Tips the Pros Won't Teach You

Don’t take it personally. The truth is there’s a lot of insider info that’s never talked about. It could be because those who know assume it’s common knowledge. There are however, those tips that even most “professionals” don’t know, or if they do, they neglect to practice. Presented here are some key pieces of advice that span the gamut from concept to delivery. Let’s explore some tips that even the pros won’t teach you.

Cable Conundrum

Have you ever held onto one end of a 100-foot extension cord and, throwing the rest, have it stretch out perfectly straight across the room? It’s possible. How long does it take you to coil those cables into perfect loops that are even and lay flat before storing? Would you like to say 6 seconds? The key is how you coil it.

Keep your left arm (I’m assuming your right-handed here, but if not, reverse my designations) against your body. Bend it at the elbow so your forearm is out in front of you. It’s important to keep this position as this will keep your loops a consistent size. Hold the end of the cord in this hand, with the tip towards you and the rest of the cord on the floor trailing off to your right side.


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The first loop will be created fairly normally. Simply stretch out with your right hand, take the cord with your thumb and your forefingers, bring it up and place it in your left hand. The loop should be a smooth circle and you should feel no torque in the cable. If you do, you may want to roll the cable slightly in your fingers (push your thumb slightly forward, and your fingers slightly back) as you bring the cable up to your left hand. The strands of wire inside the cable have a twist to them, rolling the cable like this will follow that natural wind as you coil.

Next, with your right hand, reach between the hanging cable and your body. Your hand should be the same distance from you as when you grabbed the first loop. You’re now going to roll your hand clockwise at the wrist while you reach out with your pinky and ring fingers to hook the cable. Continue the wrist rotation as you bring the loop up again and place it in your left hand. You know you did it correctly if the uncoiled wire is hanging down from your left hand between your first two loops. Additionally, if you haven’t moved your left arm, and reached the same distance each time, your coils should be exactly the same size.

Repeat these alternating loops over until the entire cable is in your left hand. If you remembered to roll the wire in your fingers, your coil will be neat and flat. You can then tie the cable for storage, or hold either end in your left hand, throwing out the coil clear across the floor with your right hand. It works. really.

But don’t expect to master this the first time, it takes a LOT of practice to master, and hours more before obtaining the speed equivalent or exceeding the “around the elbow” method. Also, before you do this for the first time, stretch your cables out across the floor and make sure they aren’t twisted up in telephone cord-like loops. Having a good initial lay is key.

This may seem like a lot effort for too little return, but it IS worth it. Once you master this technique you’ll be using it for everything from your audio cables and extension cords to your garden hose and vacuum cleaner. It will also help keep your cables clean, un-tangled and in good condition. When you start using this method you will rarely need to straighten your cables again.

Are you still confused? See the demonstration video.

Speaking of Cables

Go out and buy a simple label maker (you can get one for less than $30). Buy the paper labels and print your company’s name small enough to wrap onto the cord and still read. Stick the label on to the cord and then cover it with cellophane tape all the way around. You’ll never lose a cable again. This label will last far longer than most other methods, and is one of the cheapest systems out there.

Planning Your Vision

“Storyboard with your digital camera to save time and communicate your vision”, says Gary Waldinger, long-time editor and producer. Storyboarding also lets you maximize your shoot time, by shooting in order of convenience rather than in order of script. It also lets you convey your thoughts to others instantly and accurately. There is no better path to a smooth shoot than planning out every move in advance.

Sadly, storyboards are an under-utilized asset outside of feature films. Most people don’t bother, dismissing them as a valuable eater-of-time. Well there’s no need to draw them. When you’re on your location scout, grab a still camera and take some shots of every room. Get at least two angles of every room, and then any other angle you think might be helpful. Taking wide shots at a decent resolution will let you zoom in to change framing. Shoot empty rooms for the most part, as you can add human representations (stick figures) later when planning action.

Sharing Your Vision

Shooting a corporate video? Use these stills to give your clients a preview of the location prior to the shoot. For a recent project I drew out a floor plan, then used simple HTML rollover effects to have notes and pictures of each room pop up when a viewer points their cursor at it. The clients were able to hop on a website and approve the location without setting foot in the same state.

When Being Exact is the Wrong Move

There are times in a production when you will need an actor, or interviewee to say a line a specific way. Absolutely no other way will do, the inflection must be perfect or the meaning will be lost. It is at these times that, without question, the actor will give you every which way but the way you’re looking for. It’s probably at this moment that you would be inclined to spit out the forbidden words “I want you to say it like this…[insert line]”. This is the worst thing you could do.

First, you are not an actor playing that role, and you will undoubtedly not say it properly either. Second, actors will often become offended. You’re encroaching. Even if they don’t, they’re sure to not pick up on your needed inflection, and will continue to say it wrong anyway. Third, it tells everyone within earshot that you are not very experienced. A true director knows that getting the best performance out of an actor is to let them bring their own personality to the part.

If you’ve already tried saying “…a little more solemn”, or “…less angry”, or even simply, “I need… more”, then your solution may lie at the end of your next take. Try the following: “That was great, but just for variation, let’s keep the cameras rolling, and have you say just that line three or four times in a row”.

Will you get the read you want? Well in all honesty, only about 50% of the time. But if you don’t get it in the first three tries, just tell them, “again” one or two more times. If they’ve done this more than six times and you still haven’t gotten what you want then give up for now, you won’t get it. There’s still one more chance though. It’s possible you could have them read the line once again on a subsequent shoot day as a pickup. In the end though if you never achieve a perfect read, then you’ll be happy for those multiple passes anyway. You can mix and match them in the edit room to get the inflection. Also, be open to the fact that what you were originally looking for would probably come off as forced anyway, and that’s probably why you couldn’t get it out of your actor. If you approach your edit with an open mind, you might find one of their takes on the line will work better than your initial vision.

Speaking of Speaking

Duncan Pettigrew, a veteran video editor in New York, told me of a voice-over session where the talent used a quite effective trick to keep the enthusiasm in his voice. “If he needed to give his read a little life he would laugh just as he was starting the copy and then read on. It sounds strange but it really works to make your voice friendly and lively. The laugh does not need to be real. Just fake laugh and track a winner every time.”

Camera Ops

I can’t tell you how many professional camera people act so incredibly un-professional with their cameras when not shooting. So what foolish mistakes do I see most often? First, never put your camera on a table, chair, or any other raised surface (you should never put any production equipment on furniture anyway). If not on the tripod, put it on the floor, in a corner with the lens facing the wall. If you can’t find a wall, stand over it with wide legs.

Second, when carrying the camera, hold it backwards so your leg and body protect the lens. Plus if it’s a large camera, you can use the back to butt your way out of a crowd in a dangerous emergency situation. Also, it’s absurd that a cameraperson doesn’t clean the lens at least twice a day, and insist on checking the first take back after every major break. Cameras are very complex and have recording issues all the time. Periodically “wasting time” checking the footage back is much better than going the entire day, then learning there is a distortion line running through every single take. Just make sure you’re in clear tape before shooting the next take. Oh, and use a monitor if you’re shooting HD. Extreme clarity looks extremely bad when the scene is out of focus. Those small viewfinders don’t cut it.

Finally, always have a way of obtaining an emergency camera within an hour or two, especially if you’re on a one-camera shoot. If it’s your camera, you’ll save face having a backup solution when your camera breaks. If it’s not, you’ll save the day, and all but guarantee your being hired back on the next project.

When ‘OFF’ Isn’t the Red Button

If you’re shooting in a tense situation, and a security person (or the like) comes along and tells you to shut the camera off, reach for the tally light instead and hold the camera casually at your hip. Most people don’t recognize what button you’ve pressed, they only know that if the light is on, the camera is recording. This way you have documented proof (even if poorly framed) if something goes down.

The Eyes and Ears of the Camera

If a camera op is doing his (hand-held) job properly, his shooting eye is entrenched in the viewfinder, only opening his other eye occasionally to see what’s about to enter or leave the frame. If that’s the case, he’s not fully paying attention to what’s surrounding him. In dangerous situations or tight quarters, he might need help from an assistant to negotiate the floor.

Place your open hand flat in the middle of his back right between his shoulder blades. Your touch should be constant, not floating, not aggressive. You can then send signals with one hand how you want him to move and how fast. You can slide him to the side, or pivot your hand (pressing in on one side or the other) to encourage him to pivot likewise. Slide up or down to stand up or kneel. Let him move where he wants, and follow his moves, but if he’s about to back off a ledge, push harder and harder into his back as he nears the danger, becoming firm when he’s out of room. This is a system that comes naturally, even with an operator who has never done it before. There are some forms of un-spoken communication that are simply universal.

In the Editing Room

You edit non-linearly, but are you also thinking non-linearly? This may sound obvious but it’s an often-overlooked concept of computer editing. There’s no reason why you need to edit your piece in order. Duncan’s 15 years of editing has taught him a simple truth.

“If you don’t know what to do, do something… anything, and move on. The choice you make may not be the right one but it will at least stimulate you to try something else later.”

Sometimes it’s enough to simply get a feel of a section and go on to the next. If you try to force your way through these troubled parts too early, you’ll spend many a frustrating hour on them, only to come up with something you half-like at best. Most likely you’ll also find that when you revisit the section in the context of what comes before and after, you’ll need to re-work it anyway.

We Think, Therefore it’s Realistic

Now that we have you embrace modern technology, let’s talk about keeping it simple. Kozo Okomura was working on an independent feature that included a public telephone conversation.

“I thought it had to go through complicated preparation [and effect the voice in post], but the audio guy simply taped the pin-mic close to the speaker of the phone and it recorded clear enough to understand the conversation.”

This has two advantages. First, the audio limiting is already done for you. Second, your actors can play off each other in real time, making for a more natural flow. Granted, phones today usually have a wider frequency range, but we still read them as tinning. It’s like shooting night scenes in blue – it’s accepted but not reality. When was the last time you ever used a phone that “sounded” like we think a phone sounds? But I digress.

So what’s the takeaway here? Sometimes the best thing to do is turn off all the modern technology and get back to basics. Use what works, and try to never say “we’ll fix it in post”.

Classic Methodology Revisited

We’ve all been on that shoot at some point or another and have been asked to stand perfectly still for some lengthy period of time, so the microphones can record room tone. While good in theory. The truth is that it’s rarely usable in the edit room for one reason or another. Instead, work out with the director in advance that for one take in every location, the call for “action” will be delayed for 5 or so seconds.

“I find that I never use room tone recorded as a wild track unless we are ADR-ing a whole scene. ” says Brian Bowles, Audio Engineer. “I would rather have the recordist tell the AD they are waiting for speed and get 3 more seconds of fully crewed-up location sound then have a pristine 3-minute wild track.”

Brian states that the best room tone is found at the beginning or end of the take, when there is an extended wait. “It is much better than room tone gathered after half the crew has moved on to the next set up.” Using the room tone at the start of a take ensures that the tone is authentic to that room, with the same crowd “warmth” and at that same time of day – an essential consideration when shooting at locations with lots of ambient noise.

Well, now you’re with the “In” crowd. Now you’re in the know. Or are you? There are tons more tips and insider tricks out there just waiting to make your productions that much easier. Talk with your peers, and never be afraid to ask questions. There’s a saying that there are no new ideas in film today. Well the same goes for production. If you have a problem, someone out there has had the same issue, and already has an answer. In the end, what you don’t know is just as important as what you do know. Never be afraid to learn.

Sidebar: Quick Tips

If you don’t already, here are some practices to follow:

  • Keep all your equipment in one staging area. Never leave it unattended.
  • Whenever possible, use a boom mic to back up your lavalier.
  • If your on-camera talent is wearing a hat, put the lavalier in the brim and get flawless audio.
  • If you’re shooting in extreme warm or cold conditions, place your camera in the location at least 1 hour prior to rolling to prevent fogging and frost.
  • Put a clear garbage bag over the camera when it’s raining, and poke a hole for only the lens.
  • Keeping the camera rolling for a few seconds after the actors have finished a scene often yields some great reaction shots.
  • Never place equipment (especially hot lights) on tables, chairs, etc.
  • Always leave a location exactly as you found it, if not cleaner.
  • Always know the locations and hours of the local: convenience store, hardware store, electronics store, outlets, and rental house.
  • Room too small? Lights too bright? Place your fill in the hall and partially close the door. Or light with the key, and use it’s spill light as fill, and flags to subtract from other areas.
  • Having background noise issues? Remember that halving the distance to the mic quadruples the relative input, and reduces the background ratio proportionally.
  • If taping in a room with a constant noise, like an air conditioner, record a good minute of room tone. Even many free audio editing programs now have filters to help cancel this noise out.

Peter Zunitch is a post-production manager and editor working on every system from 16mm film to Avid Symphony, utilizing many of today’s advanced manipulation and compositing tools.

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