March 26, 2014


Behind the scenes on the “How to sit for meditation: setup exercises” shoot.

Some of you will know that I have been co-presenting at a number of traditional Buddhist meditation retreats for some years now. My co-presenter is my good friend (and wandering Dharma teacher) Patrick Kearney. For many years he had been telling me that many meditators were having trouble sitting comfortably. And on the very first one month silent retreat that I attended, as soon as the silence was lifted, all everyone could speak about was the kind of pain they had and where there pain was located!

Now, it is often said that pain can be a meditation object and because so many people are in pain when they sit (and because that actually what’s happening in big ‘R’ reality) then pain is a meditation object for many sitters. This pain mostly manifests in the knees, hips, back and neck. But a long time ago I asked myself, ‘What could meditation be like if you were able to sit perfectly still and perfectly comfortably for an hour or more?’. I have been able to do this for many years now and I can report that the experience of meditation can be substantially different from what was reported following my first one. As a result, I have spent a long time researching all the important exercises to let people sit with minimum tension and no tension concentration spots in the body. I mention this last because if you had any sore spots in the first 10 or 15 minutes of meditation, by the time that 40 minute mark comes it’ll be the only thing you can think about. For me personally, this seems like an inefficient use of the time and process.

The technology for recording high-quality video and sound has changed remarkably in the last 10 years. Some of you know that I was a filmmaker in earlier life and we used 16mm film and analogue magnetic tape sound recorders to make documentaries then. A small crew was three people and very few filmmakers were able to make programs with more than one camera at a time: apart form the personnel needed, film was very expensive and the making of the final film requires an extensive editing process after it has been exposed in camera. Film is difficult to handle and is vulnerable to x-rays and other events that are common to the world traveller (not the least of which is the possibility of any film being stolen as one of mine was when I was passing through the Philippines one year).

Today I set up my two Panasonic cameras and set the white balance to tungsten. We have special “cool fluros” as they’re called which are perfectly colour balanced to 3200K, and provide an even light which has almost no heat associated with it, unlike normal tungsten lights which are very hot (and so a small space like the studio with four or five people working in it becomes uncomfortably hot very quickly).

The two cameras I have chosen are Panasonic G6 which is available for about $500 these days and a Panasonic GX1 which I bought brand-new for $179. Our cameraman has my other camera, which I have written about here, the Panasonic GX-7; he is setting it up for the forthcoming ST for GST programs, which we start soon. And I have a couple of very inexpensive zoom lenses and a few primes. These particular Panasonic cameras have a unique feature as well, something called the extended tele (ETC) mode, which means that you can double the effective focal length of any lens sitting on the front of the camera (because the sensor is 16 megapixels and hence almost 4000 pixels wide). When you use the extended tele setting the camera simply crops the centre pixels required for 1080p or (what we use) 720p. And using the AVCHD codec (and sourcing your cameras from the US which I always do, for the more useful frame rates) then we’re not limited to the 30 minute recording limit set by the EU which for reasons known to no one, apply here in Australia. Both of my cameras can record up to the full capacity of the SD cards or the full charge of the battery, whichever ends first. Today I recorded for just over an hour continuously and both cameras recorded files of about 7 GB in size.

At the same time I had set up my Sony PCM-10 recorder using its XY microphone configuration and I suspended it from one of the struts in the ceiling, so it was about 3 feet above my mouth when I was sitting down. The remarkable thing about top micing (which Hollywood has done for years, except there you need some brawny guy on the end of a long boom) is that you can move around in the sound cone and the sound does not change very much at all. The quality of the sound I recorded today is excellent and because I was being top mic’d there is no handling sound from my clothing (which is always a problem with lavaliere mikes) and there was no squeaking sound from my knees or feet on the cushion either. And all of these extraneous sounds are out of our experience of hearing, but sound recorders record what is actually there and that’s quite instructive thing to reflect on, too.

The technique is to start the sound recorder, check levels, then start recording, and then turn on each camera and use the focusing button to focus on the front of the meditation cushion I was sitting on. The inexpensive zoom lenses I used on both cameras today have an advantage in this situation: they are relatively slow in terms of their aperture—but the great thing for me in this setup meant that I had quite a deep slice of acceptably focused space to work in (as I wrote in another post, depth of field is a function of aperture and focal length). I know the shallow depth of field is all the rage these days on Vimeo and YouTube, but if you want to make an instructional video, deeper depth of field is usually the way you need to go, especially if your talent is moving around.

Then I used my old-fashioned slate (sometimes called clapperboard): making sure it could be seen by both cameras I simply clapped the top part together with the bottom part to make a sharp sound. I slid the slate out of the picture, took off my glasses, and taught the one-hour class exactly as I would have done had I been sitting in front of a room of meditators. What a liberating experience for a filmmaker I can tell you!

Once I had finished recording the program I switched off all the machines and took their SD cards over to my editing room. I am using Final Cut Pro 10 (FCPX) now and I ingested all of the footage into an new Library that I’d set up to the occasion. Once all three digital files were in the program, I examined each clip and found the slate sync point on each and FCPX went to work. Only seconds later I had a multi-cam clip set up and I pulled it into my timeline. Editing in FCPX is simply a matter of clicking on which camera’s view you want to see at any time. I did shorten a few things (including a couple times during the program where I went to check to make sure the camera were still recording because this is all fairly new technology). And cutting those bits out was a matter of a few clicks.

Now as I sit here dictating this blog FCPX is doing the second compression of the program. We are experimenting with different frame sizes and different compression techniques to see how we can get the best possible program for the smallest possible size. As soon as I get back from Adelaide, I will upload to our Amazon Web Service and go live to the world.

Please excuse (and advise me!) of any typos: I dictated this via Siri in about 20′.

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