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BRANDON LI - FILMMAKER

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Here are answers to questions I commonly receive on social media, answered roughly in order of popularity.

Check out the links in my answers and if you have a question I didn’t answer yet, let me know at the end!

FILMMAKING GEAR

What camera do you use?

Currently, my A-camera for independent projects is Sony A7siii. For commercial and specialized projects, I have used Canon C300mkII, Phantom Flex, Sony FS7mkII and others.

Why Sony a7siii?

10-bit 4:2:2 internal recording in an easy-to-edit format (I don’t need raw). Great autofocus, in-body stabilization and gyroscopic post-stabilization, good low light. I’ve been on Sony E Mount for about 9 years so it would be expensive to replace my lenses if I switch.

What picture profile do you use?

I shoot slog3 sgamut3cine.

What frame rate do you shoot?

My videos are rendered at 23.98p. I shoot 23.98p for most real-time footage. If I need slow motion, I shoot 60p or 120p. For just a slight slow motion effect, I shoot 30p and then conform to 24p on the timeline. I teach how to use frame rates for creative effect in Unscripted Studio.

Why do you shoot 24p? Obviously 30p and 60p are much smoother.

Every single movie, high-end TV show, commercial and music video is 24p. It’s the cinema standard. There is no alternative frame rate. If you can’t shoot good 24p, you’ll never get hired in the professional film and commercial industry. You have to learn how to adapt your shooting style to get good results in 24p. I teach these shooting techniques in my film school Unscripted Studio.

What’s the best beginner camera?

It really depends on what you want to shoot. The options change all the time. Most beginner vloggers use the Canon M series (M50, M5 etc) or D series (90D, 80D). Most beginning filmmakers use Sony A6-series (a6100, a6400, a6600) or Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4k or 6k. You can also start on your smartphone. The important thing is to learn storytelling, which you can do with ANY camera. Anyone can buy a fancy camera, but only a few people can tell a great story. I have many hours of storytelling instruction in Unscripted Studio.  My storytelling lessons work with any camera.

Why don’t you use a RED, Blackmagic, or other cinema camera?

I shoot on gimbal a lot, so I need good autofocus, IBIS, and small size. The gyro stabilization of the A7siii also helps smooth out small imperfections in my gimbal shots. For handheld or tripod work on commercial shoots, I have used cinema cameras like the Canon C300 series or Sony FX series.

What camera and settings do you use for your Instagram Stories?

iPhone 13 Pro Max, default camera app, 4k 24p.

I’ll very rarely use a clip from my A7siii, Insta360 One X2, or other camera. You can tell the shots done on a “real” camera because I usually post them in horizontal mode (so you need to rotate your phone).

What iPhone app and settings do you use for your Instagram Stories?

Default iPhone app because it has the best stabilization. The other apps have inferior stabilization because Apple doesn’t let them access the full gyro data. I usually lock my focus exposure (long press screen), then I drag down a bit to crush the shadows. This actually improves the stabilization because it forces the camera app to use a higher shutter speed. Higher shutter speed = better gyro stabilization.

Why don’t you use Filmic Pro or other camera apps?

The native camera app has the best stabilization.

Do you color grade your iPhone footage?

Usually not. I occasionally use the built-in color tools to raise shadows a bit or add warmth or saturation. I try to get the best-possible image just by shooting in good lighting, exposing properly, and most importantly choosing a good subject.

Do you use an iPhone gimbal?

Nope! iPhones have great stabilization built-in. To get smooth moves, I use the same ninja-walk technique that I use with a gimbal.  I would still use a gimbal if I needed to run with my iPhone, but so far I’ve never done a running shot.

Do you edit on your iPhone?

I only use the built-in trimming tools. I don’t do complex edits on my phone because it’s annoying and slow to me.  For any serious editing, I use FCP X.

 

What gimbal do you use?

My gimbals are DJI RS2 and RSC 2.  I use the two gimbals interchangeably. RS2 has a bit better stabilization power for heavier lenses, but otherwise they’re about the same.

I teach in-depth about gimbal operation in my film school Unscripted Studio.

But which is the best gimbal for me?

Currently, I prefer DJI RS2 for professional use. If you have a heavier camera than A7siii, and you like to use big zoom lenses like 24-70mm f2.8, then you should use RS2. If you use lighter smaller lenses, and want a lighter gimbal, you might want to consider Zhiyun’s Weebill S or Icecam Tiny Ultravision.

Weebill-S is good for lighter use if you need a lower-weight, lower-cost gimbal and you won’t be shooting in extreme weather or rough conditions.

Icecam is good if you want to be able to customize settings at an engineer’s level using the SimpleBGC open-source app.

For small mirroless cameras, phones, and action cameras, Zhiyun Crane-M3 is great. You can even use the M3 with a Sony A7siii and medium-sized lens. Tamron 17-28mm f2.8 is the largest I’ve used, and it just barely works.

DJI’s Osmo gimbals for smartphones are also great, just get the latest version.

How do you keep focus on a gimbal?

For shots with a moving subject, I usually use AF-C on the A7siii. I use subject tracking focus for most subjects, and I keep focus speed and sensitivity around the middle settings. However that’s not the whole story with keeping focus. The main reason my shots stay in focus is because I use special ways of blocking, framing, and moving with the gimbal to take advantage of autofocus. I know its strengths and its limitations.

I have an extensive lesson about focusing on a gimbal in Unscripted Studio. Your blocking, framing and shooting technique are just as important as your gimbal settings.

For shots where the subject remains a constant distance from camera, I will switch to Manual Focus, pre-focusing on the subject before filming. I like to use AF-S and tap-to-focus to quickly get focus. Then I keep my same distance as I move with them.

I usually do not use focus peaking because it’s not 100% reliable. Zoom-in focus assist is better. I have assigned this focus zoom to custom key C1 on my A7siii, so I can punch in with a single button press. Additionally, I use the Sony Vlogger Grip GP-VPT2BT. This grip has a C1 button that allows me to access my focus zoom without touching the camera. I screw in the GP-VPT2BT to the bottom of my gimbal.

I also review my takes with the EVF or an external monitor. If a shot is out of focus, I re-shoot it before moving on to a new shot. I never trust my camera’s LCD for judging focus.

Do you use special Focus Area settings?

I usually turn on special Focus Area settings only when I’m not filming faces (face detection off), or when there are too many faces (filming in a crowd). I set focus area to the area where the subject is located in the frame. For unpredictable situations, Wide is usually the best setting.

Why are your gimbal shots smooth? I can’t get the same smoothness, even though I have the same gimbal.

You’re probably not moving your body smoothly. Gimbal shots are 50% gear, 50% body movement. Practice every day and analyze your footage each time. I have extensive tutorials and homework lessons in Unscripted Studio for perfecting your gimbal movements.

Additionally, with Sony’s newer mirrorless cameras like A7siii and FX3, you can post-stabilize your footage in their Catalyst software. This stabilization uses gyro metadata for highly accurate stabilization. It’s much better than Warp Stabilizer, but it does crop the image a bit. I use Catalyst stabilization just to eliminate small jitters from my gimbal shots, going from “good” to “perfect”.

What are your gimbal settings? If I use your settings will I get smoother movements?

I adjust speed/smoothness/deadband for each shot, usually through a bit of trial and error. The particular settings depend on the focal length and the type of camera movement. You can think of it like the suspension settings of a sports car, or the specific fit of a shoe for an athlete. Every situation is different.
 

My only recommendations for settings are this: if you’re not getting smooth response from your gimbal, first make sure you’re balanced properly. Then auto-tune to your camera’s weight. Then lock any axis you don’t need for the shot – use Full Lock if you won’t be needing to pan, etc. Then if your shot still is jerky, try using a slower follow speed, with higher smoothness.

Slower follow speed is usually smoother. However if it’s too
slow, you’ll feel your gimbal resisting the movement and causing extra
mechanical jerks.

I’ve used over a dozen gimbals on different types of shoots,and I’ve been able to get smooth shots with almost all of them. It’s not just because of the settings – it’s mostly because of the way I move my body.

Do you shoot slow motion (60p or 120p) to make your gimbal shots smoother?

I don’t shoot slow motion to smooth my gimbal shots. Most of the time I shoot 24p, and I use proper body movement to keep the shot smooth. Slow motion is a popular technique to use for cinematic sequences on Youtube, but I find it to be boring when it’s over-used. Just like any other stylistic trick, slow motion is interesting only when it’s used sparingly for a specific purpose.

I have a technical problem with my gimbal. Will you help me?

Sorry, I’m not a repair technician. I wouldn’t know how to fix any of your gear. If your gimbal doesn’t work, you need to contact the manufacturer or a support group online. Facebook groups exist for almost every product.

What ND filter do you use?

Sometimes I don’t use ND filters. I have special ways of dealing with shutter angle and motion blur, which I explain in the lessons in Unscripted Studio.

When I do need ND, I currently use Kenko PRO1D+ Instant Action Magnetic Filter System VND combined with H&Y Circular Magnetic ND Filters. The Kenko filters are my base filter up to 5 stops, then if I need a little extra, I drop a 3 or 6 stop H&Y static ND on top. The magnetic system allows me to switch filters faster when I change lenses. But it’s also less secure than circular screw-in or square drop-in filters. That’s the trade-off.

Freewell’s magnetic VND system is also quite good. I recommend looking into it.

What cameras do you use for behind-the-scenes?

My head-camera is an Insta360 Go 2 with a hat mount. My chest camera is Insta360 Go 2 or DJI Action 2. Additionally, I usually have someone else film me with an iPhone or other mirrorless camera.

How do you record your voice for vlogs and tutorials?

I use a mix of on-camera shotgun microphone and lavalier microphone. My on-camera shotgun mic is ECM-B1M. For my lav audio, I use Hollyland Lark 150, Rode Wireless Go, or Sony Sony UWP-D wireless systems. For voiceover, I use my iPhone’s microphone with a voice recording app. I try to record my voice in an environment without much echo. A bed with lots of pillows is a good environment for voiceover recording.

EDITING QUESTIONS

Do you use warp stabilizer on your gimbal footage?

Most of the time, no. But sometimes I use it to smooth out shots where I used a wide lens. Those types of shots usually stabilize better in post than shots with longer lenses. With my A7siii I sometimes use gyro stabilization via Catalyst Browse/Prepare software. Generally, better gimbal shots come from better operating techniques, not post-stabilization. I teach gimbal technique extensively in Unscripted Studio.

What editing program do you use?

For my filmmaking work, I use Davinci Resolve to edit and color grade.

For tutorial videos and vlogs, I use Final Cut Pro X.

My computer is a 2018 Macbook Pro 15″. I will upgrade when an M1 Max Macbook 16″ once stock is available.

Do you use a separate program for color grading?

Currently I color grade in Davinci Resolve.

What LUT do you use?

To transform slog3sgamut3cine to Rec709, I use the Davinci Resolve Color Space Transform effect on a node.

Sometimes I will instead use the Phantom Arri LUTs. This just depends on my particular taste for the shot.

After transforming to Rec709, I rarely use creative LUTs. I choose subject and lighting carefully, and make sure my shots look good with just the natural colors. Then I just enhance it in post with subtle color correction. Creative LUTs don’t fix bad footage – they actually can make it look worse if you’re not careful!

Do you sell your LUTs or color presets?

No.

Where do you get your sound effects?

FCP X has a huge built-in sound library. I also get some sounds from audiosocket.com,  uppbeat.io, and artlist.io. I teach sound effects editing extensively in Unscripted Studio.

Where do you get your music?

For most of my short films, I hire a composer. For my Youtube tutorials and vlogs, I use audiosocket.com, uppbeat.io, artlist.io, soundstripe.com, and epidemicsound.com. I teach music editing in Unscripted Studio.

What are your Compressor export settings for Youtube?


What are your Compressor export settings for Instagram?

 

FILMMAKING PROCESS

How long does it take you to make a video?

My longer travel videos (seoul_wave, Passion of Andalucía, Hong Kong Strong) take about 1 or 2 months to shoot, then 2 or 3 months to edit.

Commercial projects usually take a week or less to shoot and about 2 or 3 weeks to finish the edit (including client revisions).

My travel vlogs usually take 1 to 4 days to shoot, and another 1 to 4 days to edit. The more I shoot, the longer it takes to edit.

My Youtube tutorials usually take a few hours to shoot and a day or two to edit.

My Instagram posts usually take about an hour to make.

You can see the entire process of me making a film from start to finish in Unscripted Studio.

Do you plan your shoots in advance or improvise them as you shoot?

My personal projects (seoul_wave, Passion of Andalucía, Hong Kong Strong) are mostly improvised as I shoot. My commercial projects are a mix of storyboard, script, and improvisation. My clients always want to see a plan. I teach “planning for improvisation” in Unscripted Studio.

Do you use a crew?

I always work with a crew of some kind. On personal projects, I get help from local people wherever I am shooting. I make IG stories asking for help, and people respond.

For commercial shoots, I hire crew as needed.

Unscripted Studio is all about getting a professional result from minimal gear and crew.

How do you find a good filmmaking subject?

I do a lot of research, and it gets complicated. Put simply, I find a destination that fascinates me. I prefer to get specific – I’d rather film Tokyo than Japan.

Then I look for the things that make that place special. What makes Tokyo different? I try to find active and dynamic subjects – festivals, sports, and other activities. I avoid filming just static subjects like buildings and mountains. I avoid touristy stuff like amusement parks.

Then I ask people on social media what else I should film. I make plans to meet up with local people and hang out. I let them suggest more ideas and connect me to more subjects.

It’s like planting a tree and watching the branches grow – the longer I stay in a place, the more people I meet, and the more filmmaking subjects I discover.

In the Planning and Pre-Production section of Unscripted Studio, I teach how to find a subject that makes for a good film, not just a good photograph.

When you improvise, how do you know you have the right footage?

I have a general story structure formula I use over and over. I keep the structure in mind as I shoot, and I make sure I film enough shots to fill each phase of the story’s development.

Each night after shooting, I review my footage and create basic edits, called stringouts. That way, I know what I have – and what I still need.

I give more detailed instruction in Unscripted Studio of how to improvise complex projects without losing your mind. It takes many hours to explain, but anyone can master the basics of it.

Do you choose your music before you start editing? Or do you edit first?

I usually place temporary music as I edit, which I later replace in the final draft. I have a large library of music on my hard drive, and I just pick a track that roughly fits the tone of the film. For many of my projects, I hire a composer for the final music.

You can see me select and edit music for real films in Unscripted Studio.

How do you do your transitions?

Every transition is different. It’s usually a combination of shooting a certain type of camera movement, then combining it with some kind of masking wipe effect in editing.

Because I improvise my shoots, I usually don’t know exactly which shots will be combined to create a transition. So I shoot a “menu” of shots, and then in post I pick the ones that work together to make seamless transitions.

I explain this method in the Unscripted Studio editing lessons. I have several lessons that show step-by-step how to do advanced transitions some from my latest videos.

How do you represent different cultures accurately?

I meet lots of local people and let them explain to me how they want to be represented. I avoid showing their culture from a purely touristic perspective – the gondolas of Venice don’t represent the real Italy.

I try to make videos that feel accurate to the local people as well as the outside cultures watching online.

I teach how to plan your travel video shoot for respectful cultural representation in Unscripted Studio.

How do you film your travels and still enjoy them?

When I’m shooting a serious project, I don’t enjoy the trip in the relaxing, vacation way. I think of it as work – hard work. But it’s also fun work, and highly rewarding.

When I’m shooting my vacation vlogs, I just make sure I’m not filming all day long. I pick the most important moments and film them – then I relax the rest of the time. As a general rule, I take out my camera when the light is perfect or when an unmissable event is happening. Otherwise, I chill.

Unscripted Studio has a series of lessons called Travel Video Fixes. In these lessons I target specific problems and help you fix them quickly.

How do you film strangers without offending them?

Unscripted Studio covers this specific topic with an in-depth lesson.

I usually have a local friend with me as I shoot. I ask the friend for advice on how best to film strangers. Sometimes my friend will make an introduction, or sometimes they’ll just give me advice on the proper etiquette. Every culture has different attitudes (and different laws) toward cameras.

When I’m shooting alone, I generally rely on making eye contact with the stranger and smiling a bit. I point to my camera and make sure they notice it. If they smile back, it’s probably ok to film.

If I’m filming a public event like a parade, I assume the performers aren’t expecting privacy.

How do you stay inspired and not run out of ideas?

I don’t make the same type of video each time. I’ll do a travel montage, then a commercial, then a tutorial, then a vlog. Changing genres keeps me inspired.

I also make sure I consume a wide variety of visual content: foreign films, independent shorts, documentaries, offbeat instagram accounts. I read articles about current events around the world, developing subcultures and trends.

I don’t just watch Youtubers.

In the Unscripted Studio Community, you will have dozens of opportunities to create “homework” filmmaking projects and get feedback from other filmmakers. Each project has specific instructions that will spark your creativity and give you direction and focus. It’s so much easier to create when you have a purpose and guidelines.

How do you avoid theft when traveling?

Zippers on pockets. Pockets concealed when possible. Leave as much as possible at home – and leave it in a safe if possible. And most importantly, have local friends. If they’re from the city, they’ll know how to stay safe.

How do you direct people who aren’t actors?

I give them specific actions to do so they are distracted from the camera. People are more comfortable in front of the camera when they have something to do with their hands.

I don’t give them complex instructions. I keep it simple, keep it actionable. Make sure they’re doing something that is in their comfort zone. I don’t ask a mechanic to dance for me.

I don’t tell people to feel a certain way. I create the environment for it. If I need a grandmother to smile, I let her hold her grandchild. If I need a kid to scream in excitement, I blow some bubbles. If I need a widow to be sad, I join her as she prays for her deceased husband. I predict the emotion I need, and then I create the environment to get it.

You can watch me direct people in real filmmaking projects in Unscripted Studio.

FILMMAKING BUSINESS

Do you need an assistant?

I always need help. But only in places where I’m shooting. So keep watch of my IG stories at @brandon_l_li. That’s where I announce my upcoming shoots!

How do you make money?

I make money directing commercials and running my online film school Unscripted Studio. I also make some income through sponsored social media posts.

How do you get clients?

I have hundreds of videos online, so people browsing the internet can easily stumble upon my work. Most of my clients contact me via email with job proposals. I don’t get work through an agency or other representation. I don’t do cold calls.

I give extensive advice on using social media to help you get started as a professional filmmaker in Unscripted Studio.

How do you set your filmmaking price?

I imagine a price that makes me feel happy about doing the project. Then I ask myself how much lower than that I’m willing to go. The more I love a project, the lower I’ll be willing to go. Usually.

Then, I try to get the client to name their budget before I name my price. If their budget is in the ballpark of what I want to get paid, I negotiate in friendly conversation. If their budget is way below my price, I walk away.

I prefer to be paid a project fee rather than a day rate. This encourages me to not watch the clock, and instead focus on delivering the best possible film.

How do you deal with client feedback? Do you change your vision to make them happy?

Client feedback is always difficult. ALWAYS.

The best way to ease the process is to get to know the client before the shoot. Try to talk to the decision maker, not a middle-man. This isn’t always possible, but it really helps. Ask them their favorite films, their favorite music. Ask them how they envision this project.

In the work contract, I make sure there are a defined number of revisions. Usually 2 rounds. I try to negotiate a director’s cut for my own portfolio.

Then when the client emails me and asks for changes, I don’t reply right away, especially if I feel emotional. I wait until I calm down and clear my mind. I don’t reply in defense of myself. I only send an email reply when I’m feeling friendly again.

Then I do the changes the client wants, unless I feel I can convince them to change their mind (usually not).

How do you get views for your online videos?

I have no secret recipe for this. No tricks. I make the best videos I can, and I post them with a relevant title and keywords. I try not to imitate others. I try not to be a slave to trends.

I’d rather be appreciated for who I am, than who I’m pretending to be. Even if it means a smaller audience.

Do you do weddings?

No.

How should I get started as a filmmaker? What should I learn first? Shooting or editing?

Learn to write stories before you pick up a camera. If you don’t know how to tell a story, you’re not a filmmaker. Write some interesting fiction. Write a blog of your life. Write an outline for a documentary. Write some Star Wars fan fiction. Or an anecdotal Twitter thread. Anything. Words are free, easy to change, and don’t require heaps of technical knowledge. Start with the written word, where storytelling begins. I wrote short stories for years before I ever owned a camera.

I have many in-depth lessons in Unscripted Studio about how I build stories out of improvised footage. I give you a shortcut to storytelling methods I developed over a lifetime of practice.

But I still advise going back to the basics. Open up a blank Word document, or grab a pen and paper, and jot down some ideas.

I can’t afford a good camera. What do I do to get started as a filmmaker?

See my answer above. Then once you’ve built some basic story skills, start shooting with your phone. You can shoot and edit a whole project on a phone now. It won’t look as good as a cinema camera, but it’s fine for practice. Interesting storytelling is the cornerstone of filmmaking – not fancy gear.

I don’t know any actors and I can’t afford to travel. What do I shoot?

Film your neighborhood, your family, your friend who plays a cool sport. Find something local that you know well. Show us why it’s interesting. Build your skills by making the familiar feel fresh. Your city may seem boring to you, but to other people from across the world it’s exotic and different.

In the Unscripted Studio community forum, there are lots of filmmaking exercises you can do without a fancy camera or exotic destination. You can be creative without leaving your home. 

And the Unscripted Studio community will give you feedback on your work and advice for improvement.

PERSONAL

Where are you from?

I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. My dad is from Hong Kong and my mom is American. I spent many years living and working in Los Angeles before traveling the world as a nomad filmmaker.

How did you get started in filmmaking?

As a kid, I wrote short stories, drew comics, and made flip books out of post-it notes. Then I got a video camera and started making funny videos with my friends. I joined my high school’s TV station and helped them make the weekly news broadcast. Then I went to UNCSA film school. After that, I moved to Los Angeles and worked in reality TV.

My next move was to Dubai, where I worked for a friend’s creative agency. I directed social media videos for Etihad Airways and did other freelance work.

I used my free time to travel to countries near Dubai, and I started getting interested in travel videos. Eventually I made a few that got Staff Picks from Vimeo.com. From those Staff Picks, I started getting emails from other creative agencies and clients. I started doing social media videos for different brands.

Some of my videos got international attention, such as Hong Kong Strong. BBC World News interviewed me, and I was featured by TIME, National Geographic, and South China Morning Post. This led to more international work.

Since then, I have won a Webby Award, several Travel Video Awards, and I won Vimeo’s Travel Video of the Year in 2018 (seoul_wave). Recently my film Passion of Andalucía was screened at Garden State Film Festival.

Why do you make travel films?

I need constant inspiration, and travel gives me new worlds to explore. I’m not the kind of guy who gets inspired sitting in a room alone. I need sensory input, movement, excitement. I need to be uncomfortable and a bit stressed. Travel keeps me sharp and surrounds me with ingredients for my films.

Who is Kobe?

Kobe is my girlfriend. She’s from Hong Kong, and we met while I was making my film Hong Kong Strong. She loves vintage fashion, spicy food, and cats. She helps me with my filmmaking projects in so many ways – she’s an awesome support and companion for me.

What was your favorite place to visit?

If I had to pick just one place, I’d say Spain. Mostly the southern Andalucía region. Especially Seville. I love dry, warm weather. I love Spanish food and culture, especially flamenco shows. It’s why I made my film The Passion of Andalucía.

Where did you get your hat?

I got it from some outerwear shop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sorry, can’t remember the name.

What’s next for you? Any goals?

I truly live my life in an “unscripted” way. I’ve never had specific goals or plans, I just follow what interests me. At the moment, I would love to do a series of short films about different individual people who are traveling to unfamiliar places. I want to do it as a fictional, narrative anthology series. A mix of comedy, tragedy, and maybe even some sci-fi intrigue…who knows. I’m open to ideas.

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