Special Occasions: Capturing That Special Event

Camcorders and special events–they go together like, well, like
the proverbial horse and carriage. And yes, one of the most frequently
videotaped events of all celebrates love and marriage. But if
you’re going to produce a compelling record of such an occasion,
you can’t always fall back on horse-and-buggy techniques. Event-based
video programs require savvy planning and your very best skills
as a videographer.

Special events come in a rich variety of guises. Among the most
popular are birthday parties, graduation exercises, weddings,
reunions, anniversaries and religious rites like Bar Mitzvahs
and baptisms. As different as all these occasions are, they do
have several important characteristics in common: they either
celebrate significant milestones or commemorate important relationships.
Because an event itself is fleeting, a video that captures its
essence becomes a cherished record for the participants.

It doesn’t take a closet full of expensive equipment to produce
satisfying results. The most important components–thorough preparation
and a well thought-out strategy–are totally free.

Using three examples: a child’s birthday party; a family reunion;
and a wedding, this article will give you the insight on how to
capture that special event.


No matter how simple or elaborate you expect the event to be,
the more legwork you do in advance, the smoother the actual shoot
will go. There are three key areas to investigate before the event
takes place:

  1. the locations;
  2. the format;
  3. the participants.

This digging operation doesn’t have to be done in any particular
order; a good way to start is by scouting the location. While
the value of inspecting the site of a big church wedding is obvious,
it may seem almost silly to do the same for a child’s birthday
party, especially if it’s for your own child and it’s going to
be in your own home. Yet the same questions have to be answered
for all events:

  • What is the physical space like?

  • What are the lighting considerations?

  • What are the audio considerations?

  • Are there any special restrictions or obstacles?

  • Where are the A/C power outlets and do they work?

Every detail that you garner on your survey trip will become
extremely valuable as you plan your production approach and determine
equipment needs. In scouting the venue for your wedding, for example,
you might discover that the sanctuary is dimly lit and that church
policy requires the camera to be at a significant distance from
the wedding couple. You also note that the site offers some striking
visuals, including a set of brass organ pipes and a graceful bell

Similarly, your visit to the venue for the family reunion, a
local park, turns up both pluses and minuses. One side of the
park is near a busy road, threatening to compromise the sound
quality. On the plus side, you see there will be many opportunities
for B-roll shooting (action shots that can be used as visuals
during voice-over interviews), including paddle-boating on the
lake and a miniature train ride for the kids.

As for your in-house scouting trip, the birthday party site uncovers
some potential trouble spots you may not have noticed before.
For one thing, there’s that precious Venetian mirror in the dining
room–not only will you have to take care not to hit it with a
heavy tripod, but it is also a concern in terms of unwanted reflections.
Scouting the location in advance will allow you to avoid these
pitfalls before the party starts.

Making Contact

Once your scouting is completed, you’ll want to focus on the event’s
format and learn who the major players will be. With luck, one
key person from each festivity will be able to supply you with
the inside scoop on all of this. Your contact may even help you
collect various items to shoot, like invitations and old photos.

For the wedding production, your contact person is likely to
be the bride, the bride’s mother, or the wedding coordinator.
Though most weddings follow a similar schedule, there can be important
individual variations as well. Ask when the wedding rehearsal
is scheduled, and if possible, plan to attend.

As for the people component, you’ll want to learn something about
everyone who is in the wedding party, as well as any special relatives
and friends who will be attending. You’ll also want to get a sense
of what the bride and groom are like, and learn something about
their romance. You’ll be able to use this information to help
give your wedding video more of an intimate, personal slant–a
significant consideration when you are videotaping a large, formal
ceremony like a wedding.

When it comes to the birthday party, your natural informant is
one of the child’s parents. Even if you yourself are that parent,
and you think you know all there is to know about the event, there
are some special things to think about. For instance, will your
child be receiving one major present? If so, think about how to
stage this moment for maximum dramatic impact. Does your child
have a best, best friend? If so, make a note to get some sound
bites from this pal.

The sleuthing you do for the reunion is apt to be a bit more
demanding than for either of the other two events. There is no
traditional structure for reunions, and these events also lack
obvious stars (no bride, groom, or birthday child). Thus, your
informant’s help is of even greater importance here. This person,
most likely one of the reunion organizers, will be able to lay
out the highlights of the day and will also be able to tip you
off to some long-anticipated mini-reunions between friends and
relatives. In addition, your source may assist you in locating
family artifacts like old photos, yearbooks and documents–elements
that can greatly enhance a reunion video. You might even consider
asking this friendly soul to be your point person during the event,
steering you to the people you want to interview and helping to
orchestrate the mini-reunions.

Strategy and Approach

Now that you’ve done your digging, you’re ready to nail down a
theme and rough out a script. Working out a theme can take a bit
of brainwork, and while some videographers will argue it isn’t
necessary, the pros know that a theme provides the spine upon
which to build your program. Non-pros can benefit by using themes
to enhance their videos as well.

Themes need not be complex to work well. For instance, if your
birthday girl is turning 13, the theme of your birthday video
could be: "Jenny becomes a teenager." Then you shoot
scenes and conduct interviews that reflect that sweet and awkward
transition between childhood and adolescence. For your family
reunion, your theme might be: "What we Johnsons have in common."
Everything from the family’s characteristic blue eyes to its shared
history become relevant threads to tie your program together.
In your wedding video, your core idea could be: "Marcie and
Wayne, both avid athletes, join forces to become a team."
This dynamic theme (competition transformed into union) will give
you a clear point of view for your shooting and editing.

Once you’ve settled on your theme, it might be helpful to sketch
out what the professionals call a "beat sheet"–a list
of major scenes, including the starting place, the ending place,
and the major elements in between. You should also have a checklist
of the people you want to interview, and a list of anticipated
action shots, cutaways and establishing shots.

Once you know what and where you’ll be shooting, you can begin
to nail down your production strategy and equipment list, using
the notes you made on your scouting trips for reference.

Going down your beat sheet of major scenes, figure out how to
handle each one in terms of lighting, audio and camera placement.
Also, give some thought to the order in which you might shoot
the scenes that aren’t locked into a chronological sequence. For
example, knowing that afternoon shadows are going to become a
major problem at the reunion location, you might plan to shoot
most of your B-roll footage early in the day.

In some cases, you might even want to do some of your shooting
before the actual event. Insert shots of photos and invitations
can certainly be done before the big day, and so can title art.
For an elaborate production like a wedding video, you may even
want to do a pre-wedding sequence with Marcie and Wayne telling
the story of their romance, and shoot B-roll footage of them in
action on the tennis court.

The order in which you shoot will be determined by your editing
approach. If you want to make swift work of it, then stick closely
to chronological sequence. If you intend to take greater pains
with your editing, you’ll probably want to dedicate a tape to
B-roll footage, and be less concerned about sequence.

Once you’ve worked out your production strategy, assemble all
your gear and make sure it’s in good working order. Check that
you’ve got all the audio and lighting equipment you plan to use.
Pack plenty of tape and batteries. If you plan to use your camcorder’s
fill light, check that it is fully charged. Last of all, make
sure your gear bag contains all those small but important odds
and ends you rely on.

The Big Day

When the big day finally dawns, and you’ve done a solid job with
your prep work, all should be smooth and happy sailing.

Still, this doesn’t mean you can afford to be cavalier. On the
day of the event, get there early! You don’t want to be in a hurry
while you set up and test your equipment. Examine all your switches
to see that they are in the proper position (sometimes settings
get shifted during transport). That done, utilize the time before
the guests arrive to do as many of your establishing and "color"
shots as you can. This is also a good time to get behind-the-scenes
action–Jenny’s sister in the bedroom wrapping a birthday package,
or the groom pinning on his boutonniere.

As soon as the event gets underway, keep yourself on target by
referring to your beat sheet, but don’t be afraid to improvise–some
of your most memorable shots may be the ones you didn’t plan.

Give yourself permission to shoot lots of tape; it’s a cheap
commodity and you’ll never have a chance to shoot this particular
event again. Be sure to get as many "people shots" as
you can (see Sidebar). Don’t let your zeal to cover the event
overwhelm your sense of common courtesy for the participants and

As in any video production, you’ll want to strive for excellent
quality both in your sound and pictures. One big problem with
special events videos is the over-use of the hand-held camera,
resulting in a program filled with wobbling, annoying images.
Discipline yourself to use a tripod, bean bag or other steadying
device (see the "Getting Started" column in the March,
1996 issue of Videomaker), and vary your camera angles
to increase visual interest. Getting clear sound can be another
stumbling block at special events. In scenes where audio quality
is especially important, avoid shooting in rooms with noisy air
conditioning or near busy streets. The best way to improve sound
quality is to have appropriate external mikes for various situations,
such as a wireless lavalier mike for the groom to wear during
the church service, and a hand-held mike for interviews at the
reunion. Be sure to record ambient sound at each location. You’ll
find it helpful to make a voice slate of each person you shoot,
to help you identify who’s who when it’s time to edit.

Putting it All Together

If you’ve been conscientious about following your pre-production
battle plan during the big day, the final steps should be a pleasure,
not a chore. You can now reap the benefits of deciding in advance
whether to follow a streamlined approach to editing, or to undertake
a more elaborate post-production process. In your editing, you
can take time to perfect the pacing and visual rhythm, alternating
between short scenes and long ones, and between close-ups, wide
angles and different points of view. You’ll also have more freedom
to try different ways to intersperse your archival materials with
live footage, and your B roll with your interviews.

As you complete the last touches, savor the satisfaction of knowing
that though this special event belongs to the past, your efforts
will preserve its most precious moments to be relived again and
again in the future.

Carolyn Miller is a freelance journalist and scriptwriter specializing
in interactive multimedia.


It’s All About People

Sometimes, in the whirl of covering the action at a special event,
you can forget what’s most important: the human element. Yes,
you want to capture the grand procession of bridesmaids down the
aisle, but you also want to get a shot of the bride’s dad surreptitiously
wiping away a tear as he gives his daughter away. It’s emotion-filled
moments like these that will have the greatest impact on your

Close-ups, reaction shots, and interviews are all ways to weave
the human element into your program. In your close-ups and reaction
shots, look for expressions that reflect joy, surprise, pride,
amusement, and parental love–all intense emotions that your audience
can read visually without an audio explanation.

Interviews are a powerful way to make event videos more personal.
The most effective interviews for these types of programs have
less to do with "whats" and "wheres" ("What’s
your home town? Where did you first meet the bride?") and
more to do with the "whys" ("Why do you think the
bride and groom are so well-suited for each other?") Though
it is always smart to prepare questions in advance, don’t hesitate
to ask your subject provocative follow-up questions instead of
automatically going to the next question on your list.

Remember, for your special events video, there is one element
that will make your productions stand out from the rest: focus
on feelings, as well as facts.

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

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