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A tip for amateur moviemakers: Record everything!

Today was our first snow of the year. It started at 6 this morning and was supposed to be flurries with accumulation of a fraction of an inch. It’s still snowing right now and I suspect there’s a good two inches on the ground. But the long commute isn’t bothering me. Scraping snow isn’t bothering me.
I got called in to work early and didn’t have a chance to record any of the snowfall. That’s what’s bothering me.

You see, I’ve got this idea festering in my head. It’s a story that’ll make a great three-minute video, and it involves snowfall. A few snippets filmed today would have worked just fine.

I’m home now and I’ve got time to set up the camera, but the daylight is long gone. My opportunity passed me by. But it reminded me of a principle: Record everything. EVERYTHING. You never know when you’ll need it.

So the next time there’s a beautiful sunny day without a cloud in the sky, get out the camera and record a couple of minutes of it. Capture the birds singing and the full trees swaying in the wind. When autumn comes and the trees are changing their colors, film a couple of minutes of it. Record a couple of minutes of a thunderstorm. And record a snowfall.

If you’re going on a trip, take the camera. Record something distinctive about the place you’re going. Record anything you come across that’s safe and legal and halfway interesting. Define “interesting” as something your next-door neighbor doesn’t see every day.

Example: While driving around in downtown Kansas City last week, while stopped at a stoplight, there was an obvious drug deal going on in a gas station parking lot to the right. That’s something my next-door neighbor doesn’t see every day. Legally I was entitled to record it too–I was observing from public property. Now was it safe for me to be recording it? Good question.

Another example: We were walking around in Crown Center, an indoor shopping mall known for exotic stuff. Lots of interesting things to see there. Also something my neighbor doesn’t see every day. Perfectly safe. But illegal to record–Crown Center is private property. There were news cameras set up outside. They could record what was going on outside the building, from the public street.

Sometimes you can’t take a video camera where you’re going. So take a still camera. Digital is better for video purposes, of course, but take what you have. A ’70s-style Polaroid is better than nothing. A still shot (or series of still shots) of that drug deal going on might have been safer to shoot than a minute of video, and just as dramatic, if not more. And a still shot of something that doesn’t move is just as good as video of something that moves. You can pan and zoom on a still shot to make it move, or take a series of still shots from different angles.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that Gatermann’s just as likely to have a camera with him as he is shoes. And he gets a lot of really good stuff in the most unlikely of places. One of the pictures of me at the top of this page was taken in a restaurant, and the other was taken onboard Metrolink, which is St. Louis’ mass-transit train.

Also remember that mixing media works. It doesn’t really matter too much if some of your material is digital video, some of it’s analog video, some of it’s single stills, and some of it’s a series of stills. Nor does it matter if some of it is color and some of it black and white. Contrast can have a dramatic effect too. If all your stuff’s the same, figure out how to make it work. If all of it’s different, figure out how to make that work. Just remember that differences will naturally call attention to themselves, so figure out how to take advantage of that when it’s a good thing and to downplay it when it’s not.

Record things even if you don’t have an immediate use in mind for them. Sometimes creativity is having an idea in mind and then going and getting the parts for what you want to make. And sometimes creativity is looking at the parts you have and figuring out what you can make out of it. But usually it’s a little bit of both.

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5 thoughts on “A tip for amateur moviemakers: Record everything!”

  1. Dave-

    Just a reminder that if anyone uses an image of someone without their consent, there can be legal repercussions. Believe me, I’ve had my fair share of dealings with model release forms.

    While you can take images of pretty much anything while on public property, if people are in the shot and they don’t want their mugs seen by other people, they can raise a nasty stink. Especially if the image is used in a public forum rather than private home use. Unless the people are secondary (i.e. background) to the actual subject. But that’s a judgment call at times. So best to ask permission. Unless it’s a drug deal, Dave. Then just get the heck out of Dodge.

  2. Question:
    are you aware of tools that allow conversion from
    quicktime to windows media player format ? My
    camera generates quicktime movies, and I want to put
    them on a website. To avoid the hassle of having
    visitors go download quicktime, I thought windows media player format would be easier.

    Am I toast, or is there a straight forward way to
    accomplish this ?

    thanks and keep up the good work.

  3. Jeanne, good points.

    Darryl, there’s a guide on converting QuickTime to Windows AVIs, using free or cheap software here (as well as lots of other conversion guides).

  4. One more if I may be greedy. I’m a video file
    newbie. Since this video is web bound, what
    file type has the best trade-off image quality vs
    file size ?

    Being a newbie, maybe thats like Mac vs PC debate,
    I don’t know.

    thanks again.

    btw, the link you provided was right on.

  5. No problem. Unfortunately it’s not a real easy question. DivX gives you the best combination of size and quality for the Web, but then you’re back to the QuickTime problem–your users will have to download something. DivX is really popular in some circles but it’s not something the average user is likely to have, and I’ll be extremely surprised if it ever gets bundled with any version of Windows.

    Of all the codecs that shipped with every version of Windows from Win95 onward, Indeo 3.2 gives you the smallest file size.

    Indeo video looks really, really good (much better than DivX), but the file sizes are considerably larger. Depending on the size of your clips, this may not be a problem. No matter what you end up using, you’ll probably have to play with frame size, etc. VirtualDub is good for that.

    Let me know if the file sizes end up being too big.

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