Know Your Gear, Three Disaster’s To Learn From

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made and watched others make is borrowing equipment for a film shoot, and not having time to understand how it works.

In the book Permanent Record by Edward Snowden he talks about the importance of knowing how something works, I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially his message is if you don’t know how your gear works when it doesn’t work, you also don’t work.

If you are working with someone else’s gear, my best advice to you is to ask ahead, what equipment will you be using and learn it. – ask for the make and model.

Take the time to sit down, and spend some time studying the device, learning its features, reading its manual, watch other professionals playing with it on YouTube.

Search for Camera + Model, walkthrough, or Camera + Model guide.

You’ll want to familiarise yourself with the device before you use it on set. Spending the time before, will make your life easier on set, and give you a professional edge, remember your only as good as your last job.

Here’s a list for you.

  • What formats can it shoot in?
  • What framerates can it achieve?
  • How many minutes of runtime can you get on a battery?
  • Where do you set the white balance?
  • Where do color profiles live?
  • What IO does this camera have?
  • What assistance does the camera have? – can you set peak meters for exposure?

Now, let’s hear about those disasters I mentioned earlier:

Sound Recordist, Didn’t Record Audio.

We once shot an on-location interview with a young artist, in her home. A lengthy hour-long interview, only to return to base and ingest the files to learn we had no audio from the shoot. A complete reshoot was in order.

How does something like this even happen? – was the sound recordist incompetent, short answer no, likable guy, and quite knowledgeable in his craft. However, he was using a field mixer he had no experience with, which had already been configured from a previous shoot. It was a rental and not his gear.

The issue related to how the recorder displayed timecode, pressing the record button once gave the impression the device was recording, however in this case, it took two presses to start laying audio to disk.

A Location Change, And An XLR Input

The first rule of audio is, you should never trust anyone else’s audio. I was always taught, to run my audio, and never trust a venue or a feed from someone else.

Anyone can change an output, disconnect you, or change levels on a mixer without warning. 

You should also record audio separately from the camera.

When working on a short film a few years back, the sound recordist was feeding audio out from his mixer to the camera, for ‘scratch,’ or audio used as a reference in post-production to help sync audio and video together.

Only one problem, he wasn’t recording audio himself, on his field mixer, instead relying on the camera to capture the audio he was sending via the mixer’s output.

The old saying goes, what can go wrong, will go wrong, a shot change saw the camera move across the room, the XLR connecter was disconnected from the camera, then reconnected when the camera moved to its new position.

Only one slight problem, the connecter moved from channel one, to channel two on the camera. Channel two’s levels were turned completely down, and now silently without anyone noticing audio simply wasn’t being captured.

Levels and audio could be seen on the field mixer but were not being recorded on the mixer, and when reaching the camera could not be heard.

I was working on the production as a Data Wrangler and was reviewing the footage each time an SSD was brought to my table for ingestion into our hard drives out the back.

Reviewing the footage, I saw a flat waveform and no audio, surely this could not be, where is the audio? – I checked, double-checked, no audio. I grabbed our producer and broke the news to her, to say she was devastated was an understatement.

The production was able to find time to reschedule these scenes, but with time comes money. Each minute can be thousands of dollars to a film set, in this case, we were shooting in a real school, with what felt like thirty extras of children. Then you have crew, gear and fee’s to rent a location. Each minute counts and a mistake can cost a production greatly.

Even I’m Guilty 

I once borrowed a camera from my film school with excitement, taking it to Sydney to shoot a government corporate video.

Super excited I pulled out the camera, stuck it on legs, and went to set its white balance, only to discover it was not where I expected the menu item to be,

I had our interview subject and PR rep waiting in the hot sun whilst I was looking for the settings I needed. Not a crash-hot look and I’m sure the hard-working officials did not appreciate having to stand and wait.

What did I do wrong? – I made a rookie mistake, I failed to take the time to familiarise myself with the layout of the camera and its settings. It left me looking unprofessional and unprepared for the interview.

Long story short I found the settings, but nowhere near as quick as I would have liked. I was blinded by upping the production quality but failed to take the time to learn the camera. This is a mistake I have only made once and will never make again.

I’ll say it again, learn your gear. sit down, read its manual, play with it, and watch videos on it. Be able to work it with your eyes closed.