Every winter my wife and I make our annual trek to southern Florida to visit family and to escape from the "frozen tundra" of Wisconsin. I always take a little work along to keep the workflow running, but I do spend some fun time with my family. This year I had an added bonus on my trip. I got to ride along with Ray Roman, his assistant (better known as his wife, Jessica), and his gear hauler (Ray and Jessica's son, Anthony) on a wedding shoot in beautiful Miami Beach and Coral Gables. I first met Ray at WEVA Expo 2009. I attended his session one morning and came away with the feeling that he approaches the business of wedding video in much the same way I do, just on a higher level. Ray bucks the trend of stressing gadgets and gizmos to make your work better and emphasizes good, solid shooting of important elements that are well-framed, have great audio, and are properly exposed. In his session at WEVA, he told us how the majority of his footage is shot from simple tripods and monopods with only occasional uses of those gadgets. He also stressed taking the initiative on-site to assure that your footage looks as good as possible by arranging things to happen in the most visually appealing way possible. He doesn't set up shots; instead he takes things that are destined to happen and makes sure those moments look as good as possible (for more of Roman's take on his own approach, see the November Studio Time, "Off the Wall"). The goal of my "Roman Adventure" was to see if Ray really did work based on those principles. It also gave me a chance to see a full day of wedding shooting done with DSLR cameras. As a new Canon EOS 7D owner (up to that point, I had only used the DSLR to capture certain types of shots to enhance my work rather than for general coverage of the day), I was curious to see how he handled it.
Preceremony and Prep
When I arrived on site, Ray had already been working for 3-4 hours. The wedding I joined him on was an Indian wedding that comprised a 16-hour day, beginning with the Hindu ceremony at 7:30 a.m. Being in Florida on vacation, I didn't feel like enduring a 16-hour workday, so I chose to join Ray on-site at about noon. There had been some downtime after the morning ceremony, so I met Ray in the hallway of the hotel as he was finishing up a little fun time with the guys around the pool. All he had equipmentwise was his camera, a monopod, and a slider. The Steadicam was in the car.
We went to the bride's room where she was getting her hair and makeup retouched before the traditional Catholic ceremony. Here was my first chance to see the simplicity of his style. He's not lying about the majority of his footage being built from solid, basic footage. The DSLR was mounted on a monopod, and off to work he went.
Roman was quietly and methodically bouncing around the room getting whatever shots he felt looked good. As I watched over his shoulder, I could tell at once that he was capturing simple, great-looking shots.
Another thing I noticed was Roman's demeanor with people. He was fun and had developed a level of trust with everyone. At one point a bridesmaid turned to see him filming her. She gave him the "don't film me" look and told him he didn't have to film her. He quickly responded, "I wasn't filming you. I had a great shot of that spot on the wall right there."
She laughed and any tension was gone. Ray just kept quietly bouncing around the room getting the footage he needed. Once he was happy with the captured content and things slowed down in the room, he set out to get a few eye-candy shots with the slider. He took a small corner of a table cluttered with makeup and set up a slider shot with the wedding bands.
Ray found a few, nice, colored cloths and some makeup trays and spent a few minutes getting some eye candy for the video. He spent a fair amount of time on this because he had the time. In the final edited feature, the shots he got will only occupy a few seconds, but they will look great.
Almost all the footage for the prep will be monopod shots. What also struck me about his workflow was the camera setup of the DSLRs. There was no eyepiece, follow focus, shouldermount, rail, or cage set up on his camera. All he was working with was a camera and a tripod. So many DSLR shooters have huge rigs on their cameras that cost more than the camera; I was fascinated to discover that Ray gets amazing content on such a Spartan setup.
At the ceremony, Ray put the Steadicam into service. He used it primarily for the processional and then went back to a tripod and monopod for the remainder of the ceremony. Since Ray Roman Films creates primarily feature films (short-form edits) and not full-length documentary edits, the DSLRs' shortcomings with regard to record times (generally, 12 minutes per card) are not a problem.
I noticed Ray and Jessica capturing important segments and then turning off the recording all through the ceremony. A few times Ray left a camera on a monopod in the center aisle for a wide shot and went back to reposition or start over after a few minutes.
The Romans were methodical in what camera was where and how it was all filmed. They film for the story only, unless the customer pays extra for a full documentary edit. Ninety-five percent of the ceremony was shot from tripods and monopods, just basic tools we all have at our disposal. For the core sections of the entire day, it was much the same. Tripods and monopods with occasional use of a slider or Steadicam for a few, cinematic wow shots where appropriate.
This particular event lent itself to more Steadicam usage than a typical Ray Roman Films wedding, Ray said. "When the groom was riding up on the horse before the Hindu ceremony, it was just screaming for Steadicam footage instead of monopod footage."
That said, the groom arriving via horseback, some candids after the ceremony, and the reception intros were the only segments of the day that had any extended period of gadgetry in use. Otherwise, the Romans stuck to the traditional tools we all have. I'm happy to report Ray's claim of capturing good footage from locked-down, traditional means is entirely accurate.
Calling the Shots
Now let's delve into the coordination of shots Ray implements to get stunning footage. He stresses that he does not set up fake situations to manufacture great shots; rather he takes situations that are going to happen anyway and makes them more visually appealing. Let me illustrate this idea with two different situations during the day.
First, we had amazing lighting in the bride's room. One wall of the suite was a full window overlooking Coral Gables, offering lots of great light. All the makeup and hair touch ups took place here, and the light was balanced-just a dream for both video and photo. The bride got dressed in private upstairs. Initially, she wanted to get some of her final accessories, such as the veil and some jewelry, put on upstairs where she got dressed. Ray explained how the light was perfect downstairs and talked everyone into moving all this preparation downstairs into the perfect light instead of in the darkened, shadow-filled bedroom. Once you explain to the customer how much better the footage will look and how it will all be better, they are an easy sell to change the plans.
Here's an even better scenario that illustrates Ray's approach. At the reception site, the wedding coordinator had already planned for the wedding party to be introduced coming down a hidden staircase near the head table at the back of the room. It seemed good to the planner but not to Ray. After looking around, Ray noticed that this entrance was right next to the DJ and all the associated clutter. It was a staging area for the catering crew, so there were rolling coolers in the background as well. Directly across the room was a beautiful entrance surrounded by dramatic lighting, curtains, and guests. It was a perfect spot-much more visually appealing than the initial cluttered area.
Immediately, Ray began putting the wheels in motion to get the entrances moved. First, he talked to the wedding planner and showed her what the video and photos would look like with her initial plan and recommended the other entrance as a better alternative, pointing out the more-dramatic view and surroundings. She was open to the idea but said she'd have to ask the bride. Ray and the planner approached the bride with the idea, and Ray explained the benefits of added drama and visual appeal. Of course, it was an easy sell to the bride.
As Ray explained it to me later, we as videographers often just go with the flow of what is dictated, or previously planned, and live with what we get. If we just take a look at what is planned and tactfully make recommendations for improvements, we can take ho-hum footage and make it demo-worthy. Do you ever see amazing demos from studios and dream of getting that type of footage? Well, maybe you need to speak up a little on-site and get things to unfold in a way that is more video- (and guest-) friendly and not be so passive and reactive in your productions. Obviously, you can't always change things; sometimes there is no better alternative available. But as Ray says, "Why settle for OK when you can have great?"
If there's one thing we can all learn from Ray Roman, it's that by approaching your wedding-day shoot with an eye for quality, you can often make your footage much better by simply speaking up. Too many of us feel we are there to just shoot what happens as it happens and stay out of everyone's way. Photographers at an event will often dictate how things will work for their benefit, and everyone follows along. Why shouldn't videographers be able to involve ourselves in some portions of the day to make our product more visually beautiful for our customers? This is also a factor in gaining respect: Don't be afraid to speak up from time to time, or you'll never be taken seriously as a company or an individual shooter.
DSLRs for Wedding-Day Coverage
How about covering the entire day with DSLRs for video? Ray Roman Films shows that it can be done easily and beautifully. If you're primarily there to create a feature film like the Romans, capturing all your footage with the 5Ds and 7Ds is very practical and produces an amazing movie. If you're primarily a documentary-oriented, full-length type of shooter, then going all DSLR for video is probably not for you. If the goal is to add a DSLR to the mix for B-roll and special shots, then it will fit the mix of any videographer.
There are challenges to shooting all-DSLR, so if you make the jump, you need to be ready to really work the camera. I almost never saw Ray or Jessica working without a hand on the focus ring. During longer sections of the ceremony or speeches, it wasn't a problem. But during the preps and other detail times, they were constantly readjusting and checking focus. It's more work, but the results are breathtaking if executed correctly. Ray Roman Films has mastered the DSLR workflow. To see what I mean, just check out their work if you haven't already.
Philip Hinkle (philip at frogmanproductions.com) runs Madison, Wis.-area video production company Frogman Productions. A 2008 EventDV 25 honoree, he won a 2008 WEVA CEA Gold in the Social Event category and a 2006 4EVER Group AAA Diamond, and he was a featured speaker and Creative Excellence Awards judge at WEVA Expo 2009.