The first moving pictures project in which I played a significant role was a television commercial for BookStop, Inc. (the first "category killer" book store chain) in 1985. I was the advertising agency creative director for the project which used: a television commercial, a multi-page, four color printed mailer (magazine style), radio commercials, and newspaper advertising, to open three, 100,000 square foot, retail stores in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. With my creative team we concepted the commercial and the campaign materials. I wrote the direct mail as well as the TV, radio and newspaper ads. We hired producer/director, Bruce Maness, to handle the television commercial production.
As creative director for a big advertising campaign you should be involved in all the major steps and creative decisions. You are responsible for maintaining a consistent "look and feel" throughout. The TV commercials were the big chunk of the media buy and, since my print production team in the agency were all consummate professionals, I paid the bulk of my day-to-day attention to the TV commercial production.
For the spots we created an 18 foot tall replica of the monolith from the Stanley Kubrick movie, "2001, A Space Odyssey." The monolith was created almost entirely of hard cover books. We hired animators to animate a comet flying through a star field which then exploded and coalesced into a our client's logo (with a bit of shimmer added in...). The bulk of the footage was shot at night in a rock quarry (our "surface of the moon"). It was my first experience with huge, manned, cinema cranes and also with giant generators, and enormous 18K lighting fixtures.
The entire production was shot on 35mm film stock with an Arriflex camera and then mastered on two inch tape. It was a time consuming process and presented an almost logarithmic learning curve for me. It was my very first TV project and we were out of the gate with a $100,000+ budget. It was highly successful. The campaign generated results that far exceeded our client's sales goals; the TV, radio, and direct mail each won gold ADDY awards that year, and the most exciting thing for mewas that David Byrne (from The Talking Heads) used a seven second clip of the logo explosion animation in his movie, "Stop Making Sense." Not a bad start for the first time at bat...
Over the next 20 years I worked on an off with video producers in various roles. I wrote scripts, I worked as a lighting designer, frequently, I worked as a DP, I shot fun videos for myself on BetaCam SP, Hi-8, and also on 16mm film on the Bolex Rex-5 camera + Angenieux 12-120mm lens that I owned. The only two roles I never spent much time in were editing and sound. The last big project I worked on before taking a decade long hiatus was the "Byte Me" video for Technology Works which used a combination of black and white Super8 film footage and color BetaCam SP video. It was a big hit at the MacWorld expo the year we launched it and was used for the next few years by the client.
Once the kid came along I concentrated on making photographs, writing books and teaching Craftsy.com workshops. To be honest, motion work was hard to do back in the days of film shooting and tape centric video. Editing was all consuming and the camera gear was huge, heavy, complicated and cumbersome. But the most cumbersome part of video production, and the part I like least, was the size of the crews.
I kept my hand in and my learning cap on during those two decades by working as a still photographer on video sets for several friends/client. We did a lot of work for Pharmaco (now PPD) and Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum). It was a great way to keep learning along with the industry during the transition from 35mm film to high end video to digital video. I needed to be on the sets to make stills between set ups, and even between takes, but I had lots and lots of time to watch the unfolding processes. And to see how others directed talent and crew.
Some directors were regimented and timed sequences down to the partial second; they already had their future edits in mind. Others were more playful, and willing to just let tape roll and roll.
In the early days of shooting television commercials for our own clients, on film, we had crews that ranged between 10 and 20, depending on how many "talents" were involved. That's a lot of people to coordinate with on a set and that does not include the clients, agency staff and talent who also stalk a typical production. The crew sizes made sense in the days when all cameras were basically 100 ISO (or less), required tons of light to make the photons dance on the sensors happily, which required lots of people to move the lights around, run the heavy cables that fed them, and keep the generators hat were required on locations running. There were always camera techs who set focus parameters for the video cameras as well as setting exposure and color parameters using "scopes." With film there had to be someone to load the camera (frequently) and to check the film gate between loads with one of those little pen lights...
With severely limited dynamic range in most early video cameras lighting had to be delivered in carefully measured ranges which made fine-tuning essential. Setting up, lighting, getting the camera ready (always ONE camera) for each shot, and figuring out camera movements could (did) take hours for each shot. Going handheld was hardly less logistically challenging for the commercial world with the SteadiCam and a 20+ pound BetaCam being more or less the standard mobile rig.
I would watch with fascination as two or three grips would set up dolly track for a J.L. Fischer dolly rig. It took time to configure track and then shim it so there was no variation. No bumps, no tilts. Then a camera operator would ride the dolly while an experienced grip pushed it manually through the paces.
While lights were being set and tweaked, cables laid and dressed, cameras set up for each shot, the make up person(s) was busy at work with the talent and the stylists. Wardrobe was selected and faces got make up and powder. Somewhere in the mix the production assistant was roving around taking lunch orders which would be delivered and set up alongside the existing craft service we provided to get people through the day. Is it any wonder that clients feared television production budgets? It was like employing (and feeding) a small village, and added to the bill were all manner of rental items, from the clothespins pinning the talent's jacket to the lights, trucks, truss and cameras used to make the actual production.
In my mind this has all become superfluous for most productions and yet, most people go through life emulating and iterating what they learning in the past. So many young people entering the industry have looked at the crews used on motion picture sets, figured it was all necessary to have in order to be taken seriously, and then set about to copy the masters.
The reality is that the same law that has flattened the photography industry, the computer industry and just about every other industry is hard at work in the video production industry. The law is referred to as "Moore's Law" and it's all about the accelerating pace of technology (more precisely the power of processors doubling every 18 months) and it has all sorts of ramifications for every part of video production.
I won't go into every part of every niche but the places I see the advancements that are most meaningful to me are in camera capabilities, editing and lighting. And I maintain that it is profoundly changing our perceptions, and the reality, of what video production is....and should be.
The essential thing to consider is what are our primary targets for the videos we create. In 1985 there were essentially two targets to aim at: One was broadcast television, in the form of commercials. The second was program presentation on CRT monitors or projected presentations on (by today's standards) very low resolution projector for corporate audiences. That's it. No phones. No tablets. No video capable laptops at Starbucks. No streaming video on the desktop. If you wanted to play a video program for someone you lugged along a VCR and a CRT monitor and you set it up, pushed in a tape and hit "play." It was a smaller market then, serviced by professionals with tools that were not mass market--- by any stretch of the imagination.
Far fewer productions got done. The ones that did came with price tags that covered large crews and rentals (and represented the scarcity of talent in the market), they also came with a large timeline commitment, from start to finish. Both in the making and the viewing. Everything has changed.
I'm an avowed minimalist. I like working with bare bones gear and small (tiny) crews. The general target for my video productions is a program on a website, or social media sharing site, for clients who are medium-to-large businesses. There is always the chance that clients will show the videos at trade shows, and projected, at large sales meetings or in presentations to clients. But 90% of the use will inevitably be for the web. In fact, in the last three years of producing corporate video there have only been a handful of PSAs for Zach Theatre that have been targeted from the outset at broadcast television.
While nearly everyone I know is shooting in 4K now the final deliverable is nearly always 1080p. We shoot in 4K so we can downsample for a higher quality look, or have the ability to crop (radically) and still match the quality of 1080p. And we also shoot in 4K to ensure that the material will have a longer shelf life for clients.
In the recent past shooting 4k was hard. With the advent of cameras like the Panasonic GH4 and a handful of Sony cameras it has now become just about as easy as shooting 2K. The issues most gripe about are storage and processing slow downs but in both those areas Moore's Law made short work of most objections. My mid-2014 iMac (with 32 Gb of RAM) seems to manage the editing stream well. If it didn't I could choose to edit in a "proxy" format and then render the finished program out using the original files. I don't know if you've noticed but hard drives are getting cheaper all the time as well. I buy a hard drive (or two) for each client project. It costs no more than a decent camera memory card did only a few years ago.
Since the cameras we're using weigh about two pounds instead of 10-30 pounds I'm able to handle them easily and also adapt them quickly to handheld configurations and faux dolly modes. But beyond the quick handling and ease of use are feature such as good, useable high ISOs (I can routinely use ISO 1600 and 3200 on the Sony A7rii and A6300 in 4K) which give me good image quality and much lighting flexibility. The range of file customization with all the cameras I own is amazing and allows a very broad usage envelope. The effective image stabilization, coupled with a good shoulder mount, means quick and easy handholding for kinetic shots. The inclusion of focus peaking and zebras pretty much completes the package....especially when you consider that your target is a compressed video that will be displayed through Vimeo or YouTube.
We've always been fixated by camera capabilities in this field, and I agree that some imaging sensors are nicer than others; but we're moving inexorably from getting everything just right in camera to computational image production and editing. I can bolt an A6300 to a luggage cart and shoot a bit wider than I might usually because I know I can take an image with way too much camera movement, put it in Final Cut Pro or Premier, and get tons and tons of great, computer calculated, image stabilization --- controllably --- and all I lose is material on the edges of the frame (a good reason to shoot a bit looser and in 4K).
I can shoot with a flat, S-Log or V-Log profile and take that flat file into post production and make all kinds of color and tone decisions while protecting highlights and shadows. A kind of raw file "lite." And for a bit more money I can buy cameras that deliver actual raw motion files...
If I settle in to shoot at around 640 ISO, and I use faster lenses, I don't need lights that require an electrical "tie-in," I can plug great LED fixtures directly into 120V wall sockets and get right to work. If I want to invest a couple hundred dollars more per light I can place a V-Lock battery on each and forgo the power cables (and buckets of extension cables) altogether, moving the lights anywhere I need them with no worries about power connection.
On a recent trip to Canada, to shoot video for a German Healthcare company, my lighting kit for interviews, etc. was four sturdy LED panels that all fit, with their accessories, in one rolling Tenba case. And that included power cords.
Accurate, powerful LED panels, with their power boxes and controls moved off the heads, don't require light stands that are as big and bulky as those required to hold bigger lights. This further reduces kit size.
With bigger productions, and productions in which you want to overpower sunlight, you'll need a certain number of crew members to be efficient and safe but on the standard, web and show-targeted videos I want to produce the optimum size of a "generous" crew would be three. 3. So, let me describe a typical project and how we handle it in the present moment of Moore's Law, and the product mix it allows...
Project description: (hypothetical but based on an amalgam of actual jobs) A client gets in touch and we discuss their project. They have a product that they are promoting and they want to create one or more videos that show their in use with actual users. They also want some testimonial interviews from current, successful users, and they may also want interviews with service providers who work with customers to fit the product or install it. They've heard that all videos should be 90 seconds or shorter so that people don't stop watching them in the middle.
We ask if they have a script or treatment. In most cases they do not. We help them organize the selling message and then craft a treatment that will serve as a roadmap for the project. We also provide a sample script so that when we go to interview our (real world) talent we have a frame work for the questions we'll ask....because we know what kind of answers we'd like to get on camera...
I put together a shooting team of just two other people: both all purpose grips; one of whom runs second camera while the other takes care of location audio. I act as director and one of two camera operators.
Together, we figure out what locations we'll be shooting in, what sort of equipment and lighting is required and what kind of b-roll we'd like to shoot to make the edit work. One or two of us will ultimately be responsible for the editing as well. We don't want to get short-sheeted on b-roll; especially if we are the one editing it...
Let's say that on this project we'll be making a video about a product that allows people with a certain vision disability to actually see well enough to allow them to more easily participate in activities of daily life. We might decide to interview him both in his home and at his workplace. The product benefits might include being able to navigate around his home safely and being able to walk around his workplace without a cane or companion/service animal. We want to show this mobility and show the positive effects on his life. We want to show him interfacing with fellow office workers and also show him being able to more easily participate in social situations that had been daunting before.
Once our brief and treatment are approved, and the scheduling done, we'll try to get everything we need in one day of shooting. Another day if we go over.
The shooting team meets at my office to load the car (not a big truck, just a car). We take two cameras, lenses, a portable monitor, four LED panel lights, six medium light stands, two 50 inch round light modifiers, shotgun style microphones as well as back up, lavaliere microphones, a boom pole, apple boxes, headphones, sound blankets (to cut down on bright room reflections) and a cart on which to put everything. We also pack a goodie bag with trail mix, granola bars, protein bars and water. For good measure I toss in a first aid kit...always.
When we hit the location my crew members will unpack the car and bring everything to our primary shooting location. We'll do the first interview as our first set up of the day. Together, we figure out where to place the talent, how to light them and how to mic them. As one member sets up the lights and the other figures out the right approach for audio I busy myself talking to the talent and developing a congenial relationship. I will already know his "story" so I might ask him for details or ask him the most comfortable way to approach the subject matter. I'll also tell him, in general terms, what we would like to get from his interview. We'll surely have clients at the location as well so I'll turn the talent over to the client for some social engagement while I set up my primary camera, interface with our audio person and give instructions to the second assistant who will run a second camera to provide an interesting second camera angle. He and I will white balance both cameras to the same target, check to make sure the camera profiles all match and that our exposures match up. Much easier to get it all right up front than to have to color correct individual video clips...
On smaller shoots with limited budgets I do not provide luxuries for our clients. Coffee? Yes. Snacks? Yes. A green room with their own 50 inch, 4K "courtesy" monitor? Uh...no.
We use a seven inch monitor at the camera position and I make sure the clients see and approve the shot before we roll. They will have to trust that I'm getting what we need. To get more complex than that would require more time and budget and, in many cases, move beyond the logical outlay for the final financial target of the program. We start the cameras rolling and I start the interview process. My sound person is monitoring audio through headphones but we are also running audio directly into camera; which we'll use, if it is clean enough (it usually is). The audio in our external recorder is there as a safety.
Rather than zoom my "A" camera during the interview I shoot fairly static and depend on the editing process for "punching in" or "pulling out." My second shooter is grabbing stuff with more movement and more selections of angles, but, again, we can crop and stabilize his footage in post as well. Once we have a good take in the camera we stop. My experience is that performances don't improve as you go on and try again and again. If you have something great, in camera, at the end of your first take you should smile and move on. The talent will gain confidence knowing that they "nailed it" and your crew will appreciate the extra time in which to get detail shots, b-roll and texture. Never forgetting to get some "room tone" for the sound edit.
We discuss the next location or set-up with the client and talent and then all three of us on the crew wrap up the gear and move it to the next spot. If we are driving to another location one of the assistants will take notes as we talk about how we might use the footage. We'll also talk about things that might have established a style we'd like to continue as we move forward. That could include lighting style or camera work.
When we hit each location we never unpack more than we need. There is never a frenzy to set up every camera stand and every light. Our mantra is to keep stuff simple and straightforward. If we can get a shot with available light we'll white balance and go. If we need one light we'll grab the lightest panel that works and go. If we can skip setting up a light stand and one of us can hold the light for a quick shot then that's how we proceed. Everything we're not using stays on the cart. If we can use battery power or available light we never touch the extension cords.
We consider clients, on set, to be there as lifeguards. They are there to make sure we are using their product correctly and to make sure we aren't violating any safety rules that might not be obvious. They are there also as companions for the talent. What we don't have clients do is to micro-manage b-roll shots or to make aesthetic decisions that have more to do with video tech than company "style book" considerations. We generally know better than the clients about how we'll use the shots for the edit, we just want to make sure we are showing the product and their talent/customer correctly. Everything else will follow the story line we all created.
When we've finished the primary interviews we distill b-roll activities that match up to what was said in the interviews; we need to get that correlating visual material shot. We generally use two concurrent cameras to get b-roll; one more or less stationary and one moving. Each from different angles. I ask my second operator to always give me ten seconds or more of a shot on each clip so we have time, in and out, for the edits.
A classic example is from one of our videos featuring a woman in a wheel chair. I am doing a trucking shot with a medium/wide POV with a camera clamped to our luggage cart. Ben was providing a second, handheld angle that was much tighter and from a different side of the room. The two angles complemented each other and cut together very well. By using two cameras we get more efficiencies than we would have trying to use one camera for everything. Two cameras is a real time saver. Almost always. Two cameras (or even more) are made possible, financially, by Moore's Law reducing (radically) the cost of "sufficient" cameras. During our b-roll sweep our third crew member is keeping the gear organized and making sure there are no overflowing trash cans or table junk in the backgrounds of the shots that might draw away our future audience's attention. Then we pack up and move again. Since we limit our interview takes, and just get ambient audio in b-roll takes, we don't waste time keeping footage logs during the shoot. No one is marking takes; that's for movie production.
My goal is to work with the same people over and over again so we all know each other's strengths and weaknesses and we can compensate for each other. Everyone knows how I like to light. I'm getting to know the kind of material my usual editor likes to use in post production. Our sound guy is learning how we all like to hear stuff.
But this arrangement is my "best case scenario/fully staffed version of the workflow. I actually prefer, when doing single person interview projects (with b-roll) to use only one other person. A second camera operator who (in the best of all possible worlds) will also be my editor. Most stationary interviews can be done well without a sound operator. If the interviewee is seated or standing in one spot we'll put a boom pole on a C-stand and place a super cardioid or hyper cardioid microphone just above him/her and about 18 inches from his/her mouth. I'll have my assistant chat with the talent while I listen through closed back headphones and adjust levels. I'll often run one channel at exactly the level I think the audio should be and then run the second channel as a separate mono signal that is 6 decibels down from the first channel's level. In this manner I have a safety track I can use if my talent gets too excited, gets louder, and I'm not able to ride the gain control quickly enough.
We check footage for audio and video quality after every interview. If something is wrong we want to address it before we move lights or people.
When I work solo I use the same audio strategy and pare my lighting down to essentials. I'll still bring a second camera and a smaller tripod in order to have a secondary angle to use during editing. It's come in very handy.
Photo Courtesy: ODL Design.
In my recent experience paring down equipment, and using the latest (very powerful) consumer/pro-sumer equipment, has many advantages. For three of the days on which I shot in Canada I was able to get the gear to my rental car on one cart, manage the gear on location easily, set up and tear down quickly, and shoot lots and lots of b-roll, interspersed with interviews. Some of my exterior, handheld, action imagery was shot with the image stabilization in the Sony RX10iii engaged and it's footage that I really, really like. I've incorporated it into three different video projects for my client now.
If you are shooting your material to the internal memory card of your camera and also running your audio to the memory card of your camera you really don't need people such as camera techs and audio techs. On a high budget project these positions might be desirable additions. The same goes for projects on which the talent walks as they talk. But doing most of the work yourself is hardly the almost impossible effort it might have been in the days of actual film-based production. It's just that old habits die hard. And old, established work habits die harder.
Technology has gone a long way in making possible a one man shooting crew. Shooting in the snow and driving wind with a 4K camera that also employs image stabilization for only $1500 is pretty amazing. The hard thing for some people is believing in the reality of Moore's Law and trusting that a new way can work as well, or better, than a tried and proved methodology executed with older and less efficient tools.
I'm not arguing against the skills sets that specialists bring to the set but against the kinds of baked in opinions that keep people from actually trying the new technology to see if more can be done with less.
As a working professional, my first line against becoming obsolete to clients is to take my ego out of the process. Just because I was good at executing the Schiempflug movement on an 8x10 Deardorf view camera thirty years ago doesn't mean I am the de facto master of current aesthetics; many of which depend on innovative new tools to create them.
Photo Courtesy: ODL Design.
If the camera isn't moving and the talent isn't moving and the audio isn't changing levels is there really a reason why one can't step away from the camera every once in a while and directly connect with the person in front of the camera? I'm pretty sure it'll turn out okay.
Photo Courtesy: ODL Design.
It was wonderful to be able to step out of my rental car, scout this location, figure out the shot and then summon the talent. On a 12 degree afternoon with swirling snow and stiff winds I cannot imagine what the incremental value would have been to have a crew set up dolly track, set up a tripod, set up a client courtesy monitor, and a craft service table for the crew in order to get a 20 second shot that will be used for 3 seconds in the final interview. We were back in the cars in less time than it would probably take to set up a tripod and level it.....
Photo Courtesy: ODL Design.
We had one camera anchored to a Metro cart (see just below) when I saw a shot that I thought would tie in a technology symbol to the actual product. I just grabbed another camera, walked up the ramp and started rolling. The whole process took a couple of minutes and rewarded me with ten seconds of good edit material. Stuff that moved the story forward. What the in-camera stabilization didn't smooth out the image stabilization in Final Cut Pro X did.
Photo Courtesy: ODL Design.
It's the "walking" shots that make my client smile. The love to see their product showcased close up and in motion. That is not a J.L. Fisher dolly, it's just an office utility cart with a camera and a "top shelf" monitor but it made for some great footage of kinetic action with the "hero" product, and our five takes were done in less time than it would have taken to get a big cinema camera just mounted on a "real" dolly. I know, I've been there.
Small, light, bright and accurate.
The really neat thing about my Moore's Law understanding of video production is that it also has to do with cross product improvement convergence. Ten years ago the only LEDs worth shooting with were $10,000 and hard to find. The cameras were far less sensitive. The editing software much less facile (or affordable). In the last few years the lights have gotten amazingly good, and much cheaper. My $1500 consumer camera really does rival the files you could get out of $10,000 cameras just a few years ago. And Premier and Final Cut Pro X make my memories of editing in a million dollar editing suite, complete with dueling two inch tape decks, seem like prehistoric days of artistic torture.
The targets are different now, the turn over is quicker now. For many jobs it really is: Adapt or die.
I'll say it one more time for the hard of reading: I am specifically referring here to corporate video productions which are mostly targeted to the web and social media, not movie making or high end, broadcast television production. Each field should have its own efficient requirements. They don't always overlap even though the tools might look the same.
By the same token the production standards for a $200,000 video production are not going to be the same as those for a $20,000 production --- nor should they be.
Just thought you'd like to know what I've been thinking about lately...