The Solitary Confinement Project

James Burns voluntarily spent 30 days in solitary confinement beginning on December 12th, 2016.  I was tapped to DoP the project and livestream the entirety of the 30 days via Youtube Live.  We also made several supplemental videos.  My write up on the process follows.

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When James told me he wanted to spend thirty days in solitary confinement, I got angry. I already knew a little bit about his prior experience with the justice system. It seemed to me that he was putting himself through unnecessary hardship. We discussed it at length. He explained the potential for good the project had and I was soon convinced.  I continue to be so honored that he felt I was the right person to help him achieve it.


Once we’d resolved to do the project, I was then faced with the challenge of how to do the project. The easiest way to make it happen would be to tap into the existing cameras in the cell block.  We traveled to Parker, Arizona to scout the jail there. There were two cameras in the hallway outside the cell and one in an overhead nook inside.  They were all grainy, black and white, 4x3, standard definition images from high-angles.  These factors led to a sense of removal from the cell - of “other-ness," that we wanted to fight.  We wanted to make the“other,” familiar. We wanted to re-sensistize people to the reality of incarceration and isolation.


This led me to a few technical priorities:


  • We needed to shoot in a frame rate of 24 frames per second to achieve cinematic motion blur and move away from the electronic sharpness of 30 or 60 frame video.

  • We needed to bring the camera angles down closer to eye level.

  • We needed to shoot in color.

  • We needed to shoot in high definition with even exposure so that nothing was concealed.


Due to the limited budget and accelerated prep schedule, we also needed to build a system that could be remotely operated.


We contracted the services of Advanced Systems Group to assist with the livestream architecture and location build.  Our team from ASG included Andy Darcy, Matt Minnihan and Brent Kennedy who did the build-out, and Chris Keath without whose energy, intelligence and creativity this would not have been possible.


These considerations, combined with the budgetary limitations, restricted the number of camera systems we could use. It came down to two systems that had the right form factor, remote-operation and the ability to set framerate to 23.976fps: The AJA RovoCam and the Blackmagic Design Micro Studio 4k.  We settled on the Blackmagic system because of the ATEM switcher with SDI camera control, the smaller size of the BMD Micro Studios and the price. Lenses were selected based on spec provided by BMD indicating which lenses would allow for remote iris and focus control.  Due to the Micro Studio 4k’s crop factor, I settled on an 8mm fisheye for the master and a 14mm prime for the coverage angle.


The jail itself is based on a pod-system with a central panopticon-esque tower that controls everything in the facility.  In order to tap into their systems and also set up our own, the most logical place for our rack was a utility room directly above the central tower.  It was only accessible by taking a series of ladders to the roof, walking across to an alarmed, locked and guarded access hatch and dropping down inside.  The jail staff - Karl and Gerry - graciously offered to pull cable for us from the cell that James would be living in back to the utility room.

We wound up pulling six different HD-SDI runs which we fed through the air vent and manually terminated on-site in the two days prior to going live. We also wound up running a single Cat5e cable which I’ll explain later.  We were lucky that the available cell was right next to an access panel into the ventilation and electrical systems so we could house some of our power right by the cell.


We installed the switching and broadcasting components in a half-rack case in the sheriff’s conference room and tested it for a few days.  When the time came, we hoisted the whole case up through a hatch in the ceiling of the tower and plugged everything in.  The SDI runs went into a Blackmagic Design ATEM switcher.  We also wanted to tap into the jail’s camera feeds for times when James was not in his cell (we were unable to place cameras outside his cell as there were going to be other inmates with access to them). For that, we took encrypted composite video runs up from the jail’s tower system into a DVR/decryption deck, ran that signal through a Decimator MD-HX and into the ATEM. The ATEM was controlled by redundant MacMini’s with an attached Synology 12TB NAS.  We also had an AJA KiPro for manually capturing key moments in various flavors of ProRes.  The ATEM pushed its signal to dual Matrox Monoarch HDX’s, again to maintain redundancy which would then push an RTMP feed to Youtube Live.  Finally, the Matrox boxes were configured to record program feed at 10mbps h.264 directly to the NAS, segmenting every hour.  We were in talks to work with various CDN services but due to the extremely accelerated prep time, none of them felt confident that they could implement in time.


Finally - that Cat5e cable from the cell.  I ordered an Axis M1034-W home security IP camera.  It has 720p resolution and a built-in mic.  We plugged the Cat5e into that as a last-ditch backup camera in the cell and ran the ethernet back directly into our cable modem.  From there, I installed Camstreamer - a consumer app that rips the RTSP feed from the Axis camera and pushes it directly to YouTube live.  This meant that our only non-redundant point in the stream was the ISP (Frontier Communications) who informed us that there was no scheduled down-time in December or January.


I want to talk for one moment about the schedule for this prep and production.  James put 8 months of legwork into the prep but due to a number of factors that, frankly, are above my pay grade, we weren’t sure if this was going to happen until about two weeks before we hit “Start Streaming.”  We had some ideas in place about how to do it but nothing was concrete.  We got the greenlight on Monday, November 28th, 2016.  It was important for all of us to do the project before the president-elect took office on January 20th due to that person’s insistence on using various forms of torture (including waterboarding and isolation of juveniles) against citizens of the United States serving time in the penal system.  Working backwards, that meant we’d need James to go in, at the latest, on December 19th.  To give us a little more clearance from the Trump media circus, we settled on December 12th.


The first week of prep was a flurry of meeting and emails to get the whole team on the same page.  We met with ASG and architected the system on December 1st, ordered the parts on December 6th and began the install on December 8th.  We completed the install on December 11th - just 24 hours before going live - and spent the remaining time testing and keeping our fingers crossed.


It was a challenge to get it all done and running in the time allotted but the team involved was completely focused and supportive of each other.


On a personal level, the system implementation turned out to be the easy part.  James and I spent his last day of freedom together in Parker, AZ.  We had amazing lunch at the local carniceria. He made phone calls to his friends and family.  Then I did my usual thing and hoisted a camera up on my shoulder to film the booking process.  I did not expect the level of emotion that I experienced seeing my friend walk out of the showers wearing prison orange.  My wife the costume designer always told me that the clothes can make the man but I never experienced it on such a visceral level until I saw James in that jumpsuit.  His posture had changed - slumped almost instantly - and his face was drawn and tight.  He was trying to maintain his usual bright, thoughtful demeanor but anyone could see that the clothing and the process of relinquishing his freedom were weighing on his mind. I became suddenly aware that I was to be the last familiar face he’d be seeing for a while.  I put the camera down and we spoke for a while.  I took his picture on my phone - just to have it.


The time came and the guards gave him his bedroll, towel and hygiene items. We walked down the long hallway to Henry block.  I meant to get some bullshit film student shot of the door closing him off but I found that I had to follow him into the pod.  At the top of the stairs outside his cell, James turned and caught my eye.  Without saying anything, he nodded.  I looked around from my camera - my shield - and nodded silently back.  Then - I got that shot of the door slamming shut.


Cameras: Blackmagic Design Micro Studio 4k, Canon C300, Canon 5Dmkii, Axis M1034-W.

Lenses: Panasonic Lumix G MFT 8mm and 14mm, Canon L-Series 24mm-105mm IS USM