Photo Phun 2022

Let’s polish off the year with another post of stills from my photography hobby. These stills were taken during this fall and Christmas season, plus a few oldies from other posts about Firstlight and Optics. As before, all of these images were captured with my iPhone SE using Firstlight, FiLMiC’s still photo companion to their FiLMiC Pro video capture app. Aside from the extra features, Firstlight enhances the phone with camera raw recording. This isn’t otherwise possible on the SE using the native camera application.

The workflow to “develop” these images started in Adobe Bridge, where it was easy to make the basic raw adjustments using the camera raw module. Bridge offers Lightroom-style control and quick processing for a folder of images. These images then went to Photoshop for cropping and resizing.

Boris FX Optics functions as both a Photoshop plug-in and a standalone application. It’s one of my favorite tools for creating looks with still photos. It goes far beyond the filters, adjustments, and effects included in applications like Photoshop alone. Nearly all image manipulation was done by roundtripping each file from Photoshop to Optics (via the plug-in) and then back. The last step in the workflow was to use the TinyJPG website to optimize the file sizes of these JPEG images. Click any image below to peruse a gallery of these stills.

Enjoy the images and the rest of the holiday season. I’ll be back after we flip the page to a new year. Look for a 4-part interview in January with legendary film editor, Walter Murch.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Analogue Wayback, Ep. 21

The Jacksonville Jazz Festival

Regular readers probably know by now that I have a soft spot in my heart for music production. I’ve worked on a number of films and TV shows that were tied to musical performances and it’s always been an enjoyable experience for me. One of those ongoing experiences was post for the Jacksonville Jazz Festival PBS specials in the 80s and 90s. Although I was living in Jacksonville at the start of this annual event, I really didn’t get involved with the shows until a few years after I’d left town.

The yearly Jacksonville Jazz Festival is a cultural highlight for the city of Jacksonville, Florida. Launched in 1980, the first two years were hosted in the neighboring fishing town of Mayport, home of a large US Navy base. It quickly shifted to downtown Jacksonville’s Metropolitan Park by the St. Johns River, which cuts through the heart of the city.

Recording jazz in the “backyard”

WJCT, the local PBS and NPR affiliate, had been covering the annual event for PBS since the second year of the festival. By 1983, the festival and the station were tightly intertwined. In that year, the park was renovated with a new WJCT facility adjacent to it. Having the building next to the park provided a unique opportunity to install direct audio and video cable runs between the station facility and the covered pavilion performance stage at the park. To inaugurate both, WJCT covered the festival with an eight-hour live broadcast.

From 1981 until 1994 (with the exception of 1983), WJCT produced each year’s festival as a one-hour TV special for PBS distribution. This was a fall event, which was posted over the subsequent months and aired early the next year. My involvement started with the 1984 show, helping to post eight of the eleven TV specials during those years. I worked closely with the station’s VP of Programming, Richard V. Brown, and Creative Services Director, Bill Weather.

Production and post arrangements varied from year to year. Bill Weather was the show’s producer/director for the live event recordings most of those eleven years. (Other directors included Dan Kossoff, David Atwood, and Patrick Kelly.) Weather and I traded off working as the creative editor, so in some years I was the online editor and in others, both editor and online editor. During that decade of shows, post was either at Century III (where I worked) or at our friendly crosstown rival, The Post Group at The Disney-MGM Studios.

Turning the festival into a TV show

Richard V. Brown was the show’s executive producer and also handled the artist arrangements for the show and the festival. Performers received fees for both the live event appearance and the TV show (if they were featured in it), so budgets often dictated who was presented in the telecast. A legendary, but expensive performer like Ray Charles or Miles Davis might headline the festival, yet not appear in the TV special. However, this wasn’t always dictated by money, since top names already brought with them a level of overexposure in the media. And so, the featured artists each year covered a wide spectrum of traditional and contemporary jazz styles, often introducing lesser known artists to a wider TV audience. New Orleans, fusion, Latin, blues, and even some rock performers were included in this eclectic mix.

The artist line-up for each special was decided before the event. Most shows highlighted four acts of about 10 to 15 minutes each. The songs to be included from each artist were selected from the live set, which tended to run for about an hour. The first editorial step (handled by Brown and Weather) was to select which songs to use from each performer, as well as any internal song edits needed to ensure that the final show length fit PBS guidelines.

Recording the live experience

Production and post grew in sophistication over time. Once the WJCT building was completely ready, multiple cameras could be controlled and switched from the regular production control room. No mobile unit required. This usually included up to seven cameras for the event. A line cut was recorded to 1″ videotape, along with several of the cameras as extra iso recordings to be used in post.

The station’s own production equipment was augmented with other gear, including stage lighting, camera dolly, and camera boom. With such an important local event, the station crew was also expanded thanks to local production professionals from the town, including a few top directors and cinematographers working the stage and running cameras; and volunteers working tirelessly to truly make each year memorable.

When it came to sound, the new WJCT facility also included its own 24-track audio recorder. Stage mic signals could be split in order to simultaneously feed the “front of the house” mixing board, the stage monitors, and run back into the building to the multitrack recorder. These 2″ analog audio masters also recorded “time of day” timecode, thus could be synced with the video line cut and iso recordings in post.

Editing is more than just editing

Although my role was post, I was able to attend several of the live festivals, even if I was only the online editor. I sat in the control room and functioned a bit like an assistant director, noting potential editorial issues. But I also made sure that I had coverage of all the members of the band. One performer might take a solo, but I also needed options for other camera angles. As with most live jazz and rock performances, the band members might trade off solos, so it was important to keep an eye on where the focus of the performance could switch to next. Since the director had his hands full just focusing on the real-time action, I would often lean over and ask for a little different coverage from one of the other cameras not currently punched up.

None of the crew was intimately familiar with the live performances of these acts, so it was all about having a sixth sense for the music. However, there was one surprising exception. That was the year that Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band headlined. As you probably know this was the house band for The David Letterman Show, but they also had a limited live touring schedule.

For their set, Shaffer sent in a coordinator with a printout of their entire set rundown. Shaffer and the band had choreographed the whole set, so he was able to give the director a “heads up” for each part of the performance. In addition, Shaffer is the consummate band leader. His set included a jam with his band and several other jazz artists from earlier in the day. Each had a cameo solo. This sort of ad hoc, live jam can often become a big mess; but this one went off as if they’d rehearsed it. Shaffer literally put this together in quick conversations with the other artists during the course of that day.

3/4″ and a legal pad of notes

Once everything was in the can, post could start – initially with content selection. Then camera cuts could be cleaned up using the iso angles. This “offline edit” was largely done by reviewing the 3/4″ U-matic tapes, which had been recorded for the line cut and three of the iso angles using a quad-split generator with a timecode overlay. This gave the editor a multicam view, but from a single tape source. Unfortunately, listing camera cut changes to specific angles required a lot of meticulous, handwritten timecode notes. (Early days had four monitors and a timecode generator display stacked as closely as possible, with an independent camera recording to 3/4″tape.)

Based on these notes, the show master could then be edited in a linear, online session using the 1″ originals and mastering to 1″ or D2. If the line cut of the live recording was solid, then any given song might only have new edits for about 10-25% of the song. Edits might mean a cut to a different angle or maybe the same angle, but just a bit sooner. In addition to the live camera angles, we also had extra ENG footage, including audience shots, party boats anchored in the river nearby, and even some helicopter aerials of the wider event grounds, the pavilion stage, and the audience.

In a typical year, I would finish the camera clean-up edits and trims unsupervised, then Brown and Weather would arrive for the supervised part of the online edit. Here we would build the visual style for the show open and transitions between songs and bands. Plus final credits. This was at the dawn of digital post, so most show opens involved a lot of layering.

It’s all about the mix

The Jacksonville Jazz Festival PBS specials were, of course, about the music. Getting the best possible mix was a very important consideration. In the earliest years, the live recording and remix methodology was evolving, but generally run under the auspices of the WJCT audio engineers. This shifted to our Century III staff audio engineer, Jerry Studenka. He handled the mix for the shows for several years in the late 80s.

To the best of my recollection, the 24-track tapes were recorded at 15ips with Dolby SR noise reduction. This enabled an hourlong set to be recorded on a single reel of tape. Audio mixes/remixes were recorded onto two tracks of that same 24-track tape. In later years, working out of the Century III facility on the lot at Universal, we used Sony 24-track digital audio recorders. The staff would first bounce the analog master reels to digital tape ahead of the audio mix session. Then the audio engineer would mix from one digital recorder to the other. Century III and The Post Group were equipped with Solid State Logic consoles in their main audio rooms, which provided a comfort factor for any experienced music mixer.

The performances were recorded live and mixed on-the-fly during each set as the first pass. Then in the post session, they were polished or remixed in part with punch-ins or even fully remixed depending on what everyone felt gave the best result. But the mixes were all based on the actual live recordings – no overdubs added later.

Every year, each performer was afforded the opportunity to bring in their own recording engineer or representative for the show’s mix. Only two artists ever took Brown up  on that  – Paul Shaffer and Spyro Gyra. Larry Swist came down for Spyro Gyra, who appeared at numerous festivals and was featured in several of the specials. Swist, who later became a well-respected studio designer, was the recording engineer for the band’s albums. Shaffer sent Will Lee (the band’s vocalist/bassist) as his rep to the mixing session. Spyro Gyra and Shaffer’s band happened to be on the same show that year. By the time Lee arrived, Studenka and Swist already had a good mix, so Lee was able to quickly sign off.

Swist had an easy-going, “no drama” personality. Everyone had such a good experience working with him that for each year thereafter, Swist was brought in for all of the sessions. He coordinated both the live recording to multitrack during the event and then remixed all the music for the show during post.

These remixes weren’t as straightforward as they might seem. All sound post was handled on tape, not with any sort of DAW. It was a linear process, just like the picture edits. First of all, there were internal edits within the songs. Therefore, all outboard processing and console and fader settings had to match at the edit point, so that the edit was undetectable. Second, the transitions between songs or from one artist to the next had to be bridged. This was generally done by overlapping additional crowd applause across the change to hide the performance edit, which again required audio matching.

The Jacksonville Jazz Festival of 1994 (aired 1995) was the last of the PBS specials, due in part to the cost of production and TV rights. Eventually WJCT turned over production of the festival itself to the City of Jacksonville. The results for that time speak for themselves. The collective effort produced not only great festival experiences, but also memorable television. Unfortunately, some of the production folks involved, like Richard V. Brown, Larry Swist, and Jerry Studenka are no longer with us. And likewise, neither are some of the featured performers. But together, they left a worthwhile legacy that is still carried on by the City of Jacksonville to this day. 

©2022 Oliver Peters

Analogue Wayback, Ep. 19

Garage bands before the boy bands

As an editor, I’ve enjoyed the many music-oriented video productions I’ve worked on. In fact one of my first feature films was a concert film highlighting many top Reggae artists. Along the way, I’ve cut numerous jazz concerts for PBS, along with various videos for folks like Jimmy Buffet and the Bob Marley Foundation.

We often think about the projects that “got away” or never happened. For me, one of those was a documentary about the “garage band” acts of central Florida during the 1960s. These were popular local and regional acts with an eye towards stardom, but who never became household names, like Elvis or The Beatles. Central Florida was a hot bed for such acts back then, in the same way as San Francisco, Memphis, or Seattle have been during key moments in rock ‘n roll history.

For much of the early rock ‘n roll era music was a vertically-integrated business. Artist management, booking, recording studios, and marketing/promotion/distribution were all handled by the same company. The money was made in booking performances more so than record sales.

Records were produced, especially 45RPM “singles”, in order to promote the band. Singles were sent for free to radio stations in hopes that they would be placed into regular rotation by the station. That airplay would familiarize listeners/fans with the bands and their music. While purchasing the records was a goal, the bigger aim was name recognition, so that when a band was booked for a local event (dance, concert, youth club appearance, tour date) the local fans would buy tickets and show up to the event. Naturally some artists broke out in a big way, which meant even more money in record sales, as well as touring.

Record labels, studios, recording  studios, and talent booking services – whether the same company or separate entities – enjoyed a very symbiotic relationship. Much of this is chronicled in a mini-doc I cut for the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum. It highlighted studios like Sun, Stax, and Hi and their role in the birth of rock ‘n roll and soul music.

In the central Florida scene, one such company was Bee Jay, started by musician/entrepreneur Eric Schabacker. Bee Jay originally encompassed a booking service and eventually a highly regarded recording studio responsible for many local acts. Many artists passed through those studio doors, but one of the biggest acts to record there was probably Molly Hatchet. I got to know Schabacker when the post facility I was with acquired the Bee Jay Studios facility.

Years later Schabacker approached me with an interesting project – a documentary about the local garage bands on the 60s. Together with a series of interviews with living band members, post for the documentary would also involve the restoration of several proto-music videos. Bee Jay had videotaped promotional videos for 13 of the bands back in the day. While Schabacker handled the recording of the interviews, I tackled the music videos.

The original videos were recorded using a rudimentary black-and-white production system. These were recorded onto half-inch open reel videotape. Unfortunately, the video tubes in the cameras back then didn’t always handle bright outdoor light well and the video switcher did not feature clean vertical interval switching. The result was a series of recordings in which video levels fluctuated and camera cuts often glitched. There were sections in the recordings where the tape machine lost servo lock during recording. The audio was not recorded live. Instead, the bands lip-synced to playback of their song recordings, which was also recorded in sync with the video. These old videos were transferred to DV25 QuickTime files, which formed my starting point.

Step one was to have clean audio. The bands’ tunes had been recorded and mixed at Bee Jay Studios at the time into a 13-song LP that was used for promotion to book those bands. However, at this point over three decades later, the master recordings were no longer available. But Schabacker did have pristine vinyl LPs from those session. These were turned over to local audio legend and renowned master engineer, Bob Katz. In turn, he took those versions and created remastered files for my use.

Now that I had good sound, my task was to take the video – warts and all – and rebuild it in sync with the song tracks, clean up the video, get rid of any damage and glitches, and in general end up with a useable final video for each song. Final Cut Pro (legacy) was the tool of choice at that time. Much of the “restoration” involved the slight slowing or speeding up of shots to resync the files – shot by shot. I also had to repeat and slomo some shots for fit-and-fill, since frames would be lost as glitchy camera cuts and other disturbances were removed. In the end, I rebuilt all 13 into a presentable form.

While that was a labor of love, the down side was that the documentary never came to be. All of these bands had recorded great-sounding covers (such as Solitary Man), but no originals. Unfortunately, it would have been a nightmare and quite costly to clear the music rights for these clips if used in the documentary. A shame, but that’s life in the filmmaking world.

None of these bands made it big, but in subsequent years, bands of another era like *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys did. And they ushered a new boy band phenomenon, which carries on to this day in the form of K-pop, among other styles.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Analogue Wayback, Ep. 16

Football. That’s where they play in quarters, right?

One of the fun experiences while in Birmingham was putting together the telecast of three football games. It was a brief moment in time when the original, upstart USFL professional football league challenged the NFL’s football supremacy during the spring season. Birmingham was one of several cities around the nation with a team, which was a great opportunity for the TV station.

Back then (and maybe still today) one way for a television station to shore up its revenue for the month was to bump a night of primetime network programming and replace it with its own. An affiliate lost that night’s worth of network compensation (the money a network pays the affiliate to run network programming). However, they were then able to fill all of the commercial slots for the night, which more than made up for it.

As long as an affiliate didn’t do this too often, networks wouldn’t challenge it, especially if this was for a strong local event. Furthermore, a broadcaster could promote this as a special event, like coverage of important away games that were normally unavailable. The station could charge premium ad dollars for commercial placement within the game, as well as other ancillary income, like sponsorship of the broadcast.

The station covered three away games being played in New Jersey at the Meadowlands, in Chicago at Soldier Field, and in Denver’s Mile High Stadium. The first two were split feeds. A split feed is when you are tagging onto another company or network that is broadcasting the game with a full production truck and crew. All the station had to do was book a smaller truck that would piggyback off of the main production truck. The main truck would send our truck a “clean feed” from their video switcher without their graphics or talent inserts. It also included game audio without their announcers. In the split feed truck, we added our own graphics, mixed in our own play-by-play announcer audio, and then cut to our own single camera whenever we wanted to see our sports reporter.

As production manager for the station, I flew in to produce the telecast, along with our reporter and graphics producer. Chyron (character generator) material, like logos, player names, and templates for stats pages, had been produced in advance. We hired local crew members, including a camera operator, technical director, audio engineer, and Chyron operator.

It got off to a fun start in the Meadowlands. Our New York-based Chryron operator was experienced with hockey games. Football – not so much. As we started to finalize the Chyron pages prior to the game, his first response was, “We’re doing football. Right? That uses quarters, right? OK, I get it.” Everything went off without a hitch. The Chicago experience went equally well, except the taxi driver was a bit confused about where the entrance to Solider Field was! In addition, the director in the main production truck seemed very “high strung” based on what we were hearing through our intercom connection.

Denver, on the other hand, was a completely different experience. We were the main truck doing a full production and not a split feed. This meant hiring a full 40-foot production truck, plus crew. We arranged all of it through a production coordinator who specialized in large sports events. It was fun producing a full-on sports telecast. However, you never know who the locally-hired crew are. The director was highly capable, but his main sports experience was baseball, which led to some interesting camera cutting. For instance, in most football game coverage, when the quarterback passes the ball the camera stays wide and follows the ball to the receiver without cuts. However, this director chose to cut camera angles during the pass. It worked fine, but was a bit different than expected.

I learned to appreciate such live productions, because when they are done they are done. There’s no post-production with infinite client revisions. All of the stress is during the build-up and the live production. No matter how good or bad the broadcast turns out to be, the end is truly the end. That’s a rather cathartic experience. When it’s over, everyone gets a high-five and you go out to a nice, late crew dinner!

©2022 Oliver Peters

Analogue Wayback, Ep. 15

A radio station with pictures.

The mid 80s found me working for a year at a facility that operated two radio stations and owned two satellite transponders. I managed the video production side of the company. Satellite space was hard to get at the time, so they operated their own network on one of them and sublet the other to a different company and network.

At that same time MTV had come to the end of its first contract with cable companies and many wanted other options. Creating a new music video channel alternative was something of interest for us. Unfortunately, our other transponder client was still leasing space within that short window when cable companies could have chosen an alternative option rather than renewing with MTV. Thus, a missed opportunity, because it was shortly thereafter that our client moved on anyway, leaving us with an unfilled satellite transponder. In spite of the unfortunate timing, our company’s owner still decided to launch a new and competing music video network instead of seeking a new client. That new channel was called Odyssey.

As head of production, I was part of the team tasked with figuring out the hardware and general operation of this network. This was the era of the early professional videocassette formats, so we settled on the first generation of M-format decks from Panasonic.

The M-format was a professional videocassette format developed by Panasonic and RCA. It was marketed under the Recam name by Panasonic, RCA, and Ampex. Much like VHS versus Betamax, it was Panasonic’s M-format versus Sony’s Betacam. M-format decks recorded onto standard VHS videocassettes that ran at a faster speed. They used component analog instead of composite recording. This first generation of the M-format was later replaced by the MII series, which had a slightly better professional run, but ultimately still failed in the marketplace.

It was important for us to use a premium brand of VHS tape in these decks, since music videos would play in a high rotation, putting wear and tear on the tape. The Odyssey master control featured seven decks, plus a computer-controlled master control system designed to sequence the playlist of videos, commercials, promos, etc. The computer system was developed by Larry Seehorn, a Silicon Valley engineer who was one of the early developers of computer-assisted, linear editing systems.

We launched at the end of the year right at the start of the holiday week between Christmas and New Year. Everything was off and running… Until the playlist computer system crashed. We quickly found out that it would only support 1500 events and then stop. This was something that the manufacturer failed to disclose when we purchased the system. You had to reload a new list and start over, losing a lot of time in between. It would have been fine in a normal TV station operation, since you had long program segments between commercial breaks. For us, this was insufficient time, because we only had the length available of a music video in order to reload and reboot a new playlist.

Fortunately as a back-up in case of some sort of system failure, we had prepared a number of hourlong 1″ video tapes with music video blocks in advance. Running these allowed us to temporarily continue operation while we figured out plan B.

Ultimately the solution we settled on was to chuck the master control computer and replace it with a Grass Valley master control switcher. This was an audio-follows-video device, meaning that switching sources simultaneously switched audio and video. If you used the fader bar to dissolve between sources, it would also mix between the audio sources. This now became a human-controlled operation with the master control operator loading and cueing tapes, switching sources, and so on. Although manual, it proved to be superior to a playlist-driven automated system.

The operators effectively became radio station disk jockeys and those same guidelines applied. Our radio station program director selected music, set up a manual playlist, a “clock” for song genre and commercial rotation, and so on. Music videos sent to us by record labels would be copied to the M-format VHS tapes with a countdown and any added graphics, like music video song credits. Quite frankly, I have to say that our song selection were more diverse than the original MTV. In addition, having human operators allowed us to adjust timing on-the-fly in ways that an automated list couldn’t.

As ambitious as this project was, it had numerous flaws. The company was unable to get any cable provider to commit a full channel as they had with MTV. Consequently programming was offered to any broadcast station or cable company in any market on a first-come-first-served basis, but without a time requirement. If a small, independent TV station in a large market decided to contract for only a few hours on the weekend, then they locked up that entire market.

The other factor that worked against Odyssey was that Turner Broadcasting had already tried to launch their music channel with a LOT more money. Turner’s effort crashed and burned in a month. Needless to say, our little operation was viewed with much skepticism. Many would-be customers and advertisers decided to hold off at least a year to see if we’d still be in business at that time. Of course, that didn’t help our bottom line.

In spite of these issues, Odyssey hung on for ten months before the owner finally tossed in the towel. Even though it didn’t work out and I had moved on anyway, it was still a very fun experience that took me back to when I started out in radio.

©2022 Oliver Peters