Shooting a DIY indie film with multiple cameras may actually save you money -- and help avoid painful headaches in editing.
Sure sure, you're thinking, I'd love to shoot with two, three or ten cameras. But who can afford that?
Though it goes against the DIY ethic, shooting too fast, too cheap and too on-the-fly can get you into trouble.
Please, learn from my mistakes.
Recently, I've been editing together a rough assembly edit of a new scene for our DIY sci-fi film In-World War and I'm pulling my hair out. It's a walk-and-talk scene on the street that we shot as a 2nd unit pick-up, with characters stopping as they make points to each other in the conversation.
As pre-pro on the scene prior to production, I storyboarded it out, but honestly the scene scared the crap out of me. How could we get the CU inserts to match the wider walking shots without creating a really tightly choreographed blocking of the scene? I was afraid -- even if that detailed choreography were possible given our time constraints -- that the scene would look too stiff and too contrived rather than loose and natural as they walked and talked.
Sure enough, on location, the blocking got mixed up and it was compounded by the frantic nature of DIY filmmaking: too many shots (and locations) to get in one day and not enough time to plan them out.
On top of that, since we were shooting in partial sunshine in the mid-morning, the light kept changing. It would have been smarter to shoot on the shady side of the street (it was NYC, so the buildings were tall). That meant that some shots just couldn't match.
Still, we got some great performances and a ton of coverage and I figured we could just cut around the problem areas.
Oh sweet hubris. Enter the cruel iron law of indie filmmaking:
In the end, the edit room reveals all.
And it isn't always pretty.
The footage -- shot by shot -- looks awesome. It's visually impressive work by our 2nd Unit DP Dane Brehm and the actors' performances were great too.
But the shots. Just. Don't. Cut. Together.
In the end, I think we'll be fine and the scene will work. I massaged the current edit by stringing together what matching motions I could find. Given all we shot we should have had many more options. Still, I'm considering doing the whole scene mostly in the wide master shot as an alt choice -- cutting to tighter shots when they fit but staying with the master as the spine of the scene (rather than just establishing wide and then cutting the whole scene as Med/CU back-and-forth, which is my pref).
The tighter shots just don't match well enough with the action and lighting in the master.
How would I do it different next time? Consider these two approaches for scenes with significant movement and interaction between characters, particularly over a large distance and when you need to match different shots (i.e. walk and talk scenes, fight scenes, etc.).
1) Plan ahead and go slower on set.
- Block out the action ahead of time with the actors in rehearsal and then write down the steps and distances on paper (basically like a dance routine -- but choreograph the steps to dialog in this case, not music).
- Once it's locked, run through the sequence in rehearsal with the DP present and figure out camera placements -- how many set-ups do you need to get the master(s) and the close-in coverage?
- On location, run through it again and put marks on the ground for actors and camera. Make sure the actors are hitting those marks -- naturally and without forcing their steps. It should look natural and unplanned. That's what the planning and practice get you: performances that make the movement look unplanned.
- Give yourself time on set to compare footage of tighter shots to wider master shots -- make sure they match and if not, reshoot right there.
All this work in pre-production and production will take time (and even on DIY film sets, time = money), but it's the best way to make sure you have footage you can actually edit together sanely.
No problem, see?
Yeah right. Most of us DIY filmmakers live in the real world where we have no time for extensive pre-pro and rehearsals, the DP isn't available during rehearals, the production schedule is overloaded and there's no time for the perfection of detailed choreography.
2) Or use mutiple cameras.
- Make sure your footage cuts together by shooting the same performance with the same lighting, using two or even three cameras.
- The cameras should be the same model (i.e. not a good idea to intercut a RED with iPhone footage) and probably the same or similar lenses...though ask your DP to dictate that. I'm no camera kit nerd.
- You'll need solid camera crews for each camera (at least a camera operator though ideally AC too). This isn't a time to bring an unexperienced PA as camera op. Nothing is worse than an out-of-focus shot.
- Try to set it up so one camera can be the master and other camera (or two) can be used for the close-ups. It will make the wide shot challenging (ensuring that you don't see the 2nd and 3rd camera crews), but the pay off of a perfectly matchable series of wide and tighter shots will be worth the headache.
- The great thing with multiple cameras is that you don't need a ton of rehearsals or super-detailed marks for the actors to hit. You can play more loose and more spontaneous. Naturally you'll probably want to go hand-held or at least heavily steadicammed out. The adventurous DIY DP might try to use the tripod for all cameras and just quickly carry each camera/tripod to the next mark.
- Bottom line: you probably can't afford to shoot with multiple cameras for the whole shoot, but if you identify a few key complex scenes where that might help, you'll end up with a much happier editor and more options in the all-knowing and unforgiving editing room. And a better film for audiences to enjoy.
Crazy? Yes. But that's DIY filmmaking for you.