For years, I have written about the problems associated with trying to be a one-man band television reporter. Now, shooting alone has become the reality for many journalists. How does one balance so many disciplines at once and still do a good job? Here are our thoughts.
We have always been told that making video is a collaborative process. It took expertise in video, audio, lighting, editing and writing to make a segment really shine. Early video crews were typically made up of three people — one for video, one for audio and one for lighting. Now those days are mostly over. One person must do it all.
Today, manufacturers have developed video, audio and lighting gear in smaller sizes that can be operated automatically by almost anyone. The gear is now so tiny it can be handled by one person carrying a shoulder bag. In earlier times, this was impossible, since the gear weighed far too much for one person to carry. That’s the good news.
The bad news is regardless of whether shooting (and reporting) for a news organization or attempting a documentary, the basics of video production remain the same. Whether you get minimum on the job training or whether you train yourself, the more you know about each of the video crafts will aid your work. In fact, you now need a wider background in the technology than ever before.
Sure you can put a small video camera or iPhone on automatic settings and shoot video, but if you do that you will never be the best in the field. That’s a certain ticket to a mediocre career. This automatic function is dumbed down for the masses and not for talented storytellers. Even if you are primarily a reporter faced with doing video on the side, you must learn the basics of the craft if you are to become good at it.
Learn how to shoot manually, picking the proper exposure for the situation. Use light and shadow creatively. Make your shots jump out at viewers. Don’t move the camera unnecessarily. Too much camera movement is a sign of the amateur. Have a reason for camera movement and ensure it is rock steady.
Remember, what is shot in the video camera must be edited later. Become familiar with the editing process, even if you don’t do it yourself. It will save hours of mistakes and make you a better shooter.
Know that audio is just as important as video. Never use the built-in camera mic for an interview. It is amateur mistake Number One! Viewers will not tolerate bad sound, but can live with poor video if they can hear the sound well.
Learn the basics of good audio. Don’t use automatic gain control. Use lavalier microphones on interviews. Always listen to your sound with headphones and check levels. Use a mixer with more than one mic. Never go out with just one microphone. Cables break easily. That’s just asking for trouble.
Viewers don’t care what you had to do to get the video and sound, but they demand quality. You are judged against the best production of any level. If you don’t do it right, don’t do it at all.
Lighting has dramatically improved with the advent of low-power LEDs. But never just throw up a light and begin shooting. Learn the art of light and shadow. Good lighting can be done with very simple set-ups. Today’s lights are minor miracles, but still need intelligence in their operation.
If you’re not a lighting expert, learn a few basic set-ups. Use windows in a room for light and always use backlight to separate the subject from a background. Look at the shot and make sure it is aesthetically pleasing and has no distracting objects in the background. You don’t want an object protruding from the subject’s head.
Again, none of this is hard, but it does require the one-person shooter to be mindful of the production process and have a greater sense of awareness about everything in the shot.
In a scripted documentary, be sure to write with the one-person shooter in mind. Keep it simple and don’t create impossible scenarios for a single person to shoot. In preparing the script for production, plan every detail in advance. Makes lists so nothing is forgotten.
Also, know the operation of gear you will be using. It is not the time to learn while on location. Make sure you have the right camera support gear. Remember, too much support gear is as bad as too little. Extra gear can weigh you down and slow the shooting process.
One of best things about modern video equipment is the ability to playback the scene instantly. Take advantage of it. It wasn’t always that way — especially in the early days. If you catch an error, don’t be afraid to reshoot it. Better safe than sorry later on.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Shooting one-man band is very difficult and prone to errors. It is not for people without discipline who can’t pay strict attention to a myriad of details at once. The best way to avoid mistakes is to learn all the basics and create a personal workflow that allows you to focus on the story and not the technology.
Every piece of gear I buy today, I use in advance to make sure there are no unnecessary “got-chas” in their operation that will throw me. When I have my mind on an interview, I don’t want to think of the technology. I want it all to “just work.”
Don’t fool yourself that putting everything on automatic is the right way to go. It is not. You must learn all the rules, before deciding which ones to break and which ones not to. But it can work for the right people.
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