“Many hands make light the work,” the saying goes. This is particularly true in video productions.
Video directing is a tough business, and it’s tougher when you’re the crew as well. Sometimes, for whatever reasons you can’t have an assistant with you. In this feature, we’ll look at some ways to get things done all by your lonesome.
Before You Get There
Pack Light, Don’t Check Bags
I travel a lot and I usually go by myself because one plane ticket is cheaper than two. Because of this, I always try to avoid checking bags; it can be costly and it’s always time-consuming so I try to fit everything in a photo backpack and a personal bag which means I can be on and off the plane quickly and I know that I can handle all my baggage myself.
Pack clothes you can wash in a sink and dry overnight. Lately my biggest gear joy has not been a fancy new electronic gadget but rather the discovery of super-lightweight convertible hiking pants from places like Eastern Mountain Sports or REI. These retail for about $50 and pack into a space about a third of the size of regular pants. Backpackers, more than anyone else, appreciate the concept of packing light.
If you don’t have an assistant to tear through things looking for a lighting gel, you need to be extremely consistent in your packing; a place for everything and everything in its place. It takes longer to pack up, but it’s easier to find things. I also usually pack my clothes and toiletries in a removable packing cube so it’s easy to take everything non-video related out at once and leave it in the hotel. This avoids the embarrassing possibility of all of your skimpy leopard print underwear spilling out onto the studio floor while you’re looking for an SD card reader.
Pack Thorough: Bring a backup for everything essential.
Bringing a backup of everything doesn’t mean that you need a spare Panasonic AG-AC7 if that’s what your main camera is, but rather that you’ve answered the question “what will I use if my AG-AC7 breaks?” You backup might be a tiny Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GF1, it doesn’t have to be identical, and it doesn’t have to be top-of-the-line, but it has to work if Plan A fails. In a perfect world when you find you have no three prong outlets available, you can send an assistant to the hardware store for converters, or to the electronics store if you’re out of SD cards or DV tapes or batteries. When you’re shooting solo, you have to have anticipated all of this before you left home.
So if you’re packing light and packing thorough… wait, how do you do that?
Skimp on things that you don’t need on set and that you can buy at your location. If there’s a choice between bringing an extra shirt or socks and an extra battery, bring the battery. You can buy socks when you get into town. When putting things in your luggage think “how will this item help me, what will I do if I don’t have it?”
Bulky clothing items that you may need on location, like a suit jacket, you can wear on the plane rather than packing. YouTube is filled with packing videos, (I kid you not) some can be very helpful. You’ve not seen packing until you’ve watched a flight attendant from Milan fit 40 outfits into a standard carry-on bag. Pay attention to ones made by professional videographers, see what they bring and how their style compares to yours.
Once You’re There
Don’t leave your gear unattended and lock it up if you do.
Traveling with video equipment can be difficult. You bring a lot of gear with you and you can’t hold on to all of it at the same time. You may have a camera, some lenses, and a laptop and while you’re shooting you don’t want to have to have the laptop strapped to your back along with all the lenses, so setting these things down becomes a priority.
In 2004 I was covering the Republican Convention in New York City; surrounded by lots of cargo locks like the ones made by Rightline Gear. They won’t stop a determined thief with tools, but they will prevent thefts of opportunity and will give you some peace of mind if you have to set your gear down somewhere.
Don’t be Afraid to Deputize
Very often when I arrive on site the first thing that happens is someone asks “Is there anything I can do to help?” For many people the snap response is: “No thanks, I have it all under control.” But if people are offering, make use of them! What you may be thinking of as an unskilled assistant who knows nothing about video is really someone from the area who knows the people you’ll be working with and the layout of the town. Possible jobs:
- Can you find an out-of-the-way place where people can wait so they won’t be in the area we’ll be shooting in?
- Can you distribute this schedule to everybody?
- Can you get people to sign these model releases?
- Can you help block off this area to shoot in?
- I’m going to put some cables down on the carpet, can you tape them down so nobody trips on them?
- Can you find a restaurant around here that delivers and have them send over some food?
Take a Minute Before Setting Up
My grandfather, an electrician, always used to say “study the hazards” and it’s a very useful aphorism for video producing. When you arrive at your location, take a minute to walk around, consider the spaces you have available and what your needs are. Will you be setting up between people and an exit or a restroom? Will street noise affect you? Where are the electrical outlets? Working by yourself you won’t have someone to run outside and tell the guy with the leaf-blower to buzz off or to run to the hardware store and fetch extension cords.
If it can Move, Tape it Down
Someone tripping over your power cord is bad for many reasons: one, because you don’t want your talent on camera with a broken nose and two, because they can knock your lights or camera over. For this reason it’s a really good idea to “dress” all the cables on your set with some gaffer’s tape. Keep the area where you and your talent will be moving free from obstructions.
Twice I’ve had strong gusts of winds blow over a top-heavy camera and a relatively sturdy tripod. Luckily in neither case was there equipment damage so severe that the shoot couldn’t limp along, and on one occasion I got a really great shot as camera and stand tumbled down the hood of a car, smashing every bit of attached plastic along the way. While it’s not practical to try to tape down a camera or light stand in a field or at the top of a mountain, you can brace the legs with weights.
You’ll see video catalogs advertising bags filled with 20 pounds of lead shot and while I admit this is probably the best thing for bracing tripod legs, I can’t imagine anyone but a pro-wrestler who would throw three of them onto his carry on. If you’ve got a car at your disposal you may add them to your arsenal, but you can also prop your camera bag up against a tripod leg to help keep it from tipping over or use stones or logs if any present themselves.
Dealing With Talent
There are multiple types of talent that videographers deal with, and all require good management skills. Two big distinctions are “on-air talent” and “waiting to be on air talent.”
Imagine you’re providing some corporate video production services and doing interviews with 20 office managers from Dunkin’ Brands. There are two key issues – one is getting the best interview with the talent in front of your camera, and the other is not annoying the other 19. On-air talent are often nervous and usually prefer not to be ogled by their peers. Moving 19 people to another room is a good idea but don’t forget that you need to provide for their comfort. Food, seating, climate control and a printed schedule will help keep everyone happy. This is something that should be planned for long before you arrive on site.
Shooting by yourself is rarely the most optimal solution but very often it’s necessary. Assistants are useful because they allow for unplanned events – you can continue to work while an assistant puts out fires. In many cases, extensive pre-planning before your event can cut down on the need for an extra pair of hands. And, in some cases where you may not expect it, extra hands are available if you ask. Don’t be afraid to put idle volunteers to work. Do you have a secret weapon for working alone? Let’s hear about it in the Videomaker forums.
Contributing editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.