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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. In fact, that’s exactly 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.

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 in the trash for every 1 on the screen.

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

If you don’t have Marvel’s budget, don’t worry. In 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.

Because it costs money not just to shoot, but to input, color, review and cut all that footage, usually a higher shooting ratio means greater expense. But it’s not a strict correlation: a network drama could cost more than a reality show because the talent and shooting style cost more, even if the reality show shoots more. The latter’s high ratio comes from using multiple cameras and letting them run long on (a cheap to operate) set.

There is no right or wrong shooting ratio- as long as you get what you need. The more you shoot, the more you’ll start to feel your particular style. Even though there are no rules, here are my ballpark approxi-guesses for much of what you typically will see on screen:

Shooting ratios are different for different productions.

The main point is this: Worry more about undershooting than overshooting. Assume you will trash MOST of what you shoot. If you are not grossly overshooting, you’re doing it wrong.

If you go a little over budget and get brilliant shots, the clients 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.

To be both great and respectful of the budget, 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.

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