Wedding filmmaking is a profession that seems both attractive and daunting. On the one hand, capturing the love and emotions of this beautiful and exciting day can be highly rewarding. On the other hand, wedding days are hectic and stressful events, and a lot is riding on the shoulders of the filmmaker.
To make things a bit clearer and less intimidating for those of you who are either starting out in the business or thinking about jumping in, I sat down for a little chat with Matt Johnson. After all, Matt is one of the more successful wedding filmmakers out there and creator of the popular YouTube channel 'Who Is Matt' (highly recommended). About 2 months ago, Matt curated a Wedding Film music collection from the Artlist catalog and released a video explaining each of his selections, which you can see below.
Just last week, we at Artlist curated our own Big Day collection, to help wedding filmmakers find the perfect song for their wedding videos fast, so we felt it was a perfect time to catch up with Matt and ask him a few questions about how to make it in the business and get some essential pro wedding video tips.
Self Taught Wedding Filmmaker
Artlist: So how did you get into wedding filmmaking?
Matt Johnson: I got started in my senior year of college. A girl from my class asked me to film her wedding. I've never done that before and I had no idea what to do, but it seemed like something cool to do, so I said, 'why not?' I went and filmed her wedding alone with my Canon 7D and one mic, one audio setup, that was it. I think I shot for like 10 hours straight, didn't eat anything and nearly died (laughs). I ended up making it, and they loved it. The film was nearly an hour-long and it had a lot of cheesy music. Honestly, it wasn't very good.
A: Do you still have the film?
MJ: I never delete anything, so I have it somewhere, but it doesn't see the light of day. Maybe I'll do a video someday on how I got started (laughs).
From that point on, I continued filming weddings. Friends of friends were getting married, and people would see the videos and say, 'Oh, I want that too.' It gradually grew until it came to a point when I was graduating from college that I said to myself that I don't need to get a real job, I can keep doing this. And I'm still filming weddings, nine years later. I have a wedding coming up in a few weeks.
A: Did you study something related to filmmaking in college?
MJ: Not at all. I went to Texas A&M, which is primarily an engineering school, not known for its creative program. It's a great school, but when I was there, there weren't many people making videos. It's changed now, and today they do have a program for video. My undergrad was in I.T., and I got my master's in marketing, so I was completely self-taught. I watched YouTube videos, tried things out, experimented, saying, 'This video sucks, let's make it better.' And then, practice practice practice.
A: What was the biggest challenge you faced starting out?
MJ: Here's something many videographers deal with. Filming weddings require a lot of gear. You always think, 'I need to buy cameras, audio equipment, I should get some lights, I need to get a stabilizer…' I didn't have a lot of money as a college student, so every time I filmed a wedding, I saved some money to buy better gear.
Today, people spend $20,000 on camera gear, but I didn't have that option. I just bought one camera, one lens and one little audio recorder, and then I would use it for a year. I think I shot weddings for about two years before I bought a stabilizer. That was a big purchase for me. I thought, 'Oh my god! I can walk around AND film.' Up to that point, I used a camera slider. So, my biggest challenge was probably trying to make the best that I could with the gear that I had.
Can you remember some particularly challenging weddings?
Starting out, you don't really know what to expect. There's a lot of stuff with weddings that you can only really learn through experience. Those first few years involved a lot of experience-gaining for me with a lot of trial and error. For example, I had a wedding, and I made sure to get the address of the location from the couple. But then, I used Apple Maps instead of Google Maps, and it took me to a place next to the venue. But, there was a fence between me and the site, so I couldn't go in. The reception was about to start, so I ran fast and got in as the couple entered and started filming. That's how I learned not to use Apple Maps (laughs).
A: You dealt with a lot of organizational issues.
MJ: Yeah, you face lots of organizational stuff, and you learn to ask couples the right questions to find out about their day. After all, the worst thing that can happen is for you to be surprised by something. As a videographer, you want to know every detail about the wedding.
For example, I was filming this couple, and they told me they weren't going to do a first look. And I'm standing by the reception venue, and I see the mother walking with the groom telling him 'Come on, we're going to go do your first look,' and I was like 'what is happening right now? Nobody told me this!' So, I ran to the room and filmed them. I didn't miss it, but it was stressful. Avoiding these sort of incidents comes down to getting to know the couple, building a relationship with them and knowing everything that's going to happen at the wedding.
And remember, a wedding is a one-time thing. You don't get any redos. You have to make it the first time because you can't ask the couple to get married again.
A: What's one piece of equipment you can't do without?
MJ: When I started out, I was like, 'I need to get this recorder, and I need to get this wireless receiver and transmitter,' and all that kind of stuff. And then, I bought a TASCAM dr digital audio recorder, and today I own four of them. These things are amazing. They record at the right level, and they record flawlessly. I've never had one mess up on me. It's a fantastic little device. I bring four of them to every wedding. I mic up the groom, the officiant, the bride... anybody who's speaking gets a microphone. It works out so well.
A Good Wedding Filmmaker Focuses on People
A: What's your approach to wedding filmmaking?
MJ: My biggest goal at this point, having filmed weddings for nine years, is to get to know the couple well enough to be able to make a film that really reflects them and who they are as people. If you film weddings for as long as I have, it's easy to obsess about buying new gear and having the best equipment. If you just focus on the gear, you're going to get burnt out. It's gonna be tiring, and you'll end up not caring.
People, on the other hand, are infinitely interesting. There's always more to learn about them. So, I learned that if I focus on the people, get to know the couple and build a relationship with them, I'll be able to make a film that they're going to love. And what's cool is that other people will love it too because they're going to feel like they know this couple.
As cheesy as it might sound, getting to know the couple and building a friendship with them is my overall goal.
A: What inspires you?
MJ: These days, more people making great wedding videos than ever before, which is great. One thing I started doing last year that's been really exciting is monthly wedding film review live streams on my YouTube channel. People send me their wedding videos, and I watch and review them. And I'm just constantly being inspired by all these people that are doing some great work. What's so cool about it is that I get films from people who shot their first or second wedding, and they are full of creativity. They're doing and seeing things in new ways. I'm just getting inspired by new work by other videographers.
Music is an Essential Part of Wedding Filmmaking
A: Let's talk about music for a bit. Do you have any tips for choosing wedding video songs?
MJ: Music is arguably one of the biggest parts of the filmmaking process and one of my main focuses. Music is really what drives the emotion of your film. It can make your viewers feel happy or sad, so you really want to be mindful of the music you're choosing for your video.
I try to get to know the couple that I'm filming on a level that whenever it comes time for me to choose music, I'll choose songs that I think fit them, their relationship and the moments of their wedding day. So, if there's a serious moment on the wedding day, I'm not going to choose a happy song. Likewise, if I'm filming a wedding out in the country, in a barn, I wouldn't pick an electronic song because that wouldn't work.
I'm trying to take into consideration the location, the vibe of the day. It all comes down to building that relationship with the couple and finding music that I think fits them. I don't want them to choose the music of the film. If they're picking music, they will probably pick a generic wedding song. I don't want the couple to focus on the music on their wedding day but on the audio. I want the music to support the wedding video, drive the emotion of the film, but, at the same time, I don't want the music to be overpowering. It's just one of the ingredients of a wedding, albeit an essential part.
A: Do you have the music in mind before you film or does it come afterward, when you're editing?
MJ: Music selection for wedding videos is an evolving process. Some couples you'll meet, email, and then you'll talk to them and get a feel for the music that fits them even before the wedding, pick an artist or a couple of songs. At the same time, you won't know what songs to use until after the wedding, because the couple as cool and fun as they may be and sound, the wedding day has a mood of its own.
A couple can tell me they love electronic music, but if they have their wedding in a barn and all they're doing is dancing to country music, I'm not going to put electronic music over the country dancing because that will look weird.
It starts with getting to know the couple and learning what they love. Then you film the wedding, see the vibe of the day and then pick the music so that kind of ties everything together.
Communication Is Key
A: What's a common mistake that you see in many wedding videos?
MJ: This might sound like a small thing, but it's something I notice quite often when I'm reviewing wedding films. A decent amount of time, they will not fade music and audio correctly. They will usually cut from the music to a person speaking very abruptly. So, the music will be very loud, and suddenly it becomes quiet because somebody's talking. It's very jarring. I'm always telling people to fade it, fade it gently. Take longer, take like 10 seconds and fade it out. That way, there won't be such an abrupt transition between the music and the audio. I see that a lot from people that are just getting started filming weddings. Once you've edited enough weddings, you realize you need to change it. That's one beginner's mistake that happens often.
A: What about mistakes during the filming of the wedding? After all, a lot of things can go wrong on that day.
MJ: Oh gosh, so much can go wrong. Many small mistakes can add up. It's not a catastrophe like forgetting to press record on the ceremony. That can happen, but it's not super common. Sometimes, you can talk to the couple ahead of time and neglect to tell them you want to put a microphone on them for the ceremony. And then you want to mic the groom before the wedding, and he's like 'hey, what is this? What are you doing?' Then, it becomes more of a hassle for you because you have only a minute to get them mic'd before everything starts. Suddenly you have to go through it with the couple. It's small things like that compound into the feeling that everything is going crazy.
A: What's the best advice you can give starting filmmakers?
MJ: Remember that you're educating the couple on what a wedding film is. Most of your couples have never been married before, so they don't know what to expect. They don't know what's going to happen, and they have A LOT of planning to do about their day, and the video is just a part of that. So, you need to educate them and tell them, 'This is how I work, this is what I can make for you, and this is how I'm going to make it for you.' That's going to save you a lot of headaches later on if they have issues with the film that you've delivered.
I have friends that come up to me and say, 'Oh my God, this couple is so mad at me,' and I ask, 'why are they mad?', and they say 'I haven't replied to their emails. So, I tell them, 'just answer their emails.' Communication is so so important for weddings.
So, you need to have patience with your couples, get to know them. Take the time to educate them and remember that most likely, they have never been married before.
Balance Between Simplicity and Efficiency
A: What do you feel is the current trend in wedding filmmaking?
MJ: I would say that right now, the trend is shifting towards minimalism. A while back, there was a video that came out on Vimeo called 'Watchtower of Turkey.' It had all these quick whip transitions, pans, zooms and flips. It was super well done, so many people tried to apply it to wedding films. I felt It was kind of obnoxious. It was too much. Thankfully, we started to get away from that a little bit. It's not that popular, which is good. Today, you got filmmakers saying, 'I'm stripping down my gear, I'm not doing much, just shooting handheld,' which is fine. I think that's great. I believe that if you're doing that, you're going to be in a better position overall if you want to make a traditional classic wedding video that's going to be more timeless than if you're doing something with zooms, fades and transitions.
But I do think that people are swinging too far in that direction. I see many filmmakers going with one camera and one lens, and doing everything handheld, and I think that's great, but some gear can be helpful. Maybe bring a gimbal. I try to strike a balance. I love equipment, but I'm always evaluating whether I'm taking too much. So that's a trend that I see right now. Things are always shifting, every 3 to 6 months, there is something new happening.
Hope you found these wedding video tips useful. Join us for more tips and advice that will help improve your filmmaking skills. And as always, stay creative.