Getting Started: Shooting for the Holidays

Ah, the holiday season! The feasts and festivities, the laughter and love, the torture and torment.

That’s right, torment…the sheer agony of sitting through typical holiday home videos: moving snapshots that have nothing to say and take five times too long to say it. Why are some holiday videos so boring? Because they’re the same as last year and the year before and the year before that. Because they’re stale.

So Camera Work this month is about making Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas videos that folks will love–because they’re fresh ideas, topics, approaches and techniques.

Fresh Ideas

The most potent difference between a snapshooter’s footage and a videomaker’s program is that the program builds upon an idea. The idea doesn’t have to be complex or profound or even terribly original. You just need a simple statement to guide what you shoot and how you edit.

For Halloween, try this idea: to a small child, Halloween is genuinely spooky and somewhat scary. Imagine what would happen if you took the witch/ghost/black cat clichs and showed them as a five-year old might view them.

For a Thanksgiving idea, you might take the word literally and document the things you’re thankful for. The simple video concept: count your blessings. Show you’re thankful for your spouse and family, for your greenhouse full of prize-winning orchids, for your recovery from some serious illness…. Whatever your personal blessings, you can create a video that celebrates them.

A new idea for Santa Season? Whether you observe Christmas, Hanukkah or the Winter Solstice, you’re celebrating an idea as old as humankind: the death of the earth and its passage toward Spring’s rebirth. If you live in a snowy climate, capturing winter on tape is almost too easy. And even if you live in the South, the West or the Northwest, you can spot–and shoot–nature’s subtler signs of death and resurrection.

If this idea seems a tad highfalutin, remember that the organizing concept for your video can be much more modest–something as simple as Thanksgiving dinner is a lot of work. But no matter how simple, a governing idea or theme is the key to turning footage of a holiday into a program about it.

Fresh Holiday Topics

Once you have a concept in mind, you can enhance the originality of your holiday video with a fresh topic to illustrate your idea.

Just about every Halloween video shows trick-or-treaters coming to the door, amid oohs and ahs over handmade costumes (“What a darling little space ship.” “I’m not a space ship; I’m a fireplug.”). But if you have a small goblin of your own, why not do a documentary on the building of that homemade costume. Then, camcorder in hand, capture other people’s reactions to the costume as its small wearer models it door to door around the neighborhood.

Hint: to get a shot from your neighbor’s point of view, set up your camcorder for a low angle inside your own closed front door and position your costumed star just outside. With the camera running, open the door for the traditional “trick-or-treat.” If you shoot at night for a dark exterior background and frame off the wall flanking the door, you can cut the shot into a sequence shot on a neighbor’s porch.

For Thanksgiving, how about focusing on the arduous process of preparing the traditional feast? At my house, you’d start with laying out the sourdough bread slices to get stale over night before chopping them into stuffing. And then carry on through the turkey, the yams, the peas, the fresh rolls and so on–all the way through to the homemade pumpkin pies.

If the organizing idea behind this topic is that Thanksgiving is a lot of work, you might want to show the cooks clearing and washing up as they go, so that by feast time the kitchen’s clean again. Then, after a dining room sequence worthy of Norman Rockwell, cut back to the kitchen–where the fallout from the meal has returned the neat counters to chaos.

For a fresh Christmas topic, you might document your neighborhood’s outdoor decorations (on my street they get very competitive). Or consider a macro approach: if there’s a manger scene in your home or church, use your camcorder’s close-up capability to make its small figures fill the screen.

For Hanukkah, try shooting each night’s lighting of the menorah, with a voice-over relating a portion of the Hanukkah story. After eight nights, you have a family holiday video commemorating the Feast of Lights–a wonderful way to teach kids and grandkids about the miracle of the Maccabees.

On a more secular note, you could document a train layout–from the point of view of a three-inch elf. Some of my Lionel O-gauge pieces go back to the late 1940s and my 4-8-4 Baldwin locomotive puffs impressive smoke as it drives straight toward the lens, before turning just in the nick of time. (The trick is to compress apparent distance by setting your lens at full telephoto.)

Of course, you’re not limited to just one topic. For example: the idea, Halloween from a small child’s point of view, might include building the costume, getting the child into it, carving the pumpkin while the child plays with its seedy guts, trick-or-treating, inspecting the loot. Then off to bed in the suddenly spooky darkness.
If you have a suitably macabre turn of mind, you could even close with a shot, made a month later, of the collapsing, putrescent carcass of the jack o’ lantern. There’s no limit to the number of topics you can include, as long as you treat all of them in accordance with your unifying idea.

Fresh Approaches

If a topic is a subject that exemplifies the video’s main idea, then an approach is a way of handling a topic.

Most personal videos take a documentary approach: the videomaker records events as they happen and then edits them selectively. But there are other approaches you can use instead.

Why not do an interview video? Develop a set of provocative questions about Halloween, say, and then tape the responses of several children. What do you think about ghosts? Why are witches scary and why do black cats hang out with them? How do you feel when you’re out trick or treating? What’s your favorite treat? Would you really play a trick on someone and why?

You get the idea. As you develop questions on your own topic, make them open-ended like these sample questions. Ask a child “do you believe in ghosts?” and you may receive only a yes or no answer.

Another alternative approach is stills. If many friends send you Christmas cards, for example, show the art work on each card while reading the personal notes and inscriptions. (It’s probably easier to shoot the cards and edit them to length before adding the voice-over inscriptions.) The approach is very simple–almost simplistic–and yet the cumulative news and good wishes of old and absent friends can add up to an affecting, even moving, program.

A variant approach is to combine stills with live action. If, for example, your grown children have returned to the nest for the holidays, videotape them participating in the festivities. Then copy stills from Christmases past. In editing, you can freeze a son or daughter, dissolve to a similar pose fifteen or twenty years old, and then retrace the holiday tradition with stills that carry the child forward to the present. Repeat the process with each family member and you can create an evocative memoir–a family holiday timeline.

Fresh Techniques

Any video project is an opportunity for exploring new techniques, and holiday programs are no exception. Here are just a few ideas to get your own creative juices flowing.

For Halloween, how about starting a shot from inside a carved jack o’ lantern. You could do this with an actual pumpkin by cutting out the back of it. Or you could fake it with construction paper. Simply cut a carved pumpkin face in a large (say 12″ by 16″) sheet of yellow-orange paper; then stand the sheet up facing a scene you want to shoot and curve it around the camera position. Line up the lens with the pumpkin’s nose hole and set the lens to wide angle. (See Figure 1.) A flickering candle beside the camera will add to the illusion.

The idea is to start with a shot of the pumpkin’s “interior” and then zoom through the nose hole to the scene beyond. (The slight out-of-focus quality will help disguise the fake pumpkin interior.) When you edit, be sure to start with an establishing shot of a similarly carved real pumpkin before cutting to your pumpkin’s eye–er, nose–view.

While we’re talking point of view (POV), here are two more: to achieve the turkey’s POV at the Thanksgiving table, lie on your back on the floor with the camcorder aimed at the ceiling. On cue, the designated bird surgeon leans into the shot and the knife and fork of doom descend toward the camera. Match action as you cut to an overhead angle of carving the bird and I guarantee you an effective sequence.

A student of mine gave me a great idea for an unusual Christmas POV. He taped his small 8mm camcorder to a large, radio-controlled model car. As you can imagine, the resulting footage was spectacular. Now suppose a family member gets a car like that for Christmas. How about documenting the rest of Christmas day from the model car’s POV?

Halloween Lighting

Halloween presents a major lighting challenge because so much of it takes place in the dark. So here are some tips for creative lighting. If you’re videotaping the small fry as they ring your doorbell, help out nature by lighting your front door “set.” To get the best effect, place the light to hit your subjects from just slightly behind them–but not far enough behind them to shine into the camcorder lens. Keep the light’s height low to enhance the spooky effect.

Remember, too, that light isn’t visible when there’s nothing in its path. If you aim your camcorder out the door at an empty front porch, whether your porch light is on or not, it will “see” only the blackness beyond the light. Result: the exposure system will open the lens and probably amplify the signal as well, creating an unpleasant grainy effect. Then, when a ghost and a pirate scamper suddenly into the light, the scene will flame with overexposure until the dutiful but slow exposure system readjusts the lens and gain.

To prevent this, make sure there’s always a lit object in the frame–try a bright jack o’ lantern–so that the exposure system will preset the lens for the children.

If you’re taping a Halloween party at school, fake spooky moonlight by taping the children outdoors in open shade (no direct sunlight) with the white balance on the indoor (incandescent) setting. By underexposing just slightly you can achieve a very convincing day-for-night effect.

Indoors, you can use white balance to create exactly the opposite effect. By shooting in incandescent light with the white balance set to outdoors, you’ll get the warm orange tones of a candle flame, as if your shots were lit by a jack o’ lantern. (This only works with incandescent lights, of course. Fluorescent lights require the outdoor setting anyway.)

Shooting to Edit

If you’re editing your holiday masterpiece in-camera, plan ahead to get every shot in the right place. Put each scene on tape for as long as it should appear in the finished production, and shoot interesting cutaways as they happen. Add titles, effects or transitions in-camera, and you’re done with your mini-production when you finish shooting.
If you’re going to edit your holiday video project after-the-fact, keep this in mind while you’re shooting. Each time you press record, you’re shooting raw material from which to create a program through editing. That means:

  • Plan the events you want to shoot in advance and be ready for them when they happen.
  • Start every shot five seconds before the action you want and hold it five seconds after; this gives you room to edit.
  • Shoot cutaways: inserts to show small details (carving a pumpkin’s eye) and color shots to enrich the sequence (the Christmas tree blazing with lights and ornaments).
  • Grab ambient sound for later editing by placing your camcorder in a good miking position and getting five minutes of footage (the Thanksgiving table sounds of eating and happy chatter).

And finally, if you plan to use A/B roll editing, see if you can get a first generation B roll, for at least part of your footage. How? By patching video and audio through from your camcorder to a recording VCR (in shooting situations where a camera umbilical won’t tie you down too badly). That way, you’ll have two copies of first generation footage: one recorded in the camera and the other in the VCR.

The Freshest Eye

We often say that the holidays are for the kids, and kids make some of the freshest, most spontaneous videos–kids as young as seven or eight. Perhaps the one good thing about children’s indiscriminate exposure to TV is that it becomes their natural medium. They understand it instinctively. Usually editing on the fly, they create charming, bizarre and sometimes hilarious programs.

“Whoa!” you say, “put my $1200 camcorder in the grubby paws of feckless little Willard–Willard who breaks every toy he gets in 20 minutes flat? Surely you jest!”

Of course you shouldn’t let children use expensive equipment unsupervised. But in my experience, even very young ones can understand that camcorders are fragile and handle them with loving care.

The young videomaker may just want to noodle around with the camera, but often you can suggest an idea–the same kind of idea that you might use yourself to organize your own video program. For example: “Listen, Lydia. Suppose a family brought a live turkey home to eat for thanksgiving and suppose that turkey escaped its cage. Now suppose that the camera is the turkey and sees everything that happens through the turkey’s eyes as the family tries to catch it…”

Let a talented 10 year old run with an idea like that and the results, if technically a bit ragged, may be wondrous to behold.

Which is the way the holidays themselves should be.

Videomaker contributing editor Jim Stinson makes industrial videos, teaches professional video production and writes mystery fiction.

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

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