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What could possibly go wrong? Adventures in interviewing #2
Slarek | 31 August 2012

Ah, technology. I've written before about how small misfortunes and temperamental equipment can turn an interview opportunity into an adventure. That's par for the course when you're working against the clock with borrowed equipment on a train fare budget and are blessed with the organisational skills of a hyperventilating moth. But back in June of this year, fellow reviewer and site interviewer Tim and I had the opportunity to interview writer-director Maryam Keshavarz about her debut feature, Circumstance, at the POUT Film Festival in London. And while some things went smoothly, the whole process of shooting, editing and even uploading the video was peppered with unexpected but too-typical hitches, most of which were down to a combination of bad luck, iffy preparation, and my blinkered faith in flawed technology.

In film PR circles at least, just about everything revolves around London, and all of our UK based interviews to date have been conducted in the metropolis. This is handy for Tim, as that's where he lives, but for me it's an overpriced, eighty-mile train journey in carriages whose leg room suggests they were only intended to carry small children or dwarfs. It's also me that has to carry the large and weighty camera bag and borrowed tripod. As tripods go, I far prefer my own, which is solid, stable and has a good fluid head, but it weighs almost as much as I do, and once I reach London I have to negotiate a string of overcrowded tube trains and cover a good couple of miles on foot. And since I don't have The Incredible Hulk as a Sherpa, I usually borrow a tripod from a workplace colleague. It's smaller, lighter and easier to carry, but is also not as well built as my trusty Manfrotto.

In storytelling terms, that's what we call foreshadowing.

I always get to London earlier than I need to, which this time allowed me time to trot round to the Apple Store in Regent Street and have a closer look at computers I can only dream of affording. As I still had almost an hour to spare, I amused myself by trying to get one of the store's disconcertingly friendly staff to reveal how much it would cost to fix the flickering screen on my present 5-year-old MacBook Pro. I quickly gathered from his smiling evasiveness that he'd much rather sell me a whole new computer. In the middle of this I got a phone call from Tim, which I could barely hear above the general hubbub. "Where are you?" he asked me. "The Apple Store in Regent Street." "They've brought the interview forward. It's now in 20 minutes." What?

If you're looking for a way to rapidly lose weight, try running through central London hauling a heavy camera bag and a tripod while dodging a tsunami of pedestrians and impatient traffic. Expect to see a virtual version for Wii Fit and X-Box Kinect by Christmas. The whole thing was complicated further by my terrible sense of direction. This is the only reason I bought a so-called smart phone in the first place – it has a GPS mapping feature that can pinpoint exactly where I am at any given moment and show me the precise route I need to take to reach my destination. Like fuck it can. As I puffed and wheezed my way down an unfamiliar back road, the blue dot showing my current location darted from street to street like a terrified flea, and never sat still long enough to convince me that it ever really knew where I was. By chance I stumbled into the road I was looking for, but was unable to locate the ominously named The Hospital Club, which is where the interview was scheduled to take place. The reason – I discovered thanks to the cheerfully helpful owner of the picture framing shop opposite – is because  the club in question is too cool to have its name above the door and instead has the letter H on a plaque in one of those fonts only designers tend to use.

By then I was sweating so profusely that nobody with a sense of smell would want to be anywhere near me. Tim had arrived before me, but was suffering the after effects of partying all night with the Peccadillo people and the festival attendees. With only minutes to spare, we made out way up to the appointed room, then waited patiently in the corridor for long enough to return us to our original appointment time. At least it gave me the chance to dry out a bit.

Some time ago we decided that from now on we'd only do interviews if we could conduct them face to face and shoot them on video. Well actually it was Tim who made that decision (see how I shifted the blame there?), but it was one I readily agreed to. That does mean we miss out on the odd interview that can only be conducted by telephone or email, but we've made our bed and it's actually rather comfortable. This does mean, however, that those organising such interviews are rarely prepared for the practical demands of a video shoot. This is no fault of theirs, as just about everyone else who comes to such junkets is waving a notebook, a microphone and a digital audio recorder, and all you need for such interviews is a quiet space to chat in. Video interviews are a different matter. You need enough space to comfortably fit the interviewee, the interviewer and the ludicrously oversized camera operator, plus enough light to film by and a background that doesn't overwhelm or distract from the subject. We rarely get it.

And so it was today. Now before I go on I should say that in all the ways that matter, this was a terrific experience. The people at Peccadillo Pictures are some of the nicest in the business and great fun to hang out with, and our interviewees (we also chatted to Heidi Sallows and Cat Smits from Tim's fave of the festival, Bumblefuck, USA, a review and conversation we'll be posting in October) were all friendly, entertaining and generous with their time. But while the room was perfect for audio interviews, as a video location it was less than ideal, having three darkly coloured walls, a fourth consisting entirely of glass, and a big fuck-off conference table hogging the floor space. We ended up wedged in a corner of the room as near the window wall as we could get in order to take advantage of the camera-friendly daylight being reflected in from outside.

As ever we only were given only a few short minutes to set up, time Tim usually spends warming the interviewee up and throwing me anxious glances as I wrestle with furniture and uncooperative equipment. To complicate matters, one of the two radio mics we use for our interviews was recently stolen, and if you're looking to record two people sitting a few feet apart with equal clarity, a single lapel mic just ain't gonna cut it. With time running out, we made the snap decision to sit Maryam and Tim together and use the hand mic that Tim had brought with him as a backup, which could be passed between the two in the manner of the post-screening Q&A that Tim had hosted the previous evening (which you can see here). Which is fine if the mic is held exactly the same distance from the speaker's mouth at all times (it wasn't) and the interviewer and interviewee don't end up overlapping each other's dialogue (they did). And we had been filming for several minutes before I became fully aware of the intrusive role being played by the shiny JVC logo on the TV sitting right behind Maryam's head.

And then, about halfway through the interview, the perils of borrowing a tripod from someone you probably wouldn't trust to wipe his own nose became apparent when something suddenly came loose just below the head. This made it damned difficult to keep the camera still and nigh-on impossible to reframe without it looking like the building had just been hit by an earth tremor. As Maryam and Tim continued talking, blissfully unaware of what was unfolding just a feet feet in front of them, I quietly bent down and rigged a temporary but surprisingly effective repair. It was while I was doing so that the sun came out and the reflected light by which we were filming jumped up about three stops, something I only picked up on when I returned to the upright position. Not to worry, I reasoned as I slowly adjusted the aperture, that's just the sort of thing you can tweak in editing. And in our modern digital age it's surprisingly easy to do. At least it is if you're not using Final Cut Pro X.

Now before I go on, I should point out that I don't have a grudge against Apple products, despite their gradual transformation from innovative tech company to a megalithic cash cow. I've been a Mac user for years and both Camus and I have been editing on the company's Final Cut Pro software since its first incarnation, and have been pretty damned happy with it. I even became qualified as an Apple Accredited Trainer in Final Cut Pro 7 in order to teach it to others. Then in an attempt to move their own unique vision for how digital editing should look, Apple went and released Final Cut Pro X, which dumped the track based timeline that has worked perfectly since the very first incarnation of Avid, stripped the program of some of its best features and made others a lot more fiddly to use. Advocates assure us it's faster to work with than Final Cut Pro 7, but try applying audio-only dissolves to five consecutive shots and guess which version wins by a mile. But if I wanted to hang onto my Apple Accreditation and continue my teaching, I had to learn the program inside-out and become an Apple Accredited Trainer in Final Cut Pro X. I'm still not a fan, and frankly would prefer to go back to FCP7, but I have to keep using the new boy in order to stay fresh.

For all my complaints, however, one thing I was confident the program would be able to do was correct the wobble that occurred during the tripod's nervous breakdown. FCPX has a Stabilization filter designed precisely to correct such visual imperfections., but to my utter disbelief it made the problem worse, adding a yawing movement that made it look as if the interview had been conducted on a boat in stormy seas. In the end I exported the problematic portion of the footage to Apple's Motion effects program and it did a far better job. For the record, Final Cut Pro X costs almost £300, Motion costs £30. And Motion is really good.

Next I had to make few exposure adjustments to compensate for the shifting light levels. To subtly affect such changes we usually use keyframes, which enables you to adjust parameters over time by setting the levels for two specific points and leave the program to calculate the change between them. If done well the results should be almost invisible. There's just one problem. On Final Cut Pro X you can keyframe just about everything except adjustments to colour and exposure. If you've never done any editing or effects work then this may not mean much, but if you're an Avid, Premiere, Final Cut Pro 7 or even Motion user, you'll probably be wondering why the hell something so fundamental is missing from what is supposed to be an upgrade to a professional editing program.

With the video complete and the edit exported, all I had to do then was upload it to our YouTube channel. What could possibly go wrong here? Ah, well, that's where TalkTalk get their moment in the sun. OK, we all know that the upload speeds offered by most ISPs tend to considerably lower than the figures they claim for downloads. But with that in mind, how long do you think it would take to upload a 1.7GB 720p video file? I'll probably never know, as 26 hours later only 60% of the file had uploaded, then a connection error cancelled the whole thing and I had to start again. By this point uploading the video had taken longer than it had to shoot and edit. Unable to contemplate an upload time that ran into treble figures, I broke my own rule of never going near my workplace on weekends or bank holidays, sweet-talked the security guard (I can be so charming when I want to), hooked into their network and uploaded the file from there. It took just 12 minutes. It was perhaps typical my ongoing battle with the technology I own and increasingly rely on that my laptop battery died a mere two minutes after the upload was complete.