A non-camera person’s guide to filming – Part 8: How to make a (good) promotional film
This is the latest instalment in our How To Make A (Good) Promotional Film series. If you missed previous posts or want to go right back to the beginning and find out what it’s all about, click here. New instalments will be released every Friday. Click here to have them emailed straight to your inbox the moment they go live.
As the title suggests, I am not a camera operator. There are much more trained and experienced people who do that and I have enough to worry about on set without trying to do the actual filming.
However, although I’ve made my feelings about hiring professionals clear, here is a quick look at some basic tips for camera work. This isn’t going to be technical because I’m not allowed to press the buttons, but it covers the basics for footage that translates into a successful edit.
This should prove a useful guide for any camera people who are recently trained and need reminding of the key basics to make your work usable to editors in a professional context. However, if you’re going to try and direct a film, even though you’re not operating the camera, you should understand how it works.
Hold the camera still
See, I told you this would cover the basics! But often it’s the basics that seem to get missed. A shaky camera looks amateur and can make the viewer motion sick. That’s fine if you’re shooting a newsreel in a war zone, but the priority for me is clear footage that is appealing to look at.
So, use a tripod. Always use a tripod. Or put your camera on the floor for low shots. Or on a desk. A flat, stable surface. Don’t think ‘oh well I need to just get this quickly so I’ll just hold it and I’m sure it’s fine’. It’s not fine if it’s shaky. Take the extra moment to set up the tripod and put the camera on it.
Smooth camera movements
Camera movements add production value; they make the film look classier. The basics being:
- Tilt up/down
- Pan left/right
- Slide/track left/right
However, these shots only add value if they’re done smoothly. So you want a camera on a tripod with a proper tripod head. Or you want a slider or track. A shot that shakes or judders doesn’t work. My rule of thumb: if you can’t get the movement smoothly, don’t move the camera.
The lazy way to make promotional films is simply to take shots of all the relevant bits. And then, in the edit, put the most relevant shot over what the speaker is saying.
She says the name of the company, we see the logo
Then she says what they make, we see the machine
She mentions that it runs really fast, we see it running fast
But that’s not really a film – it’s a glorified slideshow. The human brain is hard-wired to want stories, so why not give them to us? We’ve already talked about finding the overall story of your film. But every single sequence is an opportunity to tell a mini-story.
Now that ‘story’ can be as simple as people arrive at the building, go through the main door, swipe in, and go up to their office. It’s not groundbreaking stuff. But it tells us, as the viewer, that there’s a story unfolding. And we can still achieve the same results of seeing the outside of the building and the company logo, but we see them in the context of the story.
That’s exactly how we start our most recent film for our repeat client Oxsensis. The story sequences don’t stop there…next we see two technicians changing into their lab gear. We then visit different stations in the production area while different manufacturing processes take place. Each one of these is its own mini-sequence.
And in fact, there’s an overarching visual story here. Each of these mini-sequences links together to show a different part of the assembly process of an Oxsensis sensor. By the end of the film, we see that sensor fitted onto a gas turbine, which is what those sensors are for.
Take a look, what do you think of the result?
Wide, mid, close
This is the go-to for covering your action from different angles so that your editor can stitch them together. If you’ve filmed a really interesting shot of someone putting something together, but you’ve only filmed it from one camera angle, then that’s all the editor has to work with. They can either use one little bit of it, or we have to stay on the same shot for the whole action. Different angles let the editor stitch the action together.
If you get flustered in the heat of the moment and you’re wondering if you’ve covered enough, go to the basics:
- Wide – so we can see the whole setting and the context in which the action is happening
- Mid – so we can see all the action but cut the context
- Close – so we see exactly what’s happening in detail.
Watch the Oxsensis film above – look again for the use of wide, mid and close.
Changing angles and crossing the line
The rule of thumb is that you need to move the camera angle by more than 30 degrees for any two shots to be editable together. If you only shift just a little bit to one side then cut between those two shots, it looks like there’s been a glitch in the Matrix instead of a change in perspective.
So once you’ve covered the action from one angle, move at least 30 degrees around (and preferably switch between close, mid and wide).
However, don’t cross the line. Crossing the line is a complicated idea, but the basic premise is that if you film something from one side, and then go all the way to the other side for the next shot, the brain can’t stitch those two angles together.
Imagine you’re watching someone walk from left to right. Well, if you go all the way around (crossing the line) and film them from the other side, they’re now walking right to left. When you cut those two shots together it looks like they’ve done an about turn.
Look again at the Oxsensis film. Can you see the angle changes? Does it ever feel jumpy and confused or does your brain always accept the change of angle?
In and out points
A scene needs an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ point. Covering wide, mid and close and changing the angle by more than 30 degrees (without crossing the line!) gives your editor plenty of material to edit together a little sequence. But when does the sequence start and when does it stop?
With films that cut between interviews and live action, the interview shots give you an option to cut between action without it all necessarily stitching together. However, it is much more satisfying to watch action start and resolve naturally.
Take one last look at that Oxsensis film (sorry if you’re bored of watching it now!).
Each of those mini-sequences has an in and an out point. We don’t start partway through the action; we see people arriving, someone walking through a door or the sensor being carried into shot… And at the end we see them leave, the sensor lifted out of place, or the carry case being rolled away. The viewer knows when new action has started, and when it has resolved.
(Talking of out points, here’s my ‘out’ point for the blog…)
That covers the most important elements of shooting, without getting into any technicalities about lenses, F-stops, exposure and who knows what else. When you work with a professional camera person, those aren’t your concern.
(And here’s my ‘in’ point for the next one!)
Now, it wouldn’t be fair to talk about camera work, without also talking about sound. So up next, Part 9 – the importance of sound.
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