David Aldrich

David Aldrich is a new media producer, director, cinematographer, editor, and information technologist known professionally for his involvement in the development and promotion of new media technology in a university setting.

In 2008, David started producing Peckhammer TV, a web TV documentary series about people who ride and race motorcycles. David wanted to fill a programming void in television. Through 42 episodes, he learned to interview, host, shoot, edit and direct on the fly.

After finishing the last episode of Peckhammer TV in 2010, David turned his attention to documentary filmmaking. One of his favorite films was “It Might Get Loud,” which featured three of his favorite guitarists: Jimmy Page, Jack White and the Edge. In a few scenes of the film, Jack White referred to his luthier in Seattle. That luthier was Randy Parsons, whose shop was less than a mile away from David’s home. David dropped by and said, “I’d like to make documentary short about you.” Parsons agreed, and filming began in January, 2010. David shot the film using his Canon XH-A1 and the Canon T2i. In 2011, David released Randy Parsons: American Luthier, which will be shown at the ITSA Film Festival at the end of September.

David Aldrich's Randy Parsons American Luthier

Q1: You say you used the Canon T2i for a good portion of the Randy Parsons short. Was that because certain features of the T2i were better suited for the project than the Canon XH-A1? Or was it just to test out the T2i’s capabilities?

Aldrich: I have been a photographer all my life, and when I started shooting video, I thought the results made everything look like ‘70s television. You know, flat, lifeless, cheap, and boring. Definitely not like film-like. I really missed playing with DOF to emphasis something in-frame, and I missed the freedom that you have when working with a camera that fits in your hand. Putting a letus adaptor on a video camera could give you a cinematic look, but now you were wielding a substantial apparatus around that could be intimidating to people in front of the camera.

When I started shooting the Randy Parsons documentary short, we started out using my trusty XH-A1. Parson’s shop is small, so even a bare-bones XH-A1 feels big. I picked up a Canon T2i, as well as 17-55mm f/2.8 lens so I could get in close to the guitars. Wow! It was liberating, and it allowed us to get on top of the fine details we were trying to capture. Once I started using that camera, it was hard to put it down. It ended up being the primary camera – especially after I went on an eBay shopping spree, picking up a half-dozen vintage Nikkor primes.

Q2: Did you find any significant limitations with the T2i for this short — such as excess vibration, uncomfortable/awkward form factor, limited recording time?

Aldrich: Most of the limitations that people speak about when using DSLRs are genuine concerns, in my experience. Some I can live with, some I can’t.

The 17-55mm f/2.8 lens did a pretty good job of image stabilization, but the Nikkor primes were impossible to use unless the camera was on a good set of sticks. I shot a fair amount of footage using a Kessler CineSlider, mounted on their combat-ready tripod which will hold up to 500 pounds. I have a ball head mounted on the CineSlider, which allows me to get moving/tracking shots at interesting angles, and my camera assistant can work the fluid head of the tripod at the same time, so I can achieve compound movements. This allowed me to get stable, fluid shots without much in the way of vibration. That’s fine in a controlled environment, but out in the field, that would be impossible to pull off.

I purposely wanted to keep things simple, so when doing handheld shots, I used the T2i just as it came out of the box; no rails, rig or follow focus. This was not a problem during the Parsons shoot because I always had a bench to lean on. But I do think you’d need to fully accessorize your DSLR, and get a really good monitor if you were shooting somewhere other than a very controlled environment. That’s a serious investment that quickly adds to the relatively inexpensive price of a camera body.

I never minded the limited memory problem that people mention. I like to shoot on 8 GB cards, and they are not very expensive. I know that people complain that you can only get 20 minutes or so on a card, but seriously, how long is a single shot going to last? I am not Stanley Kubrick. I rarely shoot more than a minute at a time, unless it’s an interview. And I like to swap out a full card and hand it off to a production assistant. If a card gets lost, I’m missing 20 minutes of footage. If a tape gets lost, that might be an hour of footage. With the cards, the footage can be transferred to a hard drive and I can get it back into the camera in no time. Can’t do that with a tape…

And then there is the crappy audio people speak of. Again, that’s not a deal-breaker for me because I only use the on-board sound as reference audio. I always have a second camera, or audio recorder rolling, which I think I would do even if I am using a camera with excellent sound recording ability.

I‘ll add one thing that people might not think of: You often have to be on top of your subject when using a DSLR. This changes the dynamics of shooting, and in the case of the Parsons documentary short, this was a good thing. Parsons is comfortable in front of a camera, and the shoots were very intimate. I could see that working against you in other circumstances, though.

Everything I said so far probably makes it seem like my preference is a DSLR. It is not. If my XH-A1 had interchangeable lenses with nice fat apertures (f/1.4, for example), and if I could use my Nikkor primes on it, I’d never use a DSLR again. Some manufacturers are making that happen on cameras with reasonable price points. However, a DSLR is a relatively cheap acquisition, and it puts a powerful film making tool in the hands of someone who may not have a budget. That is awesome. That said, if I were going out into the field and I could only take one camera, I would always choose my XH-A1. It’s got XLR inputs, excellent auto-focus, zebra lines, and a viewfinder that works even when the sun is out. For documentary work – especially field work — it’s the better choice, in my opinion. Sure, I’d like to have something newer, but the XH-A1 still works.

Q3: In comparison with the XH-A1, do you feel there are things the T2i are better/worse suited for?

Aldrich: Yes. When I was shooting my web series, I would rig cars and motorcycles with cameras. I sort of treated the T2i as a disposable item, and I had no problem mounting it in places where it might get destroyed. Of course, when I did that, I always used the cheap 18-55mm lens it came with, rather than my expensive glass. The T2i is also a little more low-key. If you are trying to capture something and not make it obvious, the T2i is a great way to do it. People act a lot different when they know they are being recorded, and there is no way to “get away with it” when you’ve got a big, purposeful-looking video camera in your hands.

If you were a field reporter or photojournalist, I think the DSLR has a big advantage over a full on-video rig. First, you can’t beat the still image quality that a DSLR produces. Second, news is being produced differently these days, with reporters working independently and having to produce complete pieces out in the field. Writing/narrating a story that can be paired with some good photographs or a couple short video clips makes a DSLR the better choice. And it’s small and packs easy.

Q4: How would you rate the image quality between the XH-A1 and the T2i?

Aldrich: That’s a great question. I didn’t give it much thought until I was in post-production, and using shots from both cameras in the same scene. The XH-A1 seems to make a substantially sharper image than the T2i. So I had to sharpen the T2i footage, and play with the contrast curve and color to make the difference between the two cameras less noticeable. Maybe the 5D would have produced a sharper image, but I have no direct experience with that camera.

Q5: What did you use for audio capture on the Randy Parsons short?

Aldrich: Parsons’ shop is next door to Guitar Center, which has thousands of guitar amps connected to the building power supply. There is so much interference being generated that I could not use any of my wireless equipment. So, much the environmental sound was recorded on my XH-A1, which was always rolling as the B camera during the shoots. I also had an H4N recorder running as a backup, but I never used any of the sound from it. However, there is quite a bit of Foley work in the documentary. In the second scene, where Parsons puts the soldering iron back in the spring holder, well that’s a Weller soldering iron in my studio. Same for the screw-driver being used on that red bass – that me in the studio.

I had originally shot the interview portion of the documentary with Parsons at his shop, but I had to scrap it because of all the noise and interference. So I did the interview again in my studio. I used a nice microphone, a pre-amp, a compressor, and I recorded everything on a Mac Mini. To play it safe, I also used a SM58 hooked up to my XH-A1. And in the end, I chose the audio recorded on the video camera because it sounded more natural. It’s just another example of how flexible that camera is, and how much utility it offers.

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