The camera zooms for sweat and chalk and blood, close up. It lingers on the flouncing skirts of tennis pubescents, betrays the bulging bellies of bowlers. Pulls slowly back to reveal a vast ersatz Roman coliseum swanning with half-mad fans.
On the intimate soundtrack we hear the labored grunting of linemen, the sneaker squeak of parquet floors, the pathetic kvetching of desperate coaches, the sudden snaps of bone ending games, careers, and hopes.
The production and shooting techniques developed for sports coverage are where video truly excells. And it’s here you can excell as well.
Of course you can’t hope to attain the level of the network pros-not without a dozen cameras, a production truck, and John Madden. But you can apply professional guidelines and approaches to single-camera coverage, producing video of sufficient interest and excitement to enthrall even the most sophisticated sports potato.
Sports video is sort of a sport in itself. It requires the right equipment and physical training, and you must arrive psyched and ready to go.
You need stamina to cover a sporting event. If you’re not up for it, your work will lack energy. You must be willing to move about carrying a lot of heavy equipment, climb stairs and stands, follow the action with a camera strapped to your shoulder ’til it feels like you’ve sliced right through your collarbone.
Purchase and wear a good pair of crosstraining shoes for all the running, turning, pointing, crawling, climbing, aud panning.
Equip yourself with a lens of the longest focal length available. A 12x is better than a 6x because it can zoom in twice as close. And you need to be close for those special sports moments of tension and emotion-capturing foreheads beaded with sweat, coaches hurling clipboards to the turf, pitchers grimly rubbing resin into the ball.
Creative control is essential, so make sure your lens is equipped for manual operation.
Just as runners load carbohydrates before a big event, so must your camcorder be loaded with power. Have plenty on hand. Time your batteries, know how long they’ll last under a variety of conditions.
Remember that cold weather and low light will suck the juice as fast as Dracula.
Feel the Power
Be sure you have enough power for the whole event. There’s nothing dumber than going down just before Leroy stiff-arms Darnell to complete an 80-yard run. Always have extra batteries close and ready to use.
If you’re shooting at night, you’ll need portable light. Don’t skimp-good lights are never obsolete.
Invest in a good 100-watt lamp. Running from a 6-amp/hour battery, a 100-watt will provide about 25 minutes of strong light. While you can’t light the whole field, this setup should throw illumination a good 15 feet.
Take your tripod. The only pro cameras not on sticks are those used for bench shots and crowd cutaways. Everything else stays put. Learn what they did: Handheld work will annoy and alienate the audience. Tripod use can improve your sports videos more than any other single factor.
Finally, consider a lightweight two-step folding aluminum ladder for that higher-than-eye-level view.
When covering an event solo, you can set up on high, go wide, and pan back and forth all night and day, or you can go running and gunning.
The former method guarantees some kind of shot of every play, while the latter fosters creation of entertaining, high-impact images.
Let’s face it-a two-hour game on a wide lens gets boring fast. Changing positions and varying shots are vital in keeping a piece visually interesting. You might miss some plays, and the soundtrack will be choppy, but you’ll capture some memorable video.
Before approaching an event, know what you want to accomplish. If there to document the skill of one player, concentrate on that player. If you want to study a team’s defensive strategy, stay wide and follow the defensive action.
Anticipate the action. Shots are more exciting if the action’s coming towards you. The golf shot with the ball arcing towards the lens-that’s the kind of stuff you want. Shooting straight into the face of the panting, cramping winner of the Crabtree 10K as she collapses across the finish line. Poised to portray Theotis hoisting the ball in triumph after snagging an end zone screen.
Think ahead and you won’t miss the agony of victory or the thrill of defeat.
Heroes and Bums
Now let’s cover sonic tips and techniques for specific sports.
When shooting baseball an elevated position behind home plate or a foul line works best. From these positions you’ll get a good view of all key areas and easily track the action. Look for “hero” shots. After a sliding shallow outfield catch, push in for a shot of the successful fielder. Go low for a tight shot of the pitcher’s face as s/he receives and shakes off calls. Follow a player crossing home plate into the dugout to capture the whooping and high-fiving and ritual butt-slapping.
Get shots of the vendors shortchanging the fans, bulbous relatives bellowing at umpires, the chaos engendered by screaming fouls into the stands. Add long shots of the park before the game, a shot of an empty glove beside a pair of cleats. Shoot anything that will help convey the story you’re trying to tell.
In football the camera high in the stands at the 50 yard line will cover the entire field. Move to the turf for bench theater and eye-level action.
When the spheroid moves close to the goal, journey to the back of the end zone. Tape the quarterback releasing a spiral into the lens, pull back and follow the ball into the receiver’s hands and the end zone. Or zoom in tight on the handoff and then pull back as Man Mountain Matilda bowls over all in her path and thunders in for the score.
Pucks and Dunks
In basketball, shooting from the stands affords good overall game coverage. For impact video, move down to the floor where you can capture eye-level action. Stand under the basket for dramatic footage of drives, dunks, layups, and fouls. Turn the camera on the stands for cutaways of crowd and coaches.
Fast-paced sports like soccer and hockey should be followed from the stands, with occasional trips to the sidelines or rink. On the ground, choose a slightly elevated angle. After goals, you can either follow the scorer for a hero shot or depict the dejection of the goalie.
In bowling, the classic shot is from an elevated position over the bowler’s shoulder. Follow approach to release, then zoom in tandem with the ball into the pins.
The networks like shots of the bowler in meditation, ball suspended beneath the chin. The camera then pans out as the bowler goes into the windup and hurtles the projectile down the lane.
In real howling, much of the story will include frenzied howls at gutter balls and scorecards soaked in spilled beer.
Greens and Speed
Golf is slow and the players wear weird clothes. Bring your ladder.
Look for swing shots from just behind the tee. Get down on the fairway and shoot the ball hurtling into the lens. Zoom in for closeups of those incredible multicolored polyester pants. Prepare for the futility of sandtraps and the violence of blown putts.
The networks always include 13,256 shots of flags blowing to indicate wind direction; you can get away with two or three.
The ball falling into the cup and retrieval by a perfectly manicured hand is another natural shot.
At the other extreme we have the speedlashed intensity of racing. Set the camera on a curve, low to the ground, and go wide. The cars will fill the frame quickly as they approach, and the low angle will enhance the image’s power.
Get some elevation at the end of a straightaway and zoom the lens in all the way to the track. This stacks the competitors and flattens the field of view.
The same techniques are applicable to foot races. Here, you might add a 90-degree-angle ground-level shot of feet fleeing past. Or, for a marathon, run into the pack (if allowed) for footage of runners streaming past.
Track and Feel
Track and field meets offer a variety of events demanding a variety of approaches.
The high jump and broad jump are covered best with the runner coming toward the lens. Get back, elevate, zoom in, and follow the action. The javelin and discus usually follow the athlete’s pre-release contortions all the way through to the landing of the hurled object. Position yourself perpendicular to the point of release.
In swimming, start at a 90-degree angle with a shot of the swimmers perched on their stands. The dive and splash is, of course, thrillsville. Once in the water, you can cover just one swimmer or zip back and forth from one to another, or go wide and tape the entire pool.
Stand at the end of the lane if you want footage of one swimmer coming into the finish. Zoom in all the way and frame the swimmer coming towards you: The image compression will make the subject look like s/he’s coming out of the screen. At the side is best if showing the competition among two or more swimmers straining to be first to finger the cement.
Tennis is a great action sport, and easy to cover. Shoot from behind the baseline from an elevated position. Frame the court on the wide side, and stabilize. The action will take care of itself. Don’t change courts with the players; that will only confuse your viewers. For cutaways, go to the crowd.
Don’t worry about audio in sports field work. Natural sound tells the story best. You may want to add a soft, whispery narrative, a la golf, but the racket twang, crowd drone, and hat crack will most often say more better than anything you could come up with.
Besides, the concentration required to record audio will detract from your primary mission: getting good pictures.
Remember to be considerate of the audience when shooting an event. Don’t get in the way. These people came out to watch sports, not you. If taping a commercial event, obtain permission beforehand or look forward to being thrown out.
Shooting sports is serious, hard work. And it’s fun. If you know what you’re doing, sports videomaking may be just your racket.
John Hartney, an Illinois-based freelance writer, has worked as a camera operator and audio technician for ABC, ESPN, and CNN.
Cameras Teaming Up
Shooting sports with a second camera can vastly improve your coverage.
So recruit a second videomaker and place two camcorders at your disposal. Set one high in the stands, or somewhere with good overall field of view.
This camera should stay wide and pan with the action, occasionally zooming in after a big play. We’ll call this outfit Camera #1.
Camera #1 secures your master video and soundtrack. Camera #2 is in charge of the running and
gunning. Camera #2 should be run by the videomaker who most needs to get into shape.
Use a deck with a flying erase head to insert the video from Camera #2 onto the master tape of Camera #1. Insert video only; you want to keep the soundtrack on #1 pure and in sync. Don’t assemble edit.
Example: #1, high in the bleachers, shoots Manu smacking a homer. At the start of Manu’s two-
flaps-down trot, drop in video from #2, positioned down the line from first base. Here we see
Manu from head to toe, proudly rounding first. End edit back to #1 wide for Manu rounding second and third. Drop in #2 for a tight shot of Manu striding across the plate.
As long as #1 stays wide and rolling, you’re always covered. Camera #2 can pick up the details. This technique of keeping the first generation master mostly first generation means you can make
acceptable copies from it for sale or rent to the team..