Documentary Team Used Everything But the Kitchen Sink

For some content creators, the exploding proliferation of recording formats and devices is a chaotic maelstrom.
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Jay Ankeney

For some content creators, the exploding proliferation of recording formats and devices is a chaotic maelstrom. But for adventurous HD pioneers like Randall P. Dark, it’s like diving into a smörgåsbord of options, each providing unique opportunities to bring evocative video and audio to the screen.

Dark’s current film, a feature documentary with the working title of “Seadrift vs. the Big Guy,” pushed the limit of format possibilities by combining footage shot on everything from an Apple iPhone to a JVC GY-HMQ1 4K camera. His arsenal included five GoPro Hero cameras for action shots; four Canon DSLRs shooting underwater, on the ground and in the air; two HDV camcorders; a Sony 700A HDCam; a Sony F3 for studio interviews; and even stock shots recorded by an early Sony HDC-500 HD camera to a Panasonic HDD5 deck.

“Seadrift vs. the Big Guy” is about the Texas Water Safari, a grueling competition that has set out on the second Saturday of every June since 1963. The event is often called “the world’s toughest canoe race” because it begins in San Marcos, Texas and follows the 265 competitors paddling 135 varieties of water craft down the treacherous San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers until it empties into the Gulf at the coastal shrimping village of Seadrift over 260 miles later.

There are several story arcs in the film, including a main one that follows competitor Jeff McAdams who also happens to be Dark’s partner at R. Dark Productions. the film involves dodging water moccasins, smashing through raging rapids and even one participant who died of hyponatremia, or water poisoning, at the Gonzales checkpoint on the evening of the first day of paddling.

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Randall P. Dark filming “Seadrive vs. the Big Guy”

Dark explains that the format of this multisource documentary is much like “The Amazing Race,” including interviews with the participants before, during and after the event. The wide variety of camera sources let Dark and his crew employ the unique benefits of each as they wove their way through the hectic adventure.

“For example, at the finish line I was shooting an interview with the 4K camera when my sound guy, Tristan Crane, saw someone behind me drop to his knees proposing marriage to his partner,” Randall relates. “Tristan grabbed his iPhone and captured that magic moment on its video. It’s a matter of using the best tool at hand to record as many facets of the experience as possible.”

This flexibility expanded their production capabilities. When competitor Jeff McAdams injured his back during practice, Dark was, in effect, able to get Jeff to interview himself by propping up an iPad during recovery and turning on its built-in camera.

So how did Dark’s production crew manage to mix and match all those formats? Editor Adrianne Parent called on both Final Cut Pro 7 and the newer Final Cut Pro X for the solution.

“Although Final Cut Pro software can use multiple resolutions on its time line, for convenience we decided to transcode everything to Apple ProRes 422 HQ to minimize dropped frames on playback,” Parent said. “Fortunately we had the luxury of an 8 TB hard drive to store it on. That’s especially useful since files of some of the footage from the smaller cameras actually increased in size when converted to ProRes.”

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Participants in the Texas Water Safari, the subject of the documentary

Parent used JVC’s proprietary Clip Manager software to convert the GY-HMQ1’s H.264 4K footage into ProRes HQ, maintaining its 3840x2160 resolution. She cut it down to 1920x1080 with the help of Apple’s Compressor software to bring the material into her Final Cut Pro 7 NLE.

“The GoPro camera footage comes out as MPEG 4 so I would use Square5’s MPEG Streamclip to change it into ProRes,” Parent said. “And, I’d use it to bring in the HDV tape formats also. FCP X can’t ingest from tape, but FCP 7 always has done it just fine. In addition, all the cellphone and iPad video was brought in through iTunes. We plan to output as ProRes 422 HQ in whatever delivery format is required.”

Dark sees this project as more than a challenging indie doc. This multi-award winning, internationally renowned director and cinematographer who opened his first HD studio in the late 1980s says, “It’s my way of giving back.”

Not only is he going to enter the final film in several festivals such as the Ojai Film Festival in October and the Macao, China Digital Cinema Festival in November; he is also going to use it as the teaching foundation for university seminars about using new media in digital productions.

“What happens if you intercut an iPad interview with 4K shots?” he asks. “I’m not a protectionist. I want to show young filmmakers how to use the new technology to tell their stories. The scene where Jeff opens up to the iPad after surgery is very compelling. We were doing an on-camera interview without a camera in the room.”

So during the film we’ll see McAdams smash into the rocks in his canoe photographed by a GoPro Hero camera mounted on the canoeist in front of him, then hear him talk about the accident on the iPad with coverage from HDV and 4K images.

Then, as filming was still under way, Dark discovered yet another acquisition device: the Pivothead Video Recording Eyewear that mounts cameras on a pair of glasses. You can bet he’s going to put them on one of his paddlers to get a continuing POV shot.

Pivothead’s proprietary “Control Settings Dashboard Software” let him and Parent load it onto their MacBook Pro in its native H.264/MP4 format seamlessly before MPEG Streamclip gave it the ProRes treatment.

“At the end of the day, it is important to be able to talk to students and young filmmakers about all the new opportunities available to them,” Dark says. “Who knows if broadcasters or cable will be interested in it? The film was a journey, and the journey was the story in itself.”

Jay Ankeney is a freelance editor and post-production consultant based in Los Angeles. Write him

Seadrive vs. the Big Guy”documentary trailer