A Clean Kit Is A Happy Kit

A crude sign with the words “A Clean Kit is a Happy Kit” was taped to the wall of the film equipment room during my first television news job in the late 1960s. The message was a reminder to create a mental check list and keep your 16mm film gear organized to avoid costly errors in the field. Over time, I learned just how important that was.

Airplane pilots learn to go through a checklist in their heads before every flight. In their case, it is a life or death matter. Forget to do something and your plane can crash and you might die. For those who work in the field doing any kind of media production, the penalty for forgetting something important can equal “professional death.”

Bolex 16mm camera.  Photo by Marcus Bengtsson.

Bolex 16mm camera. Photo by Marcus Bengtsson.

In the early years of my career, I got my first real lesson in checklists while shooting news film of Spiro Agnew, the then Vice President of the United States. In 1969, I was assigned to shoot film of Agnew playing golf. That day, he accidentally hit a Secret Service agent in the head with his golf ball. I got a shot of the incident and happily headed back to process the film…certain of a network news showing.

However, when the film was processed, I found a large black line through the image. The culprit was the filter holder in the Bolex film camera I was using. It was not pushed in all the way. I had failed to go through my checklist before the shoot.

On that day, I learned a lifelong lesson. From then on, I became almost obsessed with checking out every detail. To this day, I do that mental check list, even when recording simple audio interviews. Years later, whenever I pick up an old Bolex, I instinctively check to make sure that filter holder is pushed in all the way.

Today, we correctly assume that production gear has become much easier to use. Though that may be true, mental check lists by operators are still essential. Last year, during an audio interview, the batteries failed in a reporter’s audio recorder. He didn’t bring backups. We had to wait while he went to a nearby convenience store to buy AA batteries!

Especially in television news, “forgetting things” is as frequent today as ever. Rarely at a press conference does someone not ask to borrow a mic cable or some adapter to fit an odd-ball mult-box. Outside of network crews, few people are really prepared for every contingency.

Another amazing problem is not even having the basics. I see news crews on the streets of New York City all the time not wearing headphones. Sometimes I stop and ask them how they know if they have sound without headphones. They inevitably tell me they watch the VU meter to make sure it is moving. This, they claim, means they have good sound. I usually scratch my head at this excuse and move on.

Photo by J.C, Falcon.

Photo by J.C, Falcon.

A version of the same thing happened a couple of years ago on a C-Span remote of a symposium I attended in South Carolina. A freelance video crew was dispatched to stream it. Multiple microphones were used, but the sound operator didn’t wear headphones during the broadcast. The mics weren’t set up correctly. The operator just looked at the VU meters. The sound was distorted, but it aired anyway.

As A/V production has widened to new users, the lack of discipline on the job has become more apparent. Perhaps it is due to the lack of good mentors, sparse training of new crew members or just plain inattention to detail by amateurs. Whatever, it is a major problem and even manufacturers say they are often appalled at the simple problems some users have.

Not only does the production accessories kit matter, but so do the rules using the gear in it. Know the basics of the technology, learn to correctly label and date recording media and go through a mental check list before each production shoot. It can save anyone hours of aggravation.

"A Clean Kit is a Happy Kit,” though a simple slogan, is some of the best advice I can imagine. The harder part is actually learning its meaning and following through to do high quality production work. 

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