In which our correspondent visits an historic hangout of monks, pondering the question “why video?”

It was a reader’s query in Videomaker that caused me to take a closer look at our hobby.

In brief, the quesfion ran, “there are dozens of books on how to video; I need one on what to video.”

To some this may seem a stupid question, bin it really isn’t, The query was perceptive, as Ira sure the writer intended it to be. The editor offered some good advice, but I’m surprised that no one else has responded to it.

So I’ll toss in my cent’s worth.

Why For Art Thou?

Before turning directly to the main question there’s another, more important puzzler: why?

Why do we want to record people, places and things?

Well, as far as I’m concerned, there doesn’t have to be a reason. The idea, surely, is to have fun-to derive satisfaction from a complex and challenging task.

It’s like painting. Artists paint because they enjoy creating something, not because they want to see their walls covered with pictures. Alfred Hitchcock made movies not because he felt obliged to entertain the public, but because he derived enormous pleasure from directing.

But that’s not answering the reader’s question, “what do I shoot?”

In order to analyze the problem I decided to think backwards. In my imagination I went to the store, chose a camera, learned how to use it and then looked around for something to shoot.

Shedding Knowledge

I applied some restrictions to myself. I had to pretend I hadn’t spent a lifetime in the entertainment business, assume I knew little or nothing of videomaking.

But I was determined still to produce something worthwhile. I wasn’t going to zoom in and out or indulge in wild panning. I was, after all, a regular reader of Videomaker.

An idea came and I set off; not in my imagination this time, but in reality. Armed with a notepad and still camera I journeyed west.

Why the still camera and not my brand new camcorder? I needed to do research and at this stage didn’t want to be distracted by the business of videomaking. That would come later.

I’d recently discovered a bulous old inn. Genuine in every respect, it contained no gimmicky brasswork nor fake beams. Just honest wooden furniture and real ale.

I would record its history.

Into the Inn

The Well House Inn is a timber-framed building with infills of flint and black. The well itself was first mentioned in 1523, the building documented in 1768 though its erection predates that mark by many years.

Having obtained permission from the landlord I went around clicking my camera at everything in sight-the characteristic black and white exterior, the low-ceilinged bar, the huge open fireplace and its rusting iron fire-basket.

In the garden lay the deep well once used by monks inhabiting a long since demolished monastery. I discovered upstairs a priest-hole used to hide victims of persecution in the middle ages. Here was material for a really interesting documentary.

Examination of records in the village church and a visit to a local library whetted my appetite even further. I could barely wait to set up my tripod and start recording.


Shot Plan

Back in my office I studied my photos and read my notes. Fortunately, someone had already set out a brief history of the inn, so much of my research was easy and complete. Now I was ready to plan.

Most people would have worked out a shot list, recorded the video, then added the commentary. I would work the other way round.

I wrote the commentary, then pencilled in my shot list alongside. I read the words aloud and timed each shot with a stopwatch.

All I need do now was find someone with a more interesting voice than mine to record the commentary.

My intention was to follow my shot list to the letter, switching the camera on and off at the timed intervals set down on paper. The advantage of this method is that, freed of the necessity to record a soundtrack, I could pay more attention to composition and lighting.

To break up long tracts of commentary I intended to record three live face-to-face interviews: one with the landlord, another with the curator of a nearby museum, the third with a village regular to the bar. I would ignore the irritating little microphone fitted to the body of the camera and use my home cassette recorder and a hand mike.

Edit Ethics

My next operation might be construed as cheating, for I’d vowed, hand on heart, not to edit. Editing, you see, comes with experience, and I felt few new camcorder owners would invest in expensive equipment before first learning how to use their cameras. But I’d forgotten that to synchronize video with sound I would have to edit my audiotape. However, as this is something I do quite often with my music collection, I considered this form of dubbing legit. Petending to be a first-time videomaker, I was unlikely to have mastered time code.

Planning was probably the most interesting part of the operation. As with every video it’s the planning that makes the difference between shooting a movie and just bashing off a few pictures.

The method I used may not be approved by some videomakers, but for first-timers it has several advantages. First, it provides a working arrangement in which each element-pictures, sound and storyboard-are treated separately. It’s amazing how much this clarifies things.

Second, it demands a disciplined approach; none of this “that’ll make a good shot” nonsense. Each shot must be selected from the still photographs.

The timed intervals and the prerecorded soundtrack make shooting the video sublimely simple, like painting by numbers. But the final result can be superb, and it’s an easy way to learn.

One final opinion-a personal one, but worth noting. Documentary-making, because it is so strong in content, is much more forgiving than drama. Shots which would be regarded as awful when filled with actors pass almost unnoticed when used in narrating a story.

Bernard Wilkie is a Videomaker contributing editor.

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