Sound advice from some top filmmakers
One hundred and twenty-one years after people started watching moving images on screens, millions of moviegoers have turned into moviemakers. At Maple Park Middle School in North Kansas City, Mo., teenagers shoot a ”video yearbook.” On arts-and-crafts day at Camp Yomi in Rockland County, N.Y., kids make video movies instead of Popsicle-stick coasters. In backyards all over the country, weekend golfers tape their swings. So do other swingers: Professionally packaged compilations of home-recorded porn scenes now account for 30 percent of some adult-video distributors’ sales.
With 12.5 million camcorders in use, in more than 13 percent of U.S. homes, Americans are shooting much more than the birthday parties and visits to Mount Rushmore that dominated home movies in the age of Super 8 film. In fact, Sony estimates that the number of camcorder owners using their equipment primarily to shoot family events has declined from nearly 100 percent in the mid-’80s to about 70 percent today. Everybody else is shooting assorted forms of entertainment videos. ”Talk about the media revolution,” says Renee Hobbs, a Harvard lecturer who’s an expert on the cultural impact of video. ”It’s not going to be interactive videodiscs or computers. It’s the camcorder, and it’s right now.”
The results have been infiltrating the airwaves, from the rise of amateur- recorded news footage (notably the Los Angeles police-brutality video) to sheer entertainment such as America’s Funniest Home Videos and spin-off America’s Funniest People. Together these two shows receive 400 to 600 tapes a day, according to Vin Di Bona, executive producer of both programs. ”I’m amazed at the variety,” he says. ”Camcorders have touched some creative nerve in us.”
The funniest thing about most of America’s home videos, however, is how terribly they’re made. Obviously, buying a video movie camera doesn’t make you a moviemaker any more than buying a pair of figure skates makes you an Olympian. But what is it that pros do that makes them so special? We asked a few top directors and cinematographers for key tips that can make home videos look less homemade.
Plan Your Story
Everybody knows that every movie tells a story, and every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But ”not necessarily in that order,” as subversive auteur Jean-Luc Godard has pointed out. When you’re planning a video movie, then, be creative about its underlying structure. For instance, Reggie Hudlin, writer-director of House Party, encourages fledgling filmmakers to try beginning in the middle of a dramatic scene, a technique he picked up from Marvel comic books. ”I’ve always loved Jack Kirby, the artist who helped create the Amazing Hulk,” says Hudlin. ”His stories started out with these incredible opening pages: One depicted Captain America in mid-air, falling to the ground. You didn’t know how he got in that situation and you didn’t care, because you were hooked. The exposition of how he got there came later.”
To help organize such unusually structured stories, Hudlin strongly advocates ”storyboarding,” the method in which directors, often assisted by artists, make simple drawings of what they want every shot in their movies to look like. Many big-budget productions begin with slick storyboards, but yours can be a series of stick-figure sketches.
While such preparation gives a more professional look, director Robert Wise (West Side Story) urges beginners to be open to changing their best-made plans if better ideas pop up in the process of shooting. ”Don’t box yourself in with what you plan,” says Wise. ”There’s always the chance that what you want to do is impossible.”
To make a video movie with story lines and characters, it’s essential to prepare the people you’re shooting as well as the way you shoot them. In other words: Rehearse. It might be tough to get your friends to sit down and learn lines for your personal project, but your movie won’t look polished unless your actors know the material and bring their characters to life. ”Rehearsals make a big difference,” stresses Bill Duke, director of A Rage in Harlem. ”It’s not just a matter of the actors knowing the script. The director has to understand the process an actor goes through in creating a character.” Rehearsing can also save a lot of stress — and money. Hudlin says that for a low-budget production, such as his House Party, ”extensive rehearsal can be your biggest money saver.”
See As the Camera Sees
”The look of any movie comes out of a combination of design and discovery,” says Allen Daviau, the acclaimed cinematographer who shot E.T. and the upcoming Barry Levinson film Bugsy. The lens doesn’t see things as the human eye does. So the moviemaker needs to experiment — especially with lighting — before actually shooting. ”Take one light source and one subject, experiment with all the different ways you can aim that source, and examine the different effects you get from it,” says Daviau. ”A trick is to take a white sheet, hang it outside of the frame you’re shooting in, and ‘bounce’ the light from a lamp off that sheet. That way your light source is doing two things at once, providing direct light and diffused light, creating a softer look.”
Take Time to Edit
Unlike most home movies, professional films are never shot in sequence. You’ll see the reason if you ever try to get close-ups of two characters talking: To shoot in sequence, you’d have to break down the camcorder setup after every line of dialogue and turn it around to shoot the other person responding. It’s easier to shoot one person’s lines all at once, with you or the other actor ”feeding” the corresponding dialogue; then shoot the other person’s reaction shots separately. Everything gets put together in the editing process. (To edit a video, connect the video and audio outputs of your camcorder to the corresponding inputs of a VCR; then play the footage you want to keep while recording it on the VCR.)
”One great thing about making films is that you create your own turf and create your own time,” notes Wise. ”Most of the opening sequence of West Side Story was shot on the West Side (of Manhattan), but not entirely. There’s one shot where the Jets jump into the air, and in the next, they land in a playground. Well, they jumped up on the West Side, but they landed on East 110th Street. The important thing is that you and your movie land on your feet.”