Follow Your Bliss

July 14, 2013 by

Tango Bliss-5342

I offered some photography services on the Bay Area Community Exchange Timebank (say that ten times fast) in order to gain a few hours to trade in for computer help and whatnot, but also to get a chance to do some interesting photo shoots that people may not be willing or able to pay for. A young tango dancer contacted me looking for some shots of her that would also convey something iconic of the bay area. After some thought I came up with the idea of shooting her just after dusk at Treasure Island at the Bliss Dance statue with the Bay Bridge and the city as a backdrop. You can’t get much more bay area than that.

In my head it was pretty clear, but the reality turned out to be a bit different, which is why I wanted to lay it all out here. Yes I got some cool shots, but it wasn’t what I had envisioned in my head and I wanted to write down my experience so that we can all learn from my experience that night.

For starters I didn’t scout the location in advance at the time I’d be shooting. I did arrive early to get a lay of the land, but its important when you’re trying to take advantage of natural light to know in advance what that light is going to look like. The magical moment was slightly after sunset and I had the client show up a bit too early. More troublesome I didn’t know that the statue Bliss Dancer wasn’t sufficiently lit to show up very well compared to the ambient light. In fact let’s talk about lighting now.

Because I wasn’t getting paid I didn’t get a CityCarShare for the shoot and just brought what gear I could manage with my backpack, a tripod, two speedlights and one light stand. I brought an umbrella to soften the light but it was super windy that night so it wasn’t of any use. I only ended up shooting with one of the speedlights and this was a mistake. Things would have worked a lot better with a key and fill on the dancers as well as one or two lights on the statue. This would be hard no matter what because Bliss Dancer has LED lighting on it that cycles through different colours and matching that would be quite a task. Still, I’d rather work with that then have her so underexposed.

Here’s some of my other thoughts on the night;

Bring the subjects closer to the camera so that they fill the frame more.

I definitely could have made the subjects bigger in the frame by going with a wider lens and bringing them closer to the camera. This is even what I had initially tested but for some reason I decided to switch it up and move back, hoping to compress the image a bit with a longer focal length. Wrong wrong wrong.

Colored bean bags/hacky sacs to mark the edges of the frame on the ground.

Once they started dancing I didn’t really want to stop them or make them self-conscious by directing them too much. An easy way to mark the “safe zone” where I wanted them to stay would have been to put down some coloured bean bags. Next time…

Wireless trigger to reduce camera shake.

My tripod is a piece of junk and in order to let in enough light to expose the background I was shooting exposures a couple of seconds long at times. Every time I touched the tripod it moved. Even with a better tripod this might’ve been a problem so another set of wireless transceivers would have been nice. Even nicer would have been a TTL wireless system allowing me to adjust the flash strength from the camera. Having to run over to the speedlight to change settings got to be a real pain.

Front curtain sync instead of rear curtain.

I like rear curtain sync most of the time, but I’m not sure it worked out on this where I was trying to time my shots to actions by the dancers. At the very least I should have tried it both ways.

So there we go, a barrel full of lessons to take with me to the next night time shoot in the howling wind. Hopefully next time the execution will come closer to what I have in my mind’s eye.


July 13, 2013 by

When you’re freelancing there will be times when you’re desperate for cash because nobody’s hired you in a while and you’re starting to get sick of eating rice and beans for dinner. June was one of those months for me and so when I spotted a listing on craigslist seeking videographers for $20 an hour I put up my hand, even though I usually charge at least three times that much. Sometimes you gotta eat.

It also helps if the gig is somewhat interesting, and this one was. Shooting a band at pier 39 on the 4th of July isn’t the worst way to spend a day, especially when you’re Canadian and don’t really give a damn about having the day off. When I finally researched the band I was going to shoot, WJM I discovered that it was a cover band of ten year olds! Kids belting out Bon Jovi, Led Zeppelin and ACDC? Cool! This I thought would be fun, I like shooting concerts and shooting kids was an added novelty that was even more amusing (not to mention great for my reel).

The next morning I grabbed my fuck-off gigantic Manfrotto tripod, the bane of my existence, stuffed my utility vest with my camera, lenses and batteries and ran out to catch the bus to the pier. When somebody’s paying you bananas, you spend bananas on transport. Long story short, Muni sucks and I barely made it on time. When I did the guy orchestrating the whole shoot was having an intense discussion with one of the representatives of pier 39. The gist of the conversation, no tripods. Welcome to America folks. They were so paranoid about someone tripping over a tripod and suing them for it that we were banned from using them. Ridiculous. This is when we went into troubleshooting mode.

A handful of shooters got monopods, one got a fig rig, but me and many others were left to shoot handheld for three hours. I was packing a 60D plus 70-200mm lens weighing in at a friendly 2.2kg which doesn’t sound like much, until you have to hold it in front of you perfectly steady for a few hours. Not so easy. The killer in this situation is that when I left the house I briefly considered throwing my monopod into the bag. I’ve always found the monopod to be great for concert shots because its small and nimble, but I figured giganto-pod would be more than enough this day. How wrong I was.

Other things I wish I’d brought? My LCD loupe would have been nice in the glaring sun, though since I ended up working on on of their cameras instead of my own it was really a moot point. Also, sunscreen. San Francisco isn’t often hot and sunny, but this day it was and I ended up with one hell of a farmer’s tan. I’m still itchy today two week later.

In the end I got the shots. I braced the camera against my chest, against my legs. I switched arms and positions and between songs I let it dangle around my neck and shook and stretched my arms. Shooting handheld for so long is brutal and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. If anything it reinforces the thought that I should get some weights and work on improving my arm strength for exactly these kinds of situations.

Lessons learned? The same lesson as always. Bring more gear. The monopod would have saved me a lot of pain on this shoot and I could have easily stashed it in the tripod bag with giganto-pod.

Also, wear sunscreen.

And earplugs. Goddam wax basking ear plugs. I was standing right next to a speaker stack for three hours. Riiiiiiiing!!!

Shooting Again

July 13, 2013 by

Alas a long hiatus for this blog, and for good reason. I’ve finally taken the plunge and started getting serious about this as a career and thusly launched Astral Projections Filmworks a few years ago. Initially I took it pretty casual, but as I went along I started to realize that posting about problems on location and cheap DIY gear wasn’t necessarily going to instill confidence in my abilities in the eyes of prospective clients. Best to wear a suit and tie on the official site as it were.

So I’ve come back here for anecdotes and tales of shooting, challenges I’ve faced, things I’ve dealt with and all the rest. Hopefully it’ll allow me to vent a little bit, brag a little bit and help others considering a career in the industry without making myself look like a clown to prospective clients.

We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

May 30, 2008 by

This morning I awoke to an unexpected email in my inbox. Well I didn’t exactly wake up to it, I gave up sleeping with my computer a while back, but you know what I mean. It was a comment for a blog that I’d forgotten even existed, yeah, you guessed it – this one. I hope you don’t take offense that I’d forgotten you, it just so happens that I’ve been busy. I’ve moved across the country to follow my dreams, which for some odd reason involves applying for film school. I’m still not quite sure that’s going to make much difference, but even if I drop out it’ll make a good story.

To be honest though I’ve just been lazy. Yes, sloth, one of the deadly sins. I’d look up which one but… y’know…

In any case when that comment came through the lines I started reading through my old posts and said to myself – “Wow. This is some of my best writing of the last few years, charged with gonzo irreverence.” – Nice. So I’ve decided to try taking it up again. The best part is that the comment that started it all was probably just a spambot making the rounds – these things happen for a reason right?

And there’s plenty of material to foist upon you. Between my last post and now I’ve done other gigs and learned new things, and now that I’m in a new city the networking and struggling my way up the ladder will all begin again with the added excitement of film school and all of its sordid side tracks. Misery for me, delight for you. Sick bastards. Oh well, if it amuses or educates someone I suppose my pain is worth something. If you’re inclined to send donations or leads for jobs I’d be doubly impressed. Yeah.

Love, hugs and cookies, and compression algorythms…

Beer before breakfast

February 16, 2007 by

I probably shouldn’t admit it here publically for all the Internet to know, but I’ve been drinking even before my sausage and maple syrup. Don’t blame me, blame the infectious aroma of Unibroue’s Chambly Noire. Perhaps its appropriate that I’m going to accompany a friend to an AA meeting to offer my moral support.

Anyways I’m here to announce a transmogrification of my bloggish presence. I realized that though I often have lots to blog about in terms of videography (and I’m sorry for being lax on that front) there is much more that I would, could, should blog about, assuming anyone cares. So I’m revamping – which brings me back to the beer…

Breakfast breaks down to break and fast, it is the completion of the long period without consumption during your sleep. You awake, hungry, and in need of energy. Drinking alcohol at this point is… more effective than usual. I’m really in no mental condition to fuck with WordPress too much at this exact instant. So I’m ranting.

My ultimate goal is to run several parallel blogs with a Big ‘ol Blog that aggregates all of those smaller blogs into one grandiose whole so that those mascochistic enough can subscribe to the lot in a single click and so that I can pour my drivel into my other digital selves in places like Tribe and Facebook. That is coming. Soon.

They Shoot Horses #4

January 4, 2007 by

As the week wore on our breaks became shorter and shorter and less and less frequent. Our diet consisted almost entirely of caffeine and fast food. The company had accounts at most of the food vendors at the arena. Initially we treated the privilege with respect, but as the days passed we began to abuse the company account more and more, stuffing ourselves with whatever we could fit into our stomachs.

Spencer’s asthma continued to slowly worsen. Finally with two days left in the show, when breaks were all but non-existant and nerves were already frayed Spencer got on a bus to return to Calgary. Nobody could blame him. The job sucked and he had a perfectly legitimate out. The poor guy could barely breathe, even with the SARS mask. That left Alex, James, Aaron and I along with the three local videographers to handle the finals.

By now we understood our jobs very well. We were streamlined. All of us could create DVDs on the fly while shooting a competition and preparing for the next. We were efficient, but we were tired, we were cranky and we were beginning to crack. There were murmmerings of job action, demanding more pay if we were going to work such inhumane hours. By this point we were putting in 15 and 16 hour days, almost all on camera.

There was debate over whether threats would work, or whether it was even the right thing to do. My arm ached, my hand cramped, my feet burned from hours of standing and pivoting in place, my eyes started to glaze over. Alex went crazy, talking gibberish, throwing things, wearing a box on his head. But we kept going.

We ultimately finished the show after midnight on the Saturday. Aaron’s insistence that we just do our best and hope our efforts were noticed worked out. All of us who stayed ended up getting a bonus on our cheques, plus a $100 cash bonus. Unfortunately by the time we made it to the bar there was only time for one round. I woke up at 5:00am and caught a taxi to the airport to embark on my next adventure. Filming a documentary at Burning Man

Videographer’s lament
Dr. SARS threatens to quit
I need alcohol

They Shoot Horses #3

January 4, 2007 by

Part of me says that I shouldn’t post everything that happened that week, something about the booze and the weed and other depravity that took place on the peripheries of the job. I’m not presenting a very professional picture of myself or my fellow videographers. Yet, that’s the way it was. We had to cope somehow. The long hours, the fatigue, the hotel, Spencer’s SARS. It seems unjust to leave out the booze and bongs because those are what got us through.

We were total professionals when on the job, but back at the hotel, or in the parking lot between competitions – that was our time.

Coping truly was the name of the game. Many people don’t realize the physical and mental demands of working camera for long periods of time. I certainly didn’t until I started doing it for gigs like this. Following a moving target, smoothly, zooming in and out to keep the rider and horse in 3/4 frame at all times requires constant attention and a delicate touch. By the middle of the week the muscles in my left arm were having spasms and my right hand on the zoom controls cramped up regularly.

Mentally you begin to zone out. Some kind of predatory reptilian instinct takes hold and follows the target for you without conscious effort. Your mind just kind of empties out, the edges of your vision blur. My vision actually began to take on the characteristics of a video image, refresh rate, colour temperature, framing – even without the camera. Its disconcerting to walk up to the concession stand and feeling like you’re watching it on TV.

The video camera became like an appendage and everything began to look like a shot. The distinction between reality and interlaced video began to blur. I knew things had gone too far when Alex started to talk in his sleep.

The honeymoon suite
Alex has nightmares
Losing It

They Shoot Horses #2

December 31, 2006 by

I think without the opportunity to observe the equestrian elite in their natural environment I would have gone totally insane. Instead I tried to convince myself that I was engaging in important anthropological work studying horse society. It was actually a rather fascinating peek into a strange, strange world of wealth, competition and appearances. About halfway through it dawned on me to do a study in the vein of Hunter S. Thompson’s Kentucky Derby article, but by then we were far too busy to suffer such distractions.

The job consisted of, you guessed it, shooting horses. We had a platform on one end of the main arena with a view of the whole floor where the horses came out and did their thing. What they did usually consisted of riding in circles, fast, slow, reversing, stopping. From our perspective it was pretty nonsensical, particularly the competition where they make the horse “present” by sticking its neck out for an imaginary carrot while the crowd hoots and hollars to get the animal to perk up its ears. It took us a few days to figure that one out.

Each of us was hooked into a hard drive/DVD burner and a TV monitor so that our boss could watch our shooting. We were either assigned to a particular horse in the competition groups or were assigned a general tape which meant trying to get equal footage of all the riders. The hard drive/DVD was so that we could provide footage to the customers as quickly as possible. No edits, just straight out of the camera. This had its drawbacks, such as when James inadvertantly zoomed in on a girl’s butt during an award ceremony.

As you can hear in the mp3 a degree of sexual frustration was already starting to set into this sausage party by day two. I also mention the pub we tried to get to for lunch when time permitted. There were a couple of days where I have to admit we came back a little shy of the legal limit, but I always say that a little bit of liquor makes for smoother pans.

Conditions at the show were pretty crummy. There was a second arena that usually only had one shooter stationed there, effectively stranding them there for the duration of the competitions. Spencer quickly discovered that he was severely allergic to horses and had to take a trip to the hospital for an asthma attack. At the beginning of the week our days were about 12 hours long with breaks throughout, but soon that would seem like a luxury as the pace of the show picked up.

And of course every night we returned to the same seedy hotel…

Here’s some audio from the trenches.

This is a small town
Etnographic notations
The origins of Dr. SARS
The flying Elvises

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

December 19, 2006 by

While I was in Regina shooting a horse show for some clients I made irregular audio journal entries using my iriver mp3 player. Rather than transcribe the whole mess I thought I’d just post the files along with a bit of context and additional descriptions when necessary…

My friend and fellow videographer Alex brought me in on this project last summer. He’d taken a job shooting horses (with a camera, not a gun) at Spruce Meadows for an equestrian video company. I’d passed on the job earlier due to other commitments, but I had some spare time to do a few days and came on board. The work consisted of filming horses as they traversed the jumping course and logging the horse number and competition against the time code on the tape. Nothing too punishing. We were paid a flat $150 per day, some days working as little as five hours.

Life was good. When she asked us to come out to Regina to shoot a week long show for $175 per day plus room and board we said yes. When I told fellow videographers Josh R. and Josh W. both of them warned me not to work for the company. Josh W. told me the only way they’d made it though the year before was by getting hammered every night.

Of course I ignored their warnings. I needed money for my upcoming trip to Burning Man where I’d be shooting a documentary with a friend of mine who works for the CBC. Plus things had gone smoothly at Spruce Meadows, the days might be a bit longer in Regina, but really how bad could it be? I figured R. and W. were just whiners…

They Shoot Horses Don't They? #2 - Can't Sleep


December 18, 2006 by

The film and television industries are by and large prestige industries. That is they are appealing, exciting, high status industries to work in. Being able to say that you’ve worked with Scott Bakula (true) or Samuel L. Jackson (almost true) carries with it a certain degree of pride and cultural power. After all movies and television shows make up our cultural mythology, the heroes and villains by which we derive our values, our world view, even our identities. There is a lot more money to be made in the energy sector, in telecommunications or countless other industries. Hollywood despite all its glitz, glamour and excess actually accounts for very little of the wealth out there, but its so conspicuous and loud that we’re bedazzled by it and being a part of that spectacle is for some highly appealing.

Personally my desire to be a part of the entertainment industry is rooted farther back in time in the sacred traditions of the shaman and the storyteller. Stories and myths are what define a culture. They are tools for teaching life skills, potentially providing wisdom, courage, inspiration… Starlets with perky breasts have more to do with ratings and box office dollars, but that’s part of the industry too and frankly its sometimes a welcome distraction.

Speaking of distractions let’s get back to the issue at hand.

Since this is a prestige industry there are a lot more people who want in than there demand requires. Film & television is always an employer’s market. As a result employers can get away with murder, treating their employees like total crap, at least until they reach a certain level of proficiency and recognition at which points the tables start to slowly turn. Near the bottom of the barrel, fresh out of film school (or having not even gone) are videographers like me. At the bottom are PAs. Poor bastards.

A professional, established videographer can demand anywhere from $500 to $1500 per day or more for shooting depending on their skill, equipment and market demand. People like me who are just starting out will work for free one day, for $20/hr another, food, or a $175 day rate, all of which are blatant rip offs. Often you get no breaks, or you may be asked to work under appalling conditions. More often than not people who don’t pay professional rates also don’t operate in a professional manner. They can be thoroughly disorganized, often they don’t even know what they want you to do. “You’re the professional, you figure it out.”

On the plus side you will make money and more often than not you’ll make more than you would at McDonalds. You will also learn your equipment inside and out. You will learn what works and what doesn’t. You’ll learn how to be prepared and how to streamline and simplify your workflow so that you can accomplish more with less. You’ll learn how to negotiate and what compromises you’re willing to make (and which you won’t). If you’re lucky you’ll also make contacts that can help you in the future. “Remember that music video I shot for you for free?”

Think of it as a kind of solo apprenticeship, getting started, getting the tricks of the trade down deciding whether or not its something you can see yourself doing in the future. This is serious stuff. If you want to get into the photography union you need lots of prior camera experience, and when you start as a camera assistant you will be getting paid the same or less than the kid behind the counter at McDicks. Everybody wants to be the director or the cinematographer and this is how they cull the weak ones from the herd.