Bringing All Of Your Tools To Set

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I’m not sure what type of production you shoot mostly. Commercials? Web videos for corporations? Music videos? Narrative films? In my day-to-day life, I largely shoot a mix of documentary and documentary-style behind-the-scenes, marketing and promotional videos and corporate projects. It seems that, lately, no matter how much I try to boil down my gear, I always end up shooting with at least two and sometimes more cameras. I’m not speaking about multiple-camera shoots in the sense of pointing more than one camera at a subject, shooting it at many different angles. I’m speaking about utilizing all of the tools that many of us have in our toolbox.

Case in point, I shot a half-day shoot this past weekend with one of our documentary subjects. Along with my co-producer, I’ve been shooting a documentary film on women’s outrigger canoe racing over the past several months. It’s an exciting project but challenging because of quite a few factors. The number-one limitation is budget, or the lack of. While I like to shoot documentaries with a small three- or four-person crew, this film is being shot, to date, mainly just by my co-producer and myself. The assignment for this day was to shoot a typical paddling practice session with our subject, world-record paddleboarder Aimee Spector.

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World-record paddleboarder Aimee Spector

One of the challenges of this project is that we’re covering elite women athletes as they practice, train and compete in women’s outrigger paddling, a sport many people have never heard of. It’s gaining popularity and the sanctioning bodies are in talks with the IOC to get the sport into the Olympics. At this point, though, it’s not much of a spectator sport because all of the action takes place out on the open ocean, often at up to 10 to 15 miles from shore. I wasn’t trying to cover a competition for this shoot, though, merely our subject practicing. I brought my primary camera to the harbor where Aimee keeps her boat and paddles up and down the Southern California coast.

As I strategized how to best cover the morning’s events, it occurred to me that Aimee needed to leave the harbor almost as soon as we arrived, so before grabbing our main camera out of the car to shoot her unloading and prepping, we had to rig a couple of GoPros to her boat. Fortunately, single-person outrigger boats, called OC-1s, have small tubes, called Iako, that attach the outrigger (Ama) to the main hull. The Iako are the perfect place to affix a GoPro. We rigged two GoPros to Aimee’s boat so we have some redundancy in case one of the GoPro’s battery runs out prematurely, or if the camera has an issue, we have backup so we still get the shot. If you’ve ever rigged a GoPro, you know that the GoPro app can be a bit fussy; sometimes WiFi from the GoPro to your phone can be spotty, and it becomes difficult to quickly format the SD card and configure the camera’s settings. Once we had the GoPros up and recording, Aimee carried her boat down to the launch ramp.

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TOP: Shooting the subject with a GoPro HERO4 Black for a documentary film on women’s outrigger canoe racing. MIDDLE AND ABOVE: Shot with the DJI Mavic Pro. Using more than one camera system gives projects a lot more scale, scope and variety in order to tell more complete and compelling visual stories.

While my producing partner was rigging the GoPros to Aimee’s boat, I had set up a DJI Mavic Pro drone so we could capture shots of Aimee launching her boat and I could then follow her and her training partner out of the harbor into the open sea. If you’ve used drones, you understand that drone settings and exposure can sometimes be a bit of a time-consuming challenge as well. Fortunately, the Mavic Pro was behaving well this particular morning, and launch and shooting went very smoothly, other than a few high-wind warnings, pretty typical for flying over open ocean.

Once Aimee left the dock and was headed out to open sea, we had about 90 minutes to two hours before she was due back to the harbor where I would try to find her with the drone and track her into the harbor so we could shoot footage of her taking her boat out of the ocean, carrying it back to the storage area, hosing off the saltwater and covering her boat for storage. My partner would be covering this with our A camera while I tried to also cover this from the air with the Mavic Pro. At the same time, I was going to try to take some still images with a DSLR that we could use for our film’s website and social media.

My point with this entire description is to describe a shoot that, just a few years ago, might have been shot on a single shoulder-mounted camera. I shot many documentaries and other projects using a single, shoulder-mounted camera. In 2017, though, to do this shoot, I used the following gear:

  • Primary camera—Canon EOS C200 Digital Cinema Camera with a Canon 17-55mm F/2.8 IS lens
  • POV camera—GoPro HERO4 Black (three)
  • Aerials—DJI Mavic Pro
  • Stills—Canon EOS 80D with a Canon 70-200mm F/2.8 IS II lens
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The primary camera for this shoot, the Canon EOS C200 Digital Cinema Camera.
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Three GoPro HERO4 Blacks were used as POV cameras.
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The DJI Mavic Pro drone was used to capture aerial shots.
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The Canon EOS 80D was used as the main stills camera.

Now that I think about it, I very easily could have brought a gimbal instead of or in addition to the drone, which could have changed what we could use from Aimee’s paddle out and paddle back in, but that would have been another device with yet another camera. I also neglected to mention that while Aimee was out on the water and we had 90 minutes to kill, I set up a third GoPro on a small rotating mount and shot time-lapse 4K footage of the harbor with the sun rising over it. You can see how the temptation to cover your subject in many ways can drive how you approach and conceive of each different shoot.

This was a deceptively simple-sounding shoot—capture a single subject as she paddles out to the ocean for practice. In theory, I could have covered the entire event just with my A camera. It would have been the best-quality Canon Cinema RAW Light 4K DCI footage. But I wouldn’t have been able to capture her point of view on her boat as she paddled out of the harbor. I would have missed the majestic scale and scope of the sun rising over the harbor that I captured with the drone as Aimee and her training partner paddled out. I wouldn’t have been able to easily capture the rotating time-lapse shot that I captured on a GoPro that will make a nice introduction or transition in putting this part of the story together.

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King Harbor, California. Using a GoPro on a small rotating mount, time-lapse 4K footage of the harbor at sunrise, which will make for an excellent establishing or transition shot.

There are as many ways to capture a subject as there are kinds of gear and levels of imagination. It’s up to you to use the tools and skills you have at your disposal. I felt that, for this subject and in this situation, it would make for a more complete and compelling story to cover her session from several different angles and vantage points.

We’ve reached a point in time where formerly expensive tools like POV cameras, drones and even top-quality cameras cost less than they ever have, offering superb resolution, color space and detail for relatively little money. The caveat is that setting up, rigging and shooting with all of these different camera systems offers you more chances to mess up—more media to manage, more batteries to make sure they’re charged, dealing with different camera interfaces and controls. Shooting with six different camera systems for one small shoot may seem like overkill. It may be overkill. But doing so also gives our visual stories a lot more scale, scope and variety, as well, so the payoff is often worth the risk. It seems that the days of the true single-camera shoot are coming to an end, though.

Writer, producer and cinematographer Dan Brockett’s two decades of work in documentary film and behind the scenes for television and feature films have informed his writing about production technology for HDVideoPro Magazine, Digital Photo Pro Magazine and KenStone.net. Visit danbrockett.com.