This shoot pushed the limits of how much gear I could set up and manage solo.
An interesting and significant by-product of the digital revolution is that most of the gear used today to create television and film is now significantly lighter, smaller, less expensive and higher-quality than anyone could have imagined 15 or 20 years ago.
Many of us are using cameras that, for a little over $1,000, can shoot in high-quality 4:2:2 10-bit 4K-resolution formats that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Heavy, heat-generating Tungsten lighting instruments have been replaced with much smaller, cooler, more flexible and versatile LED instruments. It’s now possible to easily and effectively edit not only on non-computer devices like tablets but to edit 4K video on our mobile phones.
Yes, although the digital revolution has given us these benefits, there’s a downside. Budgets. That’s right. If you were in video production in the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s, it cost significantly more for clients to produce programming at any level. Gear was expensive, and the skills to use it professionally were rarer than they are today. The advent of web video has changed who creates video today. Even as little as a decade ago, the expense and complexity of pro video gear meant that it simply took more skilled labor to create video and cinema.
What that all means is that one person—you—needs to know more about all aspects of the production.
What is a One-Man Band Approach?
The “one-man band” approach to video production is a phenomenon that has grown side-by-side with the advent of new smaller, lighter and simpler-to-use gear.
A decade ago, a small documentary or corporate shoot would typically have a cameraperson, sound mixer and perhaps a PA or a gaffer as well as a producer/director/interviewer.
A crew of three to five people was considered a small, minimal crew. In 2019, a small crew is often just you. Video and film are definitely a collaborative medium and were designed to be shot with a crew, with each position filled by a person whose job it was to light a scene, shoot it with a camera and record the sound. But the reality is, today that paradigm is shifting from working in a group to working solo.
Personally, I most enjoy working with a small crew of between five and 10 people. Such a group gives me the benefits of being able to concentrate on doing just one job really well (directing, cinematography and interviewing are what I like doing most), while leaving the lugging of gear, setting it all up, setting lights, recording sound, hair, makeup, props, wardrobe and production design to my crew.
Others I know in the field prefer working on an even larger crew of 50 to 200 positions, which are typical in a lot of episodic television and on feature films.
But as I noted earlier, in shooting my own low-budget documentaries and on a decent percentage of corporate and even some broadcast projects, I’m often called upon to act as a one-man band, meaning that I’m responsible for picture, sound, makeup, production design and often interviewing or directing by myself.
I don’t want to go too deeply into the relative merits of having a crew versus working solo, but they’re apparent to anyone who has worked with a crew as well as solo.
What we’re going to talk about is when you’re required to act as a one-man band, how do you plan, strategize, execute that strategy and end up with good-looking and -sounding footage when you have to do everything yourself?
When working as a one-man band, the key to success is most often planning.
When shooting solo, you have to know what kind of situation you’re walking into. What type of shoot is it? Will the client give you adequate time and resources to set up each scene by yourself and have it look and sound good? When do you draw the line and tap out, telling the client that what they’re proposing is too much for a single person to handle?
Planning and knowing what you are walking into is crucial for successfully shooting solo. A location scout or at least having the client send you some cell phone pictures will let you roughly know the size and shape of the room you’re going to shoot in. It will also give you a sense of the ambient light and the ability to control the lighting (are there windows or window coverings?). You can also ask about access to electrical outlets and ambient noise as well. You won’t know if you have to black out windows or hang sound blankets without a scout and or planning, and you won’t know what gear you’ll need to accomplish your mission, either, without a scout or at least some detailed info from the client.
The second-most-important component to consider after planning is time.
Will you have enough time to load in all of your gear and make sure that your vehicle is parked in an area where it should be and won’t be ticketed or towed? You’d be surprised, but a lot of my one-man band assignments have taken place in Hollywood, New York, London and other big cities where parking is at a premium. And parking in the wrong spot can lead to trouble.
Also, once you’re loaded in, will you have enough time to unpack all of your gear, set it up, test it and make sure it’s ready to go before you have a subject in front of the camera? If a client isn’t willing to pay for you to hire a PA, gaffer or sound mixer, you’ll end up performing the functions of those jobs.
For example, I’ve shot a series of green-screen interviews for a client for years as a one-man band. To do that setup solo, the client knows I need three hours. If I had the same client and setup but only an hour to set it all up, it wouldn’t be a realistic scenario or I’d need crew to accomplish that.
If you’re going to shoot solo, you’d be amazed at how much time you can waste on location. It’s important to learn to set up things first at home or in your office. For instance, my main video camera can pack down to a very small and light package in a camera backpack. The downside of this is that to build the camera back up to a fully configured build takes me about 20 to 25 minutes, depending on the setup.
It’s obvious that when I’m one-man band shooting, I need to pre-build my camera and carry it into the job fully set up.
It can be difficult to set up lighting and carry the light, stand and diffusor in when working alone. But I’ve arrived at locations a few minutes early and pre-built my key source outside and carried it into the location, plugged it in and at least my key was set to go.
Every situation is different, but here’s the takeaway: Think about the gear you’ll need to use to accomplish the goal and make sure that all of it is as accessible and pre-assembled as possible. Setting up cameras, plugging in mics, formatting media—none of that’s creative. It’s all mechanical tedium. So do as much of that beforehand as you can so you can spend the little time you have being creative with lighting, art direction, backgrounds, troubleshooting audio issues, etc.
Anatomy of a One-Man Band Shoot
Let’s take a look at a recent one-man band shoot I did.
For the assignment, I needed to interview two systems engineers about a challenging project they had been working on. Their working area wasn’t available for the shoot, but I was offered the use of an apartment to shoot their interview.
Because it was a two-talent shot, I wanted to utilize two cameras, one in a wide, slider shot of the two of them. Then I could use a longer lens on my other camera, allowing me to shoot singles as each responded.
Unfortunately, the apartment I was given to shoot in was fairly small, making shooting the talent with two cameras challenging. The main difficulties were: the location really didn’t look like a corporate workspace, it looked like a nice apartment living room; and, from an art direction perspective, there was little to work with, and white walls are deadly boring to look at.
Fortunately, the apartment had a nice black AV cabinet and LED TV on the wall. So I decided that I could have one of the engineers hook up his laptop to the LED so that he could show some of the work that they had been performing on the TV screen in the background.
My Workflow When Shooting One-Man Band
- Before you do anything else, set up your two cameras. You have to choose the camera location, and you cannot check framing, composition, backgrounds or much else until you set up your cameras and look at what they’ll see of the location. Once you’ve set up both cameras and received client sign off on their position and the frames, then you can go to work lighting your setup. When working as a one-man band, you’re often stuck with practical locations and often cannot really change the amount of ambient light.
- I build my key light first. In this case, I used my medium Chimera with an Aputure Lightstorm LS-1S LED panel as my key source. A medium Chimera is fairly large for a small room, measuring roughly 3×4 feet. So I build it first to make sure it will fit where I want to use it. If not, plan B is to go to a smaller-sized key source. In this case, the medium Chimera fit, although just barely.
- When shooting as a one-man band in small rooms, use an egg crate on your key source, if possible. This prevents the key source from lighting up the background and prevents the soft light from spilling everywhere resulting in flat, dull lighting.
- In this setup, I had a boring white wall behind the talent that I wanted to do something with. So I decided to light it with a 10-inch RGB LED light, the Luxli Cello. This light has been a huge timesaver over traditional Arri 650 Tungsten lights with dimmers and gels and the end result with the Cello is actually better with deeper, more saturated colors than the gels with the ARRIs can deliver.
- I added a little fill light on the engineers from camera left using a Kamerar Brightcast LED panel through a 42-inch diffusion disc.
- Once I’m satisfied with the lighting setup, I always leave enough time for setting up audio properly. Do a sound check. In most corporate and interview-driven projects, audio is more important than the picture. So take the time to set up audio correctly.
This sort of setup with two cameras, two talent and three to five lights and sound is my personal limit for shooting solo.
I know of a talented DP who won’t shoot solo without a sound mixer. However, I’m personally comfortable with sound, so I can shoot some projects that the other DP cannot.
Hopefully, you’ve found this primer on the limits of shooting as a one-man band helpful. Shooting video and cinema is a team sport, but occasionally you may have to take the field solo.