How to Direct Scenes Containing Minimal Dialogue

Filmmaker 365

It may sound like a cliche, but the old adage of “Show, Don’t Tell” is as relevant today as ever. As filmmakers, most of us understand the notion that film is a visual medium and therefore the best stories are often told by tapping into powerful visuals. However, many filmmakers fail to actually put this ideology into practice and their films run the risk of lacking depth.

There are countless incredible films that have an abundance of dialogue, and the style or genre that you like to work in may call for more heavy dialogue scenes. Regardless, knowing how to direct scenes with minimal dialogue will inevitably improve your results not only in the more textural moments in your film but also in the verbal moments too. When visual cues, metaphors, and powerful imagery work together – the end product can really shine.

  1. Imagine your Scenes as Dialogue.

A huge challenge for many filmmakers is conceptualizing and writing material without a lot of dialogue. More often than not, the dialogue-free scenes in films end up being nothing more than transitional moments with very little inherent value unto themselves, with the exception of helping to glue together other pieces in the film.

The mistake that many filmmakers are prone to making is not conceptualizing their dialogue-free scene in the same way they would a verbally driven scene.

It’s a good exercise for filmmakers to imagine dialogue in a scene that doesn’t have any and then ask themselves a few questions: What do I want to tell the audience? How does this move the story forward? What new character info do we get from this? Basically, ask the same kind of questions you would consider when writing a dialogue scene. Once these questions have been answered, coming up with concepts for visuals that can illustrate them becomes much easier.

You’re no longer just thinking about arbitrary images, but rather meaningful information in a visual format.

  1. Don’t Overdo Coverage

In film, a lot of the time less is more. This notion applies very obviously to shooting films without a lot of dialogue, yet this is one area where many filmmakers go very wrong.

Inexperienced directors will often feel like they need to build up a certain moment and overcompensate for the fact that it has no dialogue by over-covering the scene. They will get a dozen angles that they don’t really need and actually prevent the viewer from focusing on some of the important visual cues in the scene.

  1. Find Symbolism.

Every shot that you show in your film needs to be important and relevant to your story or characters or both. While it may be relatively simple and straightforward to direct a dialogue-free scene that’s simply progressing the story, it’s more difficult to execute well on the character level. In order to really tap into something emotionally powerful, your visuals need to have symbolic and metaphorical meanings that ideally are subtle enough to hit the viewer on a sub textual level.

It’s amazing how powerful subtext is to the average viewer, and many dialogue-free scenes that make use of symbolic or metaphorical imagery are able to convey far more to the audience than any amount of dialogue would be able to. Always look for ways to add meaning to your scenes through the use of objects, colors, wardrobe, props, or any other vehicle that may allow you to do so.

  1. Break Up Important Moments.

Another big trap that filmmakers tend to fall into is trying to cram too much information into a single nonverbal moment. For example, the filmmaker might want to convey a detail about one of their characters.

Let’s say that the character is a recovering alcoholic that relapses. The filmmaker might decide to create one long visual scene that somehow shows the character being tempted by alcohol and then giving in. But placing too much information in one scene like this can feel very cheesy and soap-opera like in many ways. The better option is to break up the moment and tell it in two or three pieces.

By planting seeds for the audience and leaving “breadcrumbs,” your viewers will be led to their own conclusions about your story and characters — and that will give your film a deeper meaning to them. In the example above, if you were to show a few moments leading up to the character starting to drink again (let’s say, having wine spilled on them, watching their boss drink in front of them, etc.), you are able to nudge the audience to the conclusion you want them to draw without being too forceful.

  1. Show More Character

When in doubt, always focus on your character development when working with nonverbal material. The most interesting and dynamic character information can be portrayed best in scenes without dialogue, so always take advantage of this fact.

Ask yourself what you can show your audience in this dialogue-free scene, moment, or film that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to in a scene with other characters. Maybe you choose to show your main character alone and give insight into who they are behind closed doors. Whatever choice you make will work, as long as it’s centered around conveying character detail in an interesting and visually motivated way.

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How to Pick the Perfect Music for Your Video Projects

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Finding the right music for your video project can be a challenging process – especially when a client is involved! Follow these tips to find the perfect music for your video projects.

This is important: look for your music before you finalize an edit! You’ll be one step ahead if you determine your music choices early on in the production process. Planning ahead will allow you to:

  1. Get your client’s music approval early on. The last thing you want is to finalize an edit and have a client come back and ask for a music change.
  2. Utilize the music in your editing pace. Cut to the music to drive energy while cutting against it to create tension. Make thoughtful choices about how you use music within your video edit.
  3. Stay within budget. Nobody likes production surprises… especially when it comes to money. Licensing music early could curtail the chances of a budget issue later.

Some editors prefer to create a very rough cut of an edit and try different music tracks underneath to see which might work best. Once a track is decided upon, they can clean up the edit to match the music. It’s a useful approach, but must be done early on in the post-production process.

Set the Tone

This is an easy one: The tone of your video will typically dictate the style/mood of the music tracks that make the cut. Unless you’re intentionally trying to use music to play against the action (like a classical track under a fight scene), it’s best to find a track that enhances the feeling of your scene. Consider your target viewer… what’s their age and background? Whereas a corporate executive may not identify with hard rock or hip-hop, this may be a perfect style choice for a younger audience.

Music Throughout or Bookends?

Depending on the type of video project, you may find that music simply isn’t needed throughout. Montages and demo reels typically dictate end to end music, but a corporate video or film may actually benefit from sporadic music or a bookended approach.

In many cases, music can actually be more powerful when it is used intermittently; it can better accentuate a point or climax in the video. If music is forced throughout, the viewer may get fatigued. Allow for some breathing room and don’t forget to let the environmental and background sound help shape the audio of your project.

If you’re going with a bookended approach, it may be a good idea to pick one music track (or theme) to open and close the video – especially on shorter video projects.

Vocals or No Vocals?

Montages often use tracks with vocals… and in most cases it may be best left at that. Vocals under dialogue or an interview can be distracting and off-putting. If you choose a vocal track for your project, you have another matter to consider: Do the words support what’s happening in the scene? Good non-vocal tracks can convey the same emotions without words and are usually a safer bet.

Avoid the Duration Traps

Don’t be tied to the duration of your music! Instead, cut it up to work best with your video. The typical cadence of a commercial song (verse, chorus, bridge) may not flow with your edit. Instead, cut them together will the full track version to tailor the audio to your visuals.

Real Instruments

Beware of music that uses MIDI or digitized instruments and effects. These tracks may sound corny and cheap. Instead, ensure that the tracks you’re using feature real, organic instrumentation. To the trained ear (and even the untrained!) a highly processed digital keyboard often doesn’t hold a candle to the organic sound of a baby grand piano.

Additionally, the right instrumentation can contribute to the message of your video. As an example, regional music can be effective in creating the feeling of a certain locale. For instance, traditional Asian or African music may be well-suited if you’re profiling such a location in your project.

Music Library vs. Original Composer

Depending on the scope your project, you may be considering either using tracks from a royalty free music library or hiring an original composer to score your video. Budget is the biggest consideration here – original composition doesn’t come cheap. Additionally, having a composer score your project is a time and labor intensive process.

Royalty free music provides a low-cost, high-quality alternative.

Whatever you do, avoid using copyright or commercial tracks in your video projects. Despite your client’s insistence, using a Coldplay track in your video is cost-prohibitive to license and can put you in legal hot water!

As a last point, pick your music with intention and make it an important part of the process. The perfect track has the ability to drive your editing decisions, engage your viewer, and enhance all the feelings of your video project.

Did we leave anything out? Tell us about it in the comments below. 

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Audio Tips for DSLR Filmmakers

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Although many filmmakers know just how critical great audio is to the success of a film project, it’s still one of the most overlooked aspects of the filmmaking process. This is unfortunate, as poor sound quality can hinder all of the other elements that we work so tirelessly on. In the end, nothing else matters if the sound quality is poor.

Whether it be distracting background noises that have been picked up (such as wind or cars passing by), or poorly recorded dialogue, these issues greatly affect the overall viewing experience and absolutely must be dealt with in order to achieve any sort of success with a film project.

So for those of you DSLR filmmakers out there who are looking to up your game with regards to audio, here are a few key tips to get you started.

Don’t Rely on Your DSLR

First and foremost, remember that there’s no correlation between your camera’s ability to capture a great image and its ability to record great audio.

DSLRs are not designed to capture professional quality audio, no matter how many manual controls or functions they may have. The internal limitations of your DSLR can never be compensated for by using better external devices (such as a high-quality shotgun mic), as the camera’s limitations will always be the bottleneck as far as sound quality goes.

Your DSLR may have manual control over levels or a headphone jack, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to record great audio. It simply means that it’s somewhat competent at recording audio in a pinch or can be used to record reference audio. Always use an external device (whether it be as simple as a Zoom H6, or a more complex mixer/ recorder) in order to achieve professional-level sound.

Scout Locations

Do your field research! This is by far the cheapest available method for achieving great sound. It costs you absolutely nothing to devote a few days during pre-production to go to your various locations and do some audio tests. You might feel this isn’t necessary, but when you get to set and realize that you’re shooting in the middle of a flight path, you’re going to wish you scouted that location properly.

The scout itself can be very simple. Just go to your location at approximately the same time of day that you’re going to shoot and start looking for red flags. If you’re shooting on a rooftop, make sure the wind isn’t out of control. If you’re in a field, be aware of the background noise created by crickets, birds, and other wildlife. If possible, bring your sound recordist with you and actually do tests with your equipment to see what noises you’re picking up.

Doing this costs you nothing but a bit of time upfront, and it could potentially save you a ton of time and headaches both on set and in the ProTools suite.

Always Record Room Tone

For those unfamiliar with the term, “room tone” is essentially the ambient sound of a room. Room tone is always recorded on professional sets so that the audio editor has scene-specific background noise to work with if they need to patch over any sound issues in their ProTools session.

Location audio professionals will typically record room tone for every single location they are covering in order to pick up the general hum and subtle noises present in every room. For example, if you were to record room tone in a ‘silent’ kitchen, you would inevitably pick up the sound of the refrigerator buzzing, maybe a door creaking in the background, a slight hum from the lights on in the room, etc.

Room tone is usually recorded at the end of every scene for 30-60 seconds while the entire cast and crew stands silently or after they’ve cleared the room. Why is this important to your sound quality as a whole? As touched on earlier, you typically use room tone in post to help blend together multiple takes of audio so that there’s a consistent bed of sound that seamlessly melds together all of the dialogue and ADR tracks.

You can also use room tone to match ambient sounds when you shoot multiple takes of the same scene and there are differences in the background noise. For example, if in one take the air conditioner goes on and in another it turns off, you will want to use room tone (of the air conditioner on) to keep the sound of it present in the entire scene.

Final Thoughts

For top-tier production value when making a film, it’s vital that you pay as much attention to your film’s audio needs as you do its visual needs. If you can be one of the few micro-budget filmmakers that actually prioritizes sound, you will certainly reap the benefits of going the extra mile.

Pristine sound adds another dimension to your film and ups the production value in ways that the camera will never be able to. Understanding your camera’s capabilities, doing sound tests in each of your locations, and recording room tone for every scene are three of the simplest things you can do to vastly improve your film’s sound quality.

Did we leave anything out? Tell us about it in the comments below. 

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Five Tips for Planning Your Audio in Pre-Production

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Having low-quality audio in your film or video is a quick way to lose credibility in the eyes of your audience. Instead of simply taking audio into consideration once you get on set, you should prepare to make your audio amazing before production even begins. Let’s take a look at five ways you can plan out your audio approach during preproduction.

1.Go Scouting

Location scouting is one of the most important aspects of the pre-production process. As a filmmaker, you’ve probably already developed an eye for finding good locations, but it’s equally important to develop an ear. Keep the acoustics of your location in mind. Does your voice echo loudly in the room? Is it in a highly populated area? Along with the room acoustics, you need to be able to control other audio related factors like the air-conditioner or a humming refrigerator.

What ambient noises can you anticipate? If you’re shooting in a large building, you might not be able to turn off the air conditioner using a thermostat on a wall. For this reason, it’s important to have a location contact that can help answer your location-related questions.

You should also be mindful of things like proximity to airports, fire stations, and bus routes, as these things might not be heard during location scouting but can definitely be picked up by your microphones. It’s also important to look around and see if there are any construction projects going on; construction noise is a setback that can be disastrous for location sound. You don’t want to be surprised by ambient noises once you get on set.

2.What Does the Shot Demand?

Top-notch wardrobe has the ability to add a greater sense of believability to your film, but when picking your character’s clothing it’s important to consider audio. For example, silk clothing is notorious for being difficult to mic, so you might consider using a boom mic instead of a lavalier. You may even want to change the wardrobe to accommodate.

It’s also important to think about the action in your scene before you arrive on set. Will the actors be walking and talking? If so, will their backs be to the camera while they’re talking? How much are they going to move? Asking these questions before shooting may also speed up your production time. Instead of showing up on set and deciding what mics to use, make an educated decision before you arrive.

In order to do this, you’ll need to have your audio person involved in the pre-production process. This admittedly adds another layer of complexity to the whole process, but it definitely pays off in the end.

  1. Invest

Indie productions are notorious for having incredibly bad audio. It doesn’t matter if your image is immaculate… if the audio is bad your audience isn’t buying it. If you’re serious about your project, it’s important to invest in quality audio equipment.

Online rental houses like BorrowLenses, LensRentals.com, and LensProtoGo all offer microphone and audio gear at affordable prices. If you’re needing the equipment for an extended period of time, inquire about a discount.

Good audio investments don’t end once the shoot is wrapped. It’s equally important to invest in your audio during post-production. Instead of using low-quality music, spending a fortune for original composition, or using copyrighted commercial tracks (which could put you in legal hot water), consider high-quality production music.

  1. Hire a Professional Boom Operator/Sound Mixer

Sites like Mandy.com and ProductionHub are great resources for locating audio specialists in your area. This is a key crew member, so don’t fall for letting a friend or family member be your on-set audio person. Filmmakers and video pros often get caught up in the visuals of the production and the audio takes a back seat.

Capturing audio on set is more than just holding a boom pole. Professional sound recordists will have experience using field mixers, know the proper ways to mic talent, and can work in tandem with the director of photography.

  1. Make a Plan

Making a detailed plan is imperative for streamlining the production process.  If you are creating storyboards before you shoot (which you should be) take the audio into consideration during this process. The audio recorder and video editor will be appreciative when you hand them a detailed storyboard with audio notes. Always schedule time to record natural sound while you’re on location.

Picking up several minutes of natural sound from every location is important for preventing choppy audio in post. Be sure to record additional natural sound every time the audio environment changes (for instance, if an A/C unit kicks on). This is really important for preventing choppy audio in post.

How to Capture High Quality Audio for Low Budget Films

Want to drive yourself crazy? Try removing audio buzz or hum during video editing. Isolating bad audio frequencies without distorting dialogue or intentional on-camera sound can be a frustrating challenge.

It’s always best to get the cleanest on-location sound instead of attempting a post-production fix. You’ll save yourself time at the end of your project and will likely have a better sounding product.

Three common sources of on-location background buzz and hum are:

  • Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning Systems • Lighting • Refrigerators The following on-location sound tips will address each of these problem sources and how to minimize their effect on your audio.

Play Weatherman

A/C units may be the #1 culprit for picking up bad background audio. They rumble, hum, and can really muddy up an audio track. To top it off, they’re erratic, turning on and off at random intervals (leading to irksome shot inconsistencies). The only way to ensure that you don’t get A/C hum is to kill the system while you’re shooting.  Of course, nobody likes burning up under hot production lighting.

Luckily, there’s a trick that will help keep your crew cool. As soon as you arrive on set, radically adjust the heater or A/C unit. Let the unit overcompensate. If it’s hot out, turn the air conditioner on blast. Freeze the room. In cold weather do the opposite. Then, when you’re ready to start rolling, turn off the unit.

Blankets and a Step Stool

What about the times when you can’t control the A/C unit? Big office buildings are notorious for this.

Don’t worry. There’s a trick for this situation, too. You can soften the A/C unit hum by covering up vents with blankets.  Professional sound blankets are ideal, but if you’re on a budget or in a pinch, even your standard blanket or comforter could be a satisfactory replacement. The step stool allows you to access high or hard-toreach vents.

If you have buzzy ballasts from location lighting, obviously the first line of attack is to turn them off. Lighting that stays on all the time (such as emergency lighting) may require you to physically remove the bulb while shooting. The step stool also aids with this.

Freeze the Keys

Refrigerators can’t be easily moved out of a location, so it’s best just to turn the power off while rolling on set.  With the door shut, a refrigerator can stay cool for a while… but you don’t want to forget to turn it back on!

How can you make sure you remember to turn it back on? By placing your keys in the refrigerator when you unplug it. There’s no quicker way to get banned from a location than to leave behind a refrigerator full of spoiled food!

Did we leave anything out? Tell us about it in the comments below. 

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Three Tips For Lighting Product Shots On A White Backdrop

Filmmaker 365

Many cinematographers and shooters mistakenly assume that shooting product shots is simple. They often feel that, because they’re effectively shooting a still object, they’ll be able to get good results with their eyes closed — even if they have little or no experience in that realm.

The reality, of course, is that lighting product shots is as complex as anything else. Each product will have its own unique challenges and needs to be approached as its own entity. At the same time, there are some universal principles that come into play when shooting just about any type of product.

If you regularly shoot commercial content, there’s a very good chance at some point you’re going to need to step up to the plate and deliver clean product shots. Here are some crucial lighting tips to take into account when you get there.

  1. Always Use Soft Lighting

Commercial and product photography is all about beauty, and we all know that soft light is far more conducive to a beauty shot than hard light. This is true across the board, whether you’re shooting products or talent.

While there may be some exceptions to this rule (depending on the type of product you’re shooting), you’re almost always better off using soft light sources. This will not only help you get more pleasing results on the product itself, but will also help you control the spill on the white background, which can save you a lot of time on set.

  1. Use Flat Lighting if Necessary

If you come from a cinematic background, you probably have it drilled into your head that you should never light a scene so that it appears flat. Film is all about finding pockets of light and shadows to add dramatic effect, and flat lighting of course does the exact opposite of that.

With products however, you generally aren’t trying to dramatize anything. You’re almost always trying to capture the most realistic and neutral version of the product that you can, and in order to achieve that end result, flat lighting may be critical.

I typically recommend lighting your product shots very evenly with one source directly in front or overhead(depending on your product) and two additional sources  — one on each side of your background. This will help you to not only achieve a very flat look, but also will help you to avoid shadows, which can become problematic when working with certain types of material.

  1. Know When to Backlight

There are many scenarios where a backlight isn’t necessary when shooting products on a white seamless, but in some cases a backlight can actually be very helpful. For instance, if you’re shooting a light-colored product against white (or a transparent/clear product) and needs it to stand out more obviously, backlighting is a great solution.

That said, you need to be careful with how and where you place your backlight to maintain the consistency of a polished, neutral look. A singular backlight placed above and behind the product is usually an optimal location, as placing your backlight off to one side or another might throw off the symmetry.

Did we leave anything out? Tell us about it in the comments below. 

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Essential Gear for Product Videos

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While many professional videographers shoot product videos in super boring and ugly rooms, you don’t want your finished video to look anything short of perfect. Let’s take a look at some of the most important gear to bring to any product video shoot.

  1. Reflectors

The most important item to have on a product video shoot is a 5in-1 reflector. Reflectors serve as multi-tools on set because they can do a number of different jobs, including:

  • diffusing light
  • reflecting light
  • flagging light
  • absorbing light
  • makeshift backgrounds

Reflectors allow you to shape the way your product looks on camera. There are a lot of DIY reflector tutorials out there, but all of them are impractical. Reflectors are inexpensive enough (around $15) that there’s really nothing to prevent you from buying your own.

  1. C-Stands

C-Stands are especially important when shooting product videos. Even more than most commercial work, a product video will require subtle changes in lighting; you might need to add additional reflectors or even a backlight to your subject. Between holding up the background, lights, and reflectors, it’s not uncommon to need six or more C-Stands on a product video shoot. Make sure you have plenty when you arrive on set.

  1. Soft Box

There’s a time and a place for harsh lighting. Product videos are not the time nor the place. If you do a lot of product photography, owning a soft box is a must. A soft box makes it a lot easier for you to light your scene; it will soften shadows, eliminating visual distractions. One way to approach product lighting is place two soft boxes around your subject (one to the left. one to the right) and then add in smaller lights to stylize the scene.

  1. Macro Lens

A macro lens has a very short minimum focus distance that allows you to get really close to your subject. As you can imagine, this is imperative if you are shooting a product video. The most popular macro lens on the market is a 100mm f/2.8. This lens, found across multiple brands, is perfect for shooting small objects.

While not technically a macro lens, if your subject is a little larger you should use a 50mm prime. This will allow you to get wide and not distort your subject in the camera. And, frankly… you really should have a 50mm prime in your lens bag anyways.

  1. Tripod

The importance of a good tripod can’t be overstated. While you’ll typically find the best luck with a fluid head tripod, you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to get a decent set of sticks. There are a lot of good, affordable tripod options out there, if you just take the time to do your homework. One of my favorite brands is Magnus. While their tripods will only last about three to five years, they are super smooth, especially when you consider that they’re friction head.

  1. External Monitor

Details are everything in filmmaking and video production. This is especially true for product videos. On a narrative set, you might be able to get by with a focus that’s slightly off. But if your focus is even a little off on a product video shoot, you’re going to have to reshoot. This is why an external monitor is super important. An external monitor will allow you to see your finished footage the way your audience will see it. Good external recorders will allow you to see your focus points and find any overexposed areas.

  1. Backgrounds: Paper > Cloth

Nine times out of ten, your background for a product video will be either solid white or solid black. Normally when you’re shooting a video with a solid background, you want any distracting background creases or wrinkles to be minimized. This is especially important for product videos. Any distracting background blemishes will distract the viewers from the actual product being featured.

It is recommended to use rolls of paper rather than cloth when working with solid backgrounds. Paper rolls are consistently smooth and solid, perfect for product videos. Plus, if you accidentally stain the paper, you can just cut it off and roll out some more. Fun Fact: If you want your product videos to have a little reflectivity, place a solid piece of glass down over your table top.4

  1. Gaff Tape

Okay, so maybe gaff tape doesn’t necessarily fall into the ‘gear’ category, but it’s still an incredibly useful tool on any film or video set. Gaff tape, as you can imagine, can serve many different roles on set. It can hold down loose background pieces, keep your products steady, set actor marks, hold reflectors steady, and much more.

While you will have to fork over a little extra cash to get gaff tape over other kinds of tape, it’s absolutely worth it. Gaff tape doesn’t leave residue behind.

  1. Lazy Susan

If you’ve ever eaten at a fancy Chinese restaurant, then you probably have experience with a Lazy Susan. In a nutshell, a Lazy Susan is a small tabletop that spins in circles. If your product photography requires you to shoot all 360 degrees of the featured product, this is a must — especially because you can’t move your camera all the way around your subject without getting lights and crew members in the shot.

All you really need to do is place a piece of solid-colored poster board over a Lazy Susan, tape it down, and then have a crew member (or yourself) give it a spin. It’s actually pretty easy to use and the results look fantastic.

  1. Slider

Good product commercials have one thing in common: movement. It doesn’t matter how good your lighting is, if the footage is boring, nobody is going to want to watch it. The slightest movements will go a long way when shootingproduct videos. This is where a slider comes into play. When coupled with a decent rotating head, a slider can add a lot of visual interest to an otherwise boring video.

  1. Wood Panels (Fake Wood Table)

Typically when you see product videos with ‘hipster’ table tops, the table top isn’t actually real. It’s typically a wooden panel that’s been put together to simulate a real table. This helps with storage space and allows you to light the scene more easily.

All you really need to do is get a few pieces of plywood and an assortment of wood stain. Simply stain one side one color and the other side another color. Now you have two different table tops without having to store two different tables. Of course, this method doesn’t work if you need the actual table legs in the shot. But for most shooting scenarios, this set up will work great.

Did we leave anything out? Tell us about it in the comments below. 

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How to Creatively Use a Reflector on Location

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On every major production set, cinematographers and videographers utilize reflectors to help enhance or dilute light. The same creative practices that these large-scale productions use can be replicated by you using a standard collapsible reflector or reflector panel that won’t kill your budget.

There will be times when you’re on location and you only have natural light around you to work with. Or there will be instances where you have lights available, but their output is more than you

need. Let’s look at ways to take advantage of this light by learning how to creatively use a reflector on location.

As a Key Light

A key light is your most crucial light. It clearly highlights the form of your character. Now, if you find yourself on location with nothing but natural light, you can use a reflector to generate the key. What you’ll want to do is place your talent with their backs to the sun. You can now use the reflector to bounce the sunlight onto their face, thus creating a key light.

Utilize It as a Diffuser

Sometimes when filming you’ll find that you might have too much light. In this case you’ll want to diffuse that light so your character isn’t harshly lit.

If you’re working on location using natural light, then you can use the translucent side of your 5-in-1 reflector and place it between your character and the sun to diffuse it. This will cast a nice smooth light across your character versus a harsh light.

Adding Shadow or Negative Fill

Another way to use a reflector creatively is to use it as a shader. There have been countless times on various sets where the natural light is great, especially later in the day, and your character is getting a great key light on the side of their face. But then you notice that there is a reflective light on the other side of the face and you would like that to be darkened with a shadow.

For this you’ll want to use the black-facing side of the reflector and situate it between your character and the reflective light source. Once this is done, you should see that your character has a nice even shadow opposite of the key light.

Create Rim Light

Rim light is almost as crucial as the key light. It’s used to separate the character or subject from the background, giving your shot depth. In order to get this type of lighting with a reflector, take a 300k light, point it straight up, and use the reflector at an angle to bounce that light onto the subject. The light is now diffused enough that it doesn’t create a sharp edge light and it backlights the subject in an even manner.

A Kaleidoscope of Color

What if you need a variation of color that moves in the lighting of your shot? You can use a reflector for that too by attaching color gels to the surface of the reflector and bouncing the light from the sun or a light onto the subject. This could be used in situations where the lighting calls for a need of multiple colors, such as simulating the flicker of fire on a character’s face.

Did we leave anything out? Tell us about it in the comments below. 

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3 More Creative Practical Lighting Methods

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Many well-known Directors and DPs have turned to practical lights over the years as a means to stylize and enhance their work.

In years past, it was relatively uncommon to use practical lighting on a film set as a means of achieving proper exposure. In fact, it was much more common to simply use practical lights as a method of motivating light that was actually coming from a traditional film lighting source. Today however, practical lights are more useful than

ever as the increased sensitivity of digital cinema cameras allows for practicals to be used in a more powerful way.

Practicals are of course “regular” lights that can organically appear in a shot. Examples might include a street light, a desk lamp, or even a fire. Virtually any light source that’s not a traditional film light can be considered a practical light, though some are more effective than others. Below is a short list of three practical lighting sources, and how to use them most effectively.

  1. Fluorescent Ceiling Fixtures

Many offices, parking garages, and industrial buildings have fluorescent ceiling lights, and they can make for some of the most useful practical light sources out there. The quality of light from these types of ceiling lights is very similar to what you might achieve with a kino-flo, but of course with the added benefit that they can be shown in the frame.

Typically when using fluorescent ceiling lights as practicals, it’s best unscrew or remove certain bulbs as a means to shape and control light. Doing so allows for an even textured lighting to fall throughout the scene, giving the actors a lot of wiggle room to move freely during their performance.

In addition to their quality of light, fluorescents also look fantastic on camera. Low angle shots that reveal the ceiling will look great as the fluorescent tubes glow in the background and add depth to the shot.

  1. Car Headlights

Headlights are extremely powerful light sources and can be hugely useful in a wide variety of shooting scenarios. A great way to use them is to backlight actors with them, and then use a bounce to push some fill light back onto their faces.

They can also be used as a key light, but remember that if the car isn’t in your frame, you’ll at the very least want to establish it in a master shot. Otherwise the extremely bright lights will look out of place and may disorient the viewer.

Also, don’t be afraid to add diffusion to your car headlights to soften them and bring down the overall light levels. Even if the lights appear in your frame, the diffusion won’t likely be noticeable at all, especially if you’re shooting at a relatively shallow depth of field.

  1. Candles

Ever since Stanley Kubrick used candle light to illuminate Barry Lyndon, filmmakers everywhere have been trying to emulate that look. In Kubrick’s day though, he needed to film on a custom F0.7 lens in order to get enough exposure to shoot this way. Filmmakers today have things much easier.

Assuming you’ve got a relatively sensitive low-light camera, chances are you can get away with using only candle light if that’s the look you’re after. That said, you may not want to rely solely on candle lighting for your scene, as that can cause other headaches on set.

An alternative option would be to use a small space light to bring up the ambience in the room, and then use candles to shape the rest of the light in the scene. The quality of light and natural flicker effect from real candles simply can’t be replicated perfectly with any other tool on set or in the color suite.

Did we leave anything out? Tell us about it in the comments below. 

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Cinematography Tip: How to Create Soft Diffused Light

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Every great cinematographer has a deep understanding of the way light works. Unfortunately, many indie filmmakers focus way too heavily on the gear and not the actual image they’re shooting — especially when it comes to light. Let’s take a closer look at lighting and discover a few ways to create a soft, cinematic look.

Hard vs. Soft Lighting

In film, video, and photography, there are two big categories of light: hard light and soft light. You can easily figure out if your light source is hard or soft by looking at the shadows. Hard lights will have

shadows with very sharp edges, whereas soft light will have shadows with soft edges or no defined edges at all.

The thing that makes a light either soft or hard is the relative size of the light source. A small source will be much harsher than a larger source. The best example of this is the sky. On a bright and sunny day, your shadows will be incredibly sharp because the light source that hits you (the Sun)  is relatively very small in the sky.

Now contrast a sunny day with an overcast day. On an overcast day, you no longer have a strong single point in the sky hitting your subject, rather the light is diffused across the entire sky. The result is incredibly soft shadows.

Why Soft Lighting Rules

One type of light source is not better than the other. Both hard and soft lights have their own storytelling purposes in both film and photography. That being said, soft light is much easier to work with than hard light. This is for a number of reasons.

First, soft light doesn’t draw attention to shadows as much as hard light. By nature, our eyes are drawn to points of high contrast. If you’re using hard lights, your viewer’s eyes may be focusing on points in the frame other than your subject. Soft light helps make your subject look as good as possible by minimizing wrinkles and blemishes, which is incredibly important for commercials and corporate videos.

When shooting with hard light, it’s not uncommon to have to force your subject to stay in a very particular place. But when shooting in soft lighting, you typically have more freedom for your subject to move around the frame.

Diffusion Techniques

In a nutshell, diffusion changes the relative size of a light source. For example, if we were to place a white sheet between your subject and a floodlight, we would get much softer shadows than if we simply hit the subject directly with the floodlight.

It’s important to emphasize the words “relative size” here. While a softbox may produce soft shadows on a human when five feet away, it will likely produce sharp shadows on a car. In ideal soft lighting scenarios, there’s a direct relationship between the size of your subject and the recommended size of your source light. As your subject gets bigger, so should the size of your light source (if you want soft shadows).

Let’s break down a few ways to get softer light on set.

1.Diffusion Paper

Diffusion paper is a great option if you want to soften your lighting up just a bit. The “paper” is usually clamped to the barn doors of a light. The result isn’t dramatic, but it is subtle enough if you’re trying to soften up the overall look.

Some people use wax paper instead of diffusion paper to get the same effect. While this may work with LED lights, you shouldn’t use wax paper on a tungsten light as the paper can catch fire.

2.Softboxes

A softbox is incredibly versatile on set, making it a great key, fill, or back light for your subject. The softness of the light produced from a softbox depends on the size of the face. In general, larger softboxes will produce softer light than smaller softboxes.

Be careful when looking for softboxes online. There are a lot of really terrible softbox brands out there that target indie filmmakers. These lights break easily and have horrible color casts. I recommend using a simple Lowel softbox kit if you’re just starting out.

  1. Umbrellas

Umbrellas are similar to softboxes in that they are usually attached to a light source. Depending on the type of umbrella you are using, you can either shoot through the umbrella or bounce light off the umbrella onto your subject.

Some umbrellas are made up of a white cloth and others are made up of a metallic material. Both are good and both can produce soft light depending on the material and the distance from the subject.

  1. China Balls

If you’re looking for incredibly even lighting to add to your scene, a china ball is a great place to start. They’re incredibly cheap and the light they produce is just the right kind of soft. The only downside to working with china balls is the fact that they are hard to mount. But if you’re willing to work with them, they can give you nice soft light for very little money.

  1. Silks/Scrims

A silk is typically placed on a separate stand between your subject and your light source. Silks can be large (up to 20 ft. x 20 ft.) or small. You will normally hear silks referred to by the size of the metal frame around them. Common sizes include 4×4, 6×6, 8×8, and 12×12.

If you’re on an indie budget, you don’t necessarily have to buy a “professional” silk to get a similar light effect. Most of the time you can get away with just suspending a white sheet or shower curtain between your subject and the light source. Be sure to bring lots of sandbags when using silks. If the wind catches your silk just right, it might fall and hurt somebody!

  1. 5-in-1 Reflector Diffusion Screen

If you don’t already have a 5-in-1 reflector, stop reading this article and go buy one. There is no lighting tool more essential to indie cinematographers than a 5-in-1 reflector. The inside of a 5-in-1 is made up of a light diffusion fabric that can be used to cut light from a bright light source. They can be mounted to a c-stand or held when you’re in a pinch. I often use these diffusion screens when outside in direct sunlight.

  1. Bounce Light Off the Ceiling or Wall

If you’re working in a boring office space or home (or if you’ve simply forgotten your softbox) you can always bounce light off of the ceiling. This technique essentially turns the entire wall into one big soft light. I typically use this technique if I want to light an entire room evenly. Just keep in mind you’ll need a powerful light if your room has tall ceilings.

  1. Shade

If you’re shooting outdoors and looking for soft light, try to find some shade. Instead of diffusing the light, shade will completely cut off the main light source. Instead of being lit from the sun, your subject will be lit by light bouncing off of objects from all around you.

One thing to look for when shooting in the shade is blown-out backgrounds. Because your subject will be out of direct sunlight, there’s a really good chance that your background will be incredibly bright. Just keep this in mind when framing up your shot. There’s also the chance that your lighting may change while shooting in the shade, so it’s best to shoot in the shade if you’re shooting a short scene.

  1. Windows

Another option for getting soft light is to put your subject near a window. Windows produce incredibly bright and soft light and it’s not uncommon for photographers to use this light to their advantage. Filmmakers are a little more limited when it comes to window light, as light could possibly change as the day progresses.

But if you need soft light quick, a window is a quick and easy way to do it.

One thing to consider when shooting near a window is color casts. Lights in your home are typically tungsten balanced (orange) while sunlight coming through a window is typically daylight balanced (blue). In order to avoid shooting in mixed lighting, you may want to invest in a CTO daylight conversion filter to place over your window.

  1. Book Lighting

There’s another popular lighting technique that’s been making its way through the filmmaking world called book lighting. Book lighting is essentially a double diffusion technique that always uses at least one silk. The trick with book lighting is to not have the physical light source pointed at your subject. Instead your light will bounce from one source and then hit a silk. The result is a very soft glow.  Book lighting should be used if you want the softest light possible. Keep in mind: setting this up can take a while.

Did we leave anything out? Tell us about it in the comments below. 

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9 Tips for Shooting Cinematic Footage

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There’s a lot more that goes into getting a cinematic image than simply buying the right camera. From pre-production to post, every aspect of the filmmaking process works together to create a beautiful end film. Let’s take a look at a few ways to create beautiful cinematic footage.

  1. Storyboard

Storyboarding is one of the most overlooked yet vital aspects of filmmaking. While you may not be able to storyboard for every project (like, say a documentary), you should always be storyboarding for a narrative film. Storyboarding allows you to get

the ideas from your head onto paper so you can share them with the rest of the crew.

Even if you think you have an incredibly clear vision for your film in your head, you will inevitably run into a point on set where your original creative vision is getting a little fuzzy under pressure.

Take time to storyboard each shot before you arrive on set. You don’t have to be the best artist in the world. Just jot down composition notes as best you can.

  1. Shoot 24fps

Almost all modern film is shot in 24 fps, however the default for most modern video cameras is 30fps. So if you want to make your footage look more cinematic, you need to be shooting in 24fps. Most modern cameras allow you to at least change between 30fps and 24fps.

If you want to shoot slow-motion footage, you could shoot at even higher frame rates like 60fps or 120fps and slow it down to 24fps when you edit.

  1. Shallow Depth of Field

There are very few things as noticeably cinematic as a shallow depth of field. If you’re not already familiar with the term, depth of field refers to the portion of the frame that is in focus. A camera like an iPhone has a very wide depth of field, meaning it’s very hard to get a background out of focus. A DSLR-style camera can get an out-of focus background very easily.

If you’re determined to get the most cinematic footage possible on a budget, you should definitely look into using a DSLR or mirrorless photographic-style camera instead of a camcorder.

  1. Don’t Zoom

Zooming is great for shooting a high school football game, not so much for shooting a film. There are very few cases of zooming in modern cinema. Don’t believe me? Watch your favorite film and look for the number of times they zoom.

Unless you’re watching an Edgar Wright film, it’s unlikely that you’ll find any zooming shots. Instead filmmakers typically use a technique called dollying in which they will physically move the entire camera towards the subject. The result is a much more natural movement that is pleasing to the eye.

  1. High Dynamic Range

Dynamic range refers to your camera’s ability to simultaneously record both bright and dark areas. To illustrate the point, think about terrible local news footage. In most of their footage, you’ll likely see a reporter standing under direct sunlight with a sky that is completely white. This is incredibly distracting and it will look terrible to an audience in a theater.

Back in the day (5 years ago), cameras with high dynamic ranges were very expensive. But with recent advancements in technology, notably from Blackmagic Design, you can now get beautifully balanced images for an affordable price.

  1. Shoot in RAW

You’ve probably already heard of a term called codec. Essentially, a codec is the way in which your camera packages up your video before it gives it to the computer. Some codecs squish your video files to make them smaller, while others allow for more information and are subsequently larger in size. However, if you want to get the best image possible, you don’t want to use a codec at all. Instead you should shoot in a format called RAW.

RAW files are essentially the raw pixel information straight from the camera to the card. Instead of the camera compressing the video image, it will record all of the data to a card. This will result in some pretty large file sizes, but you will have greater control over the color of your video when you jump into your editing software.

  1. Dramatic Lighting

Lighting is not as scary as it sounds. While you could certainly spend your entire career trying to understand the subtle nuances associated with cinematic lighting, it doesn’t necessarily take an expert to create decent lighting. All you really need is a 5-in-1 reflector and a cheap LED light. Less is more when it comes to lighting a cinematic image. With just a few lights, you can create a beautifully cinematic image.

  1. Prime Lenses

If you want to make your footage (and photographs, for that matter) look 4x better, go out and buy a prime lens. Sure, a prime lens doesn’t quite give you the flexibility of shooting on a zoom lens, but you probably won’t be using that zoom feature anyways (remember #4). Prime lenses tend to be sharper, better in low light, and capable of producing a more shallow depth of field.

Prime lenses can be incredibly expensive (like in the $100K range) but they can also be incredibly cheap. At $100, Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 is a great place to start. If that’s still too much, you can always convert an old prime lens using an adapter.

  1. Color Grade

It can be easy to simply want to export your project once you get done editing, but if you want your footage to look really cinematic, you should color correct and grade all of your footage before hitting that export button. There are people who spend their entire careers color grading footage, so don’t think this process is easy. Luckily, there are a lot of really easy resources out there for creating cinematic color grades very quickly.

Most notably is Magic Bullet from Red Giant. Using their drag and drop color grading presets, you can very quickly give your footage a stylized look. If your budget is slim, there are also a lot of good free color grading presets out there.

Did we leave anything out? Tell us about it in the comments below. 

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