Guerilla Video!

The other day I was asked  to spend a few hours drumming up a short financial corporate video out of next to nothing. No equipment, and very little budget. Is that possible? More than possible – it’s easy. You just have to go guerilla.

by Richard Walker

For reasons I won’t go into I thought I was going to be supervising a question-and-answer interview in a pre-prepared TV studio. But I was wrong. I arrived at the investment bank at 9.30 am and found a video camera still bubble-wrapped in its box, a brand new (and very cheap) tripod – and nothing else! No studio. No microphones. No lights. And nobody who knew how anything worked. Oh, and a 3pm deadline to get the interview recorded, packaged up and sent off.

How do you deal with that? The answer: guerilla video.

Times are tough. Budgets are small and getting smaller. The days when companies regularly hired full-time professional video-makers who turn up with £20,000 worth of cameras and lights and with fees to match are now gone, and unlikely to come back soon.

Enter the guerilla video director.

Guerilla video is cheap. But that does not mean it looks cheap. The cost is low because of  digital technology: broadcast quality cameras and full-featured editing facilities used to cost the earth, now they don’t. In fact I think that with a little shopping around (including going second hand for my camera) I can buy everything needed to set up an instant TV studio for £999 or less.

I’ll cover the gear you need in a moment. But what about the guerilla director? The guerilla director has not been to film school. The guerilla director knows next to nothing about colour temperature, or video compression codecs, or progressive versus interlaced shooting modes. The guerilla director is me, an ordinary journalist who gets asked to help out with some video. And the fact is I really don’t need to know about any of those things.

No, what I need is a checklist.

The main challenge when shooting a video is not technical – it is organizational. There are lots of little things that can go wrong. The human brain is not good at dealing with a large number of small but significant issues. The answer is the checklist – a checklist you devise for yourself, based on the equipment you are using and the kind of result you want to get.

Anyway, back to the guerilla shoot. Let’s say you have no studio and no equipment. Where do you start? First off, the studio. Choose a quiet room, preferably with some space, preferably with a big window with a neutral view. Put out two chairs set pretty close together (so the interviewer and interviewee could easily reach out and touch hands), and angled towards a single point about five feet to the front. It is perfectly possible to shoot against a background of the big daylight window (and as it happens if you do use an internal wall as background it usually manages to look a bit scummy).

Now you have your scenario, you need some lights. You could rely on the office lighting, but that will not look at all good (unless you like your skin tones vomit green). So you need studio lights. Now, the professional video director will tell you that you need a full studio rig for three-point lighting, with a key light, a fill light, a back light, and preferably one more background light (look up three-point lighting on the internet, it’s very simple).

A full studio light set of professional quality? That will set you back a minimum of £2,000. Do you really need that? Of course not. You actually only need one studio light, the ‘key’ light fitted with a ‘softbox’ diffuser. I can find a cheapo version of that for £79. For my fill light and backlights I can improvise with office desk lights fitted with special daylight bulbs (£16) and maybe a collapsible reflector disk (£7.99).

Okay, now I have spent £102.99. But I need a camera. This is my biggest expense – but maybe not as big as you might think. A new professional broadcast quality high definition camera is going to cost no less than £4,000 and if you are so inclined you can spend a lot, lot more. So, look second hand. Ask, do you really need high definition? And while you are at it, do you really need to spend extra money on an up-to-date camera that records on to hard disk or flash memory cards? No, and no. A standard definition tape-based DVCAM or Mini-DV camera that was professional standard a few years ago and is still broadcast quality today can be got for £500 or less on eBay. So let’s say £500. Plus £30 for a box of DV tapes. Spent £632.99 so far.

Next I need a tripod: £100 will not buy me a studio quality tripod, which needs to be very heavy and engineered like the Eiffel Tower, but it will buy me one that will keep the camera steady in most circumstances, and let me point it any way I want. The bill so far:  £732.99.

Finally, two lapel microphones. Again, you can spend £250 or more on a lapel mike if you really want. But there is a perfectly good one available for £25. So now I have my instant TV studio, and I have only spent £782.99. True, I’m not counting the cost of editing software, but there is a perfectly useable video editing programme on my Macbook, effectively free of charge.

Ready to go.

 And this is where the checklist comes in.

When you shoot a video, however simple, there is a lot to think about. Things like focus, exposure, white balance, composition, and the shot sequence (which will depend on how you visualise the video being edited). There is no point explaining how all these things work, because you can find it all out for yourself very easily by reading the camera instructions, looking it up on the internet, and just thinking it through using common sense. Everyone will have their own way of getting a well-lit sequence of shots that include mid-shots, close-ups and reaction shots, using just one camera. There is nothing difficult about it, as long as you make a checklist and stick to it.

And the checklist is a real life-saver when you get knocked off balance. For example: I set up my instant studio in a 14th floor conference room, and just as we were ready to shoot the interview the wind outside began to howl. And howl, and howl.

In a case like this, the guerilla director has to be ready to change the setup rapidly. The wind noise was not acceptable but it could not be stopped either. So ten minutes later I had moved the whole studio setup to another room, very much smaller and very much harder to work in, but silent. This meant I could not get a good camera angle for close-up shots on the interviewer and interviewee, but that’s life. Now where was I? Yes, the checklist; the checklist will get you back on track.

This is the thing about guerilla video – you have no assistants, no reliable studio setting, no backstop at all, so you have to be flexible and change your game if you need to. In fact one thing I always put on my checklist is a reminder that just before you shoot your video, you need to stop, step back, and take a look at what is in front of you.

First, the people. Ties and flies done up? No underwear showing? No mad make-up fails? Then, the background. Nothing distracting or embarrassing on the wall or the floor? What about the scene through the window? If it turns out that naked sunbathing is popular on a nearby roof but you haven’t noticed it, then you will wake up the next morning to find you have just had six million hits on YouTube.

Then shoot. And listen to the interview. If they fluff lines or lose the plot, intervene immediately and ask the interviewer to repeat the last question. Remember, you are in charge. You are the one who is going to get the shit if the final result is no good.

And that is it. Check through the video files (if something is disastrously wrong your only chance to put it right is now, while the people are still there in your studio). Copy the video files to a memory stick, send it off to the editor who will top and tail it and add titles, and you are done (unless you have to edit it yourself, in which case you have another day’s digital donkey work to do). It’s all a matter of common sense and mental organisation.

You do have to make your own checklist, though. My checklist is only good for me.



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