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Filmmaking Tips from the Pros: Taking your techniques to the next level

You graduated from making iphone videos of your friends years ago, and have invested a significant amount of time, resources and energy into putting together a solid kit. Here’s what professional cinematographer and Northfork Industries lead Garett VanSwearingen thinks you should pay attention to as you are taking your filming techniques to the next level:

Filmmaking is an art that allows for infinite growth, which is simultaneously daunting and inspiring. You will never actually achieve your full potential because as you grow as a filmmaker so will your potential. There is always room to be more creative...BUT be happy with where you are now - don't obsess about perfecting a project, just get it out there! Projects will become a very personal thing, and can feel like an extension of your inner being...releasing them into the world will be hard because you will always feel like there are imperfections, but it's something we all have to face!

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Garett's Top Technical Tips

  • The human eye/brain recognizes 24 frames per second as "cinematic." If you intend for your footage to be played back at full speed, always shoot 24p. Using 30p or 60p at full speed will make your footage have that overly crisp soap-opera effect.

  • Motion blur is a GOOD thing! Unlike photography, when a lot of movement is happening in a shot, there should be blur between frames. The cinematic standard for motion blur is known as the 180 Degree Shutter Rule, essentially meaning that you always want to shoot at a shutter speed that is twice what your frame rate is. This means if you're shooting 24 frames per second, you want to shot at a shutter speed of 1/48th of a second (or 1/50th if your camera won't do 1/48th). If you're shooting 60 or 120 frames per second, the same applies - at 60p, shoot 1/120th shutter, and at 120p shoot 1/240th. Side note - ever seen drone footage that seems super jerky and overly crisp? That's because many people crank the shutter up to 1/6000th+ of a second for proper exposure on bright days, which creates an image that is basically stop-motion of still photography. To fix this, get some ND filters (see below!) for your drone so you can shoot at the proper shutter, with proper motion blur.

  • ND FILTERS. You probably read the tip above about the 180 degree shutter rule and thought, "how am I supposed to adjust exposure if I can't use my shutter to do that?" One answer is closing down your aperture, but often you still want a buttery depth of field... so we use Neutral Density filters instead! ND filters are like sunglasses for your camera, that don't change the tones coming into the sensor, but limit the amount of light. I've found that a variable ND filter, where you can twist the filter to adjust light intake is the most helpful for adjusting exposure when you want to shoot at cinematic frame rate and motion blur settings.

  • Shoot a FLAT color profile to give yourself latitude in post. The quality of the image is dependent on how much DATA your camera can capture. The way modern cameras work, the least data is stored in the darkest darks and the brightest brights. By adjusting your camera color profile to push the darks and brights closer to the center of the spectrum, you'll capture more data, and have much better results color grading in post. This still holds true even if your camera doesn't shoot in Log - the sky doesn't have to be a data-less blob of white!

  • Dig into your camera and figure out how to set CUSTOM BUTTONS. Not only will you this teach you a ton about the menus and usability of your camera in general, it will make your shooting much more efficient! I have 3 basic custom buttons that will quickly switch my camera settings. They are 1) 24p @ 1/48th for full speed action 2) 60p @ 1/120th for 40% speed while still recording audio 3) 120p @ 1/240th for super slow shots. Once set, all you have to do is hit the button you want and your camera will instantly be set up to shoot instead of messing around with menus and missing the moment.

  • GEAR CHOICES and preparedness! Choosing the right gear to shoot on is a game of trade-offs. Are you a lugging your gear deep into the backcountry or do you shoot in a studio? For most of us, you have to carry all the gear you want to shoot with on your back, which means being selective about what you're bringing. These days, the good news is that Hollywood quality camera gear, glass, a gimbal, tripod, and even a drone can be lugged around in a backpack. It's also important to note here that a day of shooting can be ruined by the tiniest of mistakes! No extra battery? Day over. No more SD's? Day over. Missing that one tiny screw that connects your obscure gimbal plate to your camera? Day over. No rain cover for your gear? Major day over. Once you've dialed in your rig, take the time the day or week before your shoot to be sure everything is charged, cards wiped, accessories locked in, etc. There are SO MANY moving pieces that can kill your shoot, the worst day you'll have is the one where you let your client (or yourself!) down by a lack of preparedness.

  • DRONE FLYING. What makes drone footage look good is how smooth it can be...which means you have to FLY in a smooth fashion! The easiest way to ruin your drone footage is to be jerky on the controls, specifically when YAWING (rotating left or right). You can counteract this by only using small/gentle control inputs while flying, and also by turning down how sensitive the drone is to your controls. Learn to hand launch and land your drone so you can fly in cooler places. Carry extra batteries. ND filters are your friend, as mentioned above! Just like in action sports, you can "send it" with your drone. Flying through forests, close to terrain features or the ground, or tracking an athlete closely will all look incredible...but just remember a crashed drone isn't a drone!

Creativity is Key

  • While planning for a shoot, MAP OUT the shots you need, the locations you need to be at to get those shots, the talent required, the gear you'll need, and the logistics required to make all those things happen. This can happen in various forms, some people like to story board, while others may just create a detailed list. However you plan, it's a vital step in conceptualizing the shoot, and allows your brain to start the creative process of the shoot. You'll go in knowing what you want/need, and prepared to maximize your creativity during the shoot.

  • While on shoot, consider the TYPE of shot you want with each scenario you're presented with, and how it will work when compiled in your final piece and story line. Will stuff look cooler, and be more impactful at full speed or in slow motion? For example, shooting a river or moving water for b-roll will probably look cooler in slo-mo than full speed. On the other hand, if you're shooting action like mountain biking or skiing, and all your shots are slow you won't convey the sense of speed and energy inherent to the action. In addition to frame rates, also think about things like how many tight shots vs wide shots you have, and the style of shooting - handheld works great for making people feel like they're part of the action or conversation, and gimbal shots get you that buttery smoothness, but tripod ("locked-off") shots can still be beautiful and creative! You took the time to create a shot list or storyboard, so bring it on shoot and check off those boxes! It's not fun to get the files on your computer and realize you're missing a major chunk of the story!

  • Always think "is there a cooler way to shoot this?" Should you climb a tree to shoot a unique angle of action happening below? Should you extend your tripod all the way and create a make-shift boom? Should you strap a camera to a moving object? Should you shoot over the shoulder of someone walking to convey change of location? The next time you watch high quality cinema (we're talking 85% and above on rotten tomatoes here) really think about all the creative and cool shots that the directors use to achieve that cinematic level. Not only will you get ideas about your own shooting, but it creates a new dimension to what you're watching. How is light and color used to convey emotion? Does a purposefully jerky scene create a sense of urgency or chaos? With good directors, every choice in cinema is purposeful and intended to have an impact on the viewer - with practice and conscientiousness you can get there too!

In Closing... Create, learn, grow, repeat. Crush. Oh...and try to get some sleep every now and then ;) Good Luck!

Filmmaking Tips from the Pros: Taking your techniques to the next level
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