This year, I had the privilege of working with Mark Delong to bring his annual poster symposium deadline video to life. You can watch the whole video here: https://youtu.be/OGDSXK5crd8
Mark had a particularly ambitious vision for this year’s video, so I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss our creative process and how we tackled various production challenges.
We began development in October, when Mark provided a ten-page script for the project, with multiple scenes and characters. More than just a simple song parody, he envisioned what amounted to a short film – one that matched, scene for scene, the Billy Mack plotline from 2001 movie Love Actually. While we would eventually narrow the scope of the script, it was clear early on that I would need to ensure the production value matched Mark’s cinematic vision. Among other things, this included filming for a wider aspect ratio (2.55:1 versus the typical 16:9), using our DSLR for better depth of field, and obtaining a camera stabilizer so I could add some movement to the shots.
The first two things were relatively straightforward. I’d use our Sony aIII to film in 4k and crop the video to the desired aspect ratio. We didn’t have a stabilizer, so I did a little research and our team ended up purchasing the Zhi Yun Weebil Lab package. In this review post, I go into more detail regarding our experience using it. Having not had the opportunity to work with a gimbal like this before, I enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with the new tool.
Our first day filming was at the WXDU radio station at the Rubenstein Arts Center. They were kind enough to let us use their podcast recording studio which was the perfect set for the Tina and Tom scene. I quickly realized the first challenge in recording with the stabilizer would be capturing good audio. The size of the stabilizer simply didn’t allow me to affix a shotgun mic to my camera and I didn’t have anyone else to work a boom mic for me. Ultimately, I decided to run two cameras – a stationary 4k Sony Camcorder that would capture audio and provide some basic shot coverage, and then roam with the stabilized DSLR. Between running two cameras, directing the performers, and making sure we captured everything we needed, I was spinning a lot of plates. To combat this, we filmed the scene multiple times to ensure we had redundant takes on every line which provided a much-needed safety net in editing.
We filmed every other shot on green screen at the Technology Engagement Center. Though at first simpler than shooting a three-person dialogue scene, it came with its own challenges. Principally, contrary to most green screen filming we do, the intention here was to make the performers look like they were on a real set. This meant anticipating the angle and lighting conditions of the background we’d place them on. Though it wouldn’t be seamless, the goofy nature of the video would hopefully allow us some leeway in terms of how realistic everything needed to look. Since I was moving the camera, the hardest part was making the background move in a natural parallax behind Mark. This was easy enough when the camera stayed at the same distance but almost impossible to get right when I moved the camera toward him. For this reason, at the poster symposium scene I faded the composited elements behind Mark to just a simple gradient, justified by the dreamy premise of this part of the video.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was not related to video at all. For the song parody, we recorded using a karaoke backing track we found on YouTube. However, the track had built-in backing vocals that were almost impossible to remove. Luckily, we had our own rock star on staff, Steve Toback, who was able to create a soundalike track from scratch using GarageBand. His version ended up being so good that when we uploaded the final video to YouTube, the track triggered an automated copyright claim.
Were I to do it all over again, there’s a few things I would try to do differently. While running the stabilizer, I would try to be more conscious of the camera’s auto-focus, as it would sometimes focus on the microphones in front of the performer, rather than the performer themselves. I sometimes forgot I’d be cropping the video to a wider aspect ratio and framed the shot for a 16:9 image, so I would try to remind myself to shoot a little wider than I might normally. Overall though, I’m satisfied with how everything turned out. I’m grateful for all the support during the production, particularly to Mark and Steve, without whom none of this would have been possible.