Shooting College Recruiting Videos
Since I started shooting college recruiting videos, I have learned a lot by trial and error but also by running into frustrating stumbling blocks. I can address issues many ways, often with personal sensibility and technical skills, but I need to keep a few rules in mind. Adhering to certain principles and remaining flexible, I have become more creative in my approach to shooting a video for prospective student athletes.
I imagine what my footage will look like
Trying to reach an ideal is not an impossible goal but a way to challenge myself. I can still shoot for the stars without crashing out of frustration for not getting the money shot. I merely want to set a standard that I will eventually reach overtime. I try to keep an open mind and not being so hard on myself keeps me going while I strive for higher quality footage. As a result, I have gained more confidence knowing that things will work out. I do have fun imagining the end result and I keep it light—if it is not a fun activity my work will reflect it.
I show up at my event early
At least 30 minutes before the game starts—more if the game is hyped. I need time to find the right spot before the action starts: from the bleachers and/or courtside. Warm-up sessions are a wonderful opportunity for me to practice zooming in and out, reminding myself how I will compose my shots, assessing the ambient lighting, etc. Next, especially if I am shooting indoors, I set my white balance. I ignore the "fix it in post" little voice in my head. I set it right from the get-go before I shoot so I don't have to artificially set the white balance on compressed footage. It's not fun wasting time to color-correct after the fact. Last, I partake in some social interaction with people whenever possible: coaches, players, parents, fans, etc. It's a fun way to reconnect, meet new people, and even engage in some light banter!
Shooting and composition
This is where my personal preferences and sensibilities define my style, which will be supported by the technical aspect of shooting. I always keep my artistic approach top of mind as it guides me while the technicalities serve my work.
My approach to video is to try to achieve a cinematic look, which is why my final output is full HD (1920x1080) at 24 fps. I do not like the "local news" or "soapy" look of videos at 30 fps. Compare the video clips from local news with those from ESPN documentaries and you'll understand. Keep in mind, however, that I am talking about the output, not the shooting itself. I shoot at 120 fps as much as possible to obtain smooth slow motion when needed. Without getting too technical, the higher the frame rate (frames per second), the more data per second, and therefore the smoother the slow motion. Shooting a whole event at 120 fps gives me the ability to slow things down for a cinematic moment when a spectacular play takes place. It requires shooting on speedy, high capacity SDXC cards but they're critical for success.
I have been learning about photography to be a better videographer and understand exposure. Mastering aperture, sensitivity (ISO), and shutter speed have helped me invaluably when setting up my camera. Exposure in videos brings constraints in poorly lit environments. I can only play with two out of the three factors of the exposure triangle: sensitivity and aperture. Shutter speed is dependent on the frame rate so it will be constant when shooting videos. The rule of thumb for technically correct shooting is to use a shutter speed's "simplified" number twice as large as the fps value to get the smoothest, most natural, movement. The "simplified" value is what I refer to the bottom value of a shutter speed ratio. Hence, if I shoot at 24 fps, I set my shutter speed at 1/48; at 60 fps, I set it to 1/120; at 120 fps, I set it to 1/240. If my "simplified" shutter speed value is too slow, the action may be blurry (60 fps with 1/50 instead of 1/120); too fast, the action may be too choppy/jerky (24 fps with 1/240). Therefore, as I usually shoot at 120 fps when outdoors during the day, I set my shutter speed at 1/240. Indoors or outdoors at night, I shoot at 60 fps to give myself more flexibility and set my shutter speed at 1/120.
Another constraint is related to aperture: shooting from distance will diminish the amount of light entering the camera, as the aperture will diminish when I zoom in. Think about it this way: if you stand looking at the other end of a tunnel, the longer the tunnel the less light reaches you. Hence, the more you zoom in, the less light reaches the sensor. DSLR cameras are great because of the various lenses you can choose to better control aperture but shooting sports requires zooming in then shooting wide at a moment's notice, depending on the plays. Changing lenses becomes impractical so for my budget I prefer a camcorder with an optical zoom and a parfocal lens. It allows me to zoom in and out, keeps my image in focus whenever I change the magnification, and drastically reduces, if not completely eliminates, the "rolling shutter" effect common to DLSR cameras. In poorly lit situations I set my aperture to its widest and set my ISO (sensitivity) to automatic. As I zoom in, the aperture gets narrower and the ISO values goes up to compensate for the aperture change. As I zoom back out for a wider shot, my aperture gets wider and the ISO value correspondingly diminishes.
Learning composition in photography has been advantageous to improve cinematography. I usually try to give some "space to run into" for the players I am following. If they're moving to the right I try to place them to the left of the frame so they don't "run into" the right side of the frame as they would into a wall. It also feels more natural, as our eyes look toward the action. However, if the ball is in the opposite direction toward which the players are moving, as in an incoming through pass in soccer or a pass from the backcourt in basketball, I need to frame the shot on the ball and the players. It would make no sense to show a running player toward a large space where nothing is happening while the action is taking place on the opposite side. The key here is to be flexible and have a good sense of what is happening.
Finding drills to show off an athlete's skills require some research if you are not familiar with the sport. It is good to know the sports you shoot: not just as a casual spectator but as a player. If not, watch a lot of games and practices, and talk to the coach. You want to pick drills that allow a player not merely to show off but to demonstrate the all-important fundamentals coaches expect from athletes. On the practical side, it is useful to have a teammate help feed and retrieve balls when applicable so you can focus on filming. I remember working with a soccer player who came by himself. It was a good thing I played soccer as well; I was able to shoot some corner kicks for him but shuttling between the camera and the corner arc was not the most efficient way to go.
Lighting is the most critical aspect of an interview. Unlike a venue where you need to adapt to the ambient lighting, you are here in full control to make it work. There are countless ways to set up lighting but the most tried and true technique is the three point lighting. The key light is the main light, usually placed about 45 degrees to the right of the subject. If you want to avoid a harsh shadow on your subject's face you add a fill light to left of the subject more or less at 45 degrees as well. It is a softer light used to illuminate the shade created by the key light on the subject's face. Last, the back light is placed behind the subject and helps contrast the subject from the background.
I come prepared with a series of questions given in advance to the athlete. I want a nicely run conversation, not an impromptu interview right after a game. It's a personal preference because I view that approach as a job interview for coaches to grasp who the athlete is. I want to leave nothing to chance if I can help it.
Putting things together
My current preference is to capture footage with Adobe Lightroom. I cannot edit footage with it but it allows me to manage videos by using keywords for easy retrieval. I am sure there are many other ways to do so and I may change my mind but I have been familiar with Lightroom for photography long enough to be comfortable.
Due to lighting limitations from indoor sports or outdoor venues, I like Adobe After Effects. It has powerful features to address the "noise" created by a high ISO in some poorly lit situations, no matter how well I address exposure. There are many plug-ins out there if I feel the already powerful native grain remover is not enough to “clean up” footage.
My initial survey with several NCAA coaches has revealed an essential constraint: coaches won't watch videos more than 2-3 minutes long. Therefore, it falls on me to make sure I pick the athletes' best highlights. The key here is not just a cool factor but a showcase of what an athlete is capable of during a game. Now, once I have chosen the best footage I need to make it appealing as well. There is nothing like a video that is both informative and entertaining to stick in coaches' minds. They will remember the athlete who provided them with a short, instructive, and captivating moment.
I feel that each sport has a unique and natural beat, which is why I spend an inordinate amount of time picking the right music. If I close my eyes and listen to a track I need to view images of the sport I am documenting. It is entirely personal once again and I try to stray from the most obvious stereotypes. Anything with percussion works well in general and can become my fallback plan if I cannot find what I want. I purchase music from royalty free sites such as AudioJungle.com and Pond5.com but I can also find entirely free music at Incompetech.com generously offered by Kevin McLeod of Hollywood fame.
I use Vegas Pro to edit footage for no other particular reason than I have used it for many years and feel quite comfortable with it. It started as a music editor so its sound editing is top notch and its video capabilities are on par with other equally powerful editors.
All in all, shooting recruiting videos has been an eye opening activity. I enjoy both mixing art with technology and engaging in the social interaction with athletes, parents, and coaches. Having fun along the way has helped me stay on point to find my own voice, which matters to forge an identity. However, my greatest pleasure derives from fulfilling an athlete's dream of playing sports in college. There is nothing like a shared experience and knowing that your hard work has helped someone.