Friday, March 06, 2009

How I Produce Funeral Videos

A follower wants specifics about producing funeral videos: after reading my blog article, "Videotaping Funerals" Oct. 6, 2008. This will be an exceptionally long post (yes, even longer than usual) but readers will find it to be fairly definitive in content.

"I've noticed at least one of the larger, local funeral homes providing the montage service - at least it was mentioned in one of their tv adverts - and can understand this service, what is new to me is videotaping the funeral/memorial service itself.

Do people actually request coverage of this event? It seems strange on one hand, but can understand it on the other. What are the primary objectives for camera coverage? Do you try to do this with one or two cameras? Maybe you could go further into detail about the coverage...I'm a little interested." — Hogwild

* "What is new to me is videotaping the funeral/memorial itself. YES, this is a seriously under served segment of our industry.

* "Do people actually request coverage..." - YES, now that the word is out regarding my services, I am getting numerous calls, inquiries, referrals and new business weekly.

* "What are the primary objectives for camera coverage?"
— Remembrance, honor, dedication, celebration, preservation

* "Do you try to do this with one or two cameras?" Often one, usually two.

* "Maybe you could go further into detail about the coverage." Glad you asked:

How I Produce Funeral Videos
is a LOT like how most of us produce wedding videos (upcoming blog article featuring a "Wedding Video Production Primer" - VERY SOON!) in that like weddings, funerals are pretty much all the same, but different. The essentials are standard, the particulars and specifics will vary.

A Traditional Funeral
goes like this: Guests arrive and are seated about 30 minutes prior to service starting time (generally speaking - varies somewhat), family is either brought forward and seated, or was seated prior to guests entry. There is usually "entry" music, either live or CD, iPod, etc. a half-hour before service is to begin.

The venue's "family assistant" will usually announce the official service beginning and admonish guests to put cell phones/pagers on silent, or turn them off, introduce the official or opening speaker.

The official(s) open with prayer or meditation. Usually, one of three things happens next:

1. The official will read the obituary/eulogy
2. A family member or friend will read the obituary/eulogy
3. A song will be performed - live vocalist/soloists, organ, harp, guitarist, or pianist, or recorded CD/iPod/audio cassette

This is followed by eulogies (if obituary biography opened) from official, or a combination of family members, friends or professional/organization associates.

Either another song will follow, or people from the attending guests will be invited to share a brief (sometimes not so brief) memory. This can be problematic when videotaping if those speaking do not use the microphone at the podium, or up front.

The official will usually follow with a special message, or most often a real sermon - often about 15-20 minutes, but there are instances where they have gone an hour or more, include scripture readings, mass, liturgies, communion, and even an altar call to seek salvation. Be ready, prepared and find out as much as possible regarding this segment beforehand.

A closing song usually follows, with benediction and often one of three things:

1. Guests stand while casket is escorted out, usually by the pall bearers, followed by the family, then exit as everyone proceeds to a grave side service, dove release or outside military honors, or even a combination of all these.
2. Family stands to the front, near casket, while guests are requested to file past in a greetings line. This will either be followed by the casket, pall bearers and procession to grave side, or not. Or there could be no grave side service (having been held earlier and privately) and everyone attends a reception either on site, at a restaurant, or family residence.
3. There is no casket, and the "cremains" in an urn are escorted out, for a committal service, or other. The greeting line will be held, and/or people will mill around outside the facility, talking, meeting, greeting, sharing, comforting, etc.

There are many, MANY exceptions, and I will try to cover some of them along the way as I point out my approach to...

Videotaping & Producing a Funeral
I will now tell what I do, arrival/setup to breakdown/departure, for the average funeral production. I will follow with some exceptions that might occur, and what happens when a client books my most extended hours package.

I generally ALWAYS arrive at least 30-minutes, and often one-hour prior to service time. This depends on my familiarity with the venue, and whatever indication I have received from the booking family counselor of anticipated attendance. The MORE people they expect, the earlier I will time my arrival - if for no other reason that getting a better access parking space. You will be glad you did for all the obvious reasons.

NOTE: I always try to park headed out, or in line with the anticipated procession vehicles when I know I will be following by auto to the grave side/burial service on second location packages.

I use two cameras, and often two operators - main camera on a tripod, centered on the podium, framed based on "rule of thirds" (imagine a tic-tac-toe grid in your viewfinder or screen and frame subject's eyes on one of the cross-hatch junctions). Give a bit of head room (some air between top of frame and subject's head); and lead room (more space in direction subject is facing/speaking, less behind).

I try to be somewhere toward the front and to a slight angle from where the speaker(s) are. I prefer slightly off-center, and not directly in front of the podium even if that were possible - it usually is not because your rear would be in the faces of the family. Not good.

So, closer and to the side in smaller, more intimate venues; just behind the family section, and to the side closest to the podium in larger venues; and where ever they will allow me in churches - balcony, designated video platform, back of church, etc. This camera records ambient sound for enhancement or backup.

Second camera is off-shoulder or on my favorite monopod. This camera rarely, if ever, runs continuously. Instead it is used for pickup shots, and run-and-gun moments to catch procession/recession, after-service milling around, or various other scheduled events. The main camera person is breaking down equipment, stashing tripod and converting to mono, or prepared to go with shoulder shots, or stashing everything in the vehicle in preparation for following procession to the grave side, reception location, etc. Second camera, when running, also picks up ambient/natural or amplified audio from house system.

During the service I am also up front and to the side, enabling me to get head shots of family, guests, reaction shots, etc. during prayers, eulogies; as well as the vocalist/accompanist or other performers. My primary function, however, is to get a save shot if the ceremony goes beyond 55 minutes on the main camera and the operator needs to change tape.

NOTE: This is also VERY "doable" for a single operator. After the Lock Down Larry is set up on the tripod, I am free to get the cutaways, CYA shots, B-roll shots, etc. And, I am also able to keep the second camera steady (my monopod has a reliable foot-stand section) and rolling while changing tapes if needed in the main camera.

is not critical from the cameras, but I like having the live audio from on-camera microphones to enhance my main audio source - that amazing Zoom H2 portable digital recorder I have placed at the podium. A 2-gig card is usually enough, but I recently found a sweet deal on 4-giggers so I can put in fresh AA batteries, set it up when I arrive, test audio levels and get decent recording of the 30-minutes of entry music, start recording and leave it running until I break down and retrieve the unit.

I like that I can break out segments of the recorded H2 file(s), and then go to the unit's "normalize" function to bring everything up to zero. I have a tendency to set a bit lower to avoid potential over-modulation, so quiet or soft moments, or harp, guitar, piano, singers who cannot project and do not use the mic system, etc. can be brought up to decent levels. What I do with MY files is drag-and-drop into my Mac using my card reader and burn them onto a CD via Roxio Toast. I have NO trouble syncing up with speakers or musicians, and get good quality recording on my aiff files. Nice.

I have extra units if I discover that I need to place more of them in more locations - near the second podium, near the performers, etc.

I always, ALWAYS inform the venue, the family counselors, the family assistants, the officials and, when possible, family members that I have been paid to provide quality video and audio, and the ONLY way to get quality audio is if ANYONE who speaks comes to the podium to do so. Rarely, ever do I have to contend with people speaking from the seats.

Also, if they want to pay for it, I do offer/provide a wireless hand-held microphone that can be passed around. It can be fed into the house sound for audience clarity, but unless that is requested I inform them that the hand held mic's primary purpose is to direct-feed the signal into another of my H2 recorders, not for audience. Whatever.

After Setting Up
The main camera's sole responsibility is to maintain a sharp-focused, well-framed, steady shot of the speakers, moving only when necessary to take in a speaker from another position, or taller/shorter, or a performer off to the side. Otherwise, no zooms, no adjustments, no re-framing, no focus bips.

Prior to the ceremony the main camera shooter will often pick up some candle, cross, crucifix, flower or angle shots of the casket or urn, flag on stand, tilt-ups or zoom-ins of tall, round or large stained-glass windows, fancy lights, etc.

And, of course, to affirm that camera two is rolling (if two-operators) before changing tape. We do not communicate other than looking and paying attention at the critical times - slight nods indicating "rolling" "changed-and-rolling again" etc.

The secondary camera responsibility is
1. Exterior shots of venue
2. ECU's & CU's (extreme close ups and close ups) at foyer or entrance where there are usually photos and/or photo-montage boards, memorabilia, programs, boutonnieres for the pall bearers, special mementos, etc. These items, along with the guest book and a few people signing, all contribute to a special opening montage with which I begin virtually ALL funeral productions, or may also be used during songs, etc, especially when it is music only and nothing to show during the service.

I also nearly ALWAYS get several casket shots, and especially a centered shot of the casket or urn, surrounded by the flowers, sprays, large framed photo, etc. YES, most family clients WANT some casket shots (Remember to use "casket" not coffin. EVER!). These can be tastefully acquired without making it look as if you are morbidly curious or wanting to climb inside. A bit of gallows humor there.

And, I also get close-up shots, tilts, trucks, pans, dolly shots, Dutch angles, etc. of many of the floral displays up front, and around the casket, urn or large-framed photo. These too are used for the montage, opening/closing titles, or to break the monotony of long-winded speakers and songs with no live performers.

3. During the ceremony the second camera will get head shots of guests and family members, a few poignant shots of emotions are OK, but I do not "dwell" on extended emotional outbreaks for too long. That is not appropriate IMHO. These are inserted as needed to provide production value and breaks from long-winded speakers. Hint. Hint. Well-worth the effort to generate renewable business, references, etc.

NOTE: Our resources KNOW the quality of our productions and are happy to sell our services along with their packages, or refer us to others. They KNOW our productions are not plain video anybody with a camera could capture, more or less. They KNOW that we provide a beginning, middle and end, and often create special elements the average Uncle Charlie or family friend does not or cannot.

At the conclusion
of the ceremony, following the casket/family recession, greetings line, move to the reception area/location, military honors events (gun salute, flag folding, taps and presentation of flag to designated recipient); sometimes a horse-drawn carriage through the cemetery park, on-the-shoulders pall bearer procession, Scottish bagpipe, New Orleans-style jazz band, veterans, Harley or antique auto club procession, or the auto procession to another location, and subsequent if any, and usually much shorter grave side or committal service, the two cameras trade off, depending on who's on first.

Many other things can happen such as:
* Mariachi bands, live dance performances, candlelight ceremonies, themed celebrations and more are entirely possible.

Funerals are not so much the dark, sack-cloth-and-ashes, hair-pulling, clothes-renting, wailing, morbid, icky or gross events the uninitiated or inexperienced imagine, or have been told.
* Many Indian, or Eastern group funerals feature processions to the crematorium where the family wants, and is paying for, documentation that all honors have been bestowed, final rites given and the body cremated. They especially want to get video of the family member or official designated to "push" the button that starts the fire.
* Many ethnic groups will have, en lieu of, or in addition to Christian/Catholic/Americanized services, special rites/rituals - Sanskrit, etc. - as well as second, even third language segments.
* There have been choral presentations, choral accompaniment to the liturgies or Gospels, ethnic singing groups, usually from German, Polish or Russian immigrant families.
* I have experienced rock bands, heavy metal music, and even members from the gay/lesbian community singing "'s raining men!" or some other appropriate anthem.
* There have been fly-overs, fly-by and Scottish bagpipe brigades, Harley Veteran groups with multiple flags and blue jean jacket "colors" - especially from the Vietnam era.
* Dove releases, toasts of champagne, wine and tequila shots with the entire congregation asked to participate (apple cider for those avoiding alcohol), picnics on the grounds, potlucks on mile-long tables, and video montage projections ranging from a few minutes to a half-hour in length.
* Filipino groups tend to take a lot of time posing at the casket for family photos. Indonesians also, while Spanish groups tend to be very demonstrative, spending a lot of time at the casket, sharing emotions and spiritual moments with the deceased.

MOST Funerals tend to be
fairly reserved, routine and traditional, however, but do not be surprised or shocked at the possible variations. Some families/guests will be rather quiet while others will be extremely demonstrative. There are often jokes, laughter and tears of joy as well.

I thought this long article would be fully definitive, but it is not. I am concerned about writing much more, making it too long for even the most curious to read and absorb. There is much more to share, many elements I have not yet shared, that often come up.

What I have described sounds like a LOT of work, but yet it isn't really. Services rarely take up more than a couple of hours total. Some will last longer due to visitation, Rosary, grave side services a longer distance away than normal - often only a few miles, but sometimes 40 miles or more, receptions and other special programmed events. The editing, however, is easy and quick if you get the shots and audio right. Most every funeral produced requires much less work, editing and effort, paying much more per hour than a wedding.

My upcoming book with its accompanying support materials will contain all this and much, much more, plus samples, forms, demo clips and videos. It will contain expanded versions of many of the articles here, as well as updated information. I expect, pound-for-pound, word-for-word, and resource materials galore, "Diversify: How to Market and Make Money Producing Event Video" will prove a huge value at a reasonable price for all skill and experience levels of people in the Independent Professional Video Services Provider community wanting/willing to think "outside the wedding".


Dave Williams said...

You really covered a lot of ground, Earl. We have shot several funerals for many of the reasons you listed. The most memorable was the one we had to do with subtitles so the surviving wife (who was deaf) could read what everyone had to say about her late husband. Very touching.

HOGWILD said...

Wow Earl! I appreciate your response to my questions and the detail is exactly what I was looking for. What I can take away from this is: Like any other event coverage, the key is to understand the event and the process it entails, not all funerals are the same as you mention, (ie, some folks celebrate the life of, & some mourn the death of their family members/friends). A little research, knowledge, and understanding can go a long way to providing true professional video services here.

Ariton said...

Very nice put together Earl. Very helpfull information. Thank's for sharing