February 2016

Spinning Fire — and Not Burnin’ Down the House

Why film someone spinning fire poi? Well…because fire is pretty. And as a still and video photographer, at the root of things I’m in this business because I admire stunning visual art. Plus, I have had a Sony PXW FS7 and I wanted to see what good slow motion would look like… and let’s face it, spinning fire is more interesting than watching me toss a ball up and down.

Most of my work is for commercial, advertising and editorial clients. I love what I do, and it opens doors to meet amazing people, see interesting things, and in the end, help convey their message clearly and effectively.

But back to fire. Yes. The fire. Fire is pretty. And not everything has to be about the bottom line. So when a fire spinner I know came through town for a family visit, I snagged him. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity!

Here Are a Few Things I Learned About Spinning Fire

1.     It’s hard to shoot indoors. The original idea was for an outdoor shoot, but outdoor shoots require cooperative weather – which we did not have. At all. And since spinning fire in a snow suit is no bueno: we had to do it indoors.

2.     The smell of kerosene takes a while to fade from your indoor studio. Three cheers for a smart spinner (Raymond Moore), who knew how to remove excess fuel from his poi before starting a new spin! Yes it makes for a shorter burn, but there was not a single drop of flame or fuel that ended up on walls or floor. Amazing control.

3.     One small wobble in the spinning can result in very singed whiskers for the spinner. After one fast spin around the back of his neck, Raymond commented, “Well, there went some beard…” It took a split second in real life, but later when we watched it back in slo-mo, the ball of fire rolled right across his cheek. Yikes! You definitely have to know what you’re doing with fire! He wasn’t burned, but he did get a shaggy shave.

4.     Not much beats fire in slow motion. I mean, I knew fire was beautiful, but seeing it in slow motion in the hands of an expert and spun over hot music takes it straight to mesmerizing. I’m betting you watched parts more than once.

fire spinning, fire poi,

Here Are a Few Things I Learned About Shooting a Fire Spinner

1.     If the stunt is going to look good, you have to have an excellent stunt artist. Anything done on camera has to be done with more precision than normal (because the screen shows it over and over), but in slow motion, it has to be even tighter.

2.     It’s faster than it looks. To point above, as we were shooting, I really didn’t know WHAT I was seeing, until we slowed it down to 12% of real time. To perform that in real time must take amazing practice.

3.     Music helps kinesthetics. Raymond chose the track you hear on the short we produced and spun to it in studio, so that’s what we chose for the video track too. It was interesting to see how much more relaxed — yet precise — Raymond was when performing to music. It was like adding a solid floor below a dancer — it gave him something to perform on. Remember, the studio was completely dark except for his spinning flames. Imagine yourself in total darkness spinning flaming chunks with no frame of reference. Music provided a bearing.

Yeah, there will be a Part II

Just have to get Raymond here when it’s not 15 degrees and storming outside and we’re set. Stay tuned. Northern Colorado weather might be fickle, but spring’s coming and I’m ready to do this again!

Beauty is where it’s at. It’s what called me to this business over 20 years ago, and it’s what continues to inspire me today. Get whimsical. Get creative. Make time to follow those things that feed your soul. You’ll be a better artist (and human being) for it.

Erik Stenbakken is a professional photographer and videographer (and partner in Clear Summit Productions), and is based in Greeley, Colorado. He serves the Fort Collins, Loveland, Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs areas, as well as doing out of state assignments.

Fail Already! How You Can Learn Tons About Filmmaking Cheap and Easy

I had been a successful still photographer for over a decade, but about five years ago I wanted to branch out into video. I knew I had to learn about making films somehow. And I knew that the best way to do it was make films (yes, I read Robert Rodriguez’ “Rebel Without A Crew”). Eventually I wanted to do productions in motion like I had with stills: professional talent, cool locations, great lighting, and a solid story. But I didn’t know enough to ace that scenario, and I knew it. I also knew I couldn’t afford to fail on a grand scale.
The Conumdrum: How to fail (and learn) but do it on the cheap.
The Solution: Lego Duplo.

The High Points of What I Learned

Yep. The actors never hassled me about working after 10:00 p.m., never demanded better catering, and would do stunts without hazard pay. The set was just as easy: floor space and toys. Over two evenings after my “real” job, I fired up the sound studio and went to work. And this is what I learned.

1.     Failure is where it’s at. Fail once, and all of a sudden, all those “theories” start to make sense. And the lessons stick. DOING IT is light years ahead of merely reading about it (though that’s good, you gotta actually do it).

2.    Begin. Yeah, all the planning and telling folks, “I’m going to make a movie!/short film/music video/whatever” doesn’t do it. One has to jump in and do it. Plan just enough to get the ball rolling and then don’t let it stop.

3.     Finish. Seems like a quick jump from “begin” no? Well, if it’s a learning project, you have to finish. That’s part of the lesson. Oh, you’ll never be done. Trust me. There’s something you’ll notice that you could change every single time you watch it again. But quit. Aim it out into space and launch it!

4.     Move on. After you’re finished, the temptation may be to pine about it. Feel sorry for what didn’t go well. Apologize for it. Give reasons/excuses why it’s not better. Forget all that. Move on. Learn the lessons you came to get and apply them to the next set. Of course people will say, “I’d have done such-and-such part differently.” Of course they would. But they didn’t do it at all, did they? Learn and move on.

Fail Already, How to make a film

The More Mundane (…but Practical) Things I Learned

In no particular order, here are some of the other things I’ve learned over time — many of which I was first introduced to by doing the Duplo production. Hope they are helpful. But I warn you, they won’t stick till you do them for yourself.

    • Start with something that’s 100% within your control. This is self-assigned homework, yes? Then don’t embark on it with the obvious pitfalls of being dependent on a volunteer crew of nine and a writer to get you their script and talent to show for readings, etc, etc. All of those things will stall you. They do when there’s money on the table; it’s worse when it’s free. Film yourself. Your dog. GI Joe. Whatever. If the whole show is within your control — fewer excuses and delays.
    • Slate your shots. When assembling later, you’ll be glad you did. Related…
    • Storyboard dramatic shoots. For the interview and b-roll schtick, no problemo. Just shoot away. Dramatic story? You need a better plan than that, and storyboarding will show you where your gaps are. This can help immensely with logical shot progression, continuity, 180 rule, props, etc. An ounce of pain up front saves a pound of pain later.
    • Write clearly. As in handwriting. I could barely read my own notes. What was I supposed to be shooting in 29b?
    • Related: Organize well. It mattered a wee bit with the Duplo folks, but when you’ve got a set of actors and crew standing around, efficiency is money. Efficiency is quality (because when real people get bored, tired, frustrated, you can’t just toss them in a toy box till tomorrow night).
    • Things happen in sequences, and how you get from A to B matters. Whether you do it in dialogue or visually or both, you have to take your audience from A to B in some logical way or they’ll be lost and you’ll waste their time (and your storytelling capital) with them trying to figure out where you are and what’s going on. Of course for mystery, you have to create this issue and have a plan as to how you unravel it.
    • Moving the camera adds interest, but it does not solve plot problems. Shoot a static shot in addition to motion as a safety.
    • Roll sooner and longer. That is, hit record and wait a few seconds before the “Action!” call. Then roll the camera a few seconds well after the action is over. It’s super easy to trim that off, and impossible to add if you cut too soon. Which leads me to…
    • Editing your own shooting will make you a better shooter. Trust me. Hit “stop record” two seconds too soon a few times and the Editing Bay version of you will hate the Camera Operator version of you — and you’ll learn.
    • Get clean audio. Mic well. Check levels closely. Get clean audio before and after takes — that is, don’t let your actors start their lines until a few seconds AFTER the obligatory “Action.” I’ve had to trim audio more than once when a director says, “Ok, that was great!” almost on top of the actor’s lines as they finish. Don’t be that director.
    • The 180 rule. Never heard of it when I shot this. By the time I began to edit it (years later)…d’oh! Yeah. It disorients a viewer a bit if you’re not following some of those basics. Better to fail with Legos.
    • When shooting dialogue, get some reaction shots of talent B while A is going through their lines. With Duplo, reaction looks about like speaking…but truth is, I used some of what was supposed to be speaking lines as reaction lines since it worked better. Live actors? I’d have been toast at that point in my learning curve.
    • Lighting makes more difference than you think. Folks obsess over “what brand of camera/lens do you use?” when in reality, about $500 of decent lights can make a $200 lens sing more beautifully than a poorly-lit scene with a $2,000 lens.
    • Music matters. A good music editor matters. I’m not that…but over the years I have developed a real belief that they do matter.
    • Foley matters. And it’s fun! Even this simple video has five layers of audio. The piece was essentially lifeless before I laid in some SFX and audio details. It’s not going to win any awards for sound design, but it does make me appreciate the extra dimension it adds. And while recording foley and VO, don’t fart near the mic. You know…just theoretically speaking.
    • Give credit. Whether it’s music, or SFX, or actors, or craft services, include them. And check for accuracy in name spelling.
    • Monitor the edges of the frame. In this little gem, I cannot tell you how many takes were ruined by my having something on the edge of the frame. Even then, some are not clean. No big thing on this video. But when I had to ditch an entire set of takes on a commercial gig because the mic on a boom pole was waving around the top of the frame — that sucked. Turns out, the DP had been monitoring with overlays turned on (showing camera details, but masking top of frame) and never saw the bobbing dead cat.
    • Technical things really don’t matter till something goes wrong. This is a vast overstatement, but the gist is: if you have decent light, exposure and sound, you’ve covered about 90% of what matters. At this level of production, don’t sweat it. Real world, real clients…yes. There’s always room to step it up, and 1,000 ways to screw it up. This is self-education where that’s not critical.
    • In the edit bay, if a scene or shot is just not working and it’s not essential to the plot…ditch it. Even if it was special to make or has some hidden gem for you. Not moving the story along? Cut it.
    • Beware continuity. Did you notice that the pizza guy never gets the money in his hand as he runs away? Nether did I when I shot it. Whenever there are things in a set that move around, you have to re-set them every take. The cool simulated TV light (pen light)? I forgot to continue it throughout. D’Oh! Cheaper to fail with Legos. On real sets now, continuity is assigned to someone (not the director or DP).
    • If the action isn’t flowing/making sense within four takes, make a new plan. Ten takes where none of them work is pointless. Work around it.
    • And last…titles. Cool titles matter. I don’t have them here but they do matter. It’s the last thing your audience sees (not the last shot). Make them worthy of your film.

So Get Busy and Fail!

Learn tons about filmmaking. Begin. Finish. And then move on. It’s a learning process, and the sooner you get on with it, the sooner you’ll be on your way to bigger and better mistakes. But hopefully not the same ones!


Technical notes: This video was shot on a Canon PowerShot S100 using a flashlight, gaffer’s tape, and Duplos. No animals were harmed in the making of this film.