Making Ciaran Algar’s ‘Corona Collaboration’ videos

Making Ciaran Algar’s ‘Corona Collaboration’ videos

Over the last month I’ve been helping two-time Radio 2 Folk Award winner Ciaran Algar with video editing for his #CiaransCoronaCollaborations project.

Having started out as a way to pass the time during lockdown, Ciaran’s daily collaborations became a staple of lockdown life for many of his social media followers. How he had the stamina to keep producing them day after day I have no idea! He eventually called time after 50 consecutive days of posting collaborations; I’d edited just over thirty of them. The collaborations are now being re-recorded for a successfully crowdfunded album.

I got involved with the project in late March. Having had a deliberately slow start to the year, by the start of March I was raring to get my teeth into something creative. Lockdown obviously put a stop to anything redwood related; short of self-portraits (which I’m not a massive fan of doing!) I literally had nothing to work on. I decided to start on an animation project I’d been putting off for some time, while at the same time keeping my eyes open for anything interesting…

I’d worked with Ciaran on and off for a number of years now on various projects; his duo with Greg Russell, Sam Kelly and The Lost Boys and The Tweed Project. Every time it had been an entirely positive experience. I’d seen his first few collaboration videos at the start of lockdown and watched them with interest. After around a week, I noticed Ciaran posted a message about how they were getting more time-consuming. In the middle of a messenger conversation with Ciaran about something else I was working on, I mentioned the collaboration videos:

I had no idea at that stage that I was committing myself to over a month of pretty much solid editing, not including Ciaran’s CCC festival that happened straight afterwards (that’s another blog post!).

The first videos were simple split-screens, like this one with Conal McDonagh. It would only take me about 10 minutes to put something like this together, but at least I was producing something again!

Ciaran would typically send me the files across late in the evening and I’d turn them around for the next morning so he could post at lunchtime the following day. In order to keep his daily schedule going, Ciaran was running pretty close to the wire, recording one day ready to post the next next day. He was also starting to get more adventurous with his recording adding multiple tracks of fiddle, guitar and backing vocals which was taking him longer:

I’d come to regret my positive response! Each project started containing more and more files to synch and arrange in order to produce the final product. Not only was it making the videos more complex, I was getting the source data later and later in the day because it was taking Ciaran longer to record them. Nonetheless, the tracks sounded amazing.

Like anything editing related, there are lots of different ways to approach the job in hand. Because I was turning them around every day, I settled into a process that I could just repeat for each video, albeit every one needed different considerations in terms of layout and synch.

Ciaran would send me a set of files including the mixed audio, the video provided by the guest artist(s) and then the videos for all Ciaran’s parts. My first step was to import them all in Premiere Pro and align them all in the timeline. Premiere Pro has an automated method for synching that works ok if every file was recorded at the same time and therefore have similar audio waveforms (I use it for the multi-cam ‘Big Comfy Sessions’ I film and it works fine). For this type of project however where the tracks have been recorded at different times and places, it’s less effective, although it was always worth a try and would typically synch one or two of the lead tracks; the rest I had to do manually.

When we started off, at the start of each clip Ciaran would give a really detailed explanation of each part:

“This is violin two, it comes in at the start of the second verse. I’ll give you a count-in….”

After a while I noticed he stopped giving me a count-in. Then the explanations started to get more a more vague:

“This is the third violin part, it comes in in the middle bit. Well actually, it’s just before that…ah you’ll work it out!”

Eventually he just stopped giving me any explanation and would just give me the parts, sometime with multiple parts recorded consecutively on the same clip! To be honest, I started to find it an interesting challenge to a) figure out where in the track this piece of playing should go and then b) get it properly aligned with the base audio.

Once I had all the clips aligned on the timeline, it was then a case of figuring out how many ‘parts’ I needed to show at each point of the song and from there figure out how to frame everything. In an attempt to try and fit everything in, I started to experiment with different aspect ratios.

Facebook was pretty flexible in handling whatever we threw at it in terms of size and shape, however Twitter was less accommodating so I went back to standard 16:9.

Once the framing was sorted out for each part of the track, it was then just a case of sorting out all the transitions and doing the colour grading. Although the artist and Ciaran had recorded their parts completely separately, I felt it was important to try and get some visual cohesiveness through the grading. I’d try and get the white balance and levels as close as I could on the source clips and then add a LUT across the two.

An example of this approach is the Thea Gilmore cover which ended up looking quite different to the source videos. This was one of the really popular collaborations, which is (obviously) because it’s a fantastic performance from Thea and Ciaran! Nonetheless, I still like to think the decisions around grading played some tiny part in it, maybe? Ok probably not, but it made me happy nonetheless 🙂

One thing just to mention about the visual styling; I preferred the look of using thin white borders around the different frames in the videos. There are lots of these collaboration videos being posted at the moment; where they don’t have a border between the frames I personally think they look less effective. I also preferred to use white because most people would be watching the video in their facebook timeline, so the white borders would run out into the white background. It’s just a style choice and other people might like black borders which is fine, I just though it worthy of mention!

Most of the transitions i.e when frames entered and exited, was simply based on what I’d been given and where the parts started. The exception was the collaboration with Ale Carr from Dreamer’s Circus where I got a bit carried away with the cuts! I just thought it was a banger of a track and would benefit from the movement.

With this type of thing, it’s all about the timing of the cuts. Sometimes it works to cut on the beat which I did a lot in this video (albeit I struggled a bit at first with the time signature in the middle!). Often however, cutting exactly on the beat is too jarring; your brain needs time to register the transition so sometimes I find it looks better to cut slightly before the beat. I’d have loved to spend a lot more time on this video (a few of the cuts still need a bit of tweaking in terms of timing), but as with all the rest of the videos I had a deadline and it needed to be out the next morning…

The video I probably enjoyed working on the most was the Minnie Birch collaboration. I’d had this idea of moving panels in my head for a while but hadn’t found the right project to try it out on. When I heard this version of Minnie’s fantastic ‘Up and Down’ track, I thought ‘this is it!’ It was actually pretty quick to do, but I like it:

This whole thing with Ciaran ended up being a really fun project to work on. I figured out a bunch of new little ways to do things and as a fan of the music I was editing, it was really interesting working on the individual parts of each track because I could see how Ciaran had layered the violins, backing vocals etc. And all the musicians were ridiculously talented, none more so than Ciaran himself who is incredible. I have to admit though, by the time we got to the fiftieth video I was ready for a break! Two days later, however, we went straight into the CCC festival…

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