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BY ADAM STIELSTRA
If you’ve shot video with a 20-pound Betacam slung over your shoulder with only available light, you should be familiar with the term “run and gun.” At some point in everyone’s cinematic career we’ve had to bite down hard and wave production value for fast documentation, compromising art completely. Or in other words — sometimes we have to pay the bills.
I came from the school of big production. Rolling 35mm film was par for the course in Chicago in the 1990’s. By 1999 I had made it to cinematographer status and director followed close behind. Productions were robust and so were the budgets, but that’s all changed.
Digital media threw a rather large rock in the pond of video and still photography back the mid to late 2000’s. What seemed like a fixed tradition for the last millennia nearly bottomed out overnight. Everything changed. If you were in business then you might have felt the impact of YouTube, Facebook and iStock.
Television as a mainstay format was on the outs as the first outdoor websites where anyone could showcase their work- and amateurs happily did it for free — began to spring up.
The days of big production were nearly halted or immediately confined to a few large commercial agencies and Hollywood. The people in the middle, the working class artists and craftsman, were all scarred in some way by this surprise plague of shabby amateur video and low audience standards. Some of us lived. Some of us died. Some of us were reborn.
I took hard hits myself for a few years. Things were lean. But the novelty of YouTube wore thin as sites like Vimeo became the standard for new digital quality. Everyone noticed, including the companies who wanted this quality back, but the budgets never truly returned.
Manufactures of computers, software and cameras quickly saw dollar signs as they scaled down costs and increased availability and quality to basic production gear. Apple made exceptional nonlinear editing software. Canon and others made prosumer mini-dv cameras then quickly shifted by eliminating tape altogether with their digital single lens reflex cameras; simultaneously giving access to both the highest quality stills and high-definition video.
The digital revolution was ablaze, clearing new paths for beginners to attain production quality that appeared to match old-world budgets.
With post-production tools that could virtually fix anything, compact cameras that mimicked 35mm and young, willing pupils at the ready, why would anyone pay more for content? For the aged survivors, we had the skill set to make these new tools sing.
We knew how to tell a good story beyond relying on tech alone. For us, composition, lighting and wise editing were pre-programmed. Even with all the new platforms and advances, storytelling differentiated the amateurs from the pros and viewers knew it.
We just had to figure a way to do it lean. We had to go back to old school run and gun.
I recently completed video projects for Trout Unlimited and Yale University’s 360 website.
These projects’ budgets barely covered travel, meals and lodging, let alone the multiple days of dawn to dusk shooting. I was able to create videos that pleased the clients and audiences within that budget by taking on the projects as a one man band.
If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend you learn to edit for video and sound; possibly go so far as to learn more sophisticated software like Adobe After Effects and advanced Photoshop techniques. Wielding these post-production tools is key to making money in this business. It’s more work, but it also generates more income for you, instead of having to spend chunks of your budget on hiring out help.
I began learning non-linear editing in 2002 using my own footage shot in my spare time to feel my way around the software. Learning color correction, motion graphics, 2-D animation and even some rudimentary web skills, became a natural next step. If I wanted to continue in this profession, I needed to evolve. I went so far as to enroll in community college courses on improving my web skills. The leg-up I earned for my diligence paid for the tuition and continues to keep me relevant, so long as I stay aggressive.
I had the experience to already know that story was at the successful core of everything I made. Without a story, you’re just spinning wheels while going nowhere. Any good writer knows there must be a narrative among all the information otherwise all you have are random words on a page. Without story in filmmaking, all you have are pretty pictures. While all the technological knowledge and sexy gear is nice, you must first learn to understand your audience. Moreover, learn what it will take to impact them and what you need to learn to make that happen.
Run and gun is now the industry standard for working-class production. It has to be if we are going to work within the minibudgets we’re presented. But with the advances in technology it’s more flexible than ever.
Look at some of the more innovative work being produced and study it. Is it just a bunch of well-placed GoPro’s and quick editing to intense music beats? Or is it documenting a powerful story enhanced by solid production that hooks us and pulls at our hearts while one lone writer/producer/director/editor stands there with a drone remote in his or her hands, ready to run and gun? ♦
Adam Stielstra has been directing/shooting/editing films both large and small for 21 years. He resides along Colorado’s Front Range with his wife and two kids. Feel free to reach him with any video production needs. Visit his website, picturesheal.com and write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.