How to deal with massive digital memory requirements while overseas
July 28, 2021 7:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm headed to Macedonia where I would like to film a documentary about a woman I know and love who lives there. The only camera I have is my iPhone. I don't know how much footage I'll take but I wouldn't be surprised if it was 100 hours or more. How do I deal with the memory requirements of this task?

Has anyone done anything like this before? My iPhone is 64gb. I could wipe it basically clean before leaving. But my understanding is that 64gb will get me about 4 hours of video in 1080p and maybe half that in 4k.

Is the best solution to just haul around external hard drives? Can I move video directly from my iPhone to an external hard drive? Or do I have to go through a laptop first?

Also, this makes me nervous because what if something happens to the hard drives? The cloud is not an option. In previous trips I've had pretty weak internet in most places.

I guess my question is this: What is best practice for a project like this? If anyone has experience or recommendations, I would really love to hear about them. Thank you!
posted by crapples to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think that best practice would be shooting on a small, lightweight 4k video camera, and bringing with you a whole bunch of high-capacity SD cards, as well as a hard drive backup.
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:55 PM on July 28, 2021 [8 favorites]

It looks like you can buy iPhone-compatible thumb drives that are meant for offloading images and videos from your phone. You could look into using one of those to export your videos periodically and free up space on your phone.
posted by Transmissions From Vrillon at 8:14 PM on July 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

I agree with Dr. Wu. The apps and OS take up a fair amount of space, so you only have 50gb if you keep it totally empty. The iPhone may also be a great camera, but it's not a great camera for what you want to do. You could buy a used 4k camera that would be much easier to deal with.

As far as your question about what if something happens to the hard drives: that's why you make multiple backups. The way I'd do this (which costs more than just using an iPhone) would be a video camera with multiple SD cards (as big as the camera allows, and as many as you think you will need). Bring a laptop and two portable hard drives. Download the contents of the SD card to both hard drives after each shooting session, but don't reformat the cards (keep them as an extra backup). Then keep the hard drives in different places (even just in different rooms in the same house is a good level of protection).
posted by jonathanhughes at 8:16 PM on July 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Lots and lots of flash drives. You can get large flash drives to offload the stuff locally in your phone, and many even comes with Lightning ports that can be directly plugged into the iPhone. And finding an adapter is quite easy nowadays. Sandisk makes iXpand Flash drive with lightning port that goes up to 256GB. And if you look around you'll see several other versions. at roughly the same price level.

So offload from the phone to flash drive nightly, basically, using a different one if you filled one up. If you are bringing a laptop anyway, you can also bring along an external hard drive so you can offload from flash drive to portable hard drive if you need some extra cushion.

But as others said, it's probably better if you bring a dedicated camera instead and whatever flash media that thing takes, and offload it to a compatible device. Lacie has a model that includes an SD card reader, so when connected to a laptop, it'll automatically backup the content of the SD card to the external hard drive.
posted by kschang at 8:21 PM on July 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, it's hard drives. Specifically, these guys are what the documentary producers I know use in the field. If you budget for 140mbps bitrate and 100 hours, that gives you ~6TB storage requirements which means you will want 6 2tb drives (NEVER put anything on just one drive!) That'll run you ~$600, which isn't too bad. Bring a laptop, you'll be loading from the phone to the drive via the laptop in the field and then copying onto a backup drive overnight.

If you used a camera, you would instead keep 6tb worth of hard drives and 6tb worth of SD cards, so that if one of the hard drives dies the footage is still on the cards. As others have pointed out, using a camera will be better (in fact: the most important thing for this won't be a better camera but a better microphone!)

Other things you will need to think about:
  • Ligthing
  • Background noise especially A/C (separately from being audible, A/C that cuts in and out can make it very difficult to reorder footage)
  • B-roll (get shots of the room, out of focus shots, shots of the subject from far away, shots of their hands -- this will let you cut dialog smoothly)
  • Logging the footage (what is on which drives in which files?)
  • Transcription (otherwise it's impossible to cut anything; if the dialogue is in Macedonian you may want to line up a Macedonian transcriber ASAP.)
  • Appearance releases (can you find one that will work in Macedonia? Good question!)
Good luck!
posted by goingonit at 9:16 PM on July 28, 2021 [9 favorites]

One more thing re audio, recording speech with a directional mic (shotgun or wireless lavalier) will make it sound MUCH better than iphone audio, especially if you're outdoors. Reiterating that I would invest in a mic + recorder system before a fancy camera.
posted by goingonit at 9:26 PM on July 28, 2021 [7 favorites]

How good is the internet to buy more iCloud storage and upload each day?

Nth-ing recommendations to look into better microphones and managing lighting. You may not know about "golden hour" natural light after sunrise and before sunset, but I can't imagine how you'd get all the footage you want solely in two hours per day.
posted by k3ninho at 11:58 PM on July 28, 2021

Re microphones - even a fairly cheap set of lavalier mics that plug into your phone will give you WAY better sound than just holding up your phone and hoping for the best. They’re the mics you clip on your lapel. The cheap ones have two mics with everything connected by cable. For more money you can get radio versions where people carry a little pack in their pocket which I guess is the transmitter.

When I’ve seen amateur film festivals, the ones that stand out as unwatchable are always the ones with poor sound - there’s just no getting past the fact that you can’t hear things properly/the background noise is unbearable - it can render beautifully-shot footage useless.
posted by penguin pie at 2:43 AM on July 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Hi, documentary filmmaker here. You’ve gotten a lot of good advice already, so I’ll just add a few details and some emphasis.

Best practice is triple redundancy using portable drives (we usually use Lacie Rugged but the brand doesn’t matter much) and the original cards, kept in separate rooms if possible. Since you intend to shoot on an iPhone and won’t have cards, get a third backup drive or a laptop with enough storage capacity. You’re going to want a laptop regardless, to 1) facilitate backing up footage to the drives, 2) spot-check the footage after backing up, and 3) organize and log the footage as you go. Another good practice when backing up footage is to transfer the files directly to each backup location and don’t take the easy way out of putting it all on one drive and then copying that to the other locations. It’s more time-consuming to back up the right way, but if you take the easy way any files that get corrupted while backing up to the first drive would get duplicated to the other drives.

All the people urging you to use an external mic are correct. This is really, really essential. You can improvise lighting on location but there’s no getting around bad audio. Trust me, an entire documentary shot with the built-in mic on a phone will be excruciating for the audience and you will deeply regret doing it.

Audio is one of the reasons why people are also suggesting you consider shooting with an actual camera instead of a phone. Aside from the better ergonomics it’s just much easier to record and monitor audio when you’ve got the right inputs and outputs as well as accessible controls. But if it has to be done with a phone, in addition to using an external mic I strongly suggest finding a way to monitor audio with headphones while shooting. This may entail using a third party app that gives you more granular control of everything. Here’s a brief instructional clip on the subject (the app being used is FiLMiC Pro).

Put the phone into airplane mode and disable wi-fi while you’re shooting. You don’t want any notifications or calls to interrupt. This will also save some battery. Speaking of which, have you considered how you’ll manage power if you need to shoot multiple hours in a day with only the one phone?

A final bit of advice: 100 hours is a lot of material to deal with, especially if you’ve never done anything like this before. Keep your clips organized and log the footage as much as you can at the end of every day. Even if this is the kind of project where you need to record basically nonstop in order to capture unexpected moments, I urge you to try to be selective about what you’re shooting. Make shot lists for b-roll as well as for your main subject and do as much planning ahead as you can so you’re not just recording constantly. Filming is wearying not just for you but for your subject too, so keep that in mind.

P.S. - I wrote this a while back for another AskMe and some of it may be relevant to your situation.
posted by theory at 5:08 AM on July 29, 2021 [13 favorites]

Some very good advice here.
I suggest that in addition to your iPhone / video camera you also bring with you a portable MP3 voice recorder. The voice recorder will allow you to record sound while filming, providing backup and another audio view point. Even more importantly, you can leave the voice recording running even once the camera is switched off. With the camera off people usually immediately relax and speak much more freely, and you will be have a recording of what is being said and will be able to mix this audio in the film. For instance, you can have a visual shoot of the landscape through the window while the audio tells an important part of the story.
Also, make sure you have model release in the local language and get everyone to sign before you start filming. This will solve a lot of problems. Good luck.
posted by slimeline at 5:15 AM on July 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

One more thing… do yourself a favor and get some kind of grip or gimbal for the phone. Shooting 100+ hours of footage with a phone held by the fingertips in landscape mode sounds like torture. Also it’s really easy to accidentally touch a phone screen and inadvertently stop recording (and worse, you may not even notice that it’s stopped). A grip may help prevent that from happening.
posted by theory at 6:15 AM on July 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you'll be crossing a US border on your way, you'll want to factor digital privacy at the US border into your decision about which devices to bring with you.
posted by aniola at 7:41 AM on July 29, 2021

It can be surprisingly affordable to rent a camera and appropriate lens(es), with insurance. For example, you can get a 4K Canon video camera with general purpose lens, tripod, Rode shotgun mic, basic lighting, and a few other bits for $1233 for 7 days, including damage and theft insurance.

You can put together your own kit for potentially less, since you may not need some of the stuff in that package.
posted by jedicus at 8:36 AM on July 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd recommend you do a complete dry-run while still in your home country, trying to mimic the situation in Macedonia as closely as you can, using the exact equipment that you plan to bring. Shoot an interview, some scenery, and edit the footage, to make sure everything is working and the quality is what you expect. This will give you a chance to find the little issues that you might not think of, while you are still able to purchase/rent equipment or change your process.
posted by teg at 9:37 AM on July 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

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