to Shoot Vacation Videos That Don't Cause a Stampede
by Jim Bray
Ah, vacation, that
time of year when one travels the world, broadening one's horizons. Travel today often means packing along a camcorder so you can relive your adventures
later, and even share them with those you know and love.
But beware the dark
Remember trying not
to squirm through endless hours of your best friend's little kid perkily
harassing the natives of far off lands? This historic pastime actually
predates the video age. Many videophiles (or their parents) first got
the home movie bug with 8mm film, but today's ever-more-portable-and-capable
home video equipment has forever saved humanity from having to send away
a little reel of film, then sit waiting impatiently for your "prints"
Video gives you instant
returns and more capabilities. Unfortunately, while technology has made
the potential quality of our amateur endeavours much better, the weak
link hasn't changed: the nut behind the viewfinder.
Therefore, if we want
our friends and family to visit again after we inflict our first production
on them, we'd better learn something about making videos ...
consumer classics doesn't require much besides the camcorder, not even
that much expertise. What's needed is a little forethought, a little imagination,
and a little practice.
That beeping sound
you may hear is professional videographers re-booting their computers
in disgust at reading the above, but ignore it: it really doesn't take
the cosmic angst of Woody Allen just to shoot a decent home made video.
You're not going for an Oscar, after all; you merely want to avoid tomatoes.
That doesn't mean
you can't learn from the pros, though. In fact, if you approach your project
as a mini-documentary, and not as the chance to cram as much stuff as
possible onto a tape, your audience will thank you.
Let's imagine we've
been picking the brains of some film professionals. What wisdom would
There are three stages
of filmmaking: Preproduction (the planning), Production (the shooting),
and Post-production (the rest). As any Hollywood pro could tell you: "The
better your pre-production, the smoother your sailing." That means
the more thought you put into your video before picking up the camcorder,
the easier to carry it off successfully.
There's one element
you won't have to guide you, though, and that's a script, but that's not
necessarily a disadvantage. After all, there've been some great documentaries
and at least some must have been spontaneous.
Not having a script
means you won't know beforehand if little Billy will fall over Niagara
Falls, but if you've done your homework you'll have an idea of what you
want to do and see while out filming. That means you should scribble some
preparatory notes before leaving home.
can also be enhanced by brochures from your travel agent, publications
at the local library, or you can check with the appropriate consulate
or embassy for any special information you might need, like travel restrictions,
site access, etc.
Decide in advance
what you'd like to shoot, and any extra equipment you might need. For
instance, if you're sallying forth into the great outdoors, you may want
extra long or wide lenses, assuming your camcorder accepts them. If you'll
be visiting places like the Smithsonian, extra lighting may be important.
Wherever you go, take a tripod (though they can be a pain to carry around),
extra batteries and, depending on your destination, maybe a voltage converter
or a cigarette lighter adapter.
Don't worry about
extra tape unless you're visiting Antarctica or some other place without
Prepare for weather!
Rain, snow, and sand can wreak havoc on electronics, even so called "sport
models." If you don't have a water resistant case, use a plastic
bag to keep out the elements. When not shooting, keep your equipment in
a gadget bag. That way even if your vacation includes sailing on one of the newest Hatteras Yachts for sale, your video equipment will be protected. If you're not careful, yachts and boats can be dangerous places for filming.
In movie making, the
illusion is often more powerful than the reality. While "on location,"
therefore, don't be overly concerned with getting shots of scenery by
itself: commercial videos are often available at tourist traps. Make your
movie unique by taking shots that include your people rubbernecking the
scenery or, better still, interacting with it.
So, try to mount the
camcorder inside the barrel as Junior goes over Niagara, or at least get
a good shot of the barrel bobbing merrily along.
It isn't easy to do
justice to both nature's majesty and a six year old kid standing in front
of it, but you don't have to include both with every shot. A wider, establishing
shot of the grandeur can be followed by tighter ones showcasing the family,
and your audience will still get the feel of the moment. Another good
establishing shot is one of the "You are now entering..." sign.
You don't have to shoot it as you arrive; the shot can be stuck in its
proper place during post production.
A good rule of thumb
is that the more the camera moves around, the more possibility that it'll
be barf bag time when you show your epic at home. You're better served
by getting closer to your subject, and framing the shot a little wider.
If you do make camera moves, including pans and tilts, make them slow,
And remember: the
little zoom button falling so closely to hand is meant to be used for
the most part between shots, unless you're going to supply Dramamine to
your audience. Rocking between "W" (Wide) and "T"
(Telephoto) is definitely not a good idea. Minimizing the zoom action
also cuts down on camera jitter, even if your camcorder has image stabilization.
A better way of varying
your shots is to change camera angles. Don't be afraid to kneel down or
lean over something. Little kids shoot well from down low, in close. Michael
Jordan will also look impressive if shot from down low, but aiming up;
of course, it's hard not to get a shot of him that way!
Speaking of height,
pay attention to the framing of your shots so you don't cut off people's
Keep your shots relatively
short, too, say about ten seconds maximum; your audience is always on
the verge of restlessness.
When shooting, try
to get the light, especially bright sunlight, behind you. If you can't,
try to get it overhead, like in the late morning or early afternoon. Naturally,
this isn't always possible, but it's nice. It's better to have your subjects
squinting than unrecognizable. Back lighting puts shadows across faces
and objects, though the back light adjustment on many camcorders can help
somewhat. Shooting in low light conditions isn't great, either, regardless
of what camcorder manufacturers say. Poor illumination will give you grainy,
shadowy pictures that will only be appreciated by your neighbourhood optician.
For the sake of your
camcorder, don't point it at the sun! This may sound pretty elementary,
but it's easy to do it unknowingly by slinging the camcorder wrongly and
leaving off the lens cover.
Plan to shoot "ambient
action" to use as inserts. This should be local colour, like the
surfers on the waves, the merchants ripping you off, or whatever will
bring the flavour of the location back home to your audience.
Play by play commentary
is nice, if not limited to "Wave to Grandma, Billy, and say hi."
And don't forget that almost everything you say will be picked up by the
camcorder's built in mic and you'll have to listen to it forever if you
don't audio dub over it. It pays, therefore, not to say anything you'll
Your commentary shouldn't
be scripted, just natural; if you've spent a little time reading tourist
information, you're sure to find something profound for posterity. You
can even prattle on about the trip to get to where you're shooting that
day, like how you ran out of gas and that's why, in this shot, junior's
giving you the finger.
If you want to hear
from your subjects, which is a good idea, buy a remote mic and stick it
on them. Mics are available wired or wireless, and will make your people's
speech much more intelligible, though not necessarily intelligent.
Preserve your batteries!
You can do this by putting the camcorder on standby when not in immediate
use, a good compromise between battery life and instant readiness. Shut
off the camcorder at lunch, overnight, or other times it won't be in action.
A video light is also a battery drain, so use it sparingly.
Each night (Assuming
you're not camping away from electricity and TV), look over the day's
footage and plan the next day's. Figure out where you're going and what
you want to accomplish, sort of a "mini-preproduction" session.
Try to pick out what you think will be the key events of the following
day (keeping in mind Murphy's Law and remembering that spontaneous events
can provide great footage).
When reviewing the
tape, make sure the audio is audible and learn from your inevitable mistakes
so your next day's shooting will be even better. Be brutal on yourself!
Oh, charge your batteries
overnight as well; they're sure to run out when you need them most!
You'll want some sort
of titles, and this is easily accomplished if your camcorder has a character
generator. A computer can make really nice title cards for you, even with
relatively basic and affordable software like Broderbund's "Print
Shop Deluxe." Just print 'em out and tack 'em on the wall in front
of your camcorder. At worst, just use a coloured card and write your credits
on it. Think about closing credits, too, if for no other reason than to
let your audience know exactly who to blame!
Go through your raw
footage and list the shots you'll include and in what order. You'll want
to be basically chronological, but that doesn't mean you can't move shots
around to help the pacing, or to make the scene work better. Just don't
end up obviously jumping all over the place.
If a scene doesn't
work (and you can check with your family for their opinions, or to see
if they'll die of embarrassment if the shots make it in), cut it quickly.
And don't get bogged down in arty shots or long speeches, unless they're
really beautiful or important. If in doubt, lean toward leaving questionable
shots on the "cutting room floor." In the end, it's better to
leave your audience wanting more than to risk mutiny in the home theatre.
Besides, the scrapped shots will still be archived on the raw tape.
If you don't have
flying erase heads on your VCR, you'll get a little "sparklie"
when you switch shots, but your audience would rather live with that if
it makes for a tighter production.
Try to edit your epic
to 20 minutes or less, preferably much less, to minimize the audience
violence potential. Remember, you're not reenacting your entire trip,
just trying to show a capsule view of the action.
When editing, try
to go down the fewest generations possible, because of the inevitable
quality loss. S-VHS and Hi8 formats are the best for dubbing to and fro;
if you don't have either, make sure your editing is done on paper first,
so you can just "assemble" the shots in order and not lose any
more quality than necessary. You should also use the fastest tape speed
on the destination deck. Remember, too, if you're going to make copies
of your finished product, that's one more generation lost.
Finally, when you
think the masterpiece is "picture perfect," test it on your
family. If they attack, the show still needs work. If they don't, you
may have a whole new career ahead, as yet another unemployed movie maker!
However and whatever
you shoot, enjoy! While it's nice to make a reasonably professional production,
don't get so carried away that you forget the trip! After all, it's better
to annoy a few friends than to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars
on a vacation and never see the sights outside the viewfinder.
Besides, if your friends
really like you, they'll come back to visit anyway.
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think