Local Cinematographers, Ace Sound Editing and … Boxes

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It’s weird living in a box. But for many of us, that’s how we’ve spent this year. We Zoom. We FaceTime. We tweet. I went for a walk the other day and realized that I have largely stopped using my peripheral vision. Is there even a world outside the glowing rectangle?

I’m a producer/director for our FX and Hulu documentary series “The New York Times Presents,” and Friday’s episode, which I directed, is the first one that our team conceived, produced and edited entirely during the pandemic (that was not about the pandemic itself). The show profiles Graham Ivan Clark, a 17-year-old from Tampa, Fla., who is accused of carrying out this summer’s high-profile hack of Twitter.

To pull it off, we needed, well, boxes. Shedding the long-held tradition of loading several hundred pounds of equipment onto a plane and jetting across the country to interview sources, we commissioned local cinematographers who lived near our subjects. We sent them a kit that included a teleprompter and an iPad. Once affixed to the front of the camera, the image on the iPad would be displayed in front of the camera lens. That meant this handy contraption would allow an interviewee to look directly into the lens and, instead of seeing a dark void, they would see me. In my living room. In a box.

It was basically a 4K broadcast-quality video chat.

And so we dispatched the cinematographers — sometimes with a single assistant — to locations around the country, where they did the job of a typical five-person crew. But even with such a small crew, protocols were necessary to avoid exposing anyone on set to the virus. That meant simple things like wearing masks and washing hands. It also meant airflow, which posed a new challenge.

Any sound recordist will tell you that airflow is the enemy of quality sound. Fans, HVACs, even refrigerators — the cardinal rule of sound is to turn them off and shut them out. Otherwise, those noises are amplified and delivered to a viewer’s living room when they watch the final product. But in this case, our specific protocols required us to film outdoors or in a well-ventilated room with windows open. In one location, that meant hearing the constant buzz of highway traffic. Fortunately, sound mixing technology has also improved, allowing the mixer to isolate and reduce these noises without losing the overall fidelity of the interviewee’s voice. What a world.

But perhaps most befitting of this year was the day disasters collided. We had booked a studio in Oakland, Calif., but learned that the interview subject had been near someone who had been exposed to someone else who had tested positive for the coronavirus. The interviewee scheduled a coronavirus screening to be sure he wasn’t infected, but it was unclear whether the test results would come back in time for the shoot. And so we switched to an outdoor location nearby.

But on the morning of the shoot, Oakland awoke to an air quality index rated “unhealthy” by the Environmental Protection Agency. Record-setting wildfires were tearing their way through California and the American West, sending towering plumes of smoke into Oakland and the surrounding area.

After an agonizing couple of hours overthinking which option was less dangerous — prolonged smoke inhalation or potential coronavirus exposure — we got the news: Our subject had tested negative. We were clear to move back inside. But with all the smoke floating around the studio, we had to crank the fans — audio be damned.

For the remainder of the interviews, we benefited from the fact that the film focuses on the online world of teenage hackers. After first making contact with members of this community on apps like Discord or Signal, we scheduled interviews with them over voice chat. We disguised their identities by using facial recognition technology — the same kind of thing you use to put rabbit ears on yourself when recording selfies on Snapchat.

As this endless year drones on, we all continue to reinvent how we work. And while we have learned some new tricks and gotten creative with emerging technologies, I for one am counting down the days until I can get out of this box.

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