“Every Christmas, I end up with miles of footage but no video.”
— a recent Videomaker conference attendee (Phoenix, AZ)
The problem with the jolly season is there’s just so much of it, whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwaanza or any other winter festival. By the time you try to edit every highlight from the last day of school to the Rose Bowl game, you’ve got too much of everything and not enough of anything. To shape a program, you must select and emphasize events, preferably before they happen. So this season, try following four simple guidelines: plan for success, anticipate problems, shoot to edit and work like the pros. With very little effort, you’ll collect the raw footage for a program to treasure through many holidays yet to come.
Plan for Success
Since you can’t shoot everything, the first step is to select just two or three upcoming events to cover thoroughly. These might include a shopping or tree-buying expedition, a visit to well-loved relatives, a program at your school or house of worship, a family feast, outdoor games in the snow (if you’ve got some) or the delicious ritual of giving and opening gifts.
To thoroughly document these key events, transform yourself from Civilian to Videographer. Remember that you’re not there to, say, eat a turkey dinner while grabbing some footage along the way. Your main purpose is to tape the dinner while enjoying some food when you can. Only by making video your first priority, can you focus on getting high quality footage that will edit into a coherent program.
If you did this throughout the holiday, you’d miss most of the fun, but by selecting a few key events, you can limit and concentrate your serious video making. Through the other festivities, just work as usual, casually picking up your camcorder whenever something memorable catches your eye.
When you sit down to edit your footage, you can create a program that resembles a big shopping mall, with your two or three mini-documentaries working like the department stores that anchor dozens of small shops around them. I like to spot my mini-docs at the beginning, middle and end, but you could open with a montage of briefer stuff before settling down to your first well-covered event.
In addition to planning your essential events, plan your equipment needs:
- Keep your charger out and batteries rotating through it (I like at least three). In the car, I use a cigarette lighter inverter to recharge as I roll.
- Unwrap tape cassettes and paste on blank labels. That way, when you need a new tape you can swap it fast. Again, I like at least three.
- Corral your stuff in a gadget bag and always keep it with you. When you see a potential shot upcoming, power up and go on standby, so you can start taping almost instantly.
A Little Light
If you haven’t yet bought a camera light, consider one for these dark, indoor holidays. An external battery is a must, of course, and the unit should at least swivel for bounce light and accept diffusion to soften its glare. For family interiors, you can go a step further with a light that bounces off the ceiling and brightens the whole area without grossly changing the character of the illumination. A $30 halogen torchre lamp will disassemble to fit in your car trunk. You can clip a work light with an alligator clamp high on a curtain rod or doorframe.
And wherever you shoot, spot your camcorder in front of the biggest window so that you’re aiming away from it, to minimize back lighting. Between windows, Christmas trees, fireplaces and whatnot, holiday room lighting can vary tremendously. To avoid auto exposure that’s always correcting itself a second too late, use two solutions. First, pan around on STANDBY to find a level that at least reveals faces in the shadows and then lock the exposure. Second, plan to edit out the pans between different compositions. That way, you can cut to each new shot after the auto exposure (and focus too) have adjusted.
Outdoors at night, experiment with disabling your GAIN UP control. The resulting black areas punctuated by bright lights may look better than the grainy soup of electronically amplified images.
Auditoriums and Audio
Audio is always a problem, whether in a room full of excited kids opening gifts or at a school concert with your microphone 50 feet from the choir. For most situations, be prepared to lay a continuous music track under the edited footage, to minimize level changes and sound discontinuities between shots. Since your program is for private family showing only, feel free to use any music you fancy.
In the auditorium, you’re pretty much stuck, unless you can club together with another shooter. That way, one of you can lay down a continuous wide shot with an uninterrupted sound track, while the other captures details of the concert. Since a digital copy is as good as the original, you can both have A and B rolls to edit with.
At concerts, parades and wherever else you’re stuck in one place, it’s tough to vary your point-of-view. Though you can’t shift the camera, you can pan and zoom it. Moving in, frame one group of actors or soloists, hold on them, then go to another group. Keep pans and zooms slow and steady because you can’t cut them out of the edited tape without losing audio continuity.
You can, however, get audience reaction shots by cheating them:
- During your beloved offspring’s solo performance, keep the camcorder on him without a break.
- While some other kid is being a sugar plum fairy, pan around to shoot the audience’s rapt attention to the performance.
- When you need a cutaway within your own child’s solo, insert the other’s kid’s audience reaction shot. No one will be able to tell the difference.
Finally, at performances especially, plan to work on a tripod and enable lens stabilization if you have it. It’s amazing how tired and shaky your arms can get, holding up a two-pound camcorder for just ten minutes.
Shoot to Edit
Notice that many of these tips will help you add variety to your coverage. That’s called “shooting to edit.” Shooting to edit is the crucial technique for taping footage that will cut together into a coherent program. In a nutshell, this means recording establishing shots, capturing inserts, obtaining plausible cutaways and varying camera angles.
Always get an establishing shot of every location, to orient the audience and establish a context for details. A wide shot is also useful when you have problems matching action, because it shows fewer details than closer angles. You’ll often start by taping an establishing shot, though you needn’t always begin the edited sequence with it. For added drama, start with a close shot, then pull back for the wide angle that explains it.
Don’t forget to update your wide shot as events progress. The tree area looks very different before and after present opening and the wreck of a holiday dining table speaks volumes about the feast that was consumed upon it, especially after a slow dissolve between identical before and after shots.
Cutaways and Close-ups
The small screen needs big close-ups to tell its story dramatically. Insert shots of details deliver the goods while fulfilling a vital editing function: they buffer continuity gaps in the overall action. If a present threatens to take forever to unwrap, change your POV and punch in to a big close-up, just as the box is being opened. By inserting this shot, you can omit most of the unwrapping process.
Cutaways do the same job by using shots of different action. Typical cutaways include people’s reactions to the main action or else other actions unfolding in parallel. For instance, you could cut back and forth between two family members as each unwraps a present. When all else fails, try using atmosphere shots (tree lights twinkling, snow falling into the light pool of a street lamp). Though they have nothing to do with the action, they help communicate the environment in which it happens.
Finally, when not stuck in one position, vary camera angles from shot to shot. Remember: a setup consists of horizontal angle, vertical angle and subject size. In moving from one shot to another, try to change two out of three of these.
Work Like the Pros
Real-time documentary shooting is always hasty, so work to remember and practice good techniques. Try to roll each shot five seconds before the important action and keep rolling another five seconds afterwards. Instead of firehosing the camera, frame one composition and hold it. Then move cleanly to a second good composition and hold there. Watch out for backlit shots that throw important subjects into silhouettes.
If you can’t move the camera position, zoom in until the camera auto-exposes for the faces. Keep people’s eyes in the top third of the frame to avoid gunsight compositions and keep the
rule of thirds in mind, for quick but
very effective compositions.
Most of all, get away from shot-after-shot at standing eye level. The external viewfinder frees you to boom the camcorder up to the top of the Christmas tree or scoot along the carpet at toddler height. So, without making a big deal of it, keep this review of holiday tips in mind. When you sit down to edit the results, you’ll find you’ve given yourself another gift, and oh, how thankful you’ll be to get it!
Ho, ho, ho!
Contributing Editor Jim Stinson is the author of the book Video Communication and Production.