Chongming Island (崇明岛) Part Two

Julie, Feng Ran, and I made our second trip to Chongming Island this weekend. This time our team went equipped with a full filming kit: a Canon Rebel T4, Sony Bloggie, Rodi microphone, H4 microphone, tripod and other accessories (spare batteries, Neewer light disc reflector and SD cards).

We arrived on Saturday night to review our plans, prepare the filming equipment and get a good night’s rest for Sunday. During our trip we interviewed a migrant farmer, a local farmer, a local land owner/developer, two migrant fishermen and a local driver. Below are my reflections on our team’s first filming experiences.

TECHNICALITIES

Before we arrived to Chongming, our team practiced filming and testing our microphone’s audio just once. So, I was a bit nervous while setting up the equipment for our first interview. While Feng Ran made casual conversation with the migrant farmer, Julie and I mounted the Rodi microphone to the Canon and the Canon on the tripod. Just before this, we realized the H4 microphone was out of battery, so we crossed our fingers and hoped that the Rodi microphone would capture satisfactory audio. As Fuji stresses, good audio is even more important than the video.

Alas, our team forgot to plug the Rodi microphone cord into the camera during the first two minutes of filming. Julie luckily noticed this mistake early on, and we were able to capture the introductory content, once again, at the end of the interview.

With around 3 hours of nonstop filming completed, the Canon Rebel’s battery was running extremely low and the SD card was filling up faster than we anticipated. We were forced to exchange the battery pack and SD card during the middle of the second interview. This was irritating because it disrupted the flow of the interview and thoughts of our informant. Nonetheless, these interruptions can be easily fixed with editing later on.

Lesson learned: spare batteries and memory storage are necessary. Also, it doesn’t hurt to take a lunch break to charge up the dead batteries and to free up some space on the primary SD card.

The Sony Bloggie also caused our team some technical problems. The Bloggie’s battery died around the same time as the Canon, but we did not know how to recharge it. I plugged the Bloggie into my computer, but the computer did not recognize any activity from the USB drive. Additionally, we had no Internet at our hotel on Chongming, so searching for the solution was not an option. Consequently, the Bloggie remained uncharged for a good portion of the trip, and we missed out on opportunities for footage and various angle shots during interesting interviews. At the end of the trip we figured out our mistake: the Bloggie must be turned on when plugged into the computer for the battery to charge and files to transfer. By this time it was a little too late. Nonetheless, Julie and I did capture around two hundred shorter video clips on the Bloggie during our stay.

LANGUAGE BARRIERS

In Shanghai and around Fudan University’s campus, I will often here English or other international languages spoken on the streets, subways and buses. This is not the case on Chongming Island. Especially among the farming and fishing communities, there were no English speakers. In fact, some people we spoke with declined an interview, claiming even their Mandarin was not good enough.

Since all of the interviews were conducted in Mandarin, Julie and I did not ask any questions during the interviews with the Chongming subjects. Collectively, our team brainstormed topics and questions for each interview beforehand. I was able to follow some of the introductory conversations, but most of my attention was diverted toward filming. During our visit to the fishing village, I wandered off and spoke to our driver and fishermen on another boat. It was exciting to use my Mandarin, but still some parts of the conversation were lost in translation. I asked the fishermen about their children and they asked me about my flight to Shanghai. They even offered to give me a sampling of the crabs they caught. I politely declined, having neither the kitchen nor skill to cook the crabs.

With around 50 GB worth of film, the next steps for our team involve tedious video cataloging. Since Julie and I do not have the necessary language skills to interpret the interviews, we cannot divide the work and conquer this task in a third of the time. Instead, we must sit down as a group and filter the abundance of film down to the most important parts based on Feng Ran’s translations.

A-ROLL AND B-ROLL

A-roll and B-roll together make up any film. A-roll is the video footage of the main subject, like an interviewee speaking about his or her family. And B-roll is the video footage of the surroundings and other contextual images, like shots of an interviewee’s children playing in different parts of the house. The difference between A and B-roll is particularly clear in most documentaries. In my opinion, the interplay of A and B-roll keeps the film interesting. When a film elegantly jumps from the main subject to other scenes that complement the dialogue and content of the piece, it is able to express a more complete story. Using relevant clips apart from the A-roll will improve the illustration and portrayal of the story’s narrative.

During our time on Chongming Island, Julie and I shared the responsibility of capturing A-roll and B-roll while Feng Ran interviewed. We alternated A-roll and B-roll jobs after each interview session. We filmed A-roll on the Canon Rebel and B-roll on the Sony Bloggie. I found filming A-roll more serious and structured. For the most part this job required placing the interviewee in the frame and making sure he or she did not come out of focus. On the other hand, filming B-roll allowed me to be more creative and explore the surroundings. While filming B-roll, I experimented with angles, scale and perspectives. Just for fun I created a short video (see below) of some of the B-roll Julie and I shot this weekend. Now, I need to think about how to pair our team’s A-roll and B-roll footage for our project this semester.

Chongming Island B-roll from Chai Lu Bohannan on Vimeo. Music: “Pretty Girl from Merlefest” by the Avett Brothers.

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