Selling a DSLR documentary to national television

Ronald E. Hole


- It is still pretty incredible to me that one or two people with a good idea for a film can now cheaply avail of technology that gives them the production values necessary for national broadcast, says Mike Hannon, director of the documentary "My Beamish Boy".

We met Mike Hannon on the forums on cinema5d.com. He told the members of the forum an interesting story about selling a documentary done with a Canon 5D Mark II.

- The documentary had very humble beginnings, director Mike Hannon tells us. I bumped into my friend, Pat Comerford, on the streets of Cork in December 2008 and he told me that the brewery was going to close. Pat had worked in the brewery for the previous ten years. He knew that I worked as an architectural photographer and he suggested that I document the buildings, and the people at work there. We subsequently decided that it would be better to make a small scale documentary, perhaps ten minutes long, featuring interviews with some of the people who worked there over the years.

- The scope of the project grew as Pat convinced more of his co-workers that our project was worthwhile. We wanted to make a film that would be a tribute to the historic brewery and to the unique spirit of the people who worked there. We realised that we were making a longer piece – the final documentary is 25 minutes.

The production

- We interviewed fifteen people over the course of a number of weeks. These interviews took place around the time the brewery was closing. They were held in the upstairs premises of a bar, the Spailpin Fanac, which overlooked the brewery, and was like a second home for many of the workers. Since we were unable to secure permission to film in the brewery itself, this was the next best thing.

- The final documentary also includes archival photographs dating as far back as the nineteenth century, and contemporary photographs from David Creedon, who worked the night shift in the brewery, and would take beautiful long exposure images of the brewery while on his “lunch” break!

Original music

Eighteen minutes of original music were composed by Irene Buckley, and local singer-songwriter John Spillane wrote an original song for "Beamish boy".

- This music was performed by Johnny, Cormac and Hugh McCarthy, some of whom had worked in or been associated with the brewery. The music is a huge part of what makes the film successful.

The documentary is being screened on RTE One at 7pm, Monday 7th June. Please see this article for the background on the historic brewery and why it was closed.

Why National television RTE in Ireland aquired the documentary

- I think RTE acquired the documentary for broadcast for a number of reasons. It's a nice piece of social history that documents the characters who worked at the oldest brewery in Ireland. The subject matter is also topical – recession and redundancy – and a lot of people can relate to the people in the film. I think almost everybody in Ireland at the moment must have a family member or close friend who has lost their job since our economy has gone into recession over the last two years.

I think almost everybody in Ireland at the moment must have a family member or close friend who has lost their job since our economy has gone into recession over the last two years

- The documentary was not commissioned by RTE. When it was complete, and had already won an award at the Corona Cork Film Festival 2009, I sent it to their Acquisitions Department. This department, to the best of my knowledge, would be responsible for buying, for example, the latest seasons of Desperate Housewives or Lost. However it may also purchase an independent production.

- RTE is funded by the TV license-paying public, and is required to screen a certain proportion of home grown programmes every year. It appears to me that purchasing programmes in this fashion is a useful way to meet their quota at a great price for them. There is a fixed fee, which is relatively small.

- If the doc had been commissioned then the fee would have been much higher. However I wouldn't have been in a position to have a documentary commissioned prior to the Beamish film. But now that I have one successful film under my belt, it puts me in a good position for the future.

- A further point about commissioning: if the project had been commissioned then the way in which I made it would have been totally altered. It would have been necessary to have a full professional crew on board, instead of just me and Pat! In fact it is still pretty incredible to me that one or two people with a good idea for a film can now cheaply avail of technology that gives them the production values necessary for national broadcast.

No budget

- It began as a no-budget affair. It was going to cost me money. I was going to need two 5Ds, a lot of memory cards, an extra lens, power supplies, sound equipment, lights, hard drive storage, etc. Another significant expense was lost earnings as I knew I would need to take some time unpaid leave from work to complete the film.

- I applied for a grant to the Arts Office of Cork City Council and was successful. After the film was complete, there was a cash prize for winning the award at the film festival, and subsequently there was the fee from RTE.

Everything balanced in the end and I was glad (and lucky!) to break even

- Everything balanced in the end and I was glad (and lucky!) to break even. The total cost of the project was less than €10,000.

- At the time of beginning the documentary I was working as a graphic designer and photographer for an architecture firm and hadn't made much new work in a while. I think going from the relaxed atmosphere of art college to working in a nine to five office was a big shock to my system! I was happy to start work on My Beamish Boy as it offered a creative outlet that wasn't related to my day job.

- Now, I find myself in the same situation of the people in the film. The architecture firm I worked for has been liquidated and I have to find something new. I'm now operating as a freelance photographer and videographer (using the 5D of course!), and I'm also making video art again. I also have an idea for a new documentary, but I must keep very quiet about that at the moment!

Choosing the DSLR for documentary

- In December 2008, when I decided to go ahead with the film, the Canon 5D Mk II had recently been launched. I was impressed by the small number of test clips that were available at that time. I knew I wanted a good looking image in order to do justice to the subject matter and the 5D would give me that.

- The first time I used a 5D, I put a 50mm lens on it and took a walk around the city centre taking some shots. Everything looked great on the LCD. When I got home and imported the shots to the computer I was shocked by the rolling shutter that was evident in my hand held shots. I had been used to working with CCD cameras and had never seen anything like this before. This was the first hint to me that working with the camera was going to take a little bit of effort to deal with its shortcomings.

- A huge challenge was determining the correct workflow. In those early days of 2009, people were noticing problems with crushed blacks, due to programs incorrectly interpreting the RGB values in the 5D's MOVs. I spent hours and hours trying to work around this problem until a Quicktime update was released which solved the issue.

- As soon as Neoscene was released I bought it, as I found this very helpful in getting decent playback speeds.

- The next problem to figure out was the conversion from 30p to 25p. I discovered settings in Twixtor that did a pretty good job. Most of the footage was talking heads, so the conversion to 25p was pretty easy to do. However some cutaway footage had a little more movement, and it took some time to determine the best Twixtor settings to make it look right. Of course, this isn't an issue anymore since Canon added new framerates with their recent firmware update.

- Fortunately, by the time shooting began in the summer of 2009, Canon had added manual control and the crazy workarounds necessary to try and disable the auto exposure control were no longer necessary.

- Because most of the doc is talking heads, the 5D was in fact quite suitable.... with one drawback – the 12 minute file limit. That is why it was necessary to have two cameras. As well as making it easier in editing to clean up the speech when you have two angles to choose from, two cameras were needed so that no footage was lost when the 12 minute limit was reached, as it was possible to stagger the stop / restart times by about 30 seconds.

- A lot of the people we interviewed were well able to talk at length, for longer than twelve minutes! So if I had been using just one camera it wouldn't have been enough. It does mean that as a camera operator I had to be vigilant in paying attention to the recording time and not going over the limit.

- I also found judging the focus at f2.8 on a 70-200mm lens to be pretty tough. I didn't have an LCD viewfinder at the time. I guess I got it right a lot of the time, but there are one or two shots where I was hitting the ears rather than the eyes.

- One nice advantage is that because they are so small, they are probably not as intimidating as a larger camera would be. Also, because the low light performance is good, less light is needed, or maybe none at all – which also helps to keep things informal in the interview situation. The interview subject is walking into a room that looks more like a room than a studio set.

Post-production - I wanted a fairly warm look. I wanted it to be cosy and comforting. The location was perfect for this as there are a lot of browns and yellows in the bar. And then I also wanted a touch of coldness within that warmth, both for colour contrast and for thematic contrast – warm nostalgia for the past versus a cold future.

- I added grain because I'm a little bit obsessed with it! I messed around with Super 8 a lot when I was in college and always loved the grain. I also think it adds liveliness to what would otherwise be a static scene. I'm sure the average viewer won't notice it, but I wanted this film to be great in every little way I could think of.

Mike Hannon describes the grain technique on cinema5d.com.

The equipment Mike Hannon used for this production: 2 x 5Ds 2x Canon ACK-E6 AC Adapter
8x Transcend 16GB cards 2x tripods Sigma 70-200 2.8 Tamron 17-35 2.8-4 Zoom H4 2x lav mics 2x CFL softbox kits

Mike Hannon is a video artist. He has a degree in Fine Art from the Crawford College of Art and Design, having graduated in 2006. His work has been shown at various visual art events in Europe and the US. Mike also completed a number of successful collaborations with his girlfriend, Irene Buckley, who is a composer of new music.

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