You’re finally at the stage where you’re ready to shoot something – and you know you’re ready! Why? Because you’re confident of your idea, script, storyboard, and preparation. You can pretty much watch the movie in your imagination, and now you’re pretty eager to see if you can pull it off. Good! That’s where you want to be. If you’re not like that, then make sure to go over your idea, script, storyboard and preparation and make sure they are all as good as they possibly can be.
But you do still have to actually film it, and this will take skill. It can feel a bit like running for a train. You know when it’s going to leave, but you’re just not sure you’ll be able to cover enough ground to make it. If it’s your first time on a camera, then be prepared to stuff up a bit. That’s ok. Getting good at camera work takes practice. Stick to your storyboard, and try your best. For those who have done lots of filming before, you still need to stick to your storyboard, but you probably know this already. You know that planning really pays off, and will help you to have better footage at the end with less junk to wade through in the editing suite.
Now to the actual filming. Let’s take your first location, for example a conversation at a cafe between two people. There’s a few steps you want to take to help make sure you get some good usable footage.
1) Check your settings. You want to make sure that both the lighting and audio are acceptable for filming. First to look out for in a cafe is that sometimes the lighting can be a bit dim or do strange things with your colours, or your actors might be caught in a dark spot and need something on their face etc – so do you need to set up any additional lighting or use a reflector board? The second thing is to take a moment to listen – somewhere like a cafe will have a lot of background noise, and that’s going to make recording good audio very difficult, and you know what I say about the importance of audio. Factors in other locations might be wind, traffic, music, or just general ambience. There will always be background noise. So what mics are you going to use to make sure you capture the conversation well?
2) Prep your equipment for the shot. Again, this involves both the video and the audio.
• With the video, make sure to check your White Balance. What is this you say? Well, different lights (eg sunlight vs fluro vs lamp) all shine slightly different colours, so if you were to hold a white piece of paper up in these different lights, it would actually appear slightly different each time, and so would the rest of the things hit by that light. Your camera has a setting for white balance which you want to set according to what kind of light you are shooting in. You’re camera will usually be set to an auto white balance (saying AWB), but it is often a little off, and can change half way through a shot. Not cool. You can set it manually, but this can be a bit time consuming (each time you shoot in a new light setting, you hold a white board up in the target area of your filming, zoom the camera in so white fills the frame, then set the white balance). Mostly I just use the presets which are easy to flick between, and usually get it about right. On most cameras I’ve used, there is a white balance preset for daylight, cloudy, and tungsten light, and maybe even one or two more. Simply look at what is giving the most light in your location, and set the appropriate preset. You should be able to see on the camera whether you have it set correctly. If it is too blue or too yellow, chances are you’ve got the wrong white balance setting.
• Next visual thing is to check you’ve got the right focus. This is particularly important if you’re using manual focus (which most DSLR’s will use in their video mode). The good news is that manual focussing will allow you to set exactly where you want it to focus. The bad news is that it is a bit difficult to manage, and easy to get wrong. A quick way to check your focus is to look at the image close up. On a camcorder, you can zoom in to the point you want to focus on, set the focus, and then zoom out. On a DSLR, you will need to use the magnify setting to ‘zoom in’ on the image on your display. Zooming with the lens will actually change the focus requirements. To create a bit more depth of field (blurry background) with a camcorder, you will need to move the camera further away from your target, and zoom as much as possible. You still won’t get great depth of field, but it might be a little bit better than filming at the wide angle.
• To finally prep the visual of your shot, make sure to look back to your storyboard to remember what the framing is that you want and any movement that you will need to make with the camera. Maybe even do a quick rehearsal of what you will do before you start shooting. Pay careful attention to how the frame is balanced – does everything in the shot do what you want? Are there things that are distracting (eg. Too much space above an actor’s head)
• Then there’s the audio. You now really need to make sure you check the levels of your audio before you film. Have you ever had those bits of buzz or distortion when someone has been talking loudly? That’s often because the audio is peaking. Get the head phones on and make sure you’re listening to the audio as you record. But also, check it before hand. If your camera has audio meters, then make sure to have them running, and do a short test before you film with an actor speaking at the loudest they would for the scene. Make sure the meters aren’t blowing out (hitting the end of the bar, usually leaving an indicator that they have peaked). If they are, you need to bring down the audio input level. Also, you may notice that the audio is really soft, in which case you might want to boost the input a bit. If you don’t have meters, just listen through the headphones to see if you can pick up any distortion, and then try to adjust things in the scene to help remove that risk. Make sure to then monitor the audio as you shoot. This is the same for checking background noise – if it is too loud, then you need to think about relocating, or use a different mic set up to better accommodate for it. Things like a wind sock (or just a sock!) over the mic will help dampen the harsh blowing of wind.
3) Communicate with your actors and crew. Make sure everyone knows what they’re doing. If you are directing the action, even if it’s just interviewing someone, you need to be directive. Tell people clearly what you want, and prepare them for the scenario where you may ask to shoot again if it’s not right. For example, most people when being interviewed produce a lot of ‘um’s and talk in really long sentences. So before I shoot, I will be clear with them that I am looking for shorter sentences and minimal ‘um’s. I tell them that I may stop them and may ask them to say something again in a more concise way. Often they don’t realise that they are doing it and really appreciate the feedback – but the initial conversation really helps these potentially awkward moments. I will also tell them to be bigger and more expressive than they think they need to be because the camera seems to flatten energy. Also, make sure the crew is clear on what they’re doing, especially if you have someone else recording sound. Make sure they know what your cue is to start recording and stop. Make sure they are ready to go with their sound levels and mics. Do they know how close they can get the mic without putting it in shot?
4) Record your shot. It’s important that you give a bit of lead in and lead out time on every take – this will give you room to move when editing and will avoid those moments when an actor starts talking a bit too early and the camera doesn’t quite get it. So tell your actors to wait for two seconds after you say ‘action’ before they start. You should then press record before you say ‘action’, so giving yourself a few seconds lead in. Once the action for the shot is done, leave it rolling two more seconds before stopping the recording and saying ‘cut’. During the shot, you need to be on the ball. If you’re doing everything, you will need to pay careful attention to the camera visuals, actors, and audio. Keep those headphones on and make sure the audio is coming through clearly. Check the audio meters to make sure it doesn’t peak during shooting. Keep an eye on the framing of the shot, the focus, and the colours. You should be able to do this while still noticing whether or not the actors have nailed the scene. If it’s not good enough in any of these areas, do it again. Don’t worry about stopping it mid shot if you need to. Just be clear and polite, and move on. Tell people what is different from what you would like, and ask them to do it differently. They may well have helpful feedback for you too. Don’t be too nervous and shoot a hundred times or a whole load of different angles just in case they work. This will be too painful in the editing process. Trust your storyboard. Know what you want. Then make it happen.
5) Reivew your schedule and storyboard. Check for what other shots you have planned for this location, and shoot them. Go over your storyboard and make sure there’s none you have missed. Often it will be the cutaways or view shots. For example, in the cafe conversation one of the characters might look at a menu and you want to be able to cut to an over-the-shoulder shot of the menu itself – this can be easy to forget to shoot when you’re focused on capturing the conversation well. Also, keep checking the time to see if you’re keeping to schedule. When you start to think you might run a little late, it’s time to both communicate that clearly to your crew and cast and contact anyone this will affect later in your schedule, especially if you’re shooting in multiple locations.
6) Record 1 minute of ‘ambiance audio’ or background noise. Make sure you do this at each location. This will really help you in the editing process. An easy way to throw off your viewer is with a jolty cut in the background audio. I reckon its one of the first things that shows you something is of not so great quality. Why? It highlights that there is a cut there. This is exactly the opposite of what the editor is trying to do (unless it was intended for specific effect) – I will talk about this more when we get to the editing step. Without an ambiance track, the editor does not have something that can be continuous across cuts, and so making it difficult to hide the cuts in the audio.
7) Flexi-time. Things always go wrong or a little differently to plan. Having some ‘unstructured time’ structured is a good way of being realistic about the filming process, and so working out what is likely to actually achieve. If you finish in one location early, you can always give your cast and crew a quick break, or you can have a bit of extra time to get your head around the next shoot and make sure everything is good to go for it.
8) Thank your cast and crew abundantly. It almost never happens that it has just been you involved in the shoot, and if you’re on a budget, then chances are that most of your cast and crew has been working for free. How are you going to let them know how much you appreciate them and what they have done? What affirmations and encouragement can you give them about the work they did today? Not only are these things really good to do in terms of loving other people, but it will help them as actors and crew in the future – it will encourage them to keep getting better at what they are doing. I’d recommend at the least that you consider paying for all their food and drink across the shoot, but something additional in thinks would also be a great idea. Then, share with them the finished film and how pleased you are with it. They will love to see the completed work and be proud of the part they played in making it happen. You could even have a ‘premiere’ where you invite the cast and crew to be the first ones to watch it.
Few! What a day. The filming process can be quite tiring, and you’ve done really well to get through it. Give yourself a good old pat on the back. But remember, there’s still a long way to go. The editing is still to come, and this can take the most amount of time. But it’s also my favourite part. So stay tuned for the next steps to bring this puppy home.
Please comment if you want any more details about the above step.
Next Step: Import your footage for editing
If you want to see an example of this, check out my post that details a bit of how I went through the 8 steps in making a recent film.
This post is part of the series 8 Steps to Making a Video