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  Doing Production Right - Tips for Success

While the primary focus of this course is post-production, it doesn't help if you only have bad footage to work with. While I have had my fair share of projects where I have been handed pretty bad footage, and that's a good thing because it challenges you to think, of course I prefer if the footage I am editing is smooth, good looking, stable, and properly exposed. I usually don't worry too much about color especially with raw footage since that is easily fixed in post, but nonetheless, getting the shot to look as good as possible before going into post is very important. Here are 5 tips to help guide your production phase in order to make post-production flow smoothly.

1 - Resolution

You can always transcode your footage to a lower resolution, but it is very difficult to transcode up to a higher resolution. With this logic, I usually like to record in the highest resolution my camera is capable of and then decide in post the final resolution I need. This has a few downsides though. Obviously, higher resolution footage equals bigger file sizes so you are going to face longer transfer times and the need for greater capacity storage. This easily gets expensive... Furthermore, your computer will have to be capable of playing back and editing the higher resolution footage. If you never plan to actually edit with the higher resolution footage and you just wanted to store it for future purposes, then pretty much any computer will do to transcode the footage to a lower resolution, but it may just take a lot of time to finish the transcode. If you don't want to record in the highest possible resolution, select a capture resolution that meets the needs of your client or the capabilities of your computer.

2 - Frame Rate

Just like resolution, the number of frames per second (FPS) in your footage will affect the quality of your footage, but in a slightly different way. If you have more frames per second in your footage it give you more working room to adjust the speed of your footage (i.e. create a slow motion shot) and have the footage stay smooth and good looking. If you record in 24 fps and try to slow it down, it is going to look jerky. But, take a clip filmed in 10,000 fps and slow it down, and you are going to see things in a completely new and unique way. Just search for some of the super slow motion videos on YouTube, like lighting a match or popping a water balloon to see what I mean. A camera that can record 10,000 fps is very expensive and I am guessing that anybody taking this course does not have one, especially one that can go on a drone. Most of the cameras you will work with can record 24, 25, 30, 60, or 120 fps. Choosing a higher frame rate does result in bigger file sizes but the jump in size is usually not as drastic as jumping up in resolution. But, plan accordingly based on your storage situation. Higher frame rates also require more processing power on your computer but a decent computer that can handle common 30 fps footage should be able to handle 60 or even 120 fps without too much of an issue. And remember, the frame rate options your camera can record may depend on the resolution you set it at. For example, on the GoPro Hero 4 Black, 120 fps can only be recorded at 1080p resolution. 4K resolution on that camera only has the options of 24 fps or 30 fps.

3 - Codec

Some cameras let you choose the codec you want to record in. This lets you pick if you want better quality or less storage usage. Because there are so many different codecs (hundreds of them) and every camera is different, we'll categorize codecs into two different kinds, compressed and raw. Choose a compressed codec (i.e. H.264, MP4, ProRes 422) if you want lower file sizes and don't care too much about having the capability to adjust the image a lot in post-production. These codecs all give you great looking, high quality footage but it just won't be as high a quality as raw files. Choose a raw codec (i.e. Red Raw, ARRI Raw, CinemaDNG, Canon Raw) if you have the processing power and storage to work with raw files and you need to make advanced adjustments to your footage in post-production. Like resolution, I usually like to record in the highest quality codec possible by my camera (usually raw) and then transcode the footage as needed in post. This gives me the option to always go back to the original raw codec files if I need to re-master a project in a higher quality or make advanced coloring adjustments in the future. Make sure your computer can handle transcoding raw files before you record, otherwise you could be waiting days (literally) for the footage to process.

4 - Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO

These are not settings that can usually be adjusted in post-production, especially with non-raw footage so it is important to set them right the first time. I have been on many shoots where people jump into things too quickly and don't take the time to properly set their camera and lens settings and the footage suffers. In some cases we even had to go back out and re-capture footage again to fix the mistakes.

  • Aperture is the size of the opening in your lens that lets light onto the sensor or film. A larger aperture (which is written as a smaller f-stop number) lets more light into the camera, increasing exposure but it also decreases depth of field, which means that the area of the image, depth wise, that is in focus will be less.

  • Shutter speed controls the amount of time that light is allowed onto the sensor or film. This can determine the amount of "motion blur" in your image. A higher shutter speed will produce less motion blur. This is why sports and high action events are often shot in high shutter speeds. When you freeze the image, it will appear as if the subject is frozen in time, if shot with a high enough shutter speed. Shutter speed also affects the exposure of your image, so a higher shutter speed is going to require adjustments to the other settings to maintain proper exposure.

  • ISO is a digital-related term to describe the sensitivity of the sensor to light. A higher ISO means the sensor will pick up more light from the environment. Typically, you use a higher ISO when shooting in low light. The tradeoff with ISO though, is that a higher setting creates more noise in your shot. So if you are shooting at night, and you turn your ISO up all the way you may be able to see everything but it will look absolutely terrible.

5 - Storyboarding

Even before getting into the production phase and setting and adjusting all of the stuff above, it is important to PLAN your shoot. One of the most helpful aspects of planning a shoot is storyboarding. It is kind of like laying out your edit or rough cut before you even shoot anything. This helps the production phase shoot what is needed for the story or project, but it also guides the editing process initially since you can look back at the storyboards and get an idea of what the cut might need to look like. Storyboards take many different forms but some feature films have full teams of storyboard artists that get paid to draw out the entire script, sometimes every single shot. But, I have also seen storyboards as simple as napkin sketches that lay out the order of major shots, titles, and sections of footage.

Pro Tip: Go Out and Shoot

The best tip I have though is to go out and play with all of these things. Try different apertures and shutter speeds and ISOs in your own environments and see if you can tell the differences. Record different resolutions and frame rates to see how file size and quality are affected. In aerial cinematography and film in general, there is no substitute for going out and getting first-hand experience!