The photographers-turned-directors PDN has interviewed over the years have said that learning to shoot and direct videos requires a new way of thinking about visual storytelling as well as a new way of working. For photographers used to capturing decisive moments, the biggest adjustment when shooting video is learning what to shoot; the goal is to provide the editor with the footage they need to weave together multiple clips with smooth transitions. Photographers used to looking only for the best compositions need to learn how to shoot the same scene in many ways while keeping the look consistent. Many new directors have found that collaboration is the key to getting quality sound and moving images. In these excerpts from PDN articles, we have gleaned several tips that can help photographers produce better video.
Most first-time directors learned by doing. Kyle Alexander, who has directed videos for many of his stills clients, says, “Technical things you can learn about the craft of filmmaking from a book or videos, but being a good director is more about your personality, I think.” Directing demands a passion for your subject, the ability to work with talent and crew, and “extreme patience,” he says, adding, “everything takes forever on a set.” Nick Hall, who has shot video for corporate and NGO clients, notes, “I think the most important thing to learn, once you have some experience under your belt, is that pre-production is everything. If you have locked down the moving parts as much as possible prior to being on set with actors, talent and crew waiting, then there can be space for creativity.” When you’re starting out, having the right collaborators and the right equipment is essential. But what each director describes as their most valuable piece of equipment varies, according to the way they work and what kinds of jobs they’re shooting.
Even modestly priced and sized stabilization devices can sometimes be too much for today’s shoestring budgets and fast-paced shoots. We asked photographer-directors who are veterans of video productions how they achieve smooth tracking shots without using commercial stabilization gear. All of the shooters we spoke with stop down to at least f/5.6 for handheld tracking shots when consistent focus is important. It can be a stylistic choice to open up to f/4 or even wider, and let the subject slip in and out of focus slightly. “I use that kind of thing in my work quite a lot,” says Rhea Anna, who shoots video for commercial and corporate clients. Shooting wide and maintaining a good amount of space around the subject can also help with both focus and steadiness by allowing camera operators to see the space they’re moving through without looking away from the viewfinder. Still, no matter how much you practice walking like a human Steadicam, you’re no match for a set of wheels. Resourceful shooters rig up whatever vehicle they find at hand, from skateboards to pallet loaders to makeshift dollies to a “sleddy-cam”: a sled Anna and her camera operator used to get a quick shot of a skater.
An interview is not simply camera fodder, but a piece of the story-building process. The resulting footage can stand on its own, particularly if it’s emotionally powerful, or can be used over other visuals. Getting a good, editable interview requires a mix of skills—some technical, some emotional and intuitive—that may not always come easily to photographers accustomed to letting their images do the talking. “Interviews are inherently contrived situations and it’s the photographer’s job to make them feel organic,” says portrait photographer Michael Lavine. “I’m specifically looking for a gem out of [my subject’s] mouth and I don’t stop asking questions until I get it.” It’s ideal to have two sources of audio: one from a lavalier mic pinned to the subject and the second from a boom or shotgun mic. “Everyone backs up their photos, and you need to be just as diligent with your audio,” says photographer Tim Gruber, who, along with his wife, Jenn Ackerman, has won awards for videos on U.S. prisons and a beauty pageant.
B-roll can be the visual engine driving your video narrative forward, or as filmmaker Grant Slater says, B-roll is what “keeps people from being bored” by talking heads. For those shooting their own B-roll—like Slavik Boyechko and his partner Travis Gilmour—keeping a running shot list in their heads, if not formally on paper, ensures visual variety. “The one question we ask whenever we’re doing a shoot is, ‘What’s a second or third location we can shoot, even if it’s just down the street,’” to mix things up, Boyechko says. There’s no golden ratio of how much B-roll you should generate for a given duration of A-roll footage, but there is a general consensus: You need more than you think. “If I have a five-minute video [to produce] I’ll generate about 400 short clips to work with,” he says. Boyechko has honed his shoot-to-edit approach to a fine science, and was asked to travel to local PBS affiliates around the U.S. to train their producers on making Web shorts.
One of the most important things a director must do at the outset of any project is get “in tune” with the cameraperson and crew, and make sure they “share the same vision,” says Vidal Cohen, a grip with 20 years’ experience on films and TV programs including Daddy Day Care, Californication and Pushing Daisies. “Once we know what a director is looking for in terms of lighting—even if it’s not expressed technically, like ‘make this look ominous’—we’ll know what equipment we’ll need to order.” Some first-time video directors moving into motion from the still photo world can struggle with lighting, says lighting specialist Ely Lenik. “I’ve seen photographers mount video lights on HD-DSLRs and blast it right in the face of interview subjects. It just washes them out, whereas a side-mounted light would produce shadows and give a sense of depth.” Cinema cameras are much more sensitive to light than an HD-DSLR, so obtaining the appropriate contrast and dynamic range in any given scene requires some experimentation, Lenik notes. On the flip side, still photographers used to shooting RAW still images with high dynamic range may find the exposure capabilities of a video camera a bit more limited, says Peter Trilling, a director of photography. In either case, there’s no substitute for experimentation. Trilling’s advice: “Take ample test footage.”
Many photographers who have moved into motion work say that they learned the most about how to shoot video while trying to edit their own work, or by working closely with video editors. Editors’ feedback on technical mistakes, the types of footage they were missing and how best to organize clips can be crucial to understanding how to approach a video project. Editor Raphael Rice says, “A good shooter can make it seem like there were two cameras in the room by shooting from two different angles. In order to do that, they have to understand how angles work narratively, how close or how far they have to be, so as to feel like it is still the same scene even though the two shots are from different moments.” Rice adds, “Focus on getting clean sound, because that will make a bad film seem better.” Using an external recording device, rather than recording directly to the camera, captures higher quality sound, but can create another challenge. “I’ve actually been handed a lot of footage that is not slated. Getting raw footage and un-slated audio files is my worst nightmare,” says Stephen Venezia, a director and editor at Nimblefox Productions.
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