It’s been years since I posted anything of consequence here on DVi… or even my own Blog/Review site for that matter. Life events took me out for a while and in fact it was our fearless leader, Chris Hurd, whom was instrumental in helping to bring me back out from the dark. So my re-engagement here on the forum is as much a “thank you” to Chris as it as a welcome return to a place that for years was a focal point of enjoyment in sharing the wealth of info stuck between my ears (still need those photos, Chris!).
As we’re about to enjoy another round of the massive make-your-head-spin conglomeration of goodies at NAB I really wanted to post something that would be meaningful to those about to attend. Indeed, it took me weeks to really figure out what I wanted to share on this my return to the forum and finally it hit me: Not a review, not a “how to” but a well-rounded piece of universal info that anyone could benefit from regardless of genre, level of experience or budget. So here you go, some sage advice and tips from someone who’s been making commercial imagery since way back when Jesus was a boy:
Forget The Numbers
Ever since forums and blogs became the defacto standard for getting reviews and opinions about anything there’s been a general desire for going down into the rabbit hole of “specs” on just about every piece of equipment for sale. Specifically in our industry when it comes to cameras people get all uppity about things like noise, pixels, sharpness, lens bokeh… you name it, somebody’s making themselves nuts about tech specs and is “x better than y…”. As my friend Joe likes to say, “fuhggeddabouditt”.
With very few exception every camera on the market today and going back many years is capable of producing amazing imagery. It’s not the pixels or the “low-noise” characteristics that matter, it’s knowing what it’s capabilities are and using it’s strengths to the max that creates stunning imagery. Technology has changed drastically in camera tech ever since the first handheld HD cams hit the market, thanks mostly to the explosion of DSLR’s (which totally took everybody by surprise, even the manufacturers) and the quick adoption by the manufacturers of lower-cost tech, but the things that make for client-loving content is and will always be the same: The knowledge of the shooter to use the equipment on hand to it’s fullest.
I literally just shot a segment yesterday with the venerable but now long-in-the-tooth HPX500. It’s old tech by today’s standards and even when it was new it was the poor-mans’ Varicam since the chip isn’t native HD. But it still has that gorgeous Panny color, that organic-looking global shutter and when you use the lens and lighting in cinematic style it still produces gorgeous stuff – and the client loved it too. (For me it was like visiting an old friend; I was one of the consultants that shot demo footage for Panasonic for the release of the 500 at NAB 2007.)
So when you’re looking around for your camera – or your next piece of gear, don’t fret over the technicalities of the specs. Find something that fits your budget, that you can grow with and will stand up to the rigors of professional use.
Always Take Your Hat (Hi-Hat)
One of the most underwhelming, misunderstood, underrated but extremely useful pieces of production equipment is the Manfrotto 529 Hi Hat with 100mm Bowl, pictured below. You’ll want to mate it with the Manfrotto 500BALLSH 100mm Half-Ball which includes a short locking handle.
It’s one of those things that you really don’t know just how useful it will be until you start using it, then you’ll wonder why you didn’t always have one. There are tons of other “hi-hat” or tripod base adapters but the majority of them don’t have adjustable legs that spread out independently, just like a mini-tripod or have rubberized feet to prevent surface scratching. It’s typical Manfrotto it’s built like a tank and near impossible to destroy. And because it’s heavy-duty it can handle almost anything with exception to a massive Panavision film rig, but if you’re shooting a rig that big you’ve got other things to deal with. (laughs)
Light The Way
Another one of those “never leave home without it” tools is the Coast PX20 LED flashlight.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on a shoot regardless if it were location or studio, things are dark (and geez, with all our pro equipment being black-colored) and needed to be able to clearly see my way around the maze of equipment. My light is always in my pocket or at least close enough that I can reach out for it.
Why is the red so important? Red illuminates without destroying your night vision, a trick that pilots (especially military) have been using for decades to look at something without temporarily going “night blind” from a normal flashlight. So let’s say you’re on a dark set/stage, out at night or even driving your car at night and need to see your way around, pull this little jewel out and hit the RED button (they do feel differently to the fingertip) and get-er-done. Word has it that it’s especially helpful when you’re at the girlfriends house and the husband shows up unexpectedly and you need to find the car keys and a quick escape route, but I haven’t tested that myself yet but it seems like a perfect example. Right? Just sayin…
Don’t Worry About The Other Guy
Having a strong situational awareness is always a good idea, and keeping a finger on the pulse of your customers and the marketplace is also a must-have if you’re going to make it in this industry of being a content provider, but don’t over-think what your competition is doing. If you’re just starting out or building your business it’s all too easy to constantly look over your shoulder and see what happening over ‘yonder, but if you pay too much attention or even try to replicate what others are doing then you’re squelching your own uniqueness, and your work will start looking like your competitors. Then there’s less reason for a potential client to contract you – because you look like the “other guy”.
There’s always going to be someone that’s both better and worse than you at all levels of this industry. There are always good and bad habits when it comes to content creation. Clients will dictate what they want something to look like (and they’re not always right, by the way) and there are “standards” that the general public wants to see when it comes to compelling imagery that makes people go, “wow!”. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t experiment and develop your own style. Sometimes it’s the out-of-left-field look that gets noticed and who knows, maybe your style might make the other guy take notice and go, “holy crap!”.
You’re A Pro?
Do you know what really defines a true professional? I know what you’re thinking, it’s the dog-and-pony show of showing up with “pro equipment”. Or the amount of money you charge for a job. Or that you’ve graduated from delivering pizzas and now you’re working full-time in your chosen career. Or that you have clients that aren’t just your friends-of-friends who own businesses. All of those things do come into play in the eyes of the general public and certainly potential clients, but the mark of someone who’s “made it” and respected as a professional can be succinctly described in one word: Access. And you’re thinking, “huh”?
When you’ve made it to the point that you can afford a $10M liability umbrella policy, that you can get into places the general public couldn’t dream of, or you’re working with high-level public officials or celebrity – basically anything that sets you apart from just “a guy with a camera” trying to shoot something that’s when you’ll be respected as a full-time professional.
And it’s NOT about how good your work is either. I know dozens of people who are WAY more talented than I am at creating imagery, whether it’s stills or motion pictures. Many times when I’ve shown them samples of my work there’s always “ooh’s and ahh’s” at what they see and they often say, “wow, you are GOOD!”. You know what I’m thinking when they say that? That the only reason they don’t have that same image is because they weren’t given ACCESS to that thing or person, I was. They could have taken the same shot with ease.
So how do you get to the point where you can get access to high-value subject material? First you have to perfect your craft and prove that you can deliver good-looking content consistently. Then you have to network, network, network and after that more networking. If you’re really good get a creative agent who will accelerate this process. Then you have put up with the prima-donnas who will try to knock you down and tell you you’re not good enough – and you have to stand UP for yourself and say, “F-you dirty bastard…” and show them you are, and then some. And you’ll make it.
Invest In Your LLC
Although getting setup for being a proper business is important it’s not the financials I’m referring to. I’m talking about putting your money and effort into the three most important areas of production: Lighting, Lenses and Composition. If you don’t have a well-rounded base of all three, you’ve got zip, nada… nothing.
Camera technology changes often as do model upgrades but the thing that *makes* the images, the lenses, are the true asset for the camera. And unless something really, really BIG changes in how lenses and cameras are made you can bet that no matter what your lens lineup is now will be usable until you die. Case in point: One of my most favorite go-to lenses for both stills and video is a 55-year old Topcor 58mm f/1.4 which I’ve had remounted for Nikon-F, which means I can use it anywhere from a D4s, Sony F55, HPX2700, RED even an M43 adapted mount. Why? You’d have to see the color rendition, lack of flare, perfect bokeh…etc.
Lighting is second in the mix and a good lighting rig NEVER goes out of style. As does the knowledge of HOW to setup proper lighting for the scene. In fact I’d say that in many respects the person who’s got good lighting skills is more valuable than the camera operator! What good is the best camera/lens combo on the planet if the lighting is crap?!! Invest in the biggest, brightest most versatile lighting rig you can afford and keep building on it. NEVER sell it – unless you’re moving up to a bigger and better rig.
If you don’t know how to setup a scene, whether it’s talking heads, an F1 racer unwinding a corner, a couple at dinner or even a distant landscape, if you don’t fully understand how to manage the lenses, lighting and compose the shot properly then it’s all for nothing. Spend time – LOTS of time learning from the pros, watching videos, analyzing movies… from whatever sources are readily available to you in deciphering proper composition techniques. I learned the core of my lighting skills by looking at images that I really liked or knew were successful and dissected them visually to figure out where the light/s were coming from, how many, what type, color etc. These days I can look at any photo or video clip and know exactly how the light was setup – or how available light was used. The key to it all is in the LLC my friends, put the bulk of your learning and spending in those areas and you won’t go wrong.
Go Deaf To What Your Friends Say
There’s nothing wrong with constructive criticism and feedback from those who know and love you, but the only opinions and feedback that really matter are the ones who will be paying your bills, the clients, whatever form they take. If you’ve got a demo reel that you’ve slaved and bled over, and that your friends have all said “that’s amazing…” and then you take it to a client or a creative agent and get blown out of the water, then you know exactly what you’ve got. Or don’t.
Grow a thick skin and be prepared for rejection. Sometimes what you think is really cool or amazing to look at has absolutely no value to a potential client. Keep your friends and family close for those times when you need a pep talk, but pay attention to what seasoned pros tell you, and always keep an open ear for what potential clients say they want. If you can listen and deliver on their wishes, you’re as good as gold and they’ll never forget you.
Spread Your Wings And Fly
Other than being a fighter pilot I can’t imagine any other career path that would be as enjoyable, fulfilling, multi-faceted or have the same opportunities to meet and engage with such a diversity of people, cultures, industries and base of knowledge as being a commercial-film producer. I never saw this as a potential direction for my life, it was something I literally fell into (story for another time) but there isn’t any other thing I would want to do, regardless what the money is like.
We’ve all probably heard this saying many times, “If you do something you love you’ll be successful at it.” That’s certainly been true for me; my passion for what I do clearly shows in my work, but more importantly it shows on my face. If you don’t see a big smile on my face when I’m on-set or behind the lens then I’m probably trying to figure out how to fix another “Gee, how the hell am I gonna fix this in the field?” issue, and shortly after some out-of-the-box brainstorm smacks me in the head and the world spins again.
If you’ve got a passion for filmmaking at any level, whether it’s shooting weddings and events or multi-million dollar international ad campaigns whatever you do, don’t *ever* let go of that passion. Our industry is rife with challenges from all angles, financial, logistical, strains on personal life… it’s all there. But the rewards are damned difficult to succinctly describe in a few words. How do you explain the goosebumps you get when you see something you put blood sweat and tears over for months when it shows up on a TV screen in a bar?
Don’t stop experimenting, don’t listen to the naysayers, don’t give into fear and never, never stop moving forward and no matter what happens, never let go of that passion that burns deep inside and you and your family will have an amazing adventure-filled life.
Cheers to All – and hope to see you at NAB 2016!!!!