I like to go over to Zilker Park, in the very center of Austin, Texas, at least once during the holiday season to look at the giant "tree" (a moon light tower festooned with lights) and to savor the carnival atmosphere that has evolved over the years. Under the tree are tacky vendors galore, hawking funnel cakes, turkey legs, kettle corn, corn dogs and other weird, Texas festival foods.
Across the street but still in the park is the TRAIL OF LIGHTS!!!! It's a series of Christmas tableaux with lights and Potemkin scenery. The whole affair used to be put on by the city of Austin, and local business footed the bill for creating the myriad "Santa's Villages" and "A Power Ranger Christmas" scenes in exchange for tasteful little signs; along the lines of "brought to you by the folks at H.E.B."
In the days before our massive population explosion the two week long event was free to anyone who wanted to attend. There were "special" days when car traffic was prohibited and everyone would actually walk through the quarter mile long set up. Most recent years, and on most days, the reality was an endless line of cars whose inhabitants might wait several hours in a line, perfumed with auto exhaust, in order to drive through, bumper to bumper, and stare out the window at........Christmas lights.
The resulting traffic jams in all the surrounding neighborhoods led local wags to re-name the "Trail of Lights" to "The Trail of Headlights."
The city ran out of money to underwrite the event back in the bleak days of 2008 and 2009 but then the event rose from the dead and fell into the hands of the private sector. Now the park land adjacent to the "tree" and the "Trail of Lights" becomes home to a giant, compacted parking lot for thousands of cars, each of which pays through the nose for the chance to park close. Thousands of newly arrived Austinites ride over on privately chartered school bus services from points downtown and south of town. And everyone gets to pay $3 a piece to stroll through......Christmas lights.....and the much bigger and better lit signs "thanking" the sponsors.
It's now more like "Monster Truck show" meets "Rodeo" meets the Holiday Season.... They have even introduced a Ferris Wheel, and rides.
But, is there a better time to break out a video camera and walk down from my house to see the cultural show unfold before my eyes? I think not. With a happy, new awareness of the secrets of operating Sony still cameras as video cameras I was anxious to go somewhere visual and put what I've learned into practice.
I grabbed a Sony a6300, along with its 18-105mm zoom lens and a Rode StereoMic, and headed on over. The microphone was there to record natural sound and any chance interviews I might create. I put the camera into the manual mode on the mode selector dial and applied the correct shutter speed and aperture along with Auto ISO (ranging from 100-6400) and headed over. I decided to shoot in 4K just to see how the image stabilization worked with my handheld shooting.
Here's my takeaway: The a6300, when shooting in 4K and downsampling in FCPX to 1080p, makes files that handle noise extremely well, show a high degree of sharpness and saturation and look very detailed on my 27 inch screen. Even with assistance from the lens's I.S. I am hardly a paragon of fine handholding technique and wish I had taken a monopod (at least) to provide a more stable shooting platform. If I eschew the movie mode on the selector dial and just initiate my video clips by leaving the camera in the "M" mode I gain the ability to zoom way, way in for fine focusing before I start shooting, which is a major advantage. I lose the ability to see the exact framing before I start rolling the video. The video frame is always smaller... If I switch to the "M" mode, or one of the other PSAM modes instead of the movie icon I also enable automatic level control for my external microphone. Which can be quite useful. If I need to have exact audio level control then I have to venture back into "movie" mode territory. C'est la vie.
There were many little voyeuristic snippets I caught as I roamed through the crowds with my camera but I'm resistant to putting up "test" nonsense. My final video observation is that the a6300 is a wonderful and truly portable ENG video camera capable of great image quality; even at ISO 6400. Down at ISO 100 it's almost unbelievable. The cage helps balance out accessories and gives me more to grab on to. I have new respect for my tripods...
My final cultural observation is: I am much more comfortable with these kinds of holidays being more private, family or close community oriented events and less comfortable with them being grand spectacles of modern entertainment culture. The long lines, noisy diesel generators, and crowds of people in the middle of what is usually a beautiful park is a painful reminder that society is in a mad rush to make every life event into a mass spectacle thus robbing each event of its power and dignity. A visual that summed up the intrusion of modern culture into the "tree" at Zilker was the addition, just this year, of big, American flags at each corner of the "tree." If there is a holiday that should be free of blatant nationalism one would think this would be it... Can't imagine that Santa has the stars and stripes hanging from his sleigh or that the baby Jesus was swaddled in "old glory" in the manger...
We have succeeded in turning our wonderful "central" park into a tacky, outdoor mall and our holiday into a spectacle. Oh cheer!