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How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Shoot Just Enough and No More

Throughout your book you talk about cutting, trimming, deleting, editing until you’ve removed all of the bad, redundant, boring parts of your project.

What happens when you cut out all of the bad stuff and then you realize that you don’t have enough good material to complete the project? Are there strategies to make sure you shoot enough great material to edit?

It’s too late to fix my first project (a music video), but I’d sure like to make sure it doesn’t happen on my next one.

–Fred

Knowing how much to shoot may be the second biggest issue a director faces on the set (the first: hiring the right actors.) Clients, studios and networks all frown on delivering your movie (or video) with  a huge hole in it because you didn’t get enough good footage. But they also frown on blowing your budget.

Unfortunately the decision point on when to stop shooting is, by definition, at the end of a long day– just when you’re tired and having trouble remembering what you shot this morning. As a result, directors often shoot until a producer pries our cold dead fingers from around the trigger of the camera. Many people think that’s the way it should be. They’re right to an extent: You’re certainly more likely to be forgiven for a budget overrun than for not finishing the job.

But the best directors work smarter than that. They know their job is to always shoot more than they really need, but not a stupid amount more. Dragging your crew and budget into massive overshooting because you can’t decide when you’ve got the shot won’t win you friends- or more jobs.

Want to learn to shoot just enough and no more? Here are the steps to remember: (1) do your prep, (2) be ready to triage and (3) trust yourself.

Prepping your shooting day means thinking in advance about what you need to finish your video if everything on set goes to hell. What shots are the must-gets? I shot a music video last week, and I knew that if I covered a complete performance of the song in 3 different locations– in this case on stage, in a boardroom and in a car– I would have an editable performance that covered the length of the entire video.

Because they were my priorities, I had my producer schedule those shots early in the day. We blocked out how long we thought they should take, and laid out a day-long schedule.

Next we scheduled in the second-tier shots. For me, these were shots that told the video’s secondary story, with and without lip-sync from the band.

Finally, I made a list of all the stuff that was quick, semi-improvised, and would make the video come to life.  Shots without a lot of lighting, maybe that could be assigned to one of my 2 camera people to pick up while I did something else. We scheduled those too, weaving them in and around our locations.  Just after we were in the car, for example, we added some “exiting the car” stuff that was less important but easy to grab.

We shared the day-long schedule with the crew. The shots were arranged as much as possible in order of priority. If the schedule worked there would be time to improvise and be creative in each location. And if we had a great improvisational idea on set, we could easily see what happened to the schedule if we made time for it.

A printed version of the schedule became my checklist. I crossed it off each shot as we finished and moved on. That way I could reassure myself if I suddenly felt like I forgot something, or spot when I really did (which may have happened once or twice.)

Now for the triage: At lunch, I went over what we had shot with the producer and re-prioritized. Some shots I now knew I didn’t need– I’d shot something better already. And some we’d invented that had eaten time. We rearranged the schedule and went back to work.

Trusting yourself and your process may be the hardest part. When you’re tired, you’ll want to second-guess everything. Don’t. If you did your prep and liked what you shot when you were shooting it, you’re done. You’ve done a professional job to the best of your abilities. Let the past be the past (even if it was 40 minutes ago!)

As the day wound down, I re-triaged one last time, trying to picture the edit in my mind. I dumped stuff I could live without and made sure I got coverage on the stuff that I couldn’t. The day ended about 30 minutes late, which was fine because my producer lied to me about how much time I had so I would go faster. (Note: you want a producer who lies a little about schedule, especially if it’s your money she’s saving.)

It’s that simple.  Of course, prep can get more complicated- you can storyboard your shots or do a shot board out of cell phone stills shot on set. On big effects shows they’ll “pre-visualize” the many digital layers as a full-motion animation so you can see how what you’re shooting fits in live on set. Prep can also be simpler- just a list of shots in priority order.

But the bottom line is the same: Prep, triage and, if you’ve done that, trust yourself..

One thought on “Shoot Just Enough and No More

  1. I have one little tip that saves me pretty often: Get at least a few really tight shots of things that are located in the same location as your shoot/scene. They can really save you when you’re in a bind.

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