The One-Man Film Crew

How To YouTube #1

I'm a person with a vision, like nearly every other artist out there. I have tons of grand ideas, and I truly and honestly believe they would be great if I could make them come to life. All I'd need is a chance to create them.

But here's the reality: Your vision is only as good as your ability to breathe life into it. 

We all want to be able to create something epic, with sweeping shots of cities and battlefields, wild fantastical creatures, and thrilling car chases. We want to be able to record beautiful, perfectly produced music with professional-looking videos. But as just one person with only a Canon T5i and two lenses to your own, how do you make that dream reality?

Well here's what you SHOULDN'T do: Wait around until someone gives you the chance to make this singular idea you have. 

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If you want the chance to make that dream come to life, you have to start somewhere. You have to create something. Even if it isn't the epic fantasy you'd crafted in your mind, how do you expect to create that big-budget fantasy without some other things under your belt to prove you have what it takes? 

Because in the end, it's about proving yourself. No one in this business will take your word for it. 

So what do you do?

It's simple. Think smaller. Think about the resources you have, and how you can use those resources to create something valuable, in your eyes. 

Let me give you a personal example:

Just recently, I had to create a video in a short period of time using only my Canon Powershot G7X Mark II, a tripod, and myself. 

In my head, I had this grand idea of what I wanted this video to be. But many of my ideas required moving shots, something that would require a second person to do. 

First of all, I had to think a bit smaller. I had to think, what can I actually achieve with what I have. And then I had to think outside of the box.

I worked my way around this by filming some moving shots of myself (such as me spinning in a circle to create the effect that the background was moving while I was staying still). I filmed the rest as still shots, but tried to vary them as much as possible. Different angles, different lighting, silhouettes, wide shots, close-ups, anything I could think of. I tried to move around as much as possible in the shots. Then, in editing, I tried not to stay on one shot too long.

This gave a similar effect as a moving camera would have. And it worked. 

Let's apply this to your vision now:

Perhaps you wanted a sweeping view of the city because it provides a sense of scale. OK, what other shots might provide a sense of scale? How about several shots of locations throughout the city, of bustling streets. Or maybe you can get far enough away from the city to get a shot of the skyline. 

Perhaps you wanted a slow-motion epic running scene, because it's suspenseful and epic. Or a car chase because it's thrilling and action-packed. Or an emotional scene in a car at night overlooking the lights of LA, when you live in Missouri. What other shots can provide that same feeling you're gunning for?

Thinking about the reasons behind the shots you want will help you think of alternatives. If you don't have any particular reason for wanting a shot besides the fact that it "looks cool" or it reminds you of a movie you saw, then maybe that's your cue to rethink your vision.  

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The other issue with being a one-man film crew? Well, if you're in public, you're going to get stared at. No way around that. 

In my case, I was in woodsy areas where very few people passed by...but when they did, it was always super awkward. Especially as I was laughing to myself,  spinning in circles, fake crying in bushes, pretty much everything that would lead people to believe something was wrong with me. 

For one of my shots, I set up my camera outside of a bush peeking in, and then went inside the bush and put on a whole show of crying, getting angry, etc. A guy who was running by peeked in and asked if I was OK. I had to explain that it was for a video. 

Most people will shrug and move on. Trust me, they've seen worse. And if they seem to judge you, they won't usually say it to your face. So might as well pretend you never met them, because chances are you never will again. 

And on the other side of the coin, there are plenty of people who will be interested in what you're doing. Some might even offer to help, as one kind lady did for me for a shot I really wanted. 

In the end, it's really not as big a deal as you make it out to be. 

After all, you want your video, right? Then you have to do what must be done. 

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But how are you supposed to set up good shots when you're not behind the camera?

It makes it much easier if you have a camera with a flip screen. But even if you don't, doing a few test shots is a good method to get the shot you want. 

Here's how you can set up a test shot:

  1. Set up your shot best you can. Use any landmarks in the area as a point of reference, such as a tree or a bench. 
  2. Press record, and walk into your shot. 
  3. Walk around the area. Stand in a few easily identifiable locations that you could find later. You can even mark these spots with sticks or rocks. 
  4. Check the shot on your camera. See which locations look best for your shot and which ones you should avoid. You can mark these spots with whatever you have, or use landmarks. Or, if you want to keep the locations but not the camera placement, move the camera as needed and repeat the above steps.
  5. Film your scene. 
  6.  Re-film the scene as many times as needed to get the perfect shot.

It isn't foolproof, and it takes some patience, but it still works. 

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"But what about audio?" I hear you say. 

In my case, due to the limitations I have, I usually just film videos with no audio. But there are still ways around this. 

  1. Pre-record audio. When you film, have an iPhone or another device play the audio back so you can match the audio to your performance. It's obnoxious and time-consuming, but it will provide the best quality audio. 
  2. Use a wireless recorder. You know, those devices you can clip to your shirt or jacket. 
  3. Get a shotgun mic. These things work best when shooting outdoors. Invest in a good one, like Rode VideoMic Pro. A general rule of thumb I've learned to be true through experience: If they're <$90, they're probably not much better than your camera's mic. 
  4. Think outside the box! Hide your iPhone near you and use that to record so you pick up less ambient noise. Trust me, I've done this before, it works. It's not perfect, but it's better than the camera audio sometimes.

Yeah, your audio isn't going to be perfect. Suck it up, do the best you can, and move on. No one said your first few videos had to be perfect. 

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As a one-man film crew, you have two best friends: VARIATION and EDITING

Be creative with your shots! Get as many different shots as you can. That way, when it comes to editing, you have choices, in case your first choice doesn't look as good as you thought. 

For this, I would recommend getting a Gorilla Pod. It's like a tripod, but it's flexible and can go pretty much anywhere...even wrapped around a tree branch! Trust me, this will be your best friend, especially when it comes to varying your shots. 

As for editing, that is where you make the vision come to life. 

Think carefully: What is it you want to accomplish with your video? What emotion did you plan behind each shot you took? What's the overarching feeling?

You might have to be more creative with editing to get the feeling you wanted. In my case, I wanted a feeling of motion and distress in one part of my video. I changed shots quickly, used a dissolving transition between the shots, put shots over shots with varying transparencies. This gave me the look I was going for. 

Most importantly, learn how to use your chosen editing tool. The better you understand it, the more likely you are to make amazing things happen with it. 

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Let's review:

  1. Think smaller. Don't go overboard, and work within your limits. Have a backup plan in case something doesn't work out. 
  2. But think outside the box! You can still take amazing shots if you're creative. This will hold true even when you do have a bigger budget (they still want to save money where they can), so honing this skill could be one of your biggest assets. 
  3. Consider the overarching feeling. This will help you think of alternatives to your big-budget vision. 
  4. Get over your stage fright. You'll be subject to weird stares and awkward encounters. Don't sweat it. After all, you'll be the one directing the next YA book-to-movie adaptation, not them. 
  5. Audio is still doable. It just requires some maneuvering and patience. 
  6. VARIATION and EDITING are key! This is what will make your film pop... especially when people realize it was all done by one person.
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Now that you know it's possible, go forth and create! 

I look forward to seeing your name in lights one day... right underneath mine. ;-)