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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.

Jay’s Tips

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

Movement Moves

  • 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.

Overall

  • Check settings constantly.
  • Be adventurous in your movement.
  • Hell, be adventurous.
Jay Allison

About
Jay Allison

Jay Allison has been an independent public radio producer, journalist, and teacher since the 1970s. His work has won most of the major broadcasting awards, including six Peabodys. He produces The Moth Radio Hour and was the curator of This I Believe on NPR. He has also worked in print for the New York Times Magazine and as a solo-crew reporter for ABC News Nightline, and is a longtime proponent of building community through story. Through his non-profit organization, Atlantic Public Media, he is a founder of The Public Radio Exchange, PRX.org, and WCAI, the public radio service for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. More about Jay, more than you'd reasonably need to know, is available at www.jayallison.org

Comments

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  • John

    6.24.14

    Reply

    Thanks Jay,. Very helpful. Compelling pieces.

  • Gerry Fraiberg

    6.24.14

    Reply

    These are excellent tips. Thanks!

  • Kelley Libby

    6.24.14

    Reply

    Thanks for this post. Really helpful. How did you get your sound? Did the camera have a decent microphone, or did you use an external microphone, or did you capture sound separately with a recorder?

  • Jay Allison

    6.25.14

    Reply

    You’re right, I didn’t write much about sound, figuring Transom is loaded with that, but here are some details. Remember, this was 20 years ago.

    I used a camera-mounted short shotgun (a Sennheiser K3U capsule–not made anymore, but they make the similar K6) for run and gun material and quickie interviews. If you get close (and you should) it works pretty well. I usually wired that right into the mic input on the Hi-8 video recorder and sometimes used a level-matching interface (made by Beach?) with XLR-in and mini-plug-out, with analog attenuators on two channels. That allowed me more level flexibility and the option to use two mics.

    For sit-down interviews I used a wired or wireless lavalier, along with the short shotgun (for backup). The wired one was a lav capsule for the Sennheiser and the wireless was a Lectrosonics rig with a Tram mic.

    These days you might do better with a separate recorder, but this set-up worked pretty well.

    You’ll notice these videos are pretty raggedy… that’s mostly because of the many dubs. This was pre-digital, so the original Hi-8 got dubbed to 3/4 or Beta for linear editing, which introduces more dubs, then a master, then production dubs, from which I struck a copy and then 20 years later, had it transferred to digital, when the mold wasn’t too bad to get an image. Anyway, that partly excuses the rough video and ratty sound, but they were never pristine because of the original format. The camera cost hundreds of dollars, not tens of thousands. It was adventurous, at the time, for network TV to be using this non-pro material for a whole documentary show.

  • Grant Blankenship

    7.16.14

    Reply

    I’m a former newspaper shooter who just recently moved to the public media world doing video and radio work. I’m glad to see your kit back then is a lot like the one I have fumbled my way into now. Mini shotgun, wireless lav, but in my case it is HDSLR and not hi-8. At any rate, that feels like about what you need in the bag to be prepared for anything. Great tips, great work. Thanks.

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