Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Great Abyss

Some time ago I was approached by a colleague who had also written a book about the 416th Bomb Group and wanted to produce a documentary about the group and its history. The proposal struck me as appealing because I had actually harbored thoughts of doing the same, even though I was totally inexperienced in the medium of videography. The project that this colleague proposed was to be a team effort that would include professional video production people and was to be funded by a public grant. I would do a share of the interviewing and we would collaborate on the narrative. It all sounded exciting. However, over several months, the project tended to lose momentum and finally stalled for lack of ability to obtain a commitment for grant funds. Over the past year, at least four of those veterans who would have been interviewed have died and a couple more have developed medical problems that make an interview impractical. One of those that passed away was Scotty Street, the last man to see Bill Cramsie alive. The death of Mr. Street was a very strong wakeup call for me personally. I began to realize that waiting is not an option if we want to preserve the stories these courageous men have to tell. About three months ago, I decided to launch an effort on my own.

Lacking even the most rudimentary knowledge of digital video or video interviewing, I went online looking for help. It was my good fortune to stumble across and a passel of friendly video experts. The site is a discussion group where practically every conceivable subject about digital video has been discussed by people who know what they're talking about. I laid out my dilemma, admitted my complete ignorance, and asked for help. Early in the process, one of the regulars who actually became very helpful later advised me to forget it and hire a professional. That was good advice, but the cost to do what needed to be done was an impossible burden. So, after more than 60 discussion list exchanges with more than a dozen experts, I assembled the basic equipment and stepped off into that wide abyss that skydivers or bungi jumpers must experience. At times, it certainly did feel like free falling. Since it would be necessary to travel across the country to do these taping sessions, I focussed on small and light equipment with the goal of fitting everything needed into an airline carry-on bag. After a lot of research and creative planning, here is a list of what my equipment consisted of:

(2) Canon Vixia HV30 high definition video cameras
(4) Rechargeable camera batteries
(1) Canon AC adapter
(2) AC/DC battery chargers
(1) Lavalier microphone with cable
(1) Shotgun microphone with cable and mounting hardware
(1) Two-piece telescoping shotgun mike boom
(2) 51" collapsing camera tripods
(1) 2' tabletop tripod
(2) 7' collapsing light stands with light fixtures
(1) 36" umbrella reflector
(1) 12" aluminum spotlight reflector
(1) Backlight fixture
(2) 85 watt fluorescent daylight bulbs (340 watt tungsten equivalent each)
(2) 26 watt fluorescent daylight bulbs (100 watt tungsten equivalent each)
(1) Folding headset
(1) Firewire cable
(1) Polarizing and color correction filter kit
(4) Extra microphone batteries
(1) 9' AC extension cord
(1) Three-way AC outlet adapter
(15) One-hour Mini DV tapes

Yes, remarkably, it does fit into a carry-on. I also carry a laptop and a flatbed scanner in a shoulder bag. My strategy is simple. I set up two cameras separated by about 15 degrees, one with a tight head shot and one with a wider upper torso shot. Each camera is fed with a different external microphone. All taping is done on battery power to eliminate any 60 Hz hum or ground loops. With this system, I have full redundancy of video and audio. I can monitor the cameras from my seated position before the subject, but do not have to do anything with them once the taping starts. This allows me to concentrate on the subject and hold eye contact. The cameras just keep recording and the unwanted segments will be cut later in editing. If there is a change in framing or audio level, I can see it and make any needed correction on the spot. Since the subject is lit with a conventional 3-light arrangement with daylight fluorescents bulbs, there is no heat or uncomfortable glare.

My first attempt with this setup was a three-day session last week in southern California with Wayne Downing, a pilot with the 416th who flew 86 combat missions in Europe during WWII. Wayne was flying on the mission in which Bill Cramsie was killed.

Wayne and Norma Downing - France 1944

He and his wife Norma (both veterans of WWII and married in France during the war) graciously invited me into their home, where a mini studio was set up in their living room. We taped nearly six hours of memories (12 hours of raw DV tape) and could have gone on even longer had there been more time. It was an extraordinary experience for me and, regardless of any amateurism that may show up in my filming, the information that was preserved is priceless.

My next interview will be with Ned Burr, a West Point graduate of the class of June 1943 who is currently president of the class alumni group. Several others are planned throughout the remainder of this year. My intention is to capture and save the raw data now and then edit the clips at a later date.