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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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.

“BRKN” by the Numbers

BRKN logoPost is progressing swiftly on the short film BRKN. I thought I share some of the numbers associated with it.

13 Dollars. The actual amount of money spent. For snacks. I either owned or borrowed everything else. No-budget production.

300 Dollars. How much would have been spent for camera/lighting rental if I didn’t own or borrow the gear.

3 Hours. Length of time actually shooting on set.

2 Weeks. Length of time in Preproduction.

3 People. The number of bodies on the set. 2 actors and me. That’s it. Think that’s not enough? Me too. Want to help out next time? Shoot me an email: scott(at)scottlinkmedia.com.

5 minutes. Approximate length of BRKN.

1 camera. A Sony a6000.

2 Lenses. A Sigma 19mm f2.8 Art and a Pentax A f4 35-70mm Adapted to E Mount. The AF on the a6000 with the 19mm allowed me to do a couple of camera moves I wouldn’t have tried.

1 DIY Slider. My RigWheels/Cam-On-Wheels style home-made slider. Performed very well.

It was great to be on set again, and I am hoping to do another project soon.

Gutcheck

cameraIn just a couple of weeks I am shooting my first short film (that I wrote) since the end of 2013. Seriously, like a year and a half.

I call myself a filmmaker… but where are the films? A couple of months ago I was at a broadcast/media convention and really didn’t have something I was actually working on. (I ended up pumping a work project.) I pitched some script ideas, but nothing was in the works. It was a weird feeling.

So now I am about to actually shoot something, and I find myself dreading it at times.

I felt the same way when I was about to release the pilot of my show. Filled with self doubt and fear. Even thought it wasn’t a financial success, it is still being broadcast 2 years after we stopped making episodes. (Every Saturday on Parables TV​) Stupid fear.

Fear keeps dreams from reality. Fear is the enemy of creativity. Fear is a big, ugly bully who needs a punch in the face. (To reference Jon Acuff.)

it’s not the film I had planned to shoot. But this is a good script, about a pertinent issue. It’s a first step in building a filmmaking community here in East TX. There is literally nothing stopping me but my own fears. So here we go!

Final Shoot Update

IMG_4722 We are done with principal photography for the Sounds of the Season 2014 project! We wrapped up the last two scenes early Wednesday morning.

One of the coolest locations we shot at was an Olive Grove, in East Texas. Who knew such a place existed.

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The whole experience has been great. It’s funny though, two of my favorite days are the first day of shooting and the last day of shooting. Lots of work and late nights went into the production, with more work to come in post. I can’t wait to see everything come together for Sounds of the Season 2014 at Mobberly Baptist Church.

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IMG_4695 Sometimes the haze got a little thick, but it sure added a nice effect to the footage.

Judas prepares to betray Jesus.
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Kerosene soaked torches have a longer lasting flame. Always be careful when using fire!
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We had some great extras for the teaching scenes.
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A retaining wall near a retail center provided a backdrop. Shooting on a budget, you use what is available. Be creative.
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A morning campfire.
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The last shot.
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How to Build a Tomb Set

The project we have been working on for Christmas has included quite a bit of set construction. This past week week we needed to build the open tomb for a scene with the resurrected Christ. I got to learn how to do it.

First, you need a flat with a door opening. We used old set piece from a previous Easter production.

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Then we braced it upright near the side of a hill. We started adding wire mesh to build a framework into the hillside. We made the opening smaller, to make it more historically accurate.

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We started applying the texture, and realized that the mesh should be covered with some paper.

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We used a texture that comes in two propane-sized tanks, under pressure. The contents of the two tanks mix in the nozzle to create a foaming, slightly-expanding substance that is very sticky.

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When it’s done, allow the texture to dry. Then apply spray paint. The result looks surprisingly good on camera.

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Here’s the back. (Note the graffiti) Hard to believe that plywood, mesh, paper and some spray texture could work so well.

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One word of caution, if you are in a high wind situation, make sure to anchor your bracing. The day after the shoot we found this:

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We were done shooting, so this wasn’t an issue, but it could have been very bad if we had pushed a scene to another day. With any outdoor set, weather is a factor. There wasn’t much chance of this lasting outside until Easter, anyway.

We have one more shoot, very early tomorrow. Then we are done with the capture phase of this project. Watch for another post with pics from the last shoots. Next… edit, ADR, and everything post!

Shoot Update

We’re just a few scenes shy of being done with principle photography for our major Christmas project. In the first post about this project I showed bit of the farm building we were using. I wanted to share a few more shots. You can see some of the sets we built.

This was one of my favorite sets, Joseph’s workshop. When lit correctly, it really works.
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And exterior street set.
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One of or actors prepares for his scene.
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Even disciples like foosball.
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Working on lighting for a scene.
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Hard to believe it in this image, but this collection of PVC pipe, wire and paper becomes a great looking cave.
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Shooting by candlelight.
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This was the final set we built in the “barn”. Always amazed how plywood flats covered in painted foam can look so good as a slightly out of focus background.
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I don’t want to give too much away in the photos, but this one was too good to pass up.
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We’ve wrapped up the shoot out at this location, and the rest will be outdoors.

To see the finished product, don’t miss the Sounds of the Season 2014 at Mobberly Baptist Church.

Shooting, Shooting, Shooting!

IMG_4381One of the things that I really like about my new job is that this church is very ambitious when it comes to shooting video. Yes, we shoot the normal interview, ministry highlight kinds of projects, but we also stretch and shoot more complicated films. I say films because that’s exactly what the are. Before I got here they had shot several series of “sermon bumpers” that were dramatic, narrative. One was a crucifixion focused series, the other used comedy to break the ice on a financial series.

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This past week we kicked off a major project for Christmas. We spent the weekend on a ranch in West Texas, and then came back to Longview, built sets in a barn and started shooting. The schedule is very ambitious. 35 scenes, on multiple locations. To give you an idea of the scope of the project. My feature length script has 57 scenes with fewer locations.

Most of the preproduction was done before I got here, so I am just jumping in where I can.

The very first scene we shot was at night, in a field. We created the “moon” by putting 3 lights in a truck bed and powering them off a generator.

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We had plenty of light for the Blackmagic 4K camera we were shooting with.

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IMG_4398We were using the DJ Ronin gimbal with Easyrig backpack. With all the remote control gear, and camera and batteries and screens, it’s pretty heavy. The Easyrig helps take some of that weight off the arms. We use a Teradek device to stream video to people who are controlling the gimbal pan and tilt, and even a remote focus puller. So it takes 3 people to fully operate the gimbal. It didn’t always work perfectly, but we got what we needed. (For those interested, that’s a ’46 Plymouth in the background.)

IMG_4407 We also used more common gear, like sliders and tripods. The challenge for these shoots was getting all of the people and gear out into the field. Literally, the field. Some places were only accessible via ATV. For one shoot I was holding the gimbal on a stand in the back of a “Mule” ATV, and we were going out to the location. I got so covered in dust. Luckily, one of the team had remembered to cover the camera before we starTed driving. My sunglasses had a thick layer of dust on them when we finally stopped. West Texas dirt.

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Overall, we got some spectacular shots out on the ranch. I’m eager to see them in the finished product.

IMG_4427Once we got back into town, we didn’t slow down. Sunday afternoon we hauled 24 4’x8′ flats out to an air conditioned barn in nearby Gladewater, TX. Then we got to building a set in our makeshift studio. Of course, this barn isn’t really a barn. It’s like a small camp. Bathrooms, kitchenette, it has all the comforts of a home. Plus enough space to build and light the sets for many of our scenes. (See panoramic image below.)

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I’d never been a part of building a set like this. Most of my experience has been on location, so this was educational. Foam, heat guns, hot knives, putty, filler, paint, and texture. I still have remnants on my fingers. But we cranked out the last of the set construction and taped the first couple of scenes, with more to follow the next few nights. Then we tear this down and build a new set in the same space. Finally, we will do a few more shots outside, on location again, to round out the project.

It’s going to be very nice when we are done.

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Notes From an Extra

The other day I was an extra in a new Dave Christiano film called Power of the Air. The cast and crew of this film was great. You should definitely check it out when it releases the end of this year.

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Picture: Dave Christiano speaks to the cast and crew.

I had never been an extra before. I had always been on the other side of the camera. Last time I acted in anything was high school.

Having never worked with the Christiano Brothers before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But people always say that the best way to learn the business is to spend time on the set. So I was happy to be an extra. I was warned before I showed up that it would be a long day of shooting. There were a couple of crucial scenes to capture, and I was going to be a part of them. My day lasted from an 11:15 call time to about 8:00 PM.

So, here are some things I learned as an extra:

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Time is, well, not money exactly, but precious. Even the best planned shoots can have delays. On the production side of things, you do your best to minimize those, both for paid cast and crew and for volunteers. As an extra, expect to wait.

Picture right: Waiting area for extras. Picture below: Craft Services table.

craftInformation alleviates all concerns.
-Knowing where bathroom and craft services is. Two of the most important locations on any set.
-Knowing what is going on and what we are supposed to do. I knew what we were waiting for, where I could wait and generally everything I needed to know.
-A quick word about what’s happening, and how long the break will be. During shooting, sometimes there is time between takes. A quick word about the gear moves and how long we have lets people know if they should stay pt, or make a quick trip to craft services or the bathroom.

Bring something to do. There will be down time. Bring a small book, or tablet. Even needlepoint. Something small in size that can help you pass any time you have to wait, but can quickly be put away and out of sight.

No set is glamorous. Don’t expect a catered trailer. You will be finding a seat wherever you can. People will be moving quickly, and it may seem chaotic, but everyone has a job. It will likely be cramped, hot and sometimes noisy. This really isn’t something I learned yesterday, but it’ still true.

One thing I did learn… the Red Epic has loud fan. I had no idea how loud. The crew had to shut it off during takes, and then back on in between to keep the camera cool. Speaking of sound, faking words without saying anything can be hard.

In general, acting as an extra can be hard. You don’t have lines, or extremely specific blocking. But you do have to be in the moment every take. You are acting, trying to feel and react like you would in that situation. After several hours of the same scene, that can get pretty hard. And tiring. It’s definitely harder than I expected.

I think every person involved in production should spend a day as an extra. Just for the experience of seeing from that side of the set.

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Picture above: Me with the cast of the “Power of the Air”