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If your kids play sports, your weekends are filled with chauffeuring little athletes, supplying healthy snacks, and of course, the Search for Missing Cleats. And that leaves only so much time for creative pursuits, like, say, capturing the drama of the season on video.
Try as you might to record the excitement of Little League baseball or Pee Wee soccer, you invariably get home and find that your footage is boring or—worse—unwatchable.
What can you do to raise your game?
Well, we talked to an actual ESPN producer to find out. His name is John Vassallo, and he has kids of his own. He produces the network’s college lacrosse coverage, but he has also shot football, hockey, and wrestling at a variety of levels, including his own kids’ games. In addition to game coverage, he produces shorter pregame segments and online pieces that are actually better templates for a home video.
Though having the right equipment is important (more about that in a moment), Vassallo explains that the difference between amateur efforts and professional-quality storytelling lies in smart planning and a creative outlook.
“If people just recalibrate their thinking,” he says, “the results would be exponentially better.”
Ready to try? Here are six pro tips from a big-league talent:
1. Come Up With a Game Plan
Before Vassallo heads to a game—for ESPN or a home video—he knows roughly what he’s shooting. You should, too. Take a moment and think: “What do I want to accomplish?”
If you’re hoping for a keepsake to share with relatives and team parents, aim for a video that plays more like a pregame feature. A little action mixed with some casual sideline footage (a team huddle or a pitcher playing catch while warming up) and a few interviews. “There’s a reason why we do these segments,” Vassallo says. “People like them.”
If you’re shooting a video to help with coaching and player development—or even college recruiting—you should record the action using a classic “cover shot.” (See how below.)
Is it a really important game? Vassallo suggests—counterintuitively—that you might want to skip the video entirely and focus all your attention on watching the drama unfold. “You’ll have an indelible memory instead of a mediocre video,” he explains.
Pro tip: Vassallo’s bread-and-butter shot—and it should be yours, too—is what sports producers call a “cover shot.” It’s a medium-wide shot taken from an elevated position around midfield—like the 50-yard line in a football stadium. The goal is to follow the play as it develops. The cover shot can be a great teaching tool, but it’s also the basis for solid game footage.
2. Buy the Right Gear
Shooting sports is demanding, so it pays to invest in a camera that gives you capabilities even the best smartphones lack. If you also want to capture still photos, consider a DSLR with best-in-class video capability, like the Nikon D7200. Instead of buying the package lens, pony up for a telephoto zoom—say, the 70- to 200-mm f/2.8 or the 70- to 300-mm f/4.5—that will allow you to get closer to the action. (An SLR from a company like Nikon gives you the option to rent from a specialty shop a superlong telephoto lens—500 mm or more—like the ones the pros use.)
If you’re strictly video, try a straightforward high-definition camcorder like the Sony HDR-PJ670. Though you lose the versatility of an SLR with interchangeable lenses, the 30x optical lens is much crisper than what you generally find on a smartphone, and the advanced autofocus lets you keep up with the fast-paced action. The camcorder form factor makes it much easier to hold the camera steady, too.
If you enjoy shooting action sports—cycling, skiing, etc.—or want to get more adventurous with camera placement, consider a GoPro Hero4, which provides a wide variety of mounting options. What it lacks in features, it makes up for in ruggedness.
Pro Tip: How you support your camera is every bit as important as which model you choose. That’s why Vassallo recommends using a tripod to minimize the camera shake associated with longer zoom lenses. A single-leg monopod provides adequate support while allowing you to move quickly from place to place.
3. Prepare a Shot List
Once you have the gear in hand, take a few moments to think about how you’re going to execute your game plan. Vassallo suggests sketching a quick shot list. “You’re telling a story, so you want to vary your perspective,” he explains.
If your daughter is pitching a softball game, for example, you might start with a wide “cover shot” from the first- or third-base line. During the next inning, move to the opposite sideline for a tighter shot that focuses on her face or details in her pitching motion. After that, try shooting from behind home plate.
Amateur videographers have a tendency to fall in love with the zoom feature. Don’t stumble into that trap, Vassallo warns. If you want to get closer to the action, use your feet instead. Resist at all cost the temptation to keep zooming in and out during the action. “You’ll make the viewers seasick,” he says.
Pro Tip: You know that big moment when your kid scores a goal or makes a game-saving play? Vassallo’s advice: Forget about it. ESPN deploys a small army of camera operators to record each event, and they still occasionally miss an important shot because they’re not in the right place at the right moment. As the sole camera operator, you’re not going to capture every highlight, no matter how hard you try. “You’ll have hours’ worth of useless game footage,” Vassallo says. “And there’s still a decent chance you’ll miss the big play.”
4. Add Some Color
Once you have a few basic action shots out of the way, it’s time to have some fun. Look for close-up shots on the bench. The decals on your daughter’s batting helmet. Her well-worn glove. The stuffed animal she keeps in her gear bag. Don’t just hit record and stop. Linger on each shot for at least 5 seconds—mouthing the numbers to make sure you get what you need. You probably won’t use that much B-roll footage, but you will at least have the option to stretch scenes out when you’re editing. It’s easy to cut clips down. Making them longer? That’s not possible.
Pro Tip: If you have an action camcorder, take advantage of its versatility. Mount it on the backstop or the back of a soccer goal. At practice, you might even get a player to strap on the camera for a few plays and get a point of view that’s unique and exciting.
5. Ask Questions
It’s pretty hard to produce pro-level sports footage, even if you’re an actual pro like Vassallo. But you do have one big advantage over ESPN: You know the players, the coaches, and the parents. After the game, channel your inner Bob Ley. Pull people aside, point the camera, and ask a few questions. Remember that big play? You might not have it on film, but you can always ask someone to describe it for you and layer the audio over artsy B-roll footage of a baseball bat or a glove. “So many parents have hundreds of hours of video of their kids playing, but they don’t have even 30 seconds of the coach talking,” Vassallo says. “That’s something that will be priceless when you look at it in 10 years.”
Pro Tip: Don’t overthink the interviews. Just ask open-ended questions. Your goal is to get people talking and telling stories. Don’t get too fancy with the follow ups, either. “'And then what happened?’ is one of the most powerful questions you can ask,” Vassallo says.
6. Edit to Amplify
“We have a saying in the business,” Vassallo says. “Edit to amplify.” To put it another way, less is more. A typical pregame segment that Vassallo produces might be only 2 minutes long. But that’s plenty of time to tell most stories. There’s no reason to come back with enough raw footage to rival “Apocalypse Now.” “Concentrate on quality rather than quantity,” Vassallo suggests. Carry that philosophy into postproduction, where you can use simple editing software like Apple iMovie or Adobe Premiere Elements to create a tight final cut.
Pro Tip: Even though you’re not shooting the whole game, make sure you film the whole play. Don’t turn off the camera until there’s a natural break in the action: a tackle, a shot on goal, or a line drive to center. “Nothing frustrates me more than action that’s not resolved,” Vassallo says.
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