Being the lone-wolf producer is hard work, but in these economic times, it might be your best option. Here are a few Training Camp tips to getting it done, and staying sane.
After years in front of college classrooms telling war stories about film and video production, I’ve come to appreciate my own education. I was lucky to have had the kind of hands-on film and video production training where we got to do it all: write the story, direct it, shoot it and put it all together in editing.
We ended up with enough entry-level skills to step up to the plate and take an honest swing at whatever production task was required. Not that we hit everything out of the park. But whether asked to operate a Nagra on a commercial shoot, help light an interview on a corpora14238te video or log field tapes and transcripts for a documentary, we knew how to do it.
Independence Has Advantages
As an independent, self-equipped video producer, you don’t have to rely only on contract and crew work. You can generate your own projects: research the community’s communication needs, (training, marketing, education, government, industry, current affairs), and develop proposals (broadcast and non-broadcast), that communicate powerful messages on behalf of prospective clients and audiences. Smart equipment purchases will enable you to support your proposals with DVD samples that demonstrate your capacity to execute some of your production ideas.
Your bread-and-butter will come from non-fiction and non-broadcast informational /industrial production, but you should be developing projects for broadcasters as well. Actuality and fact-based programs are the most produced shows on television today. Audiences and broadcasters alike are looking for the next best idea in reality TV.
If you are serious about making a living as an independent solo video creator, here are some things to think about:
- Know the script-to-screen video production process
- Strive for professional results (video/audio/post production)
- Invest in pro audio gear
- Know your storytelling (proposal/script development)
One vital thing you need to know is how screen stories are organized. In order to manage, shoot and edit video presentations efficiently, you need to use appropriate production management tools, from shot lists and shooting scripts to field tape logs and paper edits. Open source software templates for these forms are available online. Also check out the many forms available on Videomaker‘s Book of Forms online. This book includes a CD and a huge variety of 91 forms from shotlists to model releases, and some of these forms can be purchased separately as downloads on the shopping site.
In the hands of a good storyteller and practiced operator, the new and ever-evolving digital prosumer gear can create professional broadcast-quality results.
Rent or buy, you need a camera with a good lens and manual image (iris) and audio (record level) controls. Your video camera should have XLR audio connectors, so you can use professional external microphones and a mixer.
For professional results, use a tripod for stability, as well as a basic lighting kit with color correction gels and a reflector. Expect to spend about $1000 on lights and accessories.
For quality results in post production, it is just as important to know the theory and practice of editing as it is to buy into the editing system that’s right for you. Again this means being educated. Take workshops.
When it comes to gear for lone-wolf video hounds, mobility rules. Go online to research equipment bags and cases. Your search will bring up a variety of manufacturers and suppliers: PortaBrace, Kata, Sony, Lowepro, Vistek. Check out their wares and enjoy the variety and adaptability of the latest in Velcro-engineered video gear carrying products.
One lone-wolf producer and colleague claims he can fit everything he needs on a shoot in two bags plus tripod. If you have more baggage than that, expect to spend up to $200 for a reliable set of cart-wheels to roll your gear from car to location in one trip.
In general, rent before you buy. Rental agencies and video cooperatives will train you on their equipment. That way you can test the gear before you put your money down to own it.
The most disturbing affliction of amateur video production is bad audio. How many times have you been subjected to video presentations of conferences, let’s say, that included interview clips? Maybe the camera work was okay, but you were hard-pressed to understand what people were saying because of intrusive ambient sound.
Invest in some pro audio gear, and promise that you’ll never record audio with only the camera microphone again. If you’re going to bring back professional audio results from the field, expect to open your wallet.
Over time, consider building a dedicated kit just for audio. The following are some items you will want to put in the bag:
- Wireless Microphone Package ($600) : Find the money for at least one wireless microphone: a lapel mic/transmitter-and-receiver set. Preset your audio record levels manually, and you’re free to shoot and direct the action.
Tip: When shooting a conversation without a boom operator, clip a wireless mic on one subject’s lapel and direct it towards the other participant so they’re speaking to each other across the mic’s pickup pattern.
- Shotgun on Boom Stand ($300-600): Go for professional microphones and, if you later want to expand your microphone assets, consider buying into a manufacturer’s microphone system. Initially expect to spend from $300 to $600 on a decent all-purpose directional shotgun microphone.
Tip:If you’re shooting an interview without a boom operator, mount your shotgun mic on a boom stand, and direct it optimally at the sound source. This is a reliable, hands-free way to record good sound when you’re on your own. Sitting next to the locked-off camera, you can have an unencumbered conversation with your subject and know you are getting professional audio results.
Get a boom stand that’s slim and easy to collapse for portability. You can find a decent used one for $50.
There will be times, on a documentary for example, where you need somebody to run a mixer and a shotgun on a boom. You can hire a pro with his gear ($500/day), or you can rent the gear and hire a student for somewhat less. Meanwhile, you can save up your pennies for a budget field mixer ($500), a boom pole ($200), a shock mount ($80) and a blimp suspension windscreen ($500).
- Omni-directional Handheld Microphone ($100 – $300): You’ve seen VJs do it: shoot with one hand and point a microphone in a street interview with the other. You can get a reliable omnidirectional handheld for between $100 and $200. When your bank account can handle it, $300 more gets you a plug-on transmitter that will convert any handheld into a wireless.
Tip:Even if you have to handle all the gear yourself, never let your interview subject hold the mic. This gives a very amateurish looks to your production that you only see on low-end small-market local TV shows. Keep the mic low, and pointed at your subject, but you always need to be in control of the mic, not your subject.
Handheld or mounted on a desk stand ($20), a radio mic (wireless) can get you closeup sounds, whether you’re shooting presentations, performances or press conferences.
- Headsets, Cables and Adaptors ($75): Never shoot without a decent pair of around-the-ear headphones. For $75, you can be sure that what you’re hearing is also what you’re recording.
Load your audio kit up with medium (10′ and under) and long (20′) XLR Audio extension cables and XLR adapters for mini, TRS and RCA audio connectors.
Know Your Storytelling
The key to good storytelling is impeccable research. Educate yourself about prospective clients and target audiences in your region, and find out about their needs for video knowledge tools. Find the stories of people, organizations and communities.
The needs of your audiences will not only determine what goes into your initial proposals, but also guide your storytelling. How will you present information? Video lecture, re-enactment, actuality?
Educate yourself about proposal writing and how to convert ideas, one-pagers and outlines into scripts and shooting plans. There are plenty of good books available on the subject of non-fiction storytelling, such as Documentary Storytelling (2nd Edition): Making Stronger and More Dramatic Nonfiction Films by Sheila Curran-Bernard.
Taking Care of Business
Of course there’s more. You have to learn, among other things, how to run an independent video production business.
In an online review of The Independent Video Producer (Bob Jacobs, 1999), Dylan Couper writes that the most important part of the job “is not making videos, but getting clients and making sales.” As a solo operator, you’re CEO, sales and marketing, and in charge of distribution.
Learn how to draw up production schedules and video budgets, and learn something about production management. Take courses. There are good resources available online and in print.
Breakout Box: One Man Band Profile
A teaching colleague and former TV documentary series producer has reinvented himself as a one-man-band filmmaker now that his series is no longer running. Award-winning producer/director Malcolm Hamilton is now making information films for NGOs, government and corporate clients. A seasoned TV storyteller and field producer, Hamilton reflects on being a crew of one: shooter, soundman and editor.
“I will happily step forward to admit that I’m not the best at any of the above,” says Hamilton. “There are better shooters out there (I know and admire many of them); there are better editors as well, but in taking on all these tasks there is something else I can bring to a project: a cohesive strategy from start to finish. As shooter I know how I want things shot because I’m also the director; as editor I know what elements I have to work with because I’m also the producer.”
Although he now has to think as much about video equipment as he does about video content, Hamilton’s way of working solo doesn’t mean being consumed by the gear. “I’ve always felt that, if the content is compelling and the storytelling inspired, people won’t notice that an interview was shot with three lights instead of six.”
Peter Biesterfield is a documentary maker, freelance writer and professor of Documentary Production
Sidebar: Keep in Touch to Stay on Top
Keep on top of industry developments and video production technology. Go to conferences and equipment trade shows, read the trades and look for workshops and professional development opportunities in your community. You’ll be a powerful solo video-creating machine. Here are a few associated Videomaker articles to help you get started:
Distribution: It Could Happen – Festivals
Distribution: Taking It to the Screen