Learning Video Production the Hard Way
by Peter Cox
This is what video production does to you!
Peter sacked out at lunch on the second day of shooting.
If you’ve spent any time here on The Luminous Landscape, you’ll know that still cameras are capable of recording Hollywood-quality footage at hobbyist prices. Video production has never been more accessible for the stills photographer. Some are still sitting on the sidelines. Others have leapt in with both feet.
In early 2011, I decided it was time for me to get in the game. Once on the playing field, though, I found out that the rules are different from what I’m used to as a stills photographer. I was about to learn video production the hard way.
Let me tell you my story, so that you can learn from my mistakes - and from the things that I did right.
In March 2011, myself and two colleagues (professional photographers Roger Overall and Neil McShane) blocked off a day in our calendars. We met up at my house in the wilds of rural Co. Cork in the southwest of Ireland. Our goal was to produce a pilot episode for what we hoped would become a long running and profitable series of videos about the art and craft of landscape photography.
The equipment we brought to the table was pretty simple - a pair of Canon 5D Mk IIs (Neil's & Roger's), an assortment of lenses, some tripods (including one that had an actual video pan/tilt head), a field digital recording deck and a pair of wireless lavalier microphones to plug into it, along with a Rode Videomic to mount on one of the cameras as a poor man's boom mike.
The idea was that Neil and I would present on camera, and Roger would direct, act as cameraman, sound engineer, and whatever other job titles you'd care to ladle on him.
We had no script and only the notion that we’d shoot at dawn and then journey where the fancy took us – filming along the way. We filmed a planning sequence in my living room where we looked at a large scale map of the intended shooting area and gave reasons why we had chosen our dawn location, and even planned out possible compositions. The goal was to photograph the full moon setting between a headland and an island just offshore.
Satisfied that we had a good introduction and a favourable weather report, we went to bed.
We awoke barely hours later to find out the weather forecast had been wrong. Very wrong. Once on location, we encountered terrible mist and rain, as well as very limited visibility. Our planned shoot was completely trashed, but we filmed at the location anyway. The idea was to convey that, as is often the case with landscape photography, the best laid plans are often laid waste. It's how you react to that that will increase your chances of success.
For the rest of the day, we drove from location to location, filming and improvising. We finished at about 6pm or so, all of us completely exhausted.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the resultant pilot was an unmitigated disaster. Surprisingly, it wasn't! Yes, it was flawed and exhibited questionable camera technique, but it was a moderate financial success for us, and the feedback was good. We decided to pursue the idea further and produce the first full episode of what we hope will be a long-running series.
A subset of the gear we used.
Moving Beyond the Pilot
Almost immediately, we hit a snag. Conflicting commitments meant that it was autumn (six month later!) before we would be able to find a window in our diaries to film the episode. Eventually we were able to schedule four days in early November for shooting.
This time, Roger wrote a script. It was fairly general, with a lot of 'Peter and Neil ad-lib about thus and such…', but it provided a structure that we needed. It included topics to be discussed at each location and allowed for casual footage to be filmed that we could use as fillers and links.
We also realized that to do sound as well as operate a camera was too much for one person, so we took on a dedicated sound engineer as well. Our little production was getting more mature!
Equipment-wise we stuck with the same gear but added a shoulder-mounted rig for one of the 5Ds and a Marshall field monitor that would show focus peaking and zebra (overexposure) stripes.
We had lost some footage in the pilot episode because of poor CF card management, so we labeled all the cards we'd be using and set up a logging system to be used in the field. We were ready to go.
Once again, things didn't quite go according to plan. We hadn't had time (or indeed thought it necessary) to do much in the way of pre-production or rehearsal. Neil and I had difficulty working from a script as we were much more comfortable ad-libbing, so the script became the loosest sort of wireframe. We'd refer to it to see what aspect of photography we were going to talk about at each location, and then yammer on about whatever we felt like. It produced some great ad libbed material - off topic, maybe, but entertaining as hell. In the moment, we felt we were producing good material, so we just kept doing it.
Matters weren't helped when Neil and I put our landscape photographer hats on and insisted on stopping at locations where the light was dramatic, even if that spot wasn't on the location list. This resulted in lost time in an already too-short filming schedule. (Naturally, we felt three and a half days was plenty of time to get this thing done right - it wasn’t).
During the shoot, we did a nightly viewing of the rushes, along with field backups. However, as we had no shot list and the script was largely being ignored, all we did was ogle at some of the wonderful shots we were getting. This was very satisfying and we thought we were doing well, but it did hide our structural mistakes from us.
We were compounding our mistakes. And they were soon to confront us face on.
Look Ma! No script!
Fiacre (sound) and Roger (director/cameraman) at our first location.
A week after filming finished, I set to work on the edit. As I already owned the Adobe Creative Suite, I used Premiere Pro CS5 to edit the footage. The ability to natively edit Canon 5D files without transcoding was a great advantage. As I had already used it on the pilot I was reasonably familiar with it. Despite that, it took a full day of work to organize the clips and audio, label and rate them. I began to have an inkling of the mammoth task ahead.
The next job was to assemble the rough cut. This was where things started to get interesting. It now became obvious that there were some holes in what we'd shot compared to what we'd like to have had.
Instead of fitting together the jigsaw pieces of footage into a pre-planned whole, the edit became a process of assembling a coherent and enjoyable film from what mismatched pieces we had. In a way, we were cutting bits off the jigsaw pieces so they would fit and repainting the whole scene so the joins became smooth and made sense.
For instance, I discovered that as Roger was no longer doing sound, he couldn't really hear what Neil and I were saying during many of the recordings. Consequently, we lost some good content because he stopped filming in the middle of a technical or artistic discussion.
Roger joined me for the majority of the editing after the rough cut and it took several sessions of a couple of days each to arrive at the final cut. Neil came down from his home in Co. Meath, almost the whole country away, to do voiceovers with me on the images we'd made during the shoot. This wasn't originally in the plan at all, but turns out to be one of the most successful parts of the film!
We were merciless in our cutting, leaving sequences that we'd love to have included on the floor because they didn't fit with the overall arc we were now trying to construct retrospectively. For a while, we were wondering if we'd have enough of a film left to make our target running time of about 55 minutes, as we kept trimming it down further and further.
In the end we needn't have worried. We're all very happy with the final cut and our sound engineer did a great job of the audio edit, killing wind noise and fixing the myriad other small problems that cropped up in the sound recording – something that we never did for the pilot.
The voice-overs we were forced into doing work very well and give the viewer our opinions on the final edited photographs, as well as our hindsight on how we chose to make them.
Moreover, the non-scripted on-screen dynamic between myself and Neil offers plenty of humour and makes for easy viewing – a bonus when you are trying to present educational material.
Neil records his voiceovers while Roger updates social media.
Our Take-Away Lessons
We thought we were very well prepared for this shoot. We weren't! What saved us, and what makes the final product something we're very proud of, was in excess of two man-weeks of work in the editing suite, polishing and shaping.
Our number one take-away is to be more organized. For episode two, we're going to spend a few days location scouting a month or so before principal photography. We'll have a script on hand during the location scouting and will develop shot lists with the specific locations in mind. We'll also be developing a storyboard.
For filming, we're allowing even more time, five full days in all. We're also going to bring in a dedicated cameraman and a production assistant. That way Roger can focus on the job of directing, and the production assistant is there to make sure he has the information he needs to do that job effectively, as well as manage cards, perform field backups etc.
Our equipment will remain largely the same – although we may add a third 5D to the mix for some shots. We'll also have to add some rudimentary lighting gear as the position of the sun dictates the composition for the still landscape shoot. This means that Neil and I are often poorly lit for the film shot. A reflector should take care of that problem (which is mostly backlighting) nicely.
With any luck all of that preparation will make the shoot go more smoothly and help us out in the post-production. Of course, I also imagine that we'll take about the same time in the edit to make sure we get the best possible final cut that we can. Plus there's making better use of After Effects for illustrative graphics, etc.
What we've learned from this process is that while high-quality independent filmmaking is now within the reach of mere mortals, it still is a mountain of work to produce something that you can be proud of. You need to be prepared to put in the time, assemble a crew, make a plan and stick with it.
You can see Dynamic Range, episode one here - you'll laugh and we hope learn a thing or two as well: http://www.dynamicrange.ie.
Roger, Neil and I are producing regular content, including a weekly podcast, on the Circle of Confusion blog here: http://www.circleofconfusion.ie
Peter & Neil photographing at sunset in Dynamic Range Episode One
About the Author
Peter Cox is a landscape photographer and educator living in the beautiful south-west of Ireland. He opened his first photography gallery in Killarney in 2011 and leads regular photography workshops in Ireland and abroad, bringing participants to the best locations, from unknown nooks and crannies to the well-known vistas. He has just announced an expedition to Svalbard to photograph the landscape and wildlife, including polar bears, taking place in August 2013.