|Etiquette and Safety on Location|
|© 2005 by Jack Wolcott|
|A several years ago our company shot a wedding in a local church in which videographers and photographers were required to stand on a library table and shoot over a seven foot high wall which separated the church lobby from the sanctuary. Several months earlier a still photographer had walked across the pews during the|
Which led me to consider the etiquette of location shooting - that is, shooting anywhere outside your own studio -- and some issues regarding location safety. The observations and suggestions that follow apply to the church, reception and workplace venue as well as to shooting in someone's home. Some apply to shooting in your studio as well. All are based on the premise that we are guests in someone else's space, that the homeowner or site manager is nervous and apprehensive about what's going to happen even if, as in the case of a public venue, it has happened countless times before, and that "talent" - the people in front of the lens - are apprehensive most of all.
These ideas have grown out of personal experiences and mistakes our company has made working with wedding and business clients, and offer strategies we've developed to make the working relationship better. If you disagree, that's fine. At least you'll find something here against which to measure your own experiences and practices and against which to rationalize your own behavior.
Scouting the Location
The need to create and maintain order is endemic in our culture today, and nowhere is this need more apparent than among those who bear the responsibility for maintaining it. The key to working successfully with people in positions of responsibility is to make them participants in your venture, rather than adversaries. The cardinal rule for a successful out-of-studio shoot is simple: ask before doing! Asking empowers the person who is being asked. "Aha," thinks the person being asked, "I'm important to this venture. It needs my help to succeed. I'll help all I can. Moreover, if I'm involved I can keep some control of what's going on." (Shades of Psychology 101!)
Who to ask? For a shoot in a public venue we always begin by consulting the venue administrator well before the event regarding the "do's" and "don'ts" and the "where and how" and, if possible, consult face to face rather than on the phone or by email. Trying to do this at a wedding rehearsal, or on the day of the event can lead to a great many problems. Church building coordinators, for example, are usually busy dealing with florists, caterers, and members of the wedding party and, quite often, with details of the Sunday church services on the following day. Although they want to be helpful, the videographer is usually the least important person in their universe and they have little time to be of assistance.
In other venues I always look for the person on whom the greatest responsibility rests, the building administrator, office manager, house and stage manager in the theatre, the janitor and caretaker everywhere and, of course, the homeowner for an in-home shoot. These are the people whose lives and workplaces will be disrupted most by us and our crew.
My approach is to phone ahead, introduce myself, and then say "I've been hired to videotape at your place in two weeks. I'd like to meet with you so you can show me around your building."
Once on site, ask about the restrictions that apply to the venue. Knowing ahead of time what to expect plays an important role in the success or failure of the shoot. It signals what equipment to bring and what shooting problems you'll have to resolve before you begin shooting. Learning that "Father McElhaney has certain rules" an hour before the wedding can wreak havoc with your peace of mind. Had we known we would have to stand on a table and shoot over a wall, for example, we would have brought a step stool for safe and easy ascent, and a rubber mat to place under the legs of the tripod to prevent slippage. Knowing that wireless mics can't be used in a certain church, we're sure to have the mini disc recorders set to go. Knowing that there are severe restrictions regarding camera placement enables careful preplanning of how the event will be shot and whether or not to bring remote equipment.
Offices suites may have sensitive "off limits" areas, may require an escort for any movement through the building, and often have special points of entrance and exit for vendors. I recently had a shoot where I had to log in on the 9th floor and get a floor pass, get an escort who accompanied me to my van in the underground garage, then load my gear onto the freight elevator and bring it back up 12 floors to the conference room. Being aware of this procedure well in advance was crucial to my being set up on time for the shoot.
On your initial visit to the venue, ask where to plug equipment and whether it's okay to turn on various lights. Never start throwing switches on your own and never plug or unplug anything. We did an industrial shoot several years ago in a garage that had electrical outlets placed along an overhead beam. Without thinking, I started to plug a 500-watt light into one of these outlets. The shout from the client stopped me. Turned out the line was for several sensitive instruments in the shop and was carrying 1850 watts on a 20-amp circuit. Now we always ask the capacity of circuits we'd like to tap into, and what else is plugged on the line.
Ask if there will be a janitor or custodian on hand on the day of the shoot. My approach with the coordinator is Psychology 101 once again: "I'm sure you'll be awfully busy on the day of the event; will there be a custodian or technician to whom I can turn with questions regarding electrical outlets and things of that sort so I won't have to bother you?" If possible, meet with the custodian after talking with the administrator. Often the administrator will be delighted to get rid of you, placing all the details in the hands of the very person who knows more about the physical plant than anyone else. It may be the Pastor's church, but it's the church janitor who has to protect the property and clean up the mess. In the office environment it's the company technician who knows how the audio output from the video conferencing is routed and where to locate the key to the powered window blinds.
It's tempting to say "I need these lights turned on during the wedding," but it's often more productive to ask the building coordinator "What lights do you use to show off the alter area to its best advantage?" If you don't get the lights you think you want or need, you can then ask "Would it spoil that lovely effect if we turn on those lights over there?" Again, Psychology 101: you've planted the idea that the coordinator knows what's best for lighting the facility. If the bride's mother comes along and asks for all the lights at the front of the church to be turned down (it happens!) you've got an ally who doesn't think that's a good idea. And finally: "Will it be okay for us to turn on these lights when we arrive for the shoot, or should we look for you to do it?"
Ask about traffic patterns inside the building. Where do the bride and bridesmaids, officiant, groom and groomsmen typically dress? From what entrances will they be entering the building and the sanctuary? From which door will the congregation be entering? Knowing all of this ahead of the shoot guarantees that you'll be set up to get the best shots on the day of the wedding. In a business setting, how is a conference room typically set up and where will people be entering? Can the room be rearranged to minimize backlight problems? Any problem with closing the blinds? What does the room look like with all the lights on? Where is the projection screen for the PowerPoint presentation located relative to the lectern? What does the room look like with most of the lights off? Is it okay to minimize background clutter by removing pictures and charts from the wall? Okay to add charts and pictures to the wall to dress the setting? Can the AC be turned off and if so, by whom?
What are the fire code requirements with regard to the relationship between your equipment and aisles and doorways? This is especially important if you're shooting in a theatre or public hall, but applies to church and business settings as well. Fire codes are very stringent and rigidly enforced in many areas. Learn well in advance where your cameras, booms and lights can be set up and where it will be safe to lay audio and electrical cables. And while on the subject of fire codes, in public buildings be sure to check overhead for sprinklers and alarms before setting up high intensity lights.
Finally, some very mundane but equally important questions: ask where to park, so you don't wind up in the minister's space, or getting a ticket for on-street parking in a no-parking zone. You're not a guest, you're a vendor, so find out where the loading dock is located and whether there's a freight elevator to schlep your dolly full of equipment up to the ballroom. Using the "Deliveries" entrance may well assure that your load-in will be unobtrusive and expeditious. This is especially true if you've just sprinted across town from one location to another. Ask about a snug room where you can safely store spare gear. Locate the rest rooms and water fountain for the use of you and your crew, and see if there is a break room (coffee room) where you can relax while not shooting.
I try to time my meeting with a building coordinator so that it takes place about the same time of day that the shoot will be occurring. This gives me an opportunity to see the natural lighting in the venue and to determine what special lighting requirements, white balance and exposure considerations may be necessary. Ask if it's okay to shoot a little footage at various f-stops and gain settings so you can see what it looks like back in your studio.
This visit with the building coordinator isn't "wasted time" as some might argue but rather the gathering of crucial intelligence that can make or break a shoot. It's a combination of "location scouting" and public relations and the time spent should be figured into the overall billing to the client. It's part of the cost of having your company video tape the event, project or wedding.
On Location: Public venues
Every venue has established traffic patterns. Objects have often been placed where they are in a business, church or reception venue for specific reasons, which may be practical - for safety, for example -- may be symbolic - e.g., having religious or patriotic significance -- and often are sentimental - a framed picture of the company founder. Displacing these objects can make folks awfully uncomfortable, so ask before you move anything.
The most dangerous pieces of equipment in the videographer's kit are light and audio stands, tripods and cables. Carry a roll of yellow plastic "Danger" tape, the kind that you see at crime scenes and job sites, and use pieces of tape to hang as flags from light and mic stands. Hang weights from the bottom of light stands for counterweight, or weight the legs with shot or sand bags. This is especially important for outdoor shoots, where uneven ground can make even the most carefully placed stand unstable and where wind is a constant danger. Show everyone involved with the shoot where your equipment is positioned. It only takes a few minutes to do this, and can prevent serious injury as well as damage to the equipment.
Make sure all cables are tightly secured. Use gaffer's tape in bright colors to cover cables that are at right angles to traffic paths - e.g., cables that must cross an aisle, hallway or door opening. In addition to black, gaffer's tape comes in silver, tan, white and yellow, red and blue and in one to four inch widths. Explain to the building coordinator and janitor that gaffer's tape won't leave a residue and won't damage surfaces to which it is applied. If possible use carpeting or rigid cable covers over cables that cross hallways and entryways, with the edges tightly taped to the floor.
It's a good idea never to use duct tape for anything associated with a location shoot. It leaves a sticky residue on anything it touches and can take the finish off floors, pull pile off carpets and the paint off walls. In fact, it's a good idea to leave duct tape out of your grip bag permanently. Gaffer's tape may cost a bit more, but the only thing it leaves behind is a good impression!
Electrical and audio cables at outdoor shoots are especially dangerous since there's no way to tape them down. One solution is to tape them into a bundle with gaffer's tape, and tag the bundle liberally with yellow "Danger" tape. Keep the bundle out of paths, walks and stairways as much as possible. Flowerbeds make excellent runways for cable bundles, but ask before doing this. To make bundles doubly secure, make narrow "croquet wickets" (wire staples) out of heavy gage iron wire - coat hanger wire or heavier, for example - by bending the wire into a narrow "U." Make the wickets about nine to twelve inches long and use them to pin cable bundles to the ground.
And, of course, be very careful in wet conditions when running electrical and audio cables outside. If you must plug two cables together for a long run on the ground, tie the cables together at the connection with a tie line or loosely with an overhand knot in the cable itself. Place a large baggie or Ziploc bag around the connection and seal the ends with gaffer's tape.
Tripods are especially dangerous because their bulk - the camera and monitor - is near eye level. People see the camera but often fail to register the tripod legs sticking out below. Placing camera cases, bags and packs under tripods creates bulk around the legs and reduces the danger of tripping. When guests are milling around near your tripod - during the intermission at the theatre, for example -- stick close, keep an eye on the gear and warn of the danger to people who come too close.
Get rid of all equipment that isn't actually being used while you're shooting. During your meeting with the building coordinator ask for a secure area where your coats, hats and miscellaneous equipment can be stored during the shoot. As WEVA has pointed out on numerous occasions, anything that can be stolen from a location probably will be! If no secure area is available in the venue, the floor of your car or truck or the car's trunk is arguably safer than under the DJ's table or in a corner of the conference room. Cover the gear in the car completely with black plastic garbage bags or a dark blanket. Through tinted windows it's almost impossible to see. Better still, lock extra gear and carrying bags in the trunk of the car if possible.
Ask before you hang anything from the walls, even if you plan to use gaffer's tape. And while on that subject, if you should happen to do damage to a surface, since even gaffer's tape can stick too well on occasion, own up to the damage and offer to pay to have it repaired. That's what insurance is for. Nothing will give your company a blacker eye than leaving damage behind.
And finally, a suggestion that is important for any location: don't use the venue's phone for your personal or business calls. That's what your cell phone is for. You're interrupting people's lives enough without doing business across their desk, or requiring that they chase you down with incoming phone messages. And don't, under any circumstances, take an incoming call on your cell phone while you are meeting with building coordinators and their staff or while actively involved in a shoot. Put the phone on "Vibrate," have the caller leave a message and deal with the call after you've finished your interview or shoot. People are paying for your time: give them all of what they pay for.
On Location: Private Homes
Event videographers often shoot in private homes, and these locations introduce a unique subset of etiquettes. The axiom that "A man's home is his castle" is as true of the suburban rambler as of the royal palace, and the homeowner is king or queen. Most people practice a kind of ersatz feng shui in their homes. They arrange furniture, carpeting, lighting and decorative elements to create an inner sense of well-being. This sense of well-being is easily shattered when objects are rearranged or appear in danger of being damaged.
When you enter it to shoot you become a guest in the home, so it's good manners to act like one. Even though it's important for you to be in charge at a shoot, don't try to establish your authority by tell people what to do. Instead, ask for their cooperation - make them collaborators. We shot a promotional video for a string quartet in the home of the cellist. Running power and mic cables was complicated by the fact that the musicians had already set up their chairs, music stands and instruments before we arrived. Asking them to help with running the cables ensured there would be little disruption of the working area they had so carefully arranged, and gave them a strong vested interest in the outcome of the shoot.
The chairs and music stands had been set up in front of a bare gray wall because of the bright sound the wall imparted to the sound of the instruments. This was a visual disaster, and set dressing was called for. We needed to move some plants and ornaments into the shot. If you have to rearrange, here's a good gambit: "I'd like to create a kind of movie set here in your living room. You have some lovely pieces here; can we move them together to show them to their best advantage and make the surroundings for your group more visually interesting in the tape?" Here again, Psychology 101: we're making the homeowner a participant in the process, rather than threatening her sense of well being by laying hands on her possessions.
We encouraged the cellist homeowner to do most of the moving. We asked before touching any of her things ourselves, and checked to see if there was a special way furniture and bric-a-brac should be handled. Once we set things up for our shot we showed the homeowner and the other musicians the result on a monitor. We had an assistant sit in each of the chairs so the group could see what they would look like on camera, and we made minor changes until they were as satisfied as we were.
And while on this subject, it's not a good idea to set up a monitor where a performer or a person being interviewed can see it while being taped. Seeing themselves as others will see them makes many people very self-conscious.
Never touch objects without asking. The clutter that's on desks, tables, shelves and mantles is often very fragile, treasured and irreplaceable. If it needs to be moved to clean up the background for your shot, ask the homeowner to do it. And it may be necessary to re-think your shoot if things can't be moved. We shot a scene in a kitchen which was so small and horribly cluttered that I had to set up my tripod outside on the porch and try to shoot through the doorway. Instead of the single long shot we had planned we wound up doing three hand-held set-ups in the kitchen and working with medium close ups.
Never touch people without asking, either. Many people have a strong aversion to being touched. It's the ultimate invasion of privacy. I watched a bride cringe from a photographer who intended nothing more than to adjust her veil. The rapid motion, directed toward her face, evoked a very negative response, which set the tone between the two for the rest of the day. Had the photographer asked, this moment could have been avoided.
People can be adversely touched psychologically as well as physically. We were doing a complex shoot in a client's home - five interviews in a large living room, requiring five separate camera setups. Plants, furniture, lights and people had to be moved around for each shot. By the time we were ready to tape the homeowner's segment she was out of breath and very nervous. The first two takes were terrible. Her tension was noticeable, she rushed through what she had to say and there was a breathless quality to her voice often associated with anxiety.
In an attempt to calm her I said: "I want you to calm down. Take three deep breaths, silently count slowly to five, then begin speaking." The effect was what I would have expected had I grabbed and shaken her. She pulled away, physically and emotionally. Her perception was that I was unhappy with what she was doing and was ordering her to do something about it. I realized in retrospect that it would have been much better to say "We've both been running around, lets take a breather here for a couple of minutes. Also, for editing purposes I need a few seconds of stillness before you begin speaking, so will you please count slowly and silently to five for me, then give me a big smile to let me know you're ready and begin." Transferring the onus to me reduces her anxiety by focusing the problem away from the client.
Never put anything on furniture without asking. This goes for food and drink as well as for camera bags, audio equipment, even coats and hats. The ring left on an antique table by your Coke can is a terrible advertisement for your company. Never remove anything from the furniture either. Pillows, blankets, even papers and books have been placed on the client's furniture for a purpose that they alone understand. Ask first!
Ask before plugging or unplugging. Household wiring is often inadequate for high wattage lighting instruments and tripping circuit breakers is not an auspicious beginning to a shoot. Find out what else is plugged into the circuit. Owing to the noise their compressors make, refrigerators and freezers often must be unplugged during an in-home shoot. Forgetting to replug them can result in spoiled food and a very unhappy client. If you must unplug, put your car keys inside the fridge or freezer as a reminder to replug.
Be very careful about the placement of C-stands, booms, mic stands, lighting equipment and tripods. Homes have very well established traffic patterns that are implicit even to strangers. No one expects to find an obstruction in a hall or on a stairway. No one expects to find objects - a mic boom or lighting instrument, for example -- placed horizontally at eye level. If you have to put equipment in traffic lanes be sure to show everyone involved in the shoot where it is located, and flag it with yellow "Danger" tape.
Ask if it's okay to drink coffee or a soft drink in the room you're working in. Ask before hunting up a glass and helping yourself to water. Ask where to take your lunch break if it's to be on site. Unless invited by the homeowner, don't expect to sit down in the home on your breaks. And above all, don't smoke anywhere near the home. Not on the porch or backyard, preferably entirely out of sight of the house. Nobody likes to find cigarette butts on the lawn or having the smell of burning tobacco wafted in through the back door.
On Location: What to Wear?
Since it has lots of pockets, you want to wear your khaki Safari bush vest to shoot weddings; your partner says a tuxedo is appropriate and your wife argues for a dark suit. Who's right? There are probably as many differing opinions as there are videographers (and wives.) I won't presume to propose a dress code, but there are issues regarding dress that can affect the success as businessmen and women of every videographer.
A starting point is this: videographers don't have fancy showrooms or glass and chrome corporate headquarters. Our appearance creates our company's "corporate image." When we leave home, whether it's to scout a location or to shoot a wedding, party, sporting event or a corporate meeting, we represent our company. The impression we make when we enter a room says it all: "This company" - my company - "is a class act. I'm sensitive to the nuances of my client's world and I've presented myself accordingly." Or, less happily: "I don't give a hoot about you and your sensibilities; I wear what I like and if you don't like it, lump it!" To dispel any doubts regarding the relationship between dress and first impressions, and about the validity of the suggestions which follow, type "dress for success" into Google and look at how important this is in the business world. Some people care a lot!
The reason attention is paid to dress is simple: we live in a tribal world. Tribes, once created by blood relationships, are now created by occupations - even by specific jobs within occupations -- and through social and economic status and values, political affiliations and religious beliefs. Fellow tribesmen are identified by rank in the business organization, through observable behaviors such as manners and graces, by shared topics found humorous, by moral and ethical practices and, most obviously, by dress.
Clothes are our tribal colors. Affiliations are signaled by dress, whether among street gangs or among power players in the corporate boardroom. Go into a large manufacturing plant or a corporate environment and it's pretty easy to tell one type of worker from another. Worker-bees wear one type of clothing, middle managers another, executives yet another. This is partially due to practicality, but also because the rules of hierarchal organization dictate that some dress "better" than others. Companies develop dress codes, and workers differentiate and discriminate accordingly. I once overheard a middle manager tell a CPA who worked for him "If you persist in wearing those brown pants and corduroy jacket no one in this company will take you seriously." Both in and outside the business setting, dress is often interpreted stereotypically, and moral and ethical values are attributed from these stereotypes. People are quick to identify someone who seems to them unkempt and ill dressed, for example, as a "bum" or derelict, shiftless and lazy.
The point in this is that if you want to run with the thoroughbreds you'd better look like a horse. This isn't about trying to pass as a member of another tribe - i.e., pretending to be something you aren't -- but about becoming part of the milieu in which you are working so that although an outsider you can still function effectively.
Bankers rarely shop at Abercrombie and Fitch, college kids at Brooks Brothers. Torn jeans and a sweatshirt in the corporate world are as inappropriate and out of place as a business suit at a beach volleyball competition or a bush vest at a country club wedding or a reception. Each creates a negative image because it's different: it's outside the tribal norm and it offends the tribal sensibilities. It's not about a dress code but rather about a range of appropriateness in dress for each situation. In business, who you are and how you think of yourself isn't as important as how you want your clients to perceive you relative to their perception of themselves.
So different wardrobes for working different kinds of occasions are in order - suit or conservative jacket, slacks and tie for formal corporate work; perhaps slacks and sweater for an informal business shoot and for pre-booking interviews. A dark suit and tie is never out of place for weddings and receptions; boots, work pants and vest for a construction site shoot. It's always easier to dress down after an initial meeting with a client than to dress up in an effort to correct the damage done by inappropriate attire at a first encounter.
Only in theatrical shooting is there an obligatory dress. The proper attire is always black from top to bottom. Dressed this way you become virtually invisible and can move about freely with a minimum of distraction to the audience. Professional stagehands and front of house board operators, even ushers in the theatre are invariably dressed in black for this reason. In all other situations, however, dress like the tribe you'll be spending the day with.
Etiquette and safety on location really boils down the Golden Rule: treat others, their facilities and property with the same consideration you'd want them to treat you and yours; look out for the safety of visitors, clients and crew as you would look out for the safety of your family and friends. Be attentive to the sensibilities on those on location and do your best to keep the shoot as pleasant and free from stress and anxiety as possible.