// May 9th, 2010 // Blog
I’m coming back to this series of posts after a bit of an absence, and I apologize… but I do want to finish them up, as a resource for other people who are trying to do what we did with the Airport Security webisodes. This is information for video-making noobs, because we were/are noobs ourselves. There are five older posts in this series, and there will be one or two more to come after this one.
Back in January we shot a short-film component of Airport Security, parts of which you can now see over on Vimeo. We managed to scrape together enough money to make it a low-budget union shoot, with great rental equipment and insurance and Officially-Rented Locations, and it was absolutely the biggest video project that we’ve undertaken — not that we’ve undertaken many. All told, the project cost us $2600 (mostly actor costs) and an immense amount of “volunteer” hours in pre- and post-production.
In the weeks leading up to the shoot, I chewed up and spit out every “how-to-make-a-movie” resource I could find, including The Filmmaker’s Handbook and Extreme DV at Used Car Prices. They were immensely useful, but the absolute truth seems to be that the only way to learn how to shoot a video is to shoot a video. Here are a few things we learned while shooting Airport Security:
Never shoot without a video monitor. We knew this going in, and had a TV in the trunk of the car to use as a monitor… but we had no way to hook the monitor up to the camera because of its antiquated inputs, and didn’t have time to find the proper signal adapter. As a result, the only tool we had on-set to assess the quality of our shots was the LCD monitor attached to the camera. This is not at all ideal: small LCD screens don’t look much TV screens; they’re not calibrated, so it’s impossible to judge if contrast and brightness settings are anything close to correct; and all the visual indicators and doodads superimposed on the LCD-screen image can give you a skewed idea of what your shot composition actually looks like. If you’re using the LCD screen to judge your shot, you’re also not properly accounting for things like light levels. We had a lighting kit with us, but because time was tight and the natural light seemed good and the shots looked great on the small LCD screen, we never really used it. Ultimately, shots that look perfectly exposed on an LCD screen may be over- or under-exposed in reality. With a good prosumer camera and editing software you can compensate for some of these problems in post-production… but it’s better not to create those problems at all. Oh — I’ll never shoot again without using a light meter, either.
A two-man crew is silly. Patrick and I got so caught up in casting and scheduling that we never really thought through the logistics of the shoot. In the surface it seemed like a camera op and a sound op would be sufficient; our locations were contained, the scenes were short(ish), and we weren’t dealing with huge numbers of actors. But our confidence in this area cost us. In hindsight, we really could have used:
- set control. In our “lobby” location, we had terrible problems controlling the environment. Despite being in a relatively quiet area, we were still in a public space and so we had constant problems with people wandering into the shooting area, or talking loudly enough to be picked up by the microphone, or deciding to empty garbage bins, or wanting to find out what we were up to. As an actor, I’ve been on many sets where shooting in a public space is necessary… but in all cases there are people around who can politely ask people to keep quiet and steer clear in the precious moments were cameras are rolling. It’s tough to keep a crowd of students from walking through your set when one member of your two-man crew is holding a camera and the other one is clinging to an eight-foot boom pole.
- extras wrangler. We lucked out here, because we actually had a wrangler. She came in the form of Nancy Kenny, who stayed after her afternoon acting call was finished, and helped coordinate the eight background performers we needed for the evening. She made sure our background people were properly dressed. She kept them quiet when they needed to be quiet, and out of the way of the hack two-man crew. She kept them informed about what was going on. And until she offered to stay and help us with this, we had no idea how critical she’d be. We couldn’t have gotten through that evening without her.
- a “script supervisor”. I put the term in quotes because a real (read: professional) script supervisor would do more than what we needed on our set. On top of shooting, our two-man crew was responsible for making sure that all of our takes were slated properly, for making sure scenes were shot in the right order, for managing continuity (in cases where actors weren’t managing their own), for making sure that every line was the script was said by the actors, and every line in the script was covered by the camera from as many angles as we needed. Our shoot took place over two days; we were not efficient at managing all of this on our own on the first day, and over the course of those two days we inevitably made mistakes.
Don’t forget about sound. We lucked out with the locations we found for our shoot: they looked great. The conditions for sound recording, however, were not ideal. We had a great mike and a boom pole, but we were running the microphone right into the camera — meaning we didn’t have much control over gain or other parameters. We relied on the acoustics of the spaces we were in, and in the case of the large lobby space used to shoot Passenger Protect and Missing, we were dealing with concrete walls (read: echo, and very “live” sound that carried for hundreds of feet), overhead sodium lights that buzzed loudly right in vocal range, and a bank of vending machines that had to be unplugged when cameras were rolling. Adding sound to footage is easy; taking unwanted sound out is not. Shot-to-shot changes in sound quality jump out to listeners, and in our case we didn’t allow for extra dialogue recording (ADR) after the shoot. We had to go with what we got on-set, and what we got on-set wasn’t always ideal.
Never shoot a video without gaff tape. I don’t care who you are or how little you think you need gaff tape. You need gaff tape. It keeps cords out of the way. It keeps phones stuck to desks. It keeps costume bits from flapping around. It keeps shoes from making noise on hard floors. It keeps unruly actors quiet. If you’re in a hardware store and you see gaff tape on sale — ever — buy it.
There are lots of things we did right — perhaps by accident, perhaps not:
We shot the easiest scenes on the first day. This was planned, because we knew that we had no idea what we were doing. The Paste Protocol was shot first because it involved four actors who didn’t have to move much, a single light source, one significant prop, and a small quiet room with four walls. In this environment we got to make all kinds of mistakes safely. We learned how to run the set, and used that information to regroup and plan for the second (more complex) day of shooting.
A production cart. We set up a rolling cart that we could keep alongside our camera and sound equipment. Paper copies of our script lived on this cart, along with our shot list, slate, hard drives, and a laptop armed with soft copies of all our documentation and our storyboards. The shot list was kept in a spreadsheet, and we updated it as we worked: this is how we compensated for not having a script supervisor. Every shot was tracked, along with the planned camera position, the actors in each shot, the opening and closing line, key props, notes on composition, and the slate codes (take numbers) for each shot. Footage was pulled off the camera’s media cards as we went, and put on the hard drives, giving us multiple, safe copies of our data. And because the cart was on wheels, it moved with us and was always easy to reach. Simply put: without this cart and the gear on it, we would have been utterly lost.
We kept actor calls short. This was partly an accident, but with only a few exceptions we didn’t plan on having any one actor on-hand for more than a four-hour call. The agreement we were working under paid each actor a daily rate, so we could have kept each actor for up to eight hours (accounting for breaks); calling people for only four hours meant we had a buffer, if needed, in case shooting ran behind schedule. This buffer came in handy for one of the three scenes we shot… but because we allowed for it, it cost us nothing extra and didn’t stress us out (any more than we already were, anyway).
The preparation for the shoot and the shooting itself was pretty stressful for us, but I think we managed rather well for a couple of guys with minimal prior experience. More than anything else, the experience got me excited about and interested in doing other projects… which may be dangerous.
In the next post, I’ll cover what became more than a month of work after shooting was complete: editing and post-production.