Q & A with Rafik Atassi, Engineering Technician

As part of an ongoing series of Q&A interviews with TV & video production professionals, we’ll hear from Rafik “Rafi” Atassi, an Engineering Technician at Detroit Public Television and an In-House Production Enginner for Olympia Entertainment. Rafi has over 18 years of broadcast experience in television and worked for several years for as a Senior Production/Studio Engineer at MBC Group/Al Arabiya in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.


Joshua:  Thanks for taking time out to participate in this Q&A, Rafi.  First question: where are you from originally, and where did you receive your training? 

Rafi:  I am from Syria, my hometown is Homs.  All my training I got at the MBC headquarters (Middle East Broadcasting Center) in Dubai, UAE.


Joshua:  How long have you been working in media production field generally, and in broadcast television in particular?  And where have you worked in the field?

Rafi:  I have been working in media production since 1999. In 2002, MBC moved from London to Dubai and I joined them in February 2002. Mainly I was based in Dubai, but I have been in all GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, as well as Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.


Joshua:  What sparked your interest in this field?

Rafi: I was 16 years old and a cousin of mine took me with him to videotape a wedding party - it was a magic world! It was all old VHS gear and I was lucky to be involved in all the steps from filming the party until we handed it over to the bride.


Joshua:  What’s different about working in broadcast television in the United States as compared to working in broadcast television in the Middle East? And what are the similarities?  Feel free to talk about any aspect: differences or similarities in technology, business, content, etc.

Rafi: There are many differences:

  1. In the USA, even small cities have their own TV stations.  But in most Middle Eastern countries there was only the government-owned TV channel, and the government controlled the content. Then when satellite service was introduced to the region in the 1990s (ARABSAT, NILESAT), a few investors started to broadcast their own channel from Italy (at that time, there were no licenses for privately-owned TV stations in all the Arab world) but the production was done in Lebanon and Egypt. MBC was broadcasting from London from 1991 to 2002 until Dubai Media City, a regional tax-free zone and broadcasting infrastructure hub, was established. So, the big Arabic-language broadcasters all moved to Dubai and then a broadcasting boom started.
  2. The budget for broadcasting in the Middle East is much higher in general.
  3. The technology for broadcasting in the Middle East is very advanced, and in general the technology there is more advanced than broadcast technology in the US.  Even in the best-case scenario, it is the same.    


Joshua:  You seem to have a lot of experience with computer-generated, “virtual” television sets at Al Arabiya.  The use of virtual sets does not appear to have been fully embraced by American network television to the same extent.  What are your thoughts on this?

Rafi: At Al Arabiya, they use VIZ RT http://www.vizrt.com/ and they have a very talented team. To host such a team costs you a lot. As I mentioned above, the budget is the main factor, and small news operations can’t host VIZ because it is very costly.  It isn't a standalone character generator: you need to buy many supercomputers along with many applications and the license. So, it is very expensive compared to any character generator.  Any local station in the US that is affiliated with a big network (ABC, NBC, FOX, etc.) that wants to have access to VIZ technology would need to contact the network HQ to get a template.   Check out Al Arabiya’s Augmented Reality Set for 2016 US Presidential Election - https://www.facebook.com/vizrt/videos/1354769227906739/


Joshua:  When did you come to the United States, and why?

Rafi: I landed in Detroit in 2015. What is happening now in Syria had an indirect effect on my life: in 2011 during the peaceful revolution against the Syrian dictatorship, I was working at the news channel that was covering the campaign. During the peaceful protests in my hometown of Homs, I was the link between the protesters and the news channel uploading the videos of the protests. To this day, the Syrian regime considers me as a traitor.   


Joshua:  Advancements in technology seem to be changing operations in broadcast television, with many functions increasingly computerized and automated. How do you view these changes, and what’s your opinion on this?

Rafi: Everything now is either automated or it will be soon. They don’t need production engineers anymore, they need more IT staff. YouTube, Facebook, TV over IP (streaming), or any other IP-based platforms are getting more and more market share from the huge networks. We are at the end of the era of television as we have known it. We must be prepared for this change with scientific and academic readiness.


Joshua:  Do you have any advice for aspiring broadcast professionals about how to break into the television production industry?

Rafi: Be patient! In the TV production dictionary, there is no "IT IS NOT MY JOB". Everything can be your job.  It is very possible for a bad audio cable or bad BNC connector to give a bad result.


Thanks, Rafi!

What's in a "Video Village"?

Setting up a "video village" can be a real livesaver on long shootdays.  Think of it as your "home base" for your production crew and client to hang out and get work done during your shoot.  Here is an example of a simple video village:

A simple "video village" setup.

A simple "video village" setup.

So, what makes a great video village?  For starters, placement is key: it is important to setup your video village near to where you are shooting so that you and your clients can have easy access to the action when appropriate (offering critiques and encouragement between takes, tweaking lights & sound, etc.).  However, you also need to take care not to set up anywhere that is within your acting/interview talent's field of vision as this could distract them during shooting.  Similarly, you'll also want to setup at a safe enough distance so as to prevent any conversations or other noises from your video village from leaking into the recorded sound at your shoot location.

Next, you'll need the right gear.  Start with a sturdy, portable table that you can setup easily and packs away easily.  This 4 Foot Solid Plastic Folding Table works well for our needs. 

Another crucial piece of gear is a video monitor to allow clients and crew to watch and listen to what's being shot.  We use this Flanders Scientific, Inc. monitor for our shoots:

A Flanders Scientific, Inc. CM 171 monitor in action.

A Flanders Scientific, Inc. CM 171 monitor in action.

This monitor has handy professional features such as video evaluation scopes, exposure check, and timecode display.  And while it's great to have a pro-grade video monitor with these types of features as a part of your video village, even a consumer-grade HDTV can work in a pinch.  You'll also need durable HD-SDI cables or HDMI cables to connect your video monitor to your camera(s).

A pair of high-quality over-the-ear headphones such as these from AKG can be plugged into the video monitor.  Again, any headphones (such as the "earbuds" that come your mobile phone or portable music player) will do, but professional headphones are preferable because they can deliver a fuller range of sound frequencies and can also block out the ambient sound and noise at your location. 

Lastly, and this is optional, is a PC or Mac laptop equipped with a card reader such as this one from Kodak.  This comes in handy for offloading footage from tapeless media formats such as SD cards, etc.  You or your client can also use the laptop to type up production notes, log footage from the shoot, and access the internet if there's accessible Wi-Fi nearby.

 A laptop computer equipped with a card reader.

 A laptop computer equipped with a card reader.

Offloading video footage from an SD Card onto the laptop via the card reader.

Offloading video footage from an SD Card onto the laptop via the card reader.

Hope you found this helpful!


Q & A with Tom Watch, Master Control Operator

As part of an ongoing series of Q&A interviews with TV & video production professionals, we’ll hear from Tom Watch, an Engineering Technician and Master Control Operator at Detroit Public Television. Tom has over 35 years of broadcast experience in radio and public television.


Q:  Thanks for taking time out to participate in this Q&A, Tom.  First question: where are you from originally, and where did you receive your training?  


A:  I am from Royal Oak, Michigan. I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcasting from Eastern Michigan University in 1978.


Q:  How long have you been working in the media production generally, and in broadcast television in particular?


A:  My first job was in radio, from summer 1978 to mid-1980.  I started at WTVS, Detroit Public Television, in Sept. 1981 and have been there ever since.


Q:  What sparked your interest in this field?


A:  My interests were in media and writing.  Learning the technical aspects of broadcasting led me toward an engineering job as at that time they were far more lucrative and stable than a producer or writer position. Master Control Operator was one of the first television jobs I had, since my previous experience was running a board for a radio station.


Q:  Describe the responsibilities of a Master Control Operator at a television station, both historically and currently.


A:  Master Control Operators historically were responsible for the “last link in the chain”: the last finger to touch the button before a program hits air.  MCR also monitored the transmitter signal, recorded programs, kept logs.  At my station now, there are no longer regular MCR operators except during live studio programming.  An MCR operator makes sure programming is on the air; our programming is on server whereas before it was on tape, but there may still be stations that use tape formats.  Our station is now controlled from a hub station in Boston, but we are able to make changes at our end if necessary. In the past, programs were recorded on tape formats but now they are sent from a "cloud" directly to our database.  Our maintenance techs and programming department take of master control now.     


Q:  Describe the relationship between Master Control and the Control Room during live in-studio broadcasts.


A:  The MCR operator gives control to the studio by taking to their position on the board (or in our case, when the computer program takes to studio).  The operator counts studio down via intercom and they take it from there.  Usually the studio counts out of the program; MCR has flexibility to take control back if studio is too early or too late.


Q:  I imagine that there’s quite a bit of pressure that comes with being the “last link in the chain” before broadcast content is transmitted to audiences.  How do you handle it?


A:  Stay ahead of the game and know what options you have if something goes wrong. 


Q:  Advancements in technology seem to be changing operations in Master Control, with many functions increasingly computerized and automated. How do you view these changes, and what’s your opinion on this?


A:  I think it is a shame that jobs have disappeared.  There is still a need for a human in the loop but not all the time. 


Q:  Do you forsee a day when Master Control will be fully automated 24 hours a day, with no need for a human operator?  Or will there always be a need for the human element in Master Control operations?


A:  Technology always displaces workers. In the future, TV will likely be all streaming and not need very many workers.


Q:  Any tips for aspiring television professionals looking to break into the industry?


A:  Know all you can about the technical side but aim for being a producer/writer.  Producers can and are using equipment now instead of technicians.  TV is getting to the point where you can shoot and edit in virtually broadcast quality video uaing a cell phone.  There will not be full-time jobs with benefits in this industry.  Be creative, get your ideas out there and become a producer or programmer.


Q:  Thanks, Tom!

“Commandments” for Beginning Video Producers

Some tips for beginners!  --Joshua


For thy Pre-Production:

  • Thou shalt know that thy script and thy pre-production are more important than thy fancy camera, lights, etc.  Underdeveloped concepts lead to underwhelming videos.


For thy Camera:

  • Thou shalt shoot every shot with a "purpose". Think about what you are trying to communicate with each of your shots.
  • Thou shalt evaluate thy Composition, Exposure, Focus, and White Balance.  Every shot, every time.
  • Thou shalt shoot plenty of "coverage". Vary your composition, angles, and framings – especially for dialogue scenes (don’t just pan between speakers)
  • Thou shalt always use thy camera with a tripod. Your handheld shots do not look as good as you think they do.
  • Thou shalt never use a “slow” shutter speed, and thou shalt not use a “fast” shutter speed unless there is a good reason to do so (i.e. "Action" scene, "Chase" scene, etc.)
  • Thou shalt not zoom while shooting a take.
  • Thou shalt never shoot thy subject or action up against a wall, unless there is a good reason to do so.
  • Thou shalt be mindful of thy screen direction while shooting (and editing).
  • Thou shalt keep thy camera’s ISO/Gain setting low, lest thy footage become too noisy. Use more light if necessary.


For thy Location Sound:

  • Thou shalt always “close-mic” thy subject or action via a boom mic or lav mic. Every shot, every time.
  • Thou shalt know how to mic thy talent with a lav, and know when it's ok for that lav to be visible in your shot.
  • Thou shalt always monitor thy location audio recording with headphones. Listen for hum, overmodulation, wind noise, etc.
  • Thou shalt record several seconds of “Room Tone” at each shooting location.  When it comes time to edit, you might need to use the ambient sound of the place that you are shooting in.

For thy Editing:

  • Thou shalt never use a bad shot in your edit!  No poorly composed shots, no out-of-focus shots, no poorly lit shots, no shots where talent looks into the camera unintentionally, etc.
  • Thou shalt not linger on any shot for more than 10 or 15 seconds unless there is a very good reason to do so.
  • Thou shalt be mindful of the “30 degree rule”.  Do not cut between similar angles.
  • Thou shalt avoid cutting to a moving shot unless there is a very good reason to do so (i.e. "Action" scene, "Chase" scene, etc.)
  • Thou shalt not use any shots with obvious "camera shake” in thy edit.
  • Thou shalt use subtle “Split Edits” (a.k.a “J Cuts” and “L Cuts”) in thy edit whenever possible.
  • Thou shalt not use jump cuts...unless you are deliberately using several jump cuts in a row for a stylistic effect.
  • Thou shalt be mindful of thy screen direction while editing (and shooting).
  • Thou shalt not have any typographical errors in on-screen text. Use spell-check on your text if you are unsure of word spellings.
  • Thou shalt "smooth out" thy audio edits (via audio dissolves, fades, etc.), lest thy audience "hear" those edits.


For thy Lighting:

  • Thou shalt use "controlled" lighting:  lighting instruments indoors, bounce cards or reflectors outdoors.  Every shot, every time.
  • Thou shalt soften and/or bounce thy hard lights.
  • Thou shalt use a rim light on thy subject(s) to separate them from background.
  • Thou shalt avoid shooting in “mixed” lighting environments.
  • Thou shalt use (very dim) controlled lighting on nighttime exterior shots.


REMEMBER:  Poor technique can ruin a good story.  Good technique can't save a poor story.  A successful video has both a good story and good technique.

Q&A with Scott Staton, Camera & Jib Operator

As part of an ongoing series of Q&A interviews with TV & video production professionals, we’ll hear from experienced Jimmy Jib owner/operator and cameraman Scott Staton.  As the owner/operator of Big Iguana Camera & Jib LLC, Scott works on major network broadcast productions across the country and has over 20 years of broadcast and network experience. Joshua:  Thanks for taking time out to participate in this Q&A, Scott.  First question: where are you from originally, and where did you receive your training?  

Scott:  I'm from Troy, MI.  My general TV training was in college, at Eastern New Mexico University.  As a student I was able to work (credit and paid) in all positions on a local newscast, as well as a nationally syndicated home show.  For jib experience, I bought one, and practiced, and spoke with other operators.  When I got one, they weren't all over the place, so there were not a lot of opportunities to try one, or train on one.

Joshua:  What sparked your interest in camerawork in general, and in jib work specifically?

Scott:  While working in college, and the first few jobs after moving back home, the jobs covered all aspects of production, from pre to post, as well as talent.  My first job at a production company reduced the options to production, or post.  When it came time to decide a direction in order to get a promotion and more money, I decided I liked the idea of being in a different setting every day, rather than in a dark room all day, every day.  I liked shooting better than audio or engineering, so that is the route I went.

For jib work, I went to my first NAB (which everyone should do once), and I saw the jibs.  I got to try them out, and decided it might be good to have one in Detroit.

Joshua:  Like many television professionals, you seem to be on-the-go constantly.  Can you give a rundown of all the broadcast networks you’ve worked for over your career, and perhaps a few of your most recent gigs?

Scott:  As for networks I've worked with: ABC Sports, which is now ESPN (2, 3, U, etc), NBC News, NBC Sports, ABC News, CNBC, MSNBC, MLB Network, NFL Network, BTN, CBS News, Discovery, TLC,  OWN, MTV, CMT, VH1, PBS, QVC, USA, TNT Sports, Turner Sports, YES Network, MSG Network, MASN, Nickelodeon, Disney, E!, Comedy Network, NHL Network, Fox, FS1, FSD, CSPAN, Spike, Sprout, History, and Bloomberg.

Recently, I have worked an ENG and 2-camera studio show for BTN's Michigan Football Preview, DP'd a 2-camera ENG for the Harpo show "Oprah, Where Are They Now?", jib for the Woodward Dream Cruise for WXYZ, jib for Season 2 of "The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca" which is syndicated on CBS Saturday mornings, jib for the Boy Scouts of America National Order of the Arrow Conference, ENG for the MASN broadcast of the Orioles at Tigers, and jib for PBS for "Alfio: Live in Concert".  One fun one back in May was covering the 2nd round of the Stanley Cup Finalsin the Western Conference for the NHL Network.  That was two weeks going back and forth between Anaheim and Calgary, but with a couple of days off in each town, there was a bit of time for a little fun.  I also did an Aerosmith concert this summer, and met with Steven Tyler in his dressing room for a half hour, with the producer and director, because he was concerned about the jib placement, and what shots I could get.

Joshua:  Describe the job of a Jib Operator at a live televised event. 

Scott:  It really depends on the type of show.  Some shows I am just a floating wide shot for scene sets and/or transitions.  For sports you will most likely have to follow some, or all of the action, depending on the sport.  For instance, there were two years where my position for figure skating was at center ice as the main "game" camera, or the main head-to-toe camera.  More often than not, you do not know what you are in for until you get there, and you don't want to look bad, so you load up the 1200 pounds or so of gear, then unload it on site, and begin setting up.  Most jobs are a single day, or you are working that first day, so they are usually looking for you to set up as quick as possible.  So, you go in, see where they want you, try to figure out how they plan to use you, and what size arm they are looking for.  Then, you try to talk them into the size arm that makes sense, but this usually doesn't work. so you set up what they want.  Hopefully there is then time for a break, meal, and a camera meeting, before the event starts.  Then you do the event, wait for crowd to clear the area so you can park the jib, in order to tear it down, and load those 1200 pounds out.  Of course, if you're lucky, and it is a multi-day event, you just have to secure it for the night.

Joshua:  No doubt you’ve worked with dozens, perhaps even hundreds of television directors over the course of your career.  In your opinion, what are the qualities of an excellent TV Director?

Scott:  One of my favorite directors was at ABC for figure skating, and not just because he took me on the road for 11 years.  In addition to being the nicest guy, he challenged me, and what could be done with the jib.  He liked the jib's fluidity, and how it matched with motion of figure skating, rather than just getting different angles, or sweeping crowd shots.  All of that made me a much better jib operator.  He was the kind of director who rarely raised his voice.  Rather than it being that he had been at ABC for 50 years, it was just the way he was.  If there was an error, he would rarely chastise anyone.  It would usually be a quiet, under his breath, "Oh, no".  That was pretty much it.  Then, he would take the blame for not directing you as well as he should have.  It sounds crazy, but when this little old man said "oh" because of something that happened when he took your shot, you just wanted to crawl under the sidewalk.  You definitely made sure there were no more problems.  Contrast that with the more common network director who will scream at the top of his lungs at you.  Usually these are sports directors, but not always.  So, while even a screamer can technically be a good director, and put together a good show, the best are the ones who do that while respecting their crew, and letting them do what they do best.

Joshua:  What do you like most about being a cameraman and jib operator?  What were some of the most memorable gigs that you’ve worked on and why do they stand out?

Scott:  I think I still like the variety the best; never knowing what the next job will bring, and the opportunity to do things and go places most people are not able to.  I had worked Chicago's 30th anniversary show on ABC's In Concert, and I was a handheld on the stage.  I have also done 4 or 5 Kid Rock concerts with the jib, and had never been more than 100 feet from the stage.  I had even worked on the Born Free documentary, and had the jib at his warehouse as they practiced for their tour, and at his house for some shots.

Working with celebrities can be fun.  Well, not exactly fun, but always nice to be able to say I've done it.  Not only have I been in Kid Rock's house, but I have also been in Ted Nugent's house (well actually two of them, three times, including eating wild boar for dinner), Paul Newman's Central Park apartment, and Jaclyn Smith's home in Hollywood.  I spent a half hour with Steven Tyler in his dressing room discussing shots before a show, toured the Salk Institute with Kathy Ireland, spent time at the Daytona 500 with Darrell Waltrip for his last 500 there, toured Auto World in Flint with Michael Moore, and even went to Mexico and had beers with an astronaut.  There are probably hundreds of interviews with other celebrities and athletes.  From going in the locker room after the game, to charity events, and broadcast interviews.

Another perk is the places I have been, both working, and visiting while on a job.  Puerto Rico five times, Sweden, Germany a couple of times, Canada, Mexico, and a great many of our own 50 states.  National parks, Disneyland, Disney World, the stage of the Grand Old Opry, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals, World Series, a dinosaur museum in the badlands of Canada, a castle in Germany, Homestead, FL after a hurricane, Northridge, CA after a earthquake, Puerto Rico after a hurricane, a tour of the Bacardi plant, too many historic sites to count right now, smelling chocolate outside of the Hershey plant in PA, and even my picture in an issue of GQ.

So, while I can't really pinpoint one specific job that was memorable, many are, for different reasons.  Mostly because of where they were, or what I was able to do on my spare time while on a job.

Joshua:  “Jib Operator” doesn't exactly sound like the kind of job opening that gets posted on online where just anybody can apply...do you have any advice for aspiring broadcast professionals about how to break into the television production industry?

Scott:  Nowadays, you can find some listings online for jib ops, just like camera ops, but most of it is still word of mouth.  Advice for anyone looking into this industry?  Run, and run fast.  Well, OK, at least be sure this is what you want to get into.  While most of this interview covered the glamorous part of the job, don't forget the long hours, last minute changes, cancellations, working nights and weekends, being away from family, and lots and lots of lifting heavy things, at least for a jib op.  Maybe not so much for cameras now, although many of the "FrankenRigs" people come up with are heavier, and far less ergonomic than real cameras.

The industry has changed so much in the last 20 years.  Where once I didn't want to spend all day in a dark room pushing buttons, there will always be work for someone who can push buttons.  Camera ops are being replaced by robots.  Yes, they have to be operated, but usually, one op runs up to four cameras, for less money.  I think the biggest change has been the manufacturers deciding to go with volume profits, rather than per item profits.  As soon as they started making toy cameras almost as good as real cameras, for a fraction of the price, they made so anyone can do it.  Chimera did something similar, by making light banks available, so anyone could make an interview look fairly good, without really knowing how to light.  Television news also had a hand in the shift, by deciding to use viewer video, so that it was no longer necessary to have good video.  It became acceptable to have crappy looking video hit air.

The result of all of these changes?  More gear available, and more people wanting to get in the business, which results in lower budgets, which means lower wages.  So before you say yes to that PA job that gets you food and a credit, make sure you are getting some money, and you can live with that money.  Many companies are taking advantage of the fact there are a lot of people looking to get into the business, and they are not afraid to take advantage of them.  I'm not saying to not work for free or cheap to get some experience, but remember that many times, once you do a job for a certain price, the client will expect it the next time.

For actually breaking in, unfortunately, it is still mostly word of mouth, so keep making connections.  There are some sites out there with job postings, but then you will need to provide support as to why you should be hired.  So, try to get copies of what you work on, to use for a demo reel.  I have actually had a couple of clients tell me to get listed on IMDB.  I know some of the job listing sites also have crew listings.

Joshua:  Thanks for your time, Scott!

Color Grading Comparison

4K RAW Test Footage of some of the many murals in and around downtown Grand Rapids. Shot with the Sony FS-700 and Convergent Design Odyssey 7Q Recorder.

Processed with Adobe Premiere CC with Lumetri Color. The RAW footage shot with the S-Log2 gamma is compared side-by-side with the color graded final result.

The murals featured in this video are "Mural for Grand Rapids" by Jeff Zimmerman and "Metaforest" by Tracy Van Duinen.

Looks better in 4K!


State Hospital Project - Presentation at MAA Annual Meeting

Archivists are truly amazing resources for documentary filmmakers!  Many archivists across the state of Michigan have helped with research for the State Hospital Project documentary film.  Joshua presented some of his research findings at the Michigan Association of Archivists annual meeting in Holland, MI.

Joshua Pardon presenting research findings at the Michigan Association of Archivists annual meeting.
Joshua Pardon presenting research findings at the Michigan Association of Archivists annual meeting.

The Factory - Documentary Film

"The Factory" is a documentary that focuses on the importance of factory work to 20th Century small-town America by detailing the rise and fall of what the locals called “The Factory” on South M-66 in Ionia, MI. As perhaps the most significant employer on the Grand River between Lansing and Grand Rapids, this facility made world-renowned reed and wicker furniture, fabricated jeep seats and tarpaulins for the American war effort in WWII, manufactured the famous ”Woody” station wagon, and assembled legendary “muscle cars” such as the Shelby Cobra and Corvette Stingray. Sadly, like so many older manufacturing facilities, “The Factory” was demolished in the 1990’s after a run of almost a century. Editing, sound, and production assistance provided by students from the Television and Digital Media Production program at Ferris State University.

Shooting for "The Factory" Documentary Film

Day 2 of shooting with students from Ferris State University for "The Factory", a documentary film that focuses on the importance of factory work to 20th Century small-town America.  Two students prepare the interviewee while Joshua directs the interviews via a monitor in the next room.

Consulting in Milwaukee, WI today

Consulting at Saturn Lounge in Milwaukee, WI today!  Doing shooting tests with the Sony FS-700 and the Convergent Designs Odyssey 7Q - checking out the different gammas on the 7Q (ITU 709, ITU 709 800%, and S-Log2) perform on a colorful subject under a lit scene.  A very cool crew to work with!