Growing up in the 1960’s with a Dad who worked at CFRN-TV I am definitely of the television generation.
That word sounds very old. Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, Tiktok. Everyone now has a tv station in their pocket.
But not everyone learns about production. Production is a craft. It’s not where the cameras are placed, or the script, or the lighting, it’s about all of it. Production is the design of how your audience should feel.
I didn’t expect that the many hours I spent as a kid watching from behind the cameras at Sunwapta Broadcasting would be useful for me 50 years later, but then a global pandemic caused a wholesale switch from in-person events to online events, and production was back in demand.
When Or Shalom decided we would, like many other churches and synagogues, broadcast our services there was a unique opportunity to bring these almost-lost skills of live event production to live-streaming. Video equipment at the prosumer level is both affordable and high quality. Good glass, i.e. camera lenses never go out of fashion. LED lights have made it possible to bathe a room with warm glow without needing a generator truck.
The golden age of livestreaming is here.
Here’s an example of the finished product:
and behind the scenes…
Among the things I learned watching how live television was made were tally lights – red lights on the camera to tell the performer or announcer which camera was live. Tally lights haven’t made the transition down to prosumer products yet, and that seemed a real lack for livestreaming use, so decided to build one. Having a Roland 4-input video switcher (with a real T-bar fader like the Grass Valley Group switchers now infamously associated with the Star Wars Death Star) building a tally light system seemed a simple undertaking.
Like most projects, if you knew how difficult they were going to be before you started, you wouldn’t start. So it’s good to approach every project with some over-optimistic ideas of how hard it will be. To build this tally light system I took a technology I already knew, the Arduino microprocessor product line, and had to learn about MIDI. Along the way I also got to be re-acquainted with another technology I hadn’t used since the 1980’s – the DTMF tones that still signal much of the telephone system.
Yes, I am very good at procrastinating. But that’s not the reason it took 50 years to make. Well, at least not completely.
Each generation marks moments of life with particular music, and by significant songs. Some of those songs aren’t memorable to others, but for many of us, certain songs bring back the emotions of a pivotal life moment. They become the soundtrack of our lives.
For me as a high school student in the 1970’s Edmonton, one of those artists was Elton John. Touched by the Bernie Taupin’s lyrics and sentiments of Your Song, Elton & Bernie’s music became emblematic of sensitive insight, and of celebrating life. Hearing his music even today reminds me of the nervousness, and excitement of those teenage years, full of potential and open to the possibilities that were ahead of us.
When I heard the song “The Greatest Discovery” from Elton John’s eponymous first album, its imagery played through my mind’s eye like a movie, and I imagined how I could actually produce that 4 minute film. I had by that time shot and edited two short films in Super 8mm. “City in Snow” was a series of sequences in and around Edmonton in winter, and technically challenging in learning how to create in-camera titles, and synchronize a cassette music track. “Doublecross,” done for a film course offered by the Edmonton Art Gallery, featured my friend Randy and his cousin David z”l in a short that involved a mocked-up newspaper headline and Hitchcock-like (so I hoped) suspense.
Both those films benefitted from my father’s advice and experience as a film editor and producer, but my vision for The Greatest Discovery was beyond what we could achieve at that time on 8mm film. Even beyond the technical challenge, was the problem of casting. It needed two small boys, one young enough to still wear pyjamas with feet, and be amazed by the arrival of a new brother, and of course, a new-born. And it would help if he had green eyes. I recall scouting friends of my parents to see if their children were a match and their house had the requisite frosty windows and stairs with a handrail.
It was kind of a half-hearted attempt, since the technical barriers presented by film technology at the time were beyond my budget to solve. Randy and I had recently taken a film course from Gene Topolnisky at Jasper Place High School and I was greatly influenced by the film “La Jetee” which in spite of being a motion picture consisted almost totally of still pictures. Another technique for film story-telling involved moving the camera during the filming of a still picture, an effect the documentary film-maker Ken Burns popularized in many of his historic retrospectives. To make a film like that that at the time required an animation stand, and painstaking process of moving the camera on the stand, taking 1 frame, then moving it again. In order to get the resolution I needed it would have taken a 16mm camera, and weeks of work, and if I told you about what it took to create black subtitles, let alone animated ones, we’d be here all day. Assembling this combination of equipment was appealing to me in principle, as it would recall my Dad’s early career with colleague artist Al Guest when they started a small animation house in Toronto, but buying that amount of film, having it developed, as well as the cost of renting the camera, animation stand and editor would have been far beyond my student budget. So the project languished.
I remember thinking to myself though: On the off-chance that I get married, and we have two boys, a few years apart, and maybe the elder has green eyes like his Grandmother Esther and Great Aunt Ruth, well that would be a pretty sure sign that I should make this film.
Funny how life works out.
Among many of her charms, I fell in love with Tilly’s blue-green eyes, and our son Sol’s arrival in 1990 changed our life. His brother’s addition in 1994 reminded me to take this project idea out of mothballs, and start it for real. Even in 1994 though the technology for making this film on a computer was just a glimmer of a possibility, with iMovie still 5 years away, but I nonetheless set the stage, and captured many of the stills that I imagined would make the story work, shooting by available light on my Canon AE-1 on 35mm Kodak Tri-X film.
Twenty-three years later, in preparation for Elia’s birthday, I scanned those old pictures, and sat down at our beautiful and powerful 5K iMac to finally pace and edit this video, leveraging several decades of technology development that made it simple enough to be able to bring this old vision into reality.
It only took 47 years.
So, in memory of Hans, Leni, Esther, and in honour of Dan, and most of all dedicated to Elia on his 23rd birthday, and to Sol, big brother and role model for all of us, here is “The Discovery,” inspired by the music of Elton John and the lyrics of Bernie Taupin.