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Pandemic Production Values

Contributed by Columnist Dirk Ellingson

Compiled lists of activities once taken for granted and sorely missed during the pandemic quarantine invariably include visiting with friends, eating at restaurants, attending sporting events, seeing plentiful Charmin on the store shelves, etc. What I miss is less important but I’ll cite it anyway because I don’t see it cited.  That is discernible audio on TV news.

Reporters are among those working at home and they are filing reports bereft of studio production values. If shot in a setting with decent lighting (and that’s a big If) then modern phones come through with decent video. But the sound is usually atrocious.  The ambience in a room with hard floors and walls is reverberant to the point of distraction. The microphone built into a cellphone will pick up the speaking voice of a person but it picks up everything else in a room as well. Most of you are armed with phones capable of recording video. But most of you aren’t attaching lavaliere mics to yourselves. Too much trouble. Too much time and expense. Too much expertise required.

TV reporters have at least some sense of production values whereas interview subjects most often do not. Now they are responsible for shooting themselves. Video selfies. Bad quality is more acceptable viewing on a tiny phone for social media. Blow it up on a high definition television set and you really notice the difference. When people are perched in front of a window, the camera iris adjusts to the brightest elements in the frame. The compromise with a brightly sunlit window usually involves the worst elements of compromise. The window is clipped and the person talking is in shadow.

The trend started long before the pandemic. We’ve been groomed to accept increasingly inferior production values long before an unsuspecting Patient Zero across the globe feasted upon a pangolin infected by a bat. It started in the 1980’s with the deservedly derisively termed Shaky-Cam becoming acceptable in television shows and commercials. Tripods optional.

TV stations eager to trim costs require more of their reporters now. Anchors might run their own teleprompters. Meteorologists create their own graphics.  Field reporters shoot their own stories. Being a Swiss army knife of a multimedia journalist has its economic advantages, but the quality has suffered. The journalist must now worry about technical issues in addition to story content. You can set up your camera on a tripod but once you walk into your shot, you’re no longer monitoring the frame. What started as good framing with interviewer and subject might not stay as such. Many follow basic principles like keeping the camera between the sun and the subject. Many do not.  Cameras are lighter now and no longer tethered to a separate recorder. That’s good but mounting these lightweights on a selfie stick makes footage degrade quickly from Shaky Cam to Queasy Cam.

In a past vocational life, I worked in video production. I spent years in corporate production, events presentation, and television. I was a producer, writer, director, editor, videographer, and inveterate coiler of cable. I remember my first concession to Shaky-Cam in 1987. I was interviewing a lifeguard in a swimming pool and we weren’t going to place a tripod in the water. I subsequently worked lots of shoulder held camera but always tried to keep it steady. We did it for speedy camera mobility and not to call attention to our mobile framing.

When I worked for a PBS affiliate in Kansas City over a decade ago, one of the productions was a restaurant review show in which we visited local eateries, shot the plated menu offerings, and interviewed their proprietors. I recorded aerials of the food with a tripod pedestaled up above the producer’s hands knifing up the victuals. I kept a fork in the pocket of my cargo pants to then sample the chow after the photography was finished. At one Brazilian Grill in North Kansas City, we interviewed the restaurant business partners with a lav mic on each principal and each devoted to a separate channel of audio. The interview was interrupted by a disturbance in the kitchen forcing one interview subject to depart and investigate. His wireless mic was still being recorded on one channel while the interview continued with his partner on the other. While operating the camera and monitoring both channels of the audio, I could hear one man talk about the restaurant while the other, still heard but now unseen, was going Basil Fawlty on the help staff in decibels I feared might bleed onto the good track.

I volunteered to work audio-visual at a local church for a spell after I moved here to see if I might aspire to return to that vocational life. I learned a lot from an audio expert named Jim who designs and installs audio systems in different north Louisiana venues like churches and universities. Jim talked so deftly on audio theory and application that the air quickly grew thin for even a fellow like me with years of production experience.

When I worked for a church in Missouri, they erected a glorious new facility for worship services. This temple accommodated 1,600 people and the leadership team making the architectural decisions concentrated on form before function. The room was designed aurally for its Canadian pipe organ and the setting does have a sweet sustain for this magnificent instrument and its 5,685 pipes. Unfortunately, the spoken word didn’t fare so well. In the early days of this temple, worshippers complained about being unable to understand sermons. Many were elderly and hard of hearing. Contrary to the recommendation of professional acousticians, the client church had opted for speakers on the floor so as not to present visually distracting central clusters of speakers. That didn’t work. They were grudgingly removed and placed on pew backs.  An improvement but still unsuitable. Years later speakers were installed in side pylons and now audio is discernible.

I was never an audio engineer but I worked with lots who justifiably complained that audio was often a secondary consideration to looks. They were right. People might listen to television without watching it. They don’t do the reverse.

A phone microphone picking up room audio deemed good enough is really not. A minor complaint during a major pandemic but let’s hope we someday return to the days of more conscientious field recordings.