This story relates to a hard lesson I learned recently when it came to choosing a videographer to shoot a local high school play. Based on his work, I thought I was choosing the best. Here's how I went wrong—and what you can do to avoid a similar pitfall.
When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to the barber shop every other Saturday morning. It was one of those special outings that I grew to enjoy. When I was 7 or 8, I got a crew cut and a special brush with a handle that slipped over all four fingers so that when you went to slick your hair back, the stiff bristles would make the very short hairs stand straight up. I was proud to look like my Uncle George, a grease monkey with a spiffy, permanent crew cut, whose clean face we saw only on Sundays.
At the barber shop, I would often gravitate to the guy who cut your hair with such concentration that he held his tongue between his teeth the whole time, but my father had a different idea. “Always go the barber with the worst haircut,” he would say, with wisdom born of experience. This puzzled my young mind, so one day I asked why.
“When business is slow, the barbers cut each others’ hair. The barber with the worst haircut obviously had it done by one of the others, so if you don’t go to him, chances are you’ll end up in the chair of the barber who gave him that bad cut. And you don’t want that. So always go to the barber with the worst haircut.” What was counterintuitive before now made sense, and from that day I have always followed my dad’s advice, at least as far as barbers are concerned.
I should have remembered that lesson when the time came to choose a videographer to shoot the biennial musical at the local high school. The students had worked on Grease at rehearsals after school for five months, learning lines and memorizing songs, building and painting flats, sewing costumes, and perfecting their hair and makeup skills. The show was to run for only two nights—Thursday and Friday—with a dress rehearsal on Wednesday afternoon for kids from neighboring schools. I was helping out with the sound for the show—nine wireless Sennheiser mics, four hanging Shures over the stage, a couple of spot mics, a lectern mic, and voice of God from the booth, along with a handful of sound effects played off a CD I had prepared—no big deal.
I planned to record the direct output from the school's ancient console, a Tac Bullet, onto a Fostex timecode DAT machine that had lately been gathering dust. And since I was recording the show, the teachers thought it would be a nice idea to videotape it as well, to be able to give the kids a DVD as a souvenir of all their hard work that would otherwise vanish without a trace at the end of the week. I could use ProTools to sync my DAT with the videotape production sound, and mix a little of it in for extra ambience from the house.
In choosing someone affordable (read: cheap) to shoot it, I reviewed some of the student films from the film school where I teach audio post-production on a part-time basis. There was one student whose work stood out from the pack. Mort (not his real name) agreed to the job for a modest honorarium, even though he now considered himself a professional, and at my suggestion he attended the Thursday evening show to scope out the job. On Friday, he showed up an hour before curtain to set up his Panasonic DVX-100 on a riser at the rear of the auditorium and make sure everything was in order.
I was a little concerned to see that he was using 60-minute DV tapes, as I had timed each act at just under an hour, and suggested that he keep his color bars to 30 seconds in order to preserve tape. Act One went extremely well. The audience was hugely supportive and the cast seemed to feed off that, turning in wonderful performances. When I left the booth at intermission to compare notes with Mort, he appeared calm and competent. The tape had not run out early, as I had feared it might. After watching him change tapes, I returned to the booth for Act Two, which went over even better than Act One.
After the show wound down to thunderous applause and the cast took their curtain calls, flowers were presented to the five teachers who had worked so hard with the kids to mount the show. I left the booth to see if Mort was getting this extra action. With a big, self-assured grin, he gave me the thumbs up. I was a little concerned, because this extra action had taken the Act Two roll past the 60-minute mark. “Did you get it all?” I asked as he was leaving. “Sure did,” he replied, adding that he would be in touch over the weekend, and might even have the footage converted to QuickTime for me to complete the minimal audio post.
Mort emailed me the next day to say there were a couple of “small problems” with the footage, including a little shake in Act One, caused by his knee hitting the tripod. He went on to add, “The biggest issue was that I was not able to capture the first scene of the second act which was the dance sequence. The reason for this," he explained, "was human error. However, on the final DVD, it would not be a hard cut; it will just be a fade-in into the black out of the first scene in the second act.” He then asked about settlement of his invoice.
When I phoned for clarification, he said he had realized he was still in standby during the first number in Act Two, but had decided to wait for the song to end before going back into record because it would be “smoother” that way. I was flabbergasted! “Why would you wait?!” I bellowed. “You should have got back in as soon as you realized you were still in standby, and we would have dealt with the transition in post!” Clearly, he had known that he hadn’t got it all even as he assured me the night before that he had. Why lie when it’s patently obvious that you’re going to be found out?
When Mort delivered the QuickTime movie of his footage a few days later, I was heartbroken. He had cropped off heads, shot extreme close-ups that made smooth panning to the next performer hopelessly impossible, zoomed in on the wrong performers, framed the boys when the girls were singing and vice-versa, missed Sandy’s star entrance—you name it. But what really hurt was that he had missed not just the first scene of Act Two as he had indicated in his email—he had been in standby for over 18 minutes! I had hired him to document a performance that would never again be repeated and he had missed a huge chunk of it. Sad to say, this film school alumnus isn’t qualified to shoot a high school musical.
To make a long story short, I was able to find a couple of students who had videotaped Thursday’s performance on the school’s Everio camera, and was able to supply the missing material from their footage. Since I had been recording to DAT both nights, I could easily sync up Thursday’s audio off the console. Mort de-interlaced the Everio footage and applied some color correction to help it match his own. To add insult to injury, however, he somehow managed to slip his own footage of the remainder of Act Two some three seconds and seven frames out of sync with his production audio, something I discovered when he delivered the second QuickTime movie file.
Had I chosen a competent person for the job, none of the additional running around and wasted time would have been necessary, and I would not be wearing the brown helmet today. I really should have asked around for a recommendation and looked for someone who was at least apprenticing on real films under the demands of real-world pressures and deadlines.
Reflecting on my poor choice choice of videographer, it occurred to me that film school students all work on each others’ films, assuming different roles in the various departments each time—hair, makeup, sound, camera, and so on. Instead of hiring Mort himself, I should have asked him who had been behind the lens on his great looking film, and then approached that person instead of him.
That's when I realized that I had ignored my dad’s sage advice. After all these years, I had gone to the wrong barber.