When Rookies are the only option

Directing for IMAG isn’t always the easiest thing to do, and working with volunteers makes it even harder.  They are rookies, novices, newbies, green ops and many have no experience.  But without a crew, we don’t have a show so, embracing these volunteers are key.  Eventually when volunteers return we are able to work with them and help them build their skills and grow up teams of people. But I know I have been guilty of letting the rookie/ newbie be an excuse when a production doesn’t go well or up to par.  And let’s be honest, sometimes it is the crew, and many times it isn’t.  I’ve had moments with highly skilled paid operators that don’t go well, where we aren’t able to get a rhythm going. And I have had great productions with the rookie crews as well.  And if you have read my stuff before you know I always say it starts and ends with the director.  As a director I have to play to my operators strengths in order to get what I want.  I have to train them to get into my rhythm and work together.  At the end of the day it is a team effort and the director has to be the one to get the team into shape.

Once a year between Christmas and New Years, my skills are tested.  I do a show where my entire crew walks in a day before the event starts having never touched a camera or worked in a production before.  I’m lucky if one of them will return from year to year.  I don’t claim to be the best director or leader, but I have had some success in the last few years going from 0 to production and having a good product, here are some of the things I have learned.

Gear:  It all starts with having the right gear. Giving your operators the right tools to make their lives simple, and easy.  I make sure I have cameras with the proper support, lensing, and features.  They have Com that is loud and clear so they can hear me and talk to me if they have questions.  Tally so they know when they are live, and return video for them to see who is live and the shots they have.  Before these Volunteers arrive I have set them up with the tools to succeed so all they have to do is pan, tilt, zoom and focus.  Without the right gear they are only being setup for failure.  A bad or under-spec’d tripod sets them up for shaky, un-usable shots. Too short of lens doesn’t allow for them to even get a proper shot, and not having the right features will only open the door for mistakes.

Setting expectations: Before they get on a camera I sit down with them as a team and we talk about what they will be doing and the roles they play.  I try and talk them through exactly what they will be experiencing and the product I’m looking for as a director.  Essentially I paint a big picture of what they will be doing.  They also get some face time with me and get a little pre-cursor to what is going on. It’s nothing dramatic or formal, just an opportunity to establish a few expectations.  I also at this time give them a print out of basic terms, and camera functions incase I  don’t explain myself or have to explain every term.

Break their Fear: We all know that the best way to learn camera or any other positions is to just get on it and do it.  But before I throw them to the wolves I take the entire crew to each and every camera position.  We talk about the role of the camera and why it is there.  I then go over all the controls and operation.  When I do this my goal is to make it simple, get them away from any fear they may have about running camera.  I say things like “nothing to be afraid of,” “it’s easy,” “simple right?” “easier than you thought?”  I just try and get them to think of it as being easy. If they don’t get rid of their fear, they will only hold on to it. And keep in mind, because I have set them up with the right gear, it is easy only having to pan, tilt, zoom, and focus. It is easy to know when they are live because they have a tally light.

Added into this I also try and use the terms I will be using as a director in order to get them familiar with jargon.  I encourage people to practice “slow and steady movements,” and describe the shots that each camera can get.  It is a subtle way to get them each on every camera using the controls and telling them the shots you want them to get in a way they will be hearing it later.

Trial: Once everyone has learned how to use a camera, everyone gets on and I go back to the switcher and hop on Com.  I again talk to them so they get used to my voice on Com and again tell them what I expect.  I have them begin practicing moves together and we go over the different types of shots.  I typically try and do this while a band or some other talent is on stage so there is something to shoot.

Next we play a little camera games where everyone pulls out as far as they can.  I tell them a shot I want and whoever can get there first, in focus, wins.  We go over strategies like zooming all the way in to get your focus before setting a shot. As we go through the game it gets more complicated such as adding in pushes or pulls.  I get them to rotate cameras so they can get used to running the different angles.

If I can, I try to do a bit of directing with the music, although the band is usually practicing and they start and stop a lot which makes it tough.

Wrap: The entire training/ session takes about 2 hours.  I meet with all the operators afterwards and we talk about what was going on, ask for questions and re-enforce that it is easy and to not be scared.  The next time they are on camera is the start of the event.  I encourage them to come early to play and ask questions.

Enforce expectations: That is pretty much the training I give them.  But I don’t always think that is the most important part of dealing with rookies.  I feel like the most important part in the first show is staying calm, being encouraging and giving them information on what is happening and what to expect.  And right out of the gate I start directing them like I direct every production and try and be clear, concise, and hold them to the expectations we talked about earlier.  I remind them as they are setting up their shots with what I’m looking for- head-room, lead-room, focus, hold steady, push, pull. I try and do as little settling as possible, but sometimes with the rookies you have to pick your battles and settle for what you get and now what you always want, just try and get the little victories like focus, and framing.

Encouragement: Whenever they do something that is right, or even on the right track I encourage it by telling them in some way that what they are doing is good.  Giving positive re-enforcement is the best way to get your operators to improve and gain consistency. They will work hard for you if they feel like they are doing well and giving you what you want.  You may still have to give criticism but don’t approach it as criticism but as helping them understand what you are looking for.

Fun:  During the down times try and have some fun, don’t be all business all the time, try and be more like a mullet (business in front, party in back). Don’t do it in a way that is un-profession that may cause a mistake, but try and keep the com chatter light and fun.  Maybe even tell an embarrassing story to keep it light.  This helps keep the fear away.

I did have one advantage that you may not.  And that is I had these operators for 4-5 days in a row.  But I would encourage you to get operators on that are green a lot in the beginning in order to make what they are learning stick.  Too much time away isn’t good.  But I have always said that every production is a learning experience for everyone involved no matter what the experience level is.  As a director all the camera operators and crew have to re-learn me, my style and whatever has changed since the last time they were on.  And I as a director have to re-learn them as operators and how the overall team will work together.  No two productions are alike and treating each one as new is key.

Every year I am always impress at the quality of production we are able to achieve with such a rookie crew.  I’m not that good of a director so it has to be that we are coming together as a team. Sure the product could be better, and rookie mistakes are made… they are rookies, We get a product that isn’t horrible, and sometimes we get something together to be proud of.  But remember, It’s the team effort that makes successful productions happen, not just individual ones.

About brhoda

I freelance doing a few different thing in the video and live production market. I worked for a church for 5 years directing services and designing control rooms.
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