Confessions of a Flip cam novice

Plenty of lessons from (and derisive laughter at) a Ragan reporter’s trial-and-error video misadventures. Take a look at her videos and see if you’ve made the same mistakes.

Editor’s Note: I wrote this story last year, when I first started experimenting with the Flip cam. So, did I learn anything? Tomorrow, I’ll show you the video footage from our spring health care conference at Mayo Clinic.

I’ve written a lot of stories about how communicators use the Flip cam.

I’d never tried it myself, though.

That changed when I took an office Flip cam to Swedish Medical Center’s “Innovation in the Age of Reform” conference in October.

All I had to do was press the big red button, right? How hard could this thing really be?

That’s the beauty of the Flip cam. It’s deceptively easy to use. But just because it’s easy, it doesn’t mean I was doing anything right.

Well, OK—I might’ve done a few things right. But it was mostly by accident.

When I came back to the office, I sat down with our video producer, Jonny Gomez, to review the 45 videos I shot. I know, I know—45 videos is a lot to shoot. But that was just because I didn’t know how to work the delete button.

I thought I’d share with you what I learned.

1. Shooting yourself is tricky…

Watch the top part of my head—it’s about to go on a ferry ride to Bainbridge Island. Because the Flip cam doesn’t have a reversible screen, you’ll end up chopping off various parts of your body when you film yourself. Your best bet for self-framing is to hold the camera out, steady in front of you, at arm’s length. Maybe if I do this right next time, I’ll sing the entire “I’m on a Boat” song.

2. … So, ask somebody else to shoot you

Because this was turning out to be a bad version of The Blair Witch Project, I asked a Seattleite to record me. But I never explained to the passer-by how the Flip cam worked. I said something like, “Hey, you! Can you just stand here and push this button while I talk?”

3. Make your B-roll interesting

It’s too bad I wasn’t doing a video story about seafood. This B-roll footage is a solid example of a live shot. Who doesn’t like watching a fishmonger flip a crab?

4. Show, don’t tell

Well, I managed to frame myself, somewhat correctly. In the video, I said that I’m about to climb up a big hill. But two questions Jonny asked me: “So, where is this hill? And why didn’t you film yourself climbing it?” If you’re going to tell your audience that you’re going to do something, you should do it. (And just for the record, I did climb it. It was very steep.)

5. Lighting gone wrong

I read in my guidebook about a famous totem pole in Seattle. Once I found it, I couldn’t wait to show everybody what it looked like. But what I ended up filming looked more like a light pole. Why? It’s because the light (such as it was) was coming from the wrong direction.

6. Lighting gone right

Shooting the totem pole was a poor effort, so I turned around (with the sun behind me) and voilà —look at how vibrant these colors are! The Flip cam does a great job of picking up on color, if you think about lighting. See if you can count all the different shades of green.

7. Be careful with your colors

When I picked this background, I thought to myself, “This is great! Everything matches!” But that’s the problem—it’s too monochromatic, almost sepia tone. The tie, shirt and wall are all orange. Plus, with the line coming out of the speaker’s head, it looks like he’s on a string. Video producer Jonny gave me this tip: “People’s skin is as important to consider as their shirt or blouse. African-Americans should not be filmed against dark brown walls or in low light. Hispanic, Indian or Pacific Islanders should avoid orange backgrounds. Caucasian people should avoid peach or pink backgrounds. It’s not racism—it’s melanin!”

8. Make outdoor lighting work for you

Outdoor lighting is finicky, especially in cloudy Seattle. When the interview first starts, my subject is squinting into the sun. Then, we move to a spot where he’s in the shadows. Oh, no! The third spot was the charm, but the framing was a bit disconcerting. Jonny asked, “Why are there forklifts in the background?” Even if you get your lighting right, remember to pay attention to the little things—or the big forklifts—around you.

9. Think about framing

Darn! I was so close to framing this one right. But the pillar looks like it’s coming out of the speaker’s head. I just needed to rotate about 10 degrees to the left, and the background could’ve been more dynamic. The red building gives it a pop of color, and if you look close enough, you’ll be able to get a (shaky) glimpse of the Space Needle on the right.

10. It’s OK to start over

In this video, you’ll see a guy walking around with a neck brace. That should’ve been my first clue to stop the video. But I kept going. Then, our speaker fumbles a bit, but I say, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll do editing!” But really, if something isn’t going well, just say, “Let’s start over,” especially if the guy with the neck brace walks back into your shot—again. It’ll save your video department the extra work.

11. Pay attention to the noise—and don’t walk while recording

What’s worse—the sound of the roaring bus or my clicking heels? Or maybe it’s when I decide to start walking. Walking and filming with a Flip doesn’t work. That’s what steadicams are for.

12. The money shot! Kind of

Best. Shot. Ever. Take a look at the foreground! The curves! The lines! The buildings! The sunlight! This was the last video I made before I left Seattle. Had I finally gotten the hang of this? Well, maybe. But then I start narrating and spinning around. I’m not sure why. In the words of Jonny Gomez, our video producer: “Jessica, were you drunk?”

5 tips from Ragan’s video guy

By Jonny Gomez

Jessica Levco asked me to write a brief rundown of tips for communicators venturing into the world of Flip cam. After watching all 45 of her videos from Seattle, I politely suggested that she should probably read my video tips, too.

1. Lighting

If you shoot your subject in front of a bright window, he or she will look like a member of the witness protect program. Try to place yourself (and your camera) between your subject and the main light source.

2. Framing

Buy a cheap disposable camera (a lot of digital cameras have a bunch of fancy built-in features that make it a little too easy) and practice framing your shots. Look up a guide on the “Rule of Thirds” and learn how to make your shots look professional.

3. Sound

Pay attention to background noise. Keep your camera close to your subject to record their voice at appropriate levels.

4. Movement

You might think that walking around with your camera makes you the next Quentin Tarantino, but you’re making your audience seasick. Keep your feet planted and stick with slowly panning left and right, if you must.

5. Mise-en-scéne

This is a French term, pronounced meez-on-SEN, which means “put in scene.” Essentially, mise-en-scene incorporates anything the audience sees on screen: colors, lighting, costumes, actors, acting, props, or car chases. For your next video, pay attention to how lighting, framing, sound and movement work together.

Jonny Gomez is a graduate of Northwestern University and majored in Radio, Television, Film.

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