Home movies don't have to look like home movies.
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 the talking, he should be the main person in the sequence. Analyze while you are shooting to see if you are getting the essence of the action. In documentary filmmaking, the art is in this stage; editing is reserved for selecting material with the most information about the event that was filmed.
There is no easy road to becoming a crackerjack camera person. Like other skills, it is practice that makes perfect, and you should do some exercises (see Vocabulary, page 43) if you want to make primo home movies. The more familiar you are with various camera movements, the larger your vocabulary of shots will be and the more you can reveal about your subject.
Every part of a sequence shot should say something. Never move the camera without a reason. To do so leads the audience to expect new information, and if you don’t provide it, they’ll soon become bored. When you move the camera, do it at a logical point—a break in a conversation, a change of position by one of the subjects, etc. This is not to say that you must always have such a break to make a move, but it will give credibility to your shooting. As a general rule, hold the opening and closing of a sequence shot for a minimum of ten seconds each, making it into one long, smoothly flowing camera movement, not a series of starts and stops or dead-end images. The whole sequence should be measured in minutes, not seconds. It’s not a bad idea to use a whole three-and a-third-minute roll on one sequence. Michelangelo Antonioni, director of Blow-Up and The Passenger, is a master of long fluid shots, and as a result his films have a wonderful naturalness.
It is important to commit to an image and hold it until you run out of material, then concentrate on another image. Never search for material to film while the camera is running–that produces a wandering-eye effect that makes the action seem an afterthought and draws attention to the camera movement itself. Just remember that content is the entire reason for making a film.
Usually you should open a sequence with a wide-angle “establishing” shot so that the audience can understand spatial relationships of the people and objects being filmed. Then move in for close-ups and other types of shots. When you’re filming people, the best distance is four to five feet, about the distance for a casual conversation. You can stand farther away and still film close up by going on telephoto in your zoom, but distance removes you from the event and sacrifices intimacy. The best angle for filming people is eye level. If your subject is seated, you should sit down; if your subject is standing, shoot standing up. If your subject is moving around a lot, standing and sitting, shoot from a standing position to preserve your mobility.
The zoom lens, a standard feature on more elaborate super 8 cameras, is a wonderful device that will give you tremendous versatility in shooting. There are, however, some tricks to working it effectively. Try to stay as much as possible in the middle range of the zoom. This will give you the option of either going in tight for close-ups with the telephoto or going to wide angle. Working mainly at either extreme will cut down on your flexibility. Fast reactions are essential to documentary technique. It does you no good to be in the thick of the action if you can’t react quickly enough to capture it.
Without light, there would be no images. Because precise lighting is important in filmmaking–a fact that equipment makers grasp much better than most home moviemakers—many cameras today set the correct exposure for almost any situation; there is even extra-low-light film which allows a super 8 camera to shoot indoors using only available light–table lamps, overhead lights, window light. While I highly applaud this improved technology in camera exposures, I also recommend that you take your own readings with a light meter other than the one that comes with the camera. BTL (behind the lens) light meters used in today’s super 8 equipment give you only a reading of the average light available for shooting and therefore do not allow you to darken or lighten a scene for special effect. The use of an external light meter (like the Sekonic) can greatly enhance the beauty of your home movies by giving you control over the intensity of the images you put on the screen. The best light meter reading technique is a measurement of incident light, which shows the amount of light actually falling on the subject you are filming. To take an incident reading, hold your meter next to the subject at the angle from which you will be filming. Your reading will indicate the light you have to work with, and you may then set your camera to best take advantage of it.
There are two methods of filming sound motion pictures: single-system, which utilizes a camera that records both sound and image on the film, and double-systerm, which involves a separate camera and tape recorder. Most super 8 sound movie equipment today is single-system for the simple reason that it automatically synchronizes image and sound. With today’s cameras, you just drop a sound/film cartridge in the camera, plug in a microphone, focus, and start hooting. The crucial thing to remember is that sound is not incidental to action. Give it as much thought as you do the images you arc recording. To obtain superior sound for home movies you should probably add a person to your camera crew. It’s possible to do it all your self, but getting good sound is a full-time job, just like shooting.
Begin with an analysis: What sound will be available? How should it be captured? What do you want to hear? Recording excellent sound requires, in addition to a sound person, a good microphone. Unfortunately, the microphones that come with most super 8 outfits are not intended for heavy or high-quality recording. An audio store can help you select the right microphone for your needs. And while you’re buying a microphone, also purchase a pair of headphones for the sound person so he can concentrate solely on what he is recording, not extraneous noise. If you are filming someone talking, hold the microphone about eighteen inches away from the subject’s mouth. Either come over the subject’s head or beneath his chin. The sound person should also keep an eye on the camera to avoid walking into, or getting the mike in, the frame of the picture.
All too often, home movies are poorly edited or, worse, not edited at all. If they are edited, the effect is often self-consciously flashy or like a misjoined jigsaw puzzle. You won’ t have that problem if you use sequence shooting, because this will provide you with an abundance of material from which to edit. The continuity of the action-not the editor’s touch-should be what is apparent in the finished film. The good editor realizes that the flow of energy throughout a sequence must be retained and therefore he can’t force a beginning or an end to any scene. Each sequence should retain its integrity. In the old style of home moviemaking, editing was building; in the new style, editing is selection.
If this article has whetted your appetite for filmmaking, try a course at one of the 30 or more Texas colleges and universities that give them. The best are offered at Rice (Houston), Southern Methodist University (Dallas), Trinity (San Antonio), and the University of Texas at Austin.
A Vocabulary Of Camera Movements
The practice exercises below are used by students at the Rice University Media Center. Learning these movements will greatly improve your home moviemaking. Go over each one, in order, a minimum of five times, without film in the camera. When you think you have the techniques required, shoot a test roll of film. Then go back and practice some more.
Holding camera steady. At full telephoto, frame on a stationary object or person and attempt to hold the image steady.
Panning between subjects. Smoothly shift from one subject to another.
Panning following movement. Follow a moving person or object.
Tilting. Practice moving camera from low to high subject and back again.
Craning. Lower and raise camera angle by crouching and standing up, holding approximately the same frame. (A seated person is a good subject.)
Zooming out. Zoom smoothly from full telephoto to full wide angle.
Zooming in. Zoom from full wide angle to full telephoto, arriving at the end in focus on the subject.
Pan and zoom. While zooming out, pan and reframe on another subject.
Traveling focus. Pointing camera in one direction, with lens at full telephoto, smoothly change focus from near object through a series of increasingly distant objects and back again, shifting emphasis. (Do not zoom.)
Follow focus and pan. At full telephoto, pan from a distant to a closer subject, adjusting focus so that you arrive at second subject in focus. (Do not zoom.)
Moving with camera. Practice walking sideways, backwards, and forwards with the camera running, following one moving subject. Repeat the process, but this time change from one subject to another.
Following and shifting focus from one moving subject to another. Film a “circular” event or a repetitive process with two or more subjects. Do not stop shooting when you change angles.
The Economics of Images
Super 8 equipment comes in two types: with sound and without. You can get a super 8 silent camera for as little as $80 or as much as $1550. You can buy a super 8 sound camera
for between $200 and $500 or you can spend over $2000 for the top-of-the-line Beaulieu. A projector will set you back $130 to $500 for a silentversion, or $250 to $500 for a sound
model. Given the comparatively low cost, I would recommend a super 8 single-system sound outfit. The technology you get for your dollar is astounding and sound will allow you to make home documentaries that, with practice, can resemble the films shown in theaters and on television. The best super 8 sound cameras and projectors can record voices and music at a level of quality that most amateurs will find very acceptable.
Once the basic equipment has been acquired, the cost of making movies is not prohibitive-an important consideration if you’re going to shoot a lot of film. A roll of super 8 sound film costs about $6.30, plus $3.50 for development, but you can buy it for less if you shop around. In return you get three and a third minutes of film, in color, with sound, and it’s yours, all yours.
Shopping for super 8 equipment can be tricky, so here are some things you should check out before you buy.
Optical Quality. Is the image sharp and clear? (Test by looking through the viewfinder and by shooting a test roll of film; more on that later.) Does the viewfinder accurately show what will be filmed?
Convenience. Does the camera fit nicely in your hand? Is it easy to hold? Are the controls placed so they may be worked while filming without taking your eye from the eyepiece? Does the zoom lens (usually standard on super 8 cameras) operate smoothly? Are the exposures easy to set?
Flexibility. Can the camera operate at low-light levels (indoors, for example)? Does it have a coupled rangefinder for precise focusing? How wide is the range of the zoom lens? Does the camera focus easily under both low- and high-light conditions? Does it have slow motion or other speeds you might want?
Light. Is the built-in light meter accurate? (Check it with a separate meter.) Does the camera have a back-light compensator for filming strongly backlit scenes? Does it have a manual override for exposure, so that you can use a separate light meter?
Also desirable on super 8 cameras are film advance indicators, sound and battery checks, low camera noise (very important for filming with sound), and an aperture indicator that’s visible in the viewfinder. Speaking of viewfinders, they can be either reflex (through the lens) or nonreflex (through a small window located on one side of the lens). Reflex viewing is usually considered superior because you can see the image exactly as it will appear on film, whereas with nonreflex viewing the image you see will be slightly different from the one you film.
After you have shopped around, ask your camera dealer if you can shoot a roll of film with the model you think you want to buy. Take sound while you shoot, and film in both high and low light. When the film comes back, project it with equipment of the type you are considering buying.
Here is some of the top-rated equipment on the market in super 8: Cameras: Beaulieu 5008S (top-of- the-line sound camera), GAF 505XL, Bell & Howell I 235/ XL, Sankyo Sound XL- 40S, Bolex 55 1XL, and Kodak Ektasound 160. Projectors : Elmo ST 1200, Kodak Ektasound 245, Sankyo Sound 600, Eumig Mark S802, GAF 3000S. (The Rice Media Center uses the Elmo ST1200 and is very enthusiastic about it ability to stand up under heavy usage.) Microphones: AKG 202E, Electrovoice RE10. Headphones: Nakamichi HP 100.
WORDS ON FILM
The Super 8 Book, by Lenny Lipton.
An excellent book which covers all aspects of super 8 filmmaking, Super 8 is laced with heavy but digestible doses of film technology, and covers everything from film format and the processes by which film is made to how to make a good splice. Basically divided into seven large sections—format, cameras, sound, processing and stripping, editing, prints, and projection—Lipton’s book is the definitive work on the technology of the subject. (Original is out of print, but Straight Arrow has published a 1975 edition, edited by Chet Roaman, $6.95 paperback.)
Independent Filmmaking, by Lenny Lipton.
This was Lipton’s first book on filmmaking, and it covers far more technical ground, in greater detail, than even his super 8 book. It includes both super 8 and 16mm filmmaking, and is written for the layman, although it is professional in its discussion of techniques and approaches. (Straight Arrow, $7.95 paperback, $12.95 hardback.)
Documentary Explorations, by G. Roy Levin.
Levin offers interviews with fifteen documentary filmmakers, representing a wide range of philosophies. (Doubleday, $4.95 paperback.)
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, by Marshall McLuhan.
McLuhan’srenowned book explains therole of all media, not just film, intoday’s society, and will provide youwith a strong theoretical viewpoint foryour film explorations. (Mentor, $1.25paperback.)
Directing Motion Pictures, edited by Terence St. John Marner.
This is an English text produced in cooperation with the London Film School. Perhaps the finest book available on Hollywood-style film directing, it covers everything from writing a scene-by-scene outline to maintaining visual continuity. Has superb diagrams and clear, concise prose. May be hard to locate. (A. S. Barnes, $3.95 paperback.)
Super 8 Filmaker. The only super 8 film magazine on the market today, Super 8 Filmaker is uneven in editorial quality, but always interesting. Because of the rapid changes in super 8 filmmaking technology, this is your best bet for keeping up with new products and developments in the field . (PMS Publishing Co., San Francisco, Calif., $1.25 per issue.)