Capturing Once In A Lifetime Events

Life is full of special occasions, and many are ripe for remembrance through the magic of video. By recording an unique event, the joy, fun and pride felt at the lime can be relived again and again for many years.

A wide range of special occasions can become great video subjects-birthdays, bar mitzvahs, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, class reunions. Or try the birth of a baby, a first school play, a little league game, family reunion, company picnic or bungee-jumping marriage ceremony.

Like beauty, the value of a videotaped occasion lies in the eye of the beholder.


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But that value can be enhanced by a producer with the proper equipment, common-sense planning and the right attitude.

Time Traveler

As a videomaker documenting a special event you’ve inherited a great responsibility.

With camera in hand, you’re the keeper of the fleeting moment. The event will never happen again; you won’t be able to go back and do it over. You need to capture the moment as it happens. Make sure it’s something you can be proud of, something your audience will enjoy.

Much of the magic of video involves the passing of time. As the years fly by, the special occasion video becomes a treasured souvenir. Thanks to your creative and technical skills the video you produce becomes a window back to an emotionally-charged moment that is no more.

As the videomaker, you’re the pilot of your audience’s time travel, controlling the quality of the journey by what you let them see and hear.

Producing an entertaining special event video can be a real challenge. Consider the planning and preparation necessary to tape these special events: a friend’s first triathion, an employee picnic featuring a cast of thousands, a couple’s 50th vedding anniversary party attended by three hundred friends and relatives.

Each event involves a noisy environment, plenty of distractions and a sea of humanity sure to roll around you while you’re shooting. They’re young, old, thirty something, constantly asking, “Is that thing on?” or demanding “Get that camera away from me!”

Besides all this, you must contend with unending chatter in your own head: “Did I shoot him already?””Will the battery die before this shot does?”

“Is that RF interference pattern only on my monitor, or on the tape as well?”

Planning for Perfection

To become a master of the special occasion video, you must learn and respect the ways of preparation, equipment and technique. You need to be in the right place at the right time, with your camera in standby, just a button push from recording.

You were hired for this assignment for a few key reasons. People realize you’re a professional; creative, patient and skilled with a video camera. They’re counting on you to cover the event the way you’d want someone to cover it for you.

They want to enjoy themselves. They can’t tape and take part simultaneously. That’s why you’re there. To remove the videomaking burden; add your special creative touch; make sure the lighting is correct, sound clear, picture steady.

But before you can do that, you need to be prepared. Sit down with the client and find out just what will happen, and what you should get on tape. The client should be able to provide you with a rough schedule of activities and a roster of important guests. Share your creative ideas, discuss additional music, slides, photographs, special effects. Agree on reasonable renumeration.

Then perform a site survey. Determine how long it takes to get there. Find places where you can safely store your equipment and recharge your batteries. Talk around the site to become familiar with various shooting positions, seating arrangements and electrical outiets. Consider the lighting situation:

dark areas, fluorescent or tungsten lights, sun through windows. Establish microphone placement, check for audio interference from air conditioning ducts or heating vents.

By evaluating potential production problems you’ll be able to anticipate the kinds of challenges you’ll likely encounter during shooting.

Getting to the Church On Time

If you’ve done your homework out at the site you’ll know which production tools to bring along. You probably own most of the equipment and accessories you’ll need, but if you buy something new be sure to try it out well in advance.

Check your equipment and supplies. Make sure everything is packed and fully charged. Stock adequate tape, extra light bulbs, backup microphone batteries, extension cords, three-prong adaptors, markers, cassette labels, perhaps a ladder. And don’t forget the gaffer’s tape.

Arrive early. If you get there an hour ahead of everyone else you can relax, collect your thoughts, set up and check your equipment. By the time people come in you’ll already be in place, “part of the roadwork” and therefore less distracting.

If you show up late you’ll be rushed and nervous; it’ll be tough to calm down until much later. There’s a greater chance mistakes will be made; your camera work won’t be as cool and steady as it would if you’d arrived early.

Capture, Don’t Control

Your job is to document what happens naturally. You don’t want to steer or control the event for the benefit of the camera; that can turn the occasion into a media sideshow rather than a true celebration.

You can encourage people to joke with the camera a bit, you can ask participants for some brief remarks. But, wherever possible, strive to be as unobtrusive as possible when recording activities and people. You’ll obtain a less contrived, more genuine and enjoyable record of the event.

To document a special occasion accurately and completely you may want to enlist the help of a willing event participant. This person should know most or all of the guests, and act as a second set of eyes and ears. While you’re busy shooting, your ally can keep you informed of the ever-changing schedule of activities.

No matter what the event, viewers won’t want to watch hours and hours of it on video. It’s important to be selective with your shots. Depending on the event, an unedited special occasion video should run between forty-five and ninety minutes.

Show key scenes that reveal how the event is progressing. Begin with an establishing shot of the event arena. Reveal people arriving for the festivities, all dressed up and full of energy. As the event develops, keep the audience informed. If taping a friend’s softball game, let the audience see and hear the umpire occasionally; show the scoreboard when an inning is over.

And don’t just focus on the main subjects. If taping a little leaguer’s debut, capture other children in the dugout and the parents in the stands. Viewers are interested in the different reactions people have when attending a event.

Another good storytelling technique involves shooting a variety of closeups documenting event memorabilia: decorations on a cake, a corsage, sports equipment, an ice sculpture or floral centerpiece. These may seem commonplace at the time, but years later they’ll take on the glow of genuine cultural artifacts.

Controlling Quality

When shooting you’re in charge of quality control. If you’ve made a mistake in a shot, or feel it’s too long, backstep with the camcorder’s frame-by-frame editing button until you’ve eliminated the error.

Another in-camera editing technique involves using the fade in/fade out feature to soften transitions. This will give the footage an ethereal and timeless look, as if you opened your eyes and glimpsed a memorable moment before it faded away forever.

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face when documenting an event is obtaining a shot of everyone there without shooting an epic. In general a shot should last anywhere between four to eight seconds, though it can be longer if something really compelling is taking place.

Besides limiting the amount of time you spend on each shot, it’s important to vary camera angles and points of view. Shoot down from a balcony or staircase to capture a group of dancing couples, shoot from a low angle if taping children playing with one another.

Another interesting technique is to mount your camera on a tripod, zoom out to a wide angle of coverage, then leave the camera alone. A few minutes later, after people have stopped noticing the camera, use your remote control to commence recording. If you do this every five to ten minutes in thirty second segments, fading in and out each time, you’ll obtain a very interesting time-lapse effect.

People Just Want to Have Fun

People want to have fun at special occasions. Usually they’re in a good mood, eager to joke around-especially on camera. If you’re documenting an event full of frivolity, make sure that humor makes it onto the tape.

Identify the jokester in the crowd and follow him or her. This person will get people laughing. You may be able even to convince the humorist to serve as your on-camera host, appearing on tape now and then to introduce various people and activities. If this person is someone your audience finds funny you could have a real hit on your hands.

Another way to make people laugh is to surprise them with candid shots, which can always be grabbed effectively if you’re observant and in the right place at the right time. It helps to be friendly with the people you’re taping: that way you can blend in with the action, all the while ready to catch them on camera yukking it up.

If folks are playing frisbee, you do the same. If they’re dancing, you dance. Soon they’ll forget you have a camera. That’s when you strike-when they least expect it. Your reward will be some very natural, humorous video.

If you don’t know the people you’re taping you can always sneak up on them. Try shooting from the waist so people can’t see the camera easily. If your camera has a tally light, cover it with a piece of black tape.

Sly and stealthy, you’ll increase your chances of catching people acting silly. Be careful not to offend any partygoers:

if people insist you erase their Most Embarrassing Moments, you will of course comply.

If you are known for witty commentary, you might inject your own humorous narration. Just be careful your comments don’t get you into trouble.

Speak Into the Tape

Another important source of humor is the interview. Depending on the nature of the occasion, you can ask people all sorts of questions that should prompt answers steeped in hilarity.

To get this right, it’s recommended you conduct interviews in a quiet area away from noise and distraction. Once the celebration is under way, make people aware interviews will occur later. If they’re interested, tell them when and where to stop by. Make sure you’re ready with lights, microphone and camera before people arrive. When they do show up you can start interviewing right away. You won’t lose their high energy level and spontaneous remarks because you’re still setting up.

On-camera interviews are fairly common at weddings, anniversaries and birthday parties, but they’re also appropriate for sporting events, graduation ceremonies and senior proms. They give the audience a chance to learn what each person was thinking at the moment of the special occasion.

Try to keep your questions short, and convince people to restate the question as part of the answer. For instance, newlyweds asked how they met should begin their reply with, “The way we first met was…”

Depending on the event, typical questions could be:

“What do you think it will take for this marriage to be successful?”

“What toys did Kathy receive for her tenth birthday?”

“What was your favorite moment on today’s company picnic?”

“How did you feel towards the end of the race?”

“What do you want for your fiftieth wedding anniversary?”

“Did you ever think you’d pass physics and actually graduate?”

As long as you don’t overdo the interview technique it can produce very candid and funny remarks. You don’t have to interview everyone at a party; a few people will be sufficient. Just make sure responses are unrehearsed and not too long. You don’t want a lively and entertaining program bogged down by one person rolling on for five minutes.

Nimble and Nonchalant

Every special occasion video you produce will have its own set of unique technical challenges. Most can be anticipated and overcome.

Though most people are accustomed to camcorders and lights at social events, many don’t like to be intruded upon. So don’t be intrusive. Rather, be nimble and nonchalant. When you’re going handheld, keep the camera down at your side until you’re ready to use it.

Use a telephoto lens to obtain closeup shots without getting in the way. Telephotos come in a variety of focal lengths, and can allow you to get up close and personal even while shooting from the other end of the room.

In some situations, such as sporting events, you have to move very quickly to stay close to the action. You need a telephoto and you need to keep it steady, yet you need to move fast. What to do?

Try a monopod. Its one-button quick release action allows you to move quickly while keeping shots steady.

Probably one of the most common complaints about videomakers is that their lights are too bright. Try attaching some diffusion material over the barndoors, then bounce the light off any low ceiling painted in a light color.

Another solution is to use lights with built-in dimming mechanisms. Known as auto sensor video lights, these will automatically adjust lighting output for the proper exposure.

One more technique you can use to reduce glare is to point the camera and light at the ceiling when you turn it on, then slowly bring it all down from the ceiling to point at the subject. This will give eyes a chance to get adjusted.

Into the Sun

When taping outside it’s sometimes hard to avoid shooting towards the sun. Try to vary your camera angle; if you can’t, zoom into your subjects so they fill the screen with as little sky visible behind as possible.

If your camcorder has a backlight setting, switch it on; it should make your subject appear a little brighter in relation tO the background. Another way to cut the glare is to use neutral density filters, designed to even out contrast. They come in several densities, and are quite effective at enhancing the color of subjects in relation to the sky.

One of the best ways to insure your audio remains sharp, clear and distinctive is to use wireless microphones. These allow you to place the microphone and transmitter in a strategic area, while the receiver stays hooked to the camera some twenty feet away. Wireless mikes can range as far as 150 feet without any appreciable loss in fidelity.

No matter how much you plan, there’s always the possibility your camera will jam or your lights break. Prepare for the worst. Bring extra light bulbs, extra batteries, an extra camera. It’s all part of being prepared.

Given plenty of planning and prepartion, creativity and technique, skill and a bit of luck, your special occasion video will succeed. You’ll be proud of it, and your client and audience will enjoy it for years to come.

If you can, try to be there when your work debuts. You’ll know by the audience reaction if your program works and perhaps learn how to refine your approach for an even more successful production the next once-in-a-life-time.

Rick Weeks is a writer, director and producer who creates video for corporate and special interest markets.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.