In low-budget video production -- sometimes even in medium-budget work -- the biggest problems usually come from audio issues. Here are a couple of quick ideas on how to avoid an audio crisis in small-crew video production:
1. Proximity Problems
No on-camera mic is great at a distance from your subject. While you can often get a better visual by backing up, keep in mind that a great visual of an interview without clear audio is not usable. If there's doubt about what you are getting, get closer with the camera and get the microphone in close.
2. Background Noise
Keep in mind that even background sounds which don't overwhelm or distract from your subject's voice can cause problems. If you are cutting together a few short phrases from a longer statement -- common practice in short video -- the background sounds can make this very difficult. Wear headphones that cover your ears and you'll hear these background problems before you record them.
3. Directionality problems
A shotgun microphone -- either on a camcorder or on a boom pole -- is a great solution for this kind of work. But it introduces a new problem: directionality. If we have two people speaking, it is very easy to have the microphone pointed at one and not the other, and we end up with one subject sounding great and the other weak. Or, if a shotgun is on camera, you may have audio levels go up and down as the camera changes where it is pointed. If you are going to use a microphone on a boom, practice with it -- wear some headphones and try it on a few live conversations.
4. The Two-Level Trick
In documentary-style production, situations often change very quickly. You might set a level and then realize the everything has gotten quieter or louder. Or the sounds you want might vary greatly. One excellent trick is to record onto to channels or two separate sources and set the levels differently. For example, say we had a boom microphone going into the camcorder and had set that level to our best guess. You could also record into another source -- another camera or a field recorder or anything you can get your hands on -- taking the same signal but setting a higher or lower level. So, if we imagine a situation where most of the audio is fine but our subject screamed a few times and became too loud and distorted --we could be saved by a second recorder set at a lower level. We'd just find and drop in the lower-level audio in that section.
5. Would You Repeat That?
There are a lot of ethical choices involved in documentary filmmaking. One that most people get past quickly is leaving the subject alone entirely. So, if after three days of following a subject around, they finally say something central to the story and a car horn honks in the background, consider asking them to repeat it.