Split! – Does it take a village to make a movie ?

 

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Director David Boyd ASC behind the three headed split on “Queen of the South”

While in the middle of production on a remake of Beaches for Lifetime with director Allison Anders, we started talking about the use of video split and she reminded me that the DGA have rules about the use of the video split.

DGA rules about the use of the video split

To quote from the bottom of page 71…

“Use of Video Assist The parties agree that on theatrical motion pictures and on television motion pictures ninety (90) minutes or longer, video assist may not be used without the Director’s permission. When the Director of a theatrical motion picture elects to use video assist, he/she shall determine the number and placement of monitors to be used.”

In other words, those watching a video split do so at the discretion of the director.

A monitor or video split or video assist on set these days showing the “shot” is so ubiquitous, it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t have them.

Considering the 100+ year history of cinema, the video split is a relatively new innovation.  It used to be that a director would simply stand or sit near the camera and simply watch the performance.

 

One of the first ever narrative film directors Alice Guy-Blaché

One of the first ever narrative film directors Alice Guy-Blaché

 

There was this seemingly perverse idea that the operator (often the DP) would be entrusted with the framing altogether.

When I first started out in the early 90’s they still weren’t all that common, the camera rental company where I started out used to rent a video tap for the camera as an additional hire.  From memory a super 16 camera was $650 a day and if you wanted a B&W split it was another $450 and if you wanted a colour split it was another $550 on top of the camera body hire.

Fritz Lang

Director Fritz Lang

It wasn’t unusual at all for a shoot to go without a split and the director would just occasionally look in the camera’s viewfinder and generally trust what the DOP / operator was doing.

Times have changed.

Walk onto any set today and you’ll see many many images.  There are sometimes multiple monitors on the cameras themselves, many focus pullers now have their own monitor for camera, then there’s the video village and the gallery village.

The series I’m in pre production on now has 12 monitors including camera on-board monitors.

The first splits I was working with were simple security cameras that were modified to show a grainy image from inside a film camera that could at best approximate the framing of the shot.  You couldn’t really judge lighting and it was even a stretch to really be able to judge performance.

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Jerry Lewis operates what appears to be a Mitchell 35mm cameras with an RCA video camera above the viewfinder. Notice he’s not using the split but is still looking through the film camera itself.

According to Wikipedia, Jerry Lewis was the first to really make use of the video split. He has also made claims to being the inventor of the video split.

From the Wikipedia page on Video Assist

“Comedian and director Jerry Lewis is widely credited with inventing the precursor to this system,[1] although some similar systems existed before Lewis first used a video camera to simultaneously record scenes alongside his film camera during production of The Bellboy in 1960.[2] Director Blake Edwards was the first to use the beam-splitter single-camera system invented by engineer Jim Songer in the 1968 film The Party.[2]

I find this story pretty interesting because 1960 is VERY early days for the recording of video.  Video recording had only been demonstrated as being possible in a laboratory in 1953 and the most plausible video recorder that Jerry Lewis would have access to would have probably been an AMPEX QUAD system, which was only introduced as a prototype at NAB in 1956.

It’s possible the first time quad video recording was used for drama in TV was on a few select episodes of a series called “The Twilight Zone” in 1960. Video cameras were still pretty exclusive and expensive items made primarily for Television broadcasters.  Video recording was even more of a unicorn, requiring a lot of infrastructure and equipment just to run.

Early AMPEX QUAD video tape recorder

Early AMPEX QUAD video tape recorder

 

 

“In one of his most noted technical achievements, Lewis was the first director-actor to make use of a “closed circuit television preview system” (now commonly referred to as video assist) on an American feature film with “The Bellboy.” Lewis never had a closed set on any of the films he directed, preferring to allow people on the lot to come and watch him at work.”

There’s also this interesting article that would seem to dis-credit the Lewis claim to inventing the video split.

Around the turn of the millennium, that is, the year 2000, things started changing. High Definition cameras started to genuinely compete with film as a medium for narrative drama orgination.

And then something that had never happened before in the history of cinema transpired…Those at the video split had a better picture of the action than those operating the camera.

After nearly 100 years of cinema history where the operator always had the best sense of what was in the frame, we had a reversal.

Now the director would see a high definition and large image while the first electronic EVF’s on those HD cameras were usually crummy black and white images or at best 720p LCD colour images.

And it wasn’t just the director.  Around the same time, the invention of the video village crops up.  And just as the name implies, the “village” means a lot of people.  Script supervisors, make up, wardrobe, standby props, art department.

Even the name “Video Village” implies it’s a village!  It invites democratic opinion.  And going back to my discussion with my director Allison Anders, filmmaking really isn’t a democratic medium.  But when you have a “village” of people back there watching, it seems to give some of those watching permission to make comment or pass judgement.

Which is a long winded way of me getting to the point.

For me the video split is a modern necessity.  At the pace we work at today, especially for Television production it’s the only way to stay on top of production. But I have become very particular about the way I like to have video splits arranged on set.  I usually try to set this up with my directors and almost all of them seem to like doing it this way.

The first one I’m talking about here is what I call the director’s split.

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Director Glendyn Ivin at the split behind actor Sophie Lowe on “The Beautiful Lie”

1.  Have the split in the same room

The most important first point for me to is to have this director’s split in the same room as the actors wherever possible.  Or at least be able offer this to the director.  There’s nothing worse than an actor and director yelling at each other across the set or between rooms for notes about a scene. Having the director in the same room shortcuts a lot of discussions about minutiae and again, having the whole crew hear about it !

Now, not all directors like to be in the same room as the actors doing the scene and some will prefer the separation, often because they want the thinking “distance” and prefer to chat to the script supervisor or producers / showrunners between takes and form a view about notes before coming into the actors space with those notes rather than workshopping them with the actors within earshot.   But mostly I find directors prefer to be as close as possible to the actors and will always almost always take the chance to be in the same room. It’s immediate and fast and inherently more collaborative.

Directors are also more situationally-aware when they’re in the same room.  This is something I often see as an operator as the scene evolves, the actors make discoveries about the blovking as they work in the space and through the scene.  If the director is there in the room they’re a part of that journey and choose to incorporate or not, those new discoveries.

The beauty of the directors split in-the-same-room model is that at any point or for differing scenes the director can choose to be in the room, or can also retreat to the larger video village split.

2.  Set this split up first before anything else.

Cameras and focus pullers aside, this should be set up before the Village get’s built.   That way I can be shooting faster and I’m not waiting for a village to be constructed.

3.  Still set it up even if the director doesn’t use it.

As I mentioned, some directors won’t want to use it.  But it should always be there in case they want to use it and be in the same room. Sometimes they can switch between the split in the room and the village.

4.  Keep it small and agile. 

One thing I do for this split is try to keep it small and portable.  I see all these rigs for directors that are somehow meant to sling and carry the split in their hands.

It never works past the first take because no one wants to carry that thing around!

So I try to find a sturdy stand, something with wheels if possible and then fit the monitors to that stand and create a small directors split that the director can watch. And they watch from a standing position.  Again, the key is be mobile and agile.

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Split set up from “The Beautiful Lie”

 

Split Protocol.

Film sets aren’t a democracy.  They are highly hierarchical and for good reason.  Unfortunately, when you stand at a monitor and look over a director’s shoulders, it can sometimes invite a conversation about what’s on the monitor.

Often on long running shows at the big village you find there’s all sorts of conversations about what someone did on the weekend or an upcoming event. Stop!  Don’t stand in someone else’s office and yammer away about something that’s not to do with the scene that’s being shot right now.

Smaller monitors, means only a few can watch and it keeps everything more intimate.  Larger monitors at “the village” mean more feel like they can voice an opinion and because you’re displaced from the set it means you’re less connected to the tone in the room coming off the actors.

Monitors

For years now I’ve been using the Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q and 7Q+. I bought two and they have paid for themselves many times over. For a long time time for me they’ve been the benchmark for image quality and they have some very customisable exposure tools and the ability to apply LUTs as well.

Only now years after they were launched are others starting to compete with their feature set and screen quality.  One other nifty feature I’ve been relying on is their ability to slave record, that is, to record automatically when the camera connected rolls.  This was a feature likely intended to be used for backup recording from a camera, but I’ve been setting it to the lowest quality ProRes Proxy setting to maximize the record time and I can get many many hours of material recorded for later reference.

These days it’s not that uncommon to use a third or even fourth camera, and the Odyssey has a great feature of being able to display a second input so you can switch between two inputs or display both (and record!) at the same time

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Director Glendyn Ivin with his customised frontbox style table fitted. Yes, that’s cheese on the table.

So I go for these small Odyssey monitors on a small wheelable stand.   The directors often wheel it around themselves.  Some even add tables but most all use it standing.

Focus Pullers

These days a lot of focus pullers also have their very own dedicated split.  And there’s nothing first AC’s hate more than someone else peering over their shoulders at THEIR split that they’re trying to pull or check focus from.  And definitely don’t ask them why there’s weird red lines all over their image

Wireless

I’ve used almost all the wireless systems out there from BOXX down, and I’ve ended up settling on the Teradek 2000 as the most reliable / best value.  (Yes, I’ve tried the 3000).

The BOXX are great but very much larger and very expensive.

Mostly I like the Teradek 2000 because it’s one of the few wireless systems that pass the SDI record flag.  That means the trigger record or slave function of the Odyssey works.  Many other transmitters DO NOT pass the record flag, including some of the lessor Teradek transmitters.  The other big plus is that they work fairly reliably.

Right now the setup I have is 3 x TX units and 10 x RX units.  With that much WiFi floating around, a lot of other systems get hung up.  The Teradek 2000 seems to be pretty resilient in these situations.  By the way, don’t go adding those mushroom polarised antennas to the TX unless you also add them to the receivers.

You’ll notice that I’ve added little noga arms to the RX units.  Teradek themselves say you should always have about a meter or 3 feet of separation between the RX units.  The noga arms help separate them and also to orient them broadside to the TX source, which dramatically improves reception.

So there it is, a long winded piece about the politics of the video split, complete with the way I like to have it run.

I have no commercial relationship with any of the vendors mentioned in this post.  It’s just the gear I use and the way I like to use it.

 

 

 

 

 

About johnbrawley

Director Of Photography striving to create compelling images
This entry was posted in Equipment, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Split! – Does it take a village to make a movie ?

  1. Ron Dorre says:

    Thanks, John.Interesting point.

  2. Ron Coker. says:

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Andy says:

    Ta mate, insightful.

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