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Video Taping... Shot Composition

Written by Ed Nowicki

This is a continuation of a multi-part series of articles on producing a law enforcement training video, from start to finish. This issue is devoted to shot composition, camcorder techniques, and creative shooting with editing in mind. Keep it simple, and let the Cannes Film Festival worry about artistic films.

You should know how to shoot the three basic and self-explanatory video shots: the long shot, the medium shot, and the close-up. To confuse the matter, the close-up shot has a medium close-up, which is slightly pulling back on the shot, and the extreme close-up, which is getting extremely close.

Shooting video for editing can save you time and make your job easier. Plan your shots and, if possible, keep them clumped together for easier editing. A detailed written shot log can make your editing and assembly of the shots much easier. A shooting schedule will assist in grouping the shots for each location.

Good lighting is a must for a professional looking video. First, you should do a white balance with your camcorder, whether filming indoors or outdoors. Florescent lights provide a different type of light than incandescent lights provide. It is common but a real concern if you mix the two light sources.

With two light sources, hold a white sheet of paper a few feet from the lens and perform the white balance. Your camcorder’s instructions should tell you how to do white balance. If you want a warmer look, use a flesh tone color of paper. You can even have some fun with special effects by balancing blue, red, or any color as white. Use these bells and whistles selectively, if at all.

When filming outdoors, an overcast sky works the best since there are no harsh shadows or contrasts with this diffused light. Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t always cooperate. It’s amazing what placing some large white foam boards, or aluminum foil covered cardboard, can do to reflect light. You may need some assistants to hold the boards (think police explorers) to reflect light on a subject.

You don’t need to spend more than $1000 on a professional lighting kit. You can get by with three to four clamp lights. Use 100-watt bulbs and a few old chairs or old tripods, which work great as light stands.

When using lights, watch out for a harsh shine on the face of a subject through the viewfinder. Shiny noses and bald heads serve as potential hot spots. Some macho types may not like it, but wearing make-up helps reduce the shine. Different liquid base make-up for assorted complexions and hair spray are a must. I promise that using make-up won’t reduce the testosterone level.

One of the basics of video shot composition is the rule of thirds. You should envision the video viewfinder as if a perfect tic-tac-toe grid was placed over the viewfinder. The subject of your shoot should fall in one of the areas where the imaginary lines intersect.

The eyes and the nose of a person interviewed are the main focal points. The person’s eyes should be in the upper line section. The nose in at the top of the middle square, in the middle of the shot, whether facing right or left. The room in front of the nose is simply called nose room.

If you show two individuals talking with each other, each one should be on the left vertical line and the other one the right vertical line. Then, if you video only one of the subjects in a shot, you should video the right side of the face of the subject on the left, as you look at the subject. This person should look at about a 45 degree angle, and not directly into a camcorder’s lens. This is vice versa for the other individual.

If you interview a very powerful or dynamic speaker, it may be okay for the individual to look directly into the camcorder’s lens. It’s amazing how some officers can look directly into the muzzle of a firearm or how some officers can speak to hundreds of people, yet somehow they are intimidated by that little red LED in front of a camcorder’s lens. Some speakers get much more comfortable by just placing a little bit of black tape placed over the red LED.

Not too many people like seeing a continuous talking head, no matter how interesting a speaker is. This is where a cutaway can help. A cutaway is a shot away from the person or principal action, yet it is related. This can be someone talking about cultural diversity, then cutting away to a city street scene that reflects various races or cultures. The cutaway can also be used to cover a visual quirk of the speaker.

Shooting with editing in mind will also use a close-up to enhance a demonstration. Let’s say an officer is explaining the benefits of a new type of security holster in a medium shot and how important it is to have a certain grip. A portion of the video should also be shot as a close-up or extreme close-up of the officer’s hand on the grip of the handgun, while the handgun is still in the holster. This cutaway is later edited into the demonstration explanation at the appropriate place.

There are books written that specialize in just how to shoot video. One advantage that anyone reading this article has, is that his life has been impacted by television and, to a much lesser degree, by viewing law enforcement training videos. Remember, if a shot looks good to you in an objective manner, it will probably look good to others. There’s a balance between just information and presenting that information in an enlightening and informative manner.

Don’t be afraid to get a little creative, either. Shoot down from a bridge or while standing on a ladder. Put your camera low to the ground for some unusual upward angles. Want to walk with the camera while shooting, and not have any herky-jerky movement? If so, buy an old wheelchair and secure a tripod to the wheelchair. The large wheels of the wheelchair reduce the bumps that happen with smaller wheels, even though a smooth floor, such as a gymnasium, is still the best. Now, repeat the mantra, “tape is cheap!”

Ed Nowicki is currently a part-time police officer for the Twin Lakes (WI) Police Department, and the executive director of ILEETA (www.ileeta.org). He has shot and edited 13 law enforcement-training videos, and he is currently developing a series of “Train the Trainer” videos for ILEETA as this column is series of articles is being written. He can be reached at ed@ileeta.org.

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2006

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