RØDE Video Mic Pro and Elton John's Million Dollar Piano Documentary

 

When I started filming a documentary about the construction of Elton John’s new custom Yamaha piano, I had a RØDE mic on my camera from day one. This project began in early 2009, as I captured conversations with Elton of what the piano would be, what it might look like, how it could function. Over the next few years, I followed that piano across the globe as it was crafted by hand, from Japan, to Montreal, to Los Angeles and to its final destination, The Colosseum at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas strip.

The grey fuzzy on the 5DmkII was my attempt at a deadcat on the internal mic. Needless to say, RØDE Video Mic Pro was quite a step up!

My background is in audio recording and I worked in recording studios in Nashville for several years before I made the switch to video. Because of this, audio quality has always been a top priority for me. I honed my recording skills in the studio using a RØDE Classic microphone; it only made sense to stick with the brand I knew and trusted when I jumped into the video realm.

When I transitioned over from a larger video camera to the new (at that time) Canon 5DMKII, I was sorely disappointed at the audio options it presented. I tried using its on-board microphone and even rigged up a tiny deadcat over the mic, but it was still really poor quality compared to what I was used to. I recorded onto a separate audio recorder, but a lot of what I shoot is music content which overloads the on-board mic and make sync very difficult. I needed a better solution.

As he did for many other videographers, Philip Bloom helped me overcome a lot of the early challenges of using the 5DMKII. He suggested using the RØDE VideoMic and I bought it immediately. It was a massive improvement in quality from the on-board microphone, it traveled really easy, and it didn’t add a lot of weight to the top of my camera. However, I noticed that when using my wide lenses, the mic kept poking into the shot. Also, the access to the switches prevented me from being able to quickly change the gain on the mic. It got me through a lot of situations, including many of the shoots I did with Yamaha for a preliminary interview with Elton John, but it wasn’t perfect. 

Me on the Zacuto handheld rig

Cue the VideoMic Pro. This immediately solved my two frustrations with the VideoMic. It moved the gain switches to the back of the mic instead of under the battery and it drastically shortened the length of the mic itself. I use the gain switch a lot - and I mean a LOT - while shooting music documentaries. I need to be able to capture a full band playing hard and as soon as they’re done, I need to capture the dialog between band members. To accomplish that, I rely heavily on the switch on the back of my VMP.

One trick I’ve learned is that the gain structure in the mic is much cleaner than the gain structure in my DSLRs. I set the manual input level usually a notch or two above zero, no level. This is an extremely low gain setting. On the VMP, I use its +20db setting to have a great level for normal conversation, and most importantly, it’s much cleaner than using the camera to increase the mic gain. This trick can be used just when you record normal dialog or atmos. But the difference comes, when a band starts playing I can hit the switch to -10db and that 30db drop puts me at the right level for keeping a screaming guitar and loud snare from clipping in the camera. I don’t have to stop recording, I don’t have to go into camera menus, I just flip a switch. Simple.

Taylor Ingraham on the long lens and monopod

I used the VMP for three purposes during the Elton documentary. First, it recorded atmos during the b-roll shots our team filmed. Second, it captured high quality sync audio for our formal interviews with a separate production audio system. Third and most importantly, it captured all of our on-the-fly interviews with the crew, band, and other team members.

We were filming in some very noisy locations. Welding, heavy machinery, and power tools were very prevalent during the building of the piano and set-up of the show. The VMP was able to cut  out many of those elements, so that if you strategically placed your subject, you could isolate their dialog much better than the on-board mic. Plus, one operator could be recording instantly, unlike having to deal with a wireless lapel and separate audio system. The goal in this shoot was to operate very quickly, and the VMP allowed us to do so. Because of its quality, we were able to capture many more spontaneous moments than if we had a separate system.

 

Here is an example of exactly how we used the Video Mic Pro and just what it sounds like in very noisy conditions. As you can see, there's constant atmosphere noise, good and bad, but without the VMP, many of these audio moments would have been scrapped.

 

Below is the promo video for the concert film playing in 1,600 theaters world wide.

 

Disclaimer: The opinions I express here do not necessarily represent those of Elton John, Rocket Music Entertainment Group, Yamaha Entertainment Group, Centresource Interactive Agency or any other group I am affiliated.

Ben James is a filmmaker in Nashville, TN. He was the head of Yamaha Entertainment Group’s film department during this project and now heads the video division at Centresource Interactive Agency. Check out Elton John’s site to find out more about the show, BluRay and tickets.