Sixty-to-One Ratio

First Soldier: Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?
King Arthur: Not at all. They could be carried.
First Soldier: What? A swallow carrying a coconut?
King Arthur: It could grip it by the husk!
First Soldier: It’s not a question of where he grips it! It’s a simple question of weight ratios! A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)


When I was in college and working at the now-dearly-departed WBAU Radio, I got to be pretty good at producing short pieces for broadcast. I had a slightly different approach to the task from that of my colleagues, however: while most of them would create several discrete pieces and then piece them together into a coherent whole through editing (and remember, this was the days of magnetic tape, razor blades and splicing tape).

I was very good at editing tape, but I didn’t like to do it if I didn’t have to. So my approach was often to work with as little editing as possible, doing everything as though it were live and on-the-air, but with the safety net of knowing that I was not, in fact, broadcasting.

It looks like an 8-track, but it usually only held two tracks and was better designed. This one looks pretty short, maybe about 20-30 seconds in length. So I’d set up the music on turntables, reel-to-reel deck, instant-start tapes (called “carts”, short for cartridge), and I’d mix the whole piece as I went along, starting and stopping music or sound effects while reading my script into the mike. This wasn’t always easy, especially working with the carts, which were usually designed to fast-forward in order to re-cue themselves. When they did that, they’d often stop with a THWACK that the microphone would pick up. This meant that I had to stop the carts manually as I started something else. And, if I screwed up my recording, I’d have to wait for the carts to re-cue before I could take another pass at recording. Not a huge pain, but a pain nonetheless.

I was also remarkably self-critical when it came to my broadcasting work. Often I’d record over thirty takes and then settle on number seventeen as the one that “sucks the least.” But one rule that seemed to hold true was that, no matter how long the piece was that I was recording (unless it was an entire show for later broadcast), I maintained a 60-to-1 ratio of time expended-to-air audio. So, a thirty-second piece would take me a half-hour to cut. A sixty-second bit would take me an hour. The 60:1 Rule seemed to be immutable, or at least tolerated only small variations.

Flash-Forward to this century:

A couple of weeks ago, Wife wanted to work on a project with some of the students in her school. The theme was War, and she wanted to make a video. I wasn’t sure what kind of video you can make that would involve a bunch of sixth-graders, but I had a few suggestions for her, including something that looked like this:

This, specifically, would be a little ambitious for ten year-olds (especially the French at the end) and obviously you couldn’t use the same gags, but you get the idea. Wife liked the idea of doing some kind of lip sync, however, and started looking around for songs that she could use. Some of the songs she thought about were John Lennon’s “Imagine”, Edwin Starr’s “War”, Garth Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love”. She showed the students a set of lyrics for each song and they selected “Where is the Love”.

Over a few days’ period, she put together some kind of concept for the video: that it would start with a news broadcast, that there’d be a mock UN Summit, war protestors, kids getting drafted and a few other odds and ends, interspersed with images from historical conflicts. And anything that wasn’t an historical image would feature the kids lip-synching to “Where is the Love”. Different kind of Flip Video. Better, thank you. She then borrowed a Flip Video camera and shot the students in these varied situations, often letting the same place stand in for assorted locations. For this four-minutes-and-change video, she shot most scenes twice, about forty clips in all. With that, plus the historical footage, there was plenty for us to work with when it came time to edit the video.

The big problem was with several of the kids who, despite knowing that they wouldn’t be heard on the finished project, wouldn’t sing. Not at all. There’s no lip synch if there’s no lip movement at all, you know? And at the point where Wife brought her raw material home for us to work on a couple of evenings ago, there was going to be no opportunity for reshoots or pickup shots, or inserts, or anything else. Whatever we had as far as the kids, was what we had.

So Wife and I sat down and downloaded the clips to my laptop. Then, using the Windows Live Movie Maker, we stitched together a video that, in most places where the students are on camera, they actually look sort of like they’re singing.

We started working at around 9:00 PM. A little after 1:00 AM, we had a finished video. 3:49 for the song, 12 seconds for the intro and outro video. Total elapsed time including breaks: just a shade over four hours.

The 60:1 Ratio lives on.

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