11 Early Lessons in 360-Degree Video

I recently started taking a short course on 360-degree video and how that kind of video fits within virtual reality production. While some argue that the two don’t belong in the same conversation, it’s better to think of them and other interactive experiences as degrees on a spectrum. The following post brings together 11 takeaways from the early lessons in that course.

1. Virtual reality is not a new idea.

Like almost every concept in media creation, representation, and projection, the idea of virtual reality dates back many centuries.

2. Virtual reality has roots and applications in multiple fields.

The origins and developments of virtual reality occur in art, photography, aviation, cinema, literature, cell phone technology, computer science, and, of course, video games. It has been applied in military training, medical training, real estate, travel and tourism, news, humanitarian campaigns, and many, many other ways.

3. It’s all about the axes.

360-degree video is filmed from a single vantage point. But, it gives viewers the opportunity to look around on three axes: yaw, pitch, and roll. Yaw is left to right, pitch is up and down, and roll is a tilt. Interestingly, this study found that most users explore only a small portion of the virtual space available, staying along the central axis.

4. Second-person need not apply.

360-degree video follows video games in that they include first-person perspectives and third-person perspectives. The first-person perspective places the user into the character and thus the user sees the world through the character’s point of view. The third-person perspective places the user as an observer in the experience and doesn’t give the user a specific role beyond that.

5. Remember where the users are.

Minding position and orientation is important to creating a good user experience. Avoid changing position or orientation, particularly when these changes happen without the users controlling them. The effect can be jarring and may even cause motion sickness. It is best to keep the camera even and stable.

This video features a series of scenes. Users can explore within the scenes, at least until the scene changes without user control. This effect seems odd but raises an important question to consider: How do you change scenes in a way that makes sense both from a technology perspective and a narrative one?

6. Not all traditional cinematography techniques work in 360-degree video.

While traditional cinematography techniques do have a place in 360-degree video, some of those techniques require rethinking in the new format.

Creative uses of light and shadow can have some interesting effects.

But, while tilting the camera creates some dramatic effects in two-dimensional images, it rotates the entire frameworld in 360-degree video. A usable metaphor here is that of a sinking ship.

7. Technology limitations are creative opportunities, not obstacles.

As with any technology, 360-degree video has its challenges. Instead of calling attention to these limitations, creators instead need to find ways to turn them into creative opportunities for users.

8. Agency belongs to the user.

“Agency” refers to the users’ ability to have a choice within a virtual situation. Creators need to remember that this user agency will supersede their intentions every time. Users will explore where they want to explore, whether you provide them directions on where to go or not.

9. Know your stitch lines.

A stitch line refers to the place where two images meet in the 360-degree video. Creators need to learn to work around them. When these lines appear in 360-degree video, they interrupt the experience. These lines become more prominent as people move closer to the camera, and they also become known if people pass through them. The best strategy here is to learn how to use your camera well.

10. 360-video can raise awareness about issues.

Topics here can include war zones with Welcome to Aleppo and Enter the Room, autism and its experience, and historical moments.

11. Some 360-degree videos also can be quite boring.

This piece with a famous actress just struck me as dull and lifeless, really.

Learning How to Play Again in Multi-Media Production

When it comes to apps, programs, and hardware, no one seems to play anymore.

Instead, we look up information on websites to learn exactly what we need to do in order to solve whatever question or problem we might have. WikiHow guides us with step-by-step instructions. YouTube hosts both professional and amateur tutorials on just about everything, from make-up how-tos to leveling up faster in a new video game. Lynda.com offers extensive videos on just about everything technology and business related.

But what about just trying something and seeing what happens? We seem to have lost this sense of play and the fun that comes with it.

Why? Multiple reasons. Work carries more weight, more responsibility. Family and other obligations consume free time. Recreation involves more passive activities such as watching Netflix (guilty!). Stress or depression make play appear overwhelming. Play seems frivolous, a waste of time. Play belongs to children, not to adults.

None of these are valid excuses for not making time to play.

In his book titled Play, Stuart Brown resists defining the term “because it is a thing of beauty best appreciated by experiencing it.” Eventually, though, he relents: “Remember the definition of play: an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time.”

Play is done for the sake of it, though that doesn’t mean it offers no purpose. In Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch writes that play’s “purpose is to propagate the understanding, joy, responsibility, and peace that come from the full use of the human imagination.”

Too much creation and practice center on skills acquisition and improvement, which lead to career development and advancement. The skills become the means toward future rewards such as a promotion or a raise.

In others words: work, not play.

Consider: When was the last time you let your imagination just wander? Where did it go? And how long did you wait before you called it home?

Play also offers many benefits. Brown lists several throughout his book: It improves your overall mental health. It encourages you to put away your ego and its burdens and just be. It bolsters curiosity, opening you up to new experiences and ideas. It brings learning and knowledge. It fosters risk-taking, making a risk something to try as opposed to something to fear.

All of this reading and thinking about play brings me back to creating multi-media productions and teaching multi-media production. Over these last few months I have been exploring different apps and equipment toward deciding which ones to explore with my own projects and which ones to bring into the classroom. Arguably, all of these skills can be taught sequentially and systematically: turn on the camera, plug in the microphone, set up the tripod, hit the record button.

But how would this approach prepare anyone for the utter chaos that might happen during multi-media production? What do you do when the camera breaks and it’s your last opportunity to interview one of your key participants, such as happened in The Thin Blue Line? What do you do when you’re making a documentary about film production that involves hauling a ship through a muddy jungle during the Amazonian rainy season while handling a visionary director and difficult actor, as Les Blank dealt with during The Burden of Dreams?

More practically, what do you do when the clip on the lavalier mic breaks and you need something to attach the mic to a shirt and fast? Or when the operating system of your intended platform updates just as you’re about to finish coding for the previous operating system?

And, really, with those step-by-step instructions, what fun would that be, for students or for me?

So with that in mind, I seek ways to foster play within the interactive documentary production class. Ultimately, I would like students to play with the apps and equipment toward learning how they work and exploring what they can do. The challenge will be creating the space for this kind of play, which seems at odds within the classroom setting and its requirements for evaluation and assessment.

I also have been learning how to engage in play for myself, which might help with the aforementioned challenge. It has been quite fun, I must say. I have played video games, from text-based to role-playing, to see how they work. I lost every single game (yes, I am that bad), but I have learned much in the process. Editing the same video through different programs such as iMovie and DaVinci Resolve shows different workflows and the discovery of new tools. Since the winter here prohibits outdoor filmmaking, I tied the 360 camera to a dining room light and let it record until the battery ran out and the SD card filled up. The footage offers nothing exciting, but it was fun to see the footage stitched together and then to see it exported into an actual 360 video you can scroll around.

Unboxing a DJI Osmo Mobile 2

The fun of exploring new equipment continues. The most recent mission was a gimbal for a smart phone. I originally had ordered a FlowMotion ONE in August 2018, but after six months of shipping delays on the manufacturing side, I needed to cancel the order and seek alternatives.

Many gimbals are available. The Zhiyun-Tech brand came up in my research quite frequently, as did FreeVision. Freefly and Feiya are slightly more expensive brands that also turned up in search results.

I ended up going with the DJI Osmo Mobile 2. It cost $150 with taxes ($100 less than the FlowMotion), and it works with FiLMiC Pro app. Even better, it was available for purchase in town without a multi-month shipping delay.

It came with a substantial enough “quick start guide.”

A styrofoam case kept everything inside quite protected.

The device came with surprisingly few parts — actually, only two. One part is a charging cable.

The other part was the gimbal itself.

A view of the other side.

A standard tripod mount on the bottom of the handle.

A view of the controls.

The locking mechanism will prevent you from whacking your smart phone on the table like I did.

With smart phone installed. The app is FiLMic Pro showing the design of the coffee table.

Back view of the smart phone installed. The fit was a bit tight with the Otterbox attached, but I would be a bit nervous adding a phone without some kind of case on it.

The cold here still prevents filming outside, but hopefully soon it will warm up a bit.

11 Lessons from an Editing Workshop in Adobe Premiere

In January 2019, I attended a beginner’s workshop in Adobe Premiere presented by Beth Perloff at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The following post brings together 11 takeaways from that two-day workshop.

1. Everything in its place.

In other words, keep all the materials — video, music, effects, titles — organized. This one feels like the first rule of the editors’ fight club.

2. Editors are Zen masters.

Editing is not for the impatient or the distracted. Though some may possess the ability to edit quickly, editing requires zen-like attention to details and laser-focused concentration. Distractions such as phone notifications only break concentration and extend the project’s editing time, which is going to be a while no matter how long the final cut’s runtime.

3. Know the footage you are working with.

Both of the projects we completed for this session involved editing other people’s footage. Coming in to this footage cold felt like a disadvantage, though to be fair, it was a necessary reality of the class. Editors should be involved with projects early in their developmental phases, and they should be familiar with the “big picture” (sorry) goals and the footage available.

4. The granular level of editing is kind of fun.

Putting together all the pieces reminded me of building with a Lego set. Not a Lego set with a finished picture on the package and instructions inside, but the Lego bucket with the tons of pieces inside and not a direction in sight.

5. Continuity editing is hard.

One of the projects assigned in this workshop was editing a low-budget zombie feature. The instructor provided directions on what images should appear in what order, but we still had to edit the shots and situate them within the timeline. All it took to mess up continuity was 1-2 seconds of extra footage. That extra footage created jump cuts and flow problems. I also learned that my editing tends to run long — probably part of the transition from working with words to working with images. I am still learning how to think visually.

6. Editing from paper makes the process easier.

Arranging the images and sequences on paper before assembling them in the non-linear video editor makes the process go much faster. Storyboards are a key part of the production process in fiction production; they also can help with the editing in post-production.

7. Sound provides powerful cues when used well.

We tend to think of tethering sound to its synchronous image, but freeing sounds from that connection creates multiple possibilities for storytelling. The easiest example comes from the zombie film we worked on in the class: the girl cowering in the hallway said nothing, but adding the zombie moans and groans to the soundtrack turns that shot into something that builds suspense. In documentary this practice generally is more prominent, such as interview participants being heard on the soundtrack before appearing on screen. Audio transitions, such as a piece of dialog, can mask problems of two different sounds from one interview to the next.

8. Sounds requires a lot of fidgeting.

Sound includes dialogue, music, and sound effects. The chance that all of those occur at the same volume and with the same quality is small. Music might come in quite loud, while effects might come in too soft. Dialogue — any spoken words — usually take priority and should be louder than the background music or the effects. A range of 12-18 works best, with the loudest moments hitting 6 at most. But, stay away from zero.

9. Documentary editing is awesome.

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, I really enjoyed the documentary editing part, which served as the second day’s project. This time we were given the footage and not told how to arrange it. Interviews play a huge role in documentaries, which often consist of multiple, intercut voices used in developing and telling the story. The general advice includes to keep the sound bites short and also to take care to preserve the integrity of what they say.

10. Subtractive editing or assemble editing?

Subtractive editing consists of assembling the shots into the timeline and then shaving down the unneeded parts toward a rough cut and then a finer cut. I struggled with this approach because I find it easier to edit the shots I would like before adding them to the sequence, which sounds a bit like assemble editing or a version of it.

11. Learning film criticism is necessary for anyone learning film production.

This introductory editing course is my fifth course through Film North. Each one has reminded me the importance of film criticism, which includes both formal readings but also more cultural readings of films. The criticism background helped with knowing many of the technical terms these artists use in their craft, such as fades and wipes in editing and key, back, and fill lights in cinematography. But this criticism also reminds of the power behind these practices. Editing, in particular, holds a lot of power in how it can remove sentences, words, and emotional reactions from interviews. It holds power in ordering voices; who speaks first sets tone for a documentary, for example. It further holds power in frequency of those voices; who speaks most generally holds the greatest authority. Just look at the editing of Ken Burns’s The Civil War and how often Shelby Foote appears versus Barbara Fields for an example.

Unboxing an Insta360 ONE X Camera

Part of the fun in learning about creating new media is exploring new equipment options. Virtual reality is mainstream enough that equipment for its production and consumption is fairly affordable.

Cameras for 360-dergee video in particular are easy to come by. Samsung and PanoClip make devices that attach directly to smartphones for less than $100, while YI, GoPro, and Ricoh offer stand-alone devices. Of course, almost all of them offer multiple accessories to capture your grandest adventures, such as underwater housings, remotes, and tripods and stabilizers.

I opted for an Insta360 ONE X camera bundle. The camera offers some options I want to check out, had some good reviews, and fit the price range.

It was packaged so well I almost didn’t want to take it out of the box.

Unlike most other products I have ordered from Apple, this one actually came with a small manual to get you started.

One view of the camera itself. The total length is about 4.5 inches.

Another view of the camera itself. The total width is about 1.9 inches.

The bundle came with a small tripod…

and a “selfie stick.”

Two batteries keep the power on and the camera recording.

Adapters allow connections for USB-C, micro-USB, and lightning ports.

Another adapter connects to a computer with a USB port.

And finally, a carrying pouch protects the device from most everything bad in the world.

Hoping to capture snowboarding footage, one reviewer was upset that the device functioned for about five minutes in the cold. Considering today includes a blizzard warning and closed schools and tomorrow’s high temperature calls for a high of -2 and a low of -16, it may be a while before I can try it out.

Or maybe I can borrow a friend’s cat for a video like this instead.

Notes toward an Interactive Documentary Production Class

My current position calls for developing more social, visual, and interactive contributions to the department’s curriculum. After creating an introductory social media class and an online marketing campaigns class, this semester I proposed a course titled Interactive Documentary Production, which has been approved for the 2019-2020 school year.

The course requires no previous experience with audio-visual production, so it introduces those basics alongside providing exposure to working in interactive online spaces.

The primary goal of the course is play as it relates to technology and reality representation. (More on the idea of play later.) Beyond that goal, this post offers a thinking through of the course’s possible assignments and a bit about their rationales.

Compilation Video

This 1-2 minute video would feature only archival footage, though voiceover, music, and titles could be added as needed. The goals behind this assignment include thinking critically about editing and about researching non-original materials.

Person-on-the-Street Video

This 1-minute video would feature 5-7 person-on-the-street interviews edited around 2-3 key themes drawn from an original question. The goals behind this assignment include developing interviewing skills, seeking themes among materials, creating an order among those themes, and editing diverse voices into a coherent narrative.

Web Series

The compilation video and the person-on-the-street video could become part of a web series. Or, the web series could be a separate project altogether. One distinction I would need to make here is separating the web series from programming a YouTube channel: How are they similar? How are they different? The goal for this assignment includes thinking about and developing online programming as part of a strand.

Text-Based Docugame

I suspect this assignment will draw the most kick-back, but it really drives home the importance of story, presentation, users, and engagement. Text-based documentaries frequently get overlooked, particularly in our ever-digitizing and visual world, and this assignment would serve as a reminder of the importance of text in the communication of experiences. Text-based games also get overlooked in favor of the more visually rich environments of massively multiplayer online role-playing games. (This clip from The Big Bang Theory shows more how those text-based games work.) But together these options could provide a way to engage audiences in ways that require thinking outside the frame.

Interactive Documentary

While the phrase “interactive documentary” covers a lot of possibilities, students could create one using a platform such as Korsakow. The goals here include working with nonlinear storytelling and user experience.

Animated Documentary

Animated documentary could be a short assigment wherein original materials would be transformed into animated ones. For example, one approach might take audio-only sequences and set them to animation such as in Broken: The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck. The goals here include thinking about what to show when no visual materials exist and about the possibilities and boundaries created by the art of animation.

Augmented Reality Documentary

Augmented reality adds a layer of text and context between the user’s device and the world before them. This assignment would require thinking about what that extra layer would offer the user and how it would offer it. Goals here include developing greater focus on the end-user’s experience and thinking outside beyond the screen frame.

Nonfiction Virtual Reality

Arguably, virtual reality remains the most complex among the options listed here. Some instructions for virtual reality production begin with coding. While learning even the basics of code is important, its incorporation into a class like this is too much. Instead, working with third-party apps could provide one option. Another, lower bar option could be creating a 360-degree video. Now just to find a 360-degree camera…

No one semester will include all of these assignments, particularly since the course assumes no previous moving image production experience and because each project involves multiple programs and some special equipment in order to make it all happen.

Have something you want to ask or add to this post? Leave a comment below, or reach out to me on Twitter @documentarysite.

11 Lessons from a Workshop in Audio Production

In early November 2018, I attended a workshop in audio production presented by Owen Brafford at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 takeaways from that too-brief afternoon workshop.

1. Learn a little physics.

More specifically, learn a little bit about acoustics and the way sound behaves in spaces and around objects. Even that basic knowledge will help make audio production easier.

2. Sound obeys no one.

Some aspects of film production can be controlled in useful ways. For example, lighting can be moved, adjusted, pointed, and otherwise manipulated until the effect is just right. It can be directed to go in the direction you want it to go. Sound, however, defies this kind of control and goes where it wants to go.

3. Record room tone for a few seconds.

According to filmsound.org, room tone is “The ‘sound of a room’ without any movement or dialogue.” This room tone recording proves useful in post-production to ease some gaps in the audio.

4. Know your microphone types and their limitations.

There are three basic types of microphones. Shotgun microphones attach to the camera body and plug directly into the camera for recording. A boom mic attaches to a boom. A lavaliere mic clips to the participant’s clothing and includes a transmitter for recording the sound remotely. Shotgun mics are convenient but echo-y in open spaces. Lavaliere mics get decent spoken audio, but not a rich range of sound. Boom microphones offer the richest sound and the most flexibility, but they require a crew member dedicated to holding them just right for recording sessions.

5. The boom is an art form.

A boom refers to the pole on which a microphone is attached. The boom operator then must hold the boom with the microphone at just the right distance from the speaker’s mouth and at just the right angle to achieve optimal sound recording. At the same time, the boom must be kept out of the camera’s field of vision and not distract the speaker. Wikipedia offers a great story about the origins of this practice.

6. Hiding the microphone is another art form.

While some producers don’t mind the visible lavaliere mic, others prefer that it not appear on camera. Hiding and securing the microphone in a way that makes the participant comfortable and that still achieves optimal sound recording requires a delicate balancing act of choosing and securing location. Under the shirt collar? Not if it’s starched cotton, which is scratchy and noisy. Under a hat? Not if it’s an open-weave straw hat on a windy day.

Getting the microphone to stay in place is another challenge. The possibilities to this end are mind boggling — lavaliere clips, vampire clips, Top Stick , and gaffer’s tape, just to name a few. Microphone maker Rode offers an overview of other possible ways to clip and conceal lavaliere mics.

7. The lav bullet makes micing with a lavalier slightly less awkward.

Also called a mic drop, the lav bullet is a piece of weighted metal that allows the lavaliere wire to be dropped through the participant’s pants or shirt quickly. The bullet even allows participants to thread the wire themselves, preventing some of the awkwardness that this process creates.

8. Microphones record everything.

Microphones don’t discriminate and only record the sound you want to get; they record everything without bias. A noisy truck going by outside, a pet howling in the background, a participant’s fidgeting with worry beads — all of these sounds will show up on the recording. For an example, my favorite clip from Gates of Heaven features a charming, rambling participant interrupted by screeching car tyres.

9. Microphone position > microphone quality.

Like with cinematography, sound production has a wide variety of equipment available. While higher quality equipment might up your game a bit, you don’t need the most expensive of everything to have a successful shoot. Positioning the microphone carefully — generally using a boom about 6-12 inches from the speaker’s mouth — will get great spoken audio for most microphones.

10. The most expensive part of a sound kit is the wireless set.

B&H Photo offers this great post explaining more about the complexities of wireless audio recording systems.

11. There is no excuse for bad sound.

Hollywood production techniques such as automatic dialogue replacement have created audiences used to crisp, clean sound. While they might tolerate a shaky or blurred image, they will not tolerate bad sound. But, really, there is no excuse for bad sound during a planned production. It just requires careful placement and monitoring during the recording, just as camera and other production aspects do.

Similar to the cinematography boot camp, the audio production workshop offered an immense depth of details and things to consider. More takeaways easily could be added to this list. Either way, the session offered some good starts in thinking about equipment and practices for my own projects.

Have something you want to ask or add to this post? Leave a comment below, or reach out to me on Twitter @documentarysite.

11 Lessons from a Cinematography Boot Camp

In early November 2018, I attended a class in cinematography presented by Jeremy Wilker at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 takeaways from that two-day workshop.

1. Every shot must serve a purpose.

This reminder is important as more and more novelty cameras with affordable prices appear. Drone cameras and 360-degree cameras open possibilities for some breathtaking and unique shots, but must those shots be in the final piece?

Oddly enough, this point runs counter to what I am thinking in developing that multi-media production course. In that course, I would want students to engage the technologies while creating their nonfiction works. That engagement would require experimentation and critical thinking about the relationship between representation and technology without overvaluing the latter.

2. Zoom with your feet.

This takeaway has been repeated throughout multiple training sessions and bears repeating again. Physically moving the camera makes for clearer, better images. Internal zoom functions should be a last resort, not a first one.

3. Know your equipment.

As in, really know your equipment. Know its limitations, possibilities, hacks, comparisons to other brands and models. Read the manuals; read the reviews. The more you can adjust the camera (and lighting) on the production side, the less you have to adjust on the post-production side. Making those adjustments, both large and small, require knowing your camera inside and out.

4. Sensor size matters.

“Sensor” refers to the chip within the camera that gathers light. Smaller sensors tend to render everything in an image in focus, while larger sensors allow playing with the depth of field and creating bokeh, or a kind of artistic blurring. Smart phones employ smaller sensors, but changes in computational processing now allow creating depth of field in post-production.

4. Cameras are more complex than you think.

This point hit home most for me. Over the decades cameras have become more and more consumer friendly, and many cameras require little instruction to figure out how to make them take adequate pictures. Spending time with the instruction manual might help you become more familiar with the camera’s controls, but the complexities I mention here are beyond that. One example is 8 bit versus 10 bit cameras. Dynamic range varies from camera to camera, with 8-9 stops appearing on many DSLRs and 13-14 stops bringing a wider range and less blowout. Crop images versus full frame images I knew about, as full frame has been creeping down to prosumer and consumer levels for years.

5. Proper lighting eases camera limitations.

In this session lighting and camera appeared to work in tandem. In low light, the camera ISO / gain might be turned up to capture the image better, but in doing so the image becomes noisier. Cheaper zoom lenses often have lower f stops, which cut the light the further they extend. Proper lighting can help in both of these situations.

6. The variety of lighting options is mind-boggling.

Lighting kits and setups contain almost as much, if not more, gear than a camera and its accessories. Stands are a start, but lighting options include everything from an LED panel with bi-color (blue and yellow) built in to a single targeted light mounted on a tripod. Light boxes offer another option. The Kino Flo system offers a wide range of possibilities for lighting indoor interviews. On top of all that, reflectors and scrims change the light quality as needed, not to mention changing the table lamps if on location.

7. Gaffer’s tape is your friend.

Gaffer’s tape is the Swiss army knife of filmmaking.

8. Three-point lighting is not just for film studies.

Three-point lighting refers to a fairly standard system of lighting used in film. Film studies teaches this system as a way to explain the relationships between lighting and cinematography and between lighting and story / genre, such as high-key lighting (bright) and comedy and low-key lighting (shadowy) and film noir.

It consists of a key light, which is the brightest light and the one the camera should be exposed for. The backlight creates a frame or halo around the interview participant, and the fill light knocks out or softens the shadows created by the key and back lights. The fill can be helpful for softening features on self-conscious people’s faces as well.

9. Believe it or not, there’s a formula.

The formula is called the “inverse square law.” Basically, if a light is moved back two feet, it loses four times its power. If a light is moved back four feet, then it loses 16 times its power. The camera settings need to be moved 2 f stops for each square removed.

10. Starting a kit doesn’t require the kitchen sink.

A basic setup can include a camera, a prime lens (50mm), a zoom lens, a tripod, and enough spare batteries to last a day of shooting.

11. That said, choosing a camera kit might prove challenging.

This last one is more my own thinking. There are so many suggestions for cameras to consider: Canon C100 or C100 Mark 2, Sony F5100 or F700, Canon DSLRs, Blackmagic cameras, and even just sticking with a smartphone.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed here, and it offered some good starts in thinking about equipment for my own projects.

11 Lessons in Smartphone Filmmaking

In early September 2018, I attended a class in smart phone filmmaking presented by Nick Clausen at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 quick take-aways from that day-long session.

1. To (third-party) app or not to (third-party) app?

Most smartphones come equipped with enough standard applications that power the device’s options and expand its functionality. Various platforms’ app stores burst with millions more apps for those seeking just the right tweak or feature. It is easy to get lost in choosing just the right app with just the right look and feel in order to make your film. Focus more (no pun intended) on actually using the apps instead of hunting for yet another one.

2. That said, FiLMiC Pro rocks.

FiLMic Pro seriously transformed my smartphone from an entry-level tool into a professional device. Running about $15 USD, FiLMic Pro offers intuitive controls that refine the device’s optical and sound equipment into a well-honed machine. I have only begun to explore this app’s possibilities. More on those later.

3. Expect a case of GAS.

No, not from beans. GAS is an acronym for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. While the smartphone offers an all-in-one device for making videos, audio, and still images, some extra equipment ups your game from amateurish to more polished. Similar to apps, take care not to overinvest in seeking just the right gear.

4. Shake, rattle, and roll.

As such small devices smartphones have issues with getting a stable image. This shakiness particularly becomes a problem in lower light and in motion. Some smart phones offer built-in digital (more likely) and optical (less likely), and FiLMiC Pro provides a digital stabilization option. If you have shaky hands like I do, invest in a tripod or a gimbal. I ordered this one.

5. Bipedal zoom is best.

While many cameras offer both digital zoom and optical zoom, the bipedal zoom is still the best. In other words, move your feet to zoom the camera instead of using the in-device options. The images will be clearer.

6. Sound is hard.

Enough said? Well, maybe not. Sound still remains important yet so often overlooked. Voices become muffled, volume becomes inconsistent, words drop out. With documentary’s focus on people and their speaking for themselves, sound becomes even more important.

The advice I have heard on sound using a smartphone is mixed. Some suggest that using the device’s microphone held close to the speaker is enough, but others suggest using an external microphone, such as a Bluetooth lavalier or a shotgun mic.

7. Power up.

Video recording drains smartphone batteries quickly. With portable batteries running the size of chewing gum and costing about $10 USD, there is no excuse not to have a spare or two with you.

8. Sensor size matters.

No matter how advanced and fancy smartphones get, the sensor sizes on the cameras always will be a challenge. The beautiful bokeh available with a prime lens on a DSLR is more difficult to achieve on a smart phone. Smartphones flatten depth of field and struggle with low light, so avoid Citizen Kane aspirations.

9. Editing options abound.

Editing used to be a complex process that required scissors, reels, and film. Nonlinear editing software allows editing both on-the-fly in the smartphone and in-the-seat on desktop or laptop systems. In-device editing, such as through iMovie, appears helpful for live events or quick turnaround times. The key is to remember the default settings and what they allow and limit, such as the default transition settings and how to undo them.

10. The results can be stunning.

Bad smartphone video is everywhere, but intended results can be stunning. The Painter of Jalouzi, by David Darg and Bryn Mooser, is an excellent example of these kinds of results. This short was recorded on an iPhone 6s Plus, and shots include walking ones and drone ones. Watch it here.

11. ‘Undo’ can be your best friend.

This one speaks for itself.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed, and it offered much inspiration toward developing the multi-media documentary production course.

11 Lessons from a Documentary Bootcamp

In mid-August 2018, I attended a Documentary Boot Camp presented by Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents a first step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 quick take-aways from that day-long session.

1. “Not all who wander are lost.”

No single path leads to learning production or a completed documentary. Our fearless facilitator Melody Gilbert picked up a camera and made her first film without formal training. Everyone in the room came to the session from different backgrounds, including marketing, graphic design, high school education, and others. Each of these backgrounds can be useful in learning documentary production.

2. Good documentaries start with good subjects.

People are the beating heart of the best documentaries. Without interesting people, the documentary will end up dull and unwatchable. Compelling people make for compelling stories and compelling viewing.

3. People over style.

People are more important than having a particular visual style. While a documentary might look compelling visually, it will remain just a spectacle without interesting people in it.

4. Story over style.

Every documentary possesses an underlying question, and its story leads us through to answers to that question. While some beautiful cinematic documentaries do exist — think Sweetgrass or Nostalgia for the Light — style should never overshadow or overwhelm the story.

5. Put the time in.

Documentaries require time to produce. In particular, filmmakers should put the time in with their participants in order to earn their trust and hear their stories. Dropping in once in a while might result in the elevator version of people’s stories. Putting more time in might get you the family-reminiscing-at-Thanksgiving version instead. You can guess which one will be more interesting.

6. Access is key, but not everything.

Gaining access to people and situations can represent the difference between a good documentary and a great one. Sometimes that one, larger-than-life figure propels the story and its telling. But what if you can’t access that person? Talk to the people who know them. Those people might offer even more interesting information than the larger-than-life figure.

7. Pitching is an art form. And a negotiation.

One of our activities during the session included writing a pitch for a documentary we might like to produce. Each of us had interesting ideas, but those ideas became negotiations with the other people in the room. My own idea was expanded in several new directions. The direction it goes ultimately depends on you.

8. Watch and discuss.

So much of our media consumption now is based on individual preferences with personal devices that we forget the community part of documentary reception. A key strategy is to watch documentaries for their strengths and improvements with other people in person and talk about them afterward. While the film director’s presence changes the conversation somewhat, audiences can talk among themselves just fine as well.

9. Lather, fail, repeat.

Documentary filmmaking is not for the timid or the weak. It requires bravery in order to set foot into the swirling snakepit of human life. It requires the courage to fail. It requires the strength to pick up and try again.

10. Treasure the gifts.

People telling you their stories is a gift. This present is as true for the person on the bus as it is true for the person sitting before your camera. You telling these people’s stories for other audiences is another gift. It is important to treasure these gifts and honor them.

11. Use the equipment you have.

Filmmaking offers a great opportunity for GAS — Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Avoid obsessing over the latest software, hardware, and gadget, and start with the equipment already available to you. A smartphone can capture that quick interview. An extra microphone boosts the sound recording, if needed.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed here, and it offered much inspiration toward developing my own pieces. It further was a useful affirmation of the production flow I had taught in previous classes. In all, a good start.