Howdy, my film familia! In this installation of Diary of a DP, I offer you a survival guide where I will be sharing my experience and things to remember when shooting music festivals or concerts.
Once upon a time, as a young strapping lad, I was taking various shooting assignments to further my operating skills. Shooting music events or music videos has its own rewards. It is fun and will challenge you in every way. I learnt a helluva lot for sure. Shooting music events and music videos are totally different. Shooting an artist’s music video is a different beast but can be rewarding as you get to experiment and have more creative freedom.
If you never attended a music festival, you have not truly lived! I’ve been fortunate enough to shoot a few rock concerts and country music festivals and every time I go to a new one, I develop much better common sense and gain new insights. So will you. Here are my insights:
Insight #1 - Bring your own sleeping bag or tent. I remember my first time as a total newbie, I showed up thinking there were hotels and showers near the music venue. Big mistake! Sure, there were hotels. But they were a 35-40 minute drive away. But when you shoot for an entire day, the last thing you want to do is to drive in a sleep deprived state. Better to crash at the campground or designated areas.
Insight #2 - Always store your gear and expensive equipment near the backstage area. Going back and forth to your tent to grab pieces of gear is time consuming and you could miss capturing a kick ass set on stage.
Insight #3 - People and festival goers will stop you and ask questions such as, "What is that strange looking thingamajig?" While its nice to stay and chat, remember you are there to do a job. Once the concert is over you can let loose and engage in witty banter.
Insight #4 - Always stay hydrated or you will throw up and pass out. Being a strapping young buck, iI was eager to impress those who hired me, so I became a lean mean shooting machine. I would skip water breaks. Plus, my pockets were full of gear-related stuff, I didn’t have room for a water bottle. When you are shooting ion hot days, you can only last so long without water. I didn't have any, so I threw up while I was shooting. Thankfully, it was near the end of a set and I did not pass out on the spot! What a way to make an impression. Epic Fail!
Insight #5 - Always bring sunscreen. By the 3rd day of the festival, I was redder than red lobster. Note to self, drink at least half a gallon of water every 6 hours and bring a hat or sunscreen.
Now that we are done with insights and fond memories, it's time to move on to the juicy bits.
Always remember to carry extra batteries and memory cards in your pocket. Navigating your way around the festival (especially if you have to get to a different stage) can be annoying and stressful). Next, try and get enough rest before a show begins. Shooting a music festival is like running a marathon. It is a game of endurance, so make sure you have a good night sleep before the main event. Failing that, red bull and monster drinks are your best friends. I once downed 6 cans of red bull just so I could keep up!
The rookie mistake is not getting ear plugs before a show. Most festivals will give out free earplugs. You need earplugs to drown out the noise. Giant speakers are everywhere in the stage area. Loud decibel can cause serious damage to your eardrums if you are exposed to high levels of music over a prolonged period of time.
A seasoned filmmaker should know what B-roll is. A rock concert or music festival isn't just about the music, it's also about the people, the community, the art, the dance shows, the fire twirlers…etc. No music event is complete without the 360 experience. Shooting a performance is one thing, but there's a whole other world at the campgrounds. You should always get extra coverage of interesting things happening around you. There are always ton of art or interesting sculptures around the campground. I always like to explore the campsites of other people. You'll find lots of people drinking and laughing and generally having a good time! Ask if they are willing to provide a quick sound byte or appear on video. Most of them will say yes immediately for their 15 seconds of fame! Avoid what I call Shot Killers: Filming a porta potty, garbage cans, or fences. Definitely shots to avoid.
- Dress in black, your attire matters! Try not to wear white. You don’t want to draw any unnecessary attention to yourself, especially when you are shooting on stage.
- Take turns with your teammates so there is only one person at a time on stage. At any music event there will be at least four shooters. Communicate with eye signals or hand gestures so you can do your job smoothly and effortlessly.
- Don’t cut in the middle of the song; always record until the song finishes.
Always be aware of your surroundings. Concert stages are usually dark, foggy, and full of cables. You don’t want to trip in the middle of the shoot. Cutaways should be in your repertoire. In a previous blog post of mine, How to Shoot Interviews & Get Mad Love in Return, I go deeper into this. Having cutaways will save the day and your editor will love you. Example of cutaway shots include a close-up of the guitar, drums, or any other musical instrument. Get close-up shots of faces, fingers, back up dancers, crowd reaction...etc.
When I shot Dierks Bentley on stage at a country music festival, he was taking selfies with his fans on stage. Those shots were really good cutaways.
Usually at concerts or events there is a lighting technician or designer in charge of stage lighting. Concert lights are normally controlled remotely via a dmx board. It goes without saying you should introduce yourself to the lighting designer and discuss ways so you can get your shot and get out! It's really just a matter of timing, good lighting, and good action to capture the perfect moment. Most lighting designers are open to collaborating to make your shots look better. A tip to look out for when you are shooting on stage is to be aware of your own shadow. Its very easy to get caught up in the moment
If it’s a larger festival featuring big named artists, there is usually a huge video truck that will do live switching with multiple cameras. I've done a couple of these larger festivals, and they will usually let you know via a headset that they are switching to your camera. In situations like this, the lighting design is fix and you are only there to capture the band/artist.
Lighting Issues to be Aware Of
Sometimes stage lighting can be boring. For example, some shows will have single color lights coming on at different intervals. All red, all blue. It's not a pleasing look, as it washes out all the detail you are capturing. In situations like this, you can politely ask the lighting technician to mix up different color lights to keep it interesting. Another tip is to be on the lookout for flickering lights. Stage lights will flicker. Strobe lights are pretty common on stage, too, so just remember to adjust your camera shutter.
Hazards to Look Out For
It is inevitable that you will encounter lasers at a festival, especially rock and roll concerts. Lasers can harm and fry your camera sensor, so avoid pointing it directly at the source. Be alert about pyrotechnics or fireworks that happen on stage. After a while, you will develop eyes at the back of your head so you can navigate all the smoke screen and chaos on stage.
When you get your backstage pass to shoot all these amazing artists, you will gain a godly status. Please, for the love of God, do not act like a teenage girl when you are around these rock stars. They are people too, so act cool, calm, and collected! Speak only when spoken to. Be courteous to all the tour manager and festival organizers. This will build your reputation up as a professional and you will get invited back to future events.
If you get only one takeaway after reading this far, that is to listen with your eyes and ears. Not your mouth. Shooting music festivals will test your stamina and will. When you are shooting ‘live,’ anything can happen on stage. The artist may decide to improvise and do something out of the blue, and it is your job to listen to the music and shoot with your ears, not just your eyes. If the guitarist is doing a solo, focus on him. Most importantly have fun while you shoot! You can brag to your pals later when you are drunk.
I hope you enjoy this post, stay tuned for the next one!
Other "Diary of a DP" Stage 32 Posts by Shawn Yeo:
Confessions of a Lens Whore
How to Shoot Interview & Get Mad Love in Return
How to Shoot Horror Films [And Scare the Bejesus Out of Your Audience]
Shawn Yeo is an independent filmmaker and cinematographer, loving every aspect of film production and being on set. Shawn constantly finds himself learning new things everyday as the industry evolves. He believes story is king.
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