Artists, athletes and entertainers all know that the best way to become the best at what you do is to practice as often as you can. Why shouldn’t video producers do the same?
A lot of people buy or upgrade their camcorders for a specific event — aunt Marge finally marrying that deadbeat she's been living with, cousin Leo's soccer championship, that documentary about local chess players you're finally going to make… This is a Good Thing. People should buy camcorders, and they should capture important moments with them. What you should not do is use these irreplaceable moments to learn how to use your equipment. Just like no boxer in his right mind would get into the ring without training first, no videographer should use important events to practice.
In ye olde days, back when televisions had only five channels and people made movies on Super 8 film, practice was expensive. With video, practice is free. So, take a few hours this weekend to try out these camera maneuvers, so that when your big day comes, you'll be an old hand.
Setup and Breakdown
This is monumentally important if you're doing location shooting with lights. You should pack your equipment the same way every time: cords in the same compartments, batteries in the same places, light stands and tripods all squared away. Practice packing, then unpacking and setting up. This includes things like getting your camera on the tripod's quick-release plate (if you have one). It's okay to look like you have no idea what you're doing in your living room — just be sure that you look like a pro by the time you get to your location.
Tilt, Pan, and Zoom
A good camera operator should be able to tilt, pan, and zoom while maintaining control of the camera. This is one of the most difficult operations you ever need to do. For this exercise, put a piece of masking tape diagonally across a wall. Start from a wide shot at the uppermost point of the masking tape, then, in one smooth move, tilt and pan down the length of the tape while zooming in. Your camera should be fully zoomed in precisely as you come to the end of the tape and your speed should be consistent throughout. This is harder than it looks.
Truck and Dolly
Trucking and dollying are two very common camera moves. "Trucking" means moving towards the subject, "Dollying" is lateral motion. In Hollywood, these are done with the camera mounted on tracks with a crew of people pushing the camera operator and a $100,000 Panavision camera. In the real world, your feet would most likely be your dolly or truck pedestal. Practice holding the camera steady while walking straight at your subject, then straight back. Then practice walking sideways, videotaping your subjects as they walk in a straight line (imagine you're in the press pool trying to get video footage of a celebrity walking into court). Be careful of where you're walking–don't trip! Many professional camera people have a "grip" or production assistant holding onto their belt and shoulder, watching to make sure the camera operator doesn't fall off a curb.
Changing Tapes and Batteries
Tapes and batteries run out at the most inopportune moments. While you are expected to be constantly vigilant and have an eye on these things, sometimes the inevitable occurs and you find yourself with a flashing "end tape" symbol in front of the bride's face as she says "I do." Many professional camera people wear belts or vests with plenty of pockets — these are for storing frequently used items like pens, business cards, batteries and videotapes. Whether you're using a vest or a camera bag, it's important to keep your spent tapes and batteries in one place and your fresh tapes and batteries in another and always keep them in the same place, and keep them with you. Reaching for a new tape and putting away an old one is something you have to be able to do with your eyes closed. The same goes with batteries.
Test New Equipment
Never use new, untested equipment for the first time on an important shoot. Make sure you understand the recording modes, white balance controls, battery life issues, and menus long before that special day. There's no feeling quite like the one sinking in the pit of your stomach when you realize that you recorded the whole graduation with the "posterize" special effect on, or in 160 x 100 resolution.
Don't Waste Your Effort
Just because you're practicing doesn't mean it has to be an exercise in stodgy academics. There's no reason why it can't be fun and useful. Enlist the help of friends and family–practice your techniques while making a video letter for someone who lives far away, or incorporate your techniques in a family video scrapbook. Dolly left with mom while she shops for fruit at the farmers' market, truck in as she finds the perfect pear. Tilt, pan, and zoom through Olivia's stuffed animal collection. Perform a rapid-fire tape and battery change while Sawyer blurts out his recitation of "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Who knows? In ten years, you may find that your practice tape is as exciting to watch as the event you were practicing for.
Your work as a videographer will improve every year. The more productions you have under your belt, the easier it will be for you to produce quality work. Informal productions–in the form of practice–count heavily towards your experience because they allow you the luxury to repeat difficult tasks with no pressure and no penalty for failure. Taking the time to practice will allow you to avoid costly or embarrassing mistakes during critical events.
Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.