Shooting with small handhelds

Yesterday I was at Beebcamp2 and put up a session on shooting video with small handheld devices. We discussed devices in use by people producing everything from news packages (Stephen Chittenden on Operation Longreach) to documentaries and even stuff to be screened in a cinema (Shoot The Summer).

I thought I’d jot down some of my notes from the session but then remembered I hadn’t made any (some journalist I am). So instead here’s my thoughts on how things are changing and what I can remember being discussed.

I’ve been working with video kit in digital production for almost a decade now and it’s been a long journey. I started out shooting on Canon XL1 and Canon DM-XM1 Professional Mini DV Camcorder.

I loved that year and a bit of my life and got to be really good with the kit. But I couldn’t afford it for myself, same as I can’t afford to buy myself a Sony Pro HVR-Z1 Digital Camcorder which I use at work, albeit with not a great deal of frequency at present. So for years I went without a way of shooting video outside of office hours.

By way of a diversion, in the process of re-reading I remembered that I had a camera before and after this time. It was a second-hand shop Super 8mm which I bought for 15 quid in a shop on the Withington Road in Manchester in 1998 or so. I’ve still got the processed reels somewhere for the road movie I shot with it in Spain. This is from the days when you bought a reel with a pre-paid envelope and sent it back to Kodak in Wimbledon for processing. I’ve never watched the footage because I never bought a projector and never remember to get it put on digital.

That memory is important in one way because that was what it was to be a member of the public in the days before digital. You could have the most brilliant story but the only way to have it picked up by the broadcast media was to be solicited for your material or physically deliver the master copy to them.

Then I got a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX30EB-K Digital Camera as a stills camera. For ages I only shot stills with it and forgot that actually it can shoot 16:9 video and it does it quite well.

Sunlight dancing across a wall from Alex Murray on Vimeo.

After an overnight think I’ve now remembered some of what we discussed:

Small is intimate

Hugh Garry said that Jo Whiley caught a nervous Ricky from the Kaiser Chiefs throwing up beside the stage on her Fuji Finepix. He also said that part of him allowing her to catch the moment was that he didn’t think of it as being “filmed” even though she said she was shooting video.

Small devices allow for that sort of unguarded intimacy in a way that proper “cameras” don’t allow for because people see them and put on their “being filmed” face.

You don’t need a sledgehammer to crack a nut

The facility of small handhelds is that you don’t need to break a sweat carrying them or order a van just to transport everything to the location. Reporters are already burdened with duties and kit when they go on assignment. Being able to give them a way to shoot video and stills without breaking their back or crowding the space means they’re more likely to be able to bring back something useful.

The old rules don’t apply

I mentioned that while editing one package I’d noticed that the reporter had crossed the line in the middle of a sequence but it didn’t feel unnatural or awkward to watch. With the new visual grammar that has emerged we’re much smarter and visually literate than before. Viewers can handle this more complex grammar and we shouldn’t be afraid to trust them.

Footage with bad light, camera shake, warping, bounce fuzzy audio or grainy images can be used these days because the audience understand it and accept it if they are getting something interesting. The phrase “broadcast quality” came up as a reason that is sometime given for not using them but sometimes that has to be ignored, especially when it’s being used as an excuse for not working outside of the comfort zone that programme makers are used to.

One of our contributors pointed out that he’d worked on the documentary where their footage from the top of Everest had been shot on a cameraphone and fitted into a television broadcast alongside HD footage. If it’s interesting, it should go in. The audience will appreciate it and understand.

Convincing people to use them can be tough

It was generally agreed that there are issues around getting our hands on new kit to try and that currently a lot of the innovative kit ends up being bought by people determined to use it rather than available through the usual channels to borrow/rent. By the time the devices are mainstream in use the tech has moved on. For me it feels like this is part of the burden of being at the cutting edge – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and you’ve somehow got to strike the right balance between results and cost.

I’m sure I’ve missed out some of the discussion, feel free to add your comments/feedback.