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3 days with Gale Tattersall…(the long version)

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(note: This is the original long version that I wrote on the plane coming home from the workshop. A shorter version has been published elsewhere. I’m posting it here in it’s entirety in hopes that you’ll get the full experience of what it was like to spend 3 days learning from the Master)

What would it take to get you out of the house the day after Christmas, fight the crowds at the airports and fly to LA? Would a chance to attend a 3 day HDslr workshop do it? Would you pay $1,200.00 plus expenses for the privilege? Would it matter if the instructor was Gale Tattersall the DP of House MD and the first person to use all HDslrs to film an entire episode of a major network show? Well for 15 emerging and Pro photographers the answer was a definite YES.

As a long time trainer and workshop leader I can assure you that the week after Christmas isn’t normally an optimum for holding workshops. Even in good times money is tight and travel is a bear (to put it politely ;-). Yet the second running of Gale Tattersall’s HDslr Workshops was almost instantly sold out.

When I first heard about the workshop I was skeptical that he’d be able to pull it off and even if he did what kind of workshop would be worth that much money with such a large projected student count…so I called him.

I first spoke with a very pleasant lady with a intriguing accent that turned out to be his wife and assistant workshop producer, Laura…We chatted like old friends for about 30 minutes while she went over the general outlines of the workshop before deferring my more technical questions to the man himself. Less than an hour later Gale called and while I didn’t know what I expected I found myself easily chatting with a very friendly, funny, unpretentious, easy going man with a raspy British accent.

During the hour we chatted he answered my questions in an open, honest and frank way and acknowledged that yes, he was taking a chance scheduling a workshop so close to the holidaze in this economic climate but his schedule on House was such that it was the only time he’d have before the show came off break. Satisfied that he genuinely seemed to care about and enjoy teaching I invited myself down to see how it went.

Note: I do have admit that my decision wasn’t based on this conversation alone…My wife Karin is an avid (ok…rabid ;-) House MD fan and when she heard about the opportunity to work with Gale she just about packed my bags and threw me out the door. After 26 years of marriage I’ve learned that no matter how difficult it may be at times the best answer is always “yes Dear”…so off I went.

The initial call sheet listed the workshop as running from 10am to 5pm further fueling my skepticism. Seven hours a day with lunch and breaks? Hmmmm… I showed up an hour early to get a feel of how it was being run behind the scenes and was surprised to see a number of folks running around moving gear and setting up the buffet area (gotta love the film industry you always eat so well on set) and all wearing grey t-shirts…hmm that’s a new one…the students all get to dress alike…I soon realized that these dozen or so people were not students but part of his crew and helpers. Wow, I thought…there’s going to be almost as many helpers and assistants as students…and as It turned out I was wrong…there were as many assistants and crew as there were students plus the studio staff and Gale. OK…color me impressed.

After a late start waiting for students who had gotten stuck in the wonderful LA traffic Gale took the floor to give us a welcome and show a short reel of his work. (clips from House, from the earth to the moon etc) One of the first things he mentioned was that the call sheet was wrong and we were to expect to go from 10am to “whenever” each day. OK I’m feeling better about things…Then John, the workshop Producer, proceeded to give us an outline of just what we could expect for the next three days…Jam packed might be a little too mellow to cover the ambitious schedule he laid out.

After a morning of familiarization with the Canon 5D’s there was a short practice session followed by lunch, which in turn was followed by more philosophy and theory from Gale. The first day continued with being split into teams and familiarized with different film making tools like dollies, a selection of lighting equipment, jibs, sliders, steadicams and shoulder rigs.

The day finished up about 8pm and all of the students seemed excited and sated by the massive amounts of information and experience the first day contained.

One thing I might point out is that I’m a die hard Nikon shooter and a GenusTech rig, smallHD monitor user. I thought this might be a problem at a Canon/Red Rock/Marshall sponsored workshop but as it turned out it wasn’t. Gale knew my preferences and my experience as a trainer so gracefully deferred any questions about Nikons to me while initiating some frank, unemotional comparisons of each cameras/ rigs relative merits. There was a lot of curiosity about my Nikon D7000 cameras, smallHD monitor and GenusTech gear and the questions/comments ranged freely, encouraged by Gale and even Canon rep Jon Bell and Loren from Red Rock Micro, who were sitting in the audience. Score another point to Gale and Laura (and the Reps) for creating an open, non-confrontational, learning centric atmosphere.

On my walk back to my hotel that night I reflected on my initial skepticism and thought to myself that they might just pull this off and if they don’t it won’t be from a lack of desire and effort. Traits that were exemplified by him and the friendly, easy going assistants and helpers (who by the way turned out to be most of his regular crew from House MD). The day had been a mixed bag as far as logistics went. Several minor hiccups in connections of cameras to screens and obviously unrehearsed equipment moves around Gales smallish studio (He calls it intimate which it certainly was ;-) delayed a few sessions but overall the sheer amount of information coupled with the hands on tutored experience with the equipment seemed to forestall any student unrest or discussions of time being wasted.

Day two started at the catering area that had quickly became the default gathering spot as it seem to continually sprout great new varieties of food and snacks. Many of the students had shown up early and were mixing with the assistants. I don’t know if Gale just got lucky but this crew, all working industry Pros/specialists from House MD, were among the nicest, most gracious crews I have ever had the pleasure to meet and work with. Each seemed more than willing to go out of their way to engage with students, share information and to answer all questions in an open and frank manner no matter how naive or technical.

Noting a few new faces in the crowd we were informed that in between more technical and philosophy of shooting sessions by Gale we would be working with live models practicing the skills we had learned the day before, shooting “film” which would be edited and shown/critiqued on the big screen at the end of the day. Sets had been built that showcased the abilities and need for each piece of equipment and were manned by the appropriate specialist from the crew. Gale himself was everywhere, lending advice, talking about his mental approach and encouraging the students to experiment.

I was very impressed with the non-judgmental and helpful attitude of each of the “instructors” as they guided the students through the mechanics of each piece of equipment. Patiently they repeated the shots with each student until they both felt they had gotten a good take.

One of the mornings highlights for me was having the chance to watch and work with Vinnie Minton, an amazing steadicam (actually “Glidecam”) operator. This guy had been a Professional Rollerblader for 10 years before taking up the steadicam and as such he was able to “fly” the cam in ways that opened shot possibilities that were visually amazing. His was/is a true internet success story as one of the Producers of House had seen an online reel (view it here) of his where he tracked multiple skaters effortlessly through their tricks and instructed the writers to incorporate his skills into a story. Next stop for Vinnie…Hollyweird and an episode of House MD.

(side note to Manufacturers: Having a chance to work with another Pro and discuss his choice of equipment settled an ongoing tough desision for me as to which “steadicam” type unit I’d be getting for my work…better than reviews and discussions, though those do help, seeing, touching and discussing the gear with a respected fellow professional in an atmosphere like this makes all the difference in the world…This has got to be your most effective form of marketing…keep it up. Support the pros/workshops who use your equipment and you’ll reap the benefits. And yes, I ended up getting a Glidecam HD2000 just like Vinnies…now I just have to learn to stay upright on skates…yeah right ;-)

The day progressed with each “team” transiting through the practical exercises after being treated to a session on each by Gale where he showed and talked about how he incorporated each piece of equipment into his shot schemes. Sprinkled throughout the day were seminars on lighting equipment, demos from gear reps, techniques and clips from Gales various movies and projects where he highlighted interesting or difficult shots/situations and explained how he managed to figure out the best solutions for each. This fit his oft declared personal philosophy that we as cameramen were first and foremost “problem solvers”.

The “team” approach seemed to work well and allowed the efficient use of each and every corner of his “intimate” space for living room and conversation pit sets while spilling outside to include a café scene in the food area, a night car breakdown scene cleverly lit with off the shelf items from Home Depot (and a beautiful 2k fresnel on the studio roof ;-) in an adjacent parking lot and a steadicam chase area where the scripts from the students, at the instigation of the mischievous Laura, seemed to grow more complex and outrageous as their comfort level with the Glidecams increased.

It was about 930pm when the last cards were turned in for editing and the announcement was made that the entire next day would be focused on applying all of the learned skills on a popular local bands music video shoot. This was to produce a real music video that would be used by the band for promotion and distributed online to all of the usual places.

Showing up at 8am the next morning I wasn’t surprised to find that the crew had worked long after the students left the night before and were already hard at work again rigging equipment and building/lighting a number of “sets” in the studio. Thank heavens the caterers had also gotten an early start and once again despite the rain pouring down, had managed to set up and keep dry another delicious spread.

The song we were to create a music video for was “Variety Pack” by Andree Belle a whimsical love story using cereals as an analogy for undiscovered/explored physical attributes (view it here). OK…it was quirky, fun and catchy and it didn’t hurt that the lead singer, pretty and petite Andree, was really friendly and mixed easily with the students while being obviously as excited and pumped about the upcoming day as they were.

As had become the “norm” Gale took time to lay out in detail how he had conceptualized the shoot after listening to the song, meeting the band and taking the physical constraints of the studio and weather (pouring rain) into account. Shot lists and concept overviews were handed out.

Gale walked through the different sets explaining how and why each one would be used, the overall progression and his final vision for the project. Then things broke down a bit for me. The combination of weather keeping everyone inside, a small studio with a large crew and student contingent and the inexplicable abandoning of the “team” system led to a bit of chaos. For some reason it was a “who wants to shoot where” free for all, instead of an orderly rotation of teams from one station to the next as it had been for the previous 2 days. In such an intimate space with multiple sets and tons of camera, lighting and band equipment spread throughout there wasn’t much room to move and the areas around the cameras on each set quickly became jam packed and remained so throughout the day.

In defense of John and Laura the producers, this was only the second time they had staged the workshop, it’s first major glitch and the scope of this ambitious project combined with the weather keeping everyone (30+ bodies) inside led to some unforeseen complications that once they noticed, they did their best to rectify. I seriously doubt that they will let a similar situation develop again in future workshops.

The innovative use of a floor dolly move to simulate cereal falling from the sky and a preview of Gales self designed shoot-through beauty boxes, built entirely from materials purchased at Home Depot, were the highlights of the day. Gales ongoing “where I’m coming from” commentary continued to be special treat as we were allowed to share a (sometimes uncensored ;-) look into the mind of a very talented and accomplished Photographer.

Having to leave the class early to make a flight back to Seattle (based on the initial call sheet mistake) was a major disappointment. The shoot was still going strong at 600pm on this last day with talent and students still really excited and fully engaged. As I left the card exchanges and fond farewells with promises to keep in touch highlighted and reinforced the friendly and cooperative attitude that Gale, Laura and the crew set and maintained throughout.

To top it off, in my bag was an inscribed copy of the “House MD” book …a sweet and thoughtful present from Gale and Laura to my wife for “encouraging” me to come down, that spoke to the very personalized nature of their approach to the workshops vs the usual clinical business approach we see so often.

On the flight back I thought back on all that had happened in 3 short days and it seemed impossible that the massive amount of information and the large number of practical exercises we had been exposed to could really have happened in such a short span of time. But they did.

Was it worth it? Without a doubt. I’ve already added my name to the lists for the advanced technique classes they have planned for later this year.

No matter what your current skill level is, if you’re embarking on a voyage to master this new “convergence” medium and want to add to your overall skillset in a very efficient and effective way, then Gales HDslr workshop is one of the best ways to learn the basics and beyond. You get to see, touch and experience all of the tools needed to optimize these new cameras while learning from a group of friendly, real working Pros and best of all you get to peek into the mind of a Master Photographer and innovator who turns out to be a really nice, funny and warm human being who loves to teach and share.

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