My Random Thoughts Before a Shoot

NASA Mission Control. Gene Kranz lead flight director celebrates the safe landing of Apollo 13.

April 17, 1970 – NASA Mission Control. Gene Kranz, lead flight director, celebrates the safe landing of Apollo 13.

When it comes to video production I’m a generalist. I can write, shoot and edit a project by myself or get a crew together and really put on a show. So some days it’s me and my camera…

Other days it’s a full-on production with catering. Catering is an important indicator of the seriousness of the project, right after the choice of camera, of course running a camera is my love. Setting up a shot that gets to the heart of the matter is my goal, no matter the size of the project. It starts days before I arrive on set. Usually a project is kicked off with a briefing which can come in the form of an email, conference call, a face-to-face or a mysterious text. The more information I have about the project and how it fits into my client’s world, the better I am able to capture the right image.

Yesterday’s shoot was a training video with a client-written and precise script. I reformatted it to the proper style, read it several times and marked it up. By the time I was done I understood how the script worked, where the beats were and how best to shoot it to create empathy in the audience.

My clients (yesterday, as always) are educated, high-end, overworked professionals. Their in-house producer was too busy for the project and he recommended me for the job. He’d seen my previous work I did for them, but we’d never met. His endorsement was, “Don’t worry he’s a professional.” I had a champion in the organization based on my work alone. I needed to make him look good.

I challenge myself to treat all of my clients the same: like they’re first time clients.

This usually sets off a series of looping questions and answers in no particular order. What can I do to make this video stand out? Should I use a second camera? A second camera should cost more, but I’d like to try a new technique. I’ll have to watch both cameras at once. One camera will do the job, but will it take too long? Should I use a new lens? Will it look better or just be different? And more obscure and technical questions and answers keep spiraling through my head and on notepads until I make a decision.

For this shoot, I settled on taking two cameras and leaving one in the car until I’d scoped things out. And to use a new lens that softens the background and focuses attention on the actor’s emotions.

I loaded the cameras, lights and other gear into the back of my car and closed the hatchback. Driving to the location I went over a mental check list for the shoot starting with my shirt. My shirt is wrinkled, it’s plaid. I never wear plaid shirts. Is my shirt too wrinkled or just right for Portland? Should I keep it tucked in? If I tuck it in does it make me look fat? What happened to my stash of pressed shirts?

Failure is not an option for NASA, but it is for me. At one shoot, a while back, I was in the top floor corner office of the president of *Acme Corporation, setting up for an interview, and was shocked to discover I’d forgotten my camera batteries, charger and electrical cord. Everything I need to power the camera. Luckily a text message, a producer, a fast taxi cab and a discrete personal assistant to the president of the company saved the day.

So, I set the camera on the tripod, moved the lights into position and checked the microphones while the interviewer prepped the president. Twenty-three minutes after sending the text message the discrete personal assistant handed me the batteries and I rolled camera with seven seconds to spare. I was saved from apologizing away my forgetfulness to the president and possibly losing the client forever, but I never forgot the lesson.

That’s why I’ve pledged, like NASA, to have no more Apollo 13 incidents. I have checklists, procedures and back-up plans for technical issues, location challenges and new ideas clients make up on set.

Like a two camera shoot.

As I set up a single camera for yesterday’s shoot, still pondering in my mind the level of difficulty with a two-camera set up, the client asked if I brought a second camera. My mind is made up: I go with the two-camera set up. The shoot went well. The actors memorized their lines into a natural delivery and the second camera with the new lens captured a slice of life.

It took a few days to edit. When the client saw the finished product he wrote: “Thanks for all the hard work to make this a really professional piece of work. It’s going to be a valuable tool in modeling great service in the back office!!! Your fan, **Ward.”

It made my yesterday.

* Acme Corporation is not the real name of the corporation.
** Ward is the real name of my client.

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