Analogue Wayback, Ep. 5

Those are the wrong color bars.

In the late 70s our production company picked up a new commercial client. This was a home improvement retailer similar to Lowe’s or Home Depot. It was owned by a larger corporation and their in-house ad agency handled the TV spots for the retail outlet. Although headquartered in New York City, Jacksonville (where I was) provided the right combination of new stores, easy flights from NYC, and a local production company with high-end production and post capabilities.

This first outing with us was to produce a series of holiday commercials intended to run during the Christmas season. We had a mobile production unit, which back then meant a Winnebago decked out with an onboard RCA 2″ quad recorder and an RCA TKP-45 camera. Plus dolly, grip and lighting, sound, etc. The commercials were a series of choreographed spots featuring a group of singers and dancers. Quite the production. I was booked to start the edit first thing the next morning.

I arrived at work early, set up the VTRs, and mounted the camera master tape from the truck. When I first hit play, it struck me that the wrong color bar test signal was at the head of the reel. We used SMPTE bars inside the facility, but the truck engineer normally recorded full field color bars from the camera at the head of the location recordings. This tape had SMPTE bars. Hmmm….  I spun in a bit farther and hit play again (you can’t shuttle and see picture on the 2″ VTRs). Uh, oh. SMPTE bars. I quickly realized that the tape had color bars throughout. Somehow the entire production from the day before had been erased!

Next, it was time to greet the director and agency creatives for the first time as they arrived for the session and inform that that it was all gone. Just how you want to start off with a new client! Of course, being from NYC, their first reaction was to threaten a lawsuit. However, my immediate priority and our first obligation was still to deliver finished spots for air. After everyone calmed down, the production department was able to set up talent and location and do it all over again. Although the crew was scheduled to do another gig in Tampa, they managed to pull it off and still make the Tampa gig. And even better, nearly all of the talent, especially the leads, were available for the fast-turnaround reshoot.

How did this happen?

We were a 24-hour operation with three edit shifts servicing another weekly retail commercial account. Videotape edit master reels were typically prerecorded with a signal and timecode. That signal could either be black, a test pattern, or something else. We used house (SMPTE) color bars. This allowed the editor or VTR operator to work in the insert mode across any part of the tape. The second or third shift editor was usually the person who prepped these tapes, as they often had some available VTR time during these later hours.

What had happened was a true comedy of errors. I had left instructions with the evening shift editor to prep an edit master tape for me to use in the morning. During his shift, the truck engineer returned from the shoot and set the camera master reel on the counter, saying, “Here’s the tape for Oliver’s edit.” The evening editor went about his business and forgot about prepping a tape for me. On his way out the door at the shift change, the evening editor passed the task to the overnight editor, “Please prep the edit master tape for Oliver. It’s there on the counter.” Then, without reading any of the labels and stickers on the reel indicating that this was a camera master, that editor loaded the reel on the machine and hit record. That’s how I wound up with a tape full of color bars instead of a raw footage with singers and dancers the next morning.

Fortunately the reshoot went well and the client was willing to accept that this was a fluke that would never happened again. We did more sessions with them over the next couple of years. But they would never, ever again trust someone to handle the camera reel after the shoot, nor wait until the next day to start the edit. The night of the reshoot, the producer hand-carried the reel to the shop and we started the edit that evening and went all through the night. That’s a pattern that continued. If a shoot wrapped at 9PM, we’d start at 10PM and edited until the next morning as needed.

So let that be a lesson. Read the labels!

©2022 Oliver Peters