There are many different ways to go about visual storytelling. You can create a biography of someone’s life, you can create a news package about a relevant product, and you can also create a mini documentary about an experience someone has gone through, or maybe about someone’s passion. Either way, these are stories that are important to tell because they reveal some truth about the world that other people would not have known about otherwise. Even though these stories are true and a part of real life, they still require a lot of planning. I will show you my pre-production assets for a mini documentary I plan on filming, but first, you will learn about lighting and filming from Tom Schroeppel, as well as get inspired by a few videos that have made me feel inspired about the way I want to present my story.
In chapters 7 and 9 of Tom Schroeppel’s book, Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video, he discusses lighting techniques and filming your production, respectively. In chapter 7, Schroeppel focuses entirely on lighting. The sun if the best source of light for exterior shots, however, it is always moving – which can cause problems. The best light for films from the sun occurs when the sun is at most 45˚ from the horizon. It is worth having the subject face the sun, as the light will hit him directly. If you are looking for different lighting styles though, you can use the sun to your advantage to create a strong sidelight or backlight. These can help change the mood of your shot but they also create shadows. Sometimes you want to have shadows, but if you don’t, a few ways to get rid of them are with reflectors and fill lights. Reflectors are sheets of material that sunlight can bounce off of and hit your subject from that direction. Fill lights are physical lights used to cover the shadows off of someone’s face. They can be placed anywhere in case the sun is in a bad position, but they require a lot of electricity, and figuring out how to provide that electricity outside can be tricky.
There are three types of lights most commonly used for interiors. Focusing quartz lights are the film version of a theater spotlight, and can range from spot (harsh yet direct) to flood (softer yet more spread out). Broads are non-focused lights that simply cast a softer light on a large area, and soft lights are those umbrella-shaped lights where the light actually faces the inside of the umbrella so it can bounce immediately and cast a softer light on your subject or area. All of these lights can be softened further with diffusion paper if needed. Most lights have barn doors, too, which can help control the light’s pattern.
The most common and basic lighting setup (particularly common for interview shots) is the 3-point lighting setup. It is led by a key light, which is placed 45˚ on either side of the camera and faces directly at your subject. A fill light is used on the opposite side of the key light and helps soften the shadows that the key light causes. You don’t want to completely eliminate your shadows or else you risk your image feeling “flat.” A back light is used overhead and aims downward on your subject, creating a rim of light across his head and shoulders. This helps separate the subject from the background. Lastly, if available, use a background light to brighten up the background a bit to bring it to the same level of luminance as the rest of the area. The background should still be a bit darker to provide depth in the shot. These are a lot of lights to think about, and you’ll need even more for complex scenes, so if you lose control of your lights and problems arise, simply turn them all off and turn them back on one-by-one to see what the deal is.
In chapter 9, Schroeppel discusses planning and shooting your production, and actually doing it. He suggests that when planning a shoot, it is important to keep a list of which shots you plan on getting and where you’ll be setting up your camera for each shot. It is also important to always have your story, audience, and emotions in mind when planning a shoot. One of the most helpful items to bring along for a shoot is a slate. This is a sheet that has a description of the current shot you are taking, and provides details such as the scene and take number. This is very helpful in the edit when putting scenes in order, and if you use your slate as a clapboard as well, you can easily sync your video and audio up by matching to the waveform created by the slate.
Some other tips are to write a script and create a storyboard to further identify shots and shot order, shooting out of order so you can save time by not changing camera setups every shot, and communicating with everyone. This ensures that everyone is on the same page and understand what needs to happen for the shot to get done.
The following are a few examples of videos that I really enjoy and feel inspired by because of the high level of video storytelling that is presented within each piece.
This is a video made by Dude Perfect. They started a brand new series last year called “Bucket List,” where they go on a crazy adventure that they always wanted to do and cross many items off of a bucket list while doing it. The nice pacing, animation, and great compositions really help this video tell a great story from a group of guys who wanted to go on an aircraft carrier, and their journey to completing all of the tasks.
Here is an episode of a YouTube original from a channel I watch called Vsauce. This channel does a lot of Sciene and psychology-based videos and his original series takes that to a much higher production standard. This episode talk about suggestion, and demonstrates that using placebos to help children cure diseases they thought were previously incurable. The introduction and the first few minutes of the episode set up the story well enough to make us familiar with each person and their situation, and all of the interview footage is very well shot and lit, which is appealing to see.
This is a video published in February 2021 about a speed runner (person who tries to beat a video game as fast as possible) and his story. This speed runner played Super Mario Bros. (1985), one of the most iconic games of all time, and became the first person to beat the game in 4 minutes, 56 seconds. This is a pretty well-produced story/documentary. There are a few quirks with it that prevents it from feeling professionally-produced. First, the titles feel like an afterthought, and are almost tough to read sometimes. Second, there are some audio quirks as well. The narrator’s audio is never really perfect, and the “interview” footage of the speed runner (around 43:00) has some choppy editing, where the audio sometimes overlaps each other and we miss the last and first few words of his phrases. Besides that, however, this is a pretty good documentary made by one person who was unable to physically go and interview the speed runner himself.
Below is my pre-production document for my mini-documentary project. You will also see my progress report which shows how far I currently am in this project.
Above are my preproduction assets for a mini documentary I will be making this week. I am going up to visit my cousin-in-law in Massachusetts this weekend, and he’s always told me about his brother who modifies video game consoles in order to fix them to be good as new, as well as modifies them to include hundreds of more games than they are supposed to have. When I thought about him, I figured that would be a really cool opportunity to film a mini-documentary about his process and passion for making these modifications to video game consoles.
The script is very basic because it nearly completely relies on the interview, but I do have quite a few questions written in my preproduction plan (and others not on there) that I plan on asking in order to carry the conversation. Due to the 5 minute max time limit, some footage and questions may get left out, but I think it will still be a very interesting doc regardless.
There are also bonus storyboards I whipped together really quickly for this project, just to get an idea of framing and the general types of shots I want to capture. Feel free to take a look at those in my preproduction plan above!
As of writing this post, I only have my script, storyboards, and locations confirmed. I know who I will be filming and what I will be filming. That means what is left for me to do is film the entire mini doc and edit it for you all to see next week.
When I start filming, I will place a few short clips on this post so you all can give feedback on what I have so far, so be on the lookout for those!
These are a very small snippet of a few b-roll shots I took. The first one is an over-the-shoulder shot of my cousin-in-law playing a modded console, the next one is a spinning display of a modded console, and the third is a clip I got at a retro-game store with some video games on a shelf. These have some pretty decent framing, focusing, and are stable all around, but there is also a chance neither of these may appear in the final film once I look over the footage.
As you can see with the b-roll, I’m going for more of a “display/demonstration” vibe with the documentary, as I think having shots that showcase the systems and their capabilities can help the audience understand what was accomplished. I hope you enjoy these very brief teasers for this mini-doc!