Monday, August 10, 2009

So now you have a script and a plan. How do you shoot a good video? Part Three

Not everybody can afford to hire a crack television production company to produce their video (actually, most folks can’t). But let not your heart be troubled. There’s a bunch of things you can do to create effective results for your online efforts.

The Hardware:

First, let’s talk equipment. Ideally, you would get the best results using a decent camcorder. Next best is something called the Flip Camera. And then there’s the webcam. Most laptops have them. But be wary, sometimes they can be very confounding. Let’s take a look at each:

Video cameras/camcorders: You can spend tens of thousands of dollars for a professional camera. Or you can spend hundreds. Usually for online stuff, you can get by with a decent consumer-quality camcorder. They can run from a couple hundred to several thousand. Generally, you’re paying for features when you pay for the upper end of that range. If you’re smart about how and what you shoot, you can get totally acceptable results from a $200-$400 camcorder. I would stay with a DV format model. Be sure the output of the camera is compatible with your computer—either Firewire (i.Link on PCs, sometimes called IEEE1394) or USB 2.0. Also consider getting a tripod for your camcorder. It will make your scenes much smoother.

Flip Camera: The Flip Video camera is an amazing product. It works just like your point-and-shoot still camera, only with video. It retails for about $150. There’s even an HD version for a little more money, but that increased resolution is wasted when producing for the Internet. All you do is point the Flip at your subject and begin recording. Then simply plug its built-in USB connector into your computer (either PC or Mac) and transfer the files. Here’s a great video on using the Flip:

Webcam: In a pinch, you can use your computer’s webcam to record personal messages you want to send to friends and colleagues. But that’s about the extent of its effectiveness. It makes no sense to aim your computer at a subject to record your videos.


Decent sound can make all the difference in your video. While you don’t have many options with the Flip or your webcam, you do have them with your camcorder. If you plan on using the camcorder’s built-in microphone, try to keep the camcorder as close to the subject as possible. Shooting from across the room will result in a lot of room sound mixed in with your audio. And a lot of echo. This is especially important when using the Flip. Stay close.

For camcorders, a separate microphone can make a very big difference. You should be able to find one for well under a hundred dollars. Try Radio Shack or Best Buy.

If you are using a standard handheld mic, you might want to consider an inexpensive mic stand and position the microphone just out of the frame as close as possible to the subject.

If you do a lot of “talking head” interviews, you might want to consider a lavaliere microphone. They can be inconspicuously clipped on the subject’s coat, shirt or blouse. This will give you high quality audio that minimizes ambient noise.

Also, it’s a good idea to wear headphones while videotaping. That way you can be sure the audio levels and quality are what you want.

The art, science and common sense of lighting.

Lighting can be incredibly complex, or very simple. I might suggest the latter. I just finished producing a video where we shot a dozen locations in two days. Ask any professional producer about that and they’ll tell you that’s an amazing feat. What we did was bring a small handheld, battery powered light and a four foot square hunk of white foamcore. In most cases we used the foamcore to “bounce” light from the sun to illuminate the dark shadows on our subject’s face. We used the battery powered light to fill in when we were shooting indoors. In either case, we let the natural ambient light do the heavy lifting.

When shooting outdoors, direct sunlight results in bright illumination and really dark shadows—not much in between. You want to add light to those shadows so you can bring out the details. You can usually do that with a single “bounce card.” Just angle it so the sun’s reflection “bounces” onto your subject. It’s a natural way to open up shadows and bring out that detail.

Another tip? Don’t position your subject in front of a bright light source. If you shoot someone with the sun behind them, you’ll only end up with a nice bright sky and a silhouette of your subject. Same for shooting indoors. Don’t position your subject in front of a bright window. You’ll end up with a nice bright window and your subject will be a really dark silhouette. Not good. Instead, use that bright window to your advantage as a beneficial light source. Move your subject and your camera so that the bright incoming light becomes your key light (which means slightly in front of and to the side of your subject. Then a bounce card can be used to open up the shadow on the non-light side of the subject. How easy is that? No lights. Just a 4x4 piece of foamcore!

One more little tip. If your subject is having a tough time keeping his or her eyes open when shooting in bright sunlight, have them close their eyes and look up in the direction of the sun for a few moments before you start shooting. That way, when the look towards the camera and open their eyes, the brightness level will be less dramatic. Try it. It really works!

“Three-point” lighting

When lighting people, there are several light sources you should consider. They’re called the key light, fill light and back light.

Key light: This is the main source of illumination for your subject. It’s the primary light for the face. Place it in front of your subject at approximately 45 degrees from center.

Fill light: This is a less powerful light to slightly illuminate the opposite side of the face. Place it in front of your subject at approximately 45 degrees off center on the opposite side of the key light. Don’t have another light? Simply use a white “bounce card” on the opposite side of the subject from the key light so it reflects its light back onto the opposite side of the subject.

Back light: This is sometimes called a rim light. While this isn’t imperative, it does add a nice touch. It’s a small light positioned high and behind the subject. It actually creates a narrow “rim” of illumination on the subject’s hair and shoulders. It creates a subtle separation between the subject and the background. But if budget and extra lights are slim, it’s not that big of a deal. You can still create a very nice look with only a key and fill.

Here’s a great tutorial video on lighting:

Shooting interviews

Definitely use a tripod to steady the camera. Position your interviewer to one side of the camera or the other. Frame the subject slightly off center and looking into the shot. Leave a little headroom at the top of the frame.

Vary your shots between medium waist-up framings and close-ups. However, use these variances sparingly. There’s nothing worse than an edit that constantly pops back and forth. Technically speaking there are four notations for describing the framing of a shot:

  • Wide Shot (WS): Head-to-toe
  • Medium Shot (MS): Approximately head-to-waist
  • Close Up (CU): Head and shoulders
  • Extreme Close Up (ECU): Facial shot

And be sure to capture a lot of what’s called “B-roll.” These are shots of the interviewee going about their daily routine. Treat your viewers to him/her at their desk, working in the garden or playing with the dog. During editing you can intercut these shots during the interview. It adds tremendous visual interest to your story.

General shooting tips

Consider your finished video as a patchwork of many shorter segments. Long, single scenes can be boring and hard to watch. If you are showing a baseball game for example, avoid a single locked-down, wide angle view of the entire field. Not only are the players tiny in the scene, it’s hard to see details of the game. Capture close-ups of the batter. Or shots of the fans. Focus on the dugout activities. During editing, you can intercut these detail shots to create a nice textural quality and pacing.

  • Keep shots short (10 to 15 seconds each).
  • Be sure to start rolling the tape for about 10 seconds before prompting your talent to begin (and let it continue for about 10 seconds after they’re done).
  • A little hint when shooting video that will end up online: Avoid a lot of camera movement. When your video is compressed, it doesn’t like a constantly changing image. It can’t compress it efficiently. The less the background changes, the better your video will look when compressed.
  • You don’t need to always have your subject matter centered in the screen. Feel free to move them off-center, using the “negative space” to your advantage.
  • Shoot a lot for every scene. Tape is cheap. When you come to editing, the more options you provide for yourself, the better your final result. That means shoot closeups, medium shots, wide shots, B-roll, etc. Then mix them up when editing.

Take heed of these tips and suggestions. Creating a stellar production can be achieved if you know what you’re doing. The real secret? Keep it simple!

I'm sure there are a lot of you out there that have some personal experiences that can help the readers. I encourage you to post your comments.

The next installment will explore the process of editing—that is, assembling your shooting efforts into a cohesive, illustrative production. Stay tuned.

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