John Lambert – Penrith Video Story

Photo by Ian Wrenford (LCRK)

Paddlers in the Penrith Marathon Series round could not have missed the movie studio set up 2.5km upstream of the start. That was John Lambert – a duel Penrith Valley Canoeing (PVC) and LCRK member. He’s finished in the cutting room and there’s over an hour of video (split by Division). You can dissect your own performance, and analyse those who beat you, or you aspire to. It’s on the PVC Youtube Channel here.

You can also Ian Wrenford’s photos of the event here.

John’s story…

So… the accidental “success” of the Lane Cove River filming effort inspired my second club, PVC to ask if I’d mind filming Race 7 on the Nepean River.

I was in two minds, as I had thought I might actually paddle that one, but I was more keen to see what I could do with a “proper” video camera and setup, having whetted my appetite with Race 6, and I would have felt guilty if I hadn’t volunteered for the host club anyway, so videography work won!

A filming location at “The Narrows” (where Glenbrook Creek meets the Nepean River and the beautiful gorge heading to Warragamba Dam begins) was recommended by both the club and Ian Wrenford, and a scouting trip in the PVC Stellar S18S confirmed a large flat area of rock, accessible from a boat, and a filming location complete with the requisite large red navigational pole smack bang in the middle of the view of the river.  Home away from home!

The western side of the river didn’t look very hospitable for a multi-camera setup, and seemed to have very soft ground as well as no obvious location that had a vantage up AND down river, so I discounted it.

I managed to get all the gear I needed, including power to supply it all for a few hours, into a backpack on Saturday night/Sunday morning, and managed to get to the Tench Park Boat Ramp just in time to be given a lift up river to the filming location by the ever helpful SES crew.

A flurry of activity ensued, setting up the main camera (Canon XA30) and BlackMagic HDMI Full HD ProRes recorder, a second upstream facing video camera (mid range palm held Canon – Legria HF 32 I think), and my iPhone XS Max facing downstream in 4K mode, all supplied either by USB power packs or a neat little 150W 240v inverter that Ryobi make that works off their 18V lithium battery packs – much cheaper than buying a whole different variety of batteries for each different device, and only one battery to change when it ran flat (each device still had its own battery for the changeover).

The plan was that I could fall back on one or the other secondary camera if I missed a shot with the main camera.  I also had a Zoom H6 audio recorder, but the shotgun mic I wanted to use with it was new, and I didn’t realise that a firmware upgrade was required before it would work on the Zoom H6.  I still made a recording with the standard mics on the various cameras.  The most important use of the audio recording was actually to synchronise the videos between the cameras – I don’t have a clapper board, and consumer level cameras can’t be synchronised to a common time source, but the auto-sync feature in Final Cut Pro was impressive. After the first few paddlers passed I decided to switch the iPhone to slow motion mode at 240 fps, which might not have been the best use of the device, but I can’t really go back and change that decision.

First of many mistakes – I was positioned to perfectly capture the sun reflecting off the water behind the paddlers on the upstream leg from the start line.  Backlight is always a challenge for video cameras, and bright sun reflecting of water is the worst of the lot.  Nothing I could do about it, so I did the best I could do adjusting the EV up and down depending on the angle of the shot – as the paddlers came from the distance and passed my location, I had to manage dramatic changes in pan/tilt, zoom AND EV simultaneously – lucky the camera managed focus more or less, but it was still hectic!  The Canon XA30 has quite a number of manual controls which made it possible at least – no way would I have been able to do that with a touch screen controller!  Sadly the result was still pretty crappy – my sincere apologies…

One positive was that I was gratified with how the long (20x) optical zoom of the main camera was able to capture great footage from paddlers a long way away, getting the “down the barrel” shots that tell the observer a lot about the paddlers symmetry, sway, paddle angulation etc. etc.  On the other hand, as they approached and passed my position, I found I was too close to the water, and struggled to zoom OUT fast enough to capture the full height of the paddler or length of the boat.

The downstream leg was much better, as the paddlers were heading into the sun and the sun was behind my right shoulder (sort of), but then a different issue occurred, especially later in the day, where the sun was coming from the side of the paddlers way from me (their left), leaving half their face (the side I was looking at) in relative darkness, with lots of shadows interfering with a good picture.  This again would have been less of an issue if I had filmed from the western bank.  I repositioned the iPhone so that it was pointing upstream for the slo-mo shots of the paddlers as they came downstream, and left the small video camera untouched as a common reference point for both the up and downstream legs of the race.

The afternoon became eventful for another reason.  The Canon XA30 hasn’t been used all that much (the problem caused by having a high quality video camera always living in my pocket), and I think the disuse made some of the controllers a bit “rusty”.  As a result, despite being semi-pro level hardware, the zoom rocker started misbehaving in the afternoon, deciding it wanted to zoom when I wasn’t even touching it… this caused all sorts of exciting shots where I thought I had finished the zoom and the camera decided to keep getting tighter and tighter – sorry about all the cut off paddle tips and occasional decapitation – I normally frame my shots better than that, but it’s tough when a second operator has their hands on the controls at the same time and they don’t care about framing!

Anyway, I had those other cameras as backup… remember?  I’ll get back to that!

The day ended very quickly – the start timing, location of filming and up and back nature of the course meant that the action was quite tightly packed, so I had to put my skates on to get everything packed without delaying the wonderful SES crew more than was appropriate.  It was at least a relief from standing in a very awkward position controlling a tripod mounted camera – the angle of the rocks, and the position of the tripod legs were not optimal, and dealing with a near 180 degree camera swing without a flat floor to move on is really quite difficult, I discovered after it was too late to change things!

Oh and before I forget, the PVC team supplied an awesome lunch that I managed to wolf down in between waves of paddlers!  Thank you!  Sorry I had almost no time to savour it more…

Main lesson learnt re positioning  – Next time I will set up further back from the water’s edge, and think about where the sun will be.  I’ll probably need to be on the Western river bank.  Note: significant amount of beginners luck for the LCRK video – there was high cloud almost all day, which is divine for videography, and in any case I was on the western bank, able to swing the lens view from northwest to southeast, so plenty of good lighting angles. And that red navigation pole did a nice job of keeping the kayaks away from me (apart from that one boat that ruined it’s rudder) – things you don’t notice the first time around, huh?  A hand held iPhone meant I had no tripod issues either!

Anyway, once I was home, the first task was a big upload of all the footage to a 2TB SSD I use for this work, and transcoding all the footage to an editing format – the compressed video that everybody uses on their phones, some cameras, and on the net is wonderful for storing and playing back high quality footage, but atrocious for editing due to performance overheads, so it’s best to convert it up front.  Mind you, it means that an hour of footage even in the “LT” quality version of ProRes is around 120GB – multiply that by the number of hours and the number of cameras, add in the proxy editing versions, and other renderings, and you don’t get much change out of a TB of data…

Then there is the issue of stills for the overlays etc. – logos to be captured and converted, transparency to be manipulated, imaging to be resized to fit Full HD footage.  Finding a font that sort of matched the Paddle NSW logo was a near impossible task – I think somebody hand made it for them!

However once I got around to looking at the footage properly, I found all sorts of new issues.  The static cameras really weren’t pointed at the optimal location.  I thought the boats would travel upriver near my videoing location, as it was the shortest path, but I think everybody was scared of the rocks, so they all paddled near the western side of the channel, which made them very small images in the top 1/4 of the frame – so the value of the two still cameras was greatly reduced – sadly when the kayaks were passing, when I needed to check those camera positions, I was too busy with the main camera, so they just got left alone.

The final issue I had to deal with was the secondary Canon – it was an older model, and processing limitations meant that at Full HD the best it could do was 50i – interlaced footage.  Interlaced footage causes all sorts of problems with computers nowadays, and in retrospect I should have set it to 25p instead… sadly the deinterlacing algorithms really couldn’t handle the bright red PFDs against the dark background of water and greenery, so most of the footage involving red PFDs has horrible comb effects that I couldn’t get rid of despite spending 4 hours with Compressor and other tools trying to fix it… If I find a solution I will re-encode and re-upload all the footage – but don’t hold your breath lol

After some trials, I decided that the secondary footage would be useful as thin “positioning” sections of video – being wide angle, they would add perspective to the tightly zoomed shots, showing the true distance/position of the paddler relative to my position.  Only you can judge if that was effective…. And of course the slow motion footage was actually not that bad, the only challenge being deciding where best to put it lol.

A huge learning experience then began in Final Cut Pro – I had never used multi-cam clips before, never used compound clips before, and had to use a huge amount of key framing and transformations to make the footage usable – think manually controlled image stabilisation, or pan and zoom after the event.  Learnt about compositing modes I have never used before – “Difference” and “Silhouette Alpha” – and neat uses for them!   The large number of paddlers also meant a LOT of tagging of clips before I could even start editing…

One thing I DID learn from the first attempt, is a much better way of dealing with the time code overlay (fourth option I tried, with lots of redo-ing of existing edits sadly, and ensuring that the time code reflects actual time, not relative time…

I also learnt more about YouTube – these videos take advantage of chapter markers in YouTube – if you expand the description you can click on links to take you to the downstream leg quickly, or the slo-mo sections of the Div 1 and 2 videos.  Time prohibited me putting markers on each boat!  I also played with a better thumbnail image (well, I think it is better…)

Pro Tip – download the video so you can change the speed in a decent video player (Quicktime on the Mac is fine for this) – some of the long distance shots played at high speed (10-30x) tell you an awful lot about the efficiency of different paddle positions!  Also, this footage is best viewed at full resolution (1080p or 1920×1080) – you will need a decent computer and internet connection to deal with that…. If there is demand, I can provide a download link if you don’t know how to download the video from YouTube, or want a better quality version – I find the originals I have still look better than the view from YouTube…. I suspect YouTube reprocesses them to make them more compact.

Anyway, apologies again for the quality issues, and the time it took me to put these together – hope you find them of some use!

Oh, and it should all be much better/quicker next year 🙂

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