Invite friends and relatives to see your latest home movie and count on a generous outpouring of stammered feeble excuses designed to keep them at a safe distance. If the assumed victimes are already trapped, simply threaten to bring forth your vacation video-then watch your guests scurry like rats fleeing a sinking ship.
Since time began, or at least since the arrival of movie cameras, home movies have been the butt of jokes. Everyone from unappreciate viewing victims to comedians and cartoonists have lampooned the amateur cinematographer.
The much maligned film/videomaker hasn’t always deserved such abuse. When home movies were shot on 8mm film, half the blame for rude reviews could be laid on the dirt and scratches that increased exponentially with each showing. Today, technology has eliminated that excuse. Now, full responsibility for bad footage must lie with the videomaker’s lack of motion picture production knowedge.
It’s time to change all that. So, let’s start fresh and get rid of the name “home movies” altogether. And why not? We call the garbage man an environmental engineer and ourselves videomakers. So let’s call those homemade movies “personal videos” or “family videos,” or anything else that doesn’t conjure up a bunch of bad Super-8 flashbacks.
But what, truly, is in a name? If you don’t change the product you’ll still be stuck with the same old stuff. Today, you have the equipment necessary to produce videos with excellent technical quality. Now’s the time to improve your image as a videomaker and perfect your moviemaking ability.
An old news camerman once told me that changing my philosophy would go a long way toward improving my motion picture-making skills. He said, “You don’t just take a picture, you make a picture.”
Remember that advice as you shoot your video. Don’t just jab the viewfinder into your eye and bang away. What you see through the viewfinder is what you’ll see when you get home-good or bad. Think about the shot before you push the pause button and roll the tape.
The more you use your camcorder, the better ou’ll become and the easier it will be to react to situations and get the shots other people miss.. Know your camcorder so well that every shot will be technically perfect.
Your ultimate goal is to develop your videomaking skills so that shooting personal videos is no longer work but easy and fun. And watching your videos will no longer be the dreadful climax to your summer vacation but an event everyone will want to attend.
Sound unreasonable? It should. It’s like the road to Carnegie Hall-just practice, practice, practice.
The first step in improving your image is sharpening it.
Focus your camcorder before every shot. If you haven’t figured out by now that autofocus doesn’t work, go back and take a close look at your past efforts. I’ll bet your videos go in and out, in and out, in and out of focus. If autofocus worked it would be a standard feature on professional video equipment. It’s not.
Autofocus doesn’t think and react as your brain does. The autofocus sensing beam measures the distance to whatever it hits-which may or may not be your subject. If the bean strikes an object in the center of the frame and your subject is on the right or left side, the important part of your picture will be out of focus.
You’ll even have trouble if your camcorder has the two-step autofocus system where the bean can switch from a pinpoint to the entire width of the frame. Any object that is closer or farther from the lens than your subject will be sharp; your subject will be out of focus.
If you read the disclaimer in the camcorder’s instruction book, you’ll discover a whole list of situations where the manufacturer admits the autofocus won’t work at all.
For the sharpest focus, the old-fashioned manual method is best. Zoom in tight on your subject and turn the focus ring until the picture in the viewfinder is as sharp as you can get it. Then use the zoom control to adjust the framing for the best picture composition, and make you shot. With practice this focusing method will come fast and east as autofocus.
I use good old Kentucky Windage when make a wide shot. If it looks like the subject is about 20 feet away, I set the focus ring for 20 feet. Thanks to depth of field, as long as I don’t zoom in on my subject the picture stays sharp.
On With Their Heads
The next step toward a better image is developing the ability to recognize a properly composed picture and to make any corrections in the framing before you roll the tape.
This is where your viewfinder becomes your best friend. Again, what you see in the viewfinder as you shoot is what you see on TV when you play it back.
First, the edges of the picture in the viewfinder are like the frame around a picture on a wall. If a picture’s brooked, you stright it. I find a vertical line in the picture and line it up so it’s parallel with the edge of the frame.
Before you roll the tape, check the frame to make sure the subject isn’t framed too high or too low. Don’t cut off the tops of people’s heads-check the viewfinder and tip up a little.
Also, don’t put too much space above your subject’s head. Tilt down before you roll the tape.
If you’re shooting a closeup of a person’s face of framing a head-and-shoulder shot, try to keep the person’s nose in the center of the frame. If shooting a landscape, limit the sky to the top one-third of the frame.
Usually a slight shift in camera position is all that’s necessary to clean up a picture. For example, move to the edge of the rail to shoot the slumbering bears at the zoo. If you stand back and let people walk in front of the lens, the viewer’s attention is drawn from the furry lumps to the passing parade.
A lot of movement behind a subject can also be distracting. If the kids are playing baseball on the corner lot, don’t shoot toward the street. Cars whizzing by will divery attention from the action of play. Move to the other side of the diamond and put trees in the background
When taping, I quickly check the frame to make sure everything’s lined up the way I want it. I constantly check the viewfinder frame to make sure I remain lined up. The more you use your camcorder, the easier this will be.
Now, let’s look beyond the single shot to the full-lenngth home movie. A really well-shot family video is a series of shots put together in a logical order to tell an interesting story.
If you’re new to camcorders or an old timer with bad shooting habits, it’s time for some basic rules.
The typical camcorder buter is accustomered to snapping pictures with a 35mm still camera or Instamatic. Unfortunately, that’s also the way the novice shoots video-with reckless abandon, pointing the lens at anything and everything that moves and a lot that doesn’t.
So the first and most important rule is this: Your camcorder was made to record motion, not create it. The motion in your pictures shouldn’t come from bouncing the camera from object to object. It should come from the movement of your subjects.
Hold your camcorder still and steady as you record the action, the same way you hold a still camera steady to prevent blurring the picture. But instead of holding still and steady for a faction of a second, you’re going to hold the camcord for give, six, 10, or 60 seconds.
The typical videomaker has an uncontrollable desire to pan and zoom-again, attempting to create motion by moving the camera. When you pan, you destroy the viewer’s ability to see what’s taking place, especially if you pan fast.
The zoom lens was created to allow you to compose a shot correctly without moving closer or farther from your subject. Constant zooming for no apparent reason distracts to viewer and distrupts concentration.
Shoot a series of relatively short shots instead of one great big huge gigantic long shot. Don’t make the shots so short you don’t have time to see the action, nor so long your viewers nod off. Most shots should run five to 10 seconds.
In the Can
The perfect family video requires editing. And editing requires a commitment of time, money, and patience.
It may take a half hour to shoot 15 mintures worth of video but it will probably take all evening to cut it down to a five-minute masterpiece-time well spent for the would-be consummate videomaker.
You might try editing “in the can.” That an old film term for shooting everything as it will be shown. Such editing requires a combination of shots that flow smoothly without a “jump cut,” created when two similar shots appear back-to-back.
Following are several combinations of shots that fit together fro a smooth progression from scene to scene. Notice that all cal for no camera movement.
We’ll begin with “postcard shots” of different subjects and different backgrounds. You can string together postcard shots all day long and not create a jump cut.
Picture the following shots, in order: a wide shot of the children building sand castles, Dad sitting in a beach chair reading, frenzied volleyballers leaping and diving and sucking sand, nubiles losing their suits in the surf, Dad rising to his feet for a closer look, Mom swatting him upside the head, Dad tumbling back over the chair and into the youngster’s painstakingly constructed moat.
Next, a “match cut:” a big, wide shot of the children building sand castles on the beach followed by a closeup of the face of one of the children. Or it could be a full-length shot of one of the children followed by an extreme closeup of hands filling a bucket with sand. The next shot can be a wide shot of the same scene.
Still In the Can
Now try a “cutaway” or reversal.” A cutaway is a shot separating two similar shots, preventing a jump cut. Tape a wide shot of the children building the sand castle. Pause the tape and move anywhere from 90 to 150 degrees to the right or left and shoot again. Pause and return to your original location; continue shooting.
Shots one and three contain the same subjects and background. Putting them back to back would be jarring, since the children would be in slightly different position and the background would be shifted slightly. The second shot eliminates the jump.
Another way to prevent a jump cut is with a “neutral shot.” A neutral shot is part of the overall scene but away from the immediate action, something not seen in the two similar wide shots. An example would be a shot of Dad watching the children placed between two similar shots of the young ones hurling sand at one another.
Try these cominations, see how they work. Intentionally create a jump cut by shooting two shots back to back from the same spot a minute apart. Then try to avoid the jump by using different shot combinations. It’s not difficult; it’s worthwhile.
Though it’s possible to shoot scenes flowing nicely from beginning to end I prefer to edit my video out of the can.
I make sure I have all the shot combinations I need to creat smooth, flowing sequences. When you’re taping people doing things when they want to do them, it’s extremely difficult to time every shot.
Here’s an example of shot timing. There’s a mischievous dog roving the beach. It’s only a matter of time before he frolics through someone’s sand castle. You could easily shoot two or three preparatory minutes of the dog sniffing, scratching, stumbling around
But by editing the videotape you can cut out the long, dull prologue and include only the exciting part.
If you edit you can shoot as much as you want and still cut your footage down to an enjoyable length. Editing allows you to roll as long as necessary to get those first steps, that first fish, the first base hit.
These shooting suggestions may seem a little restrictive. You might find your insatiable desire to keep the camcorder in motion to be overpowering. But if you can resist the temptation to create motion, you’ll see an immediate improvement in your family videos.
And if you combine your improved shooting technique with good editing you’ll see further improvement. Not only will you have some treasured moments on videotape but you, your family and your friends will be able to relive those memories over and over again-willingly.
It’ll take a lot of practice to acquire the ability to shoot with ease and confidence necessary to improve your images. But, when you do, there’ll be no more disparaging jokes, no more bad home movies.
John Fuller is a television news cameraman for WXYZ-TV, Detroit. Recommendations in this article and other suggestions are detailed in his book, Prescriptions for Better Home Video Movies, published by HPBooks.