A Radio Producer’s Video Shooting Tips
I’m a public radio guy, but in the early 1990s, I also began shooting solo-crew videos for ABC News Nightline when Ted Koppel and Tom Bettag ran the show. They had a feature called Friday Night Specials and they were taking chances. Like hiring me.
It was in the very early days of handheld consumer video recorders and the networks were just beginning to use them for broadcast. I used the Hi-8 videotape format and bought a Sony camera at a department store. For my first story, Koppel sent me out with a skilled videographer, Kurt Worden, and I watched everything he did, which helped a lot, but nothing helped as much as when I went to shoot on my own and realized in the editing room all the things I wished I’d done.
When you’re doing everything yourself, sound may be the trickiest part. That, and shooting, interviewing, lighting, tech, etc. It’s doing it all that drains you, because one small mistake in one area can ruin everything.
These are notes I made for myself, mostly about how to get video that’s useful later in assembling a scene, and to remind myself that it’s ok to fool around and be open-eyed.
Remember, I make radio mostly. I’m not a videographer. But I played one on TV.
First Comes Sound
- Get room tone. Duh. Gather wild ambient sound with the camera. Percussive stuff is useful.
- Let camera roll if the audio (e.g. a whole song) is important, even if the picture is stupid. Don’t stop and start the camera during the scene.
Then, the Big Picture
- Just shoot, so you have a ton of ingredients later. While you’re shooting, you don’t know exactly how the scene will play out, so don’t pre-edit it in your shots and angles.
- Get details, so you don’t know where you are or who is who, e.g. I forgot to get really tight shots of a softball game. I should have gotten mitts, the ball in the air going different directions, feet running, a bat on the ground, someone picking up a bat, etc. etc. That stuff also helps you change direction to someone moving right-to-left to left-to-right.
- Keep both eyes open looking around. Look for the unexpected, e.g. Cut to cat sharpening its nails in a tense domestic situation.
- Get extraneous stuff when you’re doing a portrait to take the focus off the principal, e.g. in courthouse: shoot others coming and going, hands and feet, newspapers, court seal, gavel, view out the window, a door opening, closing.
- If doing a story about a PLACE, get lots of angles, different times of day, different weather. Shoot at night.
- For a large crowd scene, get good wide establishing shots from different angles, then get groups of 2 and 3 looking various ways, also shots looking down a line of people, and close shots, and extreme close-ups of details. Get listening shots. All these things allow you to use various angles, and switch the apparent left and right.
Clip from “Save Haven,” an ABC News Nightline Friday Night Special, 1994. Editor: Gordon Swenson. Producer/Photographer: Jay Allison
Frames, Angles and the Like
- Shoot over the shoulder shots at talkers and listeners. Hold over the shoulder shots, hold so that both people talk.
- Watch lip and arm movement, etc. Get non-moving mouth shots.
- Shoot hands, but shoot bodies without hands, esp. if hands are busy.
- Watch out for eyeglass reflections. Watch out for big white overexposed spots in your framing. Watch out for clothing changes. Watch hand position, be careful of mis-matches.
- Get offbeat angles. Try nonparallel framing, change horizon line. Don’t be a slave to the horizon.
- Use a foreground. Try splitting the image vertically with foreground filling right or left of frame, e.g. Off-center framing to draw eye in, down a hallway, with wall up close in foreground.
- If someone is doing something, shoot people looking at them.
- Get people walking in, walking out of the frame.
- Shoot passive listeners, e.g. snowman, stuffed animals, dolls, a dog. Great for B-roll cutaway option other than the usual: hands.
- Shoot half a face.
- Shoot stuff with white background for dissolving in and out of, e.g. piece of paper, a birthday card. Or simple image like water, etc.
- If you’re the reporter/shooter, people will look at you right through the camera if you keep your eye inside it. The ultimate effect of their eyes looking right out of the screen is arresting.
- For still shots, don’t breathe. Or use a tripod.
Clip from “Castaways,” an ABC News Nightline Friday Night Special, 1995. Editor: Eric Wray. Producer/Photographer: Jay Allison
- HOLD SHOTS, at least to a count of five, before and after pans. In other words: Hold on image, pan, hold on image–get three for one. Pan at different speeds on the same subject if you find something good. Try a slider. Zoom and pan together.
- Hold on ends of shots, after the action is over. Let the subject move out of frame and hold on what’s left. Someone gets up from a hammock; hold on the hammock swinging.
- Change camera position, go high, low, wide. Climb up high, shoot down. Lie on the ground. Spinning shots. Why not? Don’t stay static at head height and zoom.
- Hold on close foreground and pan off to deeper subject. Reveal.
- Rack focus–i.e. pulling in and out of focus–useful in dissolving into/out of lights or a sunset, etc. Or try an out of focus face, coming into focus and vice versa.
- Natural wipes: Guy leaves the courtroom and his whole body blocks the frame as he passes: good cut point. A garbage bag snaps out and fills the frame. Cut.
- Check pans on standby first, go slow. Know where you’re going with your pan. Pick the end.
- Check settings constantly.
- Be adventurous in your movement.
- Hell, be adventurous.
About Jay Allison
Jay Allison is an independent journalist and leader in public broadcasting. He is a frequent producer for NPR news programs and This American Life, and a six-time Peabody Award winner. He is known for his various roles as envisioner, curator, and producer of The Moth Radio Hour, Lost & Found Sound, and This I Believe; he co-edited the bestselling books based on that series. He is also a founder of the acclaimed websites, Transom.org and the Public Radio Exchange (prx.org), and WCAI, the public radio station for Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Cape Cod where Allison lives with his family.