Description image

The Director's Chair: the One Man Band

01.9.12 @ 3:08PM Tags : ,

This is the sixth in a series of guest posts by filmmaker Raafi Rivero.

In past articles in this series, I’ve focused on techniques for directing with the assumption that you’d be working with full crew and support. But in the day of the DSLR sometimes even the word “crew” is a euphemism. You’re going out there like a samurai. These are some tips to make sure you come back with what you need. This will be more technical and less aesthetic than some of my other pieces here.

Location Selection

Choosing locations is one of the most important decisions you make as a director, period. And whether you’re a one-man band or the whole circus, the fundamentals of locations are the same: close-ups are cheap, wide shots are expensive. This is because you’re most likely not going to be able to afford to “control” all the way to the edges of a large location from a lighting, set design, and extras perspective.

But, screw it, find a way to get a wide shot or two… Wide shots, though less important in the internet age, give the audience time to catch their breath. And if I hear that you had access to a big-old location and didn’t use it? We’re not friends.

Far-side key

One simple lighting rule that I adhere to whenever possible is what’s called the far-side key. You want the “key” or brightest light on your subject to be hitting them on the side of their face further from the camera. The side of the face closest to the camera should be darker by 1-2 stops. Even with available light look to recreate the far-side key, even when stealing shots.

Thaddeus Clark and the farside key

Stealing locations

Stealing means shooting somewhere without permission. Now, let’s get this straight. I highly recommend getting permission to shoot… you know, producing. But sometimes it’s just not going down that way. And if that’s the case, these are some simple ideas for how to steal a shot. First off, if they see you walk in there with a slate and all kinds of microphones and lights rigged to your camera, you’re getting stopped. But if they see you there with the camera1 alone and a couple actors? Maybe you’re tourists. Use this to your advantage. Free extras!

When stealing a location, you don’t want to find yourself in situations when you’re turning around for reverse shots or running multiple takes or doing anything that appears like you’re overtly filming. You want to keep things loose, even if you are running multiple takes or turning around for reverse shots. Try to maintain all outward appearances of something completely casual. And if there is a screaming match or something outlandish that will definitely draw attention, save it for last.

(a music video I did last summer One-Man-Band-style)

On Handheld

DSLRs are really lame when it comes to shakiness, rolling shutter, etc. But if you bust out the tripod when you’re stealing a scene, you’re getting stopped. So be cognizant of maintaining balance and smoothness while shooting.

This may sound like heresy but… I much prefer bumping up the ISO on the camera if it affords the ability to stop down rather than risk shooting on a wide f-stop and constantly losing focus. For example: shooting on a 50mm lens with my 5d, I’ve got 3 inches depth at f/1.4 and just over a foot at f/5.6. If you’ve done your homework and chosen locations wisely, you’ll be able to stop down and still get plenty of pretty bokeh in the background while giving your actors and yourself room to play and maintain consistent focus.

Nothing is more annoying than watching a DSLR film when half the shots are soft.

Free to Experiment

This is important: vary your angles. Being free of a large crew means you get to try a bunch of different things quickly without the inertia of moving huge numbers of bodies around to get different shots. Don’t be the person who comes home with everything in a medium shot at the same focal length. Get that extra wide shot and the extra close one too. Get the reverse. And the cut-aways you’ll probably forget to get anyway.

When someone says, “we shot the shit out of that scene” what they mean is that they got every angle, every way in and out of the material. Remember what I said before about getting good performances, but take advantage of your nimbleness as a one man band to experiment with shots and angles. Get what you need from the traditional shots, and get everything else you wouldn’t have the flexibility to do with a large crew. This is the advantage of small-crew film.

Get it, get it, get it. It’s your show.

To see all the posts in this series (to date), click here.

Raafi Rivero is a filmmaker and designer living in Brooklyn, NY. In between stints slaying dragons and leaping small puddles in a single bound, he’s managed to snag a couple of industry honors and is hard at work on the upcoming feature How to Steal. Raafi has directed content for HBO, Sony, and Discovery as well as shady record labels and satisfied customers the world round. His short, Their Eyes Were Watching Gummy Bears, will play festivals this summer. Follow Raafi on Twitter here.

  1. Ed. note: like a DSLR… []


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 46 COMMENTS

  • GREAT tips – keep ‘em coming!

  • I liked this one. Thanks.

  • not_steven_spielberg on 01.9.12 @ 5:24PM

    Nice read! And yeah like people already said in other articles, less tech posts, more posts on the creative side of filmmaking (if possible of course ^_^)

    In any case awesome site, keep it up!

  • Great post! Thanks Raafi and Koo.

  • One man crew is certainly doable. I made two shorts just by myself: shooting, acting, directing, lighting, and editing. Here are my experiments:
    An Idiot Thief:
    Tao of Steve Jobs:

  • “shady record labels”

  • as someone who’s essentially going to be wearing the hats of director, producer, dp, camera operator, sound guy, editor and composer on an upcoming project i really enjoyed this….

  • In terms of a one man band operation and staying covert, I usually go for this ( as my main stabilizer, and a 50 prime plus some type of wide zoom (11-22). I can’t recommend that monopod enough, really just doubled my options for shots. I steal shots all the time, but then again, nobody really cares where I live. I imagine if you wanted to be really sneaky you could slap a 300 L on and hide in the bushes while your actors did their thing, giving direction via ear pieces. Sneaky stuff.

    • I use a stabilizer from time to time too — Flycam Nano in my case. Tougher to steal shots when you’ve got a ton of gear, but for non-risky One Man Band shoots, they’re a great too. Monopods too.

  • I second not_steven_spielberg. The recent posts on the nontechnical sides of filmmaking are very much appreciated. Thanks!

  • Will Gilbey on 01.10.12 @ 2:48AM

    I’ve found that when challenged by an annoyed local always say you’re doing a student film. If people think what you’re doing is non-profit they nearly always leave you alone.

    • Exactly… I’ve used the [ Doe Eyes, blink, blink ] “I’m a film student?” excuse many a time.

      • Will Gilbey on 01.10.12 @ 12:35PM

        Especially good if you manage to pull it off with a decent sized crew.

        • We made a corporate film for a rather large multinational mobile pone company recently. While grabbing one quick shot out on the street- a last minute thing- a security guard approached and asked to see our permission sheets. We were, without realising, on a private street. We pleaded ignorance and he looked at us and said, “student film is it? That’s fine- don’t be too long’. We had six feet of track on the floor, a fairly recognisable actor nearby… And we’re all over thirty. Must be the youthful good looks- I suspect we’ve only got a year or two left before that stops working.

          • Will Gilbey on 01.10.12 @ 3:00PM

            Ha ha – brilliant. Haven’t done it in a while but used to use it fairly frequently. If people think you have money they might get the urge to bug you – you tell them you’re students and they can’t walk away quick enough.

          • Watching Terminator a few months ago I checked out one of the featurettes. I found out that’s how they got the iconic last shot of the film. They were out in the middle of nowhere California and a cop pulled up just as they were about to shoot and they blamed it on one of the guy’s teenage kids who was gripping. Saying they were working on his student film. I reccomend checking it out at some point. It’s a hilarious anticdote.

  • Bravo! What a great post. A much needed break from the super technical stuff.

  • Andreas Lange on 01.10.12 @ 4:26AM

    Great post !!
    yes one man-bands are certanly doable.

    Here is my first musicvideo/shortfilm I ever made:

    keep in mind that I was only 17 at the time and I had been doing DSLR moviemaking for about half a year.
    took about 50 hours on location and I was working 24 hours straight, in post to mask out the roof shots from 2:08-2:25. including cutting the whole thing together.

    only thing I am satisfied is the compositions in the shots..

  • Great tips. Thank you!

  • Thanks for a very interesting post Koo,Raafi.
    Having just completed a one man crew shoot myself, I can vouch for how much easier it is to just “up sticks” and relocate the talent.
    I took only one bag on the shoot as we had to hike through forest and rough terrain ((in the dark so we could catch a sunrise).
    Crane shots were achieved by gaffer taping a fully extended monopod to the tripod head and letting gravity do it’s thing.
    I don’t own a RED as I have only two English pounds in my pocket, but am a firm believer in content over packaging.

    • “Crane shots were achieved by gaffer taping a fully extended monopod to the tripod head and letting gravity do it’s thing.”

      Gaz, can you elaborate on that?! I can’t picture how that was done. I’m looking to do some improvised crane shots, in a smaller scale (as in, a bedroom) where I don’t have space for a full jib arm. Any info would be incredibly helpful.

      • Hi David,
        I basically lay the fully extended monopod on top of my tripod head about two-thirds along so I had a “handle” and just gaffer taped the hell out of it so it had absolutely no movement. I had no weights available and let the camera “fall” slowly downwards, the tension and speed was created by loosening/tightening the tripod tilt.

        It’s not the most elegant solution I know, but it (kinda) worked out ok as I was miles from anywhere in a forest!!

        Just purchased a portable crane from DSLR Devices to combat this problem when out on location :)


  • Great post Raafi, and I enjoyed the film you posted.

    I’ve got a tip for one-man-band filmmakers that has got me out of trouble – including a potential beating.

    A while back I shot a short with a couple of actor friends – partly scripted/rehearsed, partly improvised. Myself and the lead went out on location and wandered into Camden Market (London) to get a few shots. The footage from that location was never used in the end, but nearly resulted in the rearrangement of my face after a stall-owner got rather upset that we were using a camera near his wares (enormous amounts of slightly dodgy looking gold jewellery). Anyway, I was ‘confronted’ shall we say by a man twice my size (I’m not tiny) – and pleaded innocence. To prove my point, I showed him the thumbnail view on the camera…
    …fortunately I’ve had similar situations in the past, and have come up with a technique (when using a DSLR) for wriggling out of them – always make sure that for the first couple of seconds of whatever you shoot are very innocent. In this case, I pointed at the ground, at the open road, the sky, etc. etc. When hassled, I showed the stall owner the thumbnails – all of which looked like they didn’t involve the market whatsoever, as they showed only the first frame. He no doubt assumed – as I was using a DSLR – I’d only been taking photos, and I made no effort to disabuse him from this notion and left speedily.

    The film was shot in the course of about 5 hours, edited quickly and put onto Vimeo. A while later I got an email from someone at Dailymotion, saying they’d like to frontpage it. It got nearly 40,000 views in a couple of days, and then another 20,000 or so on Youtube. It wouldn’t have got any views if I’d been forced to choose between deleting the footage or headbutting a fist repeatedly…!

    If you want to see the film, it’s here:

    • That’s the beauty of the moment we’re in film-wise. Many people dont suspect that a DSLR is actually rolling footage so you’re able to get shots as a one man band that you couldn’t get any other way. But as Alex points out: be careful.

  • Rev. Benjamin on 01.10.12 @ 10:40AM

    Interesting post. I particularly like your mention of far-side key. Actually I couldn’t be with you more on everything but “stealing locations”.

    With regard to that – what a terrible thing to do (or even suggest) for your local film community. Should you not be as sneaky as possible, and go completely un-noticed, it could really sour the owners of locations, local officers, etc people of power, to people who legitimately ask permission and get proper permits in the future. “But sometimes it’s just not going down that way” sounds incredibly lazy and un-resourceful… It should be going down that way if you care about your art not being ripped from your hands, and being responsible. And for that matter, it’s soooo easy to shoot in public places, and shoot open/narrow DOF to avoid the whole needing to get releases from bg people on-cam issue. If you’re serious about your craft, and you’re making something ‘worth making’, then you’re not going to do this. “”That’s Bush. Bush League!”

    Another thought I don’t know how to work in eloquently – with the democratization of film comes responsibility.

    • you’re rationale for stealing locations, “incredibly lazy and un-resourceful…”? I couldn’t disagree with you more. quite the absurdity.

      • The ‘lazy and unresourceful’ filmmakers who’ve shot that way include Chris Nolan, Peter Jackson, Robert Rodriguez, Cassavetes, Fassbinder, Gareth Edwards, George Miller… Etc etc etc.

        Ed Burns has done it for years, including on his latest film.

        • Rev. Benjamin on 01.10.12 @ 11:43AM

          Okay. I can see you having to be resourceful to sneak in and work under dumb conditions. So how about just lazy? Or bush league? Dude… why not do the work and get your locations in writing? Have a location that wants something in return, but no funds? Film something for them. Playing the shady game is *drum roll* shady, and again, that doesn’t help the local film community, or anyone.

        • Rev. Benjamin on 01.10.12 @ 11:51AM

          And most of those directors did it early on, before they new any better (esp in the case of Robert Rodriguez and the like, don’t forget Sam Raimi and those types), or were adament film-rebel types for the sake of it. And that was all before the extreme handiness we take for granted every day with DSLR and the like. We can shoot, cut, and print on a laptop in a few hours. And we can’t spend the time saved on properly producing, simply asking permission? I can’t get behind that. I’m fine with being in the minority on this one.

          Concerning Ed Burns on Newlyweds – “The actors did their own hair and makeup and used their own clothes. He used a friend’s apartment and some Tribeca restaurants as sets.” I’d be entirely surprised if he stole the restaurants, but I could be wrong.

    • Let’s also add Spike Jonze and P.T. Anderson to your list of lazy and unresourceful filmmakers. Or how about Albert Maysles, Werner Herzog? A pretty distinguished list of bush-leaguers, I’d say.

      Or, maybe… You push yourself to make great art.

      In case you forgot, I actually led the whole section by suggesting that you produce well enough that stealing locations isn’t a necessity. And preparation has been a major theme in all the posts in this series.

      Lastly, take a look at the video I posted. Tell me how sneaking into that warehouse hurt the local film community. Please.

      • Rev. Benjamin on 01.10.12 @ 1:57PM

        Prefacing something with “hey you shouldn’t do this…”, followed by “…but here’s how if you wanna”, makes it cool? Look Raafi, I’m not saying the entire article doesn’t have value. And I don’t care if you want to sneak and steal and do whatever you have to “to make great art”. Plenty artists I like (Banksy) do the same thing. But I’m not going to justify it (or him), and I’m not going to get behind it. It’s a needless risk. In my opinion, it’s easy enough to get permission – you work your pre-pro muscles- and not doing so because it’s easier or whatever is a silly suggestion. No amount of director vindication is going to change that. Have the greats done it? Yeah. Have I done it? Yes I have. But it was stupid, I know better now, and I’m not going to encourage that in any way.

        I’m going to watch your video when I’m on a steady connection. How can I imagine up it affects the local film community? Easy man. Your video goes live. It goes viral (supposed to be good news, right?). People start talking about it in x location you are from. Everyone wants to know about the bodacious warehouse you used (without permits, liability, etc). Word gets back to warehouse owner, or city, or whoever has power over the location. They either sue, or simply scoff at you. And then 4 months later a crew comes in with a great story and a great cast and a great crew and even MONEY, and the power-holder scoffs at them because they’ve been burnt before. This has happened to me in my area. It isn’t inconceivable.

        I’m still not personally seeing your point and I’m not behind that section of your article. And I did critique your writing and we’re talking about it and your defending it, I would too probably. But I don’t want you to take it as a personal hit, either. Just wanted to throw that in there.

        • Disagreements are fine, fellas… I tend to agree that stealing locations is generally okay unless you’re scamming someone or hurting the environment/inhabitants. 3/4s of The West Side was stolen, and while we definitely did some stupid things — clambering across rooftops and through crack houses (literally) with no insurance, much less permits — stealing those locations was the only way we were going to make our series on our non-existent budget, and we didn’t hurt anyone in the process. Then again we had no crew and very little equipment to speak of… had the production been larger, then it would’ve made sense to get permits (as we did for episode four). Seems like it’s just a judgement call — no need to call anyone names either way. Especially given I happen to know Benjamin’s short from a couple of years ago (Benjamin, you know how) and he’s an excellent filmmaker, as is Raafi. Two good dudes, let’s leave it at that!

  • As a self-taught film maker these tips never get old.

  • Permits are not as much of a concern outside of big cities.

    It is only called “stealing” because at some point politicians figured out that they could make a bunch of money by selling permits (permission) to the big film studios to get their cut. . . The same people who figured out how much revenue is created from parking tickets. (39 million annual NYC revenue for ticketing delivery trucks who are providing goods and often have no choice but to double park. . . I call that a tax).

    Having said that, if I am filming in or around a place of business or on/ around someone’s property, I always ask for permission. I have never been turned down. People are (generally) enamored with film-making and typically want to participate in some small way.

    I think it important to remember to be kind and courteous, with or without a permit.
    I was on a shoot for an HBO prod. in Jersey City and the crew blocked off people’s parking and arrogantly took over the whole street. Didn’t go over with the folks. After the first 2 hr. set up, the director called action for the first time. . . 2 seconds into the scene car horns start going off, then loud coughing, singing . . . on and on, it was a long day to say the least, but I did not resent the people doing it, because they were treated poorly and were just standing their ground.

    I have not tried to film anything under the radar in NYC, but on an small budget, I would “steal” without an any remorse of conscience.

    I lived in NYC for 7 years and got to see and feel first hand how “the sheep get sheered”.

    Thank you for the article.

  • One of the things I’ve learned along the way when approached by anyone who has the power to give you the boot is to recognize their power. “Oh those really are big muscles! You are really strong” And then they often let you fly.

  • MARK GEORGEFF on 01.12.12 @ 6:32PM

    This is the article I go for! why? Because I’m a filmmaker-writer who’s broke. Flat broke.

    Scripts are being looked at; I’m meeting with prodcos and investors at the Santa B. film fest at the end of this month…but there’s no agent or manager yet. And because I come from a grad. film school background; who worked his way through college by working heavy building construction and also took on student loan debt, there’s no silver spoons on my resume. No insider nepotism or studio connections on the sunset.

    So…when this article comes along, I totally embrace it. I don’t need to have high glossy production values or even star name casts, using a 20 to 40 person crew at this point.

    Based on my influences before me…like the great Kurosawa, John Cassavettes and John Huston, they all started off o very small, low budget genre features and either wrote thier scripts or worked with writers.

    And using film stock. In this digital world ( and I’m not even going to bring up very recent micro budget horror successes) there just isn’t any reason any more not to at least try and do your own thing by using as many tricks as possible. And stealing shooting moments?

    Do it in a heartbeat…and lie my way out of it. Helluva lot better than giving up your dreams because you don’t have enough money…you don’t do it the way a lot of others do it…or because you don’t know the right people.

  • @ Raafi (and Koo): As a one-woman band shooting one-person oral history footage, I have most trouble with clean audio when the person is moving around doing something. Onboard mic changes perspective, lavs result in noise generated by the subject’s movement. Mic on stand / pistol grip and voice-over is not options here. Any tips?

    BTW, thank you your “far-side key”–was doing this instinctively because I liked the look. Now I feel validated.

    • Hi Joyce, audio is always a tough part of a one person crew. You may want to try two systems: an onboard boom mic on your DSLR and a lav recording to a separate recorder. Hopefully between the two you can get what you need. I’m sure you do this already, but look for ways to make sure the lav is as clear as possible. Lastly, look for ways to have your subject remain static – even if you can create motion by having the camera move instead.

    • Joyce, I have a couple of suggestions for getting cleaner audio when using wireless mics. If you are photographing and recording a woman, try using a “vampire” clip for the lavaliere mic. It has a small plastic holder with two sharp pins sticking out of the bottom like “vampire teeth.” Pin the lav to the inside of the woman’s bra in the “cleavage area.” There is a natural gap there that will prevent the lav from rubbing directly against any clothing. Be sure to secure the wire (going to the transmitter) in a couple of places which will create some stress release and prevent the lav from being pulled during movement. You can tape directly to the skin using hypo-allergenic surgical tape. If you are recording a man, often the best place is directly on his chest. To prevent clothing rub, I sometimes use “mole skin” to secure the lav. Mole skin is a foam tape foot product designed to protect blisters. I use two pieces of mole skin to form a tight little cocoon that holds the lav in place but prevents clothing from rubbing against the lav directly. The first strip (when peeled) adheres directly to the skin. The second strip is smaller and holds the lav mic against the first strip. I only peel back and expose enough adhesive to attach the second strip to the first. I don’t want adhesive goo on the mic. To help you visualize, when finished, the cocoon looks like a capital “D” with the lav secured in the middle. If your guy has a lot of chest hair, it will hurt a little when it comes off. If he complains, tell him to “man up” – it’s how it’s done in the big time. The downside to this method is if he is wearing a tight T shirt. There may be a tell-tale mic bulge. In this case, try attaching the mic lower in the sternum area. You can also get clever with hiding the transmitter. It’s often revealed when worn on the back of the pants. For guys, you can try the front pocket and hide the wire under the belt. Or, you can use an “ace bandage” to secure it around the ankle. You can also create an ace bandage “garter” to hold the transmitter around a woman’s thigh – hidden under her skirt or dress. Hope this helps – happy hidding!

  • I have a question on stealing shots. I was on a location in England and went to a place to shoot. It was posted no video recording and no photography. So we went in and found the person in charge and asked for permission. We were basically told my official answer is no, but I am not going to kick you out of here if I do see you recording (wink, wink). So we shot all this footage and even got a tour guide throughout the process.

    Now what are the problems if this footage ends up aired on national TV? as someone mentioned about the stolen shots end up in major films? Is it a situation where once it’s done you are good to go (not stopped in the process?)

    • Here in Germany people can sue you if you broadcast footage shot on their property without prior written permission. A good example for that is the administration of Bavarian castles: you can easily shoot footage in the gardens of the wurzburg residence castle for example, the gardens are open and usually nobody is there to stop you. But once they see it on tv (and they WILL see it!) you are in big trouble, financially…

      In cities and other public spaces it’s all good unless you are a really big production.

      I don’t know about other countries though.

    • Yeah, that’s the downside of stealing shots – with certain locations you will eventually need permission for either broadcast or distribution. A friend of mine told me of a feature that she produced in which, though stealing shots in Manhattan, they had a PA to either side of the frame signing all of the ‘extras’ to releases.if you’re worried about distribution and rights, etc., though, you probably aren’t going to produce as a One Man Band.

      As to the specifics of your question, different locales have different laws regarding that type of stuff. Your best bet is making something so amazing that the distribution partner or a third party will pony up after the fact to pay for whatever rights you need to be able to use your footage.