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7 Tips for Shooting Solo (The Making of 'Mary Jane')

I was given the near-impossible task of telling a complex story for a music video with no money and no crew... Here's how I did it.

The hit video MARY JANE in all it's glory.

What do you get if you take a great music track, an ambitious music video, no budget and no crew? Well on paper you should end up with an unwatchable mess, shoddy camera work, and a video that no one wants to watch...

What we ended up with was 218k views, airtime on major TV channels and a lot of love for a video that was applauded for being beautifully shot and having a strong and emotional story.

Mary Jane Contemplates Her Fate

A subtle hair light takes a dark image and gives it depth. 

BUT HOW!!!!!!???

It makes no sense at all, how can a dude with a couple of actors, a few lights and a camera make such an impact?

In today's blog, I will share 7 tips for Shooting solo (The making of Mary Jane).

Tip #1 - Plan

Planning is vital to any project. Everything from Shot lists to call sheets, ensuring you've planned for every eventuality means when you get on set you can focus as much of your attention as possible on the performances, shots and story without worrying about what comes next.

A great little tool for this is Celtx.

It allows you to:

  • Break down your script.
  • Create shooting schedules.
  • Print and send reports like call sheets
  • Create shot lists.
  • Compile storyboards.
  • Add location addresses. 
  • Much more.

Having the ability to do all of this just puts you on the front foot from the word go. 

I would even go so far as to plan how long each scene will take to shoot, schedule breaks and even time to review footage. 

What you want is for everyone to feel like they know exactly what's going on, this stops questions, worries and confusion from getting in the way of your production.

Tip #2 - Do More With Less

To each shoot, I only took what I could viably carry in a single bag. Choosing the right gear is vital here. It must be portable and versatile so that you can get all the looks you're after with little or no effort.

My bag contained:

It might seem like a lot but its nothing at all. All fit neatly into one bag, everything can be put up and taken down in minutes and it's all movable instantly meaning if the lightings not right all I need to do is lift it and move it in a matter of seconds. 

This kind of speed means the set is always moving, no one gets fidgety and bored and you get the shots fast.

The Mother and daughter scenes used pretty much all of the gear in my bag of wonders.

One Amaran was used as a key light, covered in yellow crepe paper to give it that dirty, grungy look (the living room we shot in was actually beautifully decorated and we needed to make it look run down without touching the decor.)

Yellow tinge makes it look horrid.

The second Amaran was used unfiltered as a kicker that added that bit of depth and power to the shots.

That kicker brings the subject off the dark background.

The 2 Yong Nuos were then used to light the background. rather than wash our the scene with the rooms built in lighting I wanted the walls to be dark and dreary.

I added yellow and green crepe paper to further create the look of a council estate home.

Little pockets of light give the back drop character.

The versatility and portability of the gear I was using made each set so easy that we only spent a few minutes setting up each shot. 

That means for the remainder of the time I could work on performance, direct the actors, choose the shots and get them in the can.

I like to keep my sets fun too, and not having to worry about setups gives me more time to build rapport with everyone and have them feel relaxed.

Tip #3 - Use Natural Light When You Can

One of the things I did a lot was to use natural light. 

As Mary Jane wanders the streets, rejected by the world I looked for opportunities to create shots with the right levels of light and shadow without using any fixtures... 

Using the fence gave the shot depth and communicated her feeling of being trapped.

Shooting RAW gives you so many grading options

Because I was shooting in public with a child (with her mother serving as guardian), I needed to get each shot quickly. That meant I took nothing but a shoulder frame and the camera.

The fact that the BMCC shoots RAW means that it handles the majority of lighting situations and is wonderful to grade. It gave me so much flexibility and peace of mind knowing that whatever I shot I could use.

Shooting wasn't as painful as this reaction makes it look ;)

The 50mm lens was vital here because I could get cinematic close-ups in lower light and really play with shadows

The 50mm lets me use minimal light and retain detail in the shadows with little visual noise.

One quick tip to make your footage look amazing 100% when using natural light is to use the GOLDEN HOUR This is that hour or so when the sun is going down and gives this wonderful orange light that makes everything look epic.

That golden light always adds cinematic flare to your shots.

Tip #4 - Location, Location, Location...

There's a phrase I use for every shot I do and it's "How do I increase the perceived budget of this shot"

What I mean by this is making it appear as though you had a huge budget for the project even if you haven't got one at all.

One of the best ways to do this is to choose good locations. Locations with a personality that reflects the scene and depth. Settling for a location that doesn't add to your scene is a quick way to make your footage look amateur.

Black Jack notices a child in need.

One of my favourites here was the red bridge. It was a railway bridge a couple of steps from my home that has built-in red LED lighting for... well I don't actually know what it's for but it looks really cool. I had walked under that bridge everyday thinking to myself "One day I'll find the perfect project for this location. Mary Jane was that project.

So armed with a Yong Nuo, my camera and a shoulder frame I decided to make this the place where the artist Black Jack UK meets the heroine of the story herself.

Another great little location was the studio I hired as a morgue. A simple white room and a corridor were more than enough to sell the location. 

Medical locations are notoriously hard to get hold of and can often be expensive but I managed to get around this by hiring a small white room, a table and buying a cheap sheet.

The uniform sells the scene a lot more.

The other element that I think made this work was the actor playing the doctor. He brought his own NHS uniform, Lanyard and doctors coat which instantly made the scene more believable.

Using the ceiling light and some post diffusion adds depth.

Finally, for the singing sections, Black Jack UK approached a local church. The huge gothic church with stunning stain glass windows sold that bigger budget look even more.

The green was added using crepe paper represented the light passing through the windows.

Put together these locations give the video the big budget look it needed to go toe to toe with others on TV. I didn't want the audience ever to question the professional or artistic integrity of the project and just watch it and enjoy it.

TIP #5 - Green Screen To Glory

The song called for a shot or two of a child on a bridge... jumping to her death.

For obvious reasons we couldn't shoot this practically. This is where having a green screen is really useful. 

There will often be locations or shots you simply can't get but a green screen opens up a world of possibilities. So long as it's used well and not used too much you can fake a myriad of locations.

Mary Jane prepares to jump

Fear not, She is stood on a bench onfront of a green sceen.

If you don't know how to use a green screen and composite check out this video to get you started.

I've used Green screen for many years to convincingly put actors anywhere I want. You can put them up in any room, light them and away you go.

Who doesn't love that sin city look?


TIP #6 - A Great Cast

When you're telling a story, you can have the best camera, artistic lighting and stunning shots but if your actors aren't up to scratch none of that matters. 

I got really lucky here in finding Elliah Jones, a young actress who could give me the level of emotion I wanted. 

This was her first film but showed instantly just how amazing she could be. Giving the character an emotional weight and believability made all the hard work making the video look good more than worth it. Her performance jumps from the screen.

Laura Yates who played the mother was also incredible, embodying the character of the mother perfectly in both iterations.

I can't stress how important it is to either work with people you already know are good or audition vigorously. This is all part of the planning and ensures you're getting the best.

TIP #7 - Practice

The best advice I can give is to practice. There are several shorts that I've made single-handedly because I wanted to be able to deliver when these projects come along.

Whilst I myself charge a fee to clients for these solo projects it means the more I spend the less I get and so constantly shooting my own little films using these techniques means when it's time to do it for real I'm not daunted by the prospect.

Grab a couple of actors and a location, write a script and shoot it, let yourself get it wrong as often as you can and then after a while shooting all on your own won't be scary, it'll be a wonderful creative pleasure.

A police procedural I shot with a couple of actor friends.

I used the same portable kit I used on paid gigs.

So there you have it.. 7 TIPS TO SOLO SHOOTING (The making of MARY JANE).

Now grab a camera, get out there and get shooting

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