On Making a Different Kind of Wedding Film

June 10, 2016

By Tomasz Wagner + Amy Tran

As creatives involved in both wedding photography and cinematography, we’ve noticed a few interesting differences between these worlds that can help lay the foundation for the kind of filmmaker you want to be.

Clients tend to prioritize photography in their wedding budgets, and cinematographers are often sought out not so much for their artistry and ability to tell a story differently, but because their equipment can capture everything that stills can’t, namely audio and movement. There aren’t as many resources out there—articles, workshops, community discussions or wedding blogs—that are directly inspiring, informing or elevating the work of a wedding filmmaker. And with the separate but overlapping roles between photographer and cinematographer, there’s often misunderstanding and tension when the two are required to share a room or mountaintop that doesn’t seem large enough.

So what does this all mean?

We have a ton of room to grow within our craft and to create wedding films in a climate that at times still feels like unexplored territory. This is both hugely daunting and exciting. Sure, there are clients attracted to the tried and true—from the production-heavy films and 360-degree sweeps, to the whimsical light leaks coupled with indie folk soundtracks—but there are people who crave something else entirely. They just don’t know what that is yet. As filmmakers, we’re in an ideal position to explore this for them, and for ourselves.

What works for us and our team is a more natural, unscripted approach that allows us to be mobile, flexible and focused on capturing a mood; this complements the intimate and laid-back style of our clients, who also happen to love a good party. We could talk about this at length, but let’s get into some tips first to get you started.

All video stills © Tomasz Wagner

Be Inspired By The Larger World Of Cinema (And Analogue Film)

To create interesting work of any kind, look beyond the arena you’re in. Dive into genres you wouldn’t normally be attracted to, much less associate with weddings, and embrace other perspectives and ways of telling a story. You won’t create anything different by surrounding yourself with only what’s on trend in the industry.

There’s so much information to be gathered from experiencing a film, but as cinematographers we try to pay close attention to the more technical details forged between the director and the director of photography (DP). When a unique camera movement, cut or transition happens, think about why that expression was used and what emotion it was intended to evoke and highlight. Specific and recurring compositions, camera angles and lighting techniques offer us ways to interpret a scene or character. If something in a film particularly moves you, such as an interesting visual perspective, note it and find ways to experiment with this technique.

Over time and with some patience and common sense, if a noted technique matches up well with the kind of films we want to make in collaboration with our editor, Alexander Farah, we’ll continue to practice and refine it. In essence, we’re constantly revisiting our process and allowing it to evolve based on what excites us as creatives.

Consider analogue film as a way to inspire how you see and operate, everything from the way it captures movement and exposure to how it dictates a certain pace and rhythm while you use it. When your goal is to convey a certain mood, film can add a powerful layer of expression. A list of film labs where you can purchase, develop, and/or scan film can be found at motion.kodak.com.

Although we draw inspiration from all kinds of films, there have been a few we’ve been returning to as of late: Blade Runner (1982), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Fallen Angels (1995) and the work of DP Christopher Doyle in general, The Tree of Life (2011), Django Unchained (2012) and finally, Kings of Summer (2013).
That the majority of these were shot on analogue film is no coincidence. We’re attracted to everything about it, from the hypersensitivity of film stocks and the way in which colors are expressed, to the behavior of grain and how it changes from frame to frame. When filmmakers want to reference a specific era, they might do so using analogue film to drive the story and enhance the performance of the characters. This nostalgia factor is partly why we use Super 8 film in some of our cinema work; it also happens to be great fun to shoot.

Keep It Natural To Capture And Convey Mood

One of the most important skills we’ve learned as photographers is to be patient in order to convey real, authentic moments within a larger story; it’s no different when working as a cinematographer. Put another way, when you observe, you’re both allowing the scene to unfold naturally and creating the space to notice and document subtleties you might otherwise miss: patterns of light spilling into a room, the groom’s reflection on a glass surface, a mother’s hands expressing nervous excitement.

Remember that a natural approach isn’t inherently passive. When we’re waiting for something to happen, we’re not only deciding which moments are important to the story but also how they’re expressed. Apply this mindset to footage that requires some guidance and pre-visualization such as static wedding details. If you shoot these, contextualize them and pay attention to what’s happening in the frame. Capture human expression and these details simultaneously by having someone’s hand adjust a place setting or walking alongside the bride as her dress moves. We can all do better than disembodied dresses on hangers and rings without fingers; these types of scenes state the obvious and lack a certain rawness and emotion that contribute to mood.

The Brixton ONA camera bag with Canon 5D Mark III, 50mm f/1.4 lens, gradient ND filter, Pelican memory card case, Canon 814XL-S Super 8, Kodak Film (TriX, 200T, 500T), Digital Bolex with external battery pack, four C-mount lenses and Zacuto viewfinder on Wooden Camera rail system, Hold Fast Money Maker, juicedLink Little Darling audio recorder with remote trigger and Countryman B3 Lav, microfiber cleaning cloth, eight AA Eneloop batteries, four Canon LP-E6 batteries and Me FOTO GlobeTrotter tripod.

Celebrate Imperfection By Slimming Down Your Gear

Handheld footage created using an equipment setup that’s not imposing or heavy is our vehicle of choice. Naturally, this means we use gear that allows us to move with ease and be flexible with positioning, such as the Digital Bolex and Canon 814XL-S. We believe that movement in footage from a camera that isn’t locked down and completely stabilized has a language of its own: it’s a bit raw, imperfect and honest. It resembles the way you would experience a moment. From the way you breathe to the way you walk, all of this natural movement informs the image that’s created.

That bit of movement adds character to your footage and contributes to the overall mood you’re after. This is also true when you want to achieve a more dramatic effect by animating your footage. Experiment with whip pans, handheld walking shots and unconventional time-lapses to create visual interest and B-roll footage that’s unexpected and outside the norm. This kind of intentional movement adds a layer of realism to your process and keeps things interesting. While bringing more specific tools to the job may allow you to achieve the same effects and make the process easier for you, what works for us is keeping our bag of tricks to a minimum—not only for better mobility but because there’s more to filmmaking than the tools, right?

EXTRA TIP: Detach the camera from your face once in a while and be another person in the room with your clients. 
Don’t be surprised when the tension in the air lifts a bit. We do our best to balance this detachment and observation with engaging and speaking with our clients; our cameras are always close and our eyes are always searching.

Move around the space and get closer to and away from your subject to refresh your perspective and create some variation in your footage. The point here is to be intentional about how you operate in order to share in this experience with your clients, and to wait but be decisive in your documentation.

Consider The Tools, But Don’t Stop There

With so many options on the market today, you need to be conscientious of the ways in which your tools influence your creative process and, ultimately, the work you want to create. With our love of analogue film, it’s no surprise that our two primary cameras either emulate it or work entirely within its somewhat unpredictable ways.

We can’t overstate how important it is to understand the ins and outs of your tools and whether they align with how and what you’re trying to say through your work. Don’t forget you need to enjoy using them, too.

The Canon 814XL-S is a Super 8mm film camera that’s both easy and formidable to use. Considering the quirks of this camera is an exercise in learning not only how to load it with film and use its small and murky viewfinder, but trusting that everything (focus, exposure, composition, etc.) is ready when you squeeze the trigger. You won’t know what you’ve shot until the film has been developed and scanned, and with 2.5 minutes per roll, not being intentional with your shots will prove costly both creatively and financially. We’ll see if Kodak’s new Super 8 camera can take some of the edge off this sometimes stressful but rewarding process.

One of the most interesting cameras we’ve used is the Digital Bolex (or D16), a modern take on the traditional 16mm Bolex cinema camera. The way the D16 renders grain on its Super 16 CCD sensor creates an organic look to the footage that pulses with its own character; coupled with a global shutter and all sorts of interesting cinema lenses, you’ve got a small beast in your arsenal. Despite its heftier weight, lack of low light capabilities and technology that may have you wondering why you wouldn’t want a camera with more features (like the Sony a7S II), the D16 combines the versatility, look and feel that we’re after in a camera that’s also enjoyable to operate.

Shoot Alone Or As A Pair (And That’s It)

We’re fans of simplicity—not only when it comes to gear and shooting, but how we operate as cinematographers. When we’re looking to keep our style unobtrusive and intimate, two cinematographers is plenty and one is ideal. Working solo is both far easier to be discreet as well as connect with your clients; their attention isn’t divided by the assistants trailing behind you, and the space you’re in is shared with only the people who need to be there.

Once another person who has a part in documenting a scene enters your frame—be it the photographer, second cinematographer—more than “ruining” the shot, you instantly communicate to the viewer what a production this is, affecting the mood you’re trying to create. They call this breaking the fourth wall, and unless you’re being intentional about it (having your clients look directly at the camera for dramatic effect, for example), it goes without saying you should avoid doing this as much as possible; naturally, it helps when there are fewer people milling about.

There’s no need to overcomplicate things during post, either. As our editor, Alexander, can tell you, footage shot by one cinematographer is far more cohesive and less redundant by comparison, even when created using three different types of cameras. A multi-person team can try and follow the same artistic vision, but simply shooting two or three different angles of the same thing doesn’t necessarily help that vision.

Reality Check:

There are times when solo shooting isn’t ideal. It can be hugely stressful especially when you try to apply it to a wedding that isn’t suited for it, such as when your clients are in two separate places for a good portion of the day, the schedule is jam-packed with events or it’s a large wedding. You also have to know yourself and what you’re comfortable with.
Don’t shoot alone if… 
•    You’re the kind of person who thrives on comparing notes.
•    The thought of managing three cameras on your own terrifies you.
Do shoot alone if…
•    You work well under pressure.
•    You want to dig deeper into your process.
•    You’re interested in learning how to manage your gear better (essentially a matter of choosing the camera that works best for a given scenario).

Make The Time To Capture B-Roll

We use this kind of footage to establish space, feeling and mood in contrast to the primary shots, which are more dynamic.

We focus on B-roll during the quieter parts of the wedding day and often schedule time outside of it (before or after the wedding) during events that lend themselves well to the film—the journey to the location, for example, especially if it’s a destination wedding, or the reunions and meals where people are more relaxed. As an added benefit to spending some extra time with your clients and their families, everyone is more familiar with you and how you work. This invites them to be vulnerable and open in front of your camera, whether during a powerful emotional moment at the ceremony or cutting loose on the dance floor.

Don’t forget to include some “static” B-roll shots, like time-lapses, with the help of a tripod. Whether directed at people or landscapes, these shots are a great way to create footage without having to monitor the camera at all times (which is another important consideration when you’re shooting solo). When most of your footage is handheld and energetic in a film, a slower, more static image during a music cue can be a relief; the mind is allowed to play catch-up and take in what it’s experiencing. The film is allowed to breathe with the rhythm, and pacing B-roll helps establish that.

Tomasz Wagner is a Vancouver-based wedding photographer and cinematographer who was recognized as one of Rf’s 30 Rising Stars in 2015. He runs Tomasz Wagner Photo & Films alongside his partner and best friend, Amy Tran. Afghan-Canadian filmmaker Alexander Farah has edited a number of commercials, documentaries and short films, in addition to Wagner’s videos. View their work at tomaszwagner.co.

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