Document THIS!

March 15, 2003 tips & tricks

From: John Pellizzari

Just started at a new station and we cover a lot of crime. Ergo we need to shoot a lot of court documents and photos. Here are some ideas to help spice-up normally boring video. I know this posting is long, but I hope you get some ideas from it.

With tight deadlines and working in the field there isn’t always time to have production make a nice photo graphic. Here’s one trick I ripped-off PBS’s Frontline. It worked great for the inevitable war family stories we covered. Take a background, like a map of Iraq, and place it on the floor. Then use a paper towel tube or tall drinking glass to “float” the photo above the map. Adjust the lighting to increase the depth of field and you have an in-focus photo with a slightly fuzzy background. This allows for racks and pans that really stretch a single photo. The possibilities are unlimited from phone books to bibles to street maps to half completed puzzles you’ll never bother production again.

I’ve also tried to add NAT sound to simple document and photo shoots. As a crime station we often publicize wanted felons. To add a NAT pop to the PKG I throw a light on a bulletin board at an oblique angle to get that nice slash of light. With my lav mic taped to the board I put the wanted poster against the board and slam in a push pin. It only takes a few minutes and makes a great NAT pop.

To spice-up documents with NAT sound I use a desk lamp. Okay I went to Wal-Mart and bought a $9 banker’s lamp—the one with the green glass shade and the pull chain switch. Starting in a dark office, I get a close-up of the lamp, mic the lamp, and then pull the chain. There are about eight frames of dark chain pulling NATs before the 25 watt bulb comes on and about 15 more frames after. Then with the documents spread under the lamp you can either just pan down to them or go for a high angle shot of the documents with the lamp.

Again a fast and dirty way to make deadline without bothering production is to use a simple yellow highlighter. I ripped this technique off a Minneapolis photog who gave an editing seminar in Salt Lake. Instead of having to wait for production to scan the document and then “pull” the line wanted out, just get a close-up of the line and highlight it. Find a highlighter that squeaks against the paper and you’ve got a NAT sound pop.

For a cool way to shoot documents, fan them out on a swivel office chair. Then with the chair in its lowest position and the camera right above, slowly turn the chair as you zoom into the papers. Great effect. You can also use an old record player or even a Lazy Susan for the same effect.

Beside the basic NAT pop of a heavy pile of documents being slammed down on a desk, think of what you can do to the paperwork. I ripped this off a reporter & photog at KRQE in Albuquerque. We were doing drunk-driving legislation and to spice-up the mandatory shot of the bill I placed the paper work on a table and slammed a bottle of beer down on it. The sound made for a nice NAT pop to introduce the legislation. You can use hand-cuffs or even rubber stamps (like “rejected” or “wanted”) for the same effect.

Finally, I’m looking to buy several magnifying glasses called Bugz-Eyes. They are essentially 1 ½ – 2 inch 3x clear acrylic magnifier domes. Picture the rounded tip of a baseball bat cut-off an inch high. The Bugz-Eye can be placed directly on the paper that needs to be highlighted since it has a fixed focal length. Have you ever wanted to highlight just one student in a group yearbook picture? Place the Bugz-Eye on his/her face and shoot down. Instead of having production pop-out phrases from a criminal complaint, place multiple magnifiers on the document and pan from one to one. You can see what they look like at or


  1. Casey says:

    I just used the rotating chair effect….looks great!
    The DIY highlighter is also a good suggestion. In fact, I think its much better than any computer generated pullout.

    I can’t successfully “float” my docs on a paper towel roll though…the always fall over/slide off. Do you tape it?

  2. Josh says:

    John, I really like these ideas. I think it would be great if there were any way you could make a reel showing the several ideas for shooting documents that you mentioned above, just so that we all could see how it looks when the techniques are pulled off successfully.

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