Filming and Editing a Non-Profit Testimonial Video in 72 Hours for a High School Robotics Team

Working in video and photography has really taught me that things can happen quickly. A phone call, email, or even text message can immediately change the course of my plans and I've found it vital to remain flexible and open to those opportunities.

One such text message came through last week, and before I knew it, I was packing for a shoot the next day in Michigan.

A FIRST Robotics Team was in need of a video that they could use to show to the judges at their competitions, which ultimately will help their chances to win awards and secure funding for future programs. The video time limit was three minutes, and they needed it completed before their first competition of the year, which was about nine days away.

I spoke on the phone to the client, and sorted out details about the kind of video that would make the biggest impact, and what needed to happen to get this done quickly. It seemed to make the most sense to record a couple of students giving testimonials about their upbringing and the barriers in the way of their academic success, and then include an interview with one of the faculty/mentors to fill in the gaps, while explaining content from a broader standpoint so the audience could see the bigger picture.

Two days after that phone conversation, I found myself driving up I-75 to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where the plan was to setup and shoot 3-4 interviews in the evening, and then a few clips of b-roll the next morning. We wanted the responses to be as emotive and candid as possible, so instead of scripting anyone, we came up with specific questions that we felt would produce the desired responses to tell the story.

With no budget to line up a studio, I had to do the video shoots at the school itself.

Given that the content was going to be a bit emotional and heavy at times, I opted to go for look that would complement that. To me, that meant an all black background with a soft, almost overhead light source that would have little to no fill.

I chose to shoot in the back corner of the library, as I would have lots of space to work in and control over most of the lights. For lighting, I bounced a 1x1 LED panel at full power off of a 5-in-1 reflector, and placed it slightly off center, high above where the speaker would be sitting. This would give me a soft look, and with a high catch light, it created an almost sad, submissive feeling in the eyes.

I wanted to shoot my master shot (Sony FS700 with a Canon 70-200mm lens) around f/4 - f/3.5, so I ended up needing to place another 1x1 LED beside the first one, to push even more light off of the reflector. This let me hit my target aperture, while keeping my ISO as low as possible. I added a subtle rim light coming in from behind the speaker, and let the fill side fall off into shadow. Lastly, I used several flags to block out spill into my camera lens, as well as an emergency overhead light that would not turn off.

This is the lighting look we achieved for our interviews.

Click to enlarge.

I knew right away that I wanted to make this black and white in post, as I felt it would add to the emotion of the stories being told. Do you agree? Below are screen shots from after I added a black and white filter in Adobe Premiere.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

A second camera angle was setup with a Panasonic GH4 on a Kessler Second Shooter automated camera slider. I added a Rode VideoMicPro to it for better audio capture, that would end up being synced to the master camera. I decided to let my second camera angle go wide, and reveal some of the mics and lighting stands. I felt that revealing the set a little bit added to the authenticity and sincerity of the testimonials. Here's what that angle looked like.

For audio, I mic'd each person with a wireless lavalier mic, a Countryman B3 plugged into a Sennheiser G2 pack. I also ran a Rode NTG-2 off of a stand to get a backup audio source. I find that I enjoy the tones from a shotgun mic more than I do from lav mics, but when I can, I use both for redundancy. In the final edit, I chose to use the audio from the shotgun mic.

From loading in gear to striking the set, I was there from 3pm until midnight. We captured way more content than we would need, but I felt good knowing we would have a lot to work with in post. The next morning I popped in to the school to capture b-roll for a few hours before driving back down to Kentucky and starting on the edit.

I had to cut down several hours of interview content to the best three minutes.

I went through each person's interview multiple times, and cut them down as much as I could. I finally narrowed the clips down to the most succinct and impactful statements, and got timely feedback from the client to continue refining the edit. I found some perfect music tracks from a site called Art-list (music discovery is often a stage that I dread, especially on a project such as this one where I had very little breathing room in the edit to craft music around certain elements) and it was easy to find several tracks to audition, and ultimately use in the final piece, which both the client and I liked very much.

We left loads on the cutting room floor, but after several rounds of edit revisions with the client, we were able to come away with a very sincere, polished piece for them to use at their robotics competitions. I finished within about 72 hours of the shoot, well before their deadline. Their goal isn't to necessarily be the winning team, but rather be selected as a winner of the "Chairman's Award," and in their first competition, they succeeded in that goal. Go Team 470! Here's the final video.