Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Production notes: Filming a festival

If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you (for no other reason than that it’s mainly what this post is about) to watch my video on last weekend’s Straw Bale Festival in my home village. It condenses a four-hour festival (well, the four-hour climax to a day-and-a-half-long festival) into about ten and a half minutes.

I’m often told that making videos is really easy; and it’s true that many very excellent videos are pretty easy to make (simple vlogs, for example, if you happen to be naturally funny or engaging). But for an idea of how “easy” this video was, take a look at the arranger:

Just to make this clear: this is amateur level. People with more skills, resources, time and money than I have routinely make much more complex videos. But I found this one a fair challenge.

The six tracks you can see there are:
  1. Video (from the camera).
  2. Sound (also from the camera).
  3. Titles (including the open captions where people are speaking German).
  4. Visual images that will appear superimposed over the video in track 1.
  5. Music (the green lines show where the music fades up and down).
  6. Commentary.
In itself, that's quite simple. But there’s some complexity hidden there. For example, when the gentleman talks about his “straw bale garden” (he is, by the way, the local “straw professor” Alfred Leistenschläger), the scene cuts away from him to views of the straw bale garden... but his voice keeps going. Basically, I’ve taken the footage of him speaking, and at strategic points removed the video (but not the sound) and replaced it with different video.

This is one way to save a little time, by the way, as well as make it a bit more interesting. Instead of seeing him drone on, and then later showing the garden, we instantly see what he’s talking about.

But condensing a four-hour show into ten minutes is no mean feat. I came away with perhaps an hour and a half or more of material, in 355 takes. Most of that, of course, never made the cut; but you have to film more than you need (much more, if possible) and then decide what to do with it. And because some shots will later turn out to be unusable, you should never shy away from filming the same thing several times.

I spent a lot of time essentially pointing my camera in the direction of people having fun: eating, drinking, chatting, that sort of thing. I also took as many shots as I could of people seemingly watching, applauding, pointing cameras: this can be useful later to disguise edits or bad camera work. For example, if I were to slip on something as the Straw Bale Queen was making a speech, I could at that point (in the edit) cut away to people watching with rapt attention — just as long as I pick a shot that doesn’t have the Straw Bale Queen in it. (This didn’t happen, but you’ll notice a couple of those shots in the video all the same.)

There were many other things I filmed, and then didn’t use, mostly speeches. The outgoing Queen made a fairly long speech during which her voice cracked with emotion, but it was mostly a list of her engagements over the past year: not exactly riveting for my viewers. Some of the speakers attempted to tell jokes. A great deal of fuss was made over the fact that this was the first year Alfred Leistenschläger was not involved in organising the event. They forgot to give the runners-up their bottle of wine. There was also a long, and pretty awful, piece of doggerel read out by one of the guests of honour in a faultering voice and with great shuffling of pieces of paper.

All that had to go for various reasons. Most of all, though, when you have to condense something of this magnitude to something YouTube-ready, you have to decide on what story you really want to tell — and then to tell that story, and ruthlessly cut out everything else. I set out to tell the story of the election of the new Straw Bale Queen, and apart from the sequences of “people having fun”, everything is there to tell that story. The only extra thing I kept in was the pro-celebrity threshing, but even that explains what the hell that contraption is that the Queen was wheeled in on (it’s a winnowing machine).

You will, therefore, never find out how a knowledge of apple cultivars might win you a hot-air balloon ride, why a six-pack of beer suddenly appeared on the new Queen’s throne, or who that young lady in the pink ballgown is.

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