For a blissful couple, their wedding is a magical day. But for a videographer, weddings present a creative challenge. How do you tell a unique and engaging story when, let’s face it, most weddings essentially follow the same formula? Ceremony, first dance, dinner, cake, bouquet toss, get your tux dry-cleaned and repeat next weekend.
Most videographers tackle this challenge by turning to their arsenal of reliable stand-bys: slow pans, long dissolves, sentimental music and so on. Not to knock this approach, these techniques are very useful, and they’re used over and over again for a reason. But doing what’s always been done makes it difficult to differentiate yourself. Whether you’re looking to grow your existing wedding video business, or break into the field for the first time, it pays (literally) to find your niche. So what do you do and where do you start? As with most productions, it starts with the person signing the checks. Today, that’s the couple.
Set the Scope
Many couples have a reasonably accurate idea of what a basic wedding video entails, and if that’s what they want, by no means should you spring a surprise on them. A lot of what we’ll discuss here requires getting more involved in the wedding, whereas some people like the videographer to blend into the background. So begin by describing your intended approach in advance to avoid surprises “on set.”
Veering away from the traditional wedding video will require extra time and money. Consider this an opportunity. If you create a unique product, then you should charge accordingly. Do it well, and you’ll eventually find yourself with a discerning clientele willing to pay extra for your one-of-a-kind service. On the other hand, if you’re shooting these videos as favors for friends or family, the techniques discussed here should at least help make the project creatively fulfilling.
Just Like in the Movies
A new take on wedding videos begins with a new approach. Think about what entertains you when you’re in front of the TV instead of behind the camera. Don’t yet worry about constraints. Scaling back your ambitions after you’re inspired is easier than finding inspiration in the first place.
Watch movies with great wedding scenes. Seek variety. Four Weddings and a Funeral, Father of the Bride, Steel Magnolias, The Wedding Planner, heck, even Spaceballs might have something worth gleaning. Ask yourself, how did each director make their wedding scene original? What camera angles did they use? What makes their scenes “cinematic?”
Since you’re documenting a couple’s big day, treat them as you would the subject of a documentary. Do your research. Get to know them by conducting a pre-wedding interview. Ask about their background, hobbies, personality quirks and how they met. Is there a certain theme they want to explore in their video? Maybe it’s an eccentric first date, or a memorable vacation.
Consider filming this pre-interview and using their answers later as vignettes between scenes of the big day. This might be the only time you have access due to the couple’s busy schedule.
A New Angle on Shooting
The nuptials are the most choreographed part of the wedding with the least surprises, an ideal opportunity to try something different. Disregard the status quo by going handheld, and get in close for the “I Do’s.” The closer you get, the more impactful the shot (Within reason! There’s nothing romantic about someone’s pores.)
The true benefit of going handheld is mobility and the ease at which it enables you to capture different angles. Navigating around the couple may seem distracting during the ceremony, but the ceremony only lasts 20 minutes, while the video will last a lifetime. This is where it pays that you explained your techniques to the couple beforehand. Also keep in mind, the nuptials are arguably the most important part of the wedding, so you may want to run a second tripod-mounted camera for backup.
Experiment with a variety of angles. Try crouching to ground level to get eye-to-eye with the ring boy and flower girl as they make their way down the aisle. Or frame a wide shot with the (often overlooked) organist or string quartet in the foreground. Another trick is to find unusual places to stash a B-cam.
Search for notable details of the venue. While wedding ceremonies tend to come in only a few flavors, the venues differ. Use their distinguishing details to your advantage. Consider setting up an overhead shot from the balcony, if one exists. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer a nice opportunity to capture the action from the outside looking in. Conveying the essence of the space will set the stage for vivid memories years down the line.
How about tracking shots? Chances are you saw a few when you watched those movies. A broad range of devices at very different price points are available to help you achieve that look, from the Steadicam Merlin ($800, street), to the Manfrotto 585 Modo Steady ($90, street), as well as DIY solutions.
One good use of a tracking shot is to shoot from behind the officiant (minister/priest/rabbi/justice of the peace) and track from side to side. You’ll be looking at the back of the officiant, but capturing all angles of the couple’s faces. Plus, you’ll get the guests in the background. Very often wedding videographers focus on shooting the couple and the person conducting the ceremony, but 10 years from now there’s a good chance the faces the couple will most want to see will be their own and those of their loved ones.
Another good use of a tracking shot is to follow the bride down the aisle from behind (as long as another camera captures her from the front, a must). If you decide to do this, start filming before the bride makes her entrance into the main room. Later on, you can cut between the bridal party making their entrances and the bride waiting in the wings, nerves and all.
Or, go where no camera’s gone before. Have you ever seen how a wedding hall’s kitchen tackles the task of feeding 300 people? Neither has anyone else. Try kicking off a dinner-hour sequence with the plating of a meal by the chef, then follow that dish with the waiter out of the kitchen on its way to a hungry guest.
Hire 100 Assistants for Free
It’s not uncommon to give disposable film cameras to guests, the idea being that only the guests can capture the wedding from their perspective. These cameras are then turned over to the couple at the end of the night. Now, the same can be done with video thanks to the advent of small, inexpensive camcorders like Kodak’s Zi8, Sony’s Bloggie or Panasonic’s HM-TA1 (from $100, street), or even a few of those cheap under $40 knock-offs that you won’t worry about losing. Just remember with the knock-offs, you get what you pay for, but that’s the same idea as those cheap disposable still cameras.
There’s some risk that a few of these cameras may “disappear,” even if you label them with your contact information, but as long as you charge accordingly for this option the footage you get may warrant the added cost. Minimize the risk by entrusting the camera to a specific individual. Knowing who has each unit can even play into your shot selection later. For example, you can have a locator I.D in the upper corner of your finished video tagging “The Aunt Mildred Cam” or “Paulie’s POV.”
Telling the Story of a Lifetime
The reception is your chance to really develop your “plot.” That’s the story of the couple and their life together.
Here’s where most wedding videos resort to roaming around the room as guests wave “Hello” to the camera. Most people look uncomfortable, and many simply freeze at the sight of that blinking red light. To counteract nerves, ask specific questions. “How did you first meet the groom?” is easier to answer than “What do you have to say to the couple?”
Structure your questions in such a way that gets people to create a narrative. For example, tell the story of how the couple met, spread over several interviews. Because you already know the details from your pre-interview with the couple, you’ll know what questions to ask. Get each person to tell the complete story, then re-create the story in your edit by using only the best lines from each person.
Mix tender reflections with funny or outrageous memories. Resist the temptation to sugarcoat with sentimentality. For many couples, the absurd story about the car breaking down on their first date may be more memorable than the wonderful ambience of the restaurant they visited. But understand the limits. Juicy stories from people after they’ve had a few drinks line the cutting room floor of every wedding videographer, like the mother of the bride who reveals her daughter could have done better.
Rather than hunt down guests, have them come to you by setting up a dedicated area for people to be on camera. A consistent backdrop will create a visual through-line for the video. It also lets people approach you when they feel up for it, rather than catching them off guard. Photo booths are a popular trend in recent years. If the wedding you’re covering has one, set up near that, as people will already be in the right frame of mind to sit down for a quick interview.
Focus on Sound
Wireless lav mics – worn during the ceremony, in particular – are an economical way to instantly increase the professional factor on a wedding video. It’s the same here as anywhere: half of a great picture is great sound. Most people won’t even realize what’s so “good” about the video, they’ll just know they’re happy with it and recommend you to their friends. A boom would technically work as well, but it requires an extra set of hands and is much more unsightly.
With quality footage in hand, filled with heartfelt messages and remembrances about our star couple, it’s time to edit together a final product that does your preparation justice. To begin, try building sequences of different speeds. For example, a time lapse of guests arriving, followed by real-time of the ceremony, followed by a slo-mo montage of the couple making their grand exit. Changing up the pace combats tedium.
Pacing goes hand-in-hand with music selection. Ironically, many directors begin with music as the first “image” in their head. Before they shoot a frame, they know what a production will sound like. That strategy can pay off here as well. Maybe you’re inspired by a mash-up of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy by set to a driving electronic beat. If you decide to run with it, replay the track in your mind during the wedding and shoot sequences that support your soundtrack.
With your picture locked, it’s time to color. Weddings tend to have a variety of lighting conditions with varying color temperatures, and matching those color temperatures can prove challenging. Opting for a stylized color treatment can help. Deep, rich blacks evoke a moody, sensuous quality, whereas faded colors can create a retro or nostalgic vibe. The pre-sets that come with a coloring plug-in package like Magic Bullet Looks ($399, street) can save you hours of tweaking.
Black-and-white sequences are common for a reason. They’re classic, romantic and reminiscent of a more innocent era. Borrow what works and set yourself apart at the same time, by creating a black-and-white sequence, then casting everything in a single hue. Blue imparts an undeniable coolness. Yellow (or sepia) says classic, and is often used in the color palette of period movies. Beware of colors like green, which makes people look sickly; or red, which some primal part of our brain interprets as menacing.
Prep for Perfection
Of course, the more adventurous you’re looking to get, the more essential it is to rehearse. Try out new techniques while shooting a casual event, like a birthday party. At least if your experiment goes bust there’ll be another birthday next year. Not so with weddings (we hope!). Practice until you’re confidently at your best, so when the couple’s magical day comes around you’ll be able to pull off all your new tricks with ease. You know, like magic.
Sidebar: Cheat Sheet of “Can’t Fail” Shots
Try using some of these techniques to breathe life into tired transitions and establishing shots:
Quick pans – Pan 180 degrees in one fast motion. Get some tight, some wide. Particularly effective in post when inserted between upbeat dance sequences.
First-person POV – People naturally remember everything first-person, so look at things from the bride and groom’s perspective. Try asking each of them to dance separately with you and your camera. It will capture how they see each other through most of the evening. Just don’t dance so well that your video shakes!
Dutch angles – Purposefully place the horizontal axis off-kilter. It’s almost never seen in wedding videos and that alone will make it stand out. This sometimes imparts uneasiness to the viewer, so use it wisely, such as to convey the towering scale of a large cake.
Rack focus – Start on an interesting texture (like lace, flowers, or bows), then shift your focus to the action in the room. Effective for capturing often-overlooked intimate details as well as the bigger picture all in one shot.
Time-lapse – Useful between sequences to convey the passage of time. Opportunities include the staff preparing a banquet hall, guests taking their seats or the setting sun outside the venue.
Jay Montana runs Kerosene Studios, a New York-based video production company.