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Cinematographer Philip Grossman Uplevel’s Video Conferencing Quality with AJA U-TAP

From Microsoft Teams to Zoom, the use of video conferencing platforms has seen unprecedented growth in the last two years, with more in-person meetings abandoned in favor of virtual ones. This shift has impacted nearly every industry, including media and entertainment (M&E). It’s also challenged creatives like Adventure Cinematographer Philip Grossman to rethink their approaches to production planning, collaboration, and content review. Equal parts media industry stalwart, TV technology, and film specialist, explorer, and educator, Grossman refused to compromise video quality in this new norm and opted to ditch his traditional webcam. Instead, he harnessed his video expertise to create an economical, top-notch setup that supports nearly any video conferencing platform. It comprises a RED digital cinema camera, AJA U-TAP SDI (a USB 3.0 3G-SDI capture device), plus a recorder, lighting, and a practical backdrop.

“Given all the changes in the M&E industry over the last two years, there’s now a bit of an unwritten rule in terms of your video conferencing quality. Just as an attorney wouldn’t walk into a courtroom in sweatpants, you can’t join a video meeting with a low-quality video feed,” shared Grossman. “U-TAP has been great in this respect; it allows me to use the gear I use every day for cinematography jobs to pull off a high-quality HD feed easily and at a low cost. Since the start of the pandemic, it’s become an essential piece of kit.”

For most video conferences, Grossman uses a RED DIGITAL Cinema DSMC2 with HELIUM (8K) to capture himself on camera. The feed is then output to the U-TAP SDI and into his MacBook Pro, plus pass through into a recorder. For live switching content or working with multiple feeds, he’ll reverse the steps. Camera outputs are run through his recorder, live switched, and the switched feed is then output to U-TAP for webcasting from a laptop or desktop.

Grossman harnesses the workflow to support video conferencing needs wherever he goes, including a recent urban exploration trek overseas, which included stops in Hungary, Albania, Croatia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Northern/Southern Italy. In the past, he’s also spent time in Chernobyl, as well as barren parts of the former Soviet Union, tracking down abandoned science/engineering-related sites. “A lot of what I try to do is to document history and share it with the world,” he said. “Travel and exploration are a passion, but I also love how my job allows me to collaborate with a bunch of different hardware and software manufacturers, and in turn, help influence technological evolution.”

Grossman carefully sources every tool he uses in the field. In addition to his video conferencing gear, he also carries a GoPro 10 with him on every adventure, with all his gear fitting nicely in a travel backpack. “You have to find the tools that best suit your needs, and for me, that translates to functionality, durability, and ergonomics. I went with U-TAP, in part, because I’ve used AJA products for years and they’re durable,” he added. “They also have a legacy of giving professionals the swiss army knife toolset required to handle any format you encounter on the job. U-TAP allows me to turn a very high-end camera output into a webcam feed so that my live output looks more professional; from the moment I opened it, I was impressed by how easy it was to get up and running. I literally just plug in the U-TAP and my computer recognizes the signal over the USB connection without the need for third-party drivers.”

Although Grossman underscores the importance of video in conferencing, he constantly reminds others in the field to not underestimate the importance of audio and lighting. He concluded, “A good mic and an overhead light, as well as two small color LED lights, can go a long way in shaping your webcasting look without breaking the bank. The secret to a good feed lies in a decent mic, lighting, practical backdrop, a good camera, a recorder, and a device like U-TAP.”

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