Filming alone at festivals


You get to see some brilliant performances, but…how do you get decent audio? And what do you do with drunk people and photographers getting in the way of filming?

I got lucky at The Strawberry Fair as most of the groups and musicians I wanted to film were on the Cambridge 105 tent. They kindly gave me a copy of the audio they recorded, hence not having to rely on what my microphones were picking up.

The above was originally by Jefferson Airplane in the 1960s. If the lead singer from Jefferson Airplane looks/sounds familiar, she was the lead singer in ‘Nothing’s gonna stop us now‘ by Starship.

I got lucky again with several members of the audience intervening to get some drunk people out of the way while filming Fred’s House. Because I really wanted to clobber one of the drunkards who was oblivious to everyone else around him. In the meantime, others near me had to deal with someone drunk in charge of a mobility scooter steamrollering his way to the front. (Interestingly, there seems to be a legal loophole on this).

I had a great early afternoon at The Strawberry Fair, a number of very talented young musicians – some of whom seem to have been around for ages, such as Ellie Dixon below.

I first spotted Ellie playing support to Grace Sarah, who occupied a much later slot on stage this year. After Ellie & Sophie Winter’s set, I asked them both about why there were so few all-women bands around generally. It’s something they said they would give some thought to in a follow-up interview. I also suggested the idea from this blogpost of getting a group of young women singer/song writers to pick their 3 favourite songs (each) that they’ve written, arrange them for a big band and have The Junction/Music East book some professional session musicians to perform them live with.  Grace Sarah has already piloted this approach with GoldStar.

What do I get out of it?

I’m of the view that every filming session is a learning opportunity – one that goes against the way I was taught to learn as a child. The latter being:

  • Get it right first time, every time
  • Mistakes are bad and bad is sinful and shameful
  • Failure is bad and bad is sinful

You can see how the exam factory screws people up.

This new way of learning was something I only picked up last year – see here. Most of the footage I film does not get uploaded. Editing is extremely labour-intensive.

The past week or so has been a lesson about soundboards – from small hand-held ones to the big studio ones. I’ve effectively had a crash course in what other stuff I needed to get in order to get better audio. (Other than ‘A USB stick’). If you’re going to a gig at a small concert venue and want to record the audio, have a USB stick with you as most soundboards can record the audio directly onto them).

I get to meet more people on a fairly regular basis, which is always nice. Also, given the profile of the groups & musicians I film (ie local/unsigned generally), any extra half-decent video footage is always welcome. For singer/songwriters it works best because picking up a decent bassline is very difficult. Here’s one example by Cambridge Octet Makossa where even my main camcorder struggled. Note how you can hear but not ‘feel’ the bass guitar.

Being alone at a festival and ‘working’

It was kind of a loaded situation for me to be in – 20 years from a summer when many of my school friends were experimenting with cigarettes, alcohol & soft drugs. As it turned out it took me a few months to catch up with them in the drinking stakes. But I missed the Strawberry Fair of that year, everyone singing the praises of how they all got stoned. A couple of weeks later and at the midsummer fair the atmosphere was noticeably more tense & less easy-going than the previous year culminating in a sharp exit before some local nazeez hanging by a burger van spotted us.

Yet just as back then, I found myself feeling not entirely comfortable as darkness began to make itself known. It wasn’t so much having the kit with me – minus an expensive tripod that went missing earlier that afternoon at The Cambridge Union where I popped into the Unlock Democracy event. It was the sense of vulnerability of not being with a long term stable group of friends – despite the presence of more than a few familiar faces throughout the evening.

It was very much the sense of having spent the whole day with people but at the same time spent the whole day alone. But given what I was doing, I had to be. When you’re concentrating, you zone out of everything and everyone else around you. Whoever gets in the way of filming becomes a target of extreme internal rage at the time, only for it to have diminished the following morning.

“Festivals and fairs are supposed to be communal things, aren’t they?”

In part it’s where I show my age, but also where I show my anxiety. As documented in many-a-past blogpost, I never had the camping out festival experience that I should have had either at college or university. Illness put paid to that. In my ‘roaring 20s’ my equivalents of music festivals were probably the ballroom dancing balls in Vienna & Zurich. One of the most well-known of the smaller music festivals – the Cambridge Folk Festival happens every year in my neighbourhood. Every so often I pop along – I even took Puffles one year.

Is time running out for that ‘festival’ experience?

I stumbled across the word Torschlusspanik recently. Essentially it means the fear that time to do things in life is running out, & that the gate will close on the opportunity to do them. Literally it means ‘gate close panic’. Yet having watched one of those fly on the wall documentaries while editing last night [lads go to festival with film crew not knowing their parents are watching the footage etc], even if I did have the stamina I don’t feel a sense of having missed out as such. As far as performers go, I got to see many of the biggest bands around at the time that I wanted to see live in concert. Much of the TV footage reminded me of post-A-level holiday to Newquay & clubbing every night.

Wisdom, experience, growing up, courage – call it what you will, perhaps part of the process of us finding our true selves is acknowledging what we do and don’t like. (And not worrying about whether it’s cool or not). In that regard I grew up far too slowly. Being the solitary community cameraman filming politics and performances isn’t the stuff ‘cool’ is made out of. Yet when I look at the data, clearly more than a few people are watching the results – Charlie & Molly having 250 plays in 24 hours of the Strawberry Fair ending, being one example.


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