Rough Guide to Filmmaking

This guide to filmmaking  is intended for anyone who wishes to use a video camera for news gathering or documentary work. Although it is written as a beginners guide there should also be something here for the more experienced. It should be read in conjunction with the manual for your video camera (which should be read cover to cover at least twice).

Camera Technique

The general rule is slow and simple. Position yourself, compose a shot and record keeping everything as still as possible till you the finish shot.

    • The most reliable way of getting good shots is to turn the lens to as wide an angle as possible and get as close to the subject/action as possible.
    • Treat the camera as if it were a stills camera. Stay still and avoid panning(left/right), tilting(up/down) and zooming unless it is absolutely necessary. Simple shots are best and they are easier to pull off.

If you do want some movement each shot should generally have a maximum of one zoom or pan or tilt

    , generally if you need a second it is better to stop camera and make it a new shot. Experienced camera people can do multiple movements during a shot but for the less experienced you will just reduce the usefulness of your footage.
  • If you have to change the camera angle do it as slowly (and smoothly) as possible. It is much better to have something briefly out of shot than to be continually/rapidly changing the camera angle. Ideally it should be done so slowly that the audience does not notice. Bear in mind long pans are of limited use as they will have to be spread up and this will look jerky. Doing a faster pan is easier to do smoothly an slowing it down slightly later works well.
  • Use a tripod wherever possible and if not try to find something to lean against. When shooting without a tripod bear in mind the wider the angle you are shooting the steadier the shot. Zoom/Pan/Tilt shots really need one.
  • Practice Zoom/Tilt/Pan shot a few (2+) times; then when you film it do a few takes. You will be surprised how you can program you mussel memory by doing a couple of practice runs. You will find it a lot easier to hit your final mark.
  • If possible move in closer rather than zooming in. To help steady the camera push the eyepiece to your eye and press your elbows against the bottom of your ribs.
  • If the camera or action is moving things should be in shot for at least 5 seconds.
  • Leave at least 5 seconds before and after each shot. This will make editing easier and stop roll-back (some camcorders briefly record over the end of the previous shot).
  • Shots should generally be between 10 and 40 seconds unless you are doing an interview/following action. Making the shots too short will make editing difficult as you do not know exactly how the footage is going to be edited. Making the shots too long makes logging and finding footage very difficult. Inexperienced camera people often just keep the camera running as modern solid state camcorders can record hours. This is a good way of making enemies of editors!.


  • Why and What are probably the most important questions to ask (i.e. Why are you here today? What happened Here?). How and Where are also useful.
  • Suss out who will be a good interviewee(s) by sauntering around and chatting without the camera. People with a positive attitude and/or who are articulate are probably the ones to choose rather than just the most outspoken. This saves a hell of a lot of time in editing! Try talking to a group of people rather than just one if they seem to work well together.
  • It’s a good idea not to talk at any length to a potential interviewee beforehand. If you do, the interview will probably come across as forced and unnatural. However if the people are used to being interviewed for radio/TV this may not be a problem.
  • Playing devils advocate is a good way of making a point sound convincing. Explaining this to the interviewee beforehand can be a good idea.
  • Spend time thinking where the person should stand (background) and the angle you want to shoot them from. Try to find an appropriate background to shoot against that says something relevent. As a rule of thumb the interviewee should be to one side of the centre of the frame and facing in slightly toward the middle.
  • Try to make sure there are no distracting background visuals or noises, e.g. if a plane goes over or someone pulls a face in the background it might well be best to stop recording and ask the last question again. It is better not to have people walking around in the background unless this adds to the atmosphere of the piece. Be careful if there is a mirror in shot it is not getting your reflection or something problematic.
  • Interviewees may need to know where to look. A good technique is to ask them to talk straight into the camera lens, to the audience in there! Getting the interviewer to stand behind the camera is a good idea to insure this.
  • During the piece assess if shot needs to be changed (i.e. person making important hand gestures). This should be avoided and it may be necessary to re-ask the question after this. If it is being done during the interview either zoom slowly (in which case this could be kept when editing) or do it fast (if a cutaway could be inserted).
  • It is useful if answers will ‘stand alone’ as complete sentences so that questions can be edited out without the meaning being lost. If you have time talk to the interviewee beforehand explaining this would be useful but for them not to worry if it is a problem. Asking open questions can help like ‘why are you here?’ or ‘What happened today?’. If they do not answer in a stand alone fashion polity interrupt, you may be able to suggest how they could start there answer, e.g. ‘We came down here to day because…’. This works with some people better than others, if it is not working out don’t worry as it is not absolutely necessary.
  • It is a good idea to get the person to say their name and phone number/address at the beginning/end of an interview. This will ensure they can be contacted later and help when creating captions. It their name is an unusual one get them to spell it.
  • When doing interviews using manual focus is a good idea. Even if the person does not move much auto-focus sometimes tries to refocus which can pushing the picture out of focus for a moment. Bear in bind that if shooting outside in good light (not necessarily full sunlight) the depth of field is fairly large so re-focusing is less necessary. Push Focus/Focus Assist is very useful (this is where the camera is set on manual and there is a button which kicks in auto focus when it is pressed). This enables quick focus but reduces the problem of over shooting.
  • As a good ‘voice of the people’ type technique for snappy interviews just set up the camera and sound, press record and ask the person to introduce themselves and tell the camera why they are there.
  • At the end of the interview ask the person if there is anything else they would like to say, you will be surprised at how useful this can be.


  • Do not underestimate the importance of sound in your piece, treat it with as much care as you give to the picture. If you cannot hear an interviewee clearly it is as bad as a very wobbly picture. Basic rules are get a decent microphone, get it as close as possible and always use headphones to monitor.
  • Camcorder built-in mikes are generally inadequate except for getting background noise (wildtrack), and then only in windless conditions.
  • A windsock is essential and easy to cut out of foam packing.
  • Get the best mike you can afford. if you have spent £1000 on a camcorder to complement the picture spending £100 on a mike would be a good balance. Shotgun microphones mounted on the camera are the best all round solution.
  • Always monitor the sound with headphones, not doing this is like shooting with your eyes shut. At least it will worn you if you forgot to turn on the mike! It is best to use headphones which are ‘full cup’ and go all round the ears as this cuts out background sound.
  • The closer the mic. is to the sound the better the sound will be (twice as near will improve the sound more than twice!).
  • On modern camcorders generally the safest thing to do is use auto levels. There are often settings for reducing wind noise and stopping the microphone being overloaded with loud noise (read the manual). If you do use manual levels the most important thing is for the microphone not to be overloaded so set the level low (you can amplify in the edit later). Use headphones to check you can here the interviewee.
  • If possible get someone else to hold the microphone. They need to point it at the mouth and get it as close as possible without being in shot. If you are doing a head and shoulders shot getting close and coming in from underneath works well. This requires a certain amount of team work/practice. It is all to easy to get yourselves tangled up, especially if you are following action.
  • If it is just one person you could ‘lock off’ the camera on the tripod, leave it running and hold the microphone yourself.
  • Tie-clip microphones, either wireless or wired, are great for interviews.. You still need to use headphones to ensure you are not picking up cloths rustle. If wireless make sure you have fresh batteries. You may also want to record with a shotgun microphone on the camera for belt and braces.
  • Recording the sound separately can be the best solution. This can either be on a DAT/MiniDisk recorder or on a high quality tape recorder. This will give you greater flexibility and can increase the sound quality by allowing the microphone to be closer to the sound. This is essential if you are doing long shots and want to pick up someone talking. You will have to sync the sound and picture later. Having camera sound is usefull for this as you can look at the shape of the audio waves. Using a clapper-board or clapping on shot (moving your hands away from eatch other quickly) helps. Also remember the more shots the more times you have to sync so in this case keeping the camera running is good. Lastly remember the sync can drift after about 20 minutes.
  • Another solution is to use a 2nd camcorder to record the sound only.
  • If the person is speaking through a PA get the mike as close to this as possible. If you are pointing away from the PA to film a speaker even though the sound seems loud you will almost certainly pick up an annoying echo. (this is inside, outside is less of a problem).

For interviews and general use there are a few simple alternatives:

  1. A cardioid (directional) mike with a good windsock can be used hand-held. Decide whether you want the mic. in or out of shot, never let it dither on the edge of the screen. Bear in mind that you can easily get ‘handling noise’ especially if the mic. was not designed to be hand held. The mic. should be held at chest height and pointed at the person talking. A boom is ideal for keeping the sound person out of shot and can be easily botched together using a broom stick.
  2. Alternatively the mic. could be put on a mike stand and feature in the composition of the shot, but again this can produce unreliable results as the speaker must be roughly the correct distance from it, this also takes practice.
  3. A rifle (super-directional) mic. is a relatively reliable alternative. This can be clipped to the top of the camera. Better still use a sound assistant but be sure the mic. is pointed in the right direction. Headphones will be more important the more directional the mic.
  4. Another good alternative is the tie mic. which clips unobtrusively to the interviewee’s chest.
  • Mics can be radio mic. or simple mics on leads. With the hand-held mic turn it a couple of times around the interviewer’s hand before trailing it off towards the camera or on a boom wrap it around the boom. This stops rattle and strain of the plug at the bottom of the mic.
  • Radio mikes are much more expensive and have the additional problems associated with transmitting/receiving radio signals (i.e. Interference) so it is even more important to get a good one.
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Cutaways are used during interviews, they Cutaway to what the person is talking about or simply make editing a interview easier (it is possible to take an interview and remove anything you do not want if you have cutaways to hide the edits).

  1. Establishing Shots are often used at the beginning/end of films and also to break film into sections. These are often wide shots showing a building (Venue, Courtroom) or location (Place where film is set). They should be used to illustrate something relevant.
  2. Action Shots. If people are engaged in some type of activity getting this will make the film more interesting. Doing is generally more interesting than talking.
  3. Detail/Illustration Shots. It may be necessary to show something in detail that is being talked about. If an item is being held and talked about it is normally best to wait until after the interview to get close ups. Similarly if the person is talking about something or somewhere (even it is could be paned to) it is almost always better to get the shot of it later. If someone mentions something and you feel the urge to move shot to include it think twice. It is almost always necessary to get it later.
  4. Always listen out during an interview for possible cutaways that you don’t already have, such as the smouldering digger that the interviewee has been talking about but that you haven’t seen. Make a list (maybe a mental list) of these and go get them before your next interview if time allows.
  5. Always get shots of action or just general scenes that are unique or particular to the story you are telling.
  6. Get people in the shot whenever you can if relevant. This normally makes the shot more interesting. If subjects get paranoid about being filmed remind them that there are lots of CCTV cameras around. If they are engaged in some type of protest others will have plenty of film of them from long distance helicopters etc. Paranoia breeds paranoia. However respect peoples feelings. If it is a group of people asking first is one approach. You could have somewhere that people should stand if they want to be out of shot.
  7. As a rule of thumb never take shots of less than 20 seconds. The shot you need may be longer than you originally think.
  8. If the cutaway contains no action itself, such as an immobilised digger that no longer works, you may want to use gentle zooming and panning to make the clip more interesting and put it in perspective.


  • Wildtrack (general/ambient noise) is very useful in adding to the mood of a piece and can be collected from all manner of places.
  • You should record several minutes at once as the film may want a fairly long clip.
  • One technique is to put a single piece of wildtrack under the whole film or section of a film. This will create a single consistent background ambience and smooth over sound edits.
  • It does not necessarily need to come from the location you are filming, indeed if you can carry around a good quality recorder all of the time this is useful; you never know when the opportunity will present itself.
  • When collecting Wildtrack ‘on location’ move away from distracting noises to get a ‘purer’ sound, unless it is crowd commotion etc. you are trying to capture.
  • Build up a library and make sure you log it.
  • It goes without saying that a good quality mike is essential. Where with interviews a mono mike is ideal, to get proper ‘depth’ in wildtrack a stereo mike should be used. Some modern camcorders have stereo microphones that are suitable.


Lighting is not only in the domain of the professional. And it also is not only a consideration indoors.

  • Lighting is for 4 basic purposes
  1. To give the cameras CCD sensor chip enough light to get a good image. Generally the more light the better. Although modern camcorders can shoot as very low light levels the picture is better when there is a decent amount of light (Normal indoor lighting is not normally sufficient). As light levels go up the picture clarity, colour and even defenestration increases.
  2. To reduce contrast. Camcorders can only handle a fraction of the contrast to the human eye. A face lit by full sunlight viewed with the naked eye may look fine but when filmed the light areas will normally have no details (blown whites). A portable light fixed to the top of the camera can fix this by acting as a fill light.
  3. To create mood This is the use of lighting most people think off and also the one that takes the most skill. Blues and Greens can be calming and reds and oranges warming. Practice and a lot of further reeding is required here.
  4. To make the image look less two dimensional. The screen two dimensional but the eye sees in three. Adding shadow can make the flat image look more 3D. This is why wham you watch interviews on TV they are often side lit to create shadow on the face. Strong diffused light works well.
  • It helps to think in terms of soft (fill) light and hard (direct) light. To get the best picture a mixture of both is necessary.
  • Avoid strong direct sunlight, especially overhead noon sunlight as the sharp shadows this causes can look artificial and noon overhead sun can cause strong black shadows. In general subjects eye’s should not be in shadow. Move yourself and the interviewee around to get something that works best. Shooting in shade on a sunny day is the simple solution but be careful with exposure if you have a mixture of shade and light in your composition. When it is overcast a subject can seem flat but this is difficult to avoid, unless you wait for the sun to come out.
  • Morning sun tends to have a cold pastel blue hue while evening sun is warm and beautiful, improving skin tones and ideal for landscapes. Known as the ‘golden hour’ in California, it comes in a variety of shades in the UK.
  • There are a few bits of kit which make things easier.
  1. A reflector. These can be brought from photographic/video shops or home made. If it is overcast the reflector can be used to through ‘hard’ light on the persons face, improving contrast. If it is bright use the reflector to ‘fill in’ the shadows. You can easily mock up reflectors using large sheets of white card, polystyrene board, etc. White is better than silver unless you have a stand for the reflector. With silver the slightest movement shows up.
  2. A sun gun. This is a light attached to the top of the camera and either run off the camera’s batteries or a separate battery pack. It is used as a fill light on overcast days, to fill hard shadows caused by hard sunlight or in the dark for essential footage. Traditionally these were small halogen bulbs but more recently LED versions have become very popular.  The Z96, which can be got from eBay for under £45 is a great little light and can use standard Sony batteries or AA cells.
  3. A Softbox. This is a portable/collapsible box that surrounds the whole light. It is possible to clip gells to the front. A Softbox with high powered (65-150 watt) daylight balanced photo fluorescent bulbs make a great budget rig. Softbox (£25), 150watt bulb (£15) and stand (£10) = £50. Not only is this a fraction of the price many spend but it is portable and low power consumption (compared to the 800 watt red heads that many use).
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