Filming Tips: How to be a one-man film crew

As screenPhiles, we should pay attention not only to how others make film, but how to make film ourselves.  To that end, I feel that I should share some valuable lessons learned while filming the Washington, DC International Film Festival two weeks ago.  While many of these lessons apply mostly to one-man-band style broadcast and multimedia journalism, the lessons can also be applied to independent filmmakers that are just starting out with a few of their closest friends.

The Camera Gear in Cases
Fully Laden. Clockwise from left: 3-Light Kit, Lavalier Mic Kit, Tripod Case, Camera Bag

I don’t own a video camera fancier than an Olympus PEN, so I checked out a camera kit, three-light kit, lavalier microphone kit, and a tripod.  The photo to the left is what carrying everything at once looks like.  As you can see, the cases take up space and make it difficult to move through tight spaces.  This kind of setup requires a car to get the gear to the shooting location and a cart to get it to the specific spot you want to work at if it’s not close to where you park.  You may think that this is excessive, but remember that these cases don’t just hold the bare basics of a camera, a couple of lights and a microphone; they’re also designed to hold all the extra stuff you need like batteries, power cables, attachments, replacement lights and other odds and ends.  Having all the pieces at your fingertips is essential for a successful shoot, but the size and weight of everything in this setup makes shooting alone difficult.  Having the help of one or two people can help the camera operator focus on composing the shot and not recovering from the ordeal of getting his gear to the location.  I would only suggest taking everything if the location is easily accessible, you have friends to watch your gear, and that the shoot doesn’t need moving around to multiple areas in a region.  Trying to haul everything from room to room or field to field while successfully keeping track of it is an impossible task.

Camera Packing Light
A Lighter Load. From Left to Right: 3-Light Kit, Backpack of Essentials, Camera Attached to Tripod.

While camera operators have the aid of a filming crew in cinema and reporters in broadcast, they still learn to trim things down into a more manageable form.  As you can see in the photo to the right, I’ve made things considerably easier on myself by eliminating three cases and combining two elements.  I only have to worry about managing the camera and tripod assembly; a backpack that has the microphone kit and essential items; and the three-light kit if I decide I need it.  It is a good idea to try to keep all the extra cases and gear in the trunk of a car if you have one.  This allows the gear to stay protected during transport and allows you to keep things nearby if you discover you forgot something.  It’s also a lot easier and safer than carrying this equipment on public transit where it can get jostled or otherwise damaged.  Carefully carrying the camera/tripod assembly is the biggest trick to traveling light.  Most tripods have pan and tilt mechanisms that allow the camera to turn and tilt as needed. This is great for creating dynamic shots, but a nightmare if you want to carry your camera while it’s attached to the tripod.  Nicer tripods have independent locks that keep the camera from moving around, but I suggest being very careful when carrying the camera while it’s on the Tripod.  I cradle the camera in one hand while I wrap my other arm around the tripod legs.  This lets me carry the tripod and keep the sensitive camera from shifting or banging into anything.

As I mentioned in the last paragraph, I don’t carry the three-light kit unless I know I’m going to need it.  I usually save the kit for sit-down style interviews or for locations where I know the light will be poor.  Try to use the light at the location you’re shooting.  Accent lights for pictures and paintings can make for a great 3-light substitution if you can get them on your subject properly.  The lit image behind the person also makes for a great background.  On camera lights can blow-out the image and create harsh lighting on faces and the featured objects in frame.  They are best used as a last resort and the camera operator should pay careful attention to how it’s affecting the image.  I try to turn down an on-camera light as much as possible and use a filter to help make the light warmer.  Harsh blue-white light makes people look sickly and reflects of glasses more so than dimmer warm lighting.  Some locations offer the opportunity to use a one-light or two-light setup, but I’ve found that these cases are rare.  Be creative with your lighting and use the location’s light to your advantage.

Audio is difficult when you’re at a location in the city or in public areas where there are many people. Be careful when picking out what microphone to use.  There are probably lengthy books on the subject of audio and microphones, but we’ll assume you’ve got a basic shotgun microphone, lavalier microphone, and the camera’s onboard omni microphones to choose from.  It’s best to avoid using an onboard camera microphone when possible.  The location and quality of these microphones means that they pickup many undesirable sounds.  Shotgun microphones are better for capturing background sound and focus the sound on what you’re shooting and not what’s beside and behind the camera.

For those unfamiliar with microphones, lavalier microphones are the clip-on microphones that you usually see on reporters, public speakers, and theater actors.  They clip to clothing and use a radio transmitter to amplify the speaker’s voice.  They are not usually desirable for film and television shows because they are difficult to hide and can pick up the sound of clothing rubbing against the microphone.  These are the best for interviews and reporting because the operator can turn down the gain and make the microphone less sensitive.  This means that microphone can hear the person its clipped to, but not the sounds around them as long as they are not too loud.  The lavaliers make it easier to get clean audio in noisy environments.  I use the shotgun microphone to back up the lavalier when possible of the way it listens in a cone instead of in every direction.  Unfortunately, the design of the shotgun mic means that it can’t be turned down as much as a lavalier.

Those are the basics of staying light on your toes while filming by yourself.  The best thing anyone can do is to take what you need and leave what you don’t, use the environment to your advantage, and make sure  you use the right microphone for the job.

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