Shoot it right the first time for a lifetime of memories.
Shoot it right the first time for a lifetime of memories.
OK, I admit it; I plead guilty to occasionally watching those "Judge" shows on television. You know the ones: girlfriend buys ex-boyfriend a cellphone; girlfriend sues. It seems that next to cellphone-purchasing subpoena-happy girlfriends, the second most visited lawsuit is the not-so-happy newlyweds suing their now ex-videographer for failing to capture the important moments of their special day. The prosecution's primary complaint, the couple was counting on the videographer to "get it right" as weddings are "once in a lifetime" events. Other special events such as Bar Mitzvahs, reunions, memorials, and anniversaries fall into this category, but weddings probably set the highest bar on the scale of the most important day of our lives, (at least for videotaping.) So, should we avoid taking on these projects because the liability is too great? No, the secret to avoiding the punitive measures of the people's court is to know the possible pitfalls of your project and prepare appropriately.
See the Scope of the Project
Even if you personally know the clients, and especially if they are friends, you need to meet with them well ahead of the event and have a meeting of the minds. Don't just assume that your understanding of the scope of services required is accurate. Sit down with them and discuss the entire event from start to finish. What do they want shot? What do they want as an end product? Will you be passively documenting whatever you see or will you be shooting behind the scene footage? Will the audio include the ceremony and ambient sound only, or do they want you to shoot informal interviews with the event participants? It's a good idea to put together a very simple letter of understanding to be signed by the client which states both sides perception of the project. It may well keep you out of Judge Judy's court!
Location, Location, Location
Plan to scout the location before the actual event. Know where everything will take place and bring along a camera to shoot reference shots. Arrange to speak with someone from the location that can answer your more technical questions. Ask about amplification, how it's done, and the location of the mixer. Can you run a sound tap from your camera to the mixer? Have someone show you the lighting if it is standard, and ask them to stand in while you shoot some sample footage. Try to visit the building at approximately the same time of day as the scheduled event. This will give you a sense of the natural light and how, if at all, it will affect your shooting. If it's a nighttime event and there is a large stained-glass window that is backlit, be sure to turn on those lights so you can gauge whether you have a backlight problem. Pay attention to the air filtration system. Although you probably cannot turn it off, a noisy air conditioner can create sound problems that must be compensated. Use the mic on your camera and record some room tone so you can assess any potential problems in each room where sound will be recorded.
You can now create a plan to execute this project. If you can take a line from the mic mixer, will you need RCA plugs or XLR connections? If one channel is going to a mixer tap you can use the mic on the camera or put a shotgun mic pointed toward the audience on the other track if you have a 2-channel camcorder. The pick-up from the mixer will be very present but will tend to feel flat. If you want to blend the sense of the room or participant reaction, such as laughter or applause, it is probably worth the second microphone. Plus, if the front mics miss something, you'll have a backup. If you have several locations, you may want to bring an assistant to help set up and "leap frog" the location you are moving to before you get there. Having the assistant monitor and adjust audio while you are shooting is another good use for a second body. If you have to add lighting, try to mount it on the wall or ceiling before turning to light stands. If you must use light stands be sure to sandbag the bases and bring plenty of tape, (Gaffer's tape, not duct tape, as duct tape will leave residue on the floors and is difficult to remove from cable). Be aware of foot traffic patterns when choosing your light locations. Decide where you will need to be to get a good shot without obstructing guest's line of sight. If possible, shoot down a little at your subjects rather than up at them. This helps keep stained-glass windows out of your background, which will almost always require increased front light to balance.
Test all of your equipment well before the day of the event to verify that everything is happy and ready to operate. All cables should be in good shape and be sure to test your connections. Be sure to include extra lamps for each light and extra extension cords in your travel kit. A 6X6" piece of sky blue gel and an equal piece of light bastard amber should be included in your kit at all times.
Arrive early and walk each location to insure everything is the same as when you scouted. Set up your lighting, do all of your sound hook-ups, secure your equipment, and test everything before the audience begins to arrive. Be sure to have batteries standing by in case of a power problem with the house system, or if you plan to shoot while moving between multiple locations. If you need to make marks for the participants, use subtle tape as a floor mark and explain why it is important to try to stand on them. Nothing is quite as bad as the officiant blocking the bride or groom throughout the ceremony. If you white balance and the shots seem either too blue, (too much sunlight), or too yellow, (too much house lighting), try white balancing through your blue or amber gel. This might not help, but many times it will. Be sure to white balance in each location and preset your favorite settings before you begin shooting, if you have this feature on your camera. If you can, you might bring a TV monitor you trust to use as a reference for color and focus.
Get set in your shooting position and get "ready to roll." If you feel comfortable shooting on Auto settings (focus, iris, sound levels), go for it, but know your camera well enough to be able to switch to manual in a heartbeat. Aunt Bea moving in your foreground can cause problems with your auto focus, and shifts in light or backlight that overpower your front light can force you into using manual iris to compensate. Although you've preplanned for every contingency, be ready to create solutions on the fly to compensate for unexpected events. Know how to create solid shots and know your equipment so you can problem solve while shooting.
So Go Do It!
Although I can't promise that we'll never see you on The People's Court, if you put the same energy into planning and producing your special event videos as you do into executing them, you will create videos that meet and even exceed the expectations of your clients. After all, preserving the "most important events" in people's lives is a pretty noble calling if you ask me. So what are you waiting for? "Roll tape!"
Randal K. West is the Vice President/Creative Director for a DRTV full service advertising agency.