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Tuesday 14 April 2009

The highs and lows of film-making and why relatively few good videos get made

Watching the G20 protests on TV it seemed that every other person had a camera. Yet only two video clips of the Ian Tomlinson incident have come to light so far. One was shot by a member of the public, the other by a broadcast news team and despite professional cameras being outnumbered by ‘activist’ cameras to the tune of hundreds to one.

A fluke? I suggest not. It’s probably a sign that, despite the hype, most people are failing to record what really matters.

For more than a century, cameras (first still, then cine film and now video) have been marketed with the promise of professional results at the touch of a button. The reality is rather different.

While it’s true that it has never been easier to capture footage, the creative skills that are needed aren’t on the radar for most people. That’s because the market for costly equipment is much more profitable than the market for learning skills. There is always a new and improved camera to sell.

The truth (and deeply unfashionable fact) is that you can make a terrific film with a cheap or old camera — if you have the skills.

I first got involved with amateur film-making when I was a teenager. For years I taught video-making and wrote about it. The wobbly, zooming, undisciplined footage these days is exactly the same as it was in the 1970’s. There is just much more of it now and many more people producing it.

Is the percentage of people who are creating anything ‘good’ any greater now than thirty years ago? With our modern-day time-poor society, focused on instant gratification, I doubt it. The good stuff is just more accessible worldwide now.

Still photography is difficult enough, but with video there are countless skills to learn. Many people can frame a shot well or shoot someone talking on camera. But that isn’t a film. It’s one shot. A film is dozens or hundreds of shots, with sound, all woven together to tell a story.

I would love everyone to have video-making skills. It’s one of the reasons why I used to teach. On the other hand, governments would hate it and that’s why learning to work with such a powerful medium still isn’t on the timetable at most schools, thirty years after the home video revolution and twenty years after the introduction of the camcorder.

WHY WORTHWHILE FILMS DON’T GET MADE

Even if they happen to have the film-making skills, whether it’s a wedding, the G20 protests or any other event, most people are not there primarily to make a great video. They are there to enjoy the event, have fun with their friends, protest, fight the police and generally be in the thick of whatever is happening.

For some of us, making a video is an enjoyable thing in itself. But it’s demanding hard work and there are always compromises at every step. Often the things we should do to get the footage we need, conflict with what we want to do to enjoy ourselves or take part.

You know that going up to the top of the nearby multi-storey car-park will give you a wonderful ‘establishing shot’ that will set the scene. But can you be bothered? You’re with your friends and don’t want to leave or lose them.

You can shoot some wobbly point-of-view footage as you walk along in the demo, but really you need some shots taken from the sidelines. Can you be bothered?

An interview would be good but you’re busy having a laugh with your mates and, besides, you forgot to bring along the external microphone (making a check list is more hard work), so the sound would end up being rubbish.

Finally you get home. Do you have what you need to start editing and tell the story effectively? How compromised is it? Can you find the time to do any editing? I admit I fall down on that last point all the time because I shoot far more than I can find the time to edit and upload. But it’s in the archive for posterity!

On the other hand, people who are being employed to do a job, are focused entirely on the task in hand and know that future work depends on results.

Unfortunately I don’t see this changing ever. It’s a problem that technology can’t and won’t ever solve. The number of people who make great videos will remain a tiny committed minority.

CLIPS AND TEXT

One interesting and effective way to use less structured short video clips or single shots is to embed them in a written article on a web page. In that way the clips don’t have to form a completed film. The text provides the context and the video adds to the text.

HIGHS AND LOWS

Film-making can be very rewarding sometimes. Hearing an audience laugh at, and applaud your (intentionally funny) video is a wonderful experience. Other times, things aren’t so great, such as when people take your skills and efforts for granted.

This goes back to the marketing. As ‘anyone can do it’ in their opinion you, as a film-maker, aren’t doing anything special or skilled. It’s ‘so unfair’ that you expect to be credited or that you ‘claim ownership’ of your work. There’s the suggestion that if someone else had happened to be standing in the same place they would have produced exactly the same thing.

Except they weren’t and wouldn’t have… They didn’t make the effort and, even if they had, most don’t have the necessary skills and are either too lazy or busy to ever learn them.

Despite the fact that such people can’t even get to first base and transfer their footage from their camera onto their computer, still they don’t make the connection between lack of skills and effort and a dire video or none at all. Generally it’s the equipment that is to blame and, as usual, an expensive new camera is seen as the solution… Well done Sony and Canon! But sometimes it ends up with resentment towards those who do know how.

Be warned, these people are dangerous. Rather than make an effort themselves, they will suggest that they ‘learn on the job’ while you do all the work. They will suggest you don’t put credits on videos that you make, or nag you for a vanity credit. Later they will exaggerate their own contribution and may fail to mention you at all.

So watch out. This is always a danger due to the collaborative nature of film-making. The exact contribution made by camera operator, editor and director can be hard to discern in the finished product.

THESE ARE GREAT TIMES

Video-making equipment has never been cheaper or more accessible. There has never been a better time to learn how to shoot and edit properly. And, once you have the skills, you will have them for life. Unlike the latest flavour-of-the-month camcorder.

Everything you need to know about film-making is out there online or in books. There are courses that are focused on film-making techniques rather than equipment.


Filed under: Net & technology,Personal,Photography,Video-making — GS @ 2:29 pm

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