Stringr Interviews: Brandon Neubauer

by Kaitlyn Mitchell

This week, Stringr  sat down with professional freelance videographer Brandon Neubauer, who received his BFA in film and television from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2000.  Upon graduating he began to work as a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer. His award winning work has been featured in documentaries screened on HBO and Showtime, and recent credits include various video projects for Time Inc. The 100-plus brands that Neubauer has worked for as director of photography and sound mixer over the past eight years include Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, People, InStyle, Essence, Fortune, Money MagazineReal Simple, Conde Nast’s Italian Vogue, and ABC.

Brandon Neubauer

Neubauer at work.

Stringr: How do you manage to shoot video and sound mix at the same time?

BN: In breaking news, the time and energy spent on post-production is much more minimal. I use wireless mics, a little sound mixer, field, sound mixer, I’m mic-ing up to like four people at a time, mixing it down to two channels, and sending it to the camera. When things go wrong, particularly with sound, you need someone that really knows what they’re doing in order to correct it. It’s always my preference to use my own equipment.

Stringr: What are your camera recommendations?

BN: There’s usually a camera of the moment that lasts like three to five years. The fashions change — I’ve seen like eight different cameras that were the cameras of the moment. Right now, it’s the Canon C100. That’s because it’s an amazing camera. It’s a step up from the Canon 5D Mark III with audio and other video-specific features, and it’s five grand instead of $15,000 for the Canon C300, which is starting to get you much more in the territory of an indie film that has a huge budget and much more to do in post-production.

If you’re looking to get savvier with the Canon C100, you can get this external monitor and recorder, part of the Atomos Ninja Blade, which records in a better compression algorithm that provides a much better image quality that is as good or better than the C300. You get the Canon C100 for five grand, then you get the Ninja Blade for $800, and you’re not going into debt with an extra $10,000 that you’re trying to make back on the C300.

The fact that now you can get a camera for high enough quality around five grand is a miracle. It used to be the baseline was a beta cam with $40,000 bodies with a $30,000 lens. The investment was huge, and you had to make that pay off by working all of the time.

Stringr: What are your microphone recommendations?

BN: I’m a little bit unique in that I’m shooting and doing sound at the same time. I have top-of-the-line microphones and wirelesses. The top of the line is a wireless system by Lectrosonics. I made my sound kit investment almost ten years ago. I paid off the kit seven years ago. It’s a much better investment if you’re gonna go in on the pro level. For a boom microphone, I have a Sennheiser MKH 60. I think a system is around $2,500, and then the boom microphone is around $1,700. Those are my go-tos. What you’ll see out there on the amateur level is the Sennheiser G3 series.

Stringr: Describe an equipment malfunction and how you handled it.

BN: One of the more common situations is that you run out of power, and you don’t have any extra batteries on you. Have a run bag where you have extra batteries for everything that you’re using. If you have a wireless, you need a back-up wireless. Wirelesses can go haywire, or there’s different frequencies that can come on at any given point; for example, a tv tower might start transmitting and interrupt the wireless frequency that you’re on, and sometimes you need a backup wireless that’s in an entirely different frequency range. And then you want to make to not look over having media to be able to shoot on, too.

Stringr: How do you deal with police officers?

BN: I’ve been in all kinds of situations where I’m filming and the police see my filming as a threat to what they’re trying to do. They will be very aggressive in telling me to get on the sidewalk, because maybe I was on the street, or something. But in general, to try to shoo me away from the scene. It all depends on local laws and your best judgment, but in public space you have a right to shoot whatever you want. And the police will use their established position of power in order to intimidate you, and make it appear that you don’t have that right. Sometimes you may know that you’re 100% in the right, and they’re in the wrong, but you have to make the judgment call that if you keep pushing it, they’ll arrest you. You would have to tell that story in court, and at that point, it’s a roll of the dice, because certainly in my experience as an activist, police lying on the stands is something that was pretty common. Video evidence is one of the things that is making it more difficult for them to do that without consequence, but it does often appear to be the rule than the exception, unfortunately.

Stringr: Have you been arrested?

BN: Yes, I’ve been arrested while shooting video. But the reason I got arrested wasn’t because I was shooting video, it was part of a bike ride called Critical Mass, and it was a time when they were arresting anyone that looked like they were riding in that ride. About seven years after the fact, I was part of a class-action lawsuit that settled out of court, and was paid a four-figure sum for the experience.

Stringr: What are your best techniques for camera stabilization?

BN: Almost all cameras these days have some form of image stabilization, so you’d wanna have that turned on. In addition, any Canon lenses you can get where they have built-in image stabilization, although that uses up the battery faster. That makes a huge difference; it is not to be overlooked. It’s important if you’re on a tripod to then turn off the image stabilization, because if you’re trying to do a smooth move, the camera thinks of that movement as camera shake, and it attempts to compensate – you’ll see that a nice pan that you’re trying to execute, the camera’s internally trying to compensate for it, and it actually makes the image unusable.

If you don’t have that option, the best pose to be in while shooting is short arms, elbows locked into the body; there’s certain situations where I can actually use my chin to have a third point of contact, but that would generally be the concept. You wanna have at least two points of contact, stay locked, use your core. It’s a physical game.

Stringr: In what situations have you used a smartphone to shoot video?

BN: The best camera to use is the one that you have. These days, that is going to be a smartphone. That’s definitely something that I use in my creative life, but also if I’m documenting police activity, which sometimes I do do. The camera is a significant deterrent to bad behavior. And in certain cases, the smartphone is the only thing that you have.

Stringr: What creative lighting techniques have you resorted to in your work?

BN: I gotten very creative with lighting; using the sun with any kind of a bounce board — you could use the side of anything that’s white. I’ve had situations where I’ve even had an assistant stand right outside of the frame because they’re wearing a white shirt. The angles really make a huge difference. All that stuff matters. In general, bounced light is way softer and more pleasant than direct sunlight, which is pretty harsh. And, sunlight in general is really bright. Lights come into play because they’re controlled and consistent. If you’re doing an all-day shoot outside, you do all kinds of stuff to almost eliminate the sunlight so that you can have your lights be only the fixtures that are working, because you want something that’s not changing all the time. Sunlight is definitely the cheapest, and the strongest. You get a little four-by-four piece of bounce board, which would typically be quarter or eighth-inch white foam core, and have somebody stand on the outside of the frame and bounce that into a subject, you’re in business.

Stringr: Any parting words of wisdom?

BN: The biggest advice is to hold your shot. When in doubt, if there’s an active situation happening in front of you, stay wide and hold the camera steady. Don’t overthink, like “I’ve got to get all of these little details that are happening.” That’s something I still struggle with. Stay wide, hold the camera steady, hold it level. Make sure it’s in focus, make sure the exposure’s correct, and making sure you get good audio. You get bad audio, it doesn’t matter how good the video is. Bad audio is the killer.

You really need to create edit points for the editor. One of my early mentors made it clear that to a certain extent, you’re shooting for the producer that you’re working for that day, but you’re also shooting for the editor back in the office.

So what that means is that on a shot where you’re doing an establishing shot of let’s say, a farmer’s market, and you’re doing a nice big wide shot, first of all, you plan out where you’re going to move the camera if you’re doing a pan, try it out a few times. Press record, count to yourself for five seconds, do the move, then at the end of the move, hold it for another five to ten seconds.

The biggest thing that makes it difficult for editors to use footage is that they don’t have what they would call handles on either side of the movement. And when you do that consistently, and you do it well, it makes their job a lot easier.

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