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October 22, 2020

The Art of Video: Grant Burton, Royal Australian Air Force Training Video Producer, Talks about Combat Survival, Fire School and Puppies


Grant Burton served for 20 years in the Royal Australian Air Force and for the last 14 years he has worked with them as a civilian in charge of shooting and post-producing their training videos. We spoke with him about his what he does and how he does it. It turned into a fascinating discussion of combat survival, aerobatics, fire school training and … puppies.

Listen to Cirina Catania’s interview with Grant Burton:

Watch some of Grant’s work on YouTube.

Not bad for a shooting location.  Grant Burton talks about his job as Training Video Producer for the Royal Australian Air Force.

Not bad for a shooting location. Grant Burton talks about his job as Training Video Producer for the Royal Australian Air Force.

TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW:
Cirina Catania:
Grant Burton is the training video producer for the Royal Australian Air Force, and we’re talking to him as he’s driving along the central highlands of Victoria, Australia, somewhere outside of Melbourne. So, if we don’t hit too many hills, Grant, we’re going to be able to hear you clearly. How are you, today?
Grant Burton:
I’m very well, thank you, and yourself?
Cirina Catania:
I just wanted to let everyone hear about you and what you do, because I think it’s just fascinating. So, tell us: what is your mission for the air force?
Grant Burton:
My mission is to deliver all video-based training material for the Royal Australian Air force. That sounds like a big blanket. It is, because I’m probably one of the few people that sees every aspect of Air Force training, from a Clerk, who fills out paperwork, up to a pilot, engineering, Air combat officers. Not just air operation, but anything on the ground. Every single job in the air force, and there are, I think at last count about sixty unique jobs in the air force, and I cover the video training or the digital media training for every single one of those jobs.
Cirina Catania:
Oh my. Can you tell us about one of the more recent missions you were on? What did you film?
Grant Burton:
I just wrapped up a project for 1FTS, and One Flying Training School covers not pilots, but people who sit on the other side of the seat. We call them ACO’s for short. Everything’s an abbreviation in the military, but ACO stands for: Air Combat Officer. An air combat officer is someone who sits in many aircrafts. You can sit in King Air aircraft, air surveillance aircraft, they can even sit on the ground. They can do anything from search and rescue operations, coordinating targeting, that sort of thing, through to the guys who actually drop weapons and target weapons and air-intercept and other things like that. Their job, as I’ve described it is hard to describe , since we’ve got new aircraft that have this role, it’s a huge range job. Unlike Those who can fly aircraft, Which is a specific role, and that seems to be defining of their job. An air combat officer has a very wide and very varied role, depending on what they’re flying in or where they’re actually stationed, in the world.
I’ve just been putting a heap of training together for them, because they’ve been installing some new simulators that help them train in this job and like all of these things, they needed training that would help students and instructors operate the simulators. Since there are only a limited amount of simulators and there’s more students than simulators, they needed something they could do anywhere, any time, on any platform and that falls to video.
A lot of people over-think things often in training they think, “We need virtual reality. We need some sort of computer based simulation.” Video, still, while not very modern, It’s an old medium, these days, but it often gets overlooked in terms of training. People think that it’s linear, which it can be, but all the training that we do is scenario-based, but branching.
What I mean by branching is, if you remember back when we were children and we had the things like pop-up choose your own adventure books and you used to choose decisions in the book about your main character, what you wanted him to do. Did he want to go left, did he want to go right, did he want to pick up the ax or whatever it was. Those old text adventures, they were basically branching. We do the same thing to some of our video, where we have a scenario of a particular situation, and then the student enters decision points: gets to choose A, B, C, or D, like multiple choice.
To be honest, it’s a very old concept. If people can remember back in the old arcades in the eighties, they used to do laser disc video based games. It’s not much different than that. You made a decision with the joystick, they’d play the next scene.
Cirina Catania:
How do you use that, then, in your training? Can you be a little bit more specific with me about some of the choices these air combat officers might have to make in their training videos?
Grant Burton:
What they may have to make, they may have a (one of the scenarios that I saw) they may have a number of targets or unidentified objects, and it may be up to them to identify what each one of those are. What the targets close to the aircraft are, the further away ones, the ones that are giving a bigger radar signature. Which ones do I identify first and target with cameras and surveillance on? Those decisions dictate flight paths. It’s almost like the air combat officers dictate where the pilot flies, and that is true in this regard.
Cirina Catania:
Do you have a script that you’re working with when you’re shooting this? How does that work.
Grant Burton:
That’s correct. The only producer, generally, is me. As in terms, that’s the only term actually relating to myself. What we call them is SMEs which stands for subject matter experts. Obviously I’m not a pilot. I’m not an air combat officer and I’m not an engineer or anything like that. I’ve been a video producer for over thirty years. I depend on them.
Cirina Catania:
What equipment are you using to shoot these?
Grant Burton:
A Sony NX5 is my prime camera.
Cirina Catania:
What about audio?
Grant Burton:
I also use a Go Pro and iPhones. I use all RODE microphones. I’ve got a number of different shotgun microphones and boom microphones, as well. As well as Senheiser wireless microphones which are used for pretty much, I’d say 80%, of my cockpit voice recording and things like that because getting good audio, especially when flying aircraft is an extreme challenge.
Cirina Catania:
How do you do that in such a noisy environment? I’m curious.
Grant Burton:
Normally, if it’s one of the ground simulators, I can use those Senheiser microphones I just spoke about. There’s a safety issue about, obviously, having any wireless transmitters inside an operational aircraft, so I resort to a really primitive method. I use the good old apple headphones with an XLR to 9 millimeter jack converter on my Sony camera and I put those, because it turned the headphones basically into a microphone, and I put them inside the aircraft headsets (that way you can hear all the radio comms) and I captured all the audio comms that way.
Cirina Catania:
I love it.
Grant Burton:
It’s a simple method, but I’m not actually physically allowed to plug anything into that aircraft. It’s a safety breech. I can’t have any transmitters so that … Also, it solves the noise problem, because the aircraft headsets all the pilots wear are noise-cancelling and very sound proofing. Surprisingly, you get very good audio. Because their audio is no better than a telephone call type conversation, the audio’s quite clear. It works.
Cirina Catania:
We’re gonna dub you Grant MacGyver Burton.
Grant Burton:
That’s the one, yeah. Chewing gum and spitball, I can make anything.
Cirina Catania:
So, what about post? You go in all the simulators and you’re shooting all this footage, you bring it all back. How are you posting it? How are you editing it? And on what NLE? What’s your workflow?
Grant Burton:
All Final Cut, to me. I have a slew of different computers. I have a MacBook pro. I have a 5K iMac at home, which I edit on, and a Mac Pro at work. All with Drobo, (I’m putting in a free plug for them). They make some excellent systems. I’ve tried using other RAID’s in the past, I’ve had nothing but problems when RAID’s fail or drives fail on customized RAID’s. I’ve had a Drobo in there for the past two years, or a number of Drobo’s now. I found them faultless and very reliable.
I operate between those three computers, and ever since Final Cut has moved to single file type architecture for projects, it’s just made my life so much easier because I move projects all the time on portable hard drives between computers. I can just pick up editing. If I need to edit at work, I just pick up a 200GB project, tack it on an external hard drive, take it to work. If I need to work on it at home, I tack that project back onto that external hard drive and take it home or work on a laptop, if I’m in a motel room remotely somewhere. Final Cut works brilliantly in every way for me. Especially being the solo editor, producer, I haven’t been made to worry about things–sharing projects and things like that. Which Final Cut sometimes gets criticised ffor, but for me it’s a non-issue.
Cirina Catania:
You’re carrying all this gear with you, right?
Grant Burton:
Yep.
Cirina Catania:
Have you migrated to SSD drives yet, or are you still on spinners?
Grant Burton:
My iMac is a hybrid. It’s a fusion drive, as they call it. Macbook Pros are all SSD now, but my MacPro, which is actually quite an old one. It’s just about to be replaced very soon, actually. It’s actually an early 2009 big steel case thing, but it has four spinning hard drives. You do notice the difference. I notice my iMac and SSD based MacBook pro, which is brand new … I may be doing, as I’ve just done, sixty to seventy projects at once. I’ll often migrate between those very quickly. Having an SSD is light speed. With a spinning hard drive you get the old spinning beach ball. It’s thinking and thinking.
I think also, because I’m talking about my MacPro at work, the fact that they’re not the latest i7 processors. They don’t multi-thread the processes very well, so you tend to wait a little while between projects to swap. But you’ve been copying a lot. Quite often they’re the same attributes, as I said, attributes for the whole bunch of stuff and I need to copy those attributes into other projects.
Modern macs, they’re great. The older Macs? They tend to stall out. If I try to do too many things at once I get the old dreaded, “This application has crashed.”
Cirina Catania:
You know what I did? I have a 2011 MacBook Pro and I was going to buy a new one and then I realized, if I got an OWC internal SSD drive and swapped it out, I could now have a 1TB SSD drive internal in my Macbook Pro. It became a screamer machine. Everything’s faster. You might want to look into that.
I was asking you, actually, about your external, portable drives. Have you switched those to SSD as well?
Grant Burton:
No. They’re all just spinning hard drives but I never actually edit on those, I just use them as a transport medium. Once I get the project home I’ll put it back onto my primary hard drive.
I’ve accidentally edited with one that still connected and not actually copying a project across and I actually didn’t find the performance too bad. I didn’t even notice it until once I looked at the blinking light behind my computer and went, “Oh right, I’m still editing on the external hard drive.”
I think the reason I didn’t see so much performance difference is that it was a USB3 based drive. That seems to be fine. The other thing is, I’m not doing 4k or anything like that. I’m still in full HD and using the HDV codec, which is fairly compressed, so I’m not having to use huge amounts of data stream. I think if I was in the uncompressed HD or in the 4k, for example, there’s no way I could get away with doing anything but SSDs
The only issue, back to your Macbook Pro, I actually had a couple of clients who’ve done the same thing as yourself and they said it was good for a year or two, but then they found their logic-board failed. When they took it to Apple and said, “Hey, my logic-board failed.” They said, “Yeah, it’s because of the heat.”
The SSDs actually throw out a lot more heat than the original spinning hard drives and tend to cause problems with the logic-boards. That’s something you have to be aware of, apparently.
Cirina Catania:
Interesting. Well, I’ve been using mine for a couple of years now. I’ll have to check that out. That’s a good subject for another interview, isn’t it? What about VR? Are you shooting anything in VR? It would seem like training videos would be perfect for that.
Grant Burton:
They are. We’ve only just scratched the surface. I haven’t personally, but I have a lot of contact with other schools with other people not responsible for air force. In fact, the base I work at has army as well as navy schools on it as well. It’s a big, what we call tri-service institute. Language training school has taken a fair bit of footage with 360Flys. People can Google those cameras.
What they did, or what they were doing, taking people to different Asian countries to experience what it’s like to be in a market situation, just to get the environment feel. That’s quite costly to fly students to the Philippines and so forth. Even from Australia, which is only really like next door neighbors. It’s like someone flying to Texas from California.
What they did was capture that and that way they can capture all the video with these 360 cameras and the students can look at anywhere using Google Cardboard, which are these little adapters you put on your smartphone and you can look anywhere in the environment and immerse yourself in that.
For certain training situations, I think it can be valuable if you’re looking into that fully immersive experience. My aircrew are unconvinced that’s the way to go and I can understand that, because single-frame video (as it’s now called, apparently) you can direct the student’s focus to a particular interest and a particular point, whereas in VR you can look anywhere and have your attention anywhere.
That’s great if you’re looking for absorption or immersive experiences, but not when you’re trying to teach something that’s sequential or a step-by-step process. You need their attention focused on a particular thing and not looking at the sky or how pretty that dress is over there or something like that, which you get when you capture VR. You capture absolutely everything.
Cirina Catania:
You’re talking to a creative person who’d be all over the place with that. I think you’d have a hard time focusing me. I’m curious about one thing: what is the most interesting thing you’ve ever shot? Something that’s very cool you might want to tell us about.
Grant Burton:
Trying to think. There’s so many things.
Cirina Catania:
For you, it’s your daily work. For us, I’m going, “Oh my gosh, this is really interesting.”
Grant Burton:
I think the best time I’ve had in recent memory, there’s been two highlights. One was going up in … We do a course for aircrew called combat survival. In combat survival, we teach two aspects to it: one, how to survive if you get ejected. Whole scenario, you’ve ejected from a plane, you’ve got five days to be rescued, you’ve got to learn how to survive. You may eject in a very cold climate, with snow, or you may eject somewhere that’s tropical and the leeches are going to get you in the woods and stuff.
I haven’t done the tropical component, gladly because that doesn’t sound like fun, but I’ve done the snow component and that was a challenge in itself, because I’ve never tried to get camera gear operating in very sub zero temperatures. I was literally hip deep in white powdered snow and I suddenly realized that tramping around with a lot of camera gear, after an hour, is the best fitness regime you could ever possibly have, but it was extremely interesting about survival techniques. I had no idea how to get water out of snow and how to actually be warm and all that sort of thing by digging in the snow and building all these different type of arrangements they build to survive in. So, that was one.
The other one was only last year, before I went to the states, I was doing an airshow video where I did aerobatics. That was filming ground, aircraft with Go Pros and inside with a studio-based camera inside of the cockpit. That was more challenging than I originally thought because of G forces being pulled and everything else. Also because for the first time in my entire life, I experienced motion sickness.
Cirina Catania:
I was going to ask you, did you get sick? The last time I tried doing something like that, I was very embarrassed. It was all I could do not to you know what. It was hard.
Grant Burton:
Fact was, it was my own fault. I blame the camera. It was the camera’s fault. You think, “How could that be?” Well what most cameras, well certainly my NX5 camera has, has a geo-stabilizer in it, like a lot of cameras do. So, when you’re looking through the viewfinder or the eyepiece, you get a nice stable image, whereas my other eye (which generally is open or half-closed or whichever, when you only look through one eye on the eye piece). One eye was doing one thing, and the other eye was was seeing another thing, my whole brain was thrown. I was incredibly ill. I didn’t embarrass myself or anything like that, but the next day I didn’t look through the viewfinder at all, it was just basically: set focus to infinity, because I was trying to be cinematic about it and do manual focus and all that sort of thing. After all that, I am going focus to infinity and I am not gonna look through the viewfinder, I’m just going to point the camera lens in a direction and hope that that’s good enough for the second day of shooting.
By Jingo’s, it actually worked. I didn’t get motion sick once. It was all because I was throwing my head out of focus with the geo-stabilizer on the camera itself.
Cirina Catania:
That’s a good technique, because I think I got sick because I was looking the same way you had been in the beginning trying to shoot buffaloes in Montana, and I had a client with me. It gets embarrassing. Did the guys make fun of you the next day?
Grant Burton:
No, they were very apologetic. They said, “Sorry for making you sick.” I had to reassure them and all that because I was trying to wrack my head because I’ve done aerobatics before, and I’ve never been sick. I’ve done stupid maneuvers in aircraft by pilots and nothing makes me throw up. Roller-coasters make me ill but aircraft don’t.
I was trying to think about it and I thought, I bet you if I turn the geo-stabilizer off I won’t get sick. Then I thought, no, being the professional that I am. I want the quality shot, I don’t want bouncy, shaky camera looking like some rotten movie that Michael Bay shot or something. I want steady, clean shots. So I thought, well, point and shoot and hope that everything’s sort of working. Occasionally I’d make a glance at the viewfinder but very rarely, because I knew any more than about twenty or thirty seconds, it’s like reading in a car, i would be sick
Cirina Catania:
What’s next for you that you can talk about?
Grant Burton:
I got a really cute one. I’ve got to out to security fire school in the next few weeks and film puppies. And you think, “Why would I film puppies?” We have attack dogs. We have dogs that secure our bases and our fence lines and so forth and they have a thing called a puppy training program. What it is, we have dogs from puppies and they’re looked after by normal people, civilians, for about several months before they’re brought back into the school and then trained to be attack dogs.
So, for that several months there’s certain rules, or certain things we want the people that look after them to do: how to walk them properly, not to lead, do this, do that, some basic commands. I’ve got to put together a training video for just the public on how to look after those puppies.
Cirina Catania:
Aww.
Grant Burton:
You think air force training’s all flying and stuff, but no. It’s everything. It is … I think when I was up doing … Only a couple months ago I was doing a video at an explosive ordinance school where they blow stuff up and teach people how blow bombs up and fit weapons on planes and the training officer there said, “You might have one of the most interesting jobs in the air force, because you see everything. You see every facet, every aspect, every bit of training. Whereas most people can go their entire careers and not see that.” I said, “I agree.” I was in the air force myself for about twenty years, and in the fourteen that I’ve been out and working back for them as a civilian back for the air force, I’ve seen more in the last fourteen years than I’d seen in the twenty years in terms of people’s jobs and everything else. Yeah, it’s crazy, nuts, and interesting all at once.
Cirina Catania:
It’s nice to talk to somebody who loves what they do and is doing work that is very important. We’re speaking with Grant Burton, training video producer for the Royal Australian Air Force, who is still driving in his car, somewhere outside of Melbourne, Australia. Grant, thank you. It’s fun speaking with you.
Grant Burton:
Thank you. Thank you very much.

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