One of the most celebrated and followed studios in the DSLR filmmaking realm is StillMotion. Started by psychology majors of all things, StillMotion has in just about seven short years grown from a small team of wedding and event filmmaking auteurs, to a high-end commercial video production company with 14 team members, offices in Toronto and San Francisco, and a client list that includes the NFL, ESPN, and AT&T. They are also one of the most giving of knowledge and education, providing tons of great content on their blog, their Vimeo Channel, and via seminars and cross-country tours.
Their latest educational opus is the KNOW Tour. Aptly named, the purpose of this day of education is not just to teach you HOW to do what you do, but more importantly, know WHY you do what you do (“Why” in the sense of, why you may pick a certain lens; not why as in, “what’s your purpose in life.” Although, that would be a good tour too.)
They were kind enough to allow me to sit in on their local visit here in Atlanta (disclaimer: I got a press pass to attend.) Today I’m going to share with you my general take-aways and opinion for whom this day-long workshop is best suited.
The class was taught by Amina Moreau (StillMotion co-founder and wife to SM’s main front-man, Patrick, or P. as he likes to refer to himself) and Joyce Tsang, one of SM’s talented shooter/editors. As someone who has taught my fair share of seminars to large rooms, I can honestly say that Amina and Joyce did an exceptional job. They were eloquent, extremely well-prepared, and handed off topics very smoothly. One of SM’s tech-wizards, Evan King, also participated in the teaching for about 25% of the time.
Every attendee gets the “KNOW Field Guide to Filmmaking.” For many of you, this alone may be worth the price of admission. It’s a thick, 367-page mini-Encyclopedia that covers Story, Light, Audio, Camera/Lenses/Movement, and breaks down an SM wedding as well as a non-profit promo video. This thing has diagrams, pictures, detailed gear lists, and terrific education. And like everything SM does, the production value of this book is off the chain. (i.e. really awesome). It’s made with a thick and durable paper stock, perfect binding, and has an exceptional layout design and consistent branding theme. The credits list Winnie Boonyaratanakornkit and Jeff Medford as the books producers. I have no idea who these people are, but this book looks like it was produced by a major publishing house.
I think one of the most valuable sections (particularly for videographers who don’t have a traditional photography background) is the chapter on light. They give you a short, yet thorough education on light, including what exactly is a “stop” of light, how do you calculate it, and what’s the significance of going up or down. For you photogs that may seem basic, but I know for a fact many of you traditionally trained videographers don’t know that info.
I have no doubt that my KNOW guide will become very, very worn out.
They also will provide each of the attendees with their Keynote presentation. So the only notes you have to take are those tidbits that really speak to you and stand out.
But perhaps the coolest thing we got to walk away with was a 2-disc DVD of the live presentation in Portland, OR, taught bye Patrick, Amina, Joyce, Justin and Evan. (I think this is only available if you sign up for both the filmmaking seminar and the editing seminar, which is $249 total). The first disc alone was 2.5 hours. (Unfortunately, my second disc was damaged and couldn’t be read.)
They have available for purchase a couple of training videos where they go into detail about how they shoot and edit (“Deconstructing a Highlights” and “Deconstructing a Wedding Film”. The wedding film one is a 2-hour video that breaks down an entire SM wedding film (as opposed to the same-day-edits and highlights most of you see on the internet).
Come prepared for a full day, starting around 9 am and ending after 9 pm. The day was broken into two sections: filmmaking and editing. The filmmaking section was the bulk of the day and included everything from gear selection, storytelling, pre-production, and shooting. The editing part of the day was the last two hours involved looking at a breakdown of one of their wedding day edits.
What It Is and Isn’t
You should go into this workshop knowing what it is and isn’t. It is NOT a workshop that goes into specific detail about how to shoot or edit a certain way. What it is in essence is a more “cerebral” journey into the art and craft of filmmaking by breaking down the decisions you make along the process. As Amina pointed out in the beginning, “You’re not going to learn SM’s “secret sauce.” They don’t really have one. Their “secret sauce” is making decisions with a purpose, beyond “it looks cool.”
This is the aspect of the workshop that I admire the most. There’s so much geek-talk and pixel-peeping on the internet nowadays, I love that this is a workshop that could really care less about the latest 4K this or 10-bit that. It’s about understanding how to use these tools to convey a specific message. But more importantly, it’s also about KNOWing what that message is in the first place.
Key Take Aways
Here are some of my personal take-aways regarding the workshop that could be factored into your decision about whether to attend.
- Insights into the SM Process: they share some specific insights into how they do things I personally found very enlightening. I particularly loved learning about some of the detailed processes they go through during pre-production on a commercial shoot. Their casting process was hugely enlightening!
- Beyond the Norm. I really liked how they offered answers that went beyond the norm. For instance, on the discussion of why they gravitate towards primes vs. zoom lenses, the talked about the common answer most filmmakers gives (i.e. the quality of prime glass vs. zoom glass), but they also delve into another reason that one might not expect (and one that you might even find controversial, if not intriguing).
- Challenging. They were constantly challenging the audience with questions about “why.” Again, driving home the theme of KNOWing why you make the decisions you do.
- It’s Interactive (…but take initiative). It was very interactive. They really want it to be a “conversation” (which is why they give you the Keynote, so you don’t have to feel bogged down with note-taking). However, in the beginning it didn’t really feel like there was ever a good time to ask questions. Amina made a point at the beginning to say it was a conversation, but only at the end of the filmmaking seminar did they ever open it up to a formal Q&A. Because Joyce and Amina were so fluid, it felt awkward breaking up that fluidity by raising your hand. It felt like you would have been interrupting. During the first break I asked Amina if asking questions was okay, and she said absolutely. So after that, I raised my hand with wild abandon. (Fun side note: award-winning wedding filmmaker and teacher David Robin texted me during the seminar to “stop asking so many questions.” But David wasn’t there. The little bugger had some mole in the audience feeding him info. I still don’t know who it was. If that mole is reading this, please make yourself known. :) ) All this to say, I would have liked it if they periodically would’ve specifically invited questions after every module. So if you attend, don’t be shy. (I will say that after lunch, and especially when we got to the audio section, hands started flying more freely.)
- Research Your Gear. As you can see from the KNOW website, there are a LOT of sponsors for this workshop. Many of those sponsors are gear manufacturers. That’s great for you in that with so many sponsors, what could easily have been a $1,000+ workshop is only $149. The downside to having so many sponsors is that you don’t necessarily get a variety of discussion on different gear choices. The most egregious in my opinion was the discussion about stabilizers. This is one of the questions I get asked the most by photographers entering the video game, “which stabilizer to get?” SM has a great discussion about the different types of gear they use and why, from tripods to rigs to monopods,to sliders, etc. But the only tracking stabilizer they showed and discussed was a vested Steadicam Pilot which goes for about $3800 (Note: I originally thought it was the Zephyr. SM’s resident techno wiz Evan King offers comment below as to why they show it). I would have liked to have seen a discussion of a few different options. But, I know that given SM’s relationship with Steadicam, and considering Steadicam was a generous sponsor, I know that’s not realistic. So, that leaves the onus on YOU to do your homework. However, I will give them this: staying true to the theme, they went into great detail about when they use a Steadicam and when they don’t, and why. (They used their “Game of Honor” documentary as the case study.) One could argue that is the most important aspect anyway. As long as you recognize the sponsor bias, you can go out and get whatever stabilizer you want, then apply their teaching to that. But I would guess if you’re a total newbie, it would’ve been nice to KNOW about other options.
- Finally SM Pitches Renting. I frequently have called P. to task that SM always talks about buying gear (and the most expensive gear at that) and rarely seemed to promote renting. Well, that has changed (thankfully). They frequently talked about the gear they rent and when they rent it. It was a refreshing change, no doubt due in part to the fact that Lens Pro to Go is another sponsor. But, who cares. I think renting is extremely important so as not to go into debt unnecessarily. I’m glad to see them talking more about it.
It’s not Gospel
I think one of the most important things I want to convey is that, just because it’s StillMotion, doesn’t make what they say gospel. I believe even Joyce and Amina would be the first to say that this is just how they do it; even though they way they present some material sometimes feels like they’re saying, this is the “right” way. That could just be teaching style, or confidence. But regardless, KNOW that it is okay if you disagree with something they teach. I and my fellow podcaster Carl Olson of the Digital Convergence Podcast, didn’t agree 100% with their unique reasons for shooting mostly primes. (And he tweeted as much). I saw another Twitter conversation with someone else regarding when SM picks their music. (That debate on Twitter actually inspired me to write a blog post about that. To come later.) SM is wildly successful and has a lot to offer. It behooves you to listen to what they say. But keep in mind it’s okay to disagree.
If you are new to the business, this workshop is a no-brainer. It will be one of the best $149 you spend, hands down. If you’re an intermediate level filmmaker, you will definitely come away with tips and tidbits that will improve your business. One good piece of knowledge implemented into your business could mean thousands of dollars in extra income and/or saved expenses. If you consider yourself an experienced/expert individual in the craft, you may find a lot of the info stuff you already KNOW and/or do. So if expenses are tight, it might not be worth going out. Your mind won’t be blown by what you learn.
Admittedly, I didn’t have to pay since I got a press pass. However, having now gone, I can honestly say that had I paid, I would have found it totally worth it. The field guide, the few insights I didn’t previously KNOW, and the networking would have been way worth the $149 investment (and I would classify myself as “experienced”).
Now you’re in the know about KNOW.