Zack is a filmmaker, YouTuber, and creator/host of the webseries “We Have A Show.” He has a MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. Here he discusses directing techniques for indie filmmakers…some he learned in school, and some he learned the hard way.
As I’m still settling into my new home base in LA, one of the things I wanted to do—after, you know, assemble furniture and figure out where the closest grocery store is located—is figure out how I was going to continue making videos. YouTube has been a great creative outlet over the years, and We Have A Show is one of the projects I’m most proud of, especially considering how much it has grown in such a short period of time. But once I committed to moving as far away from New York as physically possible without leaving the contiguous 48 states, I knew I needed to find a way to continue creating without the DYI “studio” we built in our Harlem brownstone. Over the last few days, I’ve been working my new in-house workspace in Venice. For those of you here interested in non-narrative web series-ing, and specifically vlogging, let me walk you through what my new set up is. It doesn’t take much…maybe it might inspire you to start creating as well.
PS—shoutout to @threeminutesfast for her post on Vlog shots in narrative episodic. It got me thinking about all this stuff again.
This is what I’ve decided on as “homebase” for future vlogs…for now. Like everything else, it’s a work in progress. There’s nothing I can do about the weird half-brown walls…
In my opinion, there are four components to good framing for any kind of presentational-type show with a “host”: The camera position, the light source, the background, and sound.
This one sounds obvious. But often I find that it’s easy to overlook the nuanced details. As filmmakers we know the camera is the conduit for the story, but for vloggers, it’s the conduit for our personality. As such, where you put the camera is going to inherently influence the audience’s perception of who you are. A YouTuber’s framing varies from artist to artist, but the type I find to be most engaging, and honestly—flattering—are straight on shots, at eye level, on a medium-wide angle lens. Those who subscribe to the Spike Lee rules of “looking down” or “looking up” at the subject understand that you’re trying to invite your audience in with this shot, to meet the audience as equals, and not alienate them by creating a power dynamic via high or low angles. This isn’t a Beastie Boys video.
Yes, I’m still shooting on Canon. No, I don’t care what you think.
Here I’m using a 5D with a 35mm f1.4 prime lens, about 4 feet away from my chair. The Casey Neistat and Peter McKinnon followers of the world, in my opinion, sometimes tend to over-do it on the wide-angle close up. Yes, sitting close to the wide end of a 16-35mm zoom does create an ‘in-your-face’ sense of immediacy and energy, but if the remaining visual elements of your shot (lighting & background) aren’t composed properly, this type of shot can be counterproductive, as it makes the camera and the space a noticeable focus of your video, rather than you yourself.
I find the 35mm focal length to be the perfect for “talking-to-camera” shots, as it’s wide enough to show you in your space while allowing separation and depth, and not too wide that it’ll give you some fish-eyeing distortion, especially on your face. Those of you who are upset by the way you look in selfies, you know what I mean.
On We Have A Show , I hung $8 can light clamps with soft, tungsten balanced light bulbs from Home Depot, and they got the job done. It allowed for a balanced key & fill, and worked quite nicely. Here, unfortunately, there is no place to hang those lights, so I had to figure out something else. (You mean normal adults don’t have 10-feet-tall bed platforms made out of 4x4 plywood?) Thankfully, there is a fairly large window to the immediate camera right, just out of frame. And I got lucky, because the position of my room in the house is never experiencing direct sunlight, so there’s always an indirect and diffused light in the room.
Because I’m one-man-banding, it’s super handy to have a monitor, or a camera with a flippy-screen so you can check your exposure and framing.
The angle of the light entering the room was another reason I chose to set up where I did. There’s good key on my face—albeit it’s a tad hot on one side in the above shot, but not too hot that it’s distracting. There is also good light fall-off hitting the wall behind me. Too often YouTubers key themselves perfectly, but forget to fill in the space behind them, resulting in too much of a spotlight-type situation. The lighting here + a fast 35mm (on a full frame camera) allows for natural-looking separation from the wall behind me, without calling attention to the light source. The depth of field is in a sweet spot—not to deep, not too shallow. You never want to be completely lost in a sea of bokeh.
I won’t go too deep into this. Put some effort into your world. It doesn’t have to be much—all I have so far are a few SNL-themed Funko Pop characters and half of a Back To The Future poster. The background of your frame should never be the focus, but it also shouldn’t be sterile either. Give it some personality. No one wants to see you in front of a white wall. By setting your background in a way that’s interesting and yet immediately forgettable, the audience is naturally more-inclined to focus on you as the subject. The shelf behind me is also where I keep some of my camera gear, so there is a sense of practicality in its relation to the desk. I think it comes across as my work area, because, well, it is.
Alright boys, and girls, I’d like to welcome you to a new segment here on Zack’s Declassifed called “Please use a good microphone.”
Please. Use. A. Good. Microphone!
There is nothing worse than seeing someone put an incredible amount of work and effort into their visuals, only to have it completely undermined by the internal microphone of their camera that’s halfway across the room. It’s so crucial to use a microphone, and a good one at that. There are a few different ways to do this.
You could use a shotgun mic on your camera. Like a Rode Videomic Pro. They get the job done. But if you’re in a larger room, or not right on top of your camera, even they can pick up a lot of room tone. However, the worst problem (especially as a Canon-shooter that’s in love with their spectacular dual pixel autofocus for video) is that sometimes, depending on lens attached to your camera, you might get auto-focus mechanical sounds.
You could use a lavaliere microphone and clip it to your shirt. You will arguably get the best sound from these. However, it’s also very easy to mess up the placement, and clip the mic in a spot that’s going to rub up against shirt fabric in an attempt to hide the wire. Plus, and don’t ask me why, the current generation of wireless lav’s always seem to have interference. Damn smartphones.
My personal choice… Because YouTube is essentially a radio model, my philosophy is why hide the mic? I’ve been using a visible condenser mic in my frame, which renders vocals and conversations very nicely, and, well honestly, it looks cool too.
The RODE NT-USB podcasting microphone. My new best friend.
THE TL; DR SUMMARY:
Don’t over think it.
Point your camera at your face.
Point some lights at your face.
Point a microphone at your face.
Make your background pretty.
Remember, if you’re doing a vlog, it’s because you have something you want to share with your audience. Not a character’s story, but your own story. You want to strip away any layers that may exist between yourself and the audience. Get real with them–part of that means inviting them into your world via your framing.
For the time being…this is my world. Welcome.