I have a grand and tech-y work adventure

I pulled a Pioneer Press weekend shift on Sunday, which is something all the newspaper’s reporters have to do several times per year. The prospect of this usually is underwhelming, but this time I had a … blast.

I was asked to go grab some quick smartphone footage of a big smokestack demolition not far from the paper’s digs in downtown St. Paul and near the Mississippi riverfront.

Phone video? Hah, I had higher ambitions for this assignment, which got the tech geek in me pumped.

I cooked up a grand scheme to snag raw footage from various vantage points, and later stitch it all together into an edited videoThis required careful planning and execution.

First, I grabbed my trusty Sony handheld camcorder along with a recent-model Nokia Lumia 1020, which has maybe the best phone camera around. The handset is available from AT&T, which is my current and preferred carrier with killer LTE service in the Twin Cities.

I added a 1020 case that doubles as a camera grip with a shutter button and tripod compatibility. I rounded up two tripods, one for each of the cameras. I also had my iPhone 5c for the shoot, which I’d use as handheld camera.

Here’s how the Nokia with its camera grip looked on its tripod:

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Second, I recruited two of my friends – Mike Evangelist and Mark Fawcett – to help me shoot video. The shooting locations I designated for them were different than mine, ensuring I’d get a rich range of moving pictures from a variety of vantage points. Mike, an accomplished photographer, had pro-grade gear. Mark had his iPhone 5s, which was just fine for my purposes.

Third (this was after the fact), I got permission to use aerial drone footage by Tom Lawrence (see his his videos at epicrc.net). This would not have been possible without an assist from my clever pal Mark, who spotted Lawrence in action during the demolition and got his contact information so I could follow up with him later.

Fourth, I pulled all of this footage into Apple’s Final Cut Pro X for two days of off-and-on editing that initially yielded a short video to package with the story I wrote, and later the longer – dare I say epic? – video.

This was fun, so much fun. As I noted in a tweet:

 Tech notes

1) I suspected this big video shoot would not go entirely according to plan, and boy was I was right.

Both the Sony camcorder and the Nokia smartphone got great footage, but I was initially unable to access the camcorder’s contents. That footage therefore didn’t make it into my first, shorter video. I troubleshooted the problem – it turned out I had to use a different mini-USB syncing cable – and harvested the camcorder footage for my later, longer video.

Mark, meanwhile, had a camera snafu at the worst possible moment and didn’t get footage of the demolition. His participation was still priceless, though, since my longer video includes his terrific iPhone footage of Lawrence’s team and their drones in action.

2) Given the range of hardware used in the shoot, I got raw footage of varying quality.

Mike’s video was the best, of course. The footage from my Sony and the Nokia was pretty good. So was Mark’s iPhone 5s footage. My iPhone 5c footage was not bad (its camera is equivalent to that of the previous-generation iPhone 5) but I wouldn’t have wanted to rely on it for the bulk of my shooting. Its contribution to my cause was invaluable, though.

It is interesting to compare the Sony and Nokia footage. The matching video sequences are of roughly equal quality but look different. The Nokia footage is a smidgen oversaturated while the Sony footage looks more true-to-life, though maybe a bit on the drab side alongside the Lumia footage.

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3) Final Cut Pro X is a revelation.

I hadn’t had much experience with the pro-level video-editing software prior to getting a Mac Pro (yeah, one of the new ones) from Apple for review, but I’m madly, deeply, hopelessly in love with the app now.

I’m pretty handy with iMovie and love a recent, major update to the editing app, so the transition to the similar-looking Final Cut felt painless (keeping in mind that I was tapping only the teensiest fraction of its capabilities). After a few small Final Cut projects under my belt, with only occasional Google searches to dredge up Apple help articles when I got stuck, I had enough practice to edit my comparatively complex blast video with ease.


If you have a recent-model Mac, and are finding yourself  bumping up against the simpler iMovie’s limitations, as I have been, $300 is a relative bargain for an app that will pay off bigtime, trust me. Buy it! (There’s a 30-day free trial, too.)

4) It should come as no surprise to those who know me, Mark and/or Mike that the tech brought to bear for this project was largely Apple tech..

Non-tech notes

1) It was cold! With spring looming, I had hoped for mild temperatures on the shoot. But while the mercury was above zero, the early morning still felt brutal, and it didn’t get much better as the 10 a.m. demolition approached. (It was a gorgeous, cloudless day with a breathtaking  sky, though.)

I realized after leaving home that I had underdressed, too, so I brazenly appropriated one of my coworker’s upper-body winter garments in the Pioneer Press newsroom. Later, one of the blast-site workers took one look at my relatively unprotected legs and lent me overalls.

Properly dressed, at last, I thoroughly enjoyed myself in the hours leading up to the blast, and did not even need to periodically warm myself in my running company car, as I had planned.

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2) That blast-site worker was, actually, the dude in charge, Jim Wutzke of Frattalone Companies. What a nice guy.

I gathered from talking with him that his dealings with the media have sometimes been less than enjoyable, but he seemed to like me just fine. I was making an effort to be pleasant with zero expectations of anything in return, but Wutzke seemed to decide I was worthy of special treatment.

In addition to the overalls, he offered me a pastry, a pocket warmer, and even a ride down to the blast site so I could shoot some close-up video. Though he clearly doesn’t like being on camera, he gave me a great interview.

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Best of all, he gave me access to a private blast-viewing area that was a much better vantage point than a public locale I had scoped out. Man, I hit the jackpot. Thanks, Jim. You made my day.

3) I had a Pioneer Press photographer, Sherri LaRose-Chiglo, with me at the viewing area.

She confessed to being perplexed about why we were both there. She felt redundant, which is one of the funniest thing I have heard all year. Of course she was not redundant. I’m handy with tech gadgetry and can point a camera, but I don’t have a pro photographer’s skill or sensibility.

Sherri, of course, produced great still shots to complement my moving images and written words for a killer package (superior to that of the competition across the river, I daresay).

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