Friday, September 16, 2011

Frontline's Director of Broadcast, Tim Mangini @ Rule Boston Camera

At August's Pub Night at Rule Boston Camera, Frontline's Director of Broadcast, Tim Mangini spoke on the subject of making documentaries under tight deadlines. Specifically, he talked about issues encountered during the production of two episodes; one on the Egyptian uprising, and the other on the death of Osama bin Laden.

His story of the production of the Egypt episode, Revolution in Cairo - Frontline, Season 29, [view it online: Frontline] begins with a producer flying into Cairo, while production crews were already on location, but they were running short of media and other supplies.

Tasked with furnishing these supplies immediately, Tim's team first considered renting and buying the equipment from stores in Dubai, as the producer had a two hour lay-over there on the way to Cairo. This idea was quickly abandoned - partly because it was two in the morning in Dubai - in favor of sending someone from Boston that day with the gear. This posed other problems, because they knew that reporters and photographers were being stopped and arrested at the Cairo airport. Arriving with a collection of professional gear might cause problems.

Their solution was to buy a couple of tripods at Best Buy, along with hard drives and media, while from Rule Boston Camera they rented microphones and some other gear they needed. One of the AP's had volunteered to take the gear, and it was carefully packed into suitcases bought at Target.
We made it feasible that she was doing a really big home movie project. A really big project.
They also had to go through all with gear with her so that she would be able to explain what it was if she was questioned about it.

They also realized that the original flight had her scheduled to spend five hours at two in the morning in a country that frowned on woman traveling alone. It was felt this might increase the danger for her, so the flight was shifted back to the next morning. Fortunately, everything went without a hitch, and the gear arrived safely.

Tim Mangini at Boston Rule Camera

The next phase of the project was dealing with the variety of material that came back from the field. This was another challenge because the material was arriving without the producers or cameramen who shot it. All of the material had to be ingested and then reviewed by the editors. To make the process more efficient, one crew handled ingesting the material into Avid, in preparation for the editors that then had to review all the material.
I think we saw almost every format known to man. We had Canon 5D, we had Canon HDV, we had Flip cameras, camera phones, we had cell phone footage, we had FCP material of every flavor and stripe, we didn’t know what it was when it came in, we had to figure it out, we had raw QuickTimes, and then we had footage shot at 23.98, 25i, 25p, 29.97, 25F and some of it was 720 and some it was at 1080.
Frontline is mastered in 1080i, 59.94, and all the material was converted using either dedicated video conversion hardware, or by using Avid's built-in conversion. In previous releases the Avid video conversion was considered rather poor, but now Tim feels that for many materials Avid does a superior job, preserving cadence and doing a clean conversion.

One important part of the process was developing their own naming convention and getting everyone to follow it.
We used the folder structure as our bin structure, so we could give that to any editor working on the project and they could find anything. They were organized by date, by shooter, by producer, and by subject. By doing that up front, there was a lot less scratching of heads in the editing room
Tim showed a powerful segment from the show where Muhammad Abbas, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, addressed the crowd during a protest rally.

Revolution in Cairo - Frontline, Season 29

On the Friday before air, the first cut was completed, and the senior staff looked at it and decided there was a problem:
They said “you know what?” he’s too sympathetic. You saw him there sort of glowing. [...] we thought, there’s another side to the Muslim Brotherhood, we made them seem a little too warm and fuzzy. What do we have that shows the other side?
They went back through the footage and found a clip of an interview with Abbas asking him if the Muslim Brotherhood would recognize the treaty with Israel, and he replied by asking, "if a thief comes at night and steals a room of your house, what would you do?" By adding that element, they felt that it added an extra dimension to the program.

Tim Mangin

One questioner asked about budgets, noting that it almost seemed as if they were working with an unlimited budget.
The way we do documentaries, we have very small teams, you’re talking about one, two, three people. It’s not like film production where you go an extra day, there’s another million out the door. So the economies work in our favor, usually.

The second program Tim talked about was Fighting for bin Laden - Frontline, Season 29 [view it online: Frontline]. Telling the story like an episode of Frontline, Tim first set the scene:
We had been working on the show for some time, it had been in the pipeline for a while. The first segment was called Fighting for bin Laden. [A producer has been] imbedded with al-Qaeda operatives, and when it began to look like his life was in danger, he decided to get out of Dodge. We’d already gone through a full set of fixing and changing, and then on Friday at 5 o'clock, the producer came in and said we have problems, we have to make changes...
They spent the next day and a half making changes, and then on Sunday evening Tim went to make a plane reservation to take the tape down to PBS. This was around 10pm, and he happened to check the news and saw a headline "Bin Laden shot."

He then showed a clip from the original episode of an expert talking at length about how the US had failed to capture bin Laden. "So we knew we had a bit of a problem," said Tim.

There followed a lot of texting, but "believe it or not, we had the framework of a new show by 2 o'clock on Sunday morning," and 46 hours from the time they heard bin Laden was dead, they went to air with an extensively updated episode.

These changes involved editing the first half of the program, and making a completely new segment to replace the second half of the program. Here they were more than a little lucky because they already had another episode scheduled for air in a couple of weeks, called "Kill or Capture." They called the editor of that segment - who was based in London - to see what he might have, and he said he had an entire sequence on the cutting room floor that he thought they might use. This created a new problem; how to get the content from London to Boston.

First the editor uploaded a low-res QuickTime video via the internet. They'd originally thought they might have to do some extensive editing to the piece, but seeing the low-res video made it clear they would be able to use the segment mostly as it was. However they still didn't have the video.

They then put in operation multiple delivery plans to get the actual video to Boston. First, the editor in the UK had to conform the piece and run it across London to arrange the transfer via fiber cable to Washington, where it would then be sent via satellite to Boston.

Meanwhile, a courier was bringing the video by plane, but he literally missed the flight by five minutes!

To top it off, they had lots of problems transferring it via satellite, and spent several hours - and a sizable amount of money - getting that to work. Fortunately, they solved their satellite problems, and by 6 o'clock of the day of broadcast they had a final screening with all the senior executives. They then had an hour to make some editorial and technical fixes.

The editorial changes were being done in one room, and the technical changes were being done in a second room. Tim explained that things nearly fell apart during that hour because the editorial fixes got hung up on something and they stopped working on it. "You have to keep your eye on the tape," he said. With 15 minutes to go, they still had half an hour of work to do.“I must say, I was calm, every moment.”

At 8:30 Tim called a halt to the changes and ran the tape over, just in time. Fortunately, there were no major problems in the program!

Tim runs the tape over, just in time

Tim added that they did go back and make all of the changes for subsequent broadcast.

Tim noted that there's a tension with editorial, "because you need to rush them, but you can’t rush them." His solution is to create a schedule, define the deadlines, and work within that. "And then it changes!" he added. He also noted the importance of having correspondents that really know their subject matter.
Many times, when we’re able to pull something like this off, it’s not from whole cloth. Because we can’t do it that fast. It's because we have deep resources; people, footage, history, that we can draw from. If there’s any message that I’m giving out today, it’s really all about resources. You need to have the equipment to do it, and the knowledge about the equipment so that the equipment doesn’t become your enemy.
See also: NotesOnVideoCreating Documentaries

No comments: