When it comes to documentary film making, especially in the sports field, I’ve never been so inspired as when I watched the first episodes of HBO 24/7 Road to the NHL Winter Classic. I think we all were. It didn’t take much time before many groups with a qualified team and the proper access tried to make a 24/7 of their own. I was no different.
It was my first journey into documentary film making. It was my first attempt at opening the world to the inner workings of a team – a bonded group – and sharing the success, the struggle, the laughs and the hope. I’ll admit it was a little rough. Okay, it’s really rough.
Check out Push to the Playoffs on IMDB
It was the first of many things for me. I had never spent this much time shooting. It had been less than a year that I had started spending any significant time with a camera at all (I’ll get to the gear I used a little further down). I had never conducted an interview in the television realm where the interviewers voice wasn’t to be heard – creating more of a narrative from the subjects instead of a back-and-forth. Admittedly, a little history in print journalism may have helped.
I’d been around the Marlies for close to four seasons. In my first year the team had squeaked into the playoffs, but being paired off with a top-seed took its toll. Toronto was ousted in the first round. Two years went by without a playoff worthy team.
The 2011/12 squad was different. The NHL Maple Leafs were building their future through development, primarily by way of the American Hockey League the NHL’s primary development league. Loaded with talent the Toronto Marlies – affiliate to the Maple Leafs – had quickly raced up the standings during the season and was hanging around the conference’s top-spot. Future NHL’ers Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and Joe Colborne all took part in the four week web series, which then composed a half hour television documentary. Push to the Playoffs first aired April 19th, 2012, an hour before the Marlies took to the ice for their first playoff game.
Panasonic HVX-200: This camera has found its way into the hands of just about every amateur documentarian I’ve met. Relatively light and versatile, it can transfer from indoors to outdoors with ease. It’s small enough to be tucked away in any small space, and the near infinite depth of field allows the camera to go without an operator if the need arises – like being present for sensitive discussions. The camera records 1080P video to P2 media, allowing about an hour of video to each 64GB card. Easily operated, the HVX-200 was near perfect for someone in my situation – an absolute beginner. That said, I quickly realized what dynamic range meant and how exactly it effected the outcome – followed immediately by the realization that the Panasonic was lacking. The tradeoff however is the four channel audio recording, a pair of which comes from the dual XLR inputs. Given my limited experience, the camera was the ideal choice for this job.
Sennheiser Bodypack: I wasn’t dumb. I knew going in how important the visuals would be. What I didn’t realize was how equally important the audio is. Thankfully I lucked out. The Sennheiser Bodypack delivered near perfect audio through the XLR inputs and into the camera. Sure, wiring up a lav mic onto the interview subject is more time consuming and less convenient than a boom, but with limited knowledge it ended up being the best option at the time. Even looking back now watching the interview with Kadri on the bench while practice continued behind him or the conversations had in an empty locker room that provided an extreme echo, the lav provided clear audio while minimizing any background noise. Just do yourself a favour, keep an eye on the mute toggle located at the top of the pack. You can rip your hair out trying to troubleshoot audio issues when you accidentally knock the mute switch.
Optext OPT455: I was once told that like a photographer, a filmmaker’s biggest asset is his tripod. Err sticks. Whatever you want to call them. I am absolutely beside myself that I managed the project with a simple photo tripod. No liquid head. Pans are jerky and tilts are rough. It made for a long editing process as poor tripod movement made for many lost shots. When it comes to interviews however, there still isn’t a tripod I’d rather use. It’s incredibly light and portable, it’s easy to trek around and it snaps into place in a moment and the vertical elevator allows for speedy adjustments without touching the legs – and if you’re like me, I can never adjust the legs without having to once again level the head. I swear I spend half my time levelling the head. I have since upgraded both my tripod and my head. Interviews for the third segment were shot in Abbotsford, BC, and somewhere between the PST and EST zones a piece of the tripod went missing. I shot the full fourth segment with a wobbly head.. that was exciting. The OPT455 still sits in my closet by the front door.
SEMA SL-20LX: Once again, sometimes the most basic of tools can turn out to be the best – at least given the situation. The SEMA LED is small and can stack one on top of each other to balance and intensify light. To all of you that have done this before, it’s a no-brainer. Don’t let these little things fool you, they’re stinking bright. The picture of Nazem Kadri used up top was taken as he reacted to the lights as they were turned on. We used three in that shoot. The little light is easily charged – which means not charging it can be easily forgotten. In the opening segment you might notice that Ben Scrivens is better lit than Joe Colborne. Yeah, well… I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
And to be honest, that’s it. I shake my head thinking about it now. It was a real skinny outfit. Nothing flashy. But honestly, I don’t think there’s any better way to learn. It’s easy to muddy the water when you’re dragging five bags of equipment through it. It really helps you to focus on the one most important part – the storyline. A compelling story can be told on an iPhone and people will watch (that’s why there are film festivals dedicated to it now).
The editing and colouring, although crude, was done completely on Harris Velocity. At the time the turnaround time seemed monumental. Each part was written, shot and edited in a week – with a crew of only one. All while dancing around the schedule of the club, who were extremely accommodating. It first aired in its entirety on Leafs TV on April 19th, 2012, while Rogers TV picked up individual segments which were aired during Marlies game broadcasts throughout the playoffs.
The team went on to press right to the Calder Cup Finals, carving through the first three rounds losing only two games. Unfortunately they lost four straight in the finals and watched their opponent raise the Cup.
The following season Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens, Korbinian Holzer and Ben Scrivens all spent significant time with the Maple Leafs, who progressed to the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
Here are all four parts of Push to the Playoffs. See something you’d do different? Let me know.