The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Lessons learned from the London Culture Dash

I spent 12 hours this week editing video[1] into a 5-minute class project, which I think turned out all right, but which taught me a few lessons I hope help other people.

Shooting video looks easy. You point the camera, you push "record" to start, and you push "stop" when done. Voilà, you've got video!

If only. Shooting video you have to edit together into a cohesive, 5-minute package actually requires serious planning and attention. As a camera operator, you do not want your editor to curse you out loud with enough vitriol to make the dog leave the room, especially if you're the editor. And you absolutely do not want your classmates to say things like, "oh...that was...different..." when you're reviewing it in class.

First, some background on the project.

During each non-U.S. CCMBA residency, the teams go out for a five-hour block of time to shoot a video project. The assignment requires us to go to three culturally-significant locations (from a list of 12) and interview people about the locations' cultural significance. We also have to map each location to a list of "Cultural Dimensions" (from Cornelius Grove's 1995 GLOBE study) and, one hopes, find at least one person who can confirm on video the team hypothesis of which dimension the location represents.

The teams fanned out across London on August 19th with our Flip cameras and notebooks. My group chose to visit Crystal Palace, Westminster Abbey, and No. 10 Downing Street (which we believed represented "Performance Orientation," "Collectivism," and "Power Distance," respectively). We shot about 17 minutes of video, including about 2 minutes of my feet when I failed to press the "stop" button firmly enough at one point.

Here, in descending order of importance, are the things I learned editing this video:

Outline your story before anything else. This isn't always possible, but the more planning you can do before heading out, the stronger your package will look. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end; identify these three things before shooting a single frame of video, and everything else will fall into place.

Get as much tape as you can. As all my Hofstra T.V. friends will remind me (Yak, my college roommate, especially), for a 5-minute package you need at minimum 25 minutes of raw tape—50 if you haven't outlined your story first. Really, you can't have too much tape: you can always cut out what you don't need, but when you're editing in Chicago you can't go back to London to get B-roll[2].

Shoot as much B-roll as you can, too, because if you have to cut an interview while the subject is speaking, having a 10-second shot of something else over the interviewee's speech can mask the edit.

Script the opening interview questions. Obviously you can't script an entire interview. But having scripted questions gives you two things in post-production: first, it allows the editor to cut in reverses[3] that flow seamlessly into the interview. Even though you'll want to shoot the reverses after the interview, it's incumbent upon the reporter to ask exactly the same question that the subject answered. Scripting also helps the reporter to be succinct, which makes editing easier; viewers want to see the interviewee, not the interviewer, but a long, rambling question can't be cut gracefully.

Plan your shots before going to the location. You need to know ahead of time the shots you must have to complete the package. Again, thinking to oneself, "I really want a shot of Victoria Station right here..." is kind of frustrating when you're editing video 6000 km from Victoria Station. Same with thinking of a follow-up question two months later: unhelpful.

Take your time at the shoot. There were a couple of times when I started or ended a shot abruptly. Fortunately, Yak's frequent rants in the dorm about the sophomores he was supervising were burned into my brain, so I took his advice to get at least 10 seconds of still footage at the beginning and end every shot. I also got the stand-ins to pause for a few seconds before starting to speak, and held on the interview subjects for several seconds after they finished. This helped immensely with transitions, fades, etc.

Similarly, when shooting B-roll, move...very...slowly. You can often speed up a shot subtly without making the audience want to hum "Yakety Sax." But slowing a shot down requires repeating frames, which makes it look jerky, and makes the editor call you names.

Leave captions up longer than you think you need, but keep them succinct. My initial cut had some captions going by so fast even I couldn't read them. Captions need to use a large enough font to be read; they need to stay on screen long enough to read them; and when captioning a speaker, they need to match the speaker accurately. On the latter point, it's perfectly ethical to cut non-essential words from captions if the speaker talks quickly, as long as you don't change his meaning or demeanor.

Get the subjects' names. Even first names help. This was a forehead-smacking oversight on our project.

Designate a producer. The team should have someone else take notes (see previous lesson), corral the subjects, keep the interviewer focused, watch for matching problems, mark interesting things the subject says, and so on. In short, the producer should constantly think about how the final video will look, while the camera operator concentrates on the current shot.

Hold the camera still. It's hard enough getting shots to match; it's nearly impossible to match "Blair Witch"-style footage. (Myrick and Sánchez planned each shot meticulously, by the way.) Similarly, interviewers need to hold themselves still if they're in the shot, otherwise the reverses won't match.

The operator shouldn't talk. Sound volume decreases with the square of the distance from the microphone. If you're holding the camera, you're right next to the microphone; anything you say booms out like the voice of God.

Finally, have fun. We had a great afternoon, and I think we put together a good product. Over the next four residencies the CCMBA December 2010 teams will produce another 80 Culture Dash videos. I hope this post can help make all 80 of them more enjoyable to produce and to watch.

[1] Unfortunately, I can't post the completed video, because we assured two of subjects that we would not publish their interviews. I can post some of it—but not before we formally present it to the class tomorrow morning. I apologize for posting an entry about a video that you're not yet allowed to see.

[2] B-roll is the footage of everything other than your interview subjects and reporters. B-roll includes shots of the location, shots of getting to and from the location, establishing shots, shots of people at the location...essentially, everything that can help you establish context or make transitions.

[3] A reverse shot shows the world from the main shot's point of view. For example, if your main shot is an interview subject, shot over the reporter's shoulder, the reverse would show the reporter, over the subject's shoulder. When shooting reverses it's also very important not to cross the axis, the imaginary line connecting the two people. So if you shoot the subject over the reporter's left shoulder, it's vital to shoot the reporter over the subject's right shoulder, otherwise the edited video will make it seem like they're looking in opposite directions.

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