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Producer's Blog #4: Capturing Waco Mammoths in HD

KWBU-TV in Waco, Texas, is co-producing a special HD video about the Waco Mammoth Site for the Mayborn Museum at Baylor University. Located on 110 acres at the confluence of the Brazos and Bosque rivers, the Waco Mammoth site has unearthed the remains of 23 Columbian mammoths.

The HD production is being co-produced by 16X9 Productions in Los Angeles and is intended for museum visitors, and to help raise funds to preserve the site. Our blogger is exec producer Joani Livingston of KWBU-TV:

"DAYS FOUR, FIVE and SIX: Beauty Released.

"The next three days are all shot at the Mayborn Museum on Baylor’s campus. Thursday’s talent is KWBU senior producer Jessica Denk, so Jeff Schmidt hit the lake to fish. Fondly known as "Anita Day," our task is to shoot b-roll and to interview museum Collections Manager Anita Benedict. Our point person for access to the dig site and information source of all things mammoth, Anita’s been extremely helpful. (Not desirous of the limelight, she’s a bit uncomfortable with all the attention focused on her today, and would rather be cataloguing bones, I’m sure.)

"Her interview was the first thing out of the gate. Preferring a natural look, the idea of dealing with hair and make-up was more unnerving than all the lights and camera staring her down. Make-up artist Rebekah Bass intuitively knew that if Anita were heavily made up, she would not feel like herself at all, and would come across uptight in the interview. Chatting personably while smoothing Anita’s blond flyaway hair, Rebekah then began applying foundation with a smidgen of mascara to make her eyes ‘pop.’

"Anita looked absolutely beautiful on camera. Everyone sincerely told her so. Her confidence grew, she relaxed for the interview, and Jessica drew out of her some great sound bites because of it. A brilliant make-up artist is worth her weight in gold in many ways--especially when it comes to HD.

"That afternoon and over the succeeding two days, we shot most every different kind of ‘-ologist’ you could imagine. On Friday, KWBU President and CEO Polly Anderson dropped by the shoot to see how things were going. We were in the museum’s magnificent rotunda, and it looked gorgeous on the monitor. Shooting me a ‘keep up the good work’ look, she left while talking with marketing director Sarah Levine about future collaborative works between the station and museum.

"It’s a wonderful thing having an HD monitor on the set. I prefer to have it several yards off set, so the clients can see exactly what the finished product will look like, yet not interfere with the production. And when I say ‘exactly,’ I do mean exactly. Sure, there are monitors on a film set as video assist, but rarely is it seen precisely in its final form when looking at the monitor. When shooting 1080i, an HD monitor reassures, and even excites clients (and the boss!) by letting them see how beautiful it looks.

"Later, a challenge presents itself when former Strecker Museum Director Calvin Smith comes to tape his interview. He’s got a wealth of historical slides detailing 20 years of excavating the mammoth site, and he’s making them available for use in the video. Producer Kristen Cox and I sort through the various options and settle upon scanning them. Since the aspect ratio is 1920 x 1080, I ask that the slides and old photographs be scanned such that the width is at least 4,000 pixels. That way we’ll have wiggle room to add motion to the pictures (a la Ken Burns) when we get into post.

"Saturday afternoon we taped the martini shot with Jessica and wrapped. The past several days presented many challenges, but everyone got on well--making for a delightful work environment, despite the grueling schedule.

"Throughout the shoot I was constantly reminded of the beauty of HD. I’ve been working in High Def production since 1997 and I’m still enamored with the unsurpassed picture quality and visceral power it wields.

"I always tell my interns, ‘Focus on the eyes. That’s where the story is being told.’ When shooting 1080i, how much more so is this true? Our paleontologist’s impassioned plea transforms into a rally cry to preserve and protect the endangered site. When we shot the ‘CSI’ scenes in the cataloguing room, the sheer beauty of the blue and amber hues and richness of the blacks were positively breathtaking. Each scene, each interview, was a visual feast filled with emotion, riveting my eyes to the monitor. More than format flexibility, more than cost effectiveness, surely beauty trumps all.

"I can’t wait to get into post."

[To be continued.]