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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The Quality Ramp

rampHave you ever watched something you did several years ago and cringed at how bad it was?

I had this experience recently. When the pilot episode of my show became available on Amazon Prime, I watched it with my family. Ug. That was hard to do.

It wasn’t the worst video I’d ever seen. I mean, the story was basically solid. The core structure worked OK. But the lines, it’s obvious this was one of my first scripts. I kept having the actors tell the plot instead of show the plot. (Really, this is a problem in many of the episodes of the series…)

We didn’t know what we were doing. Production quality was subpar. I mean, I knew how to run a camera, but I’d never shot a dramatic scene. I’d read a book, so I knew to get coverage with a master, some over the shoulders and close ups. We had some decent (for the time) equipment, but not nearly enough lighting tools. I think we had about 3 lights, with varying color temps. We had a Sennheiser 816 shotgun, a really long microphone, and a couple of lav mics. Many times the shotgun was just too far away from the source, capturing quiet dialogue and loud room noise. I spent way too much time in post trying to fix it. And of course, it didn’t get fixed. And many of our actors were first timers. Or they had stage experience with no film experience. In post, I was in love with every line. I don’t think I cut any of them.

There were so many ways it could have been better. But the end result was still a decent story that set up a 10 episode series. A series that won awards, not because it was amazing, but because there weren’t many people even trying to do anything like it back then. A series that dealt with real issues facing Christians today. Something, that even now-3 years later- is still being seen.

I knew even back then that the quality wasn’t very good. I almost didn’t release it. I actually went and watched the first attempts of other filmmakers, and compared my work to theirs. I realized two things:

1, Everyone has room for improvement, and some successful filmmakers started out as bad as I was.

2, If you wait until you’re an expert to do anything, you’ll never do anything. You have to start where you are, and work to improve.

It’s the 2nd point that’s the most important.

How did a volunteer cast and crew spend under $9000 to produce an award winning 10 episode series that was shown on 4 different networks (JCTV, NRB, Parables, The Walk), tons of different local channels, satellite around the world, translated into another language in Romania, is still available on the internet and now a VOD streaming platform? We didn’t know we couldn’t.

I know people who are smart, talented and have an amazing idea just waiting to be produced. And that idea just keeps waiting. But part of the point of independent film is the freedom to try to make your idea. You don’t have to wait for a big studio to come by. And if you are a filmmaker who has never made a film, then you’re caught in a Catch 22- You won’t make your film because you want it to be good, but no studio will help you make your film because you’ve never made a good one.

For Christian TV producers, there is no hope (at this point) of ever getting the funding to make your episodic, dramatic show from one of the religious networks. Thats not how the model works. They exist because content creators (namely preaching/teaching/talk shows) buy time from them. They do not pay to have programs produced, and they normally do not pay for existing programs. There are exceptions, but generally this is the rule. So the chance of getting your grand episodic idea funded through a big Christians network is just about zero. You can get your show on the air for free, but even if they give you any money, it won’t be enough to cover the cost of production.
If you want to see your idea become reality, you are going to have to do it. You’re at the bottom, and you have to start moving forward to move up in quality.

That means starting with your script idea and writing it, even if it is horrible. And then keep writing and writing, and creating and creating. Read, learn, study. Get better. improve. Shoot short films. Do projects. Create, and try and keep trying. and keep improving. One day you’ll look back and go, wow, those first things I did were awful. But if you never did your terrible projects, you wouldn’t be able to do your better ones now.

Everyone starts at the bottom of the quality ramp, and if you want to get better you have to keep moving forward.

Releasing Your Episodic Content on Amazon Video/ Amazon Prime

IMG_7243My low budget Christian sitcom Peculiar is now available on Amazon Video! (also my short film BRKN, if you’re interested.)

Since the first episodes started broadcasting in late 2012, I have wanted to see the show available on a major streaming service. Until recently the best (only?) route was to hire an aggregator to try to place your content in iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and anywhere else with a VOD distribution pipeline. Most of those were several hundred dollars up front, no promises. A few would try to place your content for a percentage of what you might make off views/sales.

I’ve never tried to cash in on Peculiar. It wasn’t a huge financial success. Not only did I not have several hundred dollars to spend on this, I didn’t expect to make back any investment that large.  But I do want this series to be available to as many people as possible. After my amicable split with my traditional distributor, I contacted one of the percentage based aggregators. He replied honestly, and not surprisingly, that he felt he could place my show on Amazon, but nowhere else. But I would need to rework the closed caption files. At that time, costs of captioning was a huge hurdle.  I did find a way to get the content onto Amazon Video myself. But, the files would be Standard Definition, not HD. and I could not submit episodic content. I actually questioned an Amazon Create Space representative pretty hard about why this was the case. I never received a satisfactory answer. Any episode I uploaded to Amazon would be low resolution and would stand alone. The only way to get Amazon to group all of the episodes from your series together was to use an aggregator. So I tabled the idea.

Enter Amazon Video Direct. (AVD)

In May of 2016 Amazon announced it’s new service.  Open “to any video creator, the e-commerce giant will compete head-to-head with Google’s YouTube for video-ad dollars and views as well as other big Internet video distributors like Facebook and Vimeo.”  What that boils down to is a way for independent content creators to upload their video creations to Amazon and make them available through the streaming site. You can upload any short, feature, series, documentary… anything, and make it available to Amazon’s streaming audience. The company shares revenue for purchases and pays similar to Youtube for free Prime streaming. You could even set up a subscription service through AVD, but I don’t know much about that.

So, how do you use it?

  1. Got Content? First, of course you need content that you have permission to, or own the rights to distribute in this manner. I don’t yet know how content ID is going to work, but you can bet that like Youtube, computers will be scanning this library to find copyright violations.

  2. Set up your account. You will need to add your bank and tax information before you can publish your content.

  3. Prep your content. AVD supports Pro Res 422, MPEG-2, and h.264 (in certain wrappers. h.264 in a QT .mov wrapper is not supported.). I uploaded my files in a Quicktime Pro Res 422 file. These files are huge. But they are also pretty much lossless, when compared to the MPEG2 or h.264 formats. Plus I had my series stored in this format. But upload speed is critical. Try to find a commercial connection you can use. It would take me days to upload just one file if I tried to do this at home. If you have 5.1 surround audio, then you will need to use either the MPEG 2 or h.264 file format.

  4. Prep Your captions. You must have closed captioning. Period. The end. Luckily, there are quite a few ways to get captions for your content. You can pay, but if you use Adobe Premiere CC, you can create them inside the editor. I already had .scc files from when my show was broadcast. But they were 608, roll up captions, and timed for a 28:30 show with 2:00 breaks. Adobe CC imported them like a champ, and allowed me to make edits as needed. I exported the 608 captions to a “sidecar” .scc file and we were good to go. AVD can take 608 or the much nicer 708 captions. Both can be created in Adobe CC. This is the single biggest hurdle for publishing videos on AVD. I gave up on a 708 caption file I created myself for a standalone short film, and I am still having issues with their process. I have only been able to get an .scc 608 caption file to work for content with a 29.97 fps, so far. Even 608 captions for 24p content with an .xml caption file have been rejected. [Update: In the end a 608.srt file worked with 24p content. In my experience 2 file types that Premiere can create that work with AVD: 30fps can use .scc 608, 24fps can use .srt 608.]

  5. Prep Your Graphics. Before you can publish your videos, you need a graphics package. This is what Amazon shows people when they look for your content. There are key graphics and a background graphic. Follow the image size requirements, and choose something that will catch the eye of your audience. I had a set of promotional images I’ve used for the show for years, so I adjusted them to fit these sizes. Episodic content requires both a 16×9 key image and a 4:3 Key image. (Standalone content requires 16×9 and a 3:4 image.)

  6. Upload. If you have a series, you don’t have to upload every file at the same time. You will need to have all the metadata filled in, cast and crew, graphics, etc… and then select the video files and captions, select the availability of the content. If you want to sell a season pass, you need at least 3 episodes uploaded. You can select when you want the content to be available, but I just chose as soon as possible.

  7. Publish. Once you think you have everything ready, hit Publish. If you forgot anything, you will have the chance to correct it. Then be prepared to wait. It takes Amazon a few days to look at your content and publish it. You will see small green circles for the areas the content will eventually be available. They should be half full and green. Once everything is approved and live, they will be all green. I published episodes over a period of time. My “circles” would still be half full, but episodes would already be available for viewing. Once every video file has been approved, then it will show completed. What if you want to change something? Then just go back into the dashboard of AVD, re upload the file, change the txt, etc… and hit save. Then wait several days again for the changes to take effect.

  8. Promote. Amazon has instructions on how to link to the streaming page for your content, and some “Watch on Amazon” graphics. And of course, you will want to let your existing audience know about this new outlet.

So far over 350 minutes of content have been watched. That will pay me… less than $1.00. But that’s OK, I’m not trying to get rich on Amazon, I want people to see the projects I’ve been a part of. If you can navigate the tricky caption requirement, making your content available on Amazon Video open it up to a whole new, pretty large, audience.

[Update: 8 months later, I consistently make 4-5 times more for views of the 12 videos I have on AVD vs the 60+ videos I have on Youtube. I’ve done nothing but make it available, no advertising, very little promotion.]

“No Excuses” Sermon Series: Quick Comedy

In late 2015 our creative team met with pastoral leadership to discuss upcoming sermon series for 2016. One of the ones that got me most excited was called “No Excuses.” In our creative time we planned to shoot 6 comedic videos that show cased excuses that Christians give when talking about why they don’t share their faith. They had to be short, and they had to be funny.

2016 turned into a very busy year for video production at the church. Including the weekly video announcements, 2 video creators were tasked with completing 36 video projects in just under 3 months. A difficult task no matter what sort of videos are required. A short film project is a whole extra level of complication. after meeting about the workload, and planning an aggressive production schedule, we decided to go ahead with the series as planned.

Here’s the series broken down by the numbers:

-6 two-minute short films used as sermon bumpers.

-2 couples with limited acting experience playing the characters.

-4 days of shooting on a very small budget: We bought a few props.

-2 weeks after the first day of shooting the first film was shown.

-9 weeks total for production and post for all six short films.

-12 other video projects completed during the same 9 weeks.

Obviously,  that’s an insane schedule, but I wanted very much to keep it. I felt that sing humor to broach the subject of reasons why people don’t share their faith was the right approach. And I just like filmmaking. It’s incredible that I can sometimes do it as a part of my job. The fact that we were able to complete these projects is largely due to a lot of pre production and planning. Nothing ever goes according to plan, but that work paid off, as it always does.

Watch the entire series below:

Excuses #1: The only people I know are Christians.

Excuses #2: I’m not qualified.

Excuse #3: I don’t want to push my faith on other people.

Excuse #4: People might make fun of me.

Excuses #5: I’m too busy.

Excuse #6: I’ve tried it before and it didn’t work.

New Gear Syndrome: Sony a6300

It’s so hard to resist.

Just when you get to know this great piece of equipment, and you are really utilizing the features, turning out some great work… They announce a new, better version. Suddenly the camera in your hand is just junk, and you must have the new item.

That phone, that camera, that microphone that was perfectly fine before suddenly loses it’s shine.

Today Sony finally announced the update to the Sony a6000. I just got my a6000 last year. It’s an awesome camera. Mirrorless so I can adapt almost any lens to it. Full on usable unto focus in video with E Mount lenses. I loved it, right up until I read about the new Sony a6300.

Oh man, I want one. Full 4k, s log 3, 120 fps at 1080p. I didn’t even know what I was missing until this new one was announced! Still no external audio input short of an expensive Sony add on (seriously?) but a nice step up. Unfortunately, I’m not dropping $1000 on a new body just yet. I would love to make the upgrade, and I’m sure I will some time in the future, it just won’t be right now.

But so you can join me in the new desire for this new mirrorless body from Sony, here are some videos:

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.

My Day as an Actor

cameraToday I was on the other side of the camera.

I’m not sure how it happened. At work, we were working on a short film, sort of a 30’s noir throwback. And somehow I got cast.

Today was the first day of shooting. I had been in plays in high school and college, but I’d never acted for the camera. It’s a different kind of memorization. Where plays have multiple rehearsals, film (especially indie shorts film) doesn’t. You block it and go. And then do another angle.

Because I’d had a hand in writing the script, when I wasn’t on camera I helped out as script supervisor. And because of my involvement in pre production I knew the sort of shots we wanted and general way the day would go.

But being on the other side of the camera is different experience. Without the days of rehearsal, I found myself trying to remember my lines and reacting to the other actors. And unlike a stage play where you barrel through the scene no matter what goes wrong, it’s a bit jarring to stop and start when someone makes a mistake or flubs a line. Of course, even though i’d written a good chunk of the script, I put off memorizing my lines until this week. And suddenly I was very busy. But we got through it. 3 fairly complicated scenes in 4.5 hours. The total project is 18 pages.

Lucky for me, my character is supposed to be a bad actor. So that wasn’t a big stretch for me. We have a couple more short days of shooting in the next few weeks.

The project is the entertainment for a special dinner to thank our Sunday Morning volunteers. I love the fact that we will do something this big for the people who serve faithfully, every week.

Once it is shown in September, I will try to post the finished product online.

A Few Video Examples

On the main page of scottlinkmedia.com you can see 3 different sections of videos: short films, church media, and DIY projects and tips. But that’s not every video. I wanted to share a few links to some other projects:

First up is a quick reel of short clips. The logo is now outdated, but you can see variety of projects:

I ended up doing 3 versions of a promo video for an after school program. The spokesmen in the videos kept leaving the organization a few months after the video was completed. Here’s the first Beach Club promo:

One church I worked at needed to fill a 13 minute pre service video to play before an Easter service we were holding at a large arena. On an impulse, I shot this little promo video for an upcoming series:

My family loves to read, and I wanted to experiment with a mini-doc about that:

Anyway, just a few videos from the past I wanted to share.

Recent Short Films and New Projects

sl media 16x9

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If you click on the header above you will end up on the main page, where you can see 3 different video sections, Short Films/TV, Church Media, and DIY. Each contain several videos for your viewing pleasure; including links to some episodes of the award winning series Peculiar.

Here’s the latest short film from SLM:

And another of my favorites from a while back:

Mean while I’m working on some more short projects.

The major projects I’ve got cooking include a feature length movie about small church politics called Flawed, and a screenplay that’s a biblical epic based on portions of the book of Acts with the working title One Centurion. And there’s a campy comedy about church camp. And lately I’ve been drawn back to the documentary idea Gay Church. Follow the links to find out more.

Gear List for BRKN

Yesterday my new short film BRKN released. I wanted to give you a run down of what I used to make it.

Preproduction:

Celtx Studio: A great set of online tools for scriptwriting, breakdown, shot lists, schedules, budgets, and more. You input the info and it does the work.

Production Gear:

Sony Alpha a6000

Sigma 19mm f2.9 Art series

Pentax A 35-70mm f4

1 Kinoflo 4 bank

1 soft box

2 basic lights

1 DIY LED light

Bulbs were all fluorescent daylight color temp.

A fluid head tripod and a DIY slider.

Audix SCX1 HC

Zoom H4n

Various stands, cables, SD cards, diffusers and clips.

Post:

Adobe Premiere CC

Adobe Photoshop CC (To fix an exposed stand.)

Red Giant Magic Bullet Looks

That’s it. A lot of little pieces to make a whole. The continuous AF with the Sigma and the a6000 worked amazing well.

Watch BRKN Now.