When you shoot video, you’re most often recording action — a sporting event, actors moving through a scene, and so on. But if motion is the essence of video, why do so many home movies make viewers queasy? The answer is camcorder movement.
The key to recording good action footage lies in learning how to hold the shot. The subject should be moving, not the video camera. To record play on a soccer field, you obviously have to move the camcorder some. The trick is knowing how to move it to complement the action around you.
Shooting Sports Events
Most professionals mount their video cameras on a tripod for sports assignments. Certainly, there’s no better way to steady a camcorder than to secure it to a rock-solid tripod that has a fluid head. But for most of us, carrying around a bulky tripod isn’t practical — and it could be the straw that breaks our already overburdened backs.
The real-world answer is to invest in a monopod. This one-legged tripod is extremely compact and easy to transport, and it’s an excellent tool for helping you properly hold your shots. Your footage will improve immediately.
If you don’t have a monopod with you when shooting action sequences, hold your video camera as close to your face as you can, lock your elbows against your body, and pivot from the waist.
Framing the Action
Once you steady the camcorder, you’re ready to set up your shot. There are a few basic principles to framing action shots.
First, concentrate on creating entrances and exits. Anticipate the direction of the action, frame your shot, and let the subjects enter the frame. Follow them for a short period, and then let them exit the scene.
Once the subject enters the frame, try following her horizontal or vertical movement by panning or tilting (respectively) the camera. Mounting the camcorder on a tripod or a monopod is essential for this type of shot, because jerky movement ruins the effect. When panning, remember the 180-degree rule: Once you’ve begun the shot, never cross the imaginary horizontal line that marks your field of view. If you’re shooting a soccer game, for example, the two goal posts are your 180-degree markers.
The zooming range of today’s consumer camcorders is nothing short of amazing. Their lenses let you get close to the action for compelling shots. But used inappropriately, they can also distract the viewer from what’s happening on screen.
Rule one is to not zoom during the shot. Instead, use the zoom to frame the shot before you start recording. For example, to add zooming to the shooting technique described earlier, you would zoom the lens to frame the shot, anticipate the direction of the action, and start recording just in front of it, letting the subjects enter the frame. You’d then pan the camcorder to follow the sub-jects, let the action exit the scene, and then stop recording. For your next shot, you’d start the sequence over.
Another trick to spicing up your action-oriented videos is to shoot cut-in and cutaway footage. You can use shots of the coach consoling a player on the sideline or of an ankle being taped to break up the action and give your movie variety.
Don’t forget to grab a couple of establishing shots — wider views of the scene that you can use to give viewers a feeling for the big picture. In some cases, you might want to add a few seconds of establishing footage at the beginning of the movie to set the scene.
Most importantly, keep quiet while filming. You want to record the ambient audio of the environment, not yourself cheering for — or even worse, swearing at — the players on the field.
Tip from the Pros
When you’re shooting on location — at a sporting event, at the ocean, or even in a quiet room — make sure you capture a track of ambient sound. Aim the camcorder at a fixed point, and let it record the environment for a minute or two. Later, when you’re in production, you can use this footage to provide consistent noise for your various scenes.
Shooting a Walking Interview
One of the most interesting ways to shoot an outdoor interview is to record the subject as he’s walking. The video camera holds the interviewee steadily in the center of the frame while the background just rolls along. This technique is called tracking. And when it’s done right, an otherwise static shot can become a vibrant scene in your production. Here’s the basic setup:
To avoid distracting sounds such as camcorder transport or grinding gears, capture audio through an external mike. Wireless mikes are easiest for this shot because they don’t require an assistant. Booms, on the other hand, have the advantage of showing no equipment in the footage — for example, a lavaliere mike attached to the shirt collar of the subject. However, you’ll need someone to hold the boom mike while you’re filming.
(For more on external microphones, see “Sweeten Your Sound,” Digital Hub, December 2003.)
The key component in getting smooth walking shots is a wheelchair — often referred to as a poor man’s dolly. Used wheelchairs are easy to find at secondhand shops and garage sales. It doesn’t need to be fancy; it just needs to roll smoothly and fold up for easy transport. You sit on the chair (most likely on the back of the chair, with your feet on the seat) as an assistant pushes you slowly and steadily alongside the interviewee during filming.
When you’re scouting locations for this type of scene, look for areas that have relatively smooth surfaces that are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair and subject moving side-by-side about four feet apart. An interesting (but not too busy) background is important as well. Try to scout a scene at the same time of day that you’re actually going to shoot it. Ideally, the sun will be illuminating the subject’s face, but not shining directly in his eyes.
Tip from the Pros
To limit depth of field when shooting interviews outdoors, try adding a neutral density filter that will force the aperture to open up. These filters are available in a variety of densities, usually ranging from 1 to 4 f-stops. The darker the filter, the wider the aperture, and the softer the background. If you already have a polarizing filter, that will work, too.
Improve Outdoor Lighting
A basic rule of lighting states that the subject should be at least as bright as the background (unless you’re creating a special effect). However, even in bright sun, your model may not be illuminated as evenly as you’d like. And backgrounds always seem brighter than you want them to be.
One or two strategically placed reflectors can help you redirect the light onto the subject for better illumination. This common Hollywood practice involves mounting large reflective panels on light stands or holding reflectors and following the actor’s movements with them.
Carting around large rigid panels isn’t practical for most hobbyists, but having a collapsible photo disc or two tucked away in the trunk of your car can save the day. Photo discs have reflectors on both sides — usually silver, for maximum reflection, on one side and gold, to warm up skin tones, on the other. Place the reflector opposite the main light source for the best results.
If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on collapsible discs, you can purchase a few sheets of white poster board from an office supply store. This option isn’t quite as portable or durable, but you can buy lots and lots of poster board for the price of one collapsible disc, and it works just as well.
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