Whether you're shooting a tax seminar, a wedding or a break-dance summit, event video can be some of the most interesting, stressful, exciting, and ultimately rewarding video work you will come across.
One of the comforts in controlled shoots is that you can always try a few things to see what works with a scene. Move a light a few times. Take time to test audio with different microphones in different positions. Maybe swap cameras to see if the Canon EOS 5D Mark III gives you a better effect than the Sony PMWEX3. These comforts are welcome in those environments, but other types of shoots - particularly event video - aren't always so controlled, and great planning must be undertaken to ensure a good final product.
Some Quick Tips to Being Prepared
Whether you are shooting wedding and event videography or school sports, you need to be prepared. There are no do-overs. Some of these tips sound like common sense, but each one has either helped me immensely, or bitten me badly when I forgot to do them. This is the checklist that I go through before I take on any event.
1 What Kind of Planning? All Kinds!
Before an event shoot, it's normal to get a little bit tense. One of the best ways to get calm is to take some time to get prepared. Charge more than your camera batteries - charge up your cell phone and pack a charger. When all else fails, your phone can be your lifeline to communicate with the rest of the staff. Fill up your gas tank to avoid a stop on the way, and get your car looking presentable, inside and out, you never know if you'll be driving a subcontractor or a client to the subway or their hotel after you've concluded the event.
Map your location in advance. You'll not only get an idea of the venue's scale and appearance, but you might even notice staff or loading areas, which will help you when the event rolls around. This is not a replacement for early access to the event, but any bit of information you can procure prior the event will help you feel prepared. Is it a two-camera shoot? Why not get your video mode, frame rates and color profiles matched up? It turns the task into simply a "double-check" on event day.
2 Know Who's in Charge
When scoping an event, you'll want to meet with your clients beforehand to get a solid understanding of their expectations - what do they want you to shoot, what are you delivering after the event, and what are the deadlines for that content.
Ask who will be in charge on the day(s) of the event - it may or may not be the same person you originally dealt with when coordinating your role. You'll need this contact for any questions you have on recording day. Find out if there is a rehearsal day, or at least early access to the venue. You'll want to check out your location to scout for lighting, wall outlets, and obstacles. If there is a rehearsal, make good use of it; test audio feeds, ensure your cameras are in good condition, and look at the lighting environment to see if you'll need to augment what's already there to enhance your footage.
3 Get a Schedule
Prior to the event, sometimes at the last minute, the client should provide you with an event schedule. If they don't, ask for one. This will give you an idea of how the day(s) will flow, and serve as a general outline to work with. Keep in mind the time allotted to the travel from place to place. Make notes on the schedule detailing any special requests or location changes.
4 Make a Shot List
When preparing for a special event, I generally make two lists: First, make a list of the gear needed, such as headphones or a tripod. Second, make a list of specific shots the client will expect. Be sure when making this list to label times and places that these "Must Capture" moments will take place. You'll certainly want to have pre-planned at least some of your B roll as well.
5 Shoot From Your List!
It's not enough to write a list - you need to use it! A key production principle is plan your shoot, shoot your plan. Your client will be counting on you to follow this principle whether they realize it or not, so create your plan and execute it.
Also, get things you may or may not need for editing. Regardless of the type of event you're shooting, from weddings to corporate gigs, it's always good practice to grab establishing shots, as well as extra B roll audio and video. If you think it'll be too busy during the event, grab an establishing shot on a nice day leading up to the big day.
6 Map Your Setup Locations and Times
Depending on the venue, you may have to do a bit of walking to get from one position to another in time to capture key events. If you know you're going to be on the move, make sure you allow time to get from one spot to the next and with the right crew and equipment. Make sure you're in the right place at the right time - all the time.
7 Prepare for the Worst - Bring Extra Everything
You never know when a problem will arise. At some events your entire job might have you sitting in a chair while your camera records right next to you and nothing will go wrong. Other times you might have cables go bad, camera failures, missing media, broken adaptors, accidents with gear, spills, and other various problems. Adapting becomes key, and to do that, you may need extra equipment.
When you create your list of essential gear, make sure you've got extras for any items you can't do the shoot without.
Having extra gear is also handy when opportunities present themselves. An extra lavalier microphone in your bag might mean you can capture an impromptu interview, or an extra camera might capture a moment when a VIP makes a rare and brief appearance. Small things like this can completely change the value you bring to the job in your client's eyes.
8 Know Your Gear
This is important and often overlooked. I don't mean learn how to turn your camera on and off, and zoom in on your subject - hopefully you know how to do those things - I mean really learn everything you can about your gear.
If you're shooting tapeless, do you get a blip in your recording when your camera software automatically breaks up your video file at 4GB to conform to your FAT32 memory card? Do you know how to change audio channels and fend off interference with your wireless microphones in an environment full of wireless signals? Do you know how to change the settings on your camera for different microphones, or how to set the camera to output to a screen via HDMI or SDI properly?
Factors that often only show themselves in event environments are definitely worth preparing for. Create test scenarios at your home or office - try leaving your camera recording all day then review the footage for issues. Test your audio in different locations, (busy apartment buildings or malls might simulate Wi-Fi saturated environments), and play with the video output settings and see what works best with your hardware.
9 Make Friends with the On-site AV Person
Do you need an XLR audio feed from the soundboard? Maybe an SDI hookup so your camera feed can appear on screen? Take a wedding photographer for example, both audio/video (AV) and photo folks will have supporting media that you will want access to, so be willing to share and cooperate. Regardless of what you need from the AV staff, it never hurts to be on somebody's good side, when you're depending on them to be the A to your V.
10 Look the Part
Looking professional is an important part in making a client happy. You want him or her to see that you take this work seriously. Appearing neat, well-groomed and well-mannered will confirm that your client made the right decision in hiring you.
Being a tad overdressed never hurts, as long as it's not at the expense of comfort. For example, if the job calls for black pants and shirt, wear a great black dress shirt, and even throw on a blazer, at least for your arrival at the event. Use good dress shoes that will allow you to stand all day, pain-free. Many shoe companies incorporate air filled soles to make the experience feel like sneakers, but look like loafers.
If it's a casual affair, it's a good idea to still appear professional. Have a few polo shirts made with your company logo, so you always have a go-to uniform of sorts. Be sure your shirt is tucked in and clean. For most of us, looking good and being comfortable translates to doing a better job.
When you start thinking about looking good, take a look at your gear as well. How do you transport your equipment to a special event? Do you leave it loose in your car and make a dozen trips back and forth from your car to where you're setting up? Do you throw everything into your gym bag and think that's good enough? Consider budgeting for some professional cases from Pelican, Porta-Brace or other professional case builder along with a sturdy flat cart to move your gear. Not only will it make you look better, but it should also keep your gear safe and save you multiple trips to and from your vehicle.
Once you're set up on shoot day, take equal care in putting your cases somewhere safe and out of sight. Your role is to blend in with the surroundings and let your client look good.
11 Park as Close as Possible
Figure out parking before the event rolls around. Don't get caught circling a full parking lot when you're supposed to be setting up. Ask where you can unload your vehicle and see if there is special parking for event staff. Having a nice, close spot will save time and stress in case you need to make any last minute errands.
12 Rest Up!
No matter how straightforward your role at an event may be, a long day of standing still and staying alert can be draining. Even at simple shoots you might run into camera issues, fluctuating audio levels, mysterious sinking tripods and last-minute changes from clients.
It's important to get a decent night's sleep, stay hydrated and keep your body and mind feeling good for shoot day. Try to limit caffeine to avoid crashing part way through the day as well, anyone who's been on an 8-10 hour shoot has had moments when his or her eyelids have decided it was time to close shop, regardless of what was happening.
13 Remember, Have Fun, but It's Their Party
Often, there will be receptions and parties that go along with special events. If you are invited, it's important to make an appearance. It's a good idea to be grateful for the opportunity the client presents. Just keep in mind that it's their party - be polite, don't eat the food unless invited to do so, don't overstay your welcome, and keep that lampshade off your head.
Hopefully these tips can help you navigate some of the treacherous waters of special event video. Whether you can use all of them or not will depend on your client, the event and your own workflow, but the moral of the story is to be prepared for the worst and find yourself better equipped to deliver the best. If you can stay calm, cool and professional, there won't be many situations you can't handle with grace and professionalism.
Russel Fairley owns a turnkey video production company presenting 200+ videos a year, featuring web videos, television commercials, and live event coverage.