Camera Movement and Production Value: Low budget tricks to make your videos look good.

In addition to basic knowledge and skill in cinematography and lighting, I have found camera movement to be my biggest tool in creating distinguished videos. The video’s production value dramatically increases with smooth camera motion, which is usually found only in larger productions.

Low budget camera motion (i.e. one person armed with only a mono/tripod) is something I use extensively and I know of no good resources concerning it, which is why I am writing this. I have picked up little tricks here and there on the internet and through personal experimentation. I use these techniques because, one, my current budget doesn’t allow sliders, jibs and dollies, and two, I can set up and execute the shots quickly enough to cover action happening during live events.

The following 17 second video was shot amidst a crowded public tower in Italy, with only a fluid head tripod on two legs.

What makes camera movement visually interesting is the changing perspective in the frame that the audience experiences. The 2-D video ‘pops’ into 3-D. The video gains a look very distinctive from traditional videography, a “cinematic” look that is reminiscent of big budget films.

Production value refers to the perceived cost of production to make a video. The better the finished product, the higher the production value. Hollywood movies and Super Bowl ads would be on the high end, local news/TV ads on the low end. The great thing about production value is it’s perceived. A high production value can be pulled off in a low budget production.

It doesn’t matter how nice the equipment is if the user can’t properly utilize it’s potential. Assuming you have the best equipment in your budget, and you know how to use all of it, the question of production value now lies in how well you use those tools: refining your craft as the director of photography (DP) and camera operator. What’s created in the low budget testing grounds will help indicate one’s readiness to properly utilize a larger budget with more sophisticated tools and more people.

The fundamental stabilization tool is a fluid head tripod…a good one. Footage from an expensive camera is useless unless it’s smooth.

The goal when shooting is to obtain sufficient content (I’ll call them building blocks) for constructing the story during the editing process. The end product and the building blocks needed for it should always be in mind while shooting. Camera motion is one tool available to improve the production value of many of those building blocks.

Before getting fancy and artistic with the camera, I make sure I have some solid static shots and smooth pans to insure I have proper coverage for editing. Then I move on to attempting more difficult shots using camera motion. If the motion shots fail, I can still tell the story with my static and panning shots.

The methods described below are vague in “how to” details. In order to see the moves in action, watch some of my videos and pay attention to how the camera is moving and emulate the motion.

Methods:

  1. Using a fluid head tripod on two legs or video monopod for forward/backward motion.
  2. Using my body in place of a jib (a small crane) or slider (left and right sliding motion). Keeping my arms rigid and using my legs and torso to create smooth motion.
  3. Walking as smoothly as possible with the camera attached to a compacted tripod  to simulate Steadicam (really expensive gear) movement. The folded up tripod adds weight and places to hold, which is key for smooth handheld footage. The traditional hand held camcorder position, using one hand on the side of the camera should never be used, unless you’re trying to simulate shaky home video footage.
  4. Get creative. What movement would more dramatically or effectively visually communicate something? Think like a jib, use your tripod on one leg, or resting on your waist to get really high, anything you can dream up could work. Focus completely on executing the move smoothly, and you may have a killer shot.
  5. Some post production magic from Mercalli by ProDad. If your camera work is close to perfect, this program will perfect it. Google it, buy it.

Elements of a successful shot:

  1. Smooth motion. Any jitters bring attention to the camera and distract the audience from the story. Keeping the camera motion smooth is a craft to be practiced. I take one shot over and over until I feel it’s satisfactory. With most shots, the widest angle possible should be used, which will minimize noticeable camera shake.
  2. Good content. If an action is the focus, the camera movement should showcase it. If an establishing shot or landscape is the focus, the people in the shot, where they are, the direction they’re moving and what they’re doing should enhance, not distract, from the shot’s purpose. If content is the foreground and background, both should complement each other and the camera motion should help the viewers eye move from one to the next.
  3. Good composition. The perspective is continually changing, so the composition is too. Each moment (frame) should have good composition. The motion should also have a composition to itself, gracefully moving the viewers eye where you want it. I try a few different directions of movement for a particular shot, and “feel” which one flows the best.
  4. Reference points. Camera movement is pointless unless the viewer can see changing perspective. Objects in the foreground can be used to reveal forward, backward, side to side motion.
  5. Purpose. Camera movement adds visual interest, but the movement must have purpose beyond just movement: it must help tell the story and not distract from it, directing the eye to important information. The more visual story telling information that can be packed into a well composed, balanced shot, the better.

My Stabilization Gear – All Manfrotto. An industry standard for small production, professional work.

Small fluid head: 701HDV
Short legs: 190XB
Large fluid head: 501HDV
Tall legs: 055XB
[Edit]: These tripod model numbers are no longer in production. But there are better models now!
Monopod (designed for video): 561BHDV

The monopod is great in places that require a small footprint: bleachers, a packed church lobby, restaurants, classrooms, anywhere where floor space is limited. While less stable than two legged tripod, the video monopod can pull off some more complex movements. It also goes up really high for some great overhead shots.

The 501HDV head is heavy, but easier to execute smooth moves. Stick with the 701 unless you’re ready to carry the weight. The tall legs are essential if you want crowd shots without people’s heads blocking your shot. The short legs are much smaller when compact though. You can use the tall legs and the small head together, but not the other way around. I started with the small short combo 2 years ago because of the lower price and ease of carrying, but after experiencing it’s limitations, I moved up to the large and tall combo, which is almost a entry level professional set up.

I suggest buying online at B&H or Adorama. If you want to actually touch the products before buying, you’ll have to road trip to San Francisco or some other big city. You can see the specs on Manfrotto’s site and the retail websites.

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12 thoughts on “Camera Movement and Production Value: Low budget tricks to make your videos look good.

  1. I get it, in your 17 sec. demo for USAC you showed a student and then the square, essentially the movement took a student and moved him into a foreign and exciting land, which is what USAC does for students all over the world.

    • Great observation Dad. I could “feel” that implication and knew the shot was powerful for it’s intended purpose, but I didn’t consciously grasp why. That’s what I love about making videos and writing music, usually I don’t know what I’m doing, but somehow I can do it. It’s the complete opposite of school, where I learn consciously and then try to apply it – now I just blindly apply stuff, trial and error, and later learn why it worked. I feel like I am interacting with another dimension that I cannot perceive except through gut feelings that seem to navigate it well.

      • Willie Nelson says, he doesn’t write songs, they come from somewhere to him.

  2. Very dramatic music set the intensity perfectly. Destiny awaits you! I know you will go far in this industry because you have a multi-level talent, that is obvious!

    • Thank you so much Kathee! I love what I am doing, and I feel the path was placed before me. Hopefully you’re right and I continue in this for a long time:)

  3. Just stumbled across your work and I love it; very creative and to-the-point. You write music also, what a great skill-set to enhance your productions. We have much in common. What is your primary software/DAW for music composition?

    Cheers!

    • Roderick, thanks for leaving a comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, I hope to write some more in due time. I would like to compose and record music for my videos some day, but at this point I just play around on the guitar and piano, not really knowing what I’m doing, but finding some songs by chance.

      I checked out your website. Are you living in Costa Rica? Was that RC heli-cam?I studied Spanish in CR for a semester, and made my first professional video for the study abroad program while a student.

      • Hey there. I live in Austin now, and spend a fair amount of time working in Costa Rica -it’s pretty rough, let me just say… :) We haven’t done any RC heli work yet, however we did get up in a helicopter on the last trip -If you watch at the very end of the Superman video, there is a pretty fun pan-up shot of the beach from overhead at Manuel Antonio National Park. Man, It’s tough/nearly impossible to keep a cam steady in the little helicopter we were flown around in. I’m working on some videos right now which will show underwater to the sky -I’ll keep you posted.

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