Run ‘N Gun Videography, sneak preview

Almost done with the ebook “Run ‘N Gun Videography–the Sole Shooter’s Survival Guide”.  Looks like it will be about 42,000 words in about 25 chapters. A few weeks ago I published the introduction here.

I won’t publish all the chapters on the blog, but here’s Chapter 1 (first draft) for your perusal:

 

Chapter 1   Run ’N Gun

What does that mean anyway?

Funny enough, if you look this up you’ll find it’s a term used in the video gaming industry. As the name implies, it’s a rather brash and unconsidered approach to winning—sort of an AK47 approach to getting somewhere.

Speaking of guns, I’ve shot the AK47 and I must say it’s a gun that’s meant to be shot on full automatic in a spraying motion because it’s not very useful in single shot mode for hitting a target. The bloody thing is so nasty in its kickback that once you’ve fired it, you have no idea where the bullet just went–and you don’t care either because your ears are ringing so bad. (The US AR15 is much better on that score).

But I digress.

I doubt any of this is what anyone in the field of videography means when using the term.

For the purposes of this book, however, I thought I’d better define what I mean by the term, lest anyone start off with the wrong idea.

Since I have a gun theme going (for a bit of fun), it’s not an AK47 or AR15 approach either. More like a 38 police special (short barreled pistol) and you have to be pretty good to hit anything with that.

Let me couch it this way:

After years of working in the regimented, scripted approach to film and video production with production crews (nothing wrong with that), I became a video documentary director/cameraman. That meant I traveled around with a small team—usually one other person and sometimes two—to shoot short documentaries of people or events around the world. Because there was little time allotted for each production, and each production had a looming, unalterable deadline, it was necessary to develop a shooting style that was very direct and economical without compromising on quality. This also extended to kit, which I’ll detail in a later chapter. In short, I had to be quick on my feet and quick of wit while being as thorough as possible.

Despite the fact that these productions had scripted narration to be added later, my job was to produce material that would stand on its own without the need for narration. What dictated the content for me was the material obtained in the interviews I did with key people on the ground.

I learned some very important things early on about interviews. While this will also be the subject of a detailed chapter, it bears mentioning now that the most important thing I learned was that everyone has a story. Getting them to tell it is the trick. Part of the trick is to be willing to find out what the story is. And to do that you pretty much have to knock out of your head whatever you think the story might be (forget about the stupid interview questions) and just start engaging in normal human conversation.

Once you’ve go the story you have some idea of the B roll (relevant and related shots) you need to shoot so that the interview and/or greater story can be edited.

And that’s all there is to it basically.

It applies to documentaries, biographies and corporate videos alike.

Knowing what to shoot, how to see it and doing it quickly, professionally and thoroughly is “run ’n gun”.

By definition, “run ’n gun” will never be perfect. You’re bound to make mistakes. You’re bound to get home and find a shot out-of-focus or with any of an almost infinite number of potential technical flaws. But if you “shoot the hell out of it” in the process, and to the best of your ability, you will walk away with editable video footage that will achieve whatever its intended purpose was.

I always make the time to light important interviews and obtain the best sound possible. That doesn’t mean one could necessarily tell that the shots were lit because, in my case, I tend to employ “atmospheric lighting” which appears to be natural. But it looks a hell of a lot better than the “real world” looked.

On the other hand, it’s not always possible to light an interview, particularly “vox pox” (latin for “voice of the people” and meaning the “man-on the-street type interview). But in these cases one still tries to get the best possible lighting and camera angle possible.

Sound recording is another vital element. Using an on-camera mic (and the resultant high ambient sound levels) is the mark of an amateur. Close, present-sounding audio recording for any type of interview is vital – a fact which apparently many videographers do not give adequate importance to.

That said, there are unexpected circumstances when something is happening that simply can’t be stopped to allow proper microphone placement, so you’d be daft to not record it anyway with your on-camera mic. If the content turns out to be precious, the value of the content will over-ride the technical flaws.

And so it goes. It’s a constant exercise of judgment while seeking to obtain the best technical quality in the process under varying circumstances.

It takes practice.

It takes experience.

You have to be willing to learn from your mistakes.

You have to be pretty good to pull it off.

And that’s what I mean by “run ’n gun”

 

 

Sony HXR NX30 Production Report

I’ve now used the NX30 in several productions including music and corporate.

Last week I completed an 8 minute fund-raising video in Los Angeles which I thought would be a good video to elaborate on the NX30s capabilities in “run and gun” production.

Rather than go into the subject of what I mean by “run and gun” at any great length here, I’ve decided to take that up separately in a later blog. But to be clear, it’s in this type of shooting that the camera shines. It’s a rather competent “wing man”.

This production “The Locke High School Project” was definitely run and gun. Despite requests for various things to be lined up in advance of my arrival, very little was planned. Some things that were planned were faulty in terms of permissions, and some things planned simply fell through. It was up to me to pull it all together in a relatively short period of time to accomplish the objective of a video capable of appealing to a particular prospective donor of parting with $2,550,000.

If you can, watch the video in Full HD in order to evaluate the performance of the NX30.

You can watch the video now if you’d like and then read the comments below, or visa versa (or watch it twice).

1) It starts off with a sunset beach scene. That wasn’t planned. That was an off-the-cuff solution to a celebrity endorser to introduce the video who wasn’t able to be scheduled due to other commitments.  I didn’t want to have Sidney (the client making the appeal) to be bragging about his own accomplishments in order to position himself in the beginning of the video, but when the celebrity fell through and time had run out on my stay, I told him to grab his french horn and race down to the beach with me for sunset as a back-up to the original plan.

We got there in the last minute, and, as you can image, with no time for dilly-dallying, I just parked him on the sand and told him to start playing while I shot the footage.

If you’ve read my earlier blogs or seen any of the videos, you’ll know that I’m not a tripod or camera support system fan. In the old days working with crews, I’d have an assistant who took care of all that stuff giving me the time to plan angles and so forth.  When you’re solo, and in a rush, there’s little time for all that. Plus it’s a pain in the backside to clean out all the sand off your equipment after a beach shoot.

That’s why I love the NX30. Those shots are all hand-held. Not a speck of sand on any of my equipment.  But more than that, I could just turn the camera on in full intelligent auto mode and start shooting. It locked focus on the face and set its own exposure and colour balance.  What you see there isn’t even altered in post.

2) The sit-down interview with Sidney was shot on a tripod (as were the later interview scenes) because even I’m not masochistic or stupid enough to hold the camera for a 30 minute interview.

But here again, look at the beautiful clarity of the image. No, it’s not that shallow depth-of-field DSLR look. But with nice lighting, composition and tonal separation, what difference does it make for the purpose?  That’s a serious question. If it was shallow depth of field would it make it any better in terms of communication value?

I like shallow depth of field too. But that immediately taxes your attention that much more in terms of setting and maintaining focus. In this type of shooting, I’d much rather have more of my attention available for other things and not worrying about focus. Once I start that camera rolling, I’m no longer looking at the camera or the monitor. I’m chatting with the person. Nice to know the camera isn’t going to let that face go out-of-focus if he happens to shift or move.

3)  Shooting in the school.

This video was almost a disaster. I knew it was vitally important to get permission to shoot and interview in the school which was on the list of things I required to have set up in advance of my arrival.  When we got to the school we luckily got the athletic director to take us around. Here again, the little NX30 did not get a lot of attention due to its size. Could have been a different story with a larger “professional-looking” camera.

So what I did was tag along during the tour and just kept the camera running constantly. I had a radio mic on the athletic director and wore headphones so I could hear what they were talking about, but my main objective was to grab as much footage as I could.

Later we did the sit-down interview after which we stole over to the music department for about 40 minutes and obtained what the footage there on a similar basis.

Our time was up and we had to leave even though I wanted more. Interviews with sports students for example. But when it came time to go back to the school for that with fingers crossed, we ran head-on into the full bureaucracy of requiring written permissions based on submitting script, list of shots, video distribution plans, etc.

And since the marketing arm of the school would not be keen to show what needs to be shown in a FUND-RAISING video for the school’s inadequacies, I knew that road was closed. And we were out of time anyway.

So how did the NX30 perform?  I had it in Active Mode, Full intelligent auto. None of those “steadicam shots” were processed in post. Even though one shoots that sort of shots in wide angle for obvious reasons, there’s still the chance that the camera will decide to focus on something stupid. But the NX30 was set to keep track of faces and I could see it boxing in the faces as I moved, so my confidence was high (and not let down) in terms of focus. Or exposure, for that matter.

Short anecdote:  After we left the school for the second time without permission to shoot inside, I walked around outside to try to get a shot that showed a lot of students. Unfortunately the school was fenced like a prison. Nowhere in the entire circumference of the school was I able to see inside. Then, as I completed my walk around I noted an electric driveway gate opening. I stood ready, and as soon as the vehicle left and the gate started to close, I planted myself in the opening and grabbed a slow panning shot that showed a large group of students changing classes. I had one chance and only a few seconds. One shot.  And the NX30 backed me up by taking care of all the technical details.

3)  As I was leaving we got our hands on an old year book. I needed some historical shots. I used my Canon 600 to take stills of most of the shots I wanted out of the book (animating them in editing), but there are a couple of panning shots in there I did with the NX30 in Active Mode. That’s kind of difficult to do smoothly so close up, so in this case I further stabilised the shots in post to a very nice result.

AN IMPORTANT DISCOVERY ABOUT THE NX30

In some of my earlier corporate productions (and on this one too), I would come home to find to my horror that some of my interview shots were soft on focus. It was both unnerving and baffling.

Then it happened on this production on the interviews with both the original music teacher and the current one. As I watched these interviews I could see the camera slowly drifting from foreground to background over and over. I had NO IDEA what caused this and thought I might have a camera fault to be fixed.  (this is why the interview with the current music teacher starts with an unusually long amount of B roll before we actually see him talking. Likewise, near the end of the video the original music teacher is coming out of a dissolve which hides the moment when the shot is coming into focus and cuts to B roll just before it rolled out-of-focus)

The next day when I was setting up to do the interview with Sidney, I put the camera on the tripod and did what I usually do: shut off the stabilisation. As I did that I noticed something flash on the viewfinder screen. And a little notice came up that said something like “turn off intelligent auto”.  I looked closer and saw that what had flashed on the screen was the little intelligent auto icon turning off (greying out; going inactive).

Ah ha!  Intelligent auto only works in Active Mode! Makes sense too. That’s when you really need it.

So the lesson learned is: When shooting on a tripod with stabilisation turned off, you MUST set focus manually. You can either turn off auto-focus once it’s focused on the subject you want, or just turn it off and manually focus it on the subject.

Ok, that will be my last word on the NX30. Hope it helps any of you who are looking to buy a camera.

And thanks to the 50,000 of you who, at this writing, watched the 2 Part Sony HXR NX30 review making it the most watched and highly rated video review of the NX30 on the internet.

Yeah, I heard some of your complaints about it too and agree with you, so I’ll  incorporate those points next time.

(hey, what do you know–this is my 50th blog post!)

Unshackled Camerawork

Just made up that term. Wonder if it will stick.

As a 30 year career cameraman, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on camerawork for the one-man-band videographers and small video production companies out there.

It’s a many-faceted subject, but like any subject, it has fundamental rules. And while this isn’t meant to be a dissertation on the rules, I thought I mention one that probably isn’t written anywhere anyway as a foundation for my comments, and that is: the purpose of camerawork is to forward the message of the script or production (and that goes for every other department–sets, props, costumes, make-up, lighting, sound, music, editing, etc.).

The corollary might be: The purpose of camerawork isn’t to call attention to the camera or cameraman.

That said, there are probably few camera support systems I haven’t extensively used in both film and video production–from geared heads, the most expensive fluid heads and tripods, dollies, cranes, camera cars and steadicam. But I used them toward contributing to the overall message of the scene.

In the mid-90s I changed over to video, traveling the world in small teams of 2 or 3, self included, with an 18 pound Sony Betacam. The work was fast and often “ninja style”. Little preps, lots of thinking on one’s feet.  My biggest impediment annoyance? Tripods.

So early on I ditched that $7,000 carbon fiber tripod with the Sachler head for everything except sit-down interviews and I learned to do everything hand-held. Not “shakey-cam”, just a nice, steady hand-held. I’d prop that big Sony on my foot, on the ground, on a ledge, on my knee, hip or shoulder, lean against a pole or fence or building or sit it on a small bean bag I carried and shot stuff that few ever realized was hand-held.

But the main point was, I was able to shoot un-impeded. I didn’t miss those fleeting shots on location because I was setting up a tripod and introverted into my equipment.

Then came the digital revolution.

And now most of the cameras we used have built-in stabilization and most of the editing programs we use have camera stabilizer programs to boot.

Better still, the cameras themselves are light-weight with rotatable flip-out monitor screens. What more can you ask for?!

Ok, so now let’s re-visit that fundamental above about the purpose of camerawork.

Camerawork (or lighting or editing or any of those other departments mentioned) is good when it involves the audience in the story; when it helps to impart mood or emotion or direct attention.

And, (corollary), these things are bad when they call attention to themselves, or worse when they call attention to the operator showing off his technical prowess.

In fact my view regarding camerawork had always been that it’s best when it’s “invisible”–when it seamlessly becomes the eye of the audience.

That doesn’t necessarily mean perfect camerawork. It just means appropriate to and not distracting from the message.

It’s quite alright if someone after the show remarks that the cinematography was excellent, but by that they generally mean that everything contributed to the message or story and they were wowed by it all, not distracted or knocked out of the show by it.

Don’t be fooled into the notion that to appear “professional” you’ve got to have all these cool rigs and techniques. You don’t even need it to impart a “cinematic” look.

Think about all the lost opportunities to catch snippets of life and reaction at a wedding or great B roll of people working at their jobs in the office or on an industrial site while you were busy setting up that fancy shot. Instead keep your attention outward. Be invisible. Catch the stuff that only happens when no one thinks you’re watching.

Get your technical expertise up as high as you can get it without losing site of why you’re there.

I’m not saying get rid of all your cool stuff and I’m not saying don’t buy it. Just don’t get the notion that you need it to be professional. Far more important is obtaining total command over your camera so that it becomes an extension of your eye which is always outward looking, and then with it you capture what you came for better than your client ever expected.

Message is senior to technical rendition. In fact it trumps it.

If you capture something in a way that screams the message or mood or emotion, it will resonate with the audience even if faulty.  They didn’t come there to watch and critique your camerawork or technique (unless that’s what your video message is about!).

My two cents.

UPDATE:  While this was the subject of my last post, it occurred to me that it’s, at least, a current sample of an 11 minute video that’s entirely hand-held except for the sit-down interview (as all my videos are , to be honest). I link to it here as, unlike most of the corporate and wedding videos I do, I think it would be of interest to anyone. It’s a mini-doc on the making of a bronze statue by my wife, international sculptor Laury Dizengremel:

Business Web Videos, Old Predictions and New Trends

A couple years ago Bruce Clay, one of the top SEO experts in the world, predicted  (to paraphrase) “in a couple of years, if you don’t have video content, you won’t rank (on the search engines).”

Well, it’s been a couple of years and it seems he wasn’t far off.

Now we’re hearing that in short order (I’ll skip the year prediction), 90% of the web will be video-based. Just search “video seo” and you’ll see what I mean.

Frankly, I don’t know what that means exactly. But it certainly implies the necessity for video content for starters.

Around the same time, all on my own, I started telling clients that the slick, expensive video ads they’re so accustomed to from TV are not the way to promote new business. In fact, the cost of such productions is what made the whole idea of video prohibitive to small and medium-sized businesses. My point, covered in more detail on other articles in this blog, was that it works fine for the Big Guys because we’re already familiar with their products and services and don’t really need to be sold on them particularly. Those flashy videos are just there to remind us that those Big Guys still exist and are still offering great stuff for you to buy.

But for the smaller guys, the guys that most of us never heard of (and the guys that want to be discovered), that same approach could be a distinct disadvantage.  Why?  Because it’s just “marketing hype”. “It’s just an actor reading a script”.

So my approach was more of a documentary approach using the real people who are themselves human and slightly imperfect; not slick and polished like a pro actor with perfect hair, posture, hand gestures and clever script.

Seems this too has panned out as an accurate prediction.  Now I’ve been seeing blog posts about “humanizing” business videos and “the documentary approach”.

The one thing I did learn from these blogs was something I must have known a couple of years ago but hadn’t put my finger on….YouTube changed everything.

Need I say more?

Comment on Corporate and Business Videos

Back in the early days of TV advertising and print media in the last century, it was enough to say

“Acme is the best”. And people would buy because you said so.

Then, when enough people were saying “we’re the best” Madison Avenue (New York) stepped in with the new age of “hype”

And apparently, in the 21st Century, “hype” is still alive and well.

But wasn’t it decades ago that the general public started ignoring it and started to realize when they were hearing “well scripted” advertising dialogue?

Then humor entered into the arena, and that worked well (and is still working well) with well known and established businesses whose products and services are already known. This then, was a matter of keeping the brand in the public’s mind. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But what about small businesses or corporations that aren’t well known or are brand new?

What will make the public listen to you?

Passion.

Sincerity.

For the last year I’ve been advising clients to not bother writing scripts or hiring professional actors or presenters.

I have a different approach.

I learned after doing about 1000 interviews with people all over the world in from all walks of life from the very bottom to the very top that all people are passionate about something. If you get them talking about what they want to talk about, they light up inevitably and invariably. And even with a video camera in their face, suddenly all their inhibitions and introversions disappear.

Conversely, if you try to get them to say some pre-conceived idea you’ve got–or try to coax them to say certain things–or try to get them to read a script, they get all wobbly and introverted and you wind up with hash. And some marketing or video companies will pass that off to you and expect you to applaud it as a professional marketing piece.

I’m sure you’ve seen this sort of result in various business videos you’ve seen. It’s either slick hype, or amateur school play time, and neither are very effective.

My approach in the production of a 3 minute business web video is to interview the person or persons involved. The interview is an informal chat, a conversation about the topic or topics we are meant to be promoting. It doesn’t matter what is said. “Ums” and “ahhs” don’t matter. Dead-end questions are dropped. Questions that raise the interest and emotional tone of the interviewee are expanded upon. I keep mental notes as to what material obtained will be useful in the eventual video and I generally know when I have enough such material. The interviews might be a cumulative 20 minutes or more for each person (if more than one). There might be as much as an hour’s material to distill down to 2 to 4 minutes.

After the interviews, I now know what other footage needs to be shot to cover what the person or persons were talking about and I shoot it.

I then go through all the material and isolate all the “usable bits”.

Next I put it into a logical order (which may not be the order it was obtained in) to give a suitable beginning, middle and end of the video.

Finally I edit it down to the desired length and that gives me the “narrative” for the video…in other words, the SCRIPT.

Part of that process is removing all the “umms” and “ahhs” (as much as possible) and any irrelevant parts. It’s not that saying “umm” or “ahh” is bad. It’s human. But as an example, in one recent 3 minute video I seamlessly cut out 38 “ums”. That wasn’t all of them, but enough to make the person come off very well indeed while still being human.

So finally, when this narrative is all together in a cohesive string, if you were to look at it on the editing timeline, it would look like the person has been “sliced and diced”.

So all those slices and dices are then covered up with the relevant shots of what it is that the person is talking about–which of course forwards the message of what he’s talking about.

The editing job is to keep it on point to forward the marketing message you wanted in the first place.

And you wind up with a piece that is sincere, even passionate, and with no trace of hype.

You wind up with a piece that’s believable.

Like this one:

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