Home Video Hints: Plan for Success

Most home video involves no planning at all, except to remember to bring along the camcorder. As Tom Lehrer memorably sang, "You just stand there lookin’ cute, and when something moves, you shoot." That works OK for video snapshots, but sometimes a special occasion–a party, a holiday, a trip, a performance–demands just a bit more attention. No big deal, no elaborate production, just a skosh of extra care required to create a short, simple movie that satisfies the audience better than random footage.

To plan a successful program, you need to invent a concept, wrangle equipment and then think about what you’ll find at the locations. But the first step in planning a successful video shoot is to develop the right attitude toward it.

You Got Attitude

Briefly, you have to change the way you look at the events you’re recording. Normally you go on a picnic, say, in order to have a picnic, which you incidentally videotape whenever you think to do so. To make a good video, however, you must reverse those priorities: you go on the picnic in order to videotape it, incidentally having a picnic when shooting permits.

Obviously, you can’t do this often without becoming one of those camera bores who never truly experience life because they’re too busy framing it–the kind who don’t see their own vacations until they watch them on-screen. The trick is to select an occasional candidate for coverage–a videogenic place, event or activity–and then get your head straight about it: while you’re there, you’re not a tourist or a grandma or a teacher, you’re a videographer, just like those guys from Channel 3. [To see that attitude in action during a shoot, see the sidebar, Being (Politely) Pushy.]

For example, I attend my local farmer’s market maybe 10 times a year, but on just one Saturday, I picked up my Mini DV and went off to the market specifically to make a movie about it. With my videographer attitude, I cared nothing about shopping. Instead, I looked for action to cover, pictures to frame, color to capture. By pretending to make a documentary, I focused on the job of shooting a movie.

You can’t do this every minute of the event ("Daddy, look at the clowns!" "Don’t bother me, kid, I’m shooting.") But however often you dip into the real world around you, pull back and re-focus on the task of turning it into a program.

High Concept

After you get your head straight about what you’re going to do, the next planning step is to find a concept an organizer to guide your eye as you capture footage. A concept is a one-sentence working title for your show that expresses its basic idea. "Farmers’ Market" isn’t a concept; "The Bounty of our Farms" is. "Las Vegas" is only a label, but "The Lights on the Strip is a concept.

Why bother with a concept? To return to the first example, our local farmer’s market has produce, musicians, jugglers, kids running around, colorful street people, funny hats on funnier citizens, hand-made clothing–enough variety for a half-hour show. By looking for shots that present "the bounty of our farms," I can identify the raw material for a manageable 10-minute program and not waste time on stuff that may be fun but doesn’t fit.

Wrangling Equipment

Here in Home Video Hints, we keep harping on the idea of keeping your hardware ready, because, face it, you don’t use it every week and sometimes, you’re not even sure where you stashed it. Another brief sermon won’t hurt.

Always charge all your camcorder batteries immediately after use. Then, a few hours before the big event, plan to re-charge them all, since they lose some power during storage.

Have enough tape de-cellophaned, labeled and (if you’re really careful) blacked for use. (For more on tape preparation, see Get Those Tapes in Shape, March 2002.) I start with a tape already in the camera, for one less case in my gadget bag.

Decide in advance whether you’ll want that telephoto extender (for the zoo video) or the wide-angle attachment (for the housewarming in Brad’s no-bedroom apartment). Think about your tripod or monopod, too. For sports, classroom activities and auditorium programs, they’re an absolute must.

As a casual shooter, you may not have an external microphone, but a more specialized mike should be your first accessory. Some folks pick shotgun mikes for better long-range pickup. I like wireless lapel mikes that I can clip on my most important people.

You won’t have lights either, except maybe an on-camera fill-in light for occasional use. If it uses the camcorder’s battery, do you have lots of extras? Those greedy little devils just chugalug power. Incidentally, a silvery car window sunshade makes a great reflector for outdoor fill-in.

Planning Locations

You’re not mounting a big production here, so you need to pre-plan just a few things.

What time of day will give you the best images? Noon might be good for a picnic in the woods, so the high sun can beam down through the trees. For that Grand Canyon gig, it’s sunrise or sunset, when the warm strata glow even warmer, the long shadows model the fantastic rock formations, and the mists diffuse the light and bathe the scene. (If you’re lucky enough to get a classic storm, talk someone into holding your umbrella while you capture images of jaw-dropping beauty and drama.)

What about permissions? If 53 unannounced parents arrive to tape the third-grade health pageant, the school staff could get a mite testy. It’s always best to ask beforehand.

Finally, on trip videos for home consumption, plan to hit the local souvenir shop for posters, pamphlets and cards to shoot for titles (or even color shots). Many also have CDs of related music for your audio and even video footage. (Don’t even think about all this if you plan any, repeat, any, public screenings or for-profit use.)

Obligatory Shots

Complete your planning with a list of must-have shots: blowing out the birthday candles, opening that unexpected best-of-all present. You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget these things.

And don’t forget shots you must get before a certain point in the action. You can’t record "Happy Birthday, Jason" on top of the cake if Jason’s already cut it to pieces. The ring, the kiss, the first bridal dance, panning across the room as everyone is singing all these shots are obligatory, and you can’t pick them up whenever you happen to remember.

Is that too much planning for a casual home video? Let’s see: all you need to do is decide on a program concept, check your equipment, anticipate conditions where you’ll be shooting and make a list of your must-have footage. That’s all there is to it.

Now how hard could that be?

Good shooting!

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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