Can a photographer shoot video as well? Here are some practical lessons I learned while shooting video and the cinematography for “The Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn” by Cindy Nguyen.
A film on the bittersweet nature of love, language, and memory.
I shot all of the video on a LUMIX LX100– a great little micro 4/3rds camera, that was generously given to me by my friend Dav Cheng.
I’ve found micro 4/3rds a great platform to shoot with — beautiful image quality, closeup macro abilities, and also small and compact enough to maneuver and frame with.
Video vs Still Photography
According to Cindy, the most challenging and exciting thing about film:
You can control for how long, and where the viewer looks at in an image.
This method can tell a better story– because you can direct the eyes of a viewer.
She also told me,
Film is like music, because there are different tonal ranges, high notes, low notes, quiet pauses, and breaks– and a staccato of excitement and a crescendo.
While Cindy didn’t study film, she studied music. Therefore she was able to cross-pollinate these concepts, to become a better film director.
My Experiences Shooting Video
Inspired by Cindy Nguyen, I’ve been inspired to shoot more video.
To start off, I was never really that interested in video or film. I was more interested in still photography.
To me, the benefit of still photography was that it was more instantaneous, and didn’t require heavy editing. I also think that still photography is more intuitive than shooting video. I think that shooting video, film, or cinema requires more training with techniques– whereas you can easily make snapshots with still photography.
Anyways, Cindy started to do creative film projects and I started to get inspired by her. I realized the power of video and film:
You open up a whole new way to tell stories, and interact with your viewer.
I was amazed to see Cindy’s editing skills in video (Final Cut Pro)– how she could stitch together scenes, add voice-overs, add overlaying images, and how she mixed and re-combined music.
Some practical lessons I learned while filming “The Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn” Film:
1. Holding the shot
As photographers, we want to quickly take a shot, and move onto the next scene. However with cinema and film, you need to ‘hold the shot’ — which means, rather than just shooting 5 seconds of the scene, holding it for at least 30 seconds.
This is like holding onto a shot and lingering. I like this too– when studying older films, they hold the scenes longer. In today’s frenetic world, the average shot only lasts for 2 seconds, when the new shots are cut in.
By holding a shot, you can see a scene uncover.
For example in the Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn, there is one scene where I am recording Cindy exiting the bedroom, and she pauses, looks the camera, and walks away. But I still linger on the empty bedroom– which adds a nice punctuation mark, a nice empty space for the viewer’s eyes to linger on.
2. Are you a camera technician, or the director?
The unique thing about my predicament: Cindy is the director and producer of the film, I am just the camera-man. Which means I am essentially a human-tripod to record Cindy’s films to achieve her artistic vision. I don’t have an artistic vision (yet) in cinema/film — but I know how to frame, compose, and operate a camera.
I do find that studying dynamic composition, and my training as a photographer has helped me better understand what makes a good frame, and good light/exposure. But– video is so much more different than still photography, because there is a whole different lexicon, a different language, and different way of conveying feelings and emotions.
Funny enough, Cindy hasn’t studied cinema or film. She gets it intuitively– and even dreams in cinema-format. I don’t.
Therefore if you decide to delve more into cinema and film, figure out whether you are just the camera-man, or you are the one with the artistic vision.
3. Not getting attached to your footage
I shot some scenes for Cindy’s films — some which got used, and some which didn’t.
I found that the best strategy as a camera-man was to not get attached to your footage. That means, whether the director decides to use your video or not, don’t feel bad.
4. Shoot more
I also discovered that with shooting video — it was generally better to shoot more footage than less footage. Why? You can always edit out or decide not to use additional footage. But having to re-setup everything with the actors, light, and scene is a major pain.
Therefore there were moments when Cindy asked, “Do you think we have enough footage?” We then opted to shoot more footage– and often this additional footage ended up being the best footage.
I found practically speaking, varying up the perspectives added more visual interest to the videos.
For example, shooting from a high-angle looking down, or crouching down and shooting from a low angle.
Or, like this one shot I did with Cindy and her mom in The Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn — shooting over their shoulders, a technique I discovered while watching movies.
6. Ambient noise
This is just an observation — sometimes the best sounds in a movie weren’t the musical soundtracks. Rather, the ambient sounds of the scene.
For example, the sound of scissors cutting into antique paper. Or the sound of the ruffling of leaves.
Don’t feel the need to always blast a scene with music– quiet moments are nice.
7. Having fun
The experience was so enjoyable because I had fun. Of course, Cindy had to do all the hard work of editing the footage.
But ultimately, to shoot video is like a dance– you dance with your actors, you move your feet, experiment with different perspectives, with different lighting situations. I think the more fun you have with video, the more enjoyable the experience will be.
We were not always sure what the shot would be– we would often look around the house and look for interesting places to shoot– through glass reflections, mirrors, and sometimes shooting some photos in-focus, and other times blurry and out-of-focus.
Cindy suggested shots, and I figured out how to shoot and frame it– crouching low, and shooting with a tilted dutch-angle.
A fun technique I learned from photography is layering— getting depth in your photos by focusing something on the background, and adding foreground elements. This worked well to tell a nice story in the film.
10. Technical details
Lastly some technical details I wish I knew:
- Generally speaking, autofocus worked well. But when I wanted to be creative with the compositions and focus (like making the scene intentionally out-of-focus, manual focus worked best).
- Not using a tripod (hand-holding) was a lot more fun. To stabilize myself, I put my elbows on my stomach, or propped my elbows against the table to prevent fatigue. Or I leaned up against the wall.
- 1080p at 24 frames per second seemed to be the best ‘bang for the buck’ settings to give that ‘cinematic look’, and big enough file size/quality.
- It is generally better to shoot wide-angle video, and move your camera closer to the scene, rather than zooming in.
- Play with exposure-compensation (plus and minus exposure compensation) to better light your scenes.
Aaron Feser has inspired me a lot — him also bridging the gap between photography and video. If you’re a photographer looking for more inspiration, experiment shooting with video.
My friend Todd Hata also has lost his passion for photography, but revived it by shooting video.
Personally, I hope to explore and experiment more with film, cinema, and video. If you’re a photographer new to video or cinema, I recommend watching Akira Kurosawa‘s films. Here are some articles to get you going:
- RAN (CHAOS), 1985 Film Cinematography by Akira Kurosawa
- Rashomon (1950) Cinemetography Composition by Akira Kurosawa
Also check out my cinema articles to learn how you can also cross-pollinate between cinema and photography.
Remember friend– keep your passion alive for photography, film, art, cinema and life– by putting no limits on yourself. Never stop experimenting, exploring, and having fun!
Director’s Statement – Cindy Nguyen 2018
This film is part of my project, “Mẹ, Translated [Mom, Translated],” a mixed-media art project on love, language, memory and everything lost in translation.
Inspired by the work of Viet Thanh Nguyen, I made this project intentionally not for the dominant audience. Rather, I sought to dwell on the act of translation– that universal human yearning to understand and be understood. Vietnamese words in the pieces are not always directly translated to English because I wanted to convey the complexity of comprehension/miscomprehension between different languages, generations, and also through the nostalgic and bittersweet filters of memory. However, I explain the concepts through poetic voice and through visual symbols, actions, and subtle gestures.
Thus, I invite the viewer to experience the delicate moments of misreading and translation – imbue subtle gestures and tones with layers of interpretation. The symbolic actions and conversation between a mother and daughter reveal the secret language of refugee and immigrant survival: hy sinh (sacrifice), khó khăn (suffering), perseverance (chịu khó), and success (thành công). This film celebrates the subtleties of language and love through visual storytelling.
Please share this project with anyone who
- has felt misunderstood
- dances freely or uneasily between categories and languages
- has used google translate with their parents and family
- has been told “you are not really ____”
- does not know where or who ‘home’ is
- wanders and wonders why
Please share your thoughts, feelings, feedback with Cindy at email@example.com
I would especially appreciate your comments on my most recent film, “The Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn.”
More films by Cindy Nguyen x Eric Kim
MISS FIT film by Cindy Nguyen, cinematography by Eric Kim
Cinematography and life lessons: