Photo by Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas

Mike Ekern at the University of St. Thomas recently shot a multimedia piece on one of their graduates who just happens to be a professional strongman. He shot stills and video for the print and online editions of their alumni magazine. Something that stood out to me was the quality of the ambient audio while the subject was working out. It went a long way in creating an atmosphere for the piece. While I thought he did a great job of balancing the two mediums, it sure doesn't hurt to get a shout out from Umagazinology. Check out the video below, or better yet, jump on over to St. Thomas Magazine and read Feats of Strength.

There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask Mike about this project, so I thought a little Q and A might be in order:

Q: How did this project come about?

A: The story idea came up at one of our twice-monthly magazine editorial meetings.  One of our University Relations staff members knew that Dave was doing very well in the sport of strongman and that he was an alum.  When I heard that Dave trained here in the Twin Cities I couldn’t pass up the chance to do a multimedia feature on him in addition to the still work that would go in the print magazine.  A dude who lifts gigantic rocks, pulls cars, and who has biceps as big as my torso?  That’s a no brainer.

Photo by Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas

Q: What equipment did you use?

A: The cameras I used were an EOS 1D MkIV (my favorite) and an EOS 5D MkII.  They were mounted on a Red Rock Micro “event” rig along with a Zacuto Z Finder, and occasionally on a Sachtler fluid head and tripod (for things like the interview portion).  Sound for the entire piece was recorded to a Tascam DR100 and then synced with the video files using Dual Eyes software (this worked fantastically well – better than I could have hoped).  For the action segments, I used a Sennheiser ME66 mic mounted on the camera hotshoe and running into the Tascam.  For the interview, I used a wireless lav again running into the Tascam.  The nice thing about recording separate audio for the interview is that I was able to run multiple cameras and have Dual Eyes sync the single audio track from the interview to the multiple video files generated by each camera.

All the editing was done an Macbook Pro running Windows 7 (yes, by choice) and Premiere Pro CS5.  Premier Pro CS5 is great; with the new rendering engine in the software I didn’t have to convert the files out of the camera to an intermediate format first.  I just dumped them into Premiere and started working with them, an incredibly refreshing change from the past where I had to convert the tracks first using Cineform NeoScene.

I did all of the audio and video gathering alone, but when it came time to cut the piece together magazine editor Brian Brown and I sat down together and collaborated pretty heavily on how to arrange the footage and display the story.  This went well beyond me editing, him reviewing, me making changes, him reviewing, me making changes, etc.  We watched all the raw footage together, drew out various storyboards, played with ideas, and he even watched as I put some of the work on the timeline in Premiere so that we could test our ideas.  Time consuming for him?  Yes.  Effective? Absolutely.  I know that this collaborative time played a huge role in making the video a success.

Photo by Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas

Q: What did you learn shooting this piece that could help other UPAA members as they move into video?

A: This was my first multimedia piece where I felt like I had collected enough footage to not be redundant and the fact is that I probably could have used even more.  For me it’s a definite change in mindset from shooting to get only the great stuff to shooting to get the great stuff AND enough “filler” to make visual connections in the piece.  I finally got myself to think in terms of sequences and I think that made all the difference.  Show the action, show a detail of the action, show the subject’s reaction to the action. That was going through my head the entire time.

This was also the first interview where I felt confident enough with the gear and the technique to use multiple cameras and multiple angles.  This had the effect of giving me a lot more B Roll to work with – again, another increase in the amount of visual “bridge” material to get me from one shot (and more importantly, one piece of audio) to the next.

If you’re used to shooting RAW files like I am, you may have gotten used to getting your white balance “close enough” in the camera and then doing your true white balancing in your raw converter.  When you shoot video it’s time to dig out your old gray or white cards – think of it like shooting jpegs.  I didn’t take enough custom balances on this project and it cost me in post-processing time.

The tools that I’ve decided I can’t live without when shooting video: Zacuto Z Finder, Premiere Pro CS5, External Audio and Dual Eyes.  I also really like our Red Rock Event rig, but I’m looking at trying to build something even more compact that will still hold the camera with room for mounting the Tascam.

Also, one more useful tool – nonotes.com.  It’s a transcription service and I used it with all of the interview audio to get a printable transcript, which is vital to speeding up the editing process.  It also helps other people (like Brian in this case) get in on the action without having to be in the room to watch the interview.

Photo by Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas

Q: What was your biggest challenge on this shoot?

A: One of the hardest parts of this shoot was that Dave had a radio on the in the background during all of his training sessions.  It didn’t even cross my mind that this was going to be a big issue in cutting the piece together (shows how new I am at this), but it was.  The fact that I was able to cover most of it shows the value of getting lots of good B-Roll footage and audio.  In the boiler room there was also, (believe this if you want to) a boiler.  It would fire up every 15 minutes meaning that a lot of my footage from the boiler room needed interview audio over it or got tossed. My original hope was to do the interview in the boiler room, but it just wasn’t possible thanks to that 15 minute cycle.

Q: How big a part is video in what you do?

A: Currently it’s a pretty small part of our workload, but I only see it growing as time goes on.  It won’t be overtaking our stills work any time in the near future, but my hope is that we can do a larger number of multimedia projects (whether with stills, video, or a combo of the two) as time goes on.  It’s nice to hand off a complete visual package as opposed to single stills that get used on an ad-hoc basis.

Photo by Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas

Mike Ekern can be reached through either his email or his homepage at the University of St. Thomas Photo Services.