Anatomy of a YouTube Shoot

Avatar Cinema Summit | December 27, 2017

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Is Shooting for YouTube Any Different Than Anything Else?

As YouTube becomes a more viable business option for startup and existing media companies, the landscape for filmmakers is rapidly changing.

Shooting for YouTube has some distinct differences to shooting for television or film, and in this article I dive into 5 different types of shoots I have encountered over the years, and how I approach them.

The Talking Head

The talking head is a YouTube staple. Whether it's a vlog style show or a greenscreen talk show like "The Soup", this is probably one of the easier shoots you will encounter.

In terms of lighting, there's a million ways to go about it and you'll want to choose your lighting setup based on the style of the show.

But, for the majority of things I have done in this style, I typically use two lights in front of the talent - one light on each side of the camera. I keep the lights relatively low, and as close to the talent as possible to create a super even and super soft look.

Then, I use a pretty hard backlight. Either one or two depending on what's available. This helps not only get a better key by separating the talent from the greenscreen (if it's a greenscreen shoot), but it also gives it that "glossy" and "poppy" look that has been popular on YouTube lately.

This is the exact lighting setup I used for Playboy's The Anti-Viral Show.

It is also the same setup I used for Greater Creators, but on a much larger scale in a big white cyc studio. For this series, I added gel to the backlight to create a unique look that matched the style of the host, Comicbookgirl19.

What makes these shoots so easy is the ability to create a repeatable system. Once you lock in your look, take note of the positions of the lights and the dimming settings on each of your lights to make setup a breeze.

A few things to note with this lighting setup. You can get some funky eye lights by positing the lights this way. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it looks weird. Keep that in mind. It also won't work in your favor if the subject is wearing glasses. You will get big reflections all over their glasses. 

In these instances, raise the key lights up until the reflections are gone. Then, if needed, use a "bottomer" below the lens. Either another soft light or a reflector just out of frame pointing up at the talent to fill in any harsh shadows created by raising the lights up.

These shows are the best, and are generally recurring gigs. So if you can land some of these, you'll be pretty set.

The Narrative Approach

Sometimes, YouTubers and companies get pretty excited about their new channel and making cinematic/narrative content.

When this happens, be afraid. Be very afraid. Just kidding.

But in all seriousness, there are some major things to consider before signing on to these projects.

  • Firstly, discuss the budget and schedule immediately. Often there will be unrealistic expectations with these kinds of shoots because the team behind them don't have the experience necessary to make informed decisions about what the production of high-quality cinematic videos takes.
  • Talk to the decision maker and go over their script piece by piece. Don't be afraid to ask questions to help you determine if the team is capable of completing the video they are envisioning.
  • Secondly, prepare yourself for mayhem. You need to be as mobile as possible and as prepared as possible. If you can scout locations ahead of time - super bonus.
  • If not, you will need to be ready to make decisions on the fly and have just minutes to set up each shot.

In the RCLbeauty101 example below, we had 27 setups over the course of two 10-hour days. Taking an hour-long lunch break into account and 30-minute load in/out each day, that comes out to about 35.5 minutes per setup.

For this video, we were stealing shots wherever we could. The very first shot was meant to be a hospital, but with no hospital location available to us we ended up shooting in a supply closet...

This doesn't leave a whole lot of time for discussion and collaboration on-set. You need to make decisions with confidence and power through.

For The Rock's first YouTube video Ascendance, we had other obstacles. Firstly, we only had 1 night to shoot all of the forest shots. We were in the middle of nowhere with no power, no practical lighting anywhere and we couldn't have a generator. 

So, we were forced to use batteries. Power management became a problem, both for our camera and our lights. We could charge some things in our cars, but we had to be careful not to kill our car batteries in the process (which we did, but we brought a battery jumper specifically for that reason).

Because we only had a handful of battery powered lights to use, plus the torch and the fire pit as our only light sources, we opted to shoot on the Panasonic VariCam 35 which is known for AMAZING low light capabilities. It did not disappoint.

One shot we were unable to do on location was the overhead shot that zooms out to The Rock's eyebrow. We weren't prepared to rig the large VariCam over an actor, so we opted to do it later. That shot was done in a parking lot, with a tarp on the ground dressed to look like the forest floor, and a Panasonic GH4 armed out on a hi-hi stand.

The GH4 was a great choice for this because of it's remote viewing, controlling, and focusing capabilities when used with the Panasonic phone app. It also matched pretty well with it's bigger Panasonic brother.

It's always a challenge, no matter what the shoot. The only thing you can do is be as prepared as possible and go in with a "nothing can stop me" mentality. 

The Unboxing Video

Unboxing videos seem pretty straightforward, and they are. For the most part.

But one thing I didn't take into account when taking on the task for Pocket.Watch was how exactly to mount the camera!

I thought it'd be pretty easy with a c-stand and a camera mount. I didn't think about how unstable and wobbly that would be if there was even the slightest movement to the c-stand.

Without a big speedrail rig overhead or some kind of truss, we opted to use a small tripod. Because the producers wanted the camera to be positioned from the perspective of the unboxer, it meant that the talent had to reach around the tripod to do their business.

Some tips I encountered:

  • Have something for the talent to rest their arms on. Whether it's pillows or a sandbag, having the extra support will really help their endurance if they are shooting multiple videos a day.
  • Set up a monitor for the talent. This is pretty crucial because a lot of unboxing has to do with playing toward the camera. Including, bringing items closer for examination or making gestures to the camera for emphasis. It can be very difficult for the talent to know where to place objects without a clear reference for them to see.
  • Use a soft overhead light. This will eliminate shadows from your overhead POV and make things easier to see.

If you can keep everything in place each day, even better. Come in, flip on the lights, and press record.

The beauty of these shoots, like the talking head shoots, is that once you find your setup, you will easily be able to return for future shoots and get the same look on autopilot.

The Table-Top Video

The table top shoot is pretty common for DIY, instructional, or review type shows. I approach these from an improvisational point of view. Meaning, I want to be able to have free movement as much as possible, and I want the talent to have as much free movement as possible too.

So, hanging lights is ideal, so as to not cause shadows as the camera operator or talent moves around. Short of hanging lights, I put them up on stands, high above us both for front and backlights.

You will likely want 2 cameras at least. One wide static shot and one moving closeup camera to capture the details of their explanation.

Having a zoom lens on your closeup camera will be extremely useful for following the action and making adjustments on the fly.

Keep in mind, focusing can be an issue, so using more light and closing down your aperture is not a bad idea.

The Walk-and-Talk

What I mean by this is following your subjects as they go about some action. This is a docu-reality-style shoot, and in my experience, there is little room for lighting.

So, it is important to know your camera really well. You need to be able to make quick adjustments to ISO, Aperture, and Color Balance as you move around to different locations.

Also, since lighting is pretty much non-existent, you must take advantage of natural light, shade, and have a great understanding of composition in order to get the best shots possible.

While these shoots can seem pretty simple on paper, they can sometimes be just as stressful as a big narrative shoot because you have almost no control. You are following the talent wherever they go, and the most input you get sometimes is, "stand here, instead of here" because the light looks better on your face.

Don't be afraid to speak up if a shot looks really bad. Talk to the producers and talent ahead of time and come up with a system. Ask what the protocol is for re-takes, and make sure your producer is very clear about extremely sensitive shots where you may only have one take.

Is That All?

These are just a handful of shooting styles I have encountered during my YouTube shooting experiences. What have you come across? Do you have a crazy shooting story to share? Post it in the comments below.

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