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How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Shooting Ratio: How Much is Enough Footage?

How do I know if I’ve shot enough footage? I hate to waste money and time, but I’m nervous I won’t get what I need for the edit.

PS: Absolutely love your book! I’ve read it cover-to-cover twice now and starting my third time through.

–Jamal

Directors always shoot more than they think they need. Which means some of it will always be wasted. That’s how it’s supposed to work. It’s so normal that there’s even a name for this waste. It’s called the “shooting ratio” and it simply means the ratio between how much footage goes on screen, and how much you throw away.

Different projects have different shooting ratios. For example, if you shoot a webcam video for Youtube, you might do 5 takes of your rant and cut the best parts together. That’s a 5:1 shooting ratio– 5 seconds shot for every 1 that gets to the screen.

On the other end of the spectrum, a massive effects-driven superhero movie, with tens or even hundreds of effects layers in every shot, reshoots and multiple takes from multiple angles will ratio waaaayyy higher. Some of these films are rumored to have a shooting ratio as high as 400:1.*

Between the solo rant and the blockbuster is everything else. We might shoot 2 hours of footage to get 30 finished seconds for a national commercial– a shooting ratio of 240:1. “Normal” big-budget feature films could shoot 30:1 or 300:1 depending on how big and how effects-filled they are.

A good producer spends a lot of time thinking about shooting ratio when they’re setting up a budget. Shooting more footage costs more time on the set. Later, it also means more expense in post-production because you need more person-time to review the footage and edit it into the finished product.

Given that you have a good producer, a good director doesn’t spend too much time worrying about budget. If you go a little over budget and get brilliant shots, the client or network will still love you (most of the time.) But if you don’t get what you need for the edit, nobody will thank you for coming in under budget.

For reference, here are some ballpark approxi-guesses for the shooting ratios of typical film and video projects:

Shooting ratios are different for different productions.

Whether you’re a producer or director, get comfortable with overshooting. Budget and plan for it. That said, in the real world, it also pays to respect the budget.

To do that, know your material backward and forward. Create a shot list. If you’re shooting something complicated, storyboard your scenes. Doing your homework helps both your time management and that nagging feeling you’ve forgotten something.

It also frees you up to be creative. Once you’ve got the coverage down, it’s playtime. Improvise with your actors. Let the DP do that macro shot she’s been dying to set up. Wait for the light. Try ideas that come to you. Most of it won’t work (which is fine! Shooting ratio!) but you’ve seriously upgraded your finished piece with the stuff that does.

 

* At that ratio, it would take one person watching 7 days a week, 12 hours a day for 4 months to personally see all of the footage created for Avengers:Endgame. In real life, no one person does this. Teams of assistants will separate the wheat from the chaff in what’s been shot live-action, while animators and f/x houses will only send the most-likely-to-work material to the editorial team. Of course, that’s still a lot of man hours and a lot of people to pay.

Teaching Video: Summer Stars 2019

Summer Stars campers perform live August 2019 to Andy Grammer's "Don't Give Up"

Summer Stars Campers perform live to this year’s video

I do a lot of speaking and consulting on video, but by far the most rewarding is teaching I’ve done almost every year since 2000 at Summer Stars Camp for the Performing Arts. This is the camp’s 20th Anniversary and I’ve managed to attend 17 sessions, teaching music video classes to 12-17 year-old disadvantaged kids from New York and Boston who pay nothing to attend. Much of my book comes out of my work teaching those kids.

(I’m also on the camp board, so now must suggest that you donate at www.summerstars.org)

The first step in creating a music video: immersing yourself in the music. We started our first class meeting by listening to the song we were going to shoot– the pop masterpiece “Don’t Give Up” by Andy Grammer, from the angsty teen-romance movie Five Feet Apart.  Our goal was to have students create an original piece, re-interpreting the song in a way that had nothing to do with the movie or Grammer’s video. In class, campers listened, then talked about what the song felt like to them: “Yearning” “defiance” “I’m not going to stop” “I’m coming for you.”

Since you can’t film an emotion, we discussed how we might shoot images that we hope will make people feel emotions. We played the song again, and talked about what images came to mind.

A 14-year-old boy from New York raised his hand. “It made me think of my Grandfather, and how he was deported last month.” This is so far out of my personal experience that I would never have come up with it, but the class felt it, and that’s the image we started with to develop our video. The kids not only suggested the theme, they crewed the video and performed in it.

We shot and edited the video from Tuesday to Saturday– 4 1/2 days. In the real world, I would have quoted a job like this as a couple weeks of prep, 2 12-hour shoot days (we shot it in 7 hours) plus a 3 week edit (our edit: 3 days.) Dp/editor Wes Diaz, our only other professional crew member, delivered it to the projection booth for the Saturday show with 20 minutes to curtain.

During the show, the entire camp sings a choral arrangement of “Don’t Give Up” live (arr. by Rob Goldman, who’s a genius at this sort of thing.) The video plays above them, on-screen in perfect sync. The audio you hear was recorded live during that performance.

Once again I learned so much from teaching.

Technical note: The video was performed and edited (as most music videos are) to a click-track– a rough audio track laid down for timing. During the shoot, the kids sang to the click track so their sync would be perfect. The editor edited to it. In our live performance, the click track played in the ears of the conductor and the band’s rhythm section as a tempo reference while they played live. So the band synced to the track,  the kids sang in sync to the band, which kept them in sync to the video, which was also synced to the track. You might call this “the transitive property of performance sync.” Make sense?

This is a fairly simple live performance trick, but the effect of 125 kids singing live in perfect sync to the performers and action in the video on a screen above them is amazing to watch. You can see the live performance with the singers in the picture here at minute 33:40.

 

 

There are No Fish in “The Abyss”

Still from the Abyss
State-of-the-art 1989 digital effects, but no fish.

My writing partner and I were arguing about a scene in a new screenplay. It’s a time-travel piece, and he wanted to explain all the technical steps that lead a character to have a conversation with someone from his distant past. The reason? So the audience would believe their meeting could plausibly happen.

Makes sense. If we don’t show how the machinery works, and explain exactly how the two accidentally meet over miles and eons, who will believe it? Credibility comes from detail, right?

It makes sense, but it’s totally wrong. Extreme explanatory detail in a movie is death. We want the audience to believe the story, not write a dissertation on it. If we write a film correctly, the audience happily buys it despite having to leap across vast detail-less gaps. As proof, I offer you: The Abyss.

After Aliens and a few years before Titanic, James Cameron wrote and directed a story of petroleum workers living thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. When a nuclear sub goes missing, they’re recruited by the government to help rescue it– only to find that there’s an alien life-form doing mysterious things– in The Abyss. Dum dum dum…

My favorite thing about the Abyss: it takes place almost entirely on the ocean floor, but there’s not a single fish in the movie.

Technically that’s because Cameron shot most of the underwater scenes in a giant manmade tank. It was a difficult shoot, and trying to support living animals would have made it an impossible shoot. The digital technology of the day precluded layers of composite fish. Thus no fish in this underwater movie set in the ocean.

Does the script explain? Does a scientist in a lecture hall bemoan that humans wiped out all fish life? Or that an odd magnetic field repels them in this region, now known as “the fishless void?” Nope, because that would focus our attention on the missing fish. Instead the film ignores the obvious, tells a gripping action/romance with amazing digital aliens, and we never even think about the fish.

Beyond the normal audience suspension of disbelief (“For the next three hours, I will accept the existence of the Marvel Superheroes”), all films require a high tolerance for reality violations. Why is the villain explaining so much before killing the hero? Would this romance really break up over such a minor lie? Why would a creature advanced enough to visit from another galaxy not have a foolproof way to protect itself from humans? How did those soldiers get all the way across Westeros so damn fast?

As writers, we need to remember that sometimes the art is in hiding your biggest piece of nonsense in plain sight- keeping your audience engaged while gliding right past it.

Great filmmaking is magic, and for any magician, mis-direction is a key arrow in the quiver. Figure out how little information you can get away with and give them less than that. Resist explaining. Artfully treat odd things like they’re normal, and blow past them entertainingly enough to direct audience attention elsewhere.

And the next time you get stuck on a scene with tedious explanatory detail, remember: There are no fish in the Abyss.

And in a seemingly complete contradiction: Sometimes great storytelling is ALL detail- as outlined in this post about Better Call Saul.

Toy Story: Learning to Use Video Tools

Recently I picked up a multi-rotor drone to carry my HD camera.

I’m having fun flying my drone, but now my videos feel all the same: running along a straight line, go up and take a 360, fly really low almost touching the bushes. Pretty pictures, but not really good video.

Any ideas on how to script/arrange/film better videos for subjects as simple as “last weekend with friends”?

–Ed

Basic drones are mostly good for scene setting and beauty shots. Think fireworks from inside the blasts; an establishing montage of New York City between segments on a TV show; or a high shot of the OK Corral before the gunfight starts.

Drones can be breathtaking for video, but they can also be limiting if they’re used the same way all the time. There is only so much information the tops of people’s heads can communicate.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Okay, it might not have been Lincoln– maybe Socrates. But what he meant was this: you have a cool toy. It may not be the best tool for the job, but you’re so excited about it that you use it anyway. With boring results.

Worse, getting locked into the hammer/nail thing prevents you from seeing all that a hammer can do. It can flatten chicken breast, or pry out a screw. The handle could caress someone’s back or bat a ball. Twenty hammers, welded together, might make a great sculpture. It’s easy to get stuck in one use of a new video toy. Even if you have a hammer, there’s no reason to just pound things.

Which brings me to some general guidelines for using cool video tools the best way possible:

The tool serves the story. The story doesn’t serve the tool. What tale are you telling? You’re communicating in very different language about a christening when you shoot from high up in the ceiling of the church than if you’re on a tight close-up of an adorable baby. Is this an intimate, warm moment, or the climax of The Godfather?

Improve your tool-craft: If you’re feeling trapped by drone moves, it’s you, not the drone. In the hands of a trained pro, drones will blow your mind.

Try using your drone as a static crane, or a low angle dolly. Pick up a tracking unit to lock your drone a moving subject for exciting traveling shots. Choreograph a moving shot from street level to a 10th floor window as part of a scripted piece.  The old “fly and look” is just a small part of what it can do.

Practice my “50 Ways to Shoot One Thing” exercise with your drone and see if you can break out of your drone shot rut.

Do you need the tool at all? The Academy Award-winning doc Free Solo looks like it used drones, but it didn’t. Drones are illegal in national parks. If the filmmakers had had their hearts set on using drones, they might have given up on the film.

Resist the temptation to only use the tool: “Friends at a cookout” doesn’t scream drone to me. I want to be on the ground with your friends, or on macro lenses seeing super-closeups of delicious food (or barbecue disasters- I’ve had both.) Use the drone for what it’s good for, and shoot most of your story with a more human-friendly camera.

Ed asked a great question. Do you have a great question? Ask it here.

The Power of Story Booklet: Free Download!

Talking about “Story” scares people.  

That’s because screenwriting books are filled with stuff like “three act structure,” “inciting incidents,” “act 2 turns” and “petting the dog.” Let me save you some time: it’s all jargon you don’t need to know.  Story is simple: all you need is hero, beginning, middle and end.

Adding or strengthening story makes all film and video better– whether you’re shooting birthday parties  or scripted films with actors.

So I’ve put together this super-simple guide, The Power of Story, excerpted from the world’s best-selling cinematography book. And you can have it instantly!

Get The Power of Story below– free! Twelve pages, no jargon, and exercises you can try right away.  There’s no registration required. After you download, feel free to share the link with your story-challenged friend.

Cover of "The Power of Story" by Steve Stockman
Download this free excerpt just by clicking- no registration required!


Better Call Saul: The Devil is in the Details

There is no better show on television than AMC’s Better Call Saul, from Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, ex of Breaking Bad. All four seasons are spectacular, but if you haven’t watched (or even if you have) it’s worth considering what makes it great.  Great writing and acting, sure, but for me the best part of Better Call Saul is that every shot, every sequence, every episode is about intrigue- built by lensing in to the details.

Season 1, Episode 1 doesn’t start with anything as obvious as an establishing shot of a shopping mall, or a freeway sign saying “Welcome to Omaha.” Nor does it give us a clue as to who the main character is, or where we are. Instead, the black and white opening shot is a hand slathering something creamy on a surface.  We don’t know if it’s vertical or horizontal, what the substance is, or what it means that the picture is black and white.

It takes a full ten minutes of detail after detail to tell us that Saul Goodman, hero of the series, has renamed himself “Gene,” is now working at a Cinnabon in Omaha.  He’s hiding, in fear for his life, but desperately misses the man he used to be.  We learn all this with static, detail-focused shots, and not a single word of dialogue. It’s a thing of beauty.

Better Call Saul is a master class in intrigue. Every scene in the show uses carefully layered detail to  give us just a tiny bit of information– and promise even more. That forces us to think– to participate–as shot by shot the show sinks its hook further and further into our brains. It’s like watching a jigsaw puzzle, where a small section of sky or forest or face becomes suddenly visible every few minutes.

In last week’s episode, a brand new character arrives at the airport and has to follow instructions given by burner phone. He drives to a deserted country road, where he’s forced to put his luggage next to him, put a bag over his head and stand on the side of the road. Waiting.

When we finally piece together, five minutes later, that he’s an architect on a job interview for an illegal building project, the reveal feels immensely satisfying. It’s like we did all the work of figuring it out ourselves- like we experienced all the anxiety-drenched emotion of a man with a bag over his head being dragged around Albequerque by criminals.

Details, rather than dialogue, intrigue us into caring about tortured relationships and nerve-wracking suspense. We feel the characters in a way we don’t when we’re just told about them. When a sideways glance between characters feels like a huge reveal, you know you’re being played by masters.

The lesson? Details intrigue us. They let us come to our own conclusions, making the story reveal happen inside our heads. And that makes the experience much deeper and more affecting.

How can you use extreme detail in your next shoot?

How to Shoot Vacation Video that Won’t Bore People to Death

Vacation video

This palm symbolizes “vacation.” It’s a long article, so I figured it needed a photo.

When I was a kid, the Armbrusters had a slide projector.  Which meant that after every vacation they took, we’d troop dutifully to their house for endless carousels of badly-shot Kodachrome slides, narrated  live.  The slide show always seemed longer than the vacation itself.  Washed-out, badly composed views of Disneyland or Paris—dotted here and there with the back of the head of someone we knew.

Today technology has changed everything.  People can record hours and hours of vacation video on a single chip.  But they don’t trap you in their living rooms anymore.  Instead they email links to their hour-long video and quiz you about how you liked it.

Who would do such a thing?  Anyone with a smartphone.  We have met the Armbrusters and they are us.

Luckily for the bore-ees, technology is also a good defense.  Today if the video’s bad, we watch 10 seconds and click off to “Family Guy.”  Then we lie to each other’s faces about how good the video was.

Oh, wait– you actually WANT people to watch your vacation video?  No problem.  Start by shooting vacation video that’s entertaining.  It’s not hard.  All you need is a little bit of thought ahead of time and the awareness that– whether it’s you, your kids or your friends– your video just may have an audience.

Here’s how to shoot vacation video that won’t bore people to death:

1)  Shoot Short Shots: A shot is like a sentence—it has a noun and a verb.  Together the noun and verb are what keep the “move” in “movies.”

On your backpacking trip a random video clip of “Bob” is not a shot.  “Bob picks up his pack” is a shot.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is a shot.  To keep your shots short, stop shooting when the action is complete.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is interesting for about 5 seconds unless Bob falls off a cliff.  So once you’ve got the action covered, be done.  We don’t need to see Bob’s back for another 30 seconds as he heads off into the distance. [more on short shots]

2)  Shoot People, Not Scenery: Think about why you’re shooting vacation video in the first place—to remember.

The Empire State Building will probably look exactly the same 10 years from now,  In case it doesn’t, thousands of great photographers have already shot it better than you can.  What makes your vacation video special is that your kids went up the Empire State Building—and your kids are going to look completely different in 10 years.

“But the scenery’s so beautiful” you say.  It is–  in person.  Video of the Grand Canyon looks great in Imax, pretty good on your 60” flat screen, and like tiny blurry garbage on your iPhone.  Unless you’re shooting Imax, best not to dwell.

Frame a great shot of the kids looking over the railing and that stunning canyon vista will look great too—in the background, where it belongs.

3)  Find the Story: Instead of random shots of the family posing on a boat, find the story of everyone getting together and taking your parents on a cruise. Have your camera ready when you surprise them with the tickets.  Interview your brother, who hates cruises but is coming anyway, armed with Dramamine and wrist-bands because he loves his parents.  Shoot your dad tearing up as he gives a speech to the group at your first big dinner on board

What’s different about your vacation?  Is it the family’s first time out of the country?  Your daughter’s first plane flight?  The Disney vacation you’ve been saving up for for 5 years?  Think before you shoot.  Tell that story.

4) Interview the Family:  Video captures not just what we look like, but how we think.  Which is perfect for that embarrassing wedding video 20 years from now.   Don’t just interview the kids. Interview your spouse, your parents, strangers you meet on the trip.  It’s a great way to capture the emotion of a moment in time.

Your five-year-old will never be 5 again. Ask her open-ended questions about what’s going on.  Let her show you, explain to you, sing to you.

5)  Shoot sparingly. If you shoot just 2 ten-second shots  in each of 8 touring hours a day, that’s almost 3 minutes of footage a day.  A week-long vacation is pushing an Armbrusturian 20 minutes—longer than anyone, including you, will actually watch.  Practice being selective.  Sure you can edit later, but will you?  And even if you do, the shorter and better your footage when you start, the less work it is.

 

Do you have questions about shooting video?  Of course you do.  Click here and ask them!