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Digital Filmmaking Tips for Beginners
by Roger Richards


The following are some basic tips for those of you who are beginning to learn how to use the new generation of digital camcorders to tell stories.

  1. Select the right camera for your goal and your budget. A 3-CCD DV camcorder, such as the Canon XL-2 or Sony VX-2100, is best for optimum color and sharpness but the new 1-CCD models, such as the Canon Elura or Optura Xi, offer wonderful image quality at a price that won't break the bank. If your production is intended for television, a 3-CCD camera is highly recommended. However, if you are aiming for the Web, a 1-CCD will do nicely. The camera you select should offer manual focus and exposure control, in addition to manual white balance for tricky lighting situations.
     

  2. In addition to your camcorder, a few other accessories are invaluable. First would be a decent tripod, preferably one with a fluid head that allows smooth panning. Manfrotto-Bogen, in my opinion, make some of the best low-budget units that offer sturdy support and decent performance. Next would be an external microphone, such as a short shotgun and/or wireless lavalier. These will allow you to get better sound than the built-in microphone that came with your camcorder. A lavalier microphone, preferably a UHF model to limit signal interference, is useful for interviews and for allowing you to capture sound when your subject is a distance away from your camera. The shotgun microphone will allow you to do the same but can be more tricky to master. Good models are made by Sennehiser, Audio-Technica, Sony and Samson. A wide-angle accesory lens is useful for when you have to work in tight confines, and an on-camera video light for low-light filming situations. Finally, always carry extra batteries for everything and plenty of videotapes.
     

  3. Some of you will already be familiar with using a still camera. Using a video camera is somewhat similar, except that your subject moves within the frame. One of the hardest things for a newcomer to digital filmmaking to do is getting used to the new camera, and what it can do. My foremost tip is once you get the camera in your hands, before you start filming you should go over the unit carefully and figure out exactly where and what the function of each button is. Read the manual from cover to cover. Most of the people I know don't like to do this but it makes no sense not to. Learn about your camera thoroughly. Only then can you begin to work with it instinctively. There is no time when you are filming something important to start figuring out what to do next because of unfamiliarity with your equipment.
     

  4. OK, so now that you know how to make your camera function, the next step is actually filming. Firstly, until you are more experienced, leave your camera in all the automatic modes, like exposure, focus and white balance. Later on you will probably desire to control all these functions manually but for now go ahead and depend on your camera's auto systems. The most important thing you will learn is to hold your picture steady. Most people, when they get a video camera in their hands, end up recording a picture that when you play it back almost makes you dizzy. Forget about zooming and panning. Compose a picture in the viewfinder carefully, then hold the shot for a minimum of 10 seconds. Let the action happen inside the frame. While filming you should already be thinking about your next shot. Next, pause the camera and reframe. Stay away from the zoom button if you need a close-up. Leave your lens at its widest setting. Instead, walk over to your subject and compose your shot. When your lens is at wide-angle your focus is not as critical as when you zoom in tight on telephoto. Your shot also will be much steadier. Nothing is worse than jiggly video, unless done on purpose for aesthetic reasons, but usually only by people who know what they are doing (remember the TV show Homicide?).

  1. Shoot wide, medium and tight. A variety of shots at different focal lengths are necessary to make an interesting production and for editing. Your first shot should be a wide view of the scene, then most of the rest should be of medium and close-up range. Vary your position and angle.
     

  2. If you are trying to capture sound with your camera's built-in microphone, remember to stay close to the person who is speaking and not to move the camera until they are finished talking to avoid sound drop-outs and inconsistency.
     

  3. Once you are finished filming your project, the next step is editing it into a finished production. In the past, the ability to do this was limited to only those who could afford to spend the thousands of dollars necessary to build an editing station. Thanks to computer makers like Apple and their revolutionary products like the G5 and the iMac, editing your DV project is now affordable and easier than ever. If you are just starting out, my recommendation would be to buy an iMac computer, which comes bundled with iMovie editing software. Editing your movies is as simple as connecting your Firewire-equipped DV camcorder to the iMac and transferring the footage to the computer's hard drive. The tape can be logged and edited into a simple production with only a few hours practice. Once you have learned how to edit and have some experience under your belt, it is then possible to move up to Apple's more advanced, professional level computer and software, the G5 and Final Cut Pro.


I hope the above information will be helpful to some of you. This is just a taste of what you need to learn in order to be able to produce high-quality digital video productions. For those of you who wish to take your skills further, more extensive training is available by attending the Platypus Workshop. Please contact me if there are any questions.

 

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