Baby Steps to Better Production Value

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.

  1. 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 Listerwhich 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.
    https://vimeo.com/118544539
  2. 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.Still from
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:
    https://vimeo.com/105299534
  7. 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!

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