Going beyond ‘set up and record’ with community video – overcoming recurring problems

Summary

Some thoughts following several months of regular filming out and about – in particular overcoming recurring challenges

One of my favourite local artists, Melody Causton, headlined a relaxed evening of acoustic music alongside one of the first musicians I filmed – Rachel Clark. Still getting to grips with my kit at the time, I screwed up the audio recording of her set at AlexFest 2014. (Both Rachel & Melody performed there – see the playlist here).

I’m now at the stage where I’m moving on from simply setting up and pressing ‘record’ to considering a whole host of things that, in the past I’d have been unaware of. Have a look/listen to Melody’s final track:

I was reliant on the audio mixing desk of the venue and the young man operating it – something [operating a sound board] easier said than done. Although I had the correct cable to attach sound recorder to mixing desk, between us we couldn’t figure out how to get my recorder to pick up the signal once connected.

Furthermore, I had no control over the backdrop – in this case windows in bright daylight. From a filming perspective, this is a significant challenge – one that even a high-end ‘prosumer’ camcorder struggled with. In a nutshell, camcorders the next step up are not sold on the high street – you have to go to specialist retailers. Reviewing this video, backdrop is clearly a problem – but the windows had no curtains. Audiowise, I’d have rebalanced the sound to enhance Melody’s vocals.

“Sounds like you need to start planning these things!”

…Which isn’t really the way I have been operating. Normally I just rock up and film, giving a tweet/email/facebookpost notice in advance as opposed to doing a pre-event visits and the like.

Melody Causton

Melody Causton at The Architect Pub in Cambridge

Note the difference between this photo I took on a DSLR camera vs what you see with the camcorder. (Note – I’m more familiar now with improving photos than with video images – ie going beyond ‘auto-correct’ functions).

The thing is, being the one-man-and-his-dragon-fairy-operation, I can’t do everything I’d like to. At any one event I can find myself filming, recording audio (which I often do separately), photographing, live reporting and posting photos onto social media. With Melody’s performance above, I recorded the audio onto a separate specialist sound recorder. The difference it makes compared with onboard microphones or even external ones is huge. The reason for this is microphones are often attached to cameras rather than pointing towards the sound source or being close to the sound source.

It’s the same with local council meetings

In Cambridge, the plan for seating (similar to many other councils) is as below:

A traditional seating plan for council chambers
A traditional seating plan for council chambers

The problem for anyone trying to film a meeting here is that you’ll always end up filming the back of someone. Councillors also don’t always appreciate the need for using microphones – not helped by the very fiddly arrangement many councils have for them. Basically they have to press a button to switch their microphone on in order to speak – and if they forget to switch it off you get horrendous feedback.

The above seating plan, taken from Cambridge City Council’s AGM on 28 May 2015 shows the seating plan in the council chamber of Cambridge Guildhall – something that hasn’t changed in many years other than the people and parties in the seats. You have the mayor in the chair with deputy and senior council officials in a row at the front. You then have the councillors in a semi-circle forming a sunrise/sunset sort of shape. But what of the public? Their seats are either on the far left or the far right edges, or stuck up in a balcony which I would not recommend to anyone afraid of heights!

So the choice for the public – and film crew like me is to be close to the people we want to film – but have them with their backs to us, or sit on the other side facing them but from a long distance away. Whenever school children come along to the Guildhall to see a debate, they often can’t see, let alone hear what is going on. It’s so sad.

“Why does this matter?”

Because people want to see the faces of those speaking, not their backs. Take the locally significant decision on Cambridge Central Library where local people supported by councillors forced Cambridgeshire County Council to think again. The significant moment in the meeting was the concession by the Conservatives group on the county council. Have a watch:

Note the comment from the chair asking Cllr Criswell to speak into the microphone – not for my benefit but for the 50+ members of the public in the room but out of shot. Had I known of the significance of what Cllr Criswell was about to say I would have set up my camera position from the opposite side of the room. As it was, I wanted to be as close as possible to a mains socket to keep my camera going. Again, lack of mains sockets means for extended meetings our filming positions are even more limited.

“What would work better for everyone?”

Split the semi-circle in half and put the mayor/panel in between the two quarters, and have all of them facing the public where the mayor/panel used to be. That way it is much easier to film the councillors and much easier to avoid filming watching members of the public that may not want to be on camera.

“Why would someone not want to be on camera?”

Many reasons – but I don’t see it as my place to argue with a member of the public who is simply there watching but doesn’t want to be on camera. For elected representatives and senior council officials, I take a very different view – but again don’t force it down the throats of people. For public meetings, it’s far better than people know but don’t notice that you are there: ie you have their consent, but you’re not a distraction. I can’t help but think that the way we do public meetings currently helps no one.

“So…how do we improve things?”

On my side, I’ve got to get better at planning filming sessions – including giving organisations reasonable notice of what my needs are and what they need to consider if they want decent video footage.

I also need to help organisations help themselves. This may involve creating a guide on why some seemingly innocuous things like microphones, or what a background is, are actually really important.

Food for thought.

Anyway, after Rachel & Melody’s performances, I raced up to the top of Castle Hill & photographed this sunset.

CambridgeSunset2

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