This isn’t film school, you don’t need film school. At it’s heart, the technique for making DIY TV is simple: Point the Camera at something worth seeing. Sticking a camera or a cellphone on a tripod and letting events unfold around it is often the best way to capture what is happening.
The same holds true of fiction and life. If it’s worth seeing, and you catch it on camera, the rest is just polish and bells and whistles. We can live without polish and bells and whistles, but sometimes they’re nice.
Shoot and edit a lot of footage. Watch your footage. Don’t worry about getting it Right, especially right out of the gate. The act of editing a lot of footage, and watching those edits, will teach you a lot about how to make TV. You will get better, give yourself permission to be bad.
When shooting real life events such as concerts, protests, sports, etc. there are some things to consider which are unique from when you are shooting fiction. There are rarely do-overs in real life, so I tend to focus on Coverage (that is to say, getting as much footage as I can from as many angles as possible, and sorting out the mess when I’m done.) This takes longer in the editing room, but it means that I stand the best chance of capturing the bits that are worth seeing.
If I’m in a situation where I have a degree of control, such as shooting a concert or an event that I am hosting, I will set up 2 – 3 stationary cameras (usually our Canon XA10, or one of the Canon Vixia line) on tripods. One of these is a wide shot, our “safety” shot for when something significant happens that none of the other cameras catch. It’s not a great angle, but it’s a stable angle. The Canons specifically can run from mains power and use 2 128+GB SD cards, meaning we can shoot for more than twenty hours at a stretch. I turn them on and walk away. The goal with these cameras is to capture everything. They are cameras we can cut between, or cut to when there’s nothing worth seeing on our handheld rigs.
I will then shoot from the floor, handheld. Often, I will do this with my little Sony point and shoot, one of the cheap Kodak flips, or my cellphone. If it’s a big shoot, I might have another person also shooting handheld. The end result is a lot of footage, but it gives us a number of angles to cut between when we’re editing.
I also, usually, will have at least one camera plugged in to a live stream. I capture the livestream separately, and may occasionally cut to it from the later edited video. The live stream is ephemeral, the later edited video is the definitive thing.
For events and situations with less control, there are three basic techniques:
- Try and capture everything
- One wide camera angle, shooting as much as possible for as long as possible.
- This rarely works without the addition of a second camera in the fray
- One wide camera angle, shooting as much as possible for as long as possible.
- Personal view
- This works well for protests and things of that nature. Run the camera from your POV for as long as you can manage, it sees what you see.
- This is my preference, personally, as it comes with the least risk of Missing the Action (at least, until you run out of power or storage space.)
- Stage some shots
- This is the more filmic technique. Get a few clips here and there. Interview some people.
- It works well, when it works. Staging interviews can be a great way to get context on whatever events are unfolding. You have to be lucky enough to capture the good stuff, and it’s easy to miss something significant while you’re waiting on your camera to start.
Of course, depending on the event you may still want to produce a live broadcast. We’ll discuss techniques for that bellow.
I do a large number of concert films. I try to pace a cut between cameras about once every forty to sixty seconds, and to introduce some small amount of motion when I can. I try to stick to events as they unfolded, and to remove only large periods of inactivity (for example, the intermission between a set.)
When I have interviews, voiceovers, or other content shot separately from the main action designed to provide additional context, I try to excerpt from it and juxtapose it along side the main action. Sometimes that means inserting them in places where we would otherwise have inactivity, sometimes that means cutting away from the main action to get to the additional footage. Which choice you make depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Try both, watch them, see how you feel.
Some kinds of footage sometimes demand a stronger editorial hand. Early video pioneers favored a collage technique, sharing clips in a stream-of-consciousness style, letting their content provide context and commentary on one another. You can see this style of TV making on display in a polished form in documentaries like Lord of the Universe. You can also see it on full display in a less polished for in things like The Videofreex coverage of Mayday 1971. Other kinds of footage might be best served by other techniques. Experiment, you’ll probably find a technique worth using.
Sometimes the best way to cover a live event is to do it live! I have a hardware video mixer, and I will sometimes send out three or four cameras and just live mix them. This works really well if you can be certain that there’s usually going to be something worth seeing happening in front of one of your cameras, and you can cut to (and interrupt) pre-recorded contextual stuff when it makes sense to do so.
This is much harder than editing ex post facto, and much much harder than just sticking a single camera up in a corner for live streaming, but it produces better results than a single camera and faster results than an ex post facto edit.
If you have a crew of four or five and a hardware video mixer, try it. It can work especially well for live concerts and sports events. Alternately, if you have a crew of four or five with cellphones, you can try the same thing with Droidcam OBS or a similar software, and mix everything in software. If you don’t have a crew of four or five, that’s fine! You can do other things to make a live event work, or you can just do an ex post facto edit. (This will be a temporary problem, in my experience. People love the idea of making television and will want to join with you, give them a way to do so.)
Perhaps “Fiction” is the wrong word to title this section. If you’re shooting in a Studio, in a setting where you have a reasonable expectation that things can be repeated, it enables a different kind of production technique than a live event. Of course, you can just set up 6 or 7 angles, press record, and shoot a few takes, trusting that you will have the coverage you need from your 6 or 7 cameras (and, frankly, this is the approach I take more often than not) but shooting in a controlled setting enables you to work in a way that is slightly more intimate. You can get multiple takes! You can experiment with closeups and tracking shots and pretend you’re in theater school.
This is all great! Have fun.
We use a lot of green screens, because we have the space to set them up, the lights to light them evenly enough that we can effectively key them out, and the software expertise to do the same. Shooting with green screens can be freeing, but it’s also difficult and frustrating. It’s much easier to shoot on a location, or on a real set, provided such a thing exists.
Sets don’t have to be complicated. We built a spaceship cockpit out of cardboard and discarded video game controllers, and it looks pretty good on camera (especially in standard definition! Not everything has to be HD. Shooting in standard def hides a multitude of sins.)
When you’re shooting and editing fiction it can be helpful to have some music. If you’re not fortunate enough to have a team of talented musicians working with you in the recording studio at your local maker space (look, we got incredibly lucky here in Ellijay, what can I say?) you’ll almost certainly be looking for public domain and creative commons music to accompany your pieces. These days, finding CC music is harder than it used to be, but resources like archive.org and wikimedia commons still exist, and it’s possible to search bandcamp for CC licensed music.
I strongly recommend building a library of CC-BY, CC-BY-SA, and PD licensed material, tagging it with metadata, and keeping track of the particulars of the license of each song. This is hard and will take time. I don’t have a good recommendation on software to manage this at this time.
In the meantime, we’re working on compiling a library of CC and PD music which can be used for other people’s projects (among other things). See “LINKS” at the end of this text for details.
Keep in mind that it is vital that you follow the terms of the license that your music uses, and that likely means not only crediting the author but providing a full link to the original source. If you find a piece that is CC-BY-SA you will need to Share Alike and license your work under the same terms (we do that by default on our end, to encourage everyone to give back to the commons.) I would avoid any work with an NC or an ND in the license.
The right piece of music can elevate a video far further than you might expect. Taking the time to get this right can be very valuable.
A while ago, I published a document I called the Small Things Manifesto. It was a small document, much smaller than this text, about creating things for the sake of creating them (and also about the idea that creating things for the sake of creating them is a radical act, for all the same reasons discussed above.) In that document I outlined the following Principles of Small Creation, most of which apply very well to DIY TV.
You can learn more about the Small Things Manifesto at ajroach42.com/the-small-things-manifesto/
- Scale and complexity are traps;
- It doesn’t have to be scalable to 10M concurrent users if it’s only going to be used by 10 people.
- It’s better to work okay every time than to work perfectly one time in ten
- There is freedom in a lack of professionalism, in doing things incorrectly, and in doing things poorly
- A lack of commercial prospects is not a reason to prevent yourself from Coding or Singing or Drawing or Writing for the joy of the doing.
- We build things for people
- Specific people, small numbers of people, knowable, manageable groups.
- Include people
- We strive for the things we make to be Understandable when they need to be understood; Usable (and useful), when they need to be used; Enjoyable, when they are meant to be enjoyed; Discoverable, so that they can be found.
- Level editors! User Generated Content! Customization! Permision to remix and reuse and cover and sample and to do all the things.
- Respect our audience (users, viewers, consumers, etc.) and our artists (coders, videographers, musicians, etc.)
- Credit your collaborators
- Protect the vulnerable in our communities.
- Compensate people as fairly as is possible.
- Don’t track users or harvest data
- No “Proof of work”, if you hear the word “blockchain”, slap someone.
- Do offer options for customization when possible
- Try to build things that will last.
- Consider the impact on your community when you no longer exist to provide the thing. How will The Thing outlive you, if it can outlive you?
- Consider the impact of your work on your community, strive to do no harm.
- Share, and make sure everyone else does
- This means licensing clearly, and making attribution easy
- We use CC-BY-SA for media and (a)GPL for software.
- More permisive licenses are fine, more restrictive licenses aren’t.
- “CC-ND” or Creative Commons – No Derivatives, limits the ability for others to transform your work, perpetuating the worst parts of our current copyright system.
- “CC-NC” or Creative Commons – Non-Commercial, prohibits those who share your work from monetizing in any way. Including CC-NC content in a magazine or web page with advertisements is a license violation, this can quickly lead to unsustainable situations.
- The licensing thing scares a lot of people off. CC-BY-SA means Share it with other people, credit me for it, and if you decide to make any changes or incorporate this in to another work, release your stuff under the same terms.
- This lets us distribute Small Media through lots of disconnected networks, while making sure that anyone who wants to can find the creator (and pay them!), and ensuring that a company like Disney won’t swoop in and profit off of our hard work.
- Know your neighbors
- Physical or digital, get to know your community. Makes it easier to look out for one another.
- We’re all real people, after all.
- Make it quick, make it cheap, stop when you hit Good Enough
- No one is going to be upset that your low budget, anti-capitalist disaster movie doesn’t have billion dollar special effects. Tell the story and move on.
- Quick doesn’t mean “Go as Quickly as you can”, it means “cut out any steps that won’t help you finish the thing.” Don’t burn yourself out making a small thing! But also, don’t spend so much time polishing the thing that you never finish it.
- Don’t give power and money to those that seek to destroy you, when an alternative is available
- Disney, Comcast, Fox, Sony, Adobe, Microsoft, Twitter, Google, etc. etc. etc.
- Provide community based alternatives to the things that major corporations create
- We can make our own News, entertainment, social media, music, art, games, toys, clothes, and food at various capacities.
- Support one another
- If you can afford to pay a creator who made a thing you enjoy, do.
- If you enjoy a thing, tell someone about it.
- If someone needs help that you can provide, consider helping
- If you need help that someone else can provide, ask
- Forget the social norms that prevent you from asking for help, or that lead you to disparage those who do
- If you’ve got nice gear, consider sharing it
- We help us.
- Don’t let Gear stop you
- Use what you have.
- Nearly any cell phone can produce Good Enough video. Steven Soderbergh shot Unsane and High Flying Bird on iphones.
- “All Hail West Texas” by The Mountain Goats was recorded on the integrated microphone on a cheap, barely functional boombox, and it sounds like it. It sounds bad! It’s still a wonderful, award wining album.
- Dozens of award winning documentaries were shot on the first consumer video cameras. These cameras produced some of the worst video footage imaginable. It’s fine, anyone who cares more about the Fidelity of your gear than about the quality of your work is missing the point.
- Most of our gear is second hand and a lot of it is 10+ years old. Keep it out of landfils.
- If you want to and can buy some gear, find something good enough, and stop thinking about it
- There’s nothing wrong with using something nice, if you have it or have access to it, but Diminishing Returns are real.
- Every dollar spent on gear, is not spent on the people involved, the sets, the costumes, etc.
- Use what you have.
- It’s better to have a finished thing that’s lo-fi than an unfinished thing in perfect fidelity
- Not everything has to be a Small Thing, but the best big things start small.
- Don’t burn yourself out
- Take care of yourself and, if you can, help your neighbors