It has never been easier to make a home movie than it is today. To start filming all you do is drop a film cartridge into a camera, focus, and shoot. You can buy a single-system sync-sound super 8 movie system–a miniature version of 16 mm systems used by CBS, NBC, and ABC news–for under $500. The only thing that’s missing is technique, a demystification of the medium. To fill that void, we offer here a primer on film technique. If you pay attention, you should, when you finish, be able to make a reasonably professional and accurate home movie, one that your spouse and children will love and that your neighbors may even stay to see the end of.
There are three basic stages to the movie or filmmaking process: preproduction (planning), production ( actual shooting), and post-production (editing). Planning–often the least glamorous stage–is extremely important, but it is regularly neglected by the home moviemaker. “A filmmaker must have something to film,” says James Blue, director of the Rice University Media Center and one of the country’s finest documentary filmmakers. All too often, however, home movie are spontaneous affairs during which a little of this and a little of that is filmed. You know the result all too well. Once you have decided to make a film, immediately begin asking yourself: What do I want to film? How do I want to film it? Who do I want to feature? How do I get action? Where should I be to get the images I need?
While in the pre-production phase, you should be concerned with two major film factors: overall structure and interpretive events. The structure of a film is that series of sequences that provides a beginning, a middle, and an end–in other words, continuity. The easiest things to film are concrete processes–events that have a tangible, visible reality–rather than abstract ideas, according to Brian Huberman, English documentary filmmaker who is teaching at Rice.
Luckily, most processes have a natural progression, and you should try, initially, to film such events because they will automatically provide structure for your home movie. The interpretive events are highlights, the essence of your film. If you are recording your daughter’s wedding, you could structure it around the bride dressing at home, the wedding, the reception, and the couple leaving for their honeymoon. The interpretive events within this framework might include the ceremony itself, the couple cutting the cake at the reception, the car pulling away a they leave on their honeymoon.
In planning a film, some people find it helpful to prepare a storyboard—a shot-by-shot diagram of the film they are going to shoot. Storyboarding is used extensively in the preparation of television commercials and feature films, and it is very useful for the home moviemaker. It can be as simple as a list of events or as complex as a sketch of each shot.
The best form for a home movie is the documentary. That is, after all, essentially what a home movie is. All too often the home moviemaker uses either no technique at all or tries to mimic the biggies of fiction films, like Stanley Kubrick or Francis Ford Coppola. Remember that scenes in fiction films can be rehearsed many times to get the right effect. Home movies, by contrast, are records of unique, unrehearsable moments. Rule one for home movies: when you shoot the real events of your life, use simple, straightforward documentary techniques. Rule two: match the subject to the approach.
Just as the declarative sentence is the basic unit of expression in written English, the long hand-held shot is the basic unit of documentary filmmaking. Why? Because a long hand-held shot produce sequences that can be spliced into finished films. Why hand-held? Because it permits mobility and therefore variety in approach. Why long? So that you can shoot entire sequences, not just snippets. It also allows you to either use all of an event or condense it, as quality dictates.
Far too many people shoot movies as if they were snapshots, filming a few frames of this and a few frames of that, but never recording an entire process or event. Sequence shooting, on the other hand, captures whole pieces of an event and results in plenty of material to construct a fine home movie. It also maintains the natural continuity of an event, giving a sense of real time, and provides a logical way to put the material together during editing.
There’s a side benefit to shooting sequences that shows up on the screen only indirectly: involvement. Three years ago, I was directing and producing a documentary film on football in Iowa Park, Texas. Every day, I shot a lot of film, made a lot of long takes. At first I was regarded as an outsider, but the more I was around, the more involved the town became in the film and the more involved I became with the town. As a result, I was able to get on film scenes that could have been captured only by being inside the moment, by living the event while filming it. Shooting outside an event, you are likely to miss the instances of true emotion that are the heart of a great documentary or a home movie.
Next, it is essential that you should understand what makes a good sequence shot. Obviously, it should be properly exposed and in focus, but more important, it should be useable from one end to the other. Sequences should not be filmed in a “blank stare,” that is, shot with only one camera angle and image size. You should vary these elements throughout the shot, coming in for close-ups when the action calls for it, pulling out for wide shots when you I want to show more of the scene. Varying camera angles will give you the opportunity to edit the film more creatively later. If you are filming a conversation between your grandparents in which your grandfather is doing most of