From small screen to big screen?

by Amar Patel in ,


Mobile journalists are making the leap to documentary and Leonor Suarez is among those leading the way…

leonor_suarez_reporter_mojo

The thought of making films with a smartphone is so liberating. I’ve often shared my love for documentaries, and many of you will remember how Hollywood cooed over Sundance feature Tangerine, shot entirely on an iPhone. Now, as Apple prepares for its latest launch, the journalism and film industries both stand to benefit. And this is progress, let’s be clear. Ideas and effort should be the only real barriers to entry, not technology or privilege.

For every old school skeptic looking on as they caress their RED, Alexa or Canon 7D, there’s another person – iPhone tucked in pocket – getting out there and surprising themselves with their ability. One example is Leonor Suarez, who gave an inspiring talk yesterday at monthly meet-up MoJo London. Suarez is a news editor and reporter for Televisión del Principado de Asturias (TPA) and makes 20-minute packages for the broadcaster, working with a specialist cameraman. Two years ago she had never tried to film any type of journalistic content on her phone, and had no interest in the technical side. After attending a MoJo gathering she dived straight into long-form.

One catalyst was the abundance of great stories Suarez would come across from day to day. She also wanted to have more creative control over how the final broadcast would look. Her first piece was an 11-minute report on a community arts project under threat in Oviedo, shot and edited on an iPhone 4 and delivered against a tight deadline.

Patience was key. Suarez had to handle every aspect of the report, from lighting to interviewing. It’s what she describes as a “handcrafted job”. However, the added responsibility also became an opportunity for Suarez to “grow as a journalist” because “filming enhances your creativity”. Since then, she has gone on to cover a broad range of topics: a new wave of farmers in Picos de Europa; Michelin-starred chef Nacho Manzano cooking with flowers; and the Potosi silver mines in Bolivia.

Suarez showed clips of these on the night. She stumbled upon the Potosi mines story while on holiday. Many of us were impressed by quality of the shots captured in such poor light. She said that focusing using Filmic Pro, the “gold standard of mobile video”, was difficult so she reverted to the native camera on her iPhone 5s. And that wasn’t the only useful tip. Here are a few more:

  • Phone capacity is still an issue for documentary makers so if you are shooting for more than an hour then always have a spare memory stick to hand. Suarez Velcros one to the tripod, together with a battery.
  • Back up everything at least twice. Once to an external hard disk such as a 256gb iPad (using AirDrop), and again to the Google Drive or a similar cloud provider.
  • Make use of in-built image stabilisation. Don’t be afraid to try pans and tilts if you think this will help to convey the story.
  • Edit in iMovie if you can. Using a phone can be really hard on the eyes and it’s awkward to perform tasks such as editing audio.
  • Learn to work within your particular constraints, eg time and conditions. For instance, use any existing light sources around you. A good example is the hardhat lamps in the mines documentary. Keep interviews short and have a preliminary conversation off camera beforehand to identify key questions.
  • Don’t feel unprofessional just because you are using a phone instead of a bigger camera and crew. This is the now!
  • Think about engagement. That means cutting trailers and teasers with instant visual appeal and snappy soundbites.

Core kit

– iPhone 6s

– Auxiliary battery

Shoulderpod s1

– Stabiliser

Manfrotto 500 series tripod

Joby GorillaPod 

Rode RODElink

Rode NTG2 shotgun mic

iRig Pro audio interface

TRRS adaptor cable

SanDisk iXpand flash drive

Pico dolly

– Velcro!

So what next? Suarez predicts that the line between camera operator and scriptwriter will continue to blur as journalists become more adept at visualising the stories they want to tell. Judging by her next project about the last days of the Spanish Civil War, Suarez will also be experimenting with form and narrative, making the most of the iPhone’s close-up capability and employing other techniques such as reconstruction.

As the technology becomes even more powerful and compact, reporters will be able to get right into the nooks and crannies of a piece to capture amazing footage. A mine, an attic, an ants’ nest… Given time, space and money, filmmakers would still prefer traditional broadcast set-ups for capturing footage to air on giant home TVs. But there are advantages to using a smartphone, not least because people are familiar with them. Hence, they are put at ease.

"I didn't have to take a camera crew with me, says RTE new co-ordinator Eleanor Mannion, who shot an hour-long documentary called The Collectors on an iPhone 6s Plus in 4K for RTE. “I could just go on my own and have conversations with people about their collections. The medium didn’t get in the way of the story and that was really important to me. It allowed me another level of intimacy and honesty…”

You can hear more about Mannion’s experiences on the production at the next Mojo London meet up on 11 October. See you there.



Amar Patel

Music is our weapon

by Amar Patel


A bumper birthday selection full of moods, grooves, rhythms and sounds, compiled and blended by yours truly. No mic interface, just trax.

This is fortified with love, wisdom and understanding – all those precious things we need, particularly in these challenging times. Divisions and hostility abound. As Prince says in the mix, "To counter that we're gonna have to talk to one another. And music was one of the ways we used to do that."

SPECIAL MENTIONS
RIP The Purple One (giving thanks every day)
RIP Bernie Worrell (an unfathomable genius)
Labels circulating that good stuff
Musicians making it mean something

GIG
Catch me and the Soul Labels collective at Total Refreshment Centre on 20 August for an Africa special where we explore the history and future of the Motherland through live music, film, workshop and discussion. Blackman Akeeb Kareem, a Nigerian musician and master songwriter who features in this mix, will be performing with the house band. I'll be chairing a panel discussion about how Africa can, and should, profit from its immense archive.

Check the bill and book tickets here: https://billetto.co.uk/palm-wine-beat...

Stay close,

AmAr



Amar Patel

Press play

by Amar Patel in ,


For many of us, they soundtracked our youth and introduced us to the art of the mixtape, not forgetting those endless hours of amusement pushing buttons and untangling jams. But is the cassette revival anything more than a nostalgia trip or hipster trend?

Vinyl’s back. A familiar headline over the past few years, whether you are talking about the UK or US market. Last year the former enjoyed its first year of one million-plus sales since the nineties’ Britpop era, while record revenues in the latter exceeded that of ad-supported streaming platforms. What continues to surprise many though, is the sustained comeback of the cassette.

Survey the marketplace and specialist labels appear to be thriving, offering expertly curated releases with indulgent artwork. Take Awesome Tapes from Africa (archivist and DJ Brian Shimkowitz’s dusty finds from the Motherland), Burger Records (LA garage rock store that’s sold more than 300,000 tapes since it opened in 2007), Manchester’s Sacred Tapes (noise artfully packaged with letterpress-printed insert and the odd incense head), Opal Tapes (experimental electronica) and limited edition industrial ambience on Umor Rex.

Newer labels are getting in on the act, offering more futuristic sounds such as the dub techno on Cong Burn Tapes and outsider acid excursions on Seagrave Records while San Diego’s Bonding Tapes presents a more abstract, intergalactic take on the classic beat tape. In short, the breadth of spooled music available in 2016 is astounding.

 This is no niche enterprise, either. Over the past 24 months major label artists such as The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Marina and the Diamonds have released albums on cassette. Last year the NAC (National Audio Company), the leading cassette manufacturer in the US, had its best year since 1969. They now employ their own graphic artists and produce their own machine parts to satisfy demand.

The_weeknd_cassette_madness

There is even a Record Store Day international offshoot event called, you guessed it, Cassette Store Day, which celebrates its fourth anniversary on 8 October. Incidentally, the two biggest-selling releases in the history of Record Store Day, according to co-founder Michael Kurtz were cassettes – a mixtape for Guardians of the Galaxy and Metallica's No Life 'Til Leather.

metallica_leather_cassette_tape

So what’s sparked this movement? A good person to ask is POST/POP label founder Jed Shepherd, one of the biggest tape enthusiasts out there. “This is a tangible rectangle you can hold and kiss and love, which makes all the difference,” he says. “You have more of a connection with your favourite artists than with cold mp3s.”

Artist Daniel Oduntan, who released the first of his acclaimed Palm Wine Beats series as Lo-fi Odysseys on POST/POP, argues that a tape’s limitations can also be its strengths. “There is a whole generation of people that have never experienced physical media,” he observes. “We need to get back to that. The digital age can be toxic. The human mind can only absorb so much information. So slowing down and taking your time is a beautiful thing, and the tape allows you to do that.”

Lo-fi Odysseys' Palm Wine Beats mixtape

Lo-fi Odysseys' Palm Wine Beats mixtape

Using the same stock and duplication methods can even produce a signature sound imprint, creating what Opal Tapes’ Stephen Bishop has dubbed the “fifth band member” effect. For Oduntan, it's the ephemerality of the medium that really appeals. “The tape is constantly changing,” he says. “That’s interesting to me. It will grow old as I grow old, revealing other nuances. This adds to the art more than it takes away. Anyway, there’s nothing stopping you from listening to the digital file that most people offer with a tape.”

Although typically produced in modest runs of between 50 and 200, at a cost of about £2 per unit, tapes do provide a valuable additional revenue stream for artists. “You play a gig, you might have records on sale, but who has £25 burning a hole in their pocket nowadays?” asks Shepherd. “However, most people will have £5 they can throw at a band they've just seen, so it's a way of earning what might otherwise have been lost.”

Upcoming producer Wu-Lu fondly recalls singing along to a tape of The Fugees in his mum’s car and falling asleep to the tales of Asterix and Obelix. When the time came to release his debut album Ginga, he chose a low-cost, high-commitment format that listeners could actually hold. “I put it out on tape because I wanted my first release to be a homage to the way that I was exposed to music, as a stream of consciousness,” he explains. “That’s why the whole album was mixed together … almost as one long track.”

Wu-Lu's Ginga tape, which he launched with an in-store performance at record shop Sounds of the Universe in London

Wu-Lu's Ginga tape, which he launched with an in-store performance at record shop Sounds of the Universe in London

Cassette is also a great medium for trying new ideas and being more spontaneous. Exhibit one: Berlin-based Klasse Recordings and their Graffiti Tapes, aimed at writers that make music and vice versa. Over in LA, Leaving Records founder Matthewdavid is using tapes to turn a new generation of listeners on to new age music and promote what he calls “the art of long-form listening”. Following on from the Laraaji reissue package, his Modern New Age series continues a longstanding tradition of pioneering DIY American music, both in body and spirit. Each tape is designed to be “a mindful, meditative, ‘beatiful’ hand-assembled art piece”.

A parallel is often drawn between tapes and files, and cinema and Netflix. Tapes offer more than good value. They are fulfilling a deeper need, particularly among those who have only ever known digital. But will major label interest kill the countercultural spirit of this outsider culture? Tristan Bath thinks not. He hosts Spool's Out, which is a weekly cassette culture radio show on Resonance FM and a monthly tape reviews column on UK music site The Quietus. Bath says this tape community reaches “as far as the internet goes”, with labels producing “labours of love”and even helping to lower postal costs by distributing each others’ releases.

“Nobody's afraid to put their music out on tape,” he adds, “from harsh noise to power pop. Most of these DIY labels are doing limited runs (under 100) and for the most part it's weird music for weird people. The fact that several thousand people might have a copy of that Guardians of the Galaxy mixtape won’t change the fact this music is often niche.”

Ironically, one undisputed driver will be technology. More and more retailers are offering players – from walkmans at Urban Outfitters to twin decks on the high street – while Sony recently announced a 185 terabyte tape for our lossless pleasure. Audiophile collectors, meanwhile, can hunt for treasure such as this.

CDs scratch and can alienate. Vinyl is ultimately a luxury. Tapes, on the other hand, are little affordable objects of desire, like a handwritten letter to a fan. Some are still being popped in to car decks and players decades after being opened. I think they call that staying power.  



Amar Patel