In the world of wedding videography, a military ceremony is an exception for most producers. But for my business, it has provided a substantial portion of our income.
My studio is located near Annapolis, home of the United States Naval Academy. The Naval Academy hosts hundreds of weddings each year; most Saturdays the Chapel will host about five to seven weddings, one every hour.
It's a fascinating environment in which to work, from its historical resonance to the economy and austerity of its architecture. But preparing to shoot a wedding in a military setting like the USNA Chapel means much more than a simple change of venue. It also means acclimating yourself to a specific set of traditions, rules, and protocols, much like working effectively and respectfully in different religious denominations.
The USNA Chapel was consecrated in the early part of the twentieth century to serve the religious needs of the Academy's 4,000-plus Corps of Midshipmen (naval and Marine Corps undergrads), professors, and military staff. "Chapel" is a misnomer, given how we generally categorize chapels, churches, and cathedrals. This Chapel is immense: it can hold more than 4,000 people.
The venue is almost austere inside, lacking the type of artistic details that one would find in a traditional church. But it's also a visual treat, with a soaring cupola in the front, ornate altar woodwork, double pipe organs, and beautiful stained-glass windows depicting various naval and Christian themes intertwined.
A solitary lit candle in the middle of the rear pews commemorates a Marine who never returned from combat. The Chapel presents some of the best visual backgrounds for weddings in our market.
However enticing its aesthetics, the USNA Chapel is also a very difficult place to shoot in due to restrictions that are inherent to its military affiliation. Videography is restricted to the two rear balconies, with no handheld coverage from the floor allowed. Wireless mics and walkie-talkies are forbidden because of the Chapel's proximity to military communication systems (Annapolis is also home to a major submarine radio transmission station).
There are only low-quality P.A. speakers for audio feed: the videographer either has to use a very inconspicuous digital recorder or is at the mercy of the presiding chaplain to hold the mic to the couple for the vows.
Finally, there is a new wedding every hour from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., so setup and breakdown have to be accomplished quickly. After September 11, 2001, access to the base via car was restricted and now has to be pre-approved by the base military police department.
The ceremony is basically the same as a civilian wedding. Because of time restrictions (no ceremony goes longer than 25 minutes), Catholic ceremonies held in the Chapel are much shorter than the usual Catholic ceremonies we encounter, and the "Navy Hymn" is performed immediately after the exchange of rings for every service.
Unlike a civilian service, the ceremony will begin on time, with no exceptions; if the bride or groom is late, the ceremony is cancelled, and if any other principals are missing at the appointed starting time, the ceremony begins without them.
Another significant difference is that wedding reservations can be made no earlier than a year in advance, and either spouse has to be an Academy grad or Naval Academy military staff. As you might expect, there is a huge amount of competition for the reservations.
SETUP AND PRE-CEREMONY
We arrive at the Chapel at least one hour before the wedding, and either proceed with setup (if the Chapel is available), or take exterior shots of the Chapel and arriving guests. The groom is usually at the Chapel a half hour before the wedding (he waits downstairs) and the bride arrives 15-20 minutes before the ceremony (already dressed). Upon arrival, the bride and her bridesmaids go to the Bridal Room (located immediately inside the Chapel).
We set up at the only places that we are allowed to be, and then mic the groom. As I mentioned before, the USNA does not allow the use of wireless mics, so the only solution is to use a portable mini recorder (like a MiniDisc or an iRiver). Sometimes we are not even allowed to do this; it totally depends on the celebrant. And since this is a military institution, there really is no way to argue, negotiate, or even try to explain our job—whatever they say goes!
After we are done with this, we can go outside to videotape the bride as she arrives, get some guests as they come in, or head to the balcony to videotape guests and the church from up there. We are not allowed to videotape from the floor at any time, and the coordinators definitely will let you know that they don't want you doing that. The best policy in this Chapel is to stay away from them and be as invisible as possible.
TO THE AISLE
The organ fills the Chapel with classical music while the ushers seat guests. The music changes, and then it's time for the mothers of the bride and groom to be seated. Again the music changes, and the processional begins. The bridesmaids, one by one, walk down the aisle until only the bride and her father are left to proceed; the music becomes louder and more regal, and finally it is time for the bride and groom to join each other.
The bride walks with her father toward her groom, waiting in the front of the Chapel with his best man. Family and guests stand in anticipation, all eyes turning to her. This is the moment that she has been waiting for; this is why they wanted their wedding at the Naval Academy Chapel.
The ceremony usually goes very smoothly, since there are so many restrictions. There really isn't much for us to do as videographers, except to try and make as much of this as possible.
ARCH OF SWORDS
Right after the recessional, the newlyweds wait in the Bride's Room until guests and family exit the Chapel for the Arch of Swords. Officers line up and march toward the stairs, stop and face each other, draw swords, with blades facing the wind. The newlyweds are introduced, and before crossing the first pair of swords, these are lowered until you hear, "Passage for a kiss."
The bride and groom kiss, and the officers raise their swords to let them pass. This sequence is repeated until all the swords are crossed. "Welcome to the Navy, Mrs. Newlywed!"—these are the words that the bride hears right before getting "slapped" on the rear by the last officer.
Now it is time for some amazing shots. The Naval Academy is filled with great locations for video shoots and portraits, including the Superintendent's gardens, also known as "Supe's Gardens" (an acre of well-manicured lawns and trellises that the couple needs to reserve), Mahan Hall, Bancroft Hall, the Gazebo in front of the Chapel (where the Naval Academy Band plays summer concerts), and the Seawall. All of these places are rich in color and very appropriate for your formal poses.
This is the part where we can be as creative as we want. There are no more restrictions or time constraints (other than the reception's start time). Here we can really let our imaginations go and create the kind of video that the bride and the groom desire.
Videotaping the couple at the grounds of the Naval Academy takes somewhere between one and two hours (depending on the wedding), and then it is time to go to the reception.
Naval receptions are just like any other reception, except that a lot of the military men are dressed in white (summer formals). These guests behave just like any other crowd. The only difference is the fact that the bride and groom will cut the cake using the groom's sword.
I usually take closeups of the cake for any wedding, but for these military weddings I include closeups of the sword itself—I find it beautiful and very appropriate for placing at the beginning or end of a montage of the wedding.
I've tailored part of my business to be helpful to prospective clients. The vast majority of brides are not local, and planning a long-distance wedding can be difficult, so I do my best to provide a source of information for referring the best fellow wedding service providers in the area.
Photographers and musicians must be experienced at working there because of restrictions; most other ceremonial traditions like decorative floral arrangements, throwing bird seed, or blowing bubbles are prohibited. Videographers and photographers who do not follow Chapel guidelines can be prohibited from working there again, so it is very important to be experienced.
It's also important for my brides to know about the different aspects of the ceremony. And since most of them won't be in town until a week or so before the wedding, they really need the answers to some common questions before they arrive. They know that they can contact me about any other service, Academy policies, reception venues, etc.
Even though I cannot speak for the Academy (I make this very clear to the brides), I have videotaped so many weddings there that the rules are very familiar to me. We are in the service industry, and I consider this part of my service essential for my work. The more I speak with the bride and groom, the more familiar and comfortable they'll be with me, and the more smoothly the wedding day will go. Not only that, but we have become friends with many of our former clients, and they have supplied the vast majority of the referrals that we have received through the years. With this approach, everyone wins!
I have discussed the downside of working at the Academy—rules and regulations, time constraints, heightened security measures, the prohibition of wireless devices, etc. One upside to working there is that the ceremonies are very videogenic: young officers in formal dress uniforms who escort the bridesmaids, a uniquely long processional for the bride (the main aisle is easily 500 feet long), the monstrous pipe organs blasting recessional music, the sword-arch after the couple is introduced on the steps of the Chapel, and several available buildings with gorgeous layouts and scenic landscapes that serve as backgrounds for some exquisite video and portrait work.
Another upside of weddings there is that when there are many rules, it really makes our work easier. There are no choices, no experiments, no complaints from the clients about how "you didn't get that shot." If the Naval Academy forbids the shot, there are no grounds for dispute over why it didn't show up in the final product. They know what the rules are, and they know that we must follow them.
The only workaround on the rules that govern where the videographer can and cannot go is to have a videographer pose as one of the guests and get footage from the floor (there are no video restrictions for the guests).
However, given the frequency with which I work at the Academy, I am not comfortable with this approach and discourage others from bending the rules this way. So many rules restricting videographers to the balcony exist precisely because some of our colleagues pushed the limits to the point of walking on the altar and videotaping from there (which is frowned on in most churches, military or otherwise). Some were disruptive and behaved unprofessionally, so now we all must pay the price. It is because of this that I do not believe in trying to skirt such rules.
Regardless of the location where videographers shoot, if we show the people at the church or temple that we are responsible, and that we can be (and will be) professional, ceremony venue rules will eventually relax. Then we will all be able to enjoy more flexible working environments—even military ones.