Shooting Live Events

Lady Eliza's 18th thumbnail

I was recently called upon to shoot a rather elaborate birthday party for one of the daughters of a titled family (the Duke and Duchess of Rutland).

They’re friends and my wife is the Artist in Residence for Belvoir Castle, so it was done as one might do a video for any other friends’ party–pro bono. That doesn’t mean I approached it any differently than I would do for a paying gig.

But this one was particularly fun and rewarding. It was rewarding because everyone in the family really, really loved it. It was much better than they had hoped for or expected, and that’s the standard I always try to achieve anyway. I was confident I would achieve that goal, but honestly at the beginning I had no idea of how I was going to do it. I only had the confidence that I could, having done this sort of thing in various genres many times before.

How does one go about doing one of these things?

Well, it’s a party, not a wedding. So I didn’t really bother with any preps or even ask many questions as to what was supposed to happen. It was handy to find out from the photographer when the cake was going to be cut and that sort of thing, but besides that, I knew the only important thing was that I should take care to cover the family members and their friends in as many poignant moments that I could. Assembling the shots together into a logical, memorable and emotional sequence later is something I would just have to figure out when it came time to do so.

This is raw run and gun videography–shooting a live event, un-briefed, as it happens.

It’s not the time to set up glider shots and do focus shifts on flowers and chandeliers. No one cares about your ‘cinematic skills’ or fancy camerawork. The only thing that’s going to count is a capture of the memories of that moment–and those memories are of the people they really care about, friends and family alike.

As luck would have it, at some point after the dinner, the Duchess told the audience that whilst on Safari with the children a week or two earlier, they had all practiced singing Cat Stevens’  Father and Son. In tribute to her daughter, who had just turned 18, the Duchess (herself formally trained as an opera singer), sang the first few verses of the song to her daughter.  Eliza then joined her mother and sang the rest of the song. Afterwards, all the siblings came up and sang that last refrain with Eliza–and that gave me the treatment for the whole video.

Obviously the song had strong emotional value to the family. It had become a focal point of the event.

So I found a live version of Cat Stevens performing the song and used that as the basis for the edit. (amazingly, YouTube didn’t give me a copyright hit for it. Thank you Cat Stevens.)

I started off with a series of slow motion shots of Eliza preparing for the costume party and followed it up with shots that included each of her family members. Not many of you watching this will realise the significance of these shots as you don’t know these people, but mom (11th Duchess of Rutland), dad (11th Duke of Rutland), sisters Lady Violet and Lady Alice and brothers Charles, the Marquis of Granby and Lord Hugo, were all the stars of the slo motion sequence at the beginning.

At a key point of the song I changed to real-time and this was a sequence of shots of Eliza being greeted by many of her closest friends as they arrived. I had no idea who was important or not, but I could tell by what happened and what was said at the time which people were vital to include in the edit and made sure to include them all.

Her father, the Duke, is not keen on pubic events and not often seen. I made sure to shoot as many shots as I could of him surreptitiously from a distance, but in the end used only two shots I knew both he and the family would love, 1) when his birthday girl came up to him for the first time, 2) when I caught glimpse of him lighting his cigar off a flaming sword–and jostled as best I could through the crowd to get the shot.

When I found out the Duchess was going to give a speech (my bad, I should have found out that at least in advance), I quickly set up a second camera shooting the general area from behind. Good thing I did because the Duchess had the chandeliers turned off and I was left with strobe lighting that confused the heck out of my Sony NX30. So when she started singing the Cat Stevens song, I wasn’t focused (which is hard to do in strobe lighting, mind you), so my rear camera took up the slack.

The fun bit was fading in the sound of mother and daughter singing more or less in synch with Cat Stevens–some of the only live sound I used in the entire video.

Then, rather than bore everyone with their singing of the entire song, on the last phrase of the song I cut to all the siblings singing in synch with Cat, transitioning afterwards to a short funny speech by brother Lord Hugo, the last bit of a speech by her best school mates (skipping all the usual, funny and personal stories about boys and other matters) and finally to a few choice shots of the dancing–featuring –again– all the family members who were still there– to a reprise of the last chorus of the Cat Stevens song, effectively book-ending the video with the song.

Thus Cat Stevens tied the whole thing together and all I did was include all the memorable shots that really mattered in a way that no one could possibly have expected in a 5 1/2 minute video of a 10 hour event.

Was it perfect? No.

Half of it was shot in near or total dark.

One shot has a big bump in it that was totally my fault. I had made a mental note to remove some post production stabilisation to a difficult shot which actually made it worse and forgot to. It had been seen 400 times on YouTube before I noticed it.

Did they care? No.

And that’s what counts. They got something they’ll treasure forever because I took care to include what I knew would be important to them in a way that they would never forget.

It was seen over 400 times in the first 24 hours. Most of the likes and shares were on the family Facebook pages (not on YouTube), but I’m releasing it for the first time publicly here.

This is basically what’s called a compilation edit. Wedding videographers do it all the time with their highlight versions of the edit. It’s best done to a relevant piece of music chosen by the wedding couple. You can do it with any kind of event. If you’re alone, concentrate on the people. If you have extra crew to do ‘fancy shots’, go ahead. But in the end, the shots that make it memorable to your client are of the people, not the flowers or chandeliers.

For those interested, I shot all this on the Sony HXR NX30 as it’s slightly better in low light than my Sony PXW X70. It was the X70 that I set up as a second camera on the reverse during the speeches. I did little to no colour grading and used Neat Video to remove some bad grain in some of the really dark shots. But most of it is pure NX30 doing its thing.