media was filming the event.

Lobby Day 2011. Photo © Juvenile Justice Fund

So I get there bright and early (around 7:30 am-ish). The first thing I always do at any live event is get the audio squared away (hint: this is the point where you should be taking notes.) Any good video producer worth his/her weight in gold knows good audio is paramount. I introduced myself to the audio technician. He’s the guy frantically working to get all the speakers set up, the musician’s instruments miked, etc. He rarely has smiles for the videographer when the videographer comes up asking for a feed. I give him my biggest and brightest smile and tell him I need a feed. I ask if he has an XLR out. (I’m sure most of you reading this know what an XLR is, but for those of you who don’t, suffice it to say it’s a more professional audio connection. It’s a thick audio cable that has three prongs at the male end). “Mr. Smiley” tells me that they didn’t tell him anything about a press hook up so he has no XLR out.

Now, if I were the audio guy, I would have said, “Well Mr. Video-tographer, I want to do whatever I can to help you out. I don’t have an XLR, but how about a quarter-inch?” But that’s just me. Mr. Smiley wasn’t really in a space to offer me suggested alternatives to hooking up to his system. So that means I need to be ready and able to offer audio solutions when the audio guy ain’t givin’ up the goods. (You’re still taking notes? Right?) I see he has a quarter-inch out. (Think of a thick audio cable that has a silver, phallic-looking end.). I ask if I can use that. He says that if I have a cable for it, I can tap in. Sweet.

So I head on over to my handy-dandy audio bag which I affectionately refer to as “Felix.” (Named after Felix the Cat who had a magical hat from which he pulled out all sorts of things that could never fit into a hat.) I ruffle through all my cables and find the one I’m looking for. XLR (male) to quarter-inch. I give it to Mr. Smiley and he jacks me in. I have the cable going into a Zoom H4N.

If you want to know which kind of XLR cable to use, an easy trick is to think of audio flowing out of the male end and in to the female end. (Forgive me. I know this blog post is sounding a lot like a sex education class, but there really is no other way to put it.🙂 ) Since I want the audio to go into my Zoom, I need a quarter-inch to XLR male. (Technically, I could’ve used a quarter-inch to 1/8″ inch mini and plug into the Zoom’s underbelly. But I prefer to use XLR whenever possible.)

We do a sound check and the signal is really hot (i.e. too loud and distorted). I ask if he can dial it down. He can’t with that jack, so he begrudgingly puts it in another. Just as he does that, a cop comes and tells him he has to move his truck. Mr. Smiley was told by someone else that he could stay there the whole time. Apparently he can’t. If Mr. Smiley was reluctant to help out before, he is even more so now. He jacks me into another slot and makes some adjustment. The audio is a little better but not much. I ask if he can adjust it a little more and he says, “I can’t keep making these adjustments. If you need to adjust the audio, you need to do it on your end.”

I smile and say, “No problem. Will do. Thanks so much for all your help.” I am very sincere when I say that. (I should note that I’m being playful when teasing Mr. Smiley. I understand the pressure audio guys are under in such an event. And less I be hypocritical, not a half hour later I was my own version of a “Mr. Smiley”. I was setting up a very cool, low angle slider reveal shot and right in the middle one of the photographers came up to say hi. I actually know this person, and although I smiled and was friendly, I did do my own version of a Mr. Smiley and basically said, “Don’t bother me right now.” I of course didn’t say it like that, but that was the message. I think I said something like “I’d love to chat but I gotta get this shot.” So, yeah, I know what’s it’s like not to want to be bothered when you’re “in the zone.” No hard feelings Mr. Smiley.)

Just look at the breathtaking cinematography.🙂 FYI. This is raw, ungraded, "flat" footage.

At this point of the story I’m very proud of myself. Audio is set up early. I have the Zoom plugged into an extension cord so I don’t need to worry about batteries dying. (If a Zoom loses power before you stop recording, you lose everything that was being recorded. Not the files you’ve already saved, just the one you were writing to the disk at the time of power loss. So I get very nervous about losing power and whenever possible will connect to an outlet; especially when recording long speeches and presentations. I always have an extension cord and power strip in Felix). I’ve got all the cool establishing and b-roll shots outside the capitol building, so we’re covered there. My second shooter has gotten all the b-roll shots at the registration station so I’m covered there too. The show is about to begin. Time to get set on my tripod.

The news press starts arriving. (It’s a rather comical display to see my little DSLR on a tripod in a row of ENG and other traditional video camcorders.)

Lobby Day press.

After I get my camera set up I go to the Zoom to turn it on. The state officials who are about to speak are getting ready to come on stage. We’re minutes from starting. That’s when Mr. Smiley tells me, “Hey, they just brought out a press box for all the media people. You can connect over there.” (A press box is just an audio box with rows of XLR outlets. Each outlet has a mic/line button. Again, without getting too technical, mic and line will adjust the power of the signal. Line is more powerful.)

Audio press box.

There are few things more frustrating and nerve-racking to a live event filmmaker than to hear “You have to change your audio set up” when it’s literally minutes before the live event. (Um. Why did I show up at 7:30 am after a 40 minute drive which required me to get up at the ungodly hour of 5:30..ish?)

ARRRRRGGGGGHHHHH!

Click here for Part 2 and find out how I handled the situation.

15 thoughts on “The Live Event Filmmaker’s Survival Guide – Part 1

  1. Hey Ron,

    The last outdoor press conference I photographed had an audio feed that was set up by a custodian. Needless to say he’d didn’t have any headphones. Long story short, he took in a line level signal From the podium into a microphone input on the box and everyone in the press pool was being feed a horribly distorted signal, just seconds from the start of the event.

    As technology get “easier” or “foolproof” it seems the value of professional work is being diminished. We had to fall back to the shotgun camera mic, which I had setup and was working fine. It was nowhere near the quality that a direct audio feed would have been. A great message from a worthy cause suffered as a result. Sadly it seems that no one seems to care about quality in this new, digital age…

    1. Oh man. That sucks! It’s very frustrating when I arrive at a gig and need to work with a staff member at the location who has no idea how the location’s set up works. You not only have to know your gear, but in many cases you have to know all kinds of audio sets too. The bright side to your story is that I bet the client won’t notice the shotgun mic audio as being less than ideal.

      Thanks for sharing.

  2. I’m not sure why but it seems I always get some sort of tension from DJ’s at weddings when trying to get a feed. This year though I’m going to try contacting them ahead of time so that there are no surprises. That way on the day if I already know that I can’t get a feed I have planned for that.

    1. That is excellent Jesse. That’s exactly what you should do. In fact, you should do that with all the key vendors (e.g. photographers, hotel staff, etc.)

  3. Do you always set a manual audio level? I’ve gotten in the habit of just setting it the H4N on auto-level to be safe. Especially weddings where some people know how to use a mic and speak into it and others keep it 2ft away from them.

    1. Most of my gigs are commercial jobs where I’m controlling and monitoring audio with one interviewee, so that’s what I’m used to. If I did more live events, I might switch, but my fear is fluctuating sound levels that need to be adjusted in post. But I could see it working for someone who does a lot of live events where you can’t control audio.

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