Monday, July 30, 2007

Depth of Field for Videographers

Students of photography spend a lot of time learning about "depth of field," but for most people shooting video it's a bit of a mystery. (Note: I prefer the term "depth of focus" as more accurate and useful, but since it is used less often, I'll go with "depth of field" for this post.)

In part, this is a matter of practicality: while one can easily use depth-of-field techniques with a 35mm camera, most DV camcorders have sensors smaller than a piece of 35mm film and are generally shot at the wide end of the lens -- two conditions that end up creating deep focus. This means that in your typical "stand a few feet away from the subject" setup used by small-crew and solo documentarians and video bloggers, your subject is in focus and so is the background.

That's fine, but for greater control, experiment with this:

1. If your camcorder allows it, set your aperture on the F-stop with the lowest number. That is, the end of the aperture scale that is F1.4, F2, F2.8, or F4.
2. Now zoom in. That is, use the long focal lengths your lens provides -- as if you were trying to bring a distant subject closer.
3. Now you'll have to stand further from your subject to frame them the way you want -- for example a "head and shoulders" shot.
4. Consider how you can solve the audio problem this may create -- if you are working with a crew, a boom microphone would be great, or you can use a radio-transmitting microphone, or a clip on microphone with a long cable.
When you try this setup -- or a more refined version where you set up a subject at the near end of a room and shoot into the room to create depth -- you will discover you are able to get your subject in sharp focus and to throw the background out of focus. That effect can work very well to control your audience's attention, and to emphasize your subject over their environment or background.

It can make for a very creative and beautiful shot -- so try it out.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

On the "New Rules" and Changing Them

As pointed out by CFoA (Certified Friend of Actualities) Ryan Gallagher there is an e-petition relating to proposed new regulations on photography and filming in New York located here.

In general, I resist online petitions. They are less effective than letter writing. Often, they are written in a way that is overly rhetorical. As well, they make us feel we have taken a stand on an issue when we've taken minimal action.

Nonetheless, since I agree with the spirit of this protest -- that we should resist the erosion of our freedoms in general, and that the First Amendment protects photography and filmmaking both in public and in private -- I have signed the petition.

The New York Times article on this states:

The new rules, which were proposed by the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting, would require any group of two or more people who want to use a camera in a public place for more than 30 minutes to get a city permit and $1 million in liability insurance. The same requirements would apply to any group of five or more people who plan to use a tripod in a public location for more than 10 minutes, including the time it takes to set up the equipment. The permits would be free.
I encourage you to research the issue, of course. When you have, or if the above is scary enough for you, WRITE a letter -- on paper, signed and with your return address on it, using enough postage -- and send it to:
The Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting
1697 Broadway Suite 602, New York, New York 10019
I assure you that -- as sexy as Web petitioning is -- written letters are weighted much, much, much more heavily by those in public office. They require time to deal with, and are much harder to ignore.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

First Amendment Rally

Shooting video for a project, I went to a First Amendment rally in Union Square. The key issue: proposed new regulations on photography in New York. More on this soon.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Round Up The Usual Suspects

The Guardian has a very interesting piece by Ian Jack: "The documentary has always been a confection based on lies":

The 1990s saw a succession of controversies about invention in documentaries - Driving School, The Clampers, The Connection (in which drug runners weren't in fact running drugs) - which produced the same kind of hand-wringing, if not quite the quantity of it, that this month overtook the BBC.

According to Michael Grade, too many young people in television have "not been trained properly, they don't understand that you do not lie to audiences at any time, in any show".The BBC's director-general says it must "never deceive the public". But the documentary is a confection and often built on a series of small lies.
Well worth a read.

Personally, I'm not bothered when someone disputes that either documentary or photography can deliver "truth." I do kinda resent the "confection" bit, however.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Frugal Traveler: American Road Trip, Week 10

I've really enjoyed editing the Frugal Traveler episodes this summer.

This was week 10 of 12. Each short piece, so far, has offered a different editing challenge, stretching my abilities and my understanding. And all have been done under time pressure. It's been a really great class in real-world documentary production.

So what have I learned? Well, a lot about pacing. When I started this series, my tendency was to strip the edit down as much as possible -- to get from here to there without "wasting" time. The first discovery, for me, was that loosening the pace just a bit as one action completes and another starts may give the audience a chance to experience and feel -- and is usually worthwhile time.

This week's episode forced me to think about that further, and you'll notice several moments that read as a chance for the main character to reflect on his situation. By extension, we (as audience) may experience this reflection as well, if we choose to....

Frugal Traveler: American Road Trip
(Week 10: Fort Collins, Colorado) 4:57
July 25, 2007

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Errol Morris On Photography

My favorite documentary filmmaker, Errol Morris, blogging about the nature of photography:

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Pictures are supposed to be worth a thousand words. But a picture unaccompanied by words may not mean anything at all. Do pictures provide evidence? And if so, evidence of what? And, of course, the underlying question: do they tell the truth?
(Please note: the link goes to a "Times Select" feature.)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Live From Peru

Profluence Productions member Maya is posting about her documentary filmmaking trip to Peru over at Inkaland.

"with 2 tapes of good material and 2 stomachs full of papas and cuy, we headed back to the highway to find a collectivo to take us home. many other people were there to do the same thing and there was nothing in sight. there's a lot of dust in this country. there's a fine layer of it on everything. it lines your nose and coats your mouth. it gets kicked up by buses and so we sat there gathering dust and the sun began toasting the tops of our heads and still nothing was coming along the road."

Sunday, July 22, 2007

News Flash

I've posted a photo from my recent wedding over on New York Portraits.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


CFoA (Certified Friend of Actualities) haikugirl has given this blog a very nice shout out. (Since our goal is to gain RSS subscribers and blog readers, that's a very good thing.) After blushing, I wrote a haiku about it:

looking at the Web
recognize my own name's shape
immodest nature
Then again, perhaps writing in verse isn't necessarily the best way to extend our reach. If it turns out to be popular, however, be prepared for future posts in iambic pentameter....


CFoA (Certified Friend of Actualities) Chris has posted an account of his ongoing documentary trip to Peru at Inkaland.

"There´s been some turmoil here the last few days. There´s a teachers´ strike, which doesn´t sound very intimidating, but these maestros mean business. The taxis and public transport struck in solidarity with them on Wed, so when we flew into Cusco, there was no taxi-to-the-bus-to-OTT like we planned - we had to just stay in Cusco for the night and hope the next day was better. We sat in our rooms mostly, cause we´d just climbed up to 12,000 feet and our heads were light."

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Frugal Flier Miles

Came home from New Hampshire on a train. Arrived at 2 a.m. in Penn Station, took a cab home.

Immediately started downloading files.

That's because Tuesday is my Frugal Traveler editing day....

Frugal Traveler: American Road Trip
(Week 9: Columbus, New Mexico) 4:29
July 18, 2007

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Cutting (to the) Chase

I'm a big believer in learning-by-doing, so in the face-to-face video classes I've taught, I have a few custom projects I give that I think are very valuable. (The online classes I teach are usually more regimented in syllabus and lessons -- they are also good classes, but the course material is more locked-in and there isn't time for this type of assignment.)

The project almost everyone learns a good deal from involves cutting a chase sequence. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world, but it really gets people engaged in understanding the connection between editing and understanding -- the fact that every editing choice should be based in a deep understanding of how we comprehend what we see.

The actual project is much more direct: the goal is usually a 90-second chase video. There is some type of scenario set up -- for example, an action that motivates the chase or just the appearance of the characters -- then a chase begins.

That really sounds like the dumbest possible scenario, but here's how we proceed: we start by watching scenes from a range of chase films and trying to understand the visual systems at work in those. For example:

The French Connection

In the midst of that immersion, we start to get the traditional techniques. For example:
Use a landmark, so when we show one character go past it and later another we will have a sense of how far apart they are.

Frame a shot with the escapee and the pursuer together so that one is perceived to be gaining on or receding from the other.

Build up a language of looking out of the frame and then revealing a point-of-view shot. This lets us use reactions from the character in the chase language.

Use a directional language, based on screen motion left-to-right or right-to-left, then develop a technique for "turning around" the screen motion when needed.

Find ways of using shots that communicate speed -- for example, a camera close to the road.

From what they've learned, each small team of students (usually four works well) storyboards their own chase, and then they tape it.

Generally, the basics go very easily (and it can be quite rewarding to see these come together) but for almost every project an interesting thing happens: there is almost always one point where something went wrong, and a crucial shot can't be used or just won't work. Having to solve this problem -- which can range from easy to very tough -- brings out some serious thinking about editing and how to reconsider / rethink a project in the last stages of the process.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Working Vacation

I found I could get wireless right up to the edge of the lake.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ted's Ten Ideas on Editing

I've read a lot on editing, and I've never been completely happy with how the basic concepts are explained. So, in an effort to open up some practical discussion, I'm publishing my "Ten Ideas" on editing. This list comes out of traditional notions to a degree –– for example, from the writing of Walter Murch and others -- but is really meant to function as a checklist.

That is, this list is meant as to work as background to the question "does this cut work or not, and why?"

10 Editing "Checks"
by Ted Fisher

At each edit in a work, an editor should consider the following checklist. Not every edit can fulfill each "check," so part of the editor's job is to weigh the importance of each concern and decide what "works."


1. New information
The main concern at any single cut, if one is really going to use the language of moving images, is that the cut give the viewer new information. Otherwise, why cut?

2. 3-D Continuity (Matching)
To create a believable action, a cut must "match." That is, if one cuts from a wide shot of a baseball pitcher to a close up during a pitch, the position of the throwing arm at the cut must "match" between the two shots, even if the shots are filmed months apart.

3. 2-D Continuity (Eye Trace)
No one takes in a frame all at once; the eye moves around the screen. Take this attention into account when making a cut -- one may wish to cut so that the focus of attention is at the same place on the screen, or at a different place, moving the same direction or moving in opposition, depending on the effect desired.

4. Composition
It is generally less jarring to the eye and brain when a cut is made from a well-composed shot to a well-composed shot.

5. Camera Angle
It usually helps if one is cutting to a camera angle that is different enough from the current one so as to be easily understood as a new shot; also it is generally better to cut from a good camera angle to a good camera angle rather than when at a "messier" point in a shot.

6. Audio
Cut in such a way that visuals work with audio and vice versa. Also, maintain sensible audio continuity (e.g., if we cut from a shot inside a speeding car to a close up of a helicopter following it, the audio may need to change with the cut based on where we "are" in relation to the sources of sounds).

THE "R.E.S.T."

7. Rhythm
We can set up "expectations" in a viewers mind by setting up a rhythm; this can also mean making edits work with the beat of a piece of music or with a certain pace of action.

8. Emotion
If a character is in a certain state of mind, editing may reflect their perception, or if the viewer is expected to feel a certain way then editing may amplify that state of mind, sometimes purposefully breaking the "rules" of the six continuity checks. For example, it may make sense to cut a fight scene in a discontinous manner.

9. Story
Each edit ultimately serves the telling of a story; the idea here is that one may cut on a certain frame or to a certain shot to serve that story rather than the conventional continuity concerns.

10. Timing
Sometimes an edit is motivated by that intangible idea of timing -- the point where it just feels right.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Few Notes on One-Person Documentary Production

My friend emailed a question asking for ideas on producing the "one-person-crew" documentary. I sent back a few ideas, so I'm sharing them here. Note that these are not absolutes, just a few guidelines and concepts....

1. At each location, shoot:
a. a 60 second take of atmospheric sound or "room tone"
b. a wide establishing shot
c . a medium establishing shot
d. a closeup, generally signage
e. some shots of the subject entering the place and walking around the place
f. some shots of the subject standing in the place, as if you were saying, "and then I met this guy"

2. set up an interview:
a. with sound being the most important aspect
b. shoot cutaways of something -- hands moving, whatever -- so you can chop up interview bits
c. don't cut off the end of an interview segment -- keep rolling
d. with depth -- look at the space, set up so you can use its greatest dimension, then get your subject near the camera and anything significant far back but in the frame

3. get material that gets us from here to there -- traveling footage is the easiest material to gather

4. use a tripod when possible, or lock your standing position

5. when moving, only pan or move the camera if you have a plan for where it is going. do not "pan to nowhere"

6. think in terms of gathering a beginning and ending action / shot. that is all you are searching for -- you'll find plenty of middle

7. think in terms of needing a shot that shows one state visually that will be paired with something that reveals change visually at the end. what do we see at the beginning that we can show totally changed at the end?

8. use the camera for revealing. every shot should reveal. Here is this, here is this, the camera moves around the corner and we see this, this guy steps in the frame and we see this, this thing moves out of the way and we see this. reveal.

9. don't bother thinking wide / medium / closeup. Look at the shot you just took, and now get one that is significantly different -- different angle and different composition and different scale

10. consider early whether you are using voiceover or not, and if you are a character of not. if not, then you have to cover all the things that tell us what is happening, what just happened, and what is at stake while you are shooting.

The Weirdest Person, Place or Thing in Austin, Texas

Editing this week's episode of the "Frugal Traveler" touched on an issue very close to my heart: comedy is hard. I think there are several very nice moments in this week's piece, and some parts that I find funny, but I'm well aware that humor is a very elusive, hard-to-understand thing.

The basic idea of editing, of film production in general, is about creating an experience for a viewer. Still, I've seen the exact same film provoke different audience reactions from night to night, so I'm very aware this is a slippery task. It may be that a measure of success is if the audience laughs in the right places....

Frugal Traveler: American Road Trip
(Week 8: Austin, Texas) 5:05
July 11, 2007

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Frugal Traveler: American Road Trip
(Week 7: Greensburg, Kansas) 5:26
July 4, 2007