Continuing Education: Blue Skies Cinema Cinematic Shooting & Editing Workshop
Back in July my wife and our summer intern had the opportunity to attend a hands-on training Class with Jeff Wright from Blue Skies Cinema. The class was presented in suburban Chicago in conjunction with the Illinois Videographers Association (IVA). Jeff and his wife, Andee, present several intensive workshops each year at their Southern California studio (as well as some stunning nearby locations), and Jeff frequently goes on the road to offer training with local and regional associations as well. I went along to check it all out and document the effectiveness of the training for this article.
I went in with the idea of seeing how much my wife and our intern would improve after 2 days of intense hands-on training. My wife, Sherry, has been working with me since our second wedding shoot, but she has not ventured much into cinematic-type shooting. She has kept her shooting style stealth and based on content. I wanted to see if the class would help her improve her camera skills to get a few more cinematic "wow" shots, while at the same time improving her already polished content-driven shooting.
Our intern, Nicole Verwey, is in her senior year of college studying media production. As for her camera skills-well, let's just say the college has done a good job of teaching shot-framing and shooting full auto. She had been using the same camera in school that we use (Canon XH A1), but she didn't know how to use manual focus, shutters, or iris. Rack focus was not even in her vocabulary. As soon as she started working for us, I gave her a quick lesson in the manual controls of the camera.
How much impact did Jeff's workshop have? All I can say is, "Wow, big improvements." It was definitely a good investment for our company. Jeff's wealth of knowledge regarding camera functionality, manual controls, and making it all work for you is top-notch, and he has a real gift for teaching this stuff. The explanation of scene selections, how to shoot the scene, and how to put it all together was a big learning point for all involved. During the 2-day class, the 25 attendees learned to get wow shots with which they could build their own bridal spotlight videos. Most wedding videos are filled with content documenting the day, not cotinuous cinematic shots. But a few dramatic shots can take us from normal to amazing.
The IVA did an excellent job of hosting the workshop. A big part of Jeff's workshops is spent traveling to compelling locations and guiding class members through shooting actual footage on-site. The IVA pulled in some favors for the class and got an amazing country club setting, Bartlett Hills Country Club, for the classroom time. At the country club, we got to shoot a staged outdoor wedding; then, we moved inside for a mock reception, complete with decorations and a cake provided at no charge by local caterer Bistro59. The IVA members also got the Chicago-area Trolley Car & Bus Co. to provide a trolley for the second day to take us into downtown Chicago for some great on-site shooting locations.
Jeff has a very laid-back teaching style and is very hands-on. When a practice shoot was set up with a model bride, Jeff made the rounds to all the participants who wanted help. He watched what they were doing, helping them get shots they may have never captured before. His energetic teaching demeanor was so contagious, it would be pretty hard to come away from his class without being energized and excited to do it all on your own.
One point Jeff stressed was, "Content without artistry is better than artistry without content." Great point! How many times do we plan wow shots in an attempt to make an amazing video but miss those content-driven moments the customer really hired us for? Another point Jeff made was "Plan the story in your head and shoot accordingly." We all know a shoot doesn't always unfold like we plan, so the point of content being more important than artistry was made multiple times. You don't always get what you want, Jeff advised; just make sure to get the story.
Jeff also addressed the fads/trends in the industry, such as using the Canon 5D Mark II and shooting in 24p and 30p. He mentioned multiple situations in which new gear and trendy techniques may have their place, but he stressed that whatever works for you and your customers is what you should use. What matters, he said, is not the hottest gear or the latest fads, but what makes you money and makes your customer happy. I couldn't agree more.
Without giving away too much (because you really should attend a workshop yourself-the real benefit is the hands-on instruction, much more valuable than anything I could relay here), I'll let you in on one of Jeff's trade secrets: "MADE," a handy acronym he used for how to get great cinematic footage. MADE stands for the following:
• Movement: Camera movement makes ordinary details stand out.
• Angles: Get multiple angles of each setting so all your clips aren't close-ups or wide shots.
• Distance: Shoot from different distances to give more of a feeling of the setting and location.
• Effects: Use effects via in-camera techniques and your NLE to make your footage stand out.
The idea was to work those four concepts-or as many of them as you can-into each job to maximize your shooting effectiveness. Jeff also mentioned that sometimes a static shot of the day's details using a rack focus or just some grass in the foreground moving in the wind can make cinematic shots really pop. The key is not to overuse it. Have you ever seen a video where every shot was moving and flying? After a while it loses its impact.
All in all, the best way I can sum up the 2-day experience is with Jeff's own acronym:
• Movement: We were constantly moving-shooting in new places, practicing what was taught.
• Angles: Jeff gave many a new angle from which to approach our work.
• Distance: No distance learning here. Jeff was right there with you, ready to help if needed.
• Effects: The effect on the participants was that they came away with a good sense of how to create an improved product that can bring a higher profit.
I can already see the impact this workshop has had in my own studio. For starters, our intern Nicole now runs around getting creative shots when assisting us on our weddings. We've even used a few of them in our same-day edits, in places where we usually have my footage. Nicole had this to say about the training class:
Jeff Wright's workshop was one of the most educational and valuable experiences that I have had when it comes to shooting techniques and learning to use a video camera's manual settings. Jeff's workshop gave me a new level of confidence in myself to be able to find solid shots and to go after them without having to spend a lot of time thinking about it beforehand. His MADE principles really help me to keep everything that he taught us in mind when I am in the moment trying to get the shot.
Another attendee had this to say:
The seminar was a wonderful learning and networking experience. It was well-organized and provided lots of opportunities to shoot footage of a bride in many locations. Jeff Wright has an easy-to-follow style of teaching and offers great examples to illustrate the techniques being taught. He is a patient teacher who was working with participants of varying levels of experience. There was a very good balance between classroom discussion and hands-on experience. Jeff worked individually with each attendee, answered questions, and offered immediate assistance and feedback as we tried to employ the new techniques. As a new videographer who is still learning the basics of my camera, I walked away with many techniques to enable me to use my camera more professionally, much faster than if I was struggling on my own.
What about my wife, Sherry? Even before leaving Jeff's class, she commented that we needed to have a practice day, using our town as a backdrop. There's a young lady in our church who wants to be a model. She still had her high school prom dress, which looked just like a wedding dress, and she was game to help us out by modeling for us. A few weeks after we got back from the workshop, we took her around our little town in Southern Wisconsin; for 2 days, we practiced what we learned.
We went to a BMX track and shot bicyclists back-flipping over our model's head. Then, we headed to a lake for some shots at sunset, and we ended our tour at a pond, where we shot her jumping in the water. After reviewing much of Sherry's footage, I saw lots of great material that she wouldn't have captured previously; it will all be part of Frogman Productions' first bridal spotlight demo.
Philip Hinkle (philip at frogmanproductions.com) runs Frogman Productions, a Madison, WI-area studio specializing in cinematic wedding productions. A 2008 EventDV 25 honoree, Philip has won a WEVA CEA Gold in Social Event Production and served as a judge for the 2009 CEAs.