Making Better Home Videos

Gear Up
Why is it that people hate to watch home movies? Let’s be honest; most people really stink at using a camcorder. Anyone can pick up a camera and turn it on, but with the right tools and a little know-how, you, too, can have Oscar-calibre home movies.

Make sure that you have the right tools for the job. Surprisingly, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on expensive cameras and accessories.

Brian Marleau is a Mississauga-based cameraman. His credits include Survivor, The Apprentice and about a million hours of footage of his own family. When he’s shooting professionally he uses a very large, very heavy Betacam SP camera. He saves his little consumer hi-definition digital camcorder for the important stuff six-year-old Hailey and three-year-old Lucas.

He says, “Do your homework when buying a camcorder. With the invention of hi-definition TV, think about going that way. There are several brands of consumer hi-def camcorders that arent too expensive, and even bad camera work will look more colourful, sharper and clearer.”

Even if you opt for a less expensive standard definition camcorder, take note of the different formats that are available, such as MiniDV, Digital 8 and DVD. The format of the camera will determine the quality of the picture; the higher the lines of resolution, the better your shot will look. Zoom is also important, the higher the optical zoom, the clearer your close-ups will be. And a camcorder with a steady-shot feature will reduce the shakes.

To eliminate the shakes altogether, use a tripod. Putting your camera on sticks (as professionals call it) is necessary for those great shots of inanimate objects and for smooth movement. Marleau does a lot of handheld camera work, but warns that it’s hard to stay steady, especially when shooting close up.

A small camera light will make your indoor shots look a million times brighter. Think of it as a flash for your camcorder. Your camcorder will perform under low lighting by automatically adjusting the exposure, but without sufficient light your shots will look grainy.

When using a light, says Marleau, soften it up with a little piece of diffusion (a transparent fi lter than can be clipped over a light). It can be purchased at any camera or video store. Most people dont consider sound when theyre filming. Your camcorder will have an on-board microphone that will pick up ambient noise, but that means that its picking up your voice, along with the air conditioner and the refrigerator hum. A small wireless microphone placed on or near your subject will reduce the noise of things you don’t want to hear.

Prepare
Marleau never goes on a professional shoot unprepared. The back of his van has extra cameras, batteries, and tapes. But when it comes to shooting family stuff, he admits that hes always forgetting to charge the batteries.

A good producer has a plan and prepares before going on a shoot. They stick to the plan but keep themselves flexible to capture the spontaneous moments.

If the footage is just for you, then shoot away. But if you plan to show it to anyone, go for quality, not quantity. Even if you only tape 10 minutes per month, by a child’s 18th birthday you will have 36 hours of video to wade through.

Prepare what you want to capture mentally before the event by thinking of filming small stories within the bigger picture. Instead of shooting indiscriminately, break up your shooting into small segments. Don’t think day in the life of baby, think baby’s first taste of solid food.

Capture the moments that visually tell the story. Each scene requires three to five shots: a wide establishing shot, a medium shot of your subject and a few closeups of the details.

If you think in terms of shots that tell the story, and that there are multiple stories that show the bigger picture, you’ll have less tape, better shots and you’ll enjoy filming more.

Shoot
Now finally it’s time to turn on the camera. Keep a few tips in mind when shooting to make your final product much better.

Don’t move the camera around pointlessly. It will make your audience nauseous (remember The Blair Witch Project?). If you must move during a shot, each shot should have a beginning and an end. Find the two most important points of your shot and move from one to the other in a straight line.

The biggest mistake people make when using a camcorder is riding the zoom. Marleau says, If you stay on the close end of the lens, you will be disappointed with your footage. It will be shaky and your audio will be thin because you are physically far away from your subject.

The eye doesnt zoom. In real life, if you want to get close to something, you move yourself. In film, if you want to get close to something, you keep the camera lens zoomed out and physically walk closer to it. Your shot will look more natural and it will be less shaky.

When shooting children, get down to their level. Kids often look down at what theyre doing. If you shoot looking down on them, you’ll miss their priceless expressions.

Compelling videos are about people, not things. To feel emotion on video, you need to see emotion from the people.

Making The Cut
If you don’t have access to editing software or equipment, think in-camera editing. The attention span of your audience is limited, so plan your shots well so that the video is watchable.

For home movie producers, the invention of desktop editing is a godsend. Suddenly, the fast-forward button on the VCR is obsolete. No one has to sit through the 20 minutes of tape when you thought the camera was off but were filming your shoe! If you have access to simple editing software, here are a few tips to create a masterpiece:

  • Add a title to the beginning. Try to make it catchy.
  • Have shots that last no longer than 15 seconds.
  • Edit your shots together in sequence wide, medium, close to tell the story you planned to tell.
  • Use interesting transitions, but don’t get crazy with the star wipes. Use a simple cut for shots within a scene. Use special transitions between scenes or to show that time has passed.
  • Remember audio. For shots or scenes with no interesting or audible sound, use background music that fits the mood.
  • Use name keys to identify people and places. You shouldn’t need to explain anything in your video; it should all be self explanatory.

EDITING DOS AND DONT’S
DON’T edit together shots that are too similar, it will jar the audience.
DO use a dissolve between shots that are similar.
DON’T use small fonts for your titles.
DO go BIG, and use a drop shadow.
DON’T linger on a shot for more than 15 seconds.
DO change shots frequently to keep the audiences attention.
DON’T edit a shot during a move.
DO let the movement start and finish before cutting.

SHOOTING DOS AND DON’TS
DON’T overuse the zoom.
DO keep the lens zoomed out and physically move closer to your subject.
DON’T go handheld when shooting inanimate objects.
DO use a tripod to reduce shakiness.
DONT move the camera around aimlessly.
DO choose the two most important points in your shot and move from one to the other in a straight line.

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