Real Horror Stories From Videographers

We asked videographers to submit their real horror stories. What we got in return was stories of terrifying mistakes, and the motivation to avoid them.

It’s a proud moment when we can deliver a final project after all our trials and tribulations; we all love to marvel at how smart we were when we made the fix. We might even brag about it to our closest video-producing pals, but for the most part we keep our secret in the dark corners of the attic, never telling outsiders (non-shooters) what happened. We all know that if the audience doesn’t know it happened, that’s a good fix.

However, like an old soldier of days gone by, we do love to talk about our war stories to our fellow creatures-in-the-trenches. Every year here at Videomaker we open the forum up to our readers, to allow them to tell us their most interesting Video Horror Stories. Usually, I open the stage with a story of derring-do from my network news past, but this year’s horror story is from my recent video work here with Videomaker, and I’m actually quite embarrassed to reveal it, but here goes.

The Silent Movie Directors

Last year, for the third year in a row, I was invited to attend a reception honoring the directors of the annual Academy Awards Documentary category. All of the gear I was using was new, and I meant to take an hour to familiarize myself with the equipment, but I ran out of time. After arriving in L.A. moments before showtime, I called for a taxi to take me to the event, then sat down in the motel lobby to do a quick gear check. It was then that I discovered I didn’t have double-A batteries for the lav or shotgun mics.

Grabbing my gear, with the clock ticking, I ran outside my motel room and spotted a guitar store a city-block down the street. I dodged six lanes of traffic to get across the street, and luckily, the store clerk happened to have an open package of batteries in a drawer and offered them to me… at a premium. Crossing my eyes, and holding the stitch in my side, I paid for the bats and rushed back to the motel just as the taxi arrived. I jumped in the cab, attaching the light and mics as the taxi crawled through rush-hour traffic. Arriving at the Academy at the same time as the honorees, I had no time for a mic check, so I literally thrust the mic under the mouth of my first interview subject and began to roll.

As I traveled around the room, conducting more interviews, I relaxed a bit to check my exposure and audio levels and my heart stopped. The audio meters on the LED viewfinder were completely blank. How could I not have noticed that? The only sound I got of the nine directors I spoke to was from the last one I interviewed: Michael Moore. I discovered later that the batteries the guitar store sold me were dead. There I was, surrounded by the crème de la crème of documentary directors, dozens of other flashing cameras and the glitz and glamour of Hollywood’s elite, and I forgot to do three of the simplest things we always preach here at Videomaker: Know Your Gear, Be Prepared, Watch Your Levels. (Don’t Be Stupid is a given.) My fix? I used sound full of Moore’s interview, and voiced-over the rest of the story with tidbits on the other eight directors.
-Jennifer O’Rourke

Wild Thing

A regular client needed another 30-second commercial produced for the archery store he owns. He had a brand-new ATV/quad on loan which he wanted to use in the next commercial, to give it that great outdoors hunting trip feel. A week before our scheduled shoot date he called in a panic. “I have to return the 4-wheeler to the dealer tonight; it’s been sold. Can we shoot this now?” (It’s 1pm in the afternoon.. are you kidding me?) I grabbed my gear and met him at the woods location we planned to shoot. I set up and begin having a mild anxiety attack, knowing that the light of day is slowly dying, I have less than half a battery, he has to have the quad returned in four hours, and his employees are calling him every two seconds, needing his assistance back at his shop.

I leave the gear bags and cases in the field, and we venture a half mile into deep woods to the location. We shoot till 4pm… and get some great shots. It’s a miracle. We go back to the field at the edge of the woods, and I pack up in a hurry. I struggle to get my tripod back in the bag. It’s dark. He returns the quad, I go home, unpack my stuff near the edit computer and start editing.

After uploading footage, I push my chair back from the desk and the chair wheels get stuck on something, I force the chair back and think nothing of it. Get coffee, go back to desk. Then… I almost have a heart attack. There’s a two-and-a-half foot snake under my office chair… half alive, because I had run it over with the chair. It had crawled out from the tripod bag. How I never noticed the snake in the bag at any point in between is beyond me.

Funny thing… the most pressured shoots seem to yield some of the best work. To date, that commercial is one of the best I’ve produced yet.

Pomp and Circumstance

I was shooting a high school commencement several years back. I had a guy on a second camera, so that I could change tapes without missing anything. We even started the cameras 15 minutes apart, so that there would be plenty of overlap between tape changes to ensure we both didn’t need to change tapes at the same time. While I was changing tapes, the second cameraman started zooming in. Unfortunately, as he pressed the zoom button, his hand also hit the record button, stopping his recording… while I was changing tapes. He eventually noticed he had stopped recording, but by that time I was already done changing tapes and back to recording. I ended up having to “invent” the missing footage.

Fortunately, the headmistress was talking during that downtime of recording, so, for the audio, I recorded her later in a sound studio repeating that same segment of her speech. I then had to do major sound degradation on it to make it match the rest of the footage’s audio. For the video, I had to take some generic B-roll footage of a couple of graduates sitting up on stage and put it in place of the missing footage. Not a real horror story, but it was a LOT of work and NOT fun. And it totally defeated the purpose of having two cameras!
-Dylan Bennett

Run ‘n’ Gun

While I was in my second year of school, two of the psychology professors were giving a presentation for a group of peers, and my name was suggested to tape it for posterity. They gave me three hours’ notice. Not having time to scout the location and plan what I would need, I grabbed the usual assortment of camera, field recorder, cables and microphones (not to mention batteries and all the other expendables).

Little did I realize that the venue was a large room inside a restaurant, with no doors to isolate the clanking silverware sounds of the other patrons not associated with this event. Little thought had been put into the seating arrangements, and fitting the whole room in frame was a nightmarish scramble of rearranging tables, playing
with window shades and moving all the presentation equipment into a better location. Luckily, with a few hours in Adobe’s Soundbooth, I was able to cut out a majority of the clanks and clinks, and some tweaking of the lighting in post was enough to save the production. That horror story certainly earned me a paycheck.
-Tony Spano

Backup Plan for the Backup Plan

I was commissioned by a well-known record producer to videotape a live concert of a gospel choir that was recording its first album. The video was to be used as promotion for the album, and it would have been a great opportunity for me.

The first thing that went wrong was my best crew member went missing on the eve of the shoot. I had to scrounge around for someone (anyone) to fill in at the literal last moment. The one person that was able to show was inexperienced and practically incapable of getting a decent image. She shot the floor, the walls and people’s feet, and the footage bounced in and out of focus. Scratch Camera One.

The second thing that went wrong was due to the location where I had to set up my switcher and the cables from the three cameras. Due to the location of the remote truck that was recording the audio, I had to set up right next to one of the P.A. stacks in order to get a live feed for the audio portion of the video. It wasn’t until I was in post that I discovered that the magnetic field generated by the massive speakers interfered with the switching transitions. Scratch the live switched version of the taping.

Luckily I had set up a fixed location camera and had another ENG camera and had the presence of mind to supply them with tape, so I was able to use the captures from those two cameras to cobble together fairly decent scenes totaling two of the ten songs the choir performed. (An excellent argument for redundancy.)
-Michael Parrish

Flying Video Camera

My real horror story happened during the first out-of-state shoot and one of the biggest productions I ever did for our wrestling show. This show, however, cost me more than just the gas for the trip. During the two-camera shoot, one wrestler whipped another into the turnbuckles… which happened to be the exact location that I was shooting from. The wrestler tried to flip out of the way, and I tried to move. We didn’t quite make it… His foot caught my arm, which sent the camera flying through the air behind me. I heard a crack, followed by a smash… And my favorite camera was near death. What happened next, you ask? Why, I picked the camera up and continued to shoot with it, of course! The second camera caught the flying cam shot, and the broken camera footage lives on forever in this very clip: at about 1:45 in.
-Tom Skowronski

School Daze

It all started innocently enough. My senior AV class project needed to involve a video with at least thirty seconds of animation. I decided to make a music video to one of my favorite songs. The animation would go in where I couldn’t make live action work. It was brilliant! I got to use an old storyboard to cut back on some of the work involved (never mind that I made it during freshman year when I had no idea how to make a storyboard).
Pre-production was a breeze. I scheduled use of the one camera capable of stop-motion animation (hey, this is a high school AV classroom we’re talking about here), and an hour to use the Home Economics room for a shot. I finished all of my drawings for the animation and prepared my cells. After spending three hours after school making the animation, I was ready to shoot the live action. That was about when things started to go wrong.

On the day I had scheduled to use the Home Ec room, another teacher was using it and sent me to the teacher’s lounge. Okay, I can make this work. Just as we began to film, the same teacher entered the teacher’s lounge with her class to use the television. She told me to leave. I protested, saying that I had scheduled the Home Ec room and that she had sent me to the teacher’s lounge in the first place. It didn’t work. Okay, still not a problem, I’ll just shoot the other live action parts.

I shot the scenes I needed. They were not quite what I was hoping for, but beggars can’t be choosers. I was still missing the kitchen scene I needed, but I could get that later, right?

Then I played back my video. Something was wrong. Very wrong. There were weird black spaces where my animation was supposed to be! I let out a moan. This was worth one-third of my grade! It was due in two days! One of those two days would be taken up with graduation rehearsal! I spent my lunch period and the time after school fixing it. It was beautiful! Well, it was as beautiful as a high school production that went wrong can be. I was called away to look at something while it exported, but I had never had a problem exporting before. I turned it in.

The next day, my teacher came up to me. He would have to look at my video on the computer and needed my password. The broken camera we used to export video had finally bitten the dust. It had done so while it was exporting my video and had ruined the tape. This could have been a real horror story, but luckily, he gave me an ‘A’ anyway. Thank goodness.
-Kimberly Lewis

Silence is Golden… Maybe

I was directing a live newscast one night and I was watching the clock because we had to be out at 7:00 to hit the national news on time. We had two minutes left to the show after the last commercial break. I was looking at the story the anchors had just begun to read, and I could see they weren’t going to finish in time. I had never seen the story, but I let everybody know we were going to find a point to cut the story off and go into the outro. I found a spot and had the floor director cue them to say good night. They did, we played music, and faded to black. Smooth… or so I thought. I looked up at the clock and realized we had one minute left. There was dead air for about 20 seconds. Everybody was silent until I had the crew run some random commercial. That went for another 20 seconds. And then there was a bit more dead air. Adding to the drama, my supervisor was in the room showing some new people what went on in a live broadcast. Luckily he was understanding and even jokingly said that if I was going to do that again, I should let him know, so we could sell the air-time.
-Evan Edstrom

Final Curtain

From student productions to the pros in the trenches, we all make mistakes some time down the road. The true magic is when we can deliver the product anyway, despite the odds… and sometimes they are pretty crazy odds. Thanks for sharing your stories with us; we all can learn a lot from them (especially about checking your gear bag for snakes… yikes!).
You can find more horror stories from our readers at these links:

‘Til next year…

Videomaker Managing Editor Jennifer O’Rourke is an Emmy award-winning videographer and video editor.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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