How to Shoot Footage Your Editor Will Respect
COW Library : Broadcasting : David Allison : How to Shoot Footage Your Editor Will Respect
As an editor with over 25 years of experience in film and video, I've seen more than my share of horrible shots. Happily, I've also been privy to a few good ones as well. What makes one shot good and another bad? It's not always as obvious as some might think.
There are many factors that determine a shot's value, yet, amazing as it may sound, the most obvious is often overlooked. Stated plainly, this factor is usefulness. Given the project at hand -- be it a news production, commercial, corporate video, feature film, or documentary -- the shooter should always pause to ask the most basic of questions, "Am I providing footage that is compelling enough, appropriate enough, flexible enough, efficient enough, editable enough -- to be useful in post-production?"
All too frequently, the answer is no. While I'll grant that "usefulness" is a relative term (even the worst swatches can usually be sewn together to make a quilt), the fact remains that when editors receive poorly conceived and executed footage, costly overages are often looming around the corner.
As one example, I recently edited a project that was to culminate in a five minute video. To cut costs, the producers had hired a shooter who came with an excellent camera package, but minimal experience. The result? I received four and a half hours of material, 25 minutes of which was useable.
Let me repeat that: I received four and a half hours of material to edit a five-minute video -- bad enough -- yet only 25 minutes of it was even remotely useful!!! (Fade-up scream SFX.)
To say that the decision to hire an inexpensive shooter cost more money than it saved would be an understatement. Without going into too much detail, just ponder the extra time I spent making data space for 4 ½ hours of material, ingesting 4 ½ hours of material, reviewing 4 ½ hours of material, culling shots from 4 ½ hours of material, dealing with system sluggishness brought on by 4 ½ hours of material etc., etc. so on and so forth, multiplied by seventeen days of editing.
Is it any wonder why I eventually decided to put gripes like this down on paper?
In addition to being an editor, I've also experienced what it's like to be a director, producer, writer, and, yes, a shooter. I've studied under people who've studied under Orson Welles. I've worked in the realm of the avant-garde with figures of varying quirkiness, such as Peter Kubelka and P. Adams Sitney. I've logged long hours with A-list, commercial directors who've agonized over the best way to sell donuts and cottage cheese.
Through it all, I've developed a reasonably good feel for The Big Picture: Why are we all doing what we are doing? What particulars help (or hurt) the process that leads to the end goal?
When it comes to shooting, my experience in the editing room has helped me develop parameters that lead to better footage. While I tend not to think of these parameters as rigid or static (we're not talking "The Ten Commandments" here), a list of common problems -- and common solutions -- has naturally taken form over the years. I eventually gathered the list under one umbrella, which I fondly call: How to Shoot Video Your Editor Will Respect In the Morning.
QUITTERS NEVER WIN (except in production)
Imagine for a moment that you are in the editing room, watching your editor pore over some footage you shot. (You should always imagine this, by the way). Now let's say you arrive at a series of tabletop product shots. In the first shot, you accidently "miss the landing pad" (or as Mary Lou Retton would say, you didn't "stick it").
This is harmless enough. No shooters are automatons, and "sticking the landing" can be tricky business. The editor watches in silence as you stay with your final position for the traditional five seconds.
Shot 2 comes along. Again, you don't quite nail the final position, but dutifully stay with it -- hoping that something salvageable might result.
Shot 3 represents a variation on the theme: you miss the landing, but proceed to sneak back with the camera until you arrive at a flawlessly composed, final position.
After ten similar attempts, just when evidence is developing that you're getting closer and closer to the Holy Grail, the editor turns to you and says, "You know what your problem is? You never quit."
Hunh??! What's that about?! You were always taught that quitters never win! Well, what's going on here is that your well-mannered (and no doubt good-looking) editor is politely telling you that you are wasting valuable post-production time, and probably costing someone money, to boot.
You see, unlike in the Olympic world of Mary Lou, if you don't "stick" the landing, you can't simply fling up your arms, arch your back, and hope the judges like your spunky exuberance. Dude, you repeatedly missed your mark (no sin), and then chose to hang with the shot for five agonizingly long, utterly worthless seconds!
While our example only demonstrates the loss of a minute of time, you should never lose sight of how quickly these wasted minutes add up. The cumulative effect these types of decisions can have on an edit session can be significant. What's more, your reputation as a camera op will never be enhanced if you continually provide lengthy useless shot after lengthy useless shot.
The same trouble can surface with a simple, rackfocus. If you miss your destination, immediately quit on the shot. I mean, c'mon, tenacity may be a virtue, but addictive stubbornness surely is not. Efficiency is what results from common sense and determination, not super-human abilities. No shooter would ever be able to produce footage that leads to a 1:1 ratio, but every shooter is capable of eliminating those senseless frames of abject uselessness.
NOT STICKING THE BEGINNING EITHER
An inversion of the Quitters Never Win (except in postproduction) motif occurs when the beginning of a shot is flubbed, but the camera rolls on obliviously. I call this the "I Didn't Quite Catch the Beginning, But Let's Roll With It Anyway" Syndrome.
That 12 year-old genius who is happily flourishing in the local med school is your assignment du jour, but as she holds a hypodermic needle up to the natural light for a quick tap, you're late establishing focus. No matter, you tell yourself, you'll just keep following her as she strolls over to her patient and swabs down his arm.
CUT to the post-pro suite, where your editor, upon viewing this near-miss of a spectacular shot, is screaming at the monitor, "Would it have killed you to ask her to stop and do it again?!!!!"
Here, your stunningly-handsome editor is merely trying to remind you of the most important tool a shooter has at his or her disposal: A VOICE! Even when a director is calling the shots, your professionalism is elevated when you exhibit some responsibility for addressing small failures such as this.
REWIND: you're back in the hospital. You pull your eye away from the lens and interrupt the medical prodigy, "Excuse me, Dr. Jennifer-In-Training, but would mind terribly if I asked you to go back over to that window and tap that needle-thingy again? I missed it..."
Jennifer obliges, the director nods approvingly, and soon, your editor will be salivating over the marvelously useful shot you just helped to manufacture.
Another incarnation of the Quitters Never Win (except in post-production) motif is what I call The "I Know There's a Drunk Peeing In the Background, But The University President Is Still Welcoming The Famous Actress Back to Campus" Dilemma. While shots like this may gain you infamy when you upload them onto YouTube, they certainly won't help your editor create a piece that will make the client happy (especially if the client is the university). The longer you persist with your compromised shot, the longer the peeing drunk will persist. This is bad.
Not long ago, I was editing material from a military grocery store. In a memorable clip from the raw footage, a female soldier approached a long and colorful array of produce. For a moment, I marveled at the shot's perspective beauty; the tight rows of fruits and veggies perfectly receded into a distant, softly-focused vortex.
Then, all hell broke loose! Just beyond my happy, little, background-y vortex, the doors to the meat locker swung wide open. Men in bloody smocks and bloody yellow boots were suddenly traipsing around in my beloved vortex -- only now the vortex was the only part of the shot commanding attention!
What was the reaction of the shooter? NOTHING! He rolled on for 20 additional seconds! I can still see the female soldier sniffing a melon -- blissfully unaware of the carnage ensuing just under her well-focused nose and chin.
Needless to say, the shooter missed a classic opportunity to quit on the shot. I don't know about you, but I find that sort of hazy-headed, brain-dead, gum-chewing laziness the antithesis of what I'm looking for in a shooter.
So what am I looking for? Well, sticking to the confines of this discussion, I'm looking for someone who knows when to quit on a shot. I've even created an imaginary character, Shooter-X, who embodies all the lean, serene, and sensible values of this efficient shooter (an homage to Speed Racer and Racer-X, perhaps?).
Shooter X, an homage to Speed Racer and Racer-X
When I am reviewing material that has been shot by Shooter-X, I can literally sense what was in the mind of this caring professional with each pan of the camera. There is an awareness "that comes through loud and clear. Shooter-X "gets it," because Shooter-X cares. Shooter-X is paying attention; he's fully focused on what he's delivering.
Re-envisioning the table-top product shoot, Shooter-X carefully carves over his subject matter like a sculptor working with clay. Over and over and over again, Shooter-X caresses the product with his lens, never wasting a smidgen of time if the "landing pad" is missed. Soon hitting his stride, he delivers two to three simple, solid shots before moving on to a new angle. In the end, Shooter-X always gets me what I'm looking for, not because he is perfect, but because he is smart.
Troy Blome, a bona fide 'Shooter-X'.
When it comes to rack-focusing, Shooter-X is likewise unafraid to quit. A rapid-fire magician, he quickly retreats, resets, and re-racks. Infused with the simple knowledge that a rack-focus is almost never done properly on the first attempt, Shooter-X does not hide his failures, but neither does he dwell on them. Put another way, he fails efficiently -- a great trait when success is your goal.
In the end, Shooter-X always gets me that useful "rack" I'm looking for, not because he is flawless, but because he is alert.
And is Shooter-X hesitant to use the most valuable (but underutilized) tool in a shooter's entire bag of tricks -- his voice? With or without a director on set, Shooter-X is the tail that wags the dog -- and he is never wary of barking! If he didn't happen to catch the beginning of some easily repeatable action, no problem: he speaks up and suggests a redo.
In the end, Shooter-X always gets me that wonderful moment I'm looking for, not because he is an Academy Award winning cinematographer, but because he knows it is in his job description to care.
By the way, Shooter-X is no myth. I hope it serves as an inspiration to all camera ops trying to elevate their game to know that professionals like Shooter-X actually exist. They are not always flashy; they are not always brilliant; they are not always tech-savvy; they are not always dexterous; they are not always edgy; they are not always visionary. Indeed, they can possess all or none of these attributes, but there is one thing they all have in common: they sure are useful.
Never hesitate to use the most valuable (but underutilized) tool in a shooter's bag of tricks -- your voice.
All hail, Shooter-X! I think I love you, man! (Or woman, as the case often may be.) And more importantly, I respect you.