If everyone that owns a [camera] would take the time to apply some of the following professional but simple shooting and editing techniques in their next video, watching home movies is going to be a better experience for your family and friends. Today’s technology gives us video cameras with all the bells and whistles we could want except one… how to shoot!
The following tips are from my Professional Shooting Secrets for [Camera] Owners Workshops that I present to varied groups around Western Canada. Try them out for yourself and I guarantee in no time you will be shooting like a pro. There are more tips in my book, “Marketing with Film and Video”.
First make a plan. All the pros use this technique and you should too. Plan every detail of your video from start to finish using “PPP”. This stands for pre-production planning. It’s what every savvy producer does to guarantee a successful production and you can never do enough of it.
There are several aspects to PPP, but one of the big ones is called your storyboard.
Start with a blank piece of paper. Draw four rectangular shapes on the left side of the page, one under the other. This is called a storyboard. Inside the shapes draw out your shots. You don’t have to be an artist, just so long as you can follow what you are doing. Off the right of each pane make your notes about the shot and don’t forget to number each shot. This PPP storyboard will be your show on paper and if it works on paper it should also work on tape.
Ready, camera, action. It doesn’t matter whether you are a professional or an amateur film or video maker. You need to remember this simple phrase, each time you set up the camera — “LFAST”. It stands for:
- Level the camera
- Focus the lens
- Set the aperture
- Set the shutter
- Set the time code or counter.
Do this every time you set up and you’ll be ahead of the game later when you produce your film. Another good tip is each time you change to another tape, start of your counter or time code with 01 or 02 etc. This will allow you to make a log later when viewing the tape as to which shots on what numbered tape.
Not using a good tripod can give you really lousy vacation videos. Some tripods have what we call a “friction head” that is metal against metal as you pan or tilt the camera. A better type of tripod has what we call a “fluid head”. This type will give you smooth panning or tilting shots and look very professional. Good tripods can be acquired from companies like: Manfrotto, Sachtler, Miller, and Cartoni. It’s well worth paying for a good tripod.
Make your video like real film. There is a simple but exciting way to make your video look more like film and take away the harsh look of video. It’s an old Hollywood technique that kept aging starlets always looking good. Using an elastic band to hold it in place, simply put a thin mesh fabric such as a black or white nylon stocking over the camera lens and check out the results. This technique is great for making candles or light sources glow with a bit of a star like effect.
Get the filter look without filters. This is a great technique for amateur filmmakers. Go to the art supply store and purchase a half dozen pastel pieces of show card. It’s important to make sure these cards are light in color not dense. Now instead of white balancing your camera on a piece of white card try balancing on these show cards and you will get a host of filter like color effects from your camera without having to purchase any filters to do the job. Great for creating moonlight effects and old-time looks to your videos, you know the sepia or what use to be called photo brown technique.
Only Superman should zoom. If you have to zoom then do it like a pro. I can’t count the number of amateur video contest I have had to judge that are loaded with bad zoom shots.
Here is what to do to get around this problem. (Without the camera rolling), zoom in on the subject (a man seated) focus the camera on his eyes till they look sharp. Zoom back to your wide angle setting. Now start the camera and hold for 5 seconds on this wide angle view. Now zoom slowly into the close-up, when you get their hold for 5 seconds. The beauty of this technique is that if you decide you don’t like the zoom you can hold on the wide shot and cut to the close-up in editing because you have left enough room on each end of the shot, get it??
Get great color for your video all day long. Always remember to re-white balance your video camera every hour or so when shooting outside or when shooting under different lighting conditions. Back in the 1700’s a gentleman named Lord Kelvin came up with a system for measuring the color of light and objects. For video purposes, it works like this.
The rising sun is measured at around 2000 degrees Kelvin, a very amber look. Same thing with the setting sun. When we are into midday the color, because of the blue sky, is around 6000 degrees Kelvin. If you white balance your camera at 8 am, shoot a scene from your hotel window and then take another shot around 1 pm. You will notice later in editing that the colour is quite different. Much bluer in the second shot. This is because you didn’t re-white balance at 1 pm. So always re-balance every hour or so when shooting outside.
Oh, and one other tip when it comes to color. Shooting under most fluorescent lights (which are cool white), you will notice a slight green look to your images. This is because these fluorescents have only blue and green in them. There is no red spike. Professionally we use a filter called an 812
(pronounced eight twelve) to warm things up when shooting under these lights.
How to use Image displacement. The term image displacement simply refers to having an object or main action in your frame that ends one shot and replacing this image with another image in the next shot but at the same spot in the frame. Keeping the main action in the same part of the screen will really help your editing. You can’t always do this, especially if you are editing dialogue, but for silent images it’s great.
You can also use colors and shapes within this principle. For example, you could finish one shot, say in a kitchen, by zooming (slowly please!) into a chrome kettle. Then you could pull out on your next shot from a chrome hubcap on a car. Try zooming into some one’s red jacket and then pull out on your next shot from a red rose. Get the idea?? Cool Huh? And yes you can call this “in camera editing”.
How to shoot better vacations videos. Next time you are on vacation and you want to show your audience a specific area, don’t just wander around with the camera. Start with a nice wide pan shot showing the whole area. If you pan from left to right then don’t go back doing the same thing right to left. Your audience has already seen this point of view.
Now go in closer and give your audience more detailed information. You might just change your focal length (a tighter shot, but not zooming) and give some closer more detailed views of specific areas that were in your master or initial wide shot. When you have completed this, go in for some nice close-up shots of even more detail. Just like the pro’s do it.
Professionally when we cover a scene in a film we not only get all the different angles but also make sure that we get “cutaways”, “reactions”, and “inserts”. Let me explain. A cutaway is any action going on close to the main action and in parallel time. An example might be a fight in an alley and suddenly you see cop car going by the end of the alley. Shots like these are used to get around editing problems by distracting the audience or it could be used just for pacing the scene. A reaction shot is simply that, someone reacting to the scene. Make sure when you are showing a particular view that you cut to someone obviously enjoying or reacting to the view. An insert shot is just a big close up of some item that without the shot we as the audience wouldn’t have the full info.
For example, a man sneaks into an office at night and opens a desk drawer, the insert shot is what is in the drawer, and by the way, it’s never a bag of popcorn but always a gun. Sometimes you wonder if Hollywood couldn’t do better?
Using the clean frame technique. Never start a shot with the action of a person already in the frame. Have the person come into the frame from outside the frame and when the action is finished have them leave the frame. This is called the “clean frame technique” and will be terrifically helpful at the editing stages by providing more choices of where to make the cut.
Let me explain further. In professional motion picture shooting, we generally use one camera which means the actors have to repeat their dialogue once in the master wide shot, once in the medium shot, and once again for the close-ups. So let say in a master wide shot we see an empty chair in the middle of a room. A woman comes into the room from the left of the camera and sits down in the chair… CUT! Now we re-frame for the medium or tighter shot. The woman now comes in again from outside left of our frame and sits down again… CUT! Now we reframe tighter for the close-up. Once again she comes into the frame from outside the frame and repeats the same action.
This way of shooting allows lots of room in editing the three shots together. We can cut at various points in her movement because of the overlapping action. If you didn’t have the clean frame each time but say in the medium shot she started in the frame about to sit, then this is the only place you can make the edit. The best place to make the edit, of course, would be on the action of sitting each time. Cutting on the action is a basic rule in editing because the audience becomes less aware of the cut due to the action being continuous from one shot to the next.
Screen direction. This is one area that is messed up big time by amateur video makers. The phrase I want you to remember here is “The 180 degree line”.
Let’s say you have two people sitting in chairs facing each other. The person in the left chair is looking screen right. The person in the right chair is looking screen left. Ok, so you are shooting a master wide shot first which will show both individuals as above. Now I want you to draw an imaginary line horizontally between them and extend this line in the form of a curve that comes around the camera from one person and connects back to the other person. What you have in effect is a half a circle and your camera is in the center of the curve portion. This is called the hundred and eighty degree line.
Now just to refresh, we have taken a master shot and have shown which way each person is looking. The rule here is that as we go in for tighter shots we have to maintain the screen direction for each person. So if we decided to do an over the shoulder shot of the person who is looking to the left in the master wide shot, we have to maintain this looking to left view in the tighter shots. We just make sure that the other person is still looking to the right as it was in the master two-shot when we do their over the shoulder shot. To the audience it’s all about screen direction. We accomplish this by not crossing the 180 degree line. This applies just as much to your vacation videos as it does to big budget movies. Get it?
Stage your interviews. You probably watch a reporter interviewing someone and right in the middle of the interview we suddenly see the reporter nodding in agreement. But we know that a news crew only has one camera? So how did the cameraman get to the other position to shoot the reporter nodding? By filming the two people and merging the sequences later.
Make your own camera dolly. You can make a simple camera dolly so your shots move smoothly through space just like the pros. All you need is two 10’ lengths of 3” PVC pluming pipe, a 4’ by 4’ piece of ¾” plywood and four sets of roller skate wheels. The wheels are secured to the plywood at all four corners, one set for each corner.
Improve your vacation videos. Next time you are on vacation and you want to show your audience a specific area, don’t just wander around with the camera. Start with a nice wide pan shot showing the whole area. Now go in closer and give your audience more detailed information. Then go in for some nice close-up shots of even more detail. Just like the pros do it. In addition whenever possible grab shots of people reacting to what you are showing. Once again, just like the pros. do it. You’ve practically already done the editing.
Not paying attention to details can be disastrous. Once he was searching out a small forested area for various locations for an upcoming shoot only to see a maintenance truck screech to a halt on the road 150 feet from my position. A man leaped out of the truck and yelled at me to get out of there. It seems he had picked the wrong forested area. He had stopped in an old military shooting range with potentially live mortar shells still buried in the grass. Pay attention to signs that say ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Danger’.
Not maintaining “Continuity”. Movies are not shot from beginning to end. They are shot all over the place based on the availability of time, location, budget, access to actors, etc. So pay attention and makes sure that from shot to shot elements match up.
Not getting “cutaways”. The right way to shoot involves more than just the main action. You must also get “cutaways” (shots happening in parallel time as the main action). You also need to capture “reactions” (shots of individuals reacting to the action). “Inserts” (big close-ups of some part of the scene that without it we wouldn’t get the point). The gun in the drawer is a good example. These shots are part of what we call “coverage” which simply means getting enough variety of shots to make the scene work in editing.
Not storyboarding your show. If you don’t storyboard your show you will become totally confused. It has to work on paper first. You don’t have to be Rembrandt to do this. Draw out how the scene looks with five storyboard boxes on each page. This way you will see the flow before you and know where to go next after finishing shooting one scene. Make your notes next to each drawing (e.g., note to self “don’t forget to” etc.
Not changing the size of the image. Never take a shot and then move three or four feet and take another shot of the same thing. You need at least a three times change in image size to make sure the shots don’t appear to “jump” on screen. If you are going to move your camera and tripod move at least 30 degrees to one side or the other to make the viewpoint significantly different.
Hand holding telephoto shots. Don’t under any circumstances hand hold your camera while you are zoomed in on the subject. Your camera movement under this magnification of the image will give your audience a headache. You need to be on a tripod for a good steady shot whenever you’re zoomed in.
In closing, I hope some of these tips will help you get some better-looking videos from all that you shoot, whether it’s weddings, vacations, backyard videos or the arrival of your first grandchild.
There are many more tips on shooting in my book “The Video Bible”. More info here: barrycasson.com/books/the-video-bible
Here’s to good shooting and may the focus be with you.
Barry Casson c.s.c
About the Author
Barry Casson has been shooting and directing films and videos for over 25 years and has over 60 corporate videos, educational films, TV commercials and TV dramas to his credit. He and his business partner Donna Clausen started Vancouver Island’s first film school in Victoria, British Columbia in 1989. Through his company Casson Pictures, Barry has garnered numerous national and international awards for his films and videos.
Today Barry provides speaking seminars and hands-on workshops on various aspects of film and video production to high schools, colleges, Chambers of Commerce, and other business groups.
Media review copies, book cover and photo jpegs available upon request via email. Interviews available upon request.
For more information contact Barry Casson
Originally Published by Hudson Valley Business Journal, Washington, DC, 2007