Skillset for success…

cropped-200-seamore-bear-intvw-2.jpgBeen doing some gigs with a local producer and on the road we often discuss the woes of the world with slant on video production. She tries to hire local and has worked with seasoned pros and local university students and has seen large gaps in what said students don’t know. So here’s a quick primer on the skillset you need to get started in video…be it production or news.

Attitude. This is one of the top concerns…the know-it-all newbie who has just acquired thousands of dollars worth of book learning but is lacking sadly in essential areas. Coming in to a job with attitude is a killer for the employer. Courteous and humble works oh so much better and will get you a return gig more than likely.

Speaking of schooling…all too often colleges are heavy on theory and light on reality. Skills such as shooting and editing can be taught but they must be fully assimilated in order for them to do any good. What that means is daily use of said skills…not a story or two in a semester. One skims the surface while the other drives knowledge into the very physical core of the student.

And shooting – please don’t go all artsy fartsey and say that you actually wanted the shots to be wavering and shaky because you “don’t do” tripods. Use. A. Tripod. For Every Shot. Until you learn how to glide like an eagle or use a steadicam, stick to the sticks.

Please understand how light works and how to work with light. Know the basic rules of composition…and when to break them. What else? Well – sharp focus and proper exposure.

Audio – just because you THINK you can hear it doesn’t mean it’s good. Use a real plug-in microphone. Not the on-cam mike. Use a headset to make sure you hear good audio. Then play it back as a final assurance you got it clean.

Sequencing. The crown jewel of video. How to tell a story in a series of connected shots…shots that segue and flow into each other when edited.

I can’t believe I’m writing this…everything thus far is so far down the food chain in what a shooter needs to know…but all of these were discussed while heading to a gig earlier today as the producer lamented the lack of skills she is seeing.

Oh – and final word of advice. When you put up your demo reel, keep it short and focused. Three or four minutes at most. (My current demo reel is 3:05.) If you’re bad that will be obvious seconds into the reel – and no producer is gonna sit thru bad for longer than that. If you’re good it takes just the same few seconds…so why ruin it and take the chance the producer may back away. Make sure you show the basics mentioned above: exposure, steady shooting, composition, lighting…

And about your attitude. You are being offered an opportunity when you get a job. Don’t make the person who hires you regret it by treating them poorly.

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Sans tripod…

This posting sprang out of a conversation begun over on the globalvjs facebook group. Someone asked which was the best camcorder for under $500 and I entered the discussion by showing off a video shot with my Kodak Playtouch. A simple P&S camera which I carry everywhere. No zoom, not much in the way of manual controls but it does have a mike input and decent quality.IMG_1191

The response to the video was not about the camera but about how smooth the video looked…

moving around with a camera – I have a cannon eos 603, without a bulky-tripod, brough this quality? the Kodak Seems smoother in movement.

So another “duh” moment on my part where I forget that I know what I know. My first thought was the built-in stabilization in the little play camera. But no – that wasn’t it.

My second thought was more right-on. It was me. Well, not me really. Decades of experience in being a human Steadicam. When you’re paid to beat the streets, shaky is not an option. News video MUST be rock steady or as near to that as possible. First option is always a tripod.

But there’s more, even with a tripod. Too many newbies place camera on tripod and then hug or hold tripod closely. Mistake #1. You live and breathe, therefore YOU are not a stable platform. And by giving your tripod the death hug, you transfer your jitters to the pod and the camera. So – once you hit that record button, un-hand the tripod and let it do its job.

Gotta pan or tilt? Please don’t, but if you have to, use a light touch. For pans just loosen the pan lock on the tripod head and literally push it along with one finger. But wait! There’s more! In addition to pushing with said finger, hold your upper arm against your body and using your hips as a swivel point, slowly move the tripod head in a pan. Even your arm can be shaky if held away from the body. (And yes, I will shoot some videos and get them up tomorrow to illustrate.)

Tilt is pretty much the same. Lock down the pan function. Hold the tripod grip/handle. Push gently for up, pull gently for down.

That’s it for Tripods 101.

Now for Human Tripod 200. As I told my students, you are alive and breathing. The only way you can hold a tripod rock solid steady is if you are not breathing – if you are dead. Not a good option.

But here are some good options. The best tripod ever: the planet Earth. Place your camera on a tree stump, a rock, a table, a wall. Get down and dirty and put it on the ground. You can pile up dirt or pebbles to achieve the framing you want.

Kathy Newell
Kathy Newell
Lean against a wall…use the weight of your body and wedge yourself in good and tight, holding the camera up against your head or chest. By extending your arms you are increasing the odds your shots will be shaky, so keep it up close and personal.

The Human Tripod pan and tilt head is your hips. Again, keep that camcorder close and personal by folding your arms to your side and creating a human tripod. Your two arms become two of the legs and by placing the camera up against your face (hopefully you have a viewfinder) there you have it. Human Tripod. Now swivel your hips slowly and you have the pan function. To tilt, bend gently up or down at the hips.

And finally: Human Steadicam 500 for advanced students. Way back in the dim dark reaches of my adventure in shooting news I stumbled upon a Tai Chi class held at daybreak in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The agonizingly slow movements of the participants intrigued me and pretty soon I was out getting my feet wet in the misty morning fog. I learned to stretch and slow down and lose my mind in the blank beauty of mindless movement. Oh – and I learned how to focus on centering my mind and body on my hips and hip movement.

Fact – the lower your center of gravity, the more stable you are. Center too high/walk with your head or shoulders and you bounce. Center too low/your feet and you drag. But center in that smooth jointed hip area and you glide. I learned over the months to walk without bouncing up and down…how to walk in a controlled smooth pace. It became a habit, so much that I still find myself slowing down and centering myself whenever I pick up a camera.

Those Tai Chi stretching movements lent themselves to jib-quality pans and tilts. Coupled with the lessons in Tripod 101 and Human Tripod 200, Human Steadicam completed my mastery of getting a stable shot.

Final hint. You don’t get good without practice. Somewhere up there I mentioned months to learn the basics of Tai Chi. Decades of shooting. You need to handle that camera daily…and for more than minutes – for hours. You need to train your body to control itself and the camera, until the camera becomes an extension of your body – freeing you to see the story while operating the camera goes on in the back of your mind.

What doesn’t change…

Technology makes everything obsolete, sometimes within days or even hours of a purchase. This holds true with pretty much everything related to videojournalism. Except.

The support gear.

What is support gear? Well it includes tripods, lights, mikes (and cables).

Like others, I tend to focus at times too much on the camera, the image, the quality of what I’m shooting when equal play should be given to what holds the camera, lights the image, and captures the sound.

So if you’re looking to get into the field of videojournalism (or related fields) make sure you include those items that make you a true pro and will most likely outlast your camera (or your next few cameras).

I have an Electrovoice 635 stick mike I got back in 2002. If it runs true to its siblings used in news, it may well last forty or fifty years. A solid hunk of metal…no batteries required. Wired of course…and I have several XLR cables to connect it to whatever camera I’m using.

For reaching further there’s the Sennheiser ME66 shotgun mike. Needs a battery or is phantom powered through the camera and can really reach out and grab sound.

And finally the Lectosonics wireless system…which can be used with the lav mike (clipped on to subject) or allows me to hook up the 635 or ME66 so they can go wireless.

You notice I have three different mikes. Stick mike/635 for general use and run and gun. Shotgun for sitdown or on the run interviews or nats. Lav mike when I want my gear to disappear and not be seen but still give me the freedom to move around.

Tripods – right up there with microphones as a necessity. A tripod is a platform to give your camera stability and allow the audience to see your images without shaking or the jitters. A good tripod may set you back anywhere from $400 to thousands, but again, will outlast your camera(s).

What to look for? Well the less you pay, the less you get. The minimum should be a half ball or full ball fluid head. That gives you good movement and lets you level the head w/out having to constantly adjust the legs. Worth every cent.

I have four full size tripods and a few little ones. My mainstay is a Libec DV22/half ball head. Then the old heavy duty Bogen, which is now used with my jib. A couple of lightweights – cheap little Slick and a no-name really lightweight set of sticks.

The toy tripods are a Pentax tabletop and the Press Grip. The latter lets me hang a camera or microphone pretty much anywhere.

And finally – lights.

The first light you should buy as a VJ is probably a good on-camera light. Tungsten as been the mainstay in the category, although LEDs are moving in pretty quickly and are recommended for their long battery life, weight, and for cool running. But be aware that LEDs are NOT full spectrum. For news they are acceptable, but your video may lack some color.

In the light category and right up there w/on-camera light is a good reflector. Something to bounce light around. Most of my time in news I got by with a little 20-incher, although now I have two 30 inch reflectors. One white to use for bounce and diffusion and the other gold on one side and silver on the other.

And finally – the stand lights or a light kit. Again, you’ll need to make some choices…this time tungsten, LED or fluorescent. Each has its merits and problems, ranging from throw to cost to color spectrum. Tungsten has been around the longest and has the most throw/is brightest. And costs less (most of the time). Fluorescents and LEDs are both pricy, but run cooler…and throw out less light.

And that is about it. Figure on spending at least a thousand bucks to get set up initially. Then keep an eye on what’s out there and add to your kit as you can afford it/or jobs require it. And remember – this is money well spent…on equipment that will follow you for years to come.

Voices that inspire me…

…to get back to blogging.

Did a (fairly basic) lighting workshop yesterday for Voices of the Earth, a Bay area non-profit. They’re a bit out of the ordinary…a small group of passionate folks who have taught themselves an awful lot about video production and who want to move on to what they call “the next level.” For them, this meant learning how to use light properly, plus a bit about audio and sundry other items.

I say they are out of the ordinary because they learned and gave themselves feedback properly…before we even met up they knew to use a tripod, frame properly, and (wow!!!) get good solid audio with shotgun and clip-on mikes. Made my job awfully easy.

The end result is that their inspiration has now re-inspired me to write the occasional blog posting. So this will become an on-again/off-again thought-of-the-moment series of postings with tips. Until I’m enticed away to the next bright and shiny vision.

Today’s tip is tripods.

I noticed that both of VotE’s shooters had tripods – a good thing. What they need to do now is move up to video tripods that can handle the weight of their gear and allow them to do smooth camera movements. “V” was using a Canon Vixia and his tripod was okay for the weight of the camera…but for shooting video it was too light and shaky. “J’s” tripod was definitely way too light to hold her Panasonic three-chipper. Great little camera, but we had one near-disaster when it tipped forward due to weight.

Lesson #1 – there are two main parts to all tripods. The legs/sticks and the head. The latter would be the part you attach your camera to. Most low end tripods come with the two attached as one unit. As you move up the food chain you can purchase the legs and head separately, allowing you to choose specific qualities you want. (see this old posting for more details)

Lesson #2 – make sure your camera is rated for what you plan to load on it. And that would be more than just the camera. If you ever plan to add an on-camera light, shotgun mike or other accessories, the tripod has to bear that weight too.

Lesson #3 – there IS a difference between still and video tripods. A still tripod is mean to hold the camera steady while you take ONE shot or a series of shots. It is a platform to hold your gear and let you keep your hands free.
A video camera should have a fluid head…meaning you should be able to pan side to side and up and down evenly without any jerkiness. It should be heavy/solid enough so it doesn’t shake when someone walks by or if you’re out in the weather. AND if you can spring for the money, a ball head would be nice…allows you to level your camera without having to fiddle with the legs.

Thanks again VotE.

Some new postings at newsvideographer.com…

Just posted a piece about tripods on Angela Grant’s newsvideographer.com. More of a technical look than what i’ve done here in the past – parts of the beast with explanation.

Another one coming up sometime this week on where some of the terms we toss about everyday come from…bins, clips, A and B roll. I’ll post that link when she publishes it.

Newsvideographer.com just published the A roll, B roll, C roll posting. If you’re a bit of a history/definition buff, take a look.

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