This Is Radio: Roman Mars

March 16th, 2014 | by Andrew Norton | Series:

About This Is Radio: Roman Mars

I was all set to start the interview with Roman at his place in Berkeley, when he asked, “What’s this for again?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t really know the answer.

I had been talking to Transom about maybe doing a video series for them. They seemed into it. But I didn’t have a name for it then, and I’m not sure I even thought I could pull something off or what it would look like.

Still, I was in Roman’s neighborhood (Vancouver is considered a “neighborhood” of Northern California when you live in Toronto). I knew Roman from reporting a story for 99% Invisible. I figured he’d be willing to sit in front of the camera for this series that, for all I knew, might or might not take off. At the very least, I’d have a cool little video with Roman. I was poking around a bit blindly, but I think what resulted set the tone for the rest of the series.

My Two Rules of Video Interviews

I told myself two things earlier in my modest video-making career. And maybe they’re not universal, they’re just things I abide by from my past experience.

  1. Always favor good audio over good visuals when it comes to doing an on-camera interview.
  2. Never do a long video interview using natural light as your main light source.

I sort of broke my first rule in this interview. I definitely broke the second. And I was kicking myself for both when it came time to edit.

Why There Are Two Rules

With radio, you want to find a quiet spot to talk at all costs. Even a car or a walk-in closet would do the trick.

With video, you want the interview to be in a cool place, the background to ideally say something about the subject. You need it to sound AND look good. And sometimes those two can be at odds.

But a neutral background with good sound trumps a really interesting interview location with complications. Because if you have good audio of your subject–a voice track without any echo, background noise, miced well–you can always film interesting b-roll (of people, places and things!) to spice things up visually.

Good sound always wins out in my book.

Shedding Some Light

During this interview, I was so mesmerized by the cool setup Roman had in his little radio shed that I just HAD to have him sit there. Leopard print, a mic mounted to his desk… knick-knacks! In this case, the audio wasn’t so much the issue–he lives in a pretty quiet area, nothing worse than an occasional airplane. The reason I regret the location actually has more to do with rule number 2. I lit the interview using natural light.

Note to self: when you see a cool location to interview your subject but you like it so much that you become blind to the downsides, slap yourself in the face.

The space in his shed was way too tight to fit lights. In order to shoot there, I had to use sunlight as the light source. And that’s a bad idea because the sun keeps changing. Even on a consistently overcast day, over the course of an hour-long interview the light will change. Your tape from the start of the interview is going to look different from that at the end. Which sucks when you go to edit.

Imagine doing a radio story where your room tone is changing minute to minute. No good.

In this interview the sun kept peeking out from the clouds and eventually the sky cleared and blaring sunlight shone on a good portion of Roman’s body.

It made editing very tough. Not impossible, though. I just had to cover up big, straight up over exposed portions of the interview because we couldn’t adjust fast enough. All the more reason to collect plenty of b-roll.

For the rest of the interviews I used my own light source. A simple Lowel Tota light with a shoot-through umbrella.

photo of Roman Mars and Sam Greenspan

Carson Lee using a slider to film Roman and Sam Greenspan in the 99% Invisible Offices. Photo by Andrew Norton

Random thoughts

  • We used a slider for some of the shots. You mount your camera on it, which allows you to glide along back and forth. It’s so cool it’s easy to overuse it. But used properly it can add a nice touch of movement to your shots.
  • You might notice the opening SFX of the escalators is actually the sound of the Washington, DC, Metro escalators from “The Accidental Music of Imperfect Escalators” episode. The sound is from DC, but the footage is from a Toronto TTC escalator.
  • **Warning, video nerd content** This installment is in 1280 x 720, but I shot it at 1920 x 1080. That allowed me to crop in on the interviews without losing any quality.
  • If you ever shoot a subject with a computer screen on in the background, make sure they shut off the sleep option. Otherwise you will have some footage with the screen on, some with it off and some with it dimmed. No good for editing.
  • Because this is a series about radio producers, it’s very tempting to want to get b-roll of people editing audio stories on their computer. But after filming Roman I vowed to avoid ProTools shots at all costs. You’ll have to see if I was able to keep my promise.
photo of Andrew Norton

Andrew Norton

About Andrew Norton

Andrew Norton is a multimedia producer who graduated from the Transom Story Workshop on Cape Cod. Before that, he was an editor and staff photographer at a skateboard magazine. He got to travel from the streets of Taiwan to Newfoundland to Tony Hawk’s backyard. Since then his radio stories have aired on dozens of stations across the US, on CBC radio in Canada and on shows like 99% Invisible. He also combines his audio storytelling chops with his photography background to make videos. His previous series, profiling the world’s best skateboard photographers, earned him a Vimeo Staff Pick award.

Andrew lives in Toronto. He’s also very tall (see photo).

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