Category Archives: How To

How To Start A Production Company

by Mike Sloat


I started up a production company while still in film school with fellow director Chris Milk and three other directors. Our company was called Spoon Fed Films, and we were able to maintain our business for about six years in San Francisco. Our Clients included HP, Wadsworth Publishing, Round Table Pizza, 3DO, Fat Wreck Chords and many independent producers, record labels and bands. Our projects ranged from talking-head corporate videos to animated short films, music videos and commercials.

We had some serious ups and downs, and learned the hard way that running a real business can be pretty difficult. Here’s what I would’ve done differently, in no particular order.

The Financial Aspect

If someone is going to put up money to start a company, say, if you have a few partners, get IN WRITING exactly what the money is: a loan an investment or whatever. No matter how good a friend someone is, this will come back to haunt you if the company were to dissolve. Make sure everything is clearly spelled out as to the terms of the loan or investment so no one is confused at the end.

Watch your spending! Keep things simple at first and only upgrade equipment and office facilities when it’s totally reasonable to do so (see the paper work section below regarding bookkeeping).

The Paper Work

Do plenty of research on the type of business you want to be; LLC, LLP, Corporation (Inc.) or Sole Proprietor. There are too many financial and tax issues to talk about here, but here’s a few resources that can help:

Stay up to date on all paper work, taxes, fees and certificates. Make sure at least ONE person totally understands all the paper work and tax issues. There’s nothing worse than five guys sitting around on April 14th without a clue as to how to issue a stack of 1099-Misc forms to a bunch of independent contractors…ugh.

A detail oriented bookkeeper is a must. Find someone that can come in once a week to go over invoices and paper work and understands tax issues regarding production companies. Sit down with this person when they come in and watch what they do, ask questions and be aware of what their job entails.

Have a plan for dissolution. I can’t stress this enough!! Make a solid plan that you can refer to if the company is dissolved. Make sure it includes everything from the $40K Digibeta deck to the throw rug in the bathroom. Seriously, get all of this stuff out of the way at the beginning so there’s no questions at the end. Think of it as a script or a treatment for the business that details everything that will happen, should the plan go sour. Speaking of plans, have a formal and realistic business plan. Try this link for help in creating a business plan:

Know Your Partners

It’s hard to really know what someone’s intentions are, but if you’re going to have partners, make sure everyone is on the same page. Most importantly, make sure everyone has the same work ethic. Running a small production company takes serious commitment, and if one person is bearing the brunt of the work, things will go sour FAST. Split up the day-to-day operations among the partners and follow up on everyone’s progress. Define, early on, what everyone’s rolls should be in the company and on a project by project basis.

Bringing In Work & Return Clients

Find clients and make them happy so they’ll keep coming back. Be involved with all the projects that come through the door and keep them moving forward. Having a ‘rep’ of sorts is important; someone who does nothing but hustle up work, making phone calls, sending out demo reels, etc. At first, this will be you and your partners. But pass it along to someone else when the work starts coming in. Offer someone a percentage of a project to do this work for you, or, if you can afford it, pay them a salary. Keep THEM happy and excited about the company and the projects as well. If a partner is more interested in being a producer, they would be the perfect candidate for hustling up some work.

Though our company survived longer than many start ups do, there are many things I would’ve done differently to keep it alive much longer. Treat the business like a production; if you’re pre-production was done well, then there will be less un-foreseen catastrophes in the long run. Make sure everyone knows the plan for the business and the dissolution, should it come to that. Good luck.

Shooting Music Video With The Panasonic SDX900 Camera

The Right Tool For The Right Job…
By Eric Gustavo Petersen

As a cinematographer, I have on more than one occasion come across a director or producer who has said to me, “that technical stuff is not my thing”.  (Very painful since I happen to think that my choice of cameras and lenses is very artful!)  If that hits home, you might not want to read on.  For the brave, foolhardy, or just plain enlightened amongst you, read on – and to quote Bill Cosby – “…if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done”.

In February of 2004, I had the opportunity to shoot a low-budget music video for Monzelle Dozier – a talented and up-and-coming music video director.  Our early conversations included talks about what format to shoot and what the benefits and disadvantages of each would be. As schedules and a final budget solidified, the right tool for the project was the Panasonic SDX900.

In The Beginning

In the summer of 2003, Panasonic released a professional, standard definition DVCPRO50 camera: the SDX900.  The premise of its design was to take the lessons learned from the VariCam (Panasonic’s 24p high definition camera) and the DVX100 (Panasonic’s 24p standard definition miniDV camera).  The result is a camera with many controls and options for developing a look in camera, the aesthetic quality of shooting 24 fps with progressive image capture, and image data on par with Digital Betacam quality while being able to capture and edit that footage on a home computer system via IEEE 1394 (or FireWire).  Allow me to geek out here: the camera sports three 520,000 pixel, 2/3″ progressive scanning CCD imagers, switchable 16:9 and 4:3 aspect ratios, records both DVCPRO50 (50Mbps, 4:2:2 color space, 3.3:1 compression, and 33 minute load) and DVCPRO (25Mbps, 4:1:1 color space, 5:1 compression, and 66 minute load), an impressive 12-bit DSP (digital signal processor), and records in 24p (advanced and standard pull-down), 30p and 60i.  In addition to that, the camera can record time-lapse footage with the use of the Pre-Recording Board option and can output a 10-bit signal with the optional SDI board – useful if you’re doing critical compositing work.

From a cinematographer’s standpoint, this camera is a huge step forward from the limitations of miniDV on one hand and the cost prohibitive nature often associated with high definition or film on the other.  For me the most critical advantages of the camera from an image aesthetic and practical view point are: 24 progressive image capture, twice the image data as miniDV, image control by way of a six-pole matrix and 12-pole color correction, and a reasonable rental cost for productions with a tight budget.


Much as been said and written about 24p cameras in the last three years, but for those of you new to it, here’s a very simple explanation of what it means.  Traditionally, video captures images at 30 frames-per-second (fps) while film cameras capture at 24 fps. The “24” in 24p refers to the frame rate of 24 fps and the “p” refers to progressive image capture, that is, it captures the whole image, all at once, and records that image to tape.

It’s important to be clear when you speak about 24p since you can record in 24p on both standard definition and high definition cameras.  The SDX900 captures 24 progressive frames and is standard definition.  It is in my opinion the best imaging, standard definition camera on the market today.  What you get when shooting with this camera are images with temporal movement similar to what you would get with a film camera.  Many might call this a “film look” and I suppose in some ways it is.  The quality of the image is softer (I’m not speaking about focus here), more fluid motion that’s not as “newsy” or “live” as 30 fps video.  Some of you might ask, why spend the money on this camera when I can get 24p from a miniDV camera, like the DVX100.  Yes, you can use the DVX100.  It’s also a great camera but what you save comes with a cost – image quality.

Image Data

The Panasonic DVX100 is a miniDV camera (or often referred to as DV25) and the only other standard definition camera that offers true 24p as of this writing.  The “25” refers to the data rate of the camera – in this case 25 Megabits per second.  Panasonic’s SDX900 is a DVCPRO50/25 camera and records to tape twice as much information.  (Incidentally, the SDX900 can also record DV25 if for some reason you needed to.)  What does this doubling of data rate mean to you.  If you’ve ever tried to do serious color correction on miniDV or tried to key out a blue/green screen you’ve probably had a hard time doing it.  The added picture data means there’s more color information to manipulate and when you consider the low compression rate of 3.3:1 (compared to 5:1 on miniDV) you end up with an image that’s can key easily, be manipulated to greater extremes, and solid color areas, especially black, reveals very little-to-no compression artifacts.

Image creation

Now let’s say you don’t want to do too much image manipulation in post.  With a skilled director of photography or digital image technician, you can set-up some great looks in camera by creatively using filters, white-balance, gain, shutter speed, and the matrix and/or color correction features of the camera.  For the Stone & Ivy music video, I spent several hours the night before setting up the camera for my use and working on the “look”.  For the most part we used two looks: a green/cyan look for the mannequin factory and a slightly desaturated and higher contrast image for the rest.  For the green/cyan look, I started by white balancing to a 1/2 minus green gel over the gray card.  This gave me the green I wanted.  Then I went into the controls and changed the gamma, pedestal, and knee.  What I wanted is lots of highlight information with slightly crushed blacks and med-tones.  For the other look, I pulled back the saturation of the colors and only crushed the blacks a bit.  We also shot with a 1/250 shutter and for one of the performance shots we used 1/1000.  Then each setup was saved to a SD memory card for recall while on set.

The set-up menus on the camera are extensive and numerous.  You can get lost if you don’t know what your doing, so make sure you leave that work to a qualified operator or digital image technician (or engineer).  The menus include such items as gamma, knee, pedestal, detail, matrix and color correction, system and viewfinder settings, VTR operation, maintenance, etc.  In the manual, one-fourth of the book is devoted to just the menus.  You can totally goof the camera if you’re just playing around, but take heart, there’s a reset to go back to factory settings if that happens – you just have to find it!

The matrix and color correction features allow you to tweak the colors to your heart’s delight.  Without getting too technical, you adjust the matrix to get your colors into the ballpark and then you can adjust the color correction to fine-tune.  It’s neat to watch because you can affect a specific color and change just that color, for example, change a specific hue of blue to green.  To be honest, though, unless you’ve got time it can be hard to do on-set.  Although on the last music video I did manage to take time to darken just the reds on one set-up.

The camera offers two “Film-Like” options.  These are not to be confused with the plug-ins available for editing and compositing programs.  These “Film-Like” options control how the camera responds to highlights by gradually rolling off to white, creating a smooth image tonality.

And when it’s all been set the way you like it, you can save the settings to a SD memory card for switching back-and-fourth during the show or for future recall.

Rental Costs

As much as I’d love to only shoot film for every project, I’m aware of my responsibility to the budget and the need to finish a project with the maximum quality and production value.  Here is where this camera might be of help to many productions that have some money but not enough to shoot on a higher-end medium.  From my recent experiences, the camera package rental starts at about $700 per day (usually on a three-day week).  What you can expect to get is the camera and a mid-range lens, some batteries, a tripod and fluid head, and maybe a 4×5 matte box.  If you spend a little more – say $1500 – you can expect to get the package as mentioned above, a couple of high definition lenses, a gear head, short and tall tripod and hi-hat, an on board monitor and a high-resolution 16:9/4:3 switchable field monitor.  Deals can always be made if you just ask, but take note, this camera goes out often.

Final Thoughts

I think it goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of this camera and have been since the first time I saw it at NAB.  Having used it on commercials and now a music video, my fondness for the camera has only grown and I plan on using it for a narrative feature later this year.  I love the look I can get from the camera and the image quality and image control that this camera offers over using miniDV goes without saying.

In addition to the features already mentioned, I also like the “digital zoom” feature.  For those of you who have used a film camera with an image doubler (used for checking critical focus), this camera has a digital zoom that doubles the size of the image.  It’s mostly used for newsgathering, but I’ve used it to also check critical focus.  The camera also offers two video outs that can be set up to send time-code information to a script-supervisor or someone logging the tapes on set and another that is clean of onscreen information that can be used for the “client feed”.

If you can’t get a waveform monitor for the shoot, the camera also offers two zebra settings and a “spotmeter-like” function called Y Get On.  I used this feature many times to get the brightness (or luminance values) of whatever you aim the crosshairs at.  You can use it to make sure that a highlight on a person’s head aren’t too bright or that the levels on a background are consistent.  It’s a center-weighted metering system similar to the old 16mm Arriflex cameras.

In closing, for a music video with only a grand or so, you might still be better served shooting with a miniDV camera and investing the balance on art, wardrobe or lighting.  But for productions with enough of a budget to go toward a camera rental (but not enough for high def or film), I can’t recommend this camera enough.  The camera alone won’t make great images (no one should be that naive), but in the right hands, you can achieve some impressive images, do some sophisticated compositing or just deliver a final project that’s of the highest quality a standard definition workflow can deliver.

# # #

Project Specifications (Stone & Ivy “Blinders” music video):

Director: Monzelle Dozier
Production Coordinator: Aaron Rattner
Director of Photography: Eric Gustavo Petersen
1st Camera Assistant: Koji Kojima
Chief Lighting Technician: R. Scott Marvin
Key Grip: Teruhisa Yoshida

CAMERA (Moviola – Hollywood, CA):
Panasonic SDX900 (recording on DVCPRO50 – personal settings)
Canon 9X5.5 HD Lens with extender (Mostly used)
Canon 15x 8mm SD Lens with extender
Sony Monitor (16×9)

Camera Support (Plus 8 Digital – Burbank, CA)
Arri Gear Head 2
Ronford Standard Tripod

Chapman Leonard Super Pee Wee
36″ Slider Plate

Grip & Electric (Wooden Nickel – Burbank, CA)
2-ton grip/electric package

For more information, visit:


2-Pop Forum – Panasonic SDX900

Eric Gustavo Petersen

Misconceptions in Lighting

Wendell Scot Greene (Director of Photography) is a native of Los Angeles, California. He recently completed filming a Rock Corps PSA for acclaimed music video director Chris Robinson.

After working in the music industry and he enrolled in the Cinema program at Los Angeles City College where he studied Cinematography with Bill Dill, A.S.C., and later he served as Dill’s teaching assistant at the American Film Institute. Greene gained valuable set experience working as an electrician and assistant cameraman on various independent productions and which led to his working on crews for acclaimed Directors of Photography Daniel C. Pearl and Malik Hassan Sayeed, both of whom encouraged and supported him in pursuing his goal of becoming a cinematographer.

Greene’s second feature as a DP “Sweet Oranges,” is now available on DVD via Tri-Destined Media Entertainment.

“There is no more worthy, more glorious or more potent work, than to work with light.” – Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov

Similar to the problems one encounters when starting to learn a new language; our first attempts at expressing ourselves through light may seem quite awkward and fall far short of our initial expectations. In this article, we’ll discuss several of the mistakes people make when they begin lighting and how to avoid them on your next project.

This article is by no means meant to be comprehensive, nor should it be as the final word on the matter.

1) Failing to properly set the Key Light

The “key light” or ‘key” is the main or primary light on a subject. It is the most important light source affecting the exposure of the shot and it establishes the directionality and source motivation for the lighting and the placement of shadows. Where we place our key light affects the shape, form and definition of our subject’s face. In short, it establishes the overall mood of the scene. Because actors move in music videos, commercials and films a number of lights may be used to establish the key light source, but in order to maintain the overall motivation of our lighting we place them in such a way to make it appear as if they are all coming from a single direction.

The most natural key light position is viewed as 45 degrees above and to one side of a subject. This position throws the shadow of the nose across the opposite side of the face leaving a patch of light, commonly known as the “Rembrandt patch”, named after the famous Dutch painter who lived in the 17th Century. For the most part this angle places light in both of the actor’s eyes and gives nice shape to the nose, lips, chin and cheeks. On music videos, where the major concern is making the star look beautiful, the key is usually a very soft light, placed at camera level (or slightly above) in front of the actor, minimizing facial blemishes, lines or marks.

But are these the only two positions for setting your key for your subjects? Should you follow them blindly? What if the subject has a very wide face, or a chin that sags? How about if they have a larger than average nose, deep sunken eyes, or has a hairstyle that would make Bob Marley proud?

Different faces demand different lighting positions. You’ll have to study the face of the individual and test various lighting positions to determine where to set your key so it comes from the direction that will best serve the features of that person’s particular face and/or the mood you are trying to create. “If you can light a face, you can light anything” – Roger Deakins, A.S.C. B.S.C (“Shawshank Redemption”, “House of Sand and Fog”)

The final placement of the key might be from high overhead and high to the side, from three quarters back, behind them, or even from below.

Darius Khondji, A.S.C., A.F.C. (“Se7en,” “City of Lost Children”, Madonna’s “Frozen”) was quoted as saying, “the direction of the light counts more with me that its hardness or softness” This emphasizes how important the placement of the key and the angle of the light becomes in helping us to light the subject’s face, and how much of that face we chose to reveal.

2) Viewing three-point lighting as a rule, instead of a starting point.

In the glamour era of Hollywood, camera men adhered strictly to the rules of three-point lighting: a hard key light place 45 degrees above and to the side of an actor creating the “Rembrandt patch.” Opposite side of the key, and the from the direction of camera the Fill light, softer and diffused to reduce the shadow created by the key, and backlight which came from above and behind the actor shining upon their head and shoulders.

The three-point lighting style is still taught today in film schools and lighting workshops. Like many other aspects of filmmaking, it gives the beginner a starting point, a foundation of knowledge to build upon. But as you light for your videos, commercials and films you should realize that you are in no way chained to this technique. You don’t have to follow it blindly.

You can light a scene with a single lighting source. You can choose to expose a scene so you will need little or no fill light. You may use several different sources as fill, and place them in positions other than opposite the key. You can create separation in scene by use of not only by using color, but also by lighting the planes of the foreground, middle and background to different levels of brightness.

3) “ If you want it to look dark, you have to photograph it in the dark”

The common mistake that people make is thinking that a dark scene needs to be shot at low light levels. “It doesn’t have to look dark to photograph dark” – is a something Bill Dill, A.S.C used to say repeatedly to his students. Some cinematographers like to use very big lighting units and a great deal of light, and still others use small lighting units and a small amount of light. But here’s the thing. The light levels have little to do with it; more importantly its how they chose to EXPOSE the scene’s brightness range so that it would fit the curve of the film they were using that really matters. Understanding this concept will allow a cinematographer to expose a low light scene to look bright and over lit, and to make daylight look like moonlight.

If you’re using a digital camera to shoot, don’t believe the myth that you don’t need to use lights. You’ll need to raise the light levels in the scene so you’ll be able to shoot at 0 db at a wide aperture. What you don’t want to do is boost the gain on the camera, which results in added noise. Use a monitor on set and it’s WYSIWYG.

4) Using Soft light, but not cleaning up the spill

Soft light sources are used on music videos to create broad, even areas of light. They’re the commonly used to light faces. Let’s face it; most of us love soft light. It’s beautiful. And there are so many ways to make light soft. You can bounce it off a wall or piece of bead board, foam core, show card, griffolyn, or by sending the light through various forms of diffusion material like muslin, grid cloth. You can use bulbs of various wattages inside different size China Balls and attach them to dimmers. Commercially available units like Chimera can be placed on Fresnel, Par, and open face lights to give off soft light. You can even build your own homemade soft box. On the film, “Frida”, DP Rodrigo Prieto, A.S.C., A.M.C. had his gaffer Benito Aguilar make custom soft boxes they dubbed “Sputniks” to fit over their 2K juniors and open face lights.

The larger the source, and closer the source to the subject, the softer the light becomes. But the softer the light, the harder it is to control, you’ll need large flags to control the light at the source and keep it from spilling all over the place. We don’t want light all over the frame, we want to use it to direct the viewer’s eyes to what we feel is important.

The thing to remember when controlling these soft sources is that all flags and scrims used to control the light must be positioned in FRONT of the diffusion frames and NOT between the lamp and screen. This is because the frame of diffusion or bounce board becomes the source of light for the scene. Soft Egg Crates by Light Tools are very popular tools in controlling soft light. They come in various sizes and can be attach to the front of your existing lights, or rigged on butterfly and overhead frames. It’s amazing the number of ways that a talented grip can rig duvetyn to flag off the spill from lights

5) Being Afraid of “Hard Light”

Hard light from a source such as the noon Sun or a focused Fresnel gives light that is directional and casts a sharp, clearly defined shadow. When hard light is used to illuminate a face, imperfections in the skin can stand out.

This is not to say you should avoid using “hard light” on a face, because if you overexpose the hard light on a face the look can be quite unique and beautiful. Veteran music video and feature film Cinematographer Ericson Core (“The Fast and the Furious” and “Payback”) loves to light with hard light. He used it effectively to light the sets and buildings in the night exteriors of “Daredevil” and to bring out the texture of the character’s leather costume.

Hard light needs to be controlled and requires the use of multiple flags, nets and other light modifiers to control and shape the light falling on the scene. You’ll also need to place your lighting units the proper distance from your subject and use some form of light diffusion like Hampshire Frost to help take the edge off.

The late, great cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, A.S.C. combined soft frontal lighting with hard backlight to great effect in the film “Blade Runner” which has influenced dozens of cinematographers working in music videos, commercials and features.

6) Too Much Light on Night Exteriors

“…nothing can ruin the atmosphere as easily as too much light”- Sven Nykvist A.S.C.

Unless the story is set at the 50 yard line of a Monday Night Football Game, you won’t want it to light it to look like that. The question to consider is “what does night look like to you? How does it relate to the mood of story? It’s okay to allow let things go drop off by several stop down to complete blackness. For reference watch any night scene in a David Fincher movie.

7) Lighting with Super Saturated Color Gels

Another thing to watch out for is the using heavy saturated color gels on your lights. Red is probably the worst offender. It’s really an exciting color but on film it loses resolution and looks soft. Red is difficult for your meter to read and films are less sensitive to the color, so if it’s the only color you’re using in the scene you’ll need to overexpose it about by 2-3 stops.

On DV, red’s noisy frequency makes it hard to transmit cleanly and the color bleeds and smears when transferred. Try to avoid it.

8) Double Shadows

A double nose shadow on the actor’s face is unflattering and distracting. It comes as a result of the key and fill light being set at the same exact angle, (usually 45 degrees to the side of the actor) and at the same intensity.

It has been said that each time you add another light you create another problem. And yet no matter how many lights you use to light an actor, that actor should still only cast one shadow. The chance of even seeing the cast of a single shadow from an actor can be reduced by using soft light sources, or flagging hard sources and by avoiding staging scenes next to plain white walls.

9) Allowing a practical lamp to cast it’s own shadow

If the only light in the room is supposed to come from the practical lamps then what is casting the shadow of the lamps on the wall? Since a light in the real world shouldn’t cast it’s own shadow, this immediately tells the viewer that the source illuminating the scene is artificial. You’ll need to balance your lights to match the direction of the practical lamps and use flags and nets control the spill.

10) Forgetting that your lighting is affected by other variables

The art of lighting extends far beyond turning on a few lights. You have to understand the effect of set design, location, costume, time of day, placement of the action, filters, the film stock, the lab and the colorist contribute toward making the image.

One of my favorite cinematographers told me, “ I can light a set better with a bucket of black paint.” Now while he admitted to that being a slight exaggeration, his point was very clear. If the walls and backgrounds of your set or location are lighter than the skin tones of your actors then they will always seem darker by comparison.

Try to keep the walls down in value by at least 25% in relation to your actors or you spend too much time trying to take light off the wall. The same thing applies to doors, and dark skin toned actors in white t-shirts standing against walls.

Robert Richardson, A.S.C. (“Kill Bill” “J.F.K” “Snow Falling on Cedars”) observed “For me the [color] timer and the lab are two most important choices for a director of photography”. Only by shooting a variety of tests will you learn about the film negative’s ability to give you the results you want when you light.

11) Being Afraid to Mixing Color Temperatures

Another principle taught in film schools and lighting textbooks is correcting lights of various color temperatures within a scene so they match one source (or adjusting the white balance on your digital camera to the most dominant lighting source). Take a look around at what you see in real life and you realize this is another rule that begs to be broken. Mixing color temperatures when you’re shooting on film will actually give the colorist more to work with in post which can lead to some really stunning images.

12) Murky or Washed out Images

When you under expose all areas of a scene the results are images that are murky and flat from being placed too low on the toe of the negative. This image lack contrast and fails to give the eye comparative areas of highlights and shadows. If you overexpose all areas of a scene placing them too high on the shoulder of the negative, the result are images washed out, without contrast. Without shadow detail the eye is once again denied comparative areas of highlights and shadows.

13) Becoming a slave to your light meter.

When lighting a scene a common practice is to try and meter every thing in the scene. That’s a mistake because your meter can’t answer the most important questions, which is “How do I want this to look?” “How do I want to expose this? Put your meter away, take a look at the scene and then light it the way you think it should look. When you’re finished then read the meter. Learn to trust your eyes.

14) DV Lighting vs. Film Lighting

Good lighting is good lighting, regardless of the medium and that takes time. Granted it’s harder to light DV and make it look good than if you were shooting film. This is due to film’s greater exposure latitude and tonal range. The exposure tolerance is DV has a narrower exposure tolerance is unforgiving towards over-exposed highlights or crushed blacks. Of course, this is all the more reason for you to use a matte box, neutral density filters, and to light carefully.

15) Ignoring the rule: Block, Light, Rehearse, (Adjust) Shoot

DV shot films are especially guilty of ignoring this rule. Not following this on set will not only waste time but also it can completely demoralize your crew. If you set your lights before the scene is blocked you may discover that your lights are in the frame line. Or you learn that the blocking requires you to re light the entire scene. Watch as the director blocks the scene with the actors, light the set, watch the rehearsal, make any minor adjustments and then shoot.

Shooting DV for music videos

Digital video has come a long way in just the past few years. There are so many cameras to choose from now that it’s hard to decide which is best for shooting a music video and which will achieve the most ‘cinematic’ look. Personally, I’ve used the Canon XL-1 & XL-1s for several projects where I wanted the look of film, but only had the budget to shoot video. Here’s a few ways I have approached shooting digital video for a music video or commercial.

Frame Mode

Basically, Frame Mode on the XL-1 creates 30 full frames per second, as apposed to a normal 60 half-resolution frames (a field). You’ll notice a more fluid, almost ‘strobe’ effect on the picture. This is the first key in achieving a film look.

Depth of Field

I usually try to keep the depth of field as minimal as possible; on the XL-1s, that means keeping the Iris (F-Stop) at an F1.6 to F2.0. This, combined with a telephoto lens, will allow you to significantly throw the back ground out of focus. There are a few ways to achieve this with the combination of Iris, Shutter and Gain. A smaller iris usually means you’ll have to compensate with a higher shutter speed. The lens on the Xl-1’s also have a built in Neutral Density (ND) filter to compensate for too much light; this should be used if you do not want the look of the high speed shutter. By adjusting the Gain control to compensate for the iris and shutter, you can add the right amount of grain as well. Like all other facets of digital video, you should experiment with this to see which look works best for you.


For exteriors, I’ve mostly shot on an overcast day or kept the subject backlit by the sun. An overcast day will obviously give an overall soft light and playing with the white balance, you can get the look of shooting tungsten film outside without a filter. In direct sunlight, a subject that is backlit with a simple bounce card or reflector to light their face looks very nice. When a subject is in full sunlight, I’d hit them with some serious reflectors to even out the shadows and contrast. When you have more control over the light, say, for interiors, and you have a budget, Kino-Flo lights work great for DV. They will give a nice soft light and a great eye-light as well. Basically, I’ve found that DV looks best when shot under a big, soft light. There’s really no wrong way to achieve this. Since it’s video, you should have a monitor to look at and go with whatever looks best to you. Again, tests are a great idea if you have the time.

Post Production

I’ve tried to achieve the best film look in the production process, but there are several ways to get it even closer in post. You can shoot in normal mode (as opposed to Frame mode) and either run it through a program like Cine-look or another program that simulates film grain and colors, or you could send it to a company like Film Look in LA, who have a proprietary process for creating a film look out of normal 30 frame, 60 field video. Some tricks I’ve used are to take the final images, put a 10% to 20% blur on them, then superimpose this blurred image over the same normal image. It basically creates a soft filter look. Tweaking the contrast after this ‘blur-filter’ is put on can create a nice look as well. I’ve also used gradient and vignette graphic overlays created in Photoshop to simulate filters in front of the lens.

Exterior shot under overcast sky; Shutter speed = 1/60, Iris = 1.6, Gain = 0, ND Filter ON, White Balance set to Tungsten light

Interior shot with soft Blue/Green Gelled light & smoke machine; shutter speed = 1/60, Iris – 1.6 Gain = 0, White Balance set to Tungsten light

Back-lit subject under direct sunlight with reflectors; Shutter speed = 1/300, Iris = 5.6 to 8, gain = 0 White Balance set to sunlight. This is the result of the shot that Frazer is setting up in the “Frazer & Cameras” still; Six cameras on the first take, then three cameras on a second take, resulting in nine small frames to make up one shot.

Subjects in direct sunlight with reflectors to bring
down the contrast; Shutter speed = 1/300, Iris = 5.6 to 8, gain = 0 White Balance set to sunlight. Four cameras, doing three takes to make up one- 12-panel shot.

On the Velvet Teen video, shrinking down each shot really boosted up the resolution of the final shots, giving it much less of a video look.

It all boils down to what you think looks good. There’s many ways to achieve a good cinematic look in digital video. These are just a few of my own techniques.

10 Tips for Directing a Low Budget Music Video Shoot

An article by Jeff Clark

Here are 10 tips on directing a Low Budget Music Video. These tips may not always apply to every situation or concept, but they may prove helpful one way or another. They are broken down into the key departments of a production to make them easier to understand.

Tip 1: Selecting The Crew

· A small crew travels fast, so use as few crew members as possible. Hire those that are diverse in their talents and can work several jobs simultaneously. A good example is a Production Assistant who does craft service or a makeup artist who handles wardrobe.

· Look for crew members who are ambitious and looking to establish advanced production credits, such as an art assistant who wants to art direct, a loader who wants to pull focus or a grip who wants to become a gaffer. People like these will work for less and usually give the job their best effort.
· Find people who are willing to volunteer their services to gain experience. It never hurts to have an extra set of hands on the set.

· Network with organizations such as the MVPA. This is an excellent way to develop new working relationships within the music video community. These organizations have access to a number of resources and crew personnel who might be willing to work together with you.

· If you have the knowledge, try to shoot and edit your project. Developing your skills as a DP or editor will gain you a wealth of knowledge as a Director while saving you thousands on your project.

Tip 2: The Location

· Utilize locations that are private, free or require a minimal permit expense. Don’t risk getting caught without a permit. You may not afford to have your production held up or rescheduled, your camera package confiscated and fines in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. You may even be placed on a list at the film permit office that could inevitably blackball you as a location poacher. Meaning that you may have to pay for additional set monitors on upcoming shoots, or worse, you may be restricted from securing future permits altogether. Most city/county/state permitting fees are relatively inexpensive if you are able to keep your crew and equipment to a minimum. Obtaining a permit would probably avoid a lot of embarrassment and trouble down the road.

· Always look for other options that may be available. For instance, your client may have access to a property that you can use for free or for a minimal cost. Maybe you can dress up a few insert shots in your own backyard.

· Avoid building complicated sets and backdrops. They are expensive and quite costly to light. For that matter, shooting interiors can be equally expensive to light, but at times unavoidable.

· Scout your own locations whenever possible. Pulling a film permit is not as complicated as it sounds and location scouts/managers can sometimes run up quite a tab. It is not hard to do it yourself. It saves you money and the satisfaction you will receive from knowing you have exhausted every resource to find that perfect location can be highly rewarding. Many film permit offices house a library of available locations or check with your local chamber of commerce or City/State/Federal government. They will often supply you with maps that can be used to find unknown locations with just a little extra effort. The Bureau of Land Management can also prove to be an excellent source for locations. They are a Federal Agency that governs both used and unused public land throughout the country.

Tip 3: Equipment

· When working with lighting and grip, try to work out package deals from private parties who own their own grip, lighting and generator equipment. Some small vendors will even provide such things as video assist or location playback sound for free just to establish new clientele.

· Utilize inexpensive lighting resources such as natural light when at all possible. Try building your own reflector boards from supplies found at your local Home Depot or you can even make low budget Kino-Flos from inexpensive fluorescent banks or shop lights.

· Camera gear can sometimes be secured with those who own their own packages. They will often rent cheaper than a camera house and may even DP, operate or 1st AC on your project.

· Many things can be easily substituted with makeshift solutions. For example, an audio playback system complete with time code reference can be easily made from a number of stereo components or musical P.A. gear. All that’s required is a little ingenuity and effort. With any two stereo channels, you can easily layback a mono mix of the audio intended for playback while reserving the second channel for code. If a T.C. slate isn’t available, record to your source and then play back the window burn on a TV monitor. A laptop computer can also be substituted for the smart-slate or TV for more remote possibilities.

· In some instances, equipment can be purchased for a little than the cost of a rental. If you intend to use such an item repeatedly over time, it may be beneficial to purchase it for future use.

Tip 4: The Talent & Wardrobe

· Talent and Wardrobe are typically separate departments, but for the low budget video it works out rather well when the two are working together. Ask talent to bring their own clothes to the casting call with the extra incentive of giving them a wardrobe allowance to use their own rags. Many times they will take that allowance and purchase new clothes for the shoot anyway, just to look their best. The artist can often provide their own stage wardrobe, but if they are looking for something new or different you may have to shop for the wardrobe yourself. One approach is to purchase as many appropriate items as you can, be careful to avoid damaging items during the fitting and then return any unused items after the shoot.

· Do your own casting. You’re bound to learn a lot about directing talent and you’re more likely to make accurate decisions in your final choices. To avoid costly agency fees, use the Internet to find talent willing to be in a music video. Make sure you screen them carefully. If your budget is very tight, offer a copy of the completed video as an additional incentive or compensation. That promised copy for their show-reel can carry a lot of weight in negotiating their pay. Advertising for free talent is not always recommended. Paying what you can afford helps to guarantee enthusiasm on long shoot schedules and sometimes even their attendance. People working for free sometimes don’t feel as obligated as the ones you’re paying.

· As for extras, try to utilize the artist’s following (fans) or simply flyer an area that is demographically correct just before your shoot date. Usually the local community college grounds will suffice.

Tip 5: The Art Direction/Props

· This is a very broad area of the music video process since it deals with so many factors regarding the individual concept. When possible, focus your concept around the most simplistic of ideas; you won’t need to spend a lot on props and art direction. For example, what if your ideas centered around shooting an artist in a cardboard box or a simple unique backdrop? Or perhaps you have other talents that lend themselves to the art direction process such as painting, sculpture or 3D animation. You may actually be able to use things around the house. A little spray-paint, a little glue, some smoke and mirrors and the next thing you know you’ve got something that looks unusual and interesting on camera. All animated and affected in After Effects with amazingly wonderful results. Substitute the money you would spend on props with sparks from your own imagination.
For example: Say you want to burn a grand piano on a salt flat in the desert. A grand piano could cost you thousands. Instead, you rent a functional piano for your close-ups and performance shots, and then bring in a junk piano that bares the same paint job for the fire scenes. Shoot it wide so nobody can tell it’s not the same piano. You end up with a very effective idea captured on film that looks like you spent big bucks. You can probably find a junk piano for three hundred dollars at a piano repair shop or in some local penny saver newspaper. You may even find one for free if you are willing to pay to haul it away.

Top 6: The Film & Video Stock

· Short-ends or buy-back (leftover film stock from other shoots) are good ways to purchase film stock cheap. You can purchase such stock directly from shoots that are nearing completion or from film brokers such as ShortEnz or Dr. Rawstock. Sometimes Kodak and Fuji will donate film or give discounts to students and young filmmakers. A little begging may be involved, but you may find their generosity to be quite rewarding.

· There are other filmmaking foundations that will on occasion buy your film stock for you as well, but you will have to invest time to research and pursue them.

Tip 7: Post & Editing

· Some labs will give considerable discounts if you can convince them your project is on a student level.

· Always shop around. You’ll find you can save a considerable amount of money on what is virtually an identical procedure no matter where you go.

· Telecine is a bit more of a fragile process. Deals can be negotiated, but with coloring as such a crucial step in the post process it’s always a good idea to know what equipment you’re actually working on and the colorist you are working with.

· Purchasing your own stock can save you money as well, but keep in mind that if a problem arose from a bad piece of tape stock (though extremely rare), the post house involved would not likely take responsibility for the time lost in recreating your project. Degaussed stock should never be used as a means of saving money. The risk is too great to outweigh the money saved.

· Find a way to make your own dubs. Rent a deck or simply ask to borrow what you need for a few hours.

· Editing bares yet another creative learning curve, but with such programs as Final Cut Pro and After Effects so readily available, it’s simply a matter of days to teaching yourself the basics to editing or compositing video. The rest will come with time and persistence.

Tip 8: Insurance

· The cost of insuring a production is extremely high. In recent years those figures have gone exceedingly higher with insurance riders costing well near the price of the rentals themselves on a low budget production. One way to sidestep this high cost is to piggyback with a production company who is already carrying an annual policy. They will usually welcome the additional revenue it brings. Some companies will even carry you for free if you pay the deductible up front as a show of good faith. Either way you will wind up with better coverage at a cheaper price. Some carriers won’t even insure short term policies anymore, especially if you mention things such as animals, children, stunts, helicopters or anything to do with fire. Whatever you do, don’t shoot without insurance! Though the likelihood is small, there are a million things that can go wrong, putting your production at risk. There are alternatives to securing the proper insurance, so do yourself a favor and research them.

Tip 9: Miscellaneous

· Try taking care of the little things on your own in advance, such as craft service or audio playback. There are many inexpensive solutions for these small, but important roles in a music video production set.

· Watch out for hidden costs such as; prep for telecine, setup time, contingencies, agency fees, special insurance, overtime, kit fees, etc. Always question what it will cost to avoid the surprise of a big bill at the end of the session. Know what you are buying or renting for your money.

· Know when it is appropriate to cut corners. Sometimes cutting corners in the wrong places will actually cost you more time and money while producing lesser results.

· Be efficient. Use storyboards and shot-lists to organize your shoot. A well-managed shoot will help to avert costly overages while providing an enhanced working experience. Preparing solid production notes in advance can also prove to be a big benefit on the set.

· Forfeit your Directing fees if at all possible on the first few gigs. It proves your dedication to the project on an artistic level and will gain your respect with the label.

Tip 10: Educate Yourself

· Even though this does not fall under the production category, it is an essential requirement in this very aggressively competitive marketplace.

· Research your ideas thoroughly before executing them. A botched video project rarely goes unnoticed and may even cost you a re-shoot. It may also cost you any future jobs by that client. There are tons of reference materials available in bookstores, online and everywhere around you.

– Need a location? Look in the backs of map-books under “Points of Interest”.
– Need a Llama? Don’t bother with expensive animal rental companies. Look in your local phonebook for petting zoos or maybe even private owners.

· By being resourceful you will always save money.

· By educating yourself you simply improve your chances as a Director. MVCI is just one of many film school options available out there. Take advantage of your options. Student discounts, free equipment, expert supervision. You may actually have more to gain than if you had done it on your own.

There are thousands of other shortcuts available for directing a low budget video and you will discover them and many more on your production. This is merely a sampling of ideas, designed to communicate the inspiration for resourceful directing and producing.