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This page last modified: Aug 06 2008
description:Recommendations to make your home movies and video more professional
title:How to shoot better movies

These are mostly my personal notes to remind me of what I've
learned. Nonetheless, you'll notice that these same recommendations
are often followed in dramatic movies as well as documentaries.

- Hold the camera steady. If you don't have a tripod or monopod, find
  something to lean on or brace against.

- Don't pan. I know the temptation. How do you show the view of the
  Shenandoah Valley from an Appalachian Trail overlook or the 360
  degree expanse of the Serengeti without panning? Panning almost
  always fails. If you must pan it has to be done very, very slow and
  very very steady. This is near impossible without a tripod. If you
  must pan then also shoot 3 or 4 extra scenes of the same panaorma
  with the camera not moving. A good scene is maybe 30 seconds long,
  so you should probably shoot at least 1 minute. I've shot many
  panoramas, and then when editing I say "Man, this is nice. Too bad
  this panning is crap. I wish I had 3 or 4 one minute shots to edit
  into something nice."

- It does seem to work to pan slowly to follow a moving subject in the
  scene. A good technique is to pan slower than the subject and allow
  the subject to move into, through and out of the scene.

- Walking to follow a walking subject can work. The motion will be
  jerky, but if you subject is moving at the same speed it helps
  diminish the sea-sickness effect. Practice walking smooth. Shoot a
  few shots and keep the best one.

- Capture ambient sound. Everything not in the scene (especially cars
  and your crew) needs to be silent. 

- Narrate in separate shots. Shoot the narrator. Later you can use the
  narration audio as a separate track for another shot if you
  want. However, if you narrate over a live shot, the ambient sound
  will be lost.

- Experient with your microphone to block wind noise. You may have to
  tape a wind sock over the camcorder microphone if your mic is built
  in. It is really irritating to get back to the studio and hear wind
  destroying some unique and great audio.

- Don't zoom during a shot. Compose the shot which may require zoom to
  fill the frame with the subject, shoot the shot with at
  least 5 seconds lead in and trail off. 

- Zoom out is far better than zoom in. Sometimes you'll feel compelled
  to zoom. Slow zoom is critical. Practice getting the zoom control to
  just the right position for a slow, steady zoom. Do not pan and zoom
  at the same time.

- Fade-in or fade-out effects don't work if the whole shot is
  required. You need several seconds of non-critical subject matter at
  the start and end of a scene. 

- Work out signals with your subject/narrator. This would be something
  like the following. It seems to work well if the subject is also the
  director. Someone needs to be the director.
  Narrator: Are you ready?
  Camera: Yes.
  Begin shooting.
  Camera: I'm shooting. 
  The narrator silently looks pensive.
  5 seconds elapse.
  Narrator: yada yada yada
  The narrator silently looks pensive again.
  5 second elapse.
  Narrator: I'm done.
  Stop shooting.
  Camera: Ok. Done.

- When narrating, think about what you will say before the shot
  starts. Practice before the shot. Do not start talking by
  taking a breath or making mouth noises or lip smacking. Don't say
  "uh", "so...", or "well..." or anything similar.
- Talk to the camera when narrating.

- It works well to get close to the narrator. I've had nice shots
  where the subject's face filled the frame (at least
  vertically). Place your subject to one side of the frame.

- Turn off anti-vibration on long duration landscape shots. If you are
  shooting with focus at infinity, go to manual focus, and set the
  focus at infinity.

- Set the manually white balance to daylight when shooting
  outdoors. Even outdoors, camcorders will dynamically adjust the
  whitebalance, and it can look odd. 

- A fairly long duration shot with nice ambient sound is good for a
  title scene. It can be a fairly boring shot because titles will be
  on the screen.

- If you are shooting a sequence like hiking along a trail, compose
  each shot from the same direction. In other words, compose and shoot
  lookup up the trail (forward) in every shot. If you change to
  looking back the trail, shoot a "now we change to looking back the
  trail" shot as a transition. If you point the camera in different
  directions on each shot, the final movie is disjointed and

- It is ok for people to walk out of a scene, or into a scene.

- If you can keep the subject in focus, it can be nice to pan past
  objects near the camera. This lends a scene some depth.