A production report by Marc Swadel BFE - Committee member NZCS.
In the current climate, the lockdown and isolation, has hit the young, charities, and communities at risk, around the world hard. Which is why I am proud to be involved with a wonderful, positive initiative from the Roald Dahl Story Company: 'James and the Giant Peach - with Taika and friends'.
This loved children's book, is read over 10 episodes, narrated by Oscar winning director Taika Waititi, who is joined in the storytelling, by a fantastic bunch of friends, who have given their time and allowed us into their lives and living rooms, for a very good cause – they include triple Oscar winner Meryl Streep, Billy Porter, Cate Blanchett, Eddy Redmayne, Chris & Liam Hemsworth, Benedict Cumberpatch, Lupita Nyong'o, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Ruth Wilson, Ryan Reynolds, Nick Kroll, Olivia Wilde, Gordon Ramsay, Camilla, Princess of Wales, Yo Yo Ma, Governor Cuomo of New York, Kumail Nanjiani and Cynthia Erivo. An impressive line-up of star power – if you added up all the Oscar/Bafta/Golden Globe, Emmy and Grammy awards and nominations between them – it is over 200!
It is all in aid of Partners in Health - a charity restoring social justice by bringing quality health care to the most vulnerable around the world. Roald Dahl Story Company have pledged to match donations dollar for dollar.
My role in this, was as a hybrid Technical Director and Cinematographer - working out how to make it work. It was challenging – the brief was the need to record from up to 4 time zones at once, needing to get isolated video and audio, for up to 6 people at once, as well as recording instruments and foley, and on top of that make sure everyone was able to set themselves up and be audible, framed and bright – from 4k webcams in home studios to iPads and iPhones in remote locations all over the world, live under lockdown, from the front room. With a week’s notice to make it happen.
Being a totally isolated project – I had to work out how to make it happen with the platform provided – Zoom. I had used Zoom, and had recorded before, for other client gigs – but nothing of this spec. This was the brand new COVID19 world – I could not find any other productions that had attempted this – and there definitely was nothing In the Zoom instructions that alluded to being able to do anything like it, in fact, talking to Zoom – they had no idea if it could be done. So, we had to work it out, and make it work.
How we made it happen, to cut a long story short – and bypassing a long-winded rundown on settings etc. we had to match the number of participants with a ‘Camera Operator’ who would ‘pin’ each of them full frame in Isolation as we recorded, and then ‘go invisible’ for the record.
Out of necessity, all involved – Lucy from The Roald Dahl Story Company, Michelle from Team Taika, Taika himself, Laura the Editor, and Maggie & Bee the U.S Producers, got stuck in as ‘Cam Ops’ and worked closely on the project, pre-record, to test, test and test!
For Taika, we had his laptop recording the normal down the barrel web cam shot, and set up a ‘B’ camera (his daughters iPad) as a higher resolution wide, that we could punch in on if needed. We bought a nice mic and lighting set up for Taika – but guess what? Due to the lockdown, it never arrived. Luckily Taika managed to find an SM58 vocal mic and we plugged it in direct, as a ‘B’ source of audio, and also for Foley.
For the participants, I wrote a Zoom settings manual, and a protocol to check through for both audio and video – framing, lighting, sound levels, making sure they are getting maximum bandwidth etc. and also made sure the communication channels were open pre-record, if they had any problems setting up.
Operationally – we had the routine down pat. We crew would join the meeting 30 mins before Taika + Participants, we would test record and check back on quality, we would identify who was recording whom, and we also had a comms channel outside of Zoom – a WhatsApp group where we could communicate freely, without distracting the participants. This was a really big point – we needed to be as ‘ghostlike’ as possible, and not get in the way of the flow of the storytelling.
Just before the meeting time – Taika’s P.A would join, and we would make sure things were good to go, and Taika would jump in. As the participants would arrive in the ‘waiting room’ and Lucy from Roald Dahl (who was the host) would meet and greet, and let them in, and we would say hi, introduce ourselves as the crew, I would talk to Taika and the participants if there was an issue ( for example, Meryl had a message alert beep on her desk top we had to sort, and we had a chat with Benedict had to sort his cell phone level) once all was good, and I had made sure Taika was recording, we would sound off that we were each recording, then say bye, and turn off our audio and video, and ‘go invisible’.
If there was any problem, say a garbled line, or a freeze - we crew had the WhatsApp group and would alert each other - and then Lucy would drop into the Zoom convo and ask for a re take. Working with such professionals – aside from tech issues – we could just leave them to it.
We would get ISO individual video and audio tracks, Taika would get the ‘Gallery view’ on his laptop, and the master wide on the side angle – which he would turn towards, and use for Foley when needed. Sounds simple… but..
Problems. First big one – resolution. As we had a Zoom Corporate Plan, which mentioned 1080p recording (on request) and 720p as standard, we thought we would be fine. Problem was, 1080p was on request – which we did – but the HD tap didn’t get turned on in time for our records. 720p? well we managed it a handful of times on a few computers. Mostly we were getting… 360p.
Second issue – latency – loads! No fault of Zoom – recording live over the internet across 4 time zones – you are going to have a load of lag. Taika got on top of it and made sure lines were read individually if things got garbled due to lag. it did get interesting recording Yo Yo Ma and his cello – we recorded an ISO track, plus also his engineer recorded Yo Yo as well. We got an interesting echo across some of the other participants ISO tracks – so we just asked Yo Yo to turn off his Webcam mic – and problem solved.
There was also an interesting problem with Taika’s ISO track – when he played his guitar – it just blanked in and out. Not sure if it was an overload thing, or if Zoom optimises the audio bandwidth for the human voice – but it wasn’t good. Luckily, we had great audio on the ‘B’ Mic, into the iPad. Phew...
Aside from those hiccups – it went well. Once shot the turnaround was a week to TX for the first episode, on YouTube – then three episodes a week until the final, 10th episode.
Despite where we find ourselves currently in this moment – a team of people who haven’t met each other got together and made it happen for a good cause, and I am really happy the Roald Dahl Story Company had this bold idea and took the leap to make it happen.
One really good thing about a YouTube release – you can read the comments section from viewers – the joy and happiness this little project has brought, plus the donations and exposure for the Charity, have definitely made the Coronavirus blackhole I found myself in turn to a positive thing.
So grab the kids, sit down and enjoy the story!