Learning to shoot video isn't just about familiarizing yourself with a few new camera settings. It requires a different of looking at things than still shooting. Photographer Lou Lesko goes in depth about the video mindset.
This article has been contributed from the Spring 2010 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.
During the transition from film to digital, the basic tenets and techniques of photography remained the same. All you had to do was overlay your existing knowledge onto the new technology and think good thoughts about terabytes.
The current transition to video is more complex. This time around you have to adopt a whole new way of thinking and insert your working knowledge of photography into a medium that has long been the dominion of filmmakers. Happily, our skill set as photographers makes us well suited to bring more to the party than the people who have only a filmmaking background. Unfortunately, photographers can’t completely rely on their inherent skill set. To make it in the motion age of photography, you are going to have to think differently about everything. The tools of this new trade are both tangible and cerebral. You’ll need some new gear for your camera bag and some new concepts for your visual storytelling skill.
The name for this new video genre has taken on a few manifestations. Here on the West Coast we like “photocine,” while on the East Coast “photo-fusion” and “film-photo synthesis” are being bandied about. At this point there is no right or wrong answer—a term will find its own way into the industry lexicon. One thing I can tell you is that “videographer” is a universally loathed title. So if you are trying to get a date by talking about what you do for a living, leave the “v” word out of the conversation. You’re still a photographer—the definition of the title is only going to evolve around you. What you need to be prepared for is the expectations that will come with the evolved title, especially in the commercial world. By the end of this year, photographers will be expected to shoot motion more often than not.
Six months ago there was a lot of discussion about the Red camera being utilized as the default tool for shooting jobs. We were then able to “pull frames” from the high definition video footage in lieu of actually shooting a hero photograph. While there is definitely frame-pulling from video footage going on for some applications—like current events news and some catalogs—agencies and clients are favoring still shots for the hero images. The bottom line is, even if you hose down a set with video capture, it is not a replacement for photographic sensibility—just like Guitar Hero isn’t a replacement for a real guitar. Pulling a frame will always be a compromise to shooting a still. However, shooting video with a still photography sensibility will be a liability to getting good footage.
The days of getting lauded for a pretty video vignette are over. If you want people to be compelled to watch your video, you’re going to need to understand the basics of how a screenplay works. When I started directing commercials eleven years ago, this is the one skill I had to develop quickly to avoid getting tossed out as a music video hack. I’m not saying you all need to become screenwriters. I’m just saying you need to understand the three act structure of story telling and then contract or expand it to suit your needs. The absolute best book to read about this is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Rumor has it that the all the people in the story department at Pixar carry it around in their back pocket. I’d also like to recommend John August’s blog at johnaugust.com. He is the writer of Go, Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among others.
Once you start getting immersed in story structure, you’ll quickly realize that concept is king in moving pictures. You’ll start hashing out scenes in your head and looking for a thread to tie them all together in a narrative form (otherwise known as a narrative thread). One skill you should start practicing is writing a treatment, which is a one to two page description of a commercial, television show, or movie. In order to get booked to direct a commercial I have to write a treatment on how I think the commercial should be executed. For a TV show or any longer format, a treatment is a detailed synopsis of the story, complete with beats (a “beat” being a turning point in a story that propels the story forward). The concepts won’t be totally foreign to you after you read the book I recommend above. As a matter of fact, once you learn the three act structure you’ll start to see it in every movie you watch. After you have at least a basic premise for your story, you’ll want to shoot it.
The new genre of photocine is mindset, not a gear ownership race. Now more than ever the story of your piece comes first, followed by the selection of the gear to support the execution of the story. Owning a basic kit is a good thing, but all the supplemental gear can be rented. Always find the gear to support the story, never change the story to accommodate the gear. I know we all can’t afford a giant boom for a sweeping high angle shot, but that doesn’t mean you need to remove the scene from your piece—just try to work with what you have and make the shot happen. Safely please—I don’t want hear of any tragedies because one of you got clever with thirty bungee cords wrapped together and slung over the edge of a cliff.
There are four key things you need to know about when shooting VDSLR coming from a photographer’s perspective:
- The background moves with your shot.
- Hand-holding a VDSLR camera does not work.
- Recording sound needs to be done with device along with the camera.
- And you have to edit all this stuff together somehow.
You need to understand the concept of the “moving background.” The first few scenes of my first commercial were almost a disaster because yours truly was so used to finding a good background for a photograph and keeping the frame composed appropriately. When shooting motion, that all changes. If your talent is going to be on the move in the scene, you have to walk through the scene yourself, preferably looking through the lens you’re going to use, to see what the background is going to do to your shot. You also need to keep an eye on how the light is falling on your talent as he or she moves through the scene. This is called “blocking” a scene.
Keeping the camera steady is paramount to shooting motion. Quite simply the mass of a VDSLR camera is just too small for reasonable hand-held video. You need to extend the mass of the camera. Two major players producing devices to steady your camera are Redrock Micro and Zacuto. Find a rig that makes sense for you technically and financially and purchase it. This is a piece that should be part of your basic kit. And please don’t email me about the success of the bumpy cinematography of the “Blair Witch Project.” That movie was an anomaly.
You need to also keep in mind the concept of the fluid head if you’re going to use a tripod. Your basic camera tripod will jerk your frame all over the place. Purchasing a fluid head tripod, or a fluid head for your existing tripod, should happen as soon as you can afford it. In the meantime, renting is easy and inexpensive.
Sound is a big issue. There are a lot of solutions for recording sound separately and syncing it up on Final Cut Pro. Everyone seems to like the Zoom H4N recorder. You can also get a stereo microphone for your iPhone if you’re doing simple sound capture like for an interview of a celebrity. Use PluraleEyes to bring the sound together in Final Cut and sync your audio file with the video. It syncs dual sound recording in editing timelines using wave form pattern matching—which is a fancy way of saying it takes the soundtrack recorded through your camera that gets laid down with the video and matches it using wave forms to the audio file recorded with the external device.
This brings me to editing. There are three solid choices for editing your digital footage. You’ll be surprised to know that you already own one. iMovie, which comes with every Mac sold these days, is a very solid, simple movie editing solution. I was at an advisory board meeting for a college in Los Angeles recently and the head of broadcast production at Matel told me they use iMovie for a lot of their digital editing. This is not an extensive editor and I’m not sure that PluralEyes works with it, but to get started in the genre it’s brilliant. And its short learning curve gets you into the fray of editing quickly, so you can see how cutting a video together works. The next level is Final Cut Express from Apple. It isn’t Final Cut Pro, but it’s pretty damn good for the money. Lastly, there’s Final Cut Pro. If you’re going to get serious about filmmaking with your VDSLR, then you will need this software. I’ve heard of editors who are on a production in New York, get on a plane with their seventeen inch laptop and start cutting television show episodes on the flight back to Los Angeles.
This new shift in the photo industry is going to bring a lot of questions with it. And there are a lot of good sources for answers. People are creating seminars and other expensive educational options that are mired in the gee-wiz of the gear. There are also a lot of under-qualified people teaching bad techniques. Ask around before you commit your money to a seminar. Make sure the person teaching is quality. And make sure you’re going to learn what you need. If you’re good technically but a little light on story telling, then you would do better taking a screenwriting seminar. There are also some good places on the web to get information. I have to shamelessly shill PhotoCine News (photocinenews.com) because I’m one of the owners, but before you get that look on your face, check out the site. We’ve signed a former script development executive from New Line pictures as well as an ABC TV producer to write for us. We’ve forged an agreement with National Geographic Assignment to get quality documentary information and footage, and my partners are very much on the inside track with the technical aspects of this new genre. So stop reading this, pick up a pen and start hashing out an idea to shoot, because the definition of a photographer just went into motion.