Monday, May 07, 2012

Moving From Stills to Video (Part Three)

Here's some simple, basic, Guerrilla Production 101, suggestions for shooting video, that is, capturing things in motion with motion as opposed to capturing single, frozen moments of things that are in motion. (As is the case with still photography.) When shooting with a video camera, whether it's a dSLR or a traditional vidcam, you have two, obvious, options for any shot: 1) capturing it with a static camera; 2) capturing it with a camera in motion, whether the camera remains in one spot or is moving about.

When shooting a static shot and you're not approaching the shot stylistically with a style that dictates a hand-held camera, the best approach is to either mount the camera on a tripod or monopod whenever possible. There are few things that say "amateur" louder than shaky, hand-held, shots. Again, unless you're hand-holding for stylistic reasons or some other reason, e.g., a POV shot where you're mimicking what's seen through the eyes of some person or creature, mount your camera on sticks or support it some other way.

Even when mounted on sticks, the camera might be in motion in the form of pans and tilts. If that's the case, I strongly suggest you use a camera support with a fluid head. Using a non-fluid head support can also shout "amateur" because your camera's pans and tilts won't be, well, they won't be fluid. They'll be jerky. If your camera is mounted on a tripod and it will be locked down, i.e., it won't move, pan, or tilt during the shot, a non-fluid head will work just fine.

Beyond pans and tilts with cameras that remain in the same spot, there are other shots where the camera is in motion, that is, where the camera is moving about. For these sorts of shots, and again, unless you have a specific intent achieved by hand-holding the camera, I suggest you use some sort of rig that steadies the camera. There are many available "steady-cam" rigs on the market. Some are quite complex and expensive, others are simple and cheap. And, of course, there's everything in between. Lately, a variety of rigs designed for use with video-capable dSLRs have appeared in the marketplace. Generally, the more complex the rig might be, the steeper the learning-and-practice curve for getting the kinds of shots you hope to capture.

As I'm often working as a keep-it-simple, guerrilla shooter,  I employ as many techniques as possible which add a professional touch when capturing the video, even when there's not much production money available to achieve those shots in slicker, more "professional" ways; you know, with jibs, cranes, professional dollies, steady-cam rigs, and that sort of stuff. One way to simply and inexpensively accomplish this is by mounting your camera on a monopod-- a monopod which you've weighted to steady it out while you're moving about with the camera. All you need is a monopod and one or two of those wrap-around weights (which secure with Velcro) that runners and others use by wrapping around their ankles or wrists. They sell them in sporting goods stores and elsewhere and they're cheap. Simply wrap the weight(s) around the bottom of the monopod. When you hold the monopod and begin moving about, you'll immediately notice how much it steadies your camera. A steady camera often says "professional" in big ways. Monopods, by the way, might be the most versatile piece of gear any keep-it-simple, guerrilla shooter might employ.

An extended monopod can also mimic a jib. Simply extend the monopod to its full length, angle the camera downwards or upwards with the monopod's head (depending on what angles you're looking to capture), lock it in place, hold it over your head or below you, and voila! You can capture some very professional-looking, jib-like, shots. Sure, you're limited by the length of your arms coupled with the length of the extended monopod but you can still get some very cool shots by employing this simple technique. Standing on an apple box or step-ladder can take your camera higher and higher.

Sometimes, you want to shoot dolly shots. There's a lot of guerrilla film-making techniques to accomplish this. Again, the key to professional-looking dolly shots is the smoothness or non-jerkiness of the imagery. It doesn't matter how you accomplish the dolly shot. Your project's viewers don't see how you did it. All they see is the shot as the camera moves, hopefully smoothly, from Point A to Point B. There are many types of dollies available. Like steady-cam rigs, some are expensive, some are not. Some are pro gear, some are DIY type gear. Some ways of doing this are cheap, some not so cheap. Here's a couple of the ways I've captured moving shots when shooting guerrilla-style, moving shots that appear like they were captured using a dolly, that is:

1. Sitting in a wheelchair, hand-holding the camera or using a monopod while someone wheels me around, or mounting the camera to a wheelchair. Wheelchairs generally move smoothly, especially when they're moving on smooth surfaces. Here's a tip: Generally, it's a good idea to begin your dolly moves before the point where you think the editor will cut or make some other transition to it, and end them beyond where you believe the editor will cut away from the shot. In film-making in general, it's always a good idea to leave wiggle-room for the editor to choose the edit points. The most jerky-prone parts of any dolly shot, even when using a pro dolly, is when the dolly begins to move or comes to a stop. If you intend to use a dolly shot where the cut will take place sometime before the camera begins moving or sometime after it stops, then it becomes a matter of how smoothly the person(s) moving the dolly begins or ends the movement, regardless of the gear you're using to accomplish the dolly shot. BTW, I've even used a grocery cart in a pinch, but I wasn't enamored with the results.

2. Securing a camera to a skate board and either pushing the skateboard-cam across a smooth surface or using some string to pull it across. Most of the time, when doing this, I lay a sand bag on the camera to weight it and the skateboard down. That helps yield a smoother shot. Speaking of skate boards, there are a number of dolly products which utilize a small, dolly-like, camera support equipped with skate board wheels which run on tracks, often those tracks being made of PVC. They're not overly pricey and can yield some great results. The fact that high-quality video cameras, whether they're more traditional or are dSLRs, have gotten smaller and lighter has meant many more ways to accomplish dolly-like moves.

Vehicle-mounted shots can also add quite a bit of production value to your project. There are many ways to mount a camera to a vehicle, some of them expensive, some of them quite inexpensive. I have a Delkin Fat Gecko mount and I've used it to get some cool shots. They don't cost much and I haven't had a camera fall off the vehicle when I've used it, and I've used it for every thing from road driving to off-road. I've not only used it to secure a camera almost anywhere on a moving vehicle, but I've used it to get some of those seemingly impossible angles by securing it to all sorts of surfaces, provided those surfaces allow suction cops to operate properly.

As sort of a footnote, even if you don't use any of the techniques I described above or others like them and you'll be hand-holding the camera, there are ways to hold the camera which will minimize unnecessary shaky-cam footage.  Here's a couple of them:

1. Cradle the camera in your arms or keep it closer to your body. The more your arms are extended while holding the camera, the more unwanted shakes and moves will be telegraphed to the camera and the shakier the motion pictures you capture will appear. Image stabilization, on board many cameras, can only do so much. That's not to say you should never extend your arms while holding a camera. Example: I often find myself holding the camera high over my head and pointed down. When I do that, I try to lock my arms in place and spread my feet a bit to steady my body. I also generally wear bright-colored footwear when I'm shooting. This helps avoid accidentally including my feet in the shot. My red "sneaks" are perfect. It's hard to miss them if they "sneak" into the shot.

2. When possible, sit on an apple box or chair and, ideally, have the camera resting on one of your thighs. This not only keeps the camera quite steady, you can pan one way or the other by moving your leg right or left, rather than panning with your hands and arms. It will be a smoother pan than those performed with your hands and arms only. This kind of shooting, of course, means you'll be shooting from a somewhat low angle... unless you're seated on something higher.

Bottom line, the smoother and steadier your camera remains, leastwise for the most part, the more professionally captured your footage will appear.
The pretty girl at the top is Lupe. (Click to enlarge.)


Anonymous said...

Jim, Little Lupe of Howard Stern fame?

jimmyd said...

That would be her. :-)

Bill Giles said...

I'm not real wild about using a suction cup mount, but I see your point. I think that there are lots of inexpensive ways to get professional results. I like the idea of the monopod and ankle weights. That should help steady the camera.

jimmyd said...

Bill-- I was skeptical too but a couple of years ago I was shooting a low-budget commercial spot. I mounted a Sony TRV900, which is a small-ish, 3CCD, DV-cam all over a Toyota SUV: Just behind the wheel-well on the quarter panel, on the hood, on the back, on the roof. We wheeled that SUV all over a dry lake bed out in the desert, doing 360s, driving at high speeds, and more. Then, we took it off the dry lake onto some dirt roads with the SUV bumping up and down like crazy. Neither the camera nor the suction cups came off. The footage was incredible. Just like a car advert.

Paps said...

I almost missed this post. Anyway, some ways to be less... sucky (this way Im not insulting the good amateur videoppl)

jimmyd said...

Thanks Paps! The kid (host) cracked me up. I've used the "legs" tricks many many times. Good stuff!