Because of budget sensitivity, I approached the Charleston Promise Neighborhood video project as a one-man band. While I had a little bit of help with setup and carrying gear, for the most part I was a crew of one.
Here’s how I tackled it.
My approach to microbudget production is to sacrifice complexity, not quality. In order to do that, I need to bring along everything I need, but nothing more.
I shot b-roll in four different elementary schools. I knew that I wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible, and that I would have to work with available light. I decided to use the Canon 5D Mk II because it has excellent low-light sensitivity, and is less exotic-looking than my Panasonic AF100.
I wanted to get a mix of student closeups and classroom wide shots, so I used the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 as my primary lens. I also brought along the Canon 20mm f/2.8, which I’ve found works very well for hand-held work, and the Canon 50mm f/1.4, which is the fastest lens I own. I wound up doing a view hand-held shots, but primarily I shot from an inexpensive Manfrotto tripod, which is light and easy to carry and adjust quickly.
Aside from the camera, the three lenses and the tripod, I did not bring any equipment into the schools. I considered bringing an external microphone, but since I did not envision using the classroom audio for anything (and suspected that the children would be distracted by the sight of a shotgun microphone), I decided against adding that additional piece of equipment.
I had more flexibility in the interview setups, so I wanted to light and mic them properly. To this end, I brought along a case containing my Panasonic AF100 and a few Canon FD lenses (I wound up using the 50mm f/1.4 to shoot all the interviews), my “Production Kit in a Toolbox” full of gear, a shotgun microphone on a boom, the tripod, two light stands, and a C-stand (to hold the mic boom). This is a pretty stripped-down kit, but it still required two trips to load and unload. The main problem was the various stands. I have a cheap golf bag that I use to hold my stands, and I probably should have brought that along to ease my gear transport.
I like to keep interview lighting style consistent throughout a video, if at all possible. Sometimes, that means using all natural light, sometimes it means using very dramatic hard light. In this case, I decided to go for a mainstream-upscale lighting look: a soft keylight and a moderately strong backlight. This is a lighting setup that is used – with only slight variation – constantly in every type of media from movies to TV shows to video games.
This is a diagram of the lighting setup I used for all of my interview subjects.
In all cases, the keylight was a Tota light shooting through a Tota-Brella, and the backlight was a Lowel Pro-Light shooting through a sheet of “tough spun” cine-gel (clothespinned to the barndoors of the light) to soften the quality of light slightly.
And this is what it looked like. Even though the four interview locations look very different, I used the same lens, the same style of lighting, and similar framing to tie them all together and subtly reinforce that they’re part of the same project.
Getting clean audio while conducting the interviews was a bit of a challenge: I set up a C-stand, which held the boom over the interview subject’s chair, positioned as low as possible without being seen in the shot. The mic itself was slightly in front of the subject, and aimed at his/her chest. This part was easy.
Since I didn’t have a dedicated audio operator, I plugged the microphone directly into the camera, wore headphones to monitor the sound quality, and kept an eye on the audio meters in the AF100’s LCD display to make sure the level wasn’t too loud or too soft. This was made somewhat more difficult by the fact that I was also conducting the interviews! Since I didn’t want all the interview subjects facing the same way (camera left), I had to sit on the opposite side of the camera for two of the setups, meaning that I couldn’t actually see the LCD. This is EXTREMELY risky, and I do not recommend it at all. At the time, I was trying to see how light I could travel, but in retrospect, I definitely should have brought a small external monitor. I was lucky that I didn’t have any focus or audio issues as a result of shooting blind.