Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Preditor's Natural Habitat

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm fond of pointing out that Reel Stuff Entertainment has produced somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 videos since we launched in 2005. The vast majority of these have been web videos for merchants, meant for search engines like Yelp, and Citysearch.

Typically, these are 60-90 seconds long, and are shot documentary-style over the course of an hour to an hour and a half at the business that commissioned the video. They'll include an interview with the owner (or other designated representative) as well as (sometimes) other employees or customers who have been recruited by the owner to give a testimonial.

And what are these businesses that commission videos? All kinds. Restaurants are often clients (happily so, because nine times out of ten they'll conclude the shoot with a free meal for Jesper and me). We also do videos for spas, boutiques, daycare centers, dentists - professionals of every kind. One time we even did a video for a school that teaches women how to pole dance (the proprietress claimed it was great exercise).

The shoots generally go like this: Jesper and I will show up at the location a few minutes before the designated time. With us we'll be carrying all the equipment needed: an ENG (Electronic News Gathering) camera, a camera light and a wireless lavalier microphone. That's it. That's all you really need. We've since added a few more items into the mix, such as a Zoom digital recorder, which records sound with an astonishing clarity and fidelity.

We've also started to substitute a DSLR for the ENG camera. Yeah - I know acronyms can be intimidating, but these ones are fairly straightforward. Spelled out, DSLR stands for Digital Single Lens Reflex. In other words, the camera is basically the SLR that anyone acquainted with photography would be familiar with, except that it also shoots high-quality HD video.

These DSLR's have become all the rage lately. We have a Nikon D-7000, a model so popular that B&H - the New York City photography super-store that's looked upon by photo enthusiasts as a kind of Santa's workshop, full of wonderful toys - got a shipment of about 500 the day they came out. By noon, they were sold out.

The picture quality of the D-7000 is simply amazing. Reportedly, Darren Aronofsky used it to film some of the scenes from his movie Black Swan. There are shortcomings, however. You can't plug an external audio source into this camera, it doesn't have a power zoom and you can only shoot 20 continuous minutes at a stretch before the camera automatically stops recording.

Usually, on these web video shoots, we like to do the interview with the business owner first. The advantage of doing this is that whatever the business owner talks about becomes the guide for the B Roll we'll get after the interview. For anyone who doesn't know, B Roll is basically anything that's not part of an interview, dialogue or a talking head. If a bar owner talks in his interview about his beer selection, you know right then that one of the B Roll shots you're going to have to get is the beer selection.

Doing the interview first also allows us to spend more time on it, which is important because, chances are, the business owner is not used to speaking on camera. You'd be surprised at how anxious this can make people. I remember on one occasion interviewing a man who was so nervous, he couldn't even say his full name.

The key to getting a good interview is to make it as relaxed and casual as possible. Throw away the idea that you're shooting an "interview," and try to make it as much like a normal conversation as possible with a video camera whirring away in the subject's face.

We actively discourage business owners to write out scripts or any kind of copy (to borrow a term from advertising) that they will then try to recite from memory on camera. When they do this, it usually turns out to be a disaster. Instead, it's best to work from talking points, and encourage the business owner to talk up the business the same way he would with any potential customer.

The interview usually lasts around 10-15 minutes, after which we shoot the B Roll. There's a method that we follow for this. Getting an outside establishing shot of the business is essential, and for the interior stuff (as well as anything else we might be shooting outside) we like to get at least three different angles: a wide shot, a medium and a close-up. If someone's performing some kind of action for the camera, he should be prepared to do it several times so that you have wide shots and close ups you can use in editing.

If all goes well, you shouldn't have to spend more than 90 minutes on a shoot. Then, it's time to take the footage back to the office and cut it together. But I think I'll save that for another post.

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