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The making of A Park for all Seasons

Main title 'A Park for All  Seasons'.

John Astin
writes about the making of the  award-winning video, shown at the Movie 2002 Festival.

Subtitle 'A Year in the River Lee Country Park'.

The River Lee Country Park is only a quarter of a mile from my front door. Walks led to cycle rides, without, then with, a video camera. The park's notice boards showed there were many visually interesting events planned throughout the year, and from all this came the idea of the video.

To cover life in the Park throughout one year seemed a sensible idea, and A Park for All Seasons - though rather hackneyed - a decent title. A friend criticised the cliché title, and suggested adapting Wouldn't It be LuverLee ("My Fair Lady"?)!! A Park for All Seasons it remained!!!

I wrote to the Park Authority saying who I was, and explaining what I'd like to do. They obviously did not know what to expect, but allowed me to browse through their small library for a bit of historical background, and agreed that I could accompany the Rangers on their Activity Events.

What they would not do, however, was let me near any activity involving children, unless I had the express agreement of every parent. So, all the filming that involved children was preceded by a public announcement from me about what I was doing, and asking parental permission to film their children. No one refused!

Classroom of mums and  toddlers in the park grounds. A schoolgirl talks about visiting the park's farm. School visit to a milking parlour in the park farm.

The Rangers were superb - helpful, friendly and really eloquent, happy to stand in front of a camera and talk, and with the knack of explaining everything fully, clearly and succinctly.

All the filming was done with a Sony VX1000 MiniDV camera, either with a tripod or the excellent Velbon Multi Function Pod MTP-1, which I find so convenient to screw on to the base of the camera, and open out as a rock-steady miniature tripod when a full one is unavailable or unusable. (Unfortunately, this MiniPod is no longer on sale.) All the speech sound recording was done with a Sennheiser 300 mike fixed to the shoe on the camera.

I soon realised that I would be doing a considerable amount of wildlife photography, and was fortunate to see in a closing-down sale a Vivanco 52mm VC95T x2 Telephoto Lens for £30. Knowing only that my camera lens was 52mm also, I bought the VC95T as something of a gamble. When I got home, I discovered not only did the lens fit perfectly, but elsewhere it was selling for £99.99!

Velbon mini-tripod. Squirrel in the park. Sony VX1000 camcorder.

For bird photography, despite the C/U lens, I still needed to be a little nearer, so I investigated the VX1000's digital zoom. Experimentation showed me I could go about 20% into the digital zoom area, and still get a good enough quality picture, and that was what I used for some of the bird shots.

So, serious filming started in the Autumn, and continued through until the following Autumn. I paid £15, and acquired a "Hide Key", so that I could go in the hides whenever I wanted. I tried to get to the Park at least once a week, trying obviously to pick good weather days. I knew nothing at all about birds before I started, and know precious little even now, so I was reliant on birdwatchers to tell me what was what!

Successful bird photography demands considerable good fortune. The memorable shots of the baby grebe on its mother's back were obtained without planning (apart from knowing this happened, and in Spring) on one of my weekly cycle rides. The shots of the bittern, however, were the best I could get after hours and hours of vigil, at all sorts of different times, following all sorts of different advice (most of it erroneous!), as to when it would appear. I never saw it clear of reeds!!!

Baby Greeb on its mother's back as she swims. Birdwatchers with huge telephoto lens. A Bittern almost hidden among the reids.

I went along to several of the Rangers Activity Days, explaining to the participants what I was doing, and probably filming about 30 - 60 minutes of material at every event. I was aware of trying to combine long shots of the group, close-ups of the participants, as much relevant speech as possible and then shots illustrating the words to use as inserts.

Gradually, the number of used tapes increased, and I ended with seventeen hour long MiniDV tapes of material. I tried to keep a record on A4 paper of the contents of each tape, but later found my records were not detailed enough, and in the editing stage, often spent long periods trying to find a certain shot I could remember taking, but could not remember exactly when nor on which tape it was to be found.

Ranger explains pond puddling process. Close-up of wellington boots stamping down wet clay. Close-up of hands being washed under hose.

If I'm honest, my aim, I suppose, was to produce a video good enough for the Authority to agree to sell copies of it in their Information Centre Shop.

I would not try to emulate the professionals in terms of bird photography - there would not necessarily be any stunning close-ups of wildlife - these are all available on professional videos anyway. My video would feature events in the Park that professionals would not cover, and would therefore be unique.

All the time I had in mind that this might go on sale, and only top-quality shots could get in to the finished version. I always want my videos to look great.

In the editing stage, I always reject any clip that is not absolutely perfect to my mind, even if it seems essential to the video. It is always possible to get round not having a supposedly essential shot, more so nowadays in this NLE era. Too many amateur videos lack structure, and I was determined that my video would have a clear beginning, middle and end. Unfortunately, some competition judges have said the structure is not clear enough.

I needed in the beginning to place the Park in both its geographical and historical context, and then the title obviously suggested the four seasons. But what season should I start with? I like to start and end a video if possible with some of the best footage, and to my mind my best footage featured summer and autumn. Autumn therefore seemed the best season with which to start.

I edited it non-linearly on a computer, using Raptor and Premiere 5.1c. I started doing sequences out of order, as all the shots became available, but I was getting into a mess doing this, and also my hard drive was filling up and making it impossible for me to start on any other projects. At one stage I had around 580 separate clips imported into the Project!! It was becoming a real burden around my neck, and so I decided I must pull out all the stops and get it finished. That took about a fortnight's solid effort.

My set-up includes Boris FX, which fascinates me the more I understand its workings, and I like to explore its workings further with every new video. I used it at the beginning to produce the "snapshots" of life in the Park. The artistic logic of this opening appealed to me immensely - the long, slow pan across the Park, and inserted on top, highlights from the activities throughout the year that feature in the Park and in the video. The pan ends with the appearance of the title, and that synchronises with a chord in the accompanying music. As a finishing touch, a spot effect of a cow mooing leads the audience in right at the start. I'm very proud of that start!

Title sequence with "postcards" floating across a pan over the park. Close-up of one of the three types of orchid in the park. River Lee glimpsed through the trees.

Half an hour was my absolute maximum for length, and I kept that in mind throughout the editing. I also had in mind that a video about a Park could be immensely boring, so I did all I could in the editing to prevent that happening.

I strove to keep every shot to its right length, and not to dwell too long on any one activity. I always ask myself: "What does this shot add to what has gone before?" If nothing, I don't use it. Certain activities, to which I had devoted an afternoon or more to filming, I decided were not visual enough, or too boring, and I discarded them altogether.

As I said earlier, I had about 30 minutes or more footage of each activity, and it was an excellent discipline to cut that to one or two minutes maximum, picking key shots that told the story or illustrated the voice over or commentary. So many good shots were not used!!

To maintain interest, I went for variety in the way I treated events.

For some, I illustrated the Ranger's explanation. I tried to record the Ranger first, played the words back in the camera, noted on paper what had been said, then took as many shots as possible to illustrate the words.

Other activities, such as the "dead-hedging", I set or cut to a short piece of music. To tell a story in thirty seconds, with visuals that flow without jump cuts (including, therefore, cutaways), and with the odd cut on the beat, is another daunting but very enjoyable challenge.

Volunteer helping to make a 'dead hedge' fence. Fisherman showing off a large catch. A duck skating on top of frozen pond.

In the bittern sequence, I deliberately tried to create a little suspense, helped by the music. In the duck on the ice sequence, again helped by the music, I went for humour. It seems to me that one essential for successful editing is to have lots and lots of shots and cutaways. You cannot move a video along at pace if you do not have a lot of shots to work with. And avoid slow pans and zooms in the filming, they really slow up every thing! And then be ruthless in choosing the shots you use - despite how long you may remember having taken to shoot them!

Hoping perhaps that the video might go on sale, I considered it essential to use non-copyright music. I went to Trackline's very good web-site, where you can down-load short sample extracts from each of their CDs. Their "Wildlife" and "Easy Listening" CDs seemed suitable; I bought them, and found everything I needed. In fact, the video has been highly praised for its music. There has always been something of a stigma attached to non-copyright music, but I was delighted to get such suitable quality non-copyright music.

I am a great believer in showing a nearly completed video to some people totally uninvolved in it, so they can point out things that "don't work", or are incomprehensible. How many amateur videos, particularly stories, have I seen that I cannot understand. If only the maker had sought independent advice before the final edit!

In this case, I had already promised I would show the video to The Park Authority. They were very complimentary, but pointed out several things. Why was the map "upside-down"? The bird referred to as a sparrow-hawk was a kestrel. John Clarke was not a Ranger, he was an Information Assistant, I could not show my sequence of a dog retrieving a stick from the lake - dogs in water were contrary to a Park regulation!

Map of the park marked South at top, North at bottom. John Clark with corrected caption. Dog fetching stick from the water - against regs.

Editing linearly, I could have changed almost nothing. Editing on a computer, I was able fairly easily to rerecord and replace a sentence of commentary, put in a "South- North" logo on the map, redo John Clarke's title, and re-edit the dog sequence. Whilst doing this last, I decided there was too much wind noise over the speech, so I went to a local drama club I know, and one of the ladies rerecorded the words for me. Always striving for perfection!

The video was finally completed, and the Park Shop agreed to sell it - success!!

But what about amateur competitions? Many have a 20 minute maximum restriction, and I think 24 minutes is too long for a rather specialised subject. My experience with one of my previous documentaries, Not New, and Not a River, was that for people in the area, and local historians, 24 minutes was too short! For amateur video competitions, particularly out of the area, it was too long!!  The answer is two videos - a full and a shorter version! So while my video was still on the computer, I sought to cut it to around 17 minutes.

Barbecuing in the park. Cross fade from a narrowboat on the river to a signpost. Owner of a houseboat explains his lifestyle.

I decided which sequences were the least interesting or necessary, and what could be excised without having to re-record much commentary (when re-recording commentary, I find it difficult to match exactly the timbre of voice). The biggest problem is where music flows over from one sequence into another, making it very difficult to delete either sequence without completely redoing the music. Fortunately, all this did not prove too difficult, and I ended up with an 18 minute version.

This is the video that won "Best Editing" in the North Thames 2001 competition, "Best Use of Sound" in the 2001 Cotswold International Festival, and a Silver Award in the IAC's Movie 2002.

- John Astin, May 2002 (email via webmaster@theiac.org.uk)

Portrait of John Astin, LACI. Dragonfly in the park's dragonfly reserve. Actor as Henry VIII at park millenium festivities. Screen credit over sunset: 'Produced by John Astin'.

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Page updated on 09 October 2011
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