Super Normal Life of Aiden Allcock

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This weekend I had the opportunity to shoot a live show. The very talented Dan Nixon wrote and directed a mini-musical for the Melbourne Fringe Festival, called The Super Normal Life of Aiden Allcock. It’s a brilliant, funny work about the power of imagination. My praise can’t do it justice, but this review is worth a read.

The challenge of shooting a live show, much like a wedding, is that the action never stops for you, and you can’t get in the way of the action to get the shot you want. Unlike a wedding, though, you do have the advantage of seeing rehearsals, reading a script, and getting the cameras in front of more than one performance.

I’m glad I saw Super Normal Life the week before, so I could enjoy the humour and familiarise myself with the action. There are a lot of laughs, and it’s a challenge to stay focussed on the job at hand, rather than the just enjoy the show.

We shot two performances on the one day. Geoff was my second camera operator for the day, and we had three cameras. One captured a wide shot of the entire stage as backup coverage, while Geoff did our best to keep up the cast as they moved about the stage. For the first performance we decided that Geoff would follow the main character wherever possible, and I would attempt to cover the other three cast members through dialogue, action and dance routines.

Between the shows, Geoff and I were able to work out what worked and what didn’t, and how we could better cover the action for the second show. We found that there were moments when Aiden wasn’t on stage, where Geoff was free to follow another character. There were times when the actors paired off, or where dance routines involved three or four members of the cast. We quickly set up some simple rules, which made more sense to us than they would to anyone else: when Aiden’s off stage, Geoff follow’s Sarah and I follow the boys;  when Aiden’s on stage, I follow Sarah; if the boys are on stage, I follow them, in general; if the dance routine involves four, Geoff follows Aiden and the dancer next to him, and I follow the other two; when the dance routine involves three, Geoff follows Aiden and I get the medium shot of the three, with the third camera picking up the wide shot in every case.

With this shorthand sorted out, we prepped for the second show. The audience wasn’t quite so responsive this time, which was disappointing, because we both felt that the camera work was much better!

For audio, I normally prefer to take a multi-channel recording from the house desk. It gives me a chance to remix the sound and EQ out some of the stage noise. Where backing is pre-recorded (as it was in this instance), I can drop in the recorded backing on the mix, rather than rely on what was captured by stage mics and headsets. For this show, the team were relying on a couple of mics in front of the stage, and no body mics. I checked out what I thought was the house desk – a small DJ mixer with only one mic input. I totally missed the full desk just a couple of meters away! With this misinformation, I started preparing an audio setup that would not rely on the house sound at all, and in fact I hoped that my own setup might be useful in augmenting what they had for front of house.

Dan and the team were at a point where they were comfortable and familiar with their sound setup, despite its limitations, so we decided to keep the two system separate. I setup three mics across the front of the stage, attached to a Presonus FireStudio and a MacBook Pro. In GarageBand I captured a three track recording of the action on stage.

The setup worked pretty well, considering the amount of spill from the PA system and the noise of feet and props on the stage. In an ideal world, body mics would capture the voices and little else, and all the backing tracks and ambient sound could be mixed back in cleanly. But this isn’t that world, so you do what you can. I screwed up the gain fairly badly, and had to boost the sound in post, but despite that the signal is pretty clean. Compressors, EQ, and a high pass filter have helped to clean up the sound to a respectable level. In hindsight, given the small stage, I would have preferred to setup the mics in an XY pattern, but none the less the voices are clear, and that’s what counts. I’ve picked up lyrics that I did not hear during three performances! The backing music is perhaps a little loud for me to overdub the original tracks, but I’ll give it a shot and see what comes of it.

Next comes editing the video, and finding out what we got right, and what we just thought we got right. But that’s all part of the fun.

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