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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Still Pro Gets Started In HD Video

Award-winning still photographer Mark Edward Harris takes us on his journey to becoming proficient with HD video

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The boot camp was led by Michael Rosenblum who has produced or overseen production on more than 300 hours of programming for both network and cable, and Lisa Lambden, a 17-year veteran of the BBC. Lisa says video will be the lingua franca of everything we do in the future, so the opportunities will be, and perhaps already are, countless.

On the first day of the course, Rosenblum drilled into us perhaps the most important lesson, and the one I found the most counterintuitive: “Do not move the camera” when recording. Don’t chase things around the room, playing catch up. Let the action go out of frame. Motion in film is done by edit, not by moving the camera around. Faster cuts can make sequences show more action. Video has a grammar different from still photography and we all need to master it to truly take advantage of the new hybrid equipment.

For the two one-minute videos we produced during the workshop, I focused on a dance studio. Other students did segments on everything from a nail salon to a bicycle repair shop to a segment on a sushi chef. There’s a story around every corner, literally. And this was a great chance to practice visual storytelling. Rather than following the dancers around the room, I let them dance through the frames. I heeded the advice of our instructors and concentrated on the building blocks of video storytelling by shooting five basic shots of each scene—a close-up of the hands or feet, a close-up of the face, a side shot, then pulling back for a wide shot and, when possible, an over-the-shoulder shot. The basic assignment was to come back with roughly seven setups of five 10-second shots (that amount of time gives editors footage for cross dissolves, etc.) for each of our one-minute videos. The results were clean, dynamic clips that were easy to edit together rather than the messy footage I would have had to wade through otherwise. It’s a waste of valuable time and CF card space to “spray and pray,” panning and shooting everything. It’s also a nightmare to edit. There’s a time and a place for pans, tilts, zooms and so on but they should definitely not be the default shots we turn to.

For a professional still photographer, getting into HD video will keep you diversified. Mark Edward Harris had some experience with video, but certainly not a lot, so he attended a workshop where he learned basic techniques. It has served to make his learning curve much less difficult, and Harris is already getting some work out of it.
Rosenblum was a producer for one of my favorite shows, On The Road with the late Charles Kuralt. The show exemplified the art of storytelling. Part of one day at the workshop is devoted to the architecture of storytelling that needs to begin with a “killer opener.” We were encouraged to start with our most compelling shot when editing and not to save the best for later. Rosenblum points out, “There is no later! People will stay in a bad movie because they paid for it, but that’s not the case with television or the web.”

By the time the Travel Channel Academy Workshop ended on Sunday night after viewing our completed assignments, complete with voice-over and music, I felt ready to put my newly acquired skills to the test. A travel magazine’s still-photo assignment to Myanmar gave me the opportunity before the ink on my Travel Channel notes was completely dry.

With a military regime in power in the country sometimes still called Burma, I wasn’t sure what to expect. For the project, I teamed up with my colleague Bill White, a 20-year production veteran who also was looking for new opportunities. Our goals were to create a sizzle reel that we could use to go after travel-industry clients, as well as possible content for Travel Channel. As Michael Rosenblum from the Travel Channel Academy pointed out, nobody wants to read a pitch these days, especially when professional-quality example pieces can be done economically.

I contacted R. Crusoe & Son, a top- end tour operator that knows the ins and outs of the most exotic places on the globe. They assigned us a photo-knowledgeable guide who knew the best time of day in terms of light at the various locations on my assignment list.

We didn’t want to enter Myanmar looking like a video crew. Going in low key while maintaining high-quality image-capture capabilities was our modus operandi. Going hybrid was the answer. Bill and I went over our equipment list. He packed a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 17-40mm and 70-200mm zooms, and a fast 21mm Zeiss with a Canon mount. I brought my Nikon D3 and an assortment of lenses, as well as an adapter ring so I could mount my 105mm Nikkor macro for super close-ups on the Canon.


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