You know that it takes busloads of people to get a Hollywood film production into the can. But what if you don’t have access to busloads of people?
John Lennon and Yoko Ono photographed themselves nude for the cover of their first album, the lamentably awful Two Virgins, because they were too embarrassed to let a photographer see them without their clothes. That is only one of many reasons that you may find yourself alone in a room with a video camera.
Videotaping yourself isn’t just for practicing speeches anymore. Stephen Baldwin’s character videotapes his rapid decline into paranoid insanity in the Signs inspired (though not very inspired) sci-fi thriller Silent Warnings. Wesley Snipes had a camera mounted to him for some of the scenes in Blade III to catch his face in close action fights. Heather Donohue made a memorable hand held confession, tearfully apologizing to the families of her crew before their murders in the 1999 indie sensation The Blair Witch Project. Probably the most famous video footage filmed by the subject is that from the camera set up on the surface of the Moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969 so that half a billion people on earth could watch them knock golf balls around.
We’re going to look at some techniques which will be useful if you ever need to turn the camera on yourself, no lunar lander necessary.
Packing It In
One downside about doing everything yourself is that there’s no one to help carry your gear, which means that if you’re shooting on location, you have to pare it down to the essentials. What are the essentials though?
- Your camera (obviously)
- A sturdy tripod
- Microphone (and possibly a stand)
- Roll of gaffer’s tape (in case you need to tape that microphone somewhere)
- Lighting kit — how many lights depends on how big your kit is and how much you can carry.
It’s usually best to bring your own lights, that way you have control over everything, but sometimes you can’t lug that 120 pound kit to the location. Here are some alternatives to a studio light setup:
- Window light. Indirect light coming through a window on a sunny day is as nice as it gets. It’s why artists’ studios have all those glass walls facing North. Position yourself perpendicular to the light source.
- One light. If you have one light, you can use it as a key, diffused through an umbrella or softbox at a 45-degree angle between the camera and you.
- Basic Light kit. Usually consists of three lights, umbrellas, and stands. Some of them are remarkably small.
How do you stay in focus without a camera operator?
- “X” marks the spot. One thing that makes focusing easier is to put down some tape blocking marks so you know where to stand and where to place the tripod. If you are using a wide-angle lens setting, put down two extra tape marks for the frame edges. This way you can move side to side or know where you’ll appear if you decide to do a “walk on.”
- Stand ins. Hollywood uses stand-ins for focus all the time. While Tom Cruise sits in his trailer sipping herbal tea, some guy who’s the same height stands in the middle of the street for half an hour in the freezing cold as the Director of Photography and the Focus Puller figure out the shot. Since you’re alone however, you’re not afforded that luxury.
- One stand-in that you usually do have with you is your tripod. Take the camera off the tripod, stand on your tape mark (the place where you’ll be standing when the camera is rolling) and manually focus on the tripod head. Then put it back. While it’s a little cumbersome, you have the benefit of not having to pay your tripod union wages.
So if you have no crew, how do you get sound? Typically on a production, there’s a sound assistant holding a boom to get the microphone in place. Instead you can…
- Use a lavaliere. These small microphones clip to your shirt, jacket or tie. Down side is, they’re visible.
- Hand hold the microphone. The type of production you’re doing will tell you whether you can get away with this news-reporter type technique.
- Use a microphone stand. Any medium sized music store will be happy to sell you a boom microphone stand designed for guitar players that allow you to position the microphone horizontally and vertically.
- Hang it from the ceiling. Wrap the cable around your chandelier or put a hook in the ceiling.
- Gaffer’s tape it to the back of a chair, a plant, etc.
Background and Lighting
After setting up your background and lighting, you’re going to want to roll some tape and look at it — preferably on a well-adjusted, full-sized television monitor.
Make sure there are no trees or lamp posts growing out of your head, that the highlights aren’t blown out, that the cable from your microphone isn’t in the shot, and that the focus is set the way you want it to be for your shot.
Be Bold! Just Turn the Camera
Sometimes there’s no need to go to great lengths to videotape yourself. There’s a whole new genre of holding-the-camera-backwards-at-myself video, from The Blair Witch Project to the Hong Kong action extravaganza So Close. This current popular culture imaging is timely right now, it might not be next year.
A hand held camera pointed backwards at the operator can give a real and intimate feeling to a video letter or a travel piece. It gives an informal air to autovideobiography that a static shot from a tripod lacks. To do this technique best, you’ll want to have your zoom setting at its widest angle.
Sometimes it’s just you and the camera, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get the job done. Some simple tools along with a little know-how and common sense will guide you through being the talent, key grip, gofer, sound AND cameraperson.
Contributing Editor Kyle Cassidy is a video artist
and network engineer and co-author of Enterprise
Internetworking and Security.