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Renowned filmmaker Roger Sherman on making better home videos

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Reel Mama: Renowned filmmaker Roger Sherman on making better home videos

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Renowned filmmaker Roger Sherman on making better home videos

Celebrated director and cinematographer Roger Sherman has had a career most filmmakers can only dream about.  Sherman has two Oscar nominations, and his outstanding documentaries have been some of the best ever broadcast on PBS.  He is a founding partner of Florentine Films along with fellow documentarian Ken Burns, known for his “Civil War” documentary series, and noted director of photography Buddy Squires.  Their company has produced countless great documentaries and films.

Renowned filmmaker Roger Sherman shares his professional secrets
to help parents and others make better home movies
Photo credit: Florentine Films

Yet Sherman has another little known passion: making home movies.  After years of creating films of life events involving family and friends, Sherman decided to share his experience as a professional filmmaker to help others make better home movies in his new book “Ready Steady Shoot: The Guide to Great Home Video.”  (Find my review here.)

Roger Sherman's new book "Ready Steady Shoot"
teaches how to make great home videos
Photo credit: Florentine Films
Sherman especially had parents in mind when writing the book, because they are some of the most enthusiastic when it comes to making home movies about their kids. Sherman realized that parents and other creators of home movies often make mistakes that, if avoided, can make the difference between a great home movie and an unwatchable one.  Sherman’s invaluable tips will have parents, vacationers, and others thinking like filmmakers and making movies that will be treasured for a lifetime and watched again and again.  

Sherman generously took the time from his busy schedule to share his insights and experiences with Reel Mama readers.

Filmmaker Roger Sherman teaches
how to make thoughtful home movies with style
Photo credit: Florentine Films

How did you become interested in filmmaking?

I started out as a still photographer, and I ended up finishing college in a small liberal arts progressive school in Western Massachusetts called Hampshire College.  I started looking at film the way any art student would, just to try other arts. 

[Hampshire College] has a very strong documentary program, and I immediately fell in love with making documentaries.  When I graduated with a double major in film and photography, I decided to do filmmaking as my living, and keep photography as my art. 

How did you come to be a founding partner of Florentine Films?

A guy you might have heard of named Ken Burns was my college room mate.  We started Florentine Films a year after graduating with a third person, Buddy Squires, one of the top directors of photography in the country. We started out working as crew for other companies.  It was at the time when magazine shows were just starting, and so we worked for Italian television, the BBC, Danish television, French television.  We were in Western Massachusetts, and we appealed to them by saying, “We work local all over New England.”  That’s how we really got our start.  

What have been your favorite projects to date?

I have been a filmmaker for many years.  I’ve been fortunate to make films that I’ve been very proud of: two “American Masters” PBS specials, one on Alexander Calder, the inventor of the mobile, and one on Richard Rogers, the most prolific Broadway composer of all time.  The films are called “Alexander Calder,” and “Richard Rogers: The Sweetest Sounds.”  [I also explored] social issues, like the effects of divorce on children, in a film called “Don’t Divorce the Children.”

One of my two Oscar nominations was for an environmental film called “The Garden of Eden.”  It was the first film to show that it could be good business to save the environment, that you don’t know where the cure to cancer is going to be found, and that little plant that you’re stepping on has some secret inside of it.  [I’ve also done] a wide variety of films on history and culture.  My last big film was on the history of Chevrolet, and as a cinematographer and a still photographer it was a fabulous experience going around the country shooting these remarkable cars, which are real works of art.  

How did you get the idea to write a book about making home videos?

As a cinematographer, I would see people making home movies, moving the camera to the left, moving the camera to the right, tilting up, going down.  It took everything I had not to say, “Excuse me, but you’ll make a much better video if you go slowly in one direction, then cut and figure out where to go for your next shot.  Do a little bit of planning.  Start with a wide shot; go to a medium shot, then go to a close-up.  You’re telling a story!”  That’s what I saw people not doing over years and years, and decided, “Hmm, maybe I could help.”

I try to tell people that if you made your films, your home movies, and never moved the camera, and did only static shots, you’d have a much more successful film than you could ever imagine.  The camera does not have to move.  Moving the camera is an advanced technique that you need to practice.  A pan goes from left to right or right to left.  A tilt goes up to down or down to up, and you need to move very slowly and be very steady.  Walking with the camera is something people do too often, and they just walk instead of bending their knees and being shock absorbers and holding the camera with two hands.  All of these things make for better videos.

Filmmaking is storytelling.  Even if you’re doing a film of your family vacation for your kids, or your night on the town with friends, you still want to tell a story.  Even a commercial is telling a story.

Can you tell us a little about your 10-shot video plan described in the book?

Ten-shot videos are practice exercises.  Arbitrary to say 10 shots, but why not?  In 10 shots you really can make a whole film, and if you go my website you’ll see more than a dozen examples, and we’re putting more up all the time.  

I detail the 10-shot video scripts in the book and say, “Start in your living room, then go outside.  Look at it.  Critique yourself.  Shoot it again.”  If you were to shoot all of those 10-shot video exercises and then try them all again, I guarantee the quality of your home movies would soar.  My book is not just meant to be read.  My book is meant to be shot.  

Last week I taught two ten-year-old girls how to make 10-shot videos.  I started by saying, “There are wide shots, mediums, and close-ups.” I had them hold up their fingers the funny way directors sometimes do, which is mostly a caricature, and I said, “Okay,  what do you see?”  They were ten feet away from me, and they described the whole room, and I said, “ You’ve just done a wide shot. Now walk closer.  What do you see?  That’s now a medium shot.  Now come closer still!”  I got them to come up to my nose.  Of course, they were laughing, which was the point, for it to be fun.

Then I said, “Let’s turn on the Disney channel.  Tell me what we’re looking at: wide shot, medium, or close-up?” They had a great time calling out: “Wide shot!  Close-up!” Then I said, “Okay, now you understand how films are made.  They’re also made by creating mostly static shots.  The camera doesn’t move.”  And they went, “What?! “ And I said, “Just watch!”  The next eight shots in a row did not move.  They were static.  

In my book I felt that I needed not just to teach that a wide shot should be followed by a medium shot should be followed by a close-up.  Of course one should break those kinds of rules.  The real rule is, don’t just shoot everything the same.  Don’t just shoot wide shots, or everybody will fall asleep.  Vary your shots.  However, you could do all close-ups: the closer you get, the better it is.

The whole idea of the 10-shot video is to get you seeing like a filmmaker.  

Why was it important that your approach to home movies not require editing?

I feel that most people don’t want to fight an editing program.  They want to come home from their family vacation, or their hike or baby shower, and they want to watch it, not say, “Just wait a few minutes, and I’ll edit it,” and then weeks later they haven’t had time.  So the idea is to think ahead and edit in the camera using a variety of short shots.  You’re making movies as you go.  

If someone wants to get into editing, go for it.  It’s fabulous.  You have even more control, but my whole system is to make it as easy as possible for people.  Keep it short and edit in the camera.

What is the biggest mistake that people make when shooting?  

I think holding steady is a really important one.  You need to shoot holding with two hands, even if you’re shooting with a smart phone, and the lighter the camera, the harder it is to hold it steady.  That’s why the big broadcast cameras sit on your shoulder, and they are very steady.   So hold the camera steady with two hands.  Tuck your elbows into your chest.  Relax, breathe.  Seriously, people need to breathe, not just jump around while they’re shooting.  

As a professional, it’s called work, and as fun as it is, I’m trying very hard to make a shot that moves my audience.  When you’re on vacation, or out with the kids and shooting, you really have to pay attention to what you’re doing if you want it to count.  If you’re just walking and shooting and talking, that’s not going to be a great home video.  You can make a great home video if you pay attention.  You don’t have to be a professional, but you have to practice and be mindful. 

How did your family tradition of making “Hollywood style” home movies for fun get started?

What’s great about that chapter, I think I call it “Go Hollywood,” is that it’s designed to give readers an idea of what they can do with their whole family: Grandma, Grandpa, cousins, everybody can be involved.  

When my nieces were little they would come to me and say, “Let’s make a movie!”  I would sit with them, and we would basically decide what the movie was about, and then plan it as we shot it.  We did not write a script or do a storyboard.  I would make a suggestion, and then they would make a suggestion, and I’d say, “Okay, now we’re going to do a shot of this, and you’ll say that.”  I’d start rolling, and they’d do that little scene, and then I’d cut the camera, and I’d say, “Now I’m going to do a close-up on you.  Make a funny face!”  

We involved the adults in a very small way -- doing quick little interviews -- and we had the kids running all over the place because it was usually a chase scene.  These things all have to have chase scenes.  They all have to have drama.  Once I was in it too.  I was a dead body lying face down in the pool.  The story was to discover who killed me.  The kids loved it, lots of laughing.  If you don’t almost wet your pants while you’re shooting, or while you’re interviewing an aunt or an uncle, you’re not having enough fun.  It’s not a serious Hollywood film!  They’re still watching those videos, even though my nieces are very much grown.

What are you working on now?

I am working on developing a project called "The Search for Israeli Cuisine."  Israel has a very robust food scene with chefs going off and discovering cooking techniques and their family’s heritage and coming back.  It’s an amazing melting pot.  There are people moving there from all over the world, either from this generation, or five generations ago.   

It will be a Public Television series that goes all over the country to farms, restaurants, and homes.  There’s an amazing wine scene in Israel.  There are 150 boutique wineries.  The film is to try to interest Americans in learning about a whole other culture.  There’s the biblical history and the gorgeousness of the country.  We will be talking about Jewish cuisine, Arab cuisine, every kind of cuisine that is in Israel, so I’m very excited about it.  All I have to do is raise a lot of money.  


At June 6, 2012 at 1:30 PM , Blogger Ellen said...

That was really interesting. It sounds like it's going to be a great movie.


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