[Gear Geek Alert: This post concerns the logistics of multimedia news production and has only marginally to do with China or any other topic of interest to normal people.]
When the video editors at the Wall Street Journal called last month asking for a video to go with a print story on the dangers of electronic bicycles (a.k.a. e-bikes), it gave me a chance to do something that I’ve been aching to try for quite some time: Mount thousands of dollars’ worth of somebody else’s camera equipment to a moving vehicle.
Lest anyone accuse me of recklessness upon reading further, it’s important to note at the beginning that this was not the original idea. The original idea had been to profile someone who’d had a serious run-in with one of the bikes (China recorded more than 2000 e-bike-related deaths, and thousands more injuries, in 2008). Then the editors decided to take the print story in a more tongue-in-cheek direction and suddenly I was tasked with doing something “funnier.” And so the decision was made—I had no choice, you see—to slap some cameras on one of the bikes and force the print reporter to ride it around in Beijing’s sub-freezing weather while providing play-by-play (or, rather, street-by-street) commentary.
Like a lot of first video experiences, this was a tremendous amount of fun, and highly instructional.
The first issue was what camera to use. Much as I would have loved to put the bureau’s 3-chip CCD camera into play, it soon became clear that e-bikes were indeed accident prone, and in the end, I decided it might be less-than-wise to risk losing a $4000 piece of gear for the purposes of a 3-minute video. Luckily, the bureau had an older Sony Handycam lying around, the loss of which, although unfortunate, would not be tragic.
But because we wanted two shots—one of the reporter riding the bike, and one showing what the reporter was seeing—we needed another camera. Enter the Zi-8, a pocket-sized HD gadget Kodak rolled out last year to compete with the likes of the Flip. WSJ is testing the Zi-8 as a tool for its print reporters to capture simple interviews with news makers (CEOs, government officials, etc), but its size and affordability made it an attractive option for this as well.
The second issue: How to attach the cameras to the bike?
The Internet is full of ideas on how to do this, some of them beautifully simple and some (like this steadycam mount) seemingly beyond the pale. None were an option in this case 1) because the bike in question was shaped like a scooter, with limited bar space on which to screw a genuine mount; and 2) because we were working on a tight schedule.
So I was forced to use what I had on hand: a Joby Gorrillapod, some packing tape and a cheap bungee-like cord bought for a buck at the convenience store down the street.
Here was the final product:
[More images, plus verdict, after the jump:]
Precarious-looking, I admit. But it held up relatively well. The Gorillapod was surprisingly robust, and the tape and bungee cord held fast. There was a frightening moment when the quick-release mounting plate under the Handycam loosened, which sent the camera rotating sideways, but there was never any danger of the whole thing coming loose. Next time, I’ll just make sure to tighten that plate all the way.
The real problem came from the cameras themselves, particularly the Zi-8. Almost all of the footage from that camera (and some from the Handycam) suffered from the rolling shutter effect—a defect of the CMOS sensors used in smaller digital video cameras that can cause the picture to skew and wobble when the camera is vibrating or moving quickly. The effect on the brain of the person watching such images is decidedly unpleasant. In the case of the Zi-8 on this shoot, it was positively nauseating.
Luckily, increasing the playback speed–something I’d planned to do anyway–mitigates the puke-factor a little, as does watching on a little Web-sized screen (which you can do below). For anything bigger or slower, though, I’m not sure this is the way to go.