How to shoot a parade video

Each year, Spokane, Wa holds an annual Lilac Festival and Armed Forces Day Parade. This is the largest evening Armed Forces Day Parade in the country, and one of the larger parades of any type on the west coast.

This year, 211 units participated in the parade, with 46 high school marching bands from throughout the state (and some from out of state). The parade typically has around 50 + or – bands. If you like marching bands, this is a neat parade!

Over the years, I have followed the West Valley High School Eagle Marching Band since my own kids previously went through that band program. While I no longer have any of my own kids in the band, I still run their web sites and some IT functions behind the scenes, and do some media work for them, all as a volunteer.

Video taping a marching band in a night time parade is difficult. If you stand on the curb and shoot video, the band goes by once and its all over with in 20 seconds.

The only solution is to march with the band. But that adds a lot of challenges, even more so at night. I cannot use auto exposure in the camera since the camera tries to add 36 db of gain to make the night time look like daylight and covering everything in awful noisy graininess. Similarly, audio levels can not use the ALC to adjust audio level automatically – that makes the entire band and crowd noise come across as loud mess.

The opening scene of the following video is shot near the TV coverage area. I set the gain to 0 db and shot at 1/60th of a second in 30p mode, Tv exposure mode, on the Canon XH A1. Once the band passes the TV lighting, I manually switch to 12 db gain and the XH A1 has sufficient aperture to automatically set the f-stop the rest of the parade.

Why not use 1/30th of a second rather than 1/60th, considering shooting at night? Two reasons. One, 1/30th of a second produces some blurring, but does enable using +6 db gain instead of +12 db gain. But the second reason is that motion stabilizing software (see below) does not work well with blurred images. Sharp images work much better and that requires at least the 1/60th of a second shutter speed (based on some experiments I did).

I also use both a short shot gun and the on camera mic during the parade. For the long shot at the beginning, I used the shot gun mic to cut down the crowd noise. But once I start moving with the band, I switch to the internal stereo mic to get better coverage (less directivity) of the sound pattern of the entire band.

At about 1 minute 35 seconds into the video, you’ll see my fake “Steadicam” in action. You’ll see this type of shot throughout the entire video.

How do I do this?
1. I use a monopod and attach a 3 pound weight to the bottom of the monopod. This creates a simple dynamic stabilizer. Imagine holding a stick with a weight at the bottom. As you move the stick around, gravity naturally pulls the weight back towards the center. The amount of weight and the length of the monopod influence the dampening effect. I use only a 3 pound weight because I have to carry the camera gear for several miles (the parade itself is 3 miles long, plus I usually walk 2 or 3 additional miles before and after the event).

2. Learn how to walk smoothly. Watch marching band performers – they “roll step” as they walk. This means rolling your feet in a smooth motion rather than stepping, greatly reducing your vertical motion. Surprisingly, you can learn to walk backwards for an even smoother effect which has to do with how your body mechanics works out. Add a slight crouch and slightly bent knees and with practice, this technique combined with the weighted monopod can product surprisingly smooth walking shots.

3. In post, use motion stabilizing software. There are several applications available today that do a good job of analyzing images for motion and then shift your images around to create the appearance of stability. Since they has the effect of adding black edges to your video after shifting, most also slightly enlarge your original video to eliminate the black edges. For this video, I just used the built in motion stabilizing feature in Apple’s iMovie 8. It took about 3 hours to analyze the HD video I had shot.

Even with motion stabilizing software, you will achieve the best results if you also use the tricks outlined in (1) and (2). You can see the effects of this fake “Steadicam” throughout the videos, but if you are in a hurry, you can see it in the first scene in Part 2, below.

Other tricks I use during the parade are to use the monopod for overhead shots, including walking shots. Sometimes I take a video clip standing in the midst of the band but did not do that this year. It would also be nice to take some low level shots from near ground level, but there is never enough time.

By the end of the parade, I am drenched in sweat and exhausted. In order to get many shots of both the front and back of the band, I have to shoot while the band marches by, then run back up to the front of the band.

This was shot using the Canon XH A1. I have shot daytime parades using an HV30, external BeachTek audio mixer, and a short shot gun XLR mic, plus wide angle lens (always go wide angle for these things). I use the XH A1 for the night parade because of its better light gathering capacity of the big lens and larger imagers. But it does weigh a bit more!

Part 1 of 2:

Part 2 of 2:

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