Digital Field Production: Assignment Hanoi

PictureFor Sandy Northrop, a journalist with 30 years of experience in televisionproduction, digital technology has turned professional life around. Withher arrival in Hanoi two years ago, she began work on her film PetePeterson: Assignment Hanoi, a documentary about a former POW who became thefirst American ambassador to Vietnam. Northrop needed to capture both thebustle of his current political life and the remote jungle sites of MIAcaptivity-a goal that demanded nimble and inconspicuous equipment.

Northrop was going to be her own cameraman, which made her more than alittle nervous. "I hadn't shot a film since using a hand-wind Bolex for mythesis film at Stanford's graduate program...I was terrified." Friends atNational Geographic persuaded her to buy a Sony DCR VX1000 digital DVcamcorder. It was cheap enough that she thought she could just use it as atourist camera if all else came to naught.

Without the usual three-man-crew, Northrop learned quickly. "I fell in lovewith shooting. For years I had been trying to explain to cameramen exactlywhat I wanted shot and batting fifty percent. Now, I was on my own."

The portability of the Sony DCR VX1000 is what makes her film so effectiveand is probably what allowed her to get the assignment in the first place.Northrop had to convince both Peterson and the State Department that shewould not get in the way while capturing his day-to-day life. "The camera'slow profile made it possible to be inconspicuous when I filmed him as heworked. When we went on long trips together, I would turn on the camera anddo impromptu interviews. That's the most important aspect of the camera itslow-profile. No one notices it. People go about their business. This wastrue with Peterson, diplomats, and people on the street."

She also fell in love with the camera. "The camera's ease of use, itsenormous versatility in low-light conditions, and the 'steady shot' featurewere enormous pluses." Cameras had previously been too heavy for Northrop,an aspect that had kept her from getting behind the camera for most of hercareer. "As a five-foot, three-inch-tall woman, I simply could not liftthem." The lightweight Sony was a blessing on more than one occasion. "Oneday, I accompanied the ambassador to the two MIA sites shown in AssignmentHanoi. What the television audience does not see is that to get to thefirst MIA crash location, 972 steps dug into the side of the mountain byand for six-foot Marines had to be climbed. At one point during the climb,I accidentally bumped against the camera and pushed the record button.Later in the editing room, I relived each breathless step up the mountain."

Northrop used a Kenko Video wide converter on the camera for most of theshooting. She had a three-light Dedo kit, which worked off 110 or 220currency. "The low wattage insured I didn't burn down any locations," shenotes. Northrop transferred 50 one-hour mini-cassettes to Beta SP and thenedited on an Avid 5.8 Media Composer with 18 GBs of memory at the lowestpossible resolution.

"I expected to have all kinds of computer crashes and equipment problems,but I have had far fewer problems than in the States." During the entireediting process she had only one "fatal error." She called the localtelevision station, and they sent over several competent technicians. "Theynot only were good, they charged about $9 an hour."

For Northrop, digital video has helped her make a portrait as immediate andpowerful as its subject.

SoundWashington, D.C.'s Interface Media Group stretched the talents of its sounddesigner and post crew to the limit for Pete Peterson: Assignment Hanoi, aPBS documentary about a former POW who became the first ambassador toVietnam.

Using a Sony DCR VX1000, independent filmmaker Sandy Northrop followed thenew ambassador for four months from embassy briefings to remote mountaintops where forensic experts searched for American MIA remains. "The audioquality of material recorded directly to the DVCam was extremely variable,"says Interface's mixer and sound designer Kennedy Wright. "It ranged fromgood to horrible. So my job of blending the production tacks with thevarious elements needed to complete the documentary was extremelychallenging."

Because there was no possibility of looping any of the production dialog,Wright had to work with what he had. "The documentary's audio narrationtrack was recorded in Hanoi to a video deck in Sandy's living room. I hadto clean it up to eliminate some of traffic noise, car horns, and roomecho," he explains. "Sandy was literally following Pete around with hercamera-on his motorcycle! I performed a lot of dialog editing, minimizingbackground rumbles, and trying to bring the voices forward as much aspossible."

"I used a lot of radical EQ to bring out the dialog and minimize backgroundnoise," he continues. "There were several sequences shot from a motorcycle,with wind noise and urban backgrounds, and we were constantly on the movethrough a variety of locations, parks and downtown areas, all with variablebackgrounds and perspective changes. I needed to filter out a lot of thecity and atmospheric rumble [captured on the track] and then addequalization to help 'fatten' the sound."

Some of the documentary materials-including archival Vietnamese footage ofPOWs being incarcerated, interrogated, or captured in the countryside-wereshot MOS. Therefore, Wright needed to develop complex backgrounds andcomplete Foley tracks. In addition, he laid in a customized score bycomposer Jim Kessler.

"There were hundreds of sound effects needed for the project, ranging fromclothing rustles, footsteps, mumble tracks and the rest," Wright recalls.The sound designer made extensive use of Sound Ideas CD effects librariesduring the project-including the 1000, 2000, 4000, and 6000 Series-plustracks from the Hollywood Edge, Digiffects, Lucasfilm, and BBC libraries."We had no group loops, so I used multiple layers of crowd walla andchatter, which I layered and mixed into a stereo background track. I alsoused the Lucasfilm library for sounds of low-frequency jet planes andgeneral aircraft noises for scenes involving movement. A lot of theFoley-footsteps, broom sweeping, and so on-was pulled from the Sound Ideas6000 Series CDs."

For the mix, Wright used an AMS Neve AudioFile hard-disk recorder/editorlinked to a Logic 3 digital console. "I laid up and edited a series ofstereo background tracks, sound effects, music tracks, plus the narrationand Foley elements. I imported an OMF file of the audio tracks that werelaid up in the Avid Media Composer, which dramatically streamlined theconformation process to timecode. From these elements, I prepared a masterstereo mix, plus several Mix Stems [that were] required [for the]foreign-language versions, including stereo BGs, stereo hard effects, andstereo M&E. I also monitored the mix very carefully in mono. The producerwas particularly concerned about [compatibility] because we knew that theVietnamese version would be aired in a country [that does not offer] stereoTV."

"Kennedy Wright brought whole sections of archival footage, which had nosound, to life," comments Northrop. "Prison doors clanked shut, andprisoners of war, who had just been released, shouted with glee. Theseeffects were absolutely essential to the program's drama and the audience'sappreciation of the story."