6 things I Learned Shooting My First Short Documentary Film

I’ve been working on a short documentary about my son’s last speech and debate tournament, specifically focused on the Team Policy debates in which he competed. It was a guerrilla style shoot. I had permission to shoot his teammate, but no one else. I could not disrupt the competition any more than any parent with a camera might. No extra lights. No extra people. Just capturing the event in real time with my Sony a6000, 3 prime lenses, and a Rode Smartlav+ microphone recorded into my phone. It was a true Run & Gun situation. Here are a few things I learned…

Story. Doing an actual documentary is different than most of the work I’ve done. I know how to shoot and edit a testimony video, but that’s not a documentary. Before the tournament, I spent time mapping out the structure of the short film. While I didn’t know what would happen, I did know the sequence of events, so I laid out the possible plan and tried to capture the actual events as they happened. As the tournament progressed, I could see how things would fit into my traditional story structure.

Pack Light. Because I was a one man crew, everything I needed was with me, all the time. I had gone through my gear, and left much of it at home. But I was still carrying around a medium sized camera backpack. And I still had gear I didn’t need. In order to grab my camera for a quick shot, I had to take off the backpack lay it down somewhere, open it up and pull out the camera. To downsize a bit more, and make access to gear a bit faster, I just ordered a camera sling bag. It’s large enough to carry a camera and a couple of lenses, etc… But smaller than a back pack and you can sling the bag around to the front, and access the gear on the run.

Invest in a zoom. Lens swapping is a pain. And real life doesn’t wait.

When shooting on a set, there is always time to swap out a lens. In between takes, you can switch over to a different focal length of the super fast prime you have. But in a documentary shoot, people aren’t waiting. Life is happening, the event is going on. Not only do you have a chance to miss the shot, but you might also disrupt the very event you’re trying to capture. During one debate round I was using my 19mm lens, and wanted a tighter shot. I was so nervous that opening my camera bag would be noticed by the competitors. I hope that didn’t happen, I tried to be so quiet. With a zoom, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Which zoom? On the Sony E Mount system, the reach and quality of the 18-105 F4 G series (SELP18105G) would seem to be a good fit. The longest lens I had with me was a 50mm, and I was wishing for longer options. It’s a constant aperture. I wish it was a bit faster, but it would only be a problem in the most dim rooms. I found that most of the time I was shooting f3.5 to 5.6. Of course the ISO was almost always at 1600 in the classrooms. Assuming I can continue to push the ISO that high, losing a couple of stops of light might be a decent trade off for the extra length. But at $500+, it’s out of reach for now.

Another option would be to adapt an older zoom of similar reach. You can often find vintage 35-105mm zooms for cheap. Just read the reviews on each one and make sure you have the proper adapter. Of course, you give up all automatic functions with these. I just ordered a Vivitar (Made by Koburi) 35-105mm f3.2-4 Macro lens for $26, shipped. I already own the right camera mount adapter. It won’t be as sharp or easy to use as the Sony 18-105mm. And I wish it was a constant aperture, but I’m hopeful it can fill the gap until I can swing the money. I’m sure I will still carry the 19mm and 35mm primes I have, but the 35-105mm could be my go to glass for future shoots.

A shotgun mic would help. Prior to the event I though I had worked out how to use a small shotgun (Rode VideoMicro) and record it into my phone. My goal was small footprint. I did not want to call attention to myself. I didn’t want to set up a full size shotgun with an external recorder. I tested the small shotgun, and would have sworn that I had the cabling worked out. But the day before the event I was charging batteries, and set up the mic to test it once more, and discovered that it was not passing signal. I needed a special cable to convert the TRS connection to a TRRS for the phone input. (Rode sells one: the SC7). I didn’t have time to get the proper adapter, so I punted. I ended up using the omni directional Smartlav+ to record audio. And, while it’s not as good as… pretty much any directional microphone at a distance, it was a lot better than the on camera mic. With some post work, some of the audio will be usable. But a shotgun mic would have been a huge help.

A camera with an audio input would help. My a6000 is a solid mirrorless camera. But it isn’t perfect, and one of the flaws is that it lacks an external audio input jack. While I would probably still use the Smartlav+ with my phone, having an on camera shotgun, recording directly into the camera would be good. Even if the small shotgun had worked, mounting the mic to my camera and then extending the cable to my phone would have been awkward at best. A much simpler solution would be to shoot on a camera that actually has the ability to record external audio. Of course the simple solution costs hundreds of dollars.

Get permission. I mentioned that this was a guerrilla style shoot. I got verbal permission from the judges in the room, and competitors. But the competitors are minors. So in order to actually use the footage I shot I cannot show any faces of minors since I don’t have permission from parents. They cannot be recognizable. I won’t identify the location, or even the organization. I knew that going in, so I shot accordingly. It would have been infinitely better to have the written permission from the event organizers, the location, and every parent of every student in each round. That wasn’t feasible for this project. In the future, I want to do more to get permissions, so I won’t be as constrained on the shoot.

As I’m closing in on the final edits of the project, I’m fairly well satisfied with it. Assuming I do similar projects later what I’ve learned with help make them even better.

[Image courtesy of Greenleaf Designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

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How To produce a Quick-Turn Highlight Video

You’ve got 24 hours to shoot and edit a video to show people what happened at an event. What do you do?

It could happen in any business, but this tight deadline, quick-turn video project pops up in church media quite a bit. There’s an event during the weekend, and you need to show the congregation what happened on Sunday. Or maybe you’re at a conference, and you want to show the highlights from the last few days in the last session? How can you do it, and do it well?

Pre production is the key to success. Just like any video you produce, taking the time to work the pre production process will make your video better. In this case, it’s crucial to your success. You won’t have a lot of time during the event, so you need to do as much as you can before the event starts. Pick music, decide on a style and look for the video. Gather the gear you need, double check your camera settings. Scout the location, find out if you can set up anything early, if needed. Pick an interview location. Gather/build your graphics. Check the schedule, is there anything you have to capture? Try to schedule interviews early in the event. Plan your time. Know what you want the final video to be, and get ready to create that video. This is the time to be creative.

Shoot what you need. Don’t shoot twelve hours of footage. You know what you need to finish the video, shoot those pieces. Make sure you have enough, but don’t shoot 5 minutes of the same repetitive action. Capture the basic wide angles to show the viewer what’s happening, maybe a couple of interesting angles, and then focus on faces. People want to see people. There is a reason people call these “happy face” videos.

Edit during the event. Once you’ve captured the start of the event, and hopefully any main interviews you need for the video, break away and lay down the base for the final project. Take half an hour or more to cut down the basic foundation for the video. If you have footage of someone thanking those who participated, lay that down on the timeline over the music you’ve already selected. Leave space for any special shots. That should give you a rough idea of the length of the video, and what you need to shoot next. You’ve seen the footage you already have, now go back out and shoot the rest of what you need. Depending on how long the event is, you may want to dump footage and sort it a few times.

You do not have time to catalog every clip. Place the clips logically on your timeline, and when you are assembling the final edit, pull from those blocks of clips. I recently shot a quick-turn project that had an interview, a special event, and two locations. I wanted to show the entire process of the event, and let people see the work being done. My time line had chunks of clips from each location, and each event. Plus I had set up a time-lapse to show the start of the event. I didn’t log every clip, I just scanned them to see what I had and dropped them onto the timeline.

Finalize the edit. By the time the event is over you should have a basic outline of the final video. Drop in the rest of the clips. Focus on tight action and faces. Keep things moving quickly. Once the basic edit is down, drop in the graphics and do any color correction. Hopefully, since you double checked your camera settings, you won’t need to adjust much. Do a quick audio mix, and get ready to render and export. Do not try to reinvent the project at this point. Work the original plan.

This will not be your finest work. But the audience will love it. If you need to, later you can go back in and do a more thorough edit, correction and mix.

What if you need to turn something in under an hour? Don’t panic. It can be done, within limitations.

One year for a Christmas production I shot video interviews of attendees waiting for the presentation to start, then edited and showed those clips to the same crowd before the event began. Crazy, but do able. First, you have to build a template. (It’s also a good idea to have a completed video from a previous presentation on stand by, just in case of catastrophe. I captured one of cast members for the first night, and then kept the one from each previous presentation loaded, just in case.) I shot for 30 minutes and then imported footage and cut for 15 minutes. I edited and rendered on the same computer we were using to play the video back. You need to really watch your levels when recording because there’s no time for fixing anything. Drop the clip into the template, render and be ready for playback. I sometimes cheated and kept the funnier or sweeter moments from previous nights in the current video, but I always used some clips of people from that same presentation.

Crazy quick-turns can be done, but you must plan ahead. these will never match the quality of projects you have lots of time on, but occasionally, it’s worth it to show something quickly.

Why I Will Buy an iPad Mini

[Update: Ordered 32GB Wifi version and it will be here Nov 2nd.]

On Friday I will order an iPad Mini. Here’s why:

I’m an Apple fan. I’ll admit it. I have a little white Apple sticker on my car. I am typing on a MacBook Pro. I have an iPhone 5. My son has an iPod Nano with a watch case. My wife has an iPod Nano (older generation), We have an iPod Touch. I have an iPad 1 (64GB, 3G). I like Apple products. Obviously, we don’t buy everything they make, but we do choose them for many of our electronic desires.

I like the quality of their stuff. There is a reason that Mac computers cost more, and still sell well. There’s a reason that iPads and iPhones sell so well. The interface is great, the quality is great. Their products do what most people want and need. And they do it without complications.

Someone mentioned this to me yesterday, and it is so very true. Apple announces a product, and then delivers it a few weeks later. They don’t talk about prototypes and what they will hopefully deliver, they just deliver. The iPad mini is announced and I will own one the first week of November.

I’m cheap. I like technology, but I am not rich. I can’t buy the latest greatest everything. I still use an iPad 1. I got that device when I worked at a church. They bought it for me. And I got the biggest, baddest version available. When I left, the 3rd gen iPad was already out and they let me take the iPad 1 with me. Which is good because I wasn’t going to be able to upgrade myself. I can’t just drop $600 on a tablet.

In fact, in order to finance the purchase of the iPad Mini, I’m selling the iPad 1 and some other stuff. I’m giving up the screen size, but look at what I’m getting.

The iPad Mini either meets or surpasses the iPad 2’s tech specs. It has cameras, faster processing, runs iOS6 and all my apps. Even Siri. My iPad 1 is discontinued and can’t update to iOS6. I get a lot, and give up a little size. Which I actually like.

I want the form factor and my apps. I own a Nook Tablet. Actually, now I’m selling it. When I first got it I was sure I would be using it all the time. I really liked the smaller size (compared to my iPad) and was just sure it would be my new favorite tablet. And while I did carry it around for a while, I went back to my iPad. I wasn’t a huge fan of the interface. I could read all the same books using my Nook app on the iOS devices. (and read iBooks and Kindle as well) Forget typing on the thing. Not because it’s small, I type on my iPhone all the time. The keyboard just didn’t work very well for me. I had planned to use Evernote on the Nook, but couldn’t get past the keyboard.

I wanted to carry a smaller tablet. I ended up using my iPhone more. I didn’t want to lose my apps. I didn’t want to adjust to a new interface.

So now, the iPad Mini comes out. I won’t buy the 3G version. I have used 3G on my iPad a total of 3 times in the years I’ve owned it. I expected to use it all the time, but I just don’t need it. And because of cost, I won’t get the 64GB version.

I wish the iPad Mini had come in starting at $299. Would have loved $249. But when the specs were as good or better than the iPad 2 which is priced $70 more, I get the price. The $329 price settles in the range of Apple products nicely. New iPod Touch is $299. Larger iPad Mini is $329. iPad 2 is $399.

The only way it could have been in the $200-249 range is if they severely reduced the capability of the device, and made it out of cheaper material. Think about it, if they had released a bulkier, cheaper made 7″ tablet, people would be complaining about how poor the product was. They would rightly be pointing out that this isn’t the brand that Apple has built. People want Apple quality. And now that they have it, some pundits and blogs are complaining about the price tag.

I learned something about shopping a long time ago: If you can’t tell the difference between products, buy the cheaper one. If you can, by the better one.

I have (soon “had”) a cheaper 7″ tablet. I don’t use it. The Apple products are better. So now, I will buy a better small tablet. And I will be making a significant upgrade from my iPad 1. I haven’t been this hyped about a new Apple product since the iPad first came out.

October 4th Apple Event: Recap-arama

Today was the latest iPhone announcement from Apple. there has been a lot of hype and rumormongering about what would be coming out. but today at 1:00 PM EST, we got the facts.

The event was about an hour and a half long. It could have been much shorter. there was a huge amount of time spent recapping what we already knew. iCloud, iOS5 and iTunes Match. I get that they were not releasing a lot of new things today, but they could have shot for an hour and cut down a lot of that stuff.

I was more interested in what was new…

Apps:
Cards. This app lets you create cards that Apple will print and then mail to your designated address. $3 in the USA and $5 internationally. Cool. Nothing earth shattering, but cool.

Find my Family and Friends. Now people can let friends and family see where they are by tracking the location of their iPhone. This will be good for parents to track their kids. Might also work for teens trying to find their friends at the mall, I guess.

Lower prices for iPods. There is a decent update on Nano software, which later reports say will also be available for previous 2010 Nano owners. Price drop for the Nano and the Touch. At $199, I wonder if this was planned or in response to the Kinf=dle Fire announcement?

The major announcement was the iPhone 4S.

As I predicted, there was only one iPhone announced today. maybe because my expectations were lower, I have been surprised by the reaction. The iPhone 4 was/is an amazing phone. The 4S is better. Does it really matter if the name of it isn’t “iPhone 5”? Even stock prices dropped a bit.

The 4S has every feature that was predicted, plus a couple.

The A5 chip: Dual processors and fast graphics. Even faster photo taking.

8MP camera: Some very nice features. 1080p video.

Antenna: Supposed 4G real world speed? That’s a bold claim. But if it does download faster, I like it.

Video Mirroring: I love airplay, and making presentations with Keynote is going to be killer. (If you can call any presentation killer)

World Phone: no surprise here. CDMA and GSM.

One of the coolest features is the Siri voice control. This didn’t surface until just recently. Apple bought the company a while back, and now is set to release some truly amazing voice features.

Frankly, it’s a little bit scary. I’m reminded of that scene in Star Trek IV where Scotty tries to talk to the computer. This could be very useful. I could easily find myself using the dictation thing and setting up reminders and sending texts while driving, all hands free.

My disappointment was that there wasn’t just “one more thing.” I was really hoping for an update to the Apple TV software.

One thing I noticed while watching the video of the presentation, the presenters were not as smooth and polished at Jobs was/is. There were a couple of stumbles. And Cook, while efficient, wasn’t and inspiring as Jobs.

Is the disappointment with today’s announcement simply because of the lack of “reality distortion field” that Jobs brings to these events? people used to make fun of that, but it was a very real thing. I suspect that Jobs could give a keynote on ice and get eskimos to buy some. Well, Cook doesn’t deliver like Jobs does. But the gear is just as cool.

I suspect the disappointment will wane as people get to use this device in the real world.