by Steve Smith 
Big Results with 
Little Cameras
When CBS News Productions contacted us about doing a one-hour documentary on Philadelphia's 911 emergency call system I thought for sure we'd be working on Betacam. But at our suggestion they were game to try and shoot the program on miniDV.  The assignment, stretching out over 12 days, taxed the equipment, the format, and our ingenuity to find solutions to ever-evolving problems. In the end, it was a satisfying experience -- the material looks and sounds good;  you'd be hard-pressed to tell it was not shot on Beta. 

We used two main cameras: the tried-and-true Sony VX-1000 and Canon's new VX-1000 look-alike, the GL1. For most of my shooting I mounted the cameras on our Mightywondercam Rover support pod. We developed this rig a couple of years ago to solve the severe audio limitations inherent in these miniDV camcorders. Rover looks a little like an overgrown flash bracket, with a mounting shoe on a vertical arm for an external ambient microphone, and a box beneath the camera to hold a radio microphone receiver.  Embedded into the arm is a full-featured Beachtek DXA-4 dual XLR adapter, which allows the user to control each audio channel independently. The advantage of Rover is that the camera operator has all the requisite equipment contained in a small and relatively light package, with no dangling cables. For this assignment I used a Sennheiser ME-66 short shotgun with a Lightwave Mini-Zepplin windscreen in an isolation shock mount. For a radio, I used the rugged, reliable Lectrosonics CR185 VHF system with a high-quality Tram lavalier on the transmitter. This little clip-on mike was normally attached to our chief subject--the police officer, fireman or medic--we happened to be following that day. To monitor audio I used a pair of professional Sony full-ear headphones. 

A lot of the shooting took place during "ride alongs" with the Philadelphia Police Department. For maximum optical flexibility in the cramped quarters of a police cruiser, I put a Kenko .5X wide-angle converter on the front of the camera (I love to shoot wide anyway). I also added a little 10w battery light made by Sony, for those times when we needed extra fill (though much of the footage was shot on the street at night without supplemental lights, with the camera's gains set at +12 or +18db.) 

While I cruised the streets of Philadelphia, another crew shot at the ultra-modern 911 center at police headquarters. Peter Lorch, one of the cameramen, preferred to use the Mightywondercam Classic shoulder pod instead of Rover. He thought it gave him a steadier picture with less wear and tear on the body. Whereas, I had to do my own audio, Peter worked with a sound recordist (my wife, Martha). In the course of the shoot, three other cameramen, Jerry Hooper, Charlie Bailey and Doug Zuback, worked with the Classic rig and VX-1000. 

There were a number of bumpy spots in the first couple of days, as we refined our techniques and technology. By the third day, we were humming right along. 

One sore spot was the weight of the Rover/VX-1000 rig. Though the pod tips the scales at just eight pounds all-up, that weight bearing down on your forearms can be tiring after a 20 or 30-minute continuous take. A Bogen monopod eliminated that issue in a trice. 

To capture audio at the 911 Fire Communications Center we had to use a simple "air patch," rather than plug into their sound system. This entailed placing a lav mike next to a small public-address speaker and radioing the resulting audio to the camera. It was not the perfect way to record sound. When it got really noisy in the Center, the mike picked up the ambiance as well as the calls.   

The producers were looking for some interesting camera angles, so we also employed a battery of other cameras. The little passport-sized miniDV Sony PC7 was often used as a POV camera, attached by a weird assortment of clamps and arms to strange and wonderful places--like the hood of a police car, and the dash of a hook and ladder truck. Another VX-1000 was often mounted inside medic and fire units to provide another angle. And we had an Elmo lipstick camera recording to a miniDV deck which we placed in awkward places--like the side of the ladder truck, the inside of the ambulance, and on several occasions, handheld out the window of the police car, to capture some neat street shots. Audio was recorded with the cameras' on-board mikes. 

Working in miniDV can be a joy--once you've worked out the kinks and developed personal strategies for overcoming some of the limitation of the equipment. For example, these cameras were not designed for follow-focus shooting. A quick jerk on the focus ring generally results in a totally out-of-focus shot. Consequently, many folks stick to autofocus. It's difficult to do a good focus shift manually, but it can be done if you devote some time practicing the move. And that's really the key to using these little digital cameras. You need to make the effort to learn all their idiosyncrasies, then find ways to overcome them (or use the quirks to your advantage). Once you are completely comfortable with the gear the joy will come--you'll feel like a street photographer prowling about with an unobtrusive Leica. 

Which brings me to my final point.  I'm used to shouldering a 25 lb. camcorder that measures nearly 12 inches across and 30 inches long. This kind of camera attracts attention. How much attention the little cameras caught came as a surprise too. Every night I'd hear "Hey! What you doing with that camera?"  or "Mister, you from Action News?" It was disconcerting. I was not, in fact, as unobtrusive as I thought. At least on the streets of Philadelphia, size does not matter. A camera is a camera is a camera.   

The shoot went well, and I hear the show has been well received by the network. It's scheduled for the Discovery Channel sometime this year. Despite some of the technical limitations, the producers were extremely happy with the methods we used to shoot this documentary, and are already talking about doing more, using the same techniques. From a photographer's point of view, it was loads of fun to try new stuff. The reward came in pulling off shots we could not have made with the big cameras.

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