These days the prevalence of camera technology, online tutorials, and cheap editing software with lots of cool effects and presets means that we are being inundated with an influx of video content that we haven’t known in the past. Ok, let me clarify, these short films and home-made blockbusters have been around for as long as personal camcorders, but now they are being indiscriminately distributed to the public on the word wide web. And this content covers the whole conceivable range of quality. Just pointing a camera at actors who are saying lines won’t make your content rise out of murky median to the point where people will be interested in seeing your next piece.
Assuming you’ve invested enough money in your gear to at least be able to completely control your exposure triangle manually (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO), here are some simple but specific things you can do to increase production value.
- Plan Plan Plan Plan Plan. Wait for it…..Plan. It’s really easy to spot when actors, especially new or untrained actors, are just improvising lines based on a basic story longline — and the same is true for camera work. Shot lists and/or storyboards are just as important as your script. If you wouldn’t throw your actors into the middle of a scene and say “go for it” then don’t do it to your DP, even if the DP is you. It’s amazing how much more creative your shots become when you can come up with them in the comfort of pre-production. As soon as you’re on set all you’re thinking is how to capture the script as quickly as possible. Now of course your shot list can be flexible and if you think of something new on set then shoot it. But if you have a list of everything you need to shoot, you can feel more confident in the little extra things. My most recent short film Friend Request was shot on a pretty tight schedule. We had to shoot 4 pages in about 5 hours with only two crew members. I used an app called Shot Lister, which I highly recommend, to create a shot by shot plan and schedule to keep me on track when shooting. It was incredible how little I had to think about my shots on the day because all I had to do was look at what I needed to shoot and do it. Below you can see the film and here you can find the shot list which we held to almost exactly.
- Learn Your Camera. Cameras are built to capture and interpret light and each one of its settings changes that interpretation in a very specific way. If you don’t know what the setting is doing to your image it can have very unexpected results. On an early short film I did I was trying to shoot in a fairly dark location and I needed to get more light into my camera. Not knowing what I was doing other than making the image brighter, I ended up decreasing the shutter speed more than necessary on the camera and got the shot, but was left wondering why all the motion seemed blurry and almost ghostly. So here’s a tip for videography, don’t change the shutter speed. Rely on the iris and ISO to control exposure, but know how to use them correctly.
- Use Aperture to Create Depth. Speaking of iris, assuming your camera allows manual control of it, your aperture is one of your greatest allies. Many cheap handycams and point and shoots use a very deep depth of field when left on automatic. These shots are largely uninteresting when not broken up and often have no clear subject because everything is in focus. Using your field of focus and being specific about what’s in the foreground and background makes a huge difference and draws your viewer’s eye to exactly what you want them to be looking at.
- Mise En Scene. Mise en scene is a fancy French filmmaking term that basically means “what’s in your scene” or “what’s in the frame.” It’s really tempting and easy to find a location that pretty much fits your story and just set up your shots and shoot it. But taking the time to transform your location to perfectly fit your story will go a long way to draw your audience in and make them believe that the world you’re asking them to invest a certain amount of their own time in is a place that could be real. Not something that “will have to do” because it kinda has the right look. This could mean painting a room, taking fake family photos to hang around, planting flowers, etc. The story should be the motivation for everything in your frame. This is the element that’s the icing-on-the-cake for the film and makes the second and third viewing even more enjoyable.
- Light Intentionally. Light is everything. It’s the only reason there is an industry for film/photography. Now, there is a very legitimate use for natural lighting, things like documentary, mocumentary, and certain indie styles. But on the whole, if you are looking to add professionalism to your project, you need to put effort into where the light is and isn’t falling in your scene. On professional shoots, even scenes that take place outside require massive amounts of lighting control to get the look right (if you don’t believe me just follow @GripRigs on Twitter) so you can at least get a white piece of posterboard and bounce the sun onto your talent.
- Use a Mic and Get it as Close as Possible to the Actor. The old saying goes “audio is 50% of video,” and it’s still true. Capturing good audio is a huge component in capturing your audience and nothing deteriorates sound quality like distance. To illustrate this I’ll use this video I made for my Audio Production class to show how much of a difference it makes to move the mic a few feet closer to your talent:
- Edit Simply. Never, never, never use a “Page Peel” transition unironically. Hopefully that’s a given, but the point is that while flashy and flamboyant effects and transitions have their place, 98% of editing is finding the most powerful moments already within the footage and cutting it to speak for itself. The editor is like a film ninja, they’re never seen and yet see everything. They know exactly how to deliver the most concise and effective attack that will be the most impactful and draw the least amount of attention to themselves. So when you edit, place your cuts strategically and your effects sparsely. Ninjas can’t do their job if a firecracker goes off in their pocket.
This post has been largely motivated by mistakes I made and things I wish I had known when I graduated high school, because they make a big difference when you go out to start creating content. Hopefully these concepts will help you skip simple pitfalls into mediocrity so you can start creating something great!
So here is the latest video I’ve been working on for class:
The poem “Live by the Sword” by Paul J. White can be found in his free, self-published iBook Diogenes’ Coffee Shop.
“The Temperature of the air on the Bow of the Kaleetan”
by Chris Zabriskie
Thanks for watching!
The main difference between lighting in big budget productions versus independent projects is scale. A larger budget does not necessarily mean that the lighting in a scene will be any better or more artistic or creative than the lighting in a low budget project, but what it does mean is that the production will have more access to lights and controlling devices and therefore can light or control the lighting on a larger scale than a production with less resources available.
I want to reiterate that having more lights in no way suggests that the lighting will be better. Ultimately what determines the quality of the lighting is how well it tells a story. If the story can be told with one light and a one man crew then there is no need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lighting, even if that money is available.
For example, the independent short film Not So Fast by David Sandberg (above), which tells the story of a woman trapped in a dark hallway, was mostly lit with a light bulb rigged to an IKEA trash can lined with aluminum foil. But because it suited the story, that one IKEA trash can is as effective as shooting day-for-night with an expensive 5k Fresnel.
(See the full behind the scenes video here)
Now on the other hand, it would be very difficult — although I suppose possible with painstaking effort — to recreate the lighting in a scene like this one from Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby on a small budget.
The lighting in this shot is just as effective at conveying the story as the single can light in Not So Fast. The only difference here is that the story calls for a mood of gratuitous embellishment which, in this case, requires layers and layers of precisely placed and coordinated lighting set ups. Notice that everything is exceptionally well lit and yet there are hardly any shadows to be found. This would require a lot of expensive equipment and manpower that are just not feasible to the majority of independent filmmakers.
All this being said, there are always creative options for independent filmmakers to tell their stories without the seemingly endless supply of resources that are available to large budget productions. In fact, restrictions like budget and resources often result in the most creative and impactful choices made by filmmakers; to evoke the old adage, necessity is indeed the mother of invention. An example of this can be seen in the independent short film Tick Where it Hurts by seventeen year old Bertie Gilbert. This film takes place entirely in one house, except for a handful of times when cut away shots to a simple split lighting set up – turned red, either through gels or post production – signify the main character’s inner dialogue, which resembles a therapy session.
This set up only requires two lights and yet it saved the young filmmaker a lot of expenses that it would have cost if he had chosen to actually shoot the main character’s therapy session in a doctor’s office.
Again, the amount of money that a production has to spend on lights is irrelevant as long as the light is telling the story. Even a simple set up of one or two lights can connect your audience to what is happening. As Terry O’Rourke states in his article on low budget horror film lighting, “a skilled director or special effects designer can evoke…emotions in the audience with a simple flicker of light or slight movement of a shadow” (O’Rourke, 2012). So to end with another old adage, remember to keep the story first. Keeping that in mind I think that any story can be told on any budget, so long as that budget is used it to its potential.
Gilbert, B. (Director). (2014). Tick Where It Hurts [Short Film]. Online. https://vimeo.com/98587153
Luhrmann, B. (Director). & Duggan, S. (Director of Photography). (2013). The Great Gatsby [Motion Picture]. Australia and United States: Warner Bros. Pictures.
O’Rourke, T. (2012). Horror Film Lighting on a Budget. Videomaker, 27(4), 54-57.
Sandberg, D. (Director). (2014). Not So Fast [Short Film]. Online. https://vimeo.com/102116605
Here’s some test footage from yesterday with my new Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera:
Lots of fun to use, although I probably should have heeded the warnings about shooting handheld, even with OIS. I used a warp stabilizer in Adobe Premiere which helped some of the time.
Shot with a Lumix 14-42mm in the “film” mode in the camera with ProRes HQ. All shots in the video show a before and after color grading, starting with the raw files and transitioning to the graded shot.
Graded with Davinci Resolve 10 Lite. It was my first time seriously using Resolve so I was mostly playing around with different looks, but I’m looking forward using it on more projects in the future. This camera does require a lot of color grading, as I attempted to demonstrate with this video, so anyone thinking about purchasing it should be aware that you will need more than a basic knowledge of digital color correction.
I would give a more in-depth review of the camera, but I would have nothing to say that anyone else who has reviewed the camera hasn’t already said. If you are looking for a review of the camera, here are a few links to reviews that I found useful when deciding whether or not to purchase this camera:
I’m excited to keep practicing with this powerful little camera. Future tests include trying out RAW and the timelapse settings, so stay tuned!
Pictures from a recent photoshoot of my sister and her best friend. Lots of fun!
Shot RAW with Canon T3i. Edited in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Lightroom Mobile (surprisingly effective for quick edits).
Now, until two months ago, I never saw myself making commercials. In fact, that is one genre of film production that I had never even attempted (save for one haphazard assignment in a broadcast class my freshman year of high school). In the past I had created, in some way or another, videos in the form of, PSA, news/broadcast story, sketch video, short film, mini-doc, trailer, instructional video, music video, video podcast, wedding video, promotional video, demo reel, and even experimental film, but never commercial. So this post is mostly to explain how I ended up creating four commercials in the last two months and why I have more in the works.
The story begins in my Design and Composition for Digital Cinematography class. Our final assignment was to create a :30 second spec commercial for a product that was already nationally advertised. The goal was to make sure we had an idea of A) how to properly use our Sony FS100 cameras that are provided as part of the program, and B) to put into practice what we had learned about visual composition as it relates to video production.
So my mind immediately went thought of the college student’s best friend, I got some actors together, set up some lights in my kitchen and put this together:
I was pretty happy with the final product, considering it was for a class assignment that I had about a week to work on and editing was limited to cuts only. But that’s beside the point.
About a week or two after I uploaded that video to Vimeo I received an email from a campaign manager at a site called Zooppa saying that they liked my work and I should submit for a contest they were holding for SOLO cups and plates. I was initially a little skeptical, but after some research I found that the service is a really unique one that is actually a great resource for low-budget, high-talent, media producers.
The site is one of a few other services (like Poptent or Tongal) that essentially crowdsource marketing for name brands. This is a really neat concept that I think has a lot of potential and, like I said, is a great resource for budding creatives. The idea is that a brand will bring their marketing campaigns to one of these crowdsourcing sites and offer a set number of prizes for a set amount of money. Then, the crowdsourcing site will post the requirements for the project and make a “contest” out of it that anyone can submit to. After the contest deadline, the site will review the submissions to assess any errors in paper work, copyright violation, and product placement (other than that of the actual brand), and then the brand will assign winners according to their pre-set prizes. A great example of this is when Pizza Hut used Zooppa to gather clips of people saying “hut hut” and compiled them into this Super Bowl commercial in 2013:
Of course, most brands are looking for complete commercial packages rather than just video clips – which you can see more examples of here – but the Pizza Hut commercial is one of the more quickly identifiable projects.
Anyway, after deciding that the email was on the up-and-up, I decided to accept the SOLO cups challenge. I responded to one of the prompts called “SOLO Saves the Day,” and came up with this:
So I figured that was at least a fun way to get into the whole commercial thing. And the great part about sites like Zooppa is that there are constantly new projects being posted. So while I was still considering what project to latch onto next, I was again approached by Zooppa with a request to submit to the Lindsay Olive contest. Now olives aren’t necessarily my bread and butter (sorry) but I figured that as long as I didn’t have to eat any and as long as they asked I might as well give it a go. So after procrastinating to literally the last day before the deadline, I was able to actually submit two commercials to this contest. One :30 second spot:
And a :15 second spot:
But aside from this post being just a show-and-tell of my recent videos, I also wanted to talk about why I’m devoting so much time to this recently and why I think this could be helpful for other creatives who are new to this idea of crowdsourced marketing like I was. So here are a few of the main draws for me personally to this fairly new type of marketing and content creation:
- Constant practice. I am always looking for ways to practice my film work extracurricularly, but since I am constantly working on either school-work or work-work, which both generally revolve around video creation in the first place, I rarely have enough motivation to spend my free time coming up with ideas for videos to create on my own. This not only provides me with a constant stream of video assignments that already include prompts and guidelines, but also a monetary incentive to actually get it done.
- Thorough practice. From beginning to end, creating a commercial has been described as creating a “min-movie.” Especially for low budget creatives who are doing a lot of the work themselves, these projects provide opportunities to practice writing, casting, directing, filming, editing, and in some cases – like the SOLO project that didn’t provide opening/end tags – motion graphics work. And because the prompts are generally very open-ended, there is ample room to add your own flare and use any given project as a learning experience for any technique or skill that you want to work on.
- Gauging where you rank with other creatives. Since the projects are completely open to the public – did I mention that it doesn’t cost anything to sign up to these sites and submit to contests? – the range of product quality is enormous. That means that there will almost always be entries in every contest that are better and worse than yours. So even if you don’t win or even place in a certain competition, it’s still pretty easy to tell how your work holds up against the other entries.
- Real world preparation. The fact that the projects are posted by actual brands and have prompts and guidelines set by the brands means it’s a good way to get used to restricting your own personal vision to fit what the client wants. Only in this environment there is much less pressure because if the client doesn’t like your project they can just pick a different one and you can try again with a different contest.
All in all I think this is a very unique and profitable form of marketing, both for brands and creatives, and I am personally looking forward to creating more commercial projects through this medium to improve my own skills. It costs as much or as little as you want to create a short video and the potential payout is substantial, not only in terms of monetary prizes, but the opportunity to gain experience, skill, and connection with a group of creatives with the similar goals is equally, if not more, rewarding.
About a week or two ago I came across this video by FilmRiot that runs through some of the various uses for fog in cinematography. It may seem kind of obvious why you would want to use fog: to make the shot look foggy, to add an eeriness or sense of unease to the shot, smoke or smog, et cetera. But the part I found interesting is when he talks about more subtle uses of fog to give more volume to the existing light in the shot.
After watching this, I obviously started thinking about all the different uses for an effect like that. There was even a shot in a project for SOLO that I was working on (which was later changed) that would have really benefited from the subtle day-time-haze effect that Connolly demonstrates in the “new home” shot. Not to mention that fog has always been one of my favorite ambient effects. Anyway, one thing led to another and I ended up with a fog machine a few days later.
So yesterday I decided to do some quick experiments with it to figure out how it works and see what I could come up with in about an hour with just one light. Here are some of the results:
All this is to say that it’s a really cool and versatile effect that I’m very excited to keep playing and experimenting with, and I even have a few projects in mind for the near future that this will undoubtedly come in handy for. But until then it’s a great asset to my film arsenal and it’s just a ton of fun to experiment with!