A few days ago a colleague asked me for my origin story—namely, how did I get into nonfiction video production? I told him this story, and he said “I can’t believe I never knew that about you! You should share that.” OK, here goes.

At first, I was in the location department, here pictured with director Oliver Stone and location manager Peggy Pridemore on the set of JFK. Soon, I moved into art department research, and worked with him on “Nixon”.[/

Back when I was a young production assistant, I was working in the location department for various feature films and commercials that would shoot in Washington, D.C., where I lived. In case you think that might be glamorous, I fondly called it “permits and porta-potties” as securing different filming permits, and figuring out logistics such as where a hundred-person crew could park, eat, and yes go to the bathroom, were just some of our jobs in the location department. Through those contacts, I got myself hired as an art department PA on another Hollywood movie. That meant helping the art director source images to propel the vision of the Production Designer and Director. These images and research documents would then be used to fabricate sets, rent or create wardrobe and props, and figure out the action in some scenes. Some of the images and film clips would be used in actual scenes of the movie.

images and film clips would be used in actual scenes of the movie.

All night long, the list of requests spooled out over the parquet floor of my modest apartment (are you old enough to remember rolling fax paper?).  Ping pong tournaments in China. Running shoes in the 1970’s. Helicopters used in the Vietnam War. One requests was particularly challenging: find a clip of President Richard Nixon, who was six feet tall, shaking hands and smiling with someone also six feet tall. The background had to be fairly simple, such as one of the white shelved niches in the Oval Office, because this was to be swapped out by the team at Industrial Light and Magic.  This was back in the early days of digital compositing when we didn’t have the latitude and sophistication we have today with digital backgrounds.

After a long day of shooting Vietnam protest scenes, Tom asked me if I wanted a photo! He was gracious to everyone on set no matter our rank.

I went through dozens of silent film reels of President Nixon shaking hands with people. The White House film office didn’t record sync sound unless it was a high level meeting. The meetings gave me an entirely new perspective on the role of the President. He met graciously with ladies from the garden club. With children visiting with their school class. With spouses of visiting dignitaries. And then I found it! Pelton Stewart, Boys Club Boy of the Year award winner. He was a young African American guy about the right height and build for Tom Hanks, who I later learned was the star of this movie.  Throughout this months-long project, I was mesmerized by all the hidden stories in these film archives, old magazines and news reels. The seed was planted for me to pursue more “real people stories” in my career.

Working on Forrest Gump was a life-changing project in other ways, too. (And no, I don’t have a credit—that was back in the day when babies born on set didn’t get credits, let alone Art Department PA’s!). I discovered how much I loved a business where every single person on the team had a skill and a craft that they loved and refined daily. I worked under the watchful eye of art director Linda Berger, who started every one of our long days at the warehouse-turned-art-department during DC area filming in this way: with a slew of sticky notes on different piles of photos, storyboards, and papers with the words “ASK ME ABOUT THIS”. I did and learned so much! I was in awe of producer Wendy Finerman–at the time she was one of the only women producers working on major films—who came to the set looking incredibly cool in a beat up black leather jacket. (The seed was also planted here for my activism for more women on set, particularly in technical fields, through my leadership of Women in Film and Video and later, my #GALSNGEAR initiative.)

During filming in DC, I got to watch up close how Bob Zemeckis operated as a director—firm in his vision, but collaborating closely with many department heads and engaging their input.  He was a great role model. One day, I was working fairly close to his position on set during the filming of the Vietnam War protest scene at the Lincoln Memorial. He waved me over to his video assist monitor. I looked around to be sure it was me he was pointing to. “Come on over, kid, take a look.” Later that day, I was invited to join the team watching the dailies from scenes we had just shot, and I heard him discussing the different reasons he liked or didn’t like a particular take, and how it would propel the story arc of the film. It was one of many moments in my real world film school education. And one reason I always reach out to the next “kid” to help her propel her film career.

I worked on art department research for many other feature films after that project. But the thing that really stuck with me was my curiosity about the stories of real people – the lives and moments I unearthed from archives and film reels and newspaper accounts along the way. I’ve been lucky to document nonfiction stories throughout my career as a director and producer for many organizations. But I’ve never forgotten the journey that Forrest and I both took that year.

 

Amy DeLouise writes, produces and directs nonfiction videos for nonprofits, associations and companies with great stories to tell. Book a meeting with her here to discuss a project.

What is “B-roll?”
B-roll is the footage essential to visually accompany the story that may be told through audio on the “A-roll,” which is traditionally interviews. If you want a good laugh, this ancient YouTube video “We Got That B-roll” still resonates throughout the industry. (You gotta get all the way to the famous section at :55 where he explains what is NOT b-roll. And he makes a great point. If your shot list is “too specific” or a historical moment, you might need to turn to archival stock footage. More on that in another post.) All laughs aside, there’s nothing worse than getting into the edit room and realizing you don’t have enough b-roll.

How Do You Plan for Great B-roll?
B-roll doesn’t just “happen,” especially if you are shooting on a particularly time-table. My rule of thumb is to shoot three to four scenes of supporting material for every one to three minutes of finished minutes of story. This general works out to a day of shooting b-roll for every day of shooting interviews. By pre-interviewing subjects so you know what they might be referencing during an interview, you can plan to gather relevant b-roll to cover the story.  This is called a Shot List, and should identify each scene you need to include in your video. One scene generally requires multiple angles of coverage, such as a wide shot, medium shot, and various tight shots.  In addition, on-camera subject(s) also need breaks. So to expect that immediately after wrapping an interview someone will want you and your camera following them around to get b-roll may be unrealistic and stress-inducing.

Scheduling Well for B-roll
Build your budget and schedule so that you give your on camera subject(s) time to decompress—perhaps while the team is picking up an establishing shot that doesn’t require your “talent”. Plan key scenes well in advance: “we’d like to get Sarah hanging out with her school friends—can you invite them all to come to the house at 4PM on the day of our shoot?” And try to work around existing opportunities—“Since you told us you have full office team meetings every Monday at 11AM, can we be a fly on the wall this Monday? And can we get into the room a little in advance to put up a few lights?”

By strategizing in advance, you can ensure you have the optimal footage to tell your video story.  For more detailed approaches, check out my courses on LinkedIn Learning. Or feel free to book a meeting with me to discuss your next video project!

 

Here’s me, taking some scouting footage and photos before a recent shoot

Location production is back! With vaccination rates rising and locations opening up, the need for ample preparation for your next on-location video is critical. As a producer, I spend much more of my time in pre-production than in production. And if I’ve done my job right, post-production (editing, music, graphics) will also go smoothly. Here are some of my go-to strategies to ensure a successful project before we step out onto location.

1. Location scout for audio, not just video
Often when we scout locations, we are looking. Looking for the best lighting, looking for a relevant background for an interview, looking for a great establishing shot to capture the story. These are essential. But we often forget to listen. How loud is the location? Will it be louder at a particular time of day? How will that affect any interview we conduct here? Google maps is helpful to us in many ways, even when scouting remotely for sound. By using satellite view and street view, for example, we can identify high traffic roadways, nearby firehouses, and other potential audio issues like RF interference which is common in tall, urban office buildings (and requires a wired rather than wireless lavalier setup for interviews).

2. Plan ahead to move fast
With more content creation than ever, we video producers need to move fast when on location. But we also need to be smart. Adding just a single person to the shoot—like a production assistant who can refill parking meters or a grip who can set up the lighting for the next shot while the previous one wraps—can allow your team to gather twice as much quality footage in a day. The added expense is more than offset by less frustration in post and less need to turn to stock images or do a reshoot to fill gaps.

3. Make an acquisition and distribution format plan
Decide before you shoot what metadata you want included on files. “Day 1” is not a great tag, FYI. You can also avoid problematic reworking of files if you know from the start what kind of distribution platform you will be using. This might be multiple platforms—like pushing a video to YouTube but also cropping parts of the video to a different aspect ratio for social shares on Instagram. Up-scaling always introduces quality issues, so if you’re not sure about delivery at the start, better to shoot at a higher resolution (aka 4K) and downscale afterwards. It’s also important to consider frame rate (24fps and 30fps are standard, but the latter creates more frames to compress). And, you’ll also want to consider whether to shoot in LOG or RAW and color grade afterwards in post, or to “bake in the look” with a setting like Rec 709. These are all important conversations to have well before the shoot, as they may affect equipment decisions for camera and lighting. And camera equipment dictates audio configurations in many cases.

4. Logistics
Logistical planning ahead of time is part of what allows the creative to happen on a video shoot. Everything from ensuring the crew has a location to park and load-in safely to organizing the lunch order ahead of time ensure your shoot goes smoothly. If you have a whole series of interviews scheduled, be sure to plan a little turn-around time in between so the crew can reset the shot, and stagger your schedule so each person has time for makeup and/or for you to review their wardrobe without a rush.

I’m thrilled to get back out “into the wild” for video creation. It’s going to be a great rest of the year!

 

Feel free to reach out to me about your next video production (see sidebar).