Frames Per Second: The Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans

March 16, 2012

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Mark Peterson/Redux

Clarinet player Charlie Gabriel performing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. To see more images from the assignment, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

For the 50th anniversary of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Luise Stauss, photo editor at The New York Times Magazine, assigned photographer Mark Peterson to shoot stills and video of the band performing at the historic Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Peterson, who is based in New York City, explains, “I’d done another story on a marching band in Texas for them, so I guess they’re typecasting me for anything that has a tuba in it.” An online slide show of Peterson’s stills and the video appeared in the “Look” section of the magazine’s Web site on January 8, shortly before the band’s anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

With only one night to shoot both photos and video, Peterson told Stauss he would like to work with Gerard Byrne, a videographer who had helped Peterson shoot an online campaign for PNC Bank last year.  

While the band rehearsed and performed its first two sets, Peterson shot stills using his Canon 5D Mark II; during its third set of the night, he and Byrne both shot video. They each used a Canon 7D for video capture. Peterson says that though he has used the 5D Mark II to capture video, he switched to the 7D because it has been Byrne’s camera of choice since he used it on the PNC Bank campaign, working with a 17-55mm f/2.8 Canon lens and previewing footage on a Video Village monitor. For the Preservation Hall shoot, Byrne also used a shoulder-mounted Zacuto rig, which allowed him to hold longer shots. Peterson prefers to shoot handheld. Though not using a rig means the camera sometimes shakes, “It’s just how I like to do it,” he observes.  

Peterson says switching between stills and video requires rethinking his approach. “When you do still photography, it’s all about reaction and moving, it’s very physical. Video is more proactive. You have to think further ahead and be prepared, and have the video rolling, even if the moment isn’t important, because you’re waiting for the important moment to happen.”

After the show, Peterson recorded interviews with each musician, asking questions about the history of Preservation Hall and its mission to preserve traditional Dixieland jazz.

Peterson says he likes to bring viewers close to his subjects, whether he’s shooting stills or video. The tiny interior of Preservation Hall, however, presented a challenge. “The biggest worry I had was ruining the experience for the audience, because no matter where you stood you had a chance of blocking someone,” he explains. “When someone is playing the trumpet, trumpet spittle can hit you. [Audience members sit] that close.”  

Byrne kept his camera trained on the trumpet player and singer, while Peterson moved around the hall, shooting the band, the audience and through a window from the courtyard, to capture as much atmosphere as he could in a short time. “We wanted to give the viewers the feeling like they were in that room and that they could feel the musician’s foot beating time on the floor.”

Like many photographers asked to add video to a photo shoot, Peterson says he wished he had had more time to devote just to video. He notes, “We were starved for B-roll.”

Lighting: Before leaving for New Orleans, Peterson had looked at photos of Preservation Hall on the Web. “I thought: Oh boy, this is going to be beautiful,” he recalls. The night before the shoot, however, he and Byrne visited the space. “I knew immediately it was going to be trouble. It’s beautiful and intimate, but it’s like a cave.” To improve the lighting, he and Byrne went to a local hardware store, and bought several pan lights similar to those that were already hanging in Preservation Hall, “just to fill in.” Peterson notes, “I think we spent $198, including extension cords and a hammer.”

Sound: While the cameras can record sound, “you mostly hear the photographer breathing, and that’s not pretty,” Peterson says. To record the music in stereo, they used two Audio-Technica shotgun mics. “We put the mics on top of a rafter and had them pointing right at the band.” During the interviews, he used Lectrosonics Wireless UHF lavaliers that he clipped to the musicians’ lapels. All sound was recorded to a Zoom H4N, then synched with the video in post production.

Editing: Together, Peterson and Byrne recorded about 80 gigabytes of motion content which they edited using Final Cut Pro 7. After playing back all the footage, they selected two songs to weave together. “One was very traditional, the other was more modern,” Peterson recalls. The music provided a kind of backbone to the narrative. They then intercut footage from the performance of these tunes with footage Peterson shot in and around Preservation Hall, and the interviews, to make a video that was just under five minutes.

Catriona Stuart, a video editor at the Times, checked the sound levels, made additional cuts and added the Times logo. “I hated to cut anything,” Peterson says. Watching the band’s performance during editing was a pleasure, he says. “It’s so beautiful, the way they play, you could just let the song run, but then you’d have a video that was 15 minutes long.”

Watch the video Peterson and Byrne made about the Preservation Hall Jazz Band below:

Preservation Hall Jazz Band from mark peterson on Vimeo.

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