How to Film a Miniature Wargame: Dice, Camera, Action

25 April 2024
If you're new to filmmaking or video, but would like to capture your wargames on film for entertainment, or even just to review your scenarios, here's some top tips for cinematic success...

Words and pics by Tom Holden

Miniatures have been a part of filmmaking pretty much since filmmaking began - why would wargames be excluded from that? We live in an age with entire YouTube channels dedicated to the miniature wargaming hobby. Living at a time when you don’t need to a professional film maker to produce content that can be shared with the entire planet. However, it’s easy to get confused when filming something. How do you cover the rules, the movement, different units in different locations, the players thoughts plus the dice throws all within a video presentation? It’s a heady mix that can inevitably lead to a confusing quagmire.

Tips for filming a miniature wargame

So, how to you plan to film a wargame? First things first. What video camera should you use? The answer is simple, whatever you have at hand. Nowadays a smartphone can outperform a camcorder or even hold its own against consumer level Digital Single Lens Reflex (or DSLR) systems currently on the market. So if that’s all you have, great. You can start filming straight away. If you’ve got something more sophisticated, then that’s great too. Your next consideration is how will you film the action on the table?

Making a video is like any other form of communication, if you can get your concept across simply then your audience will easily understand things. Don’t overthink it. So establish what’s going on: this can be a simple shot of the wargame table set up in all its glory viewed across the long axis with perhaps the gamer saying who they are and what’s about to happen either by appearing in shot or as a voice over. Such a simple device as an introduction immediately forges a kind of bond with your viewers by the simple act of letting them in on what you are going to show. It may sound simple and trivial, but it isn’t. If you just jump into things without any preamble you are cold shouldering people somewhat by leaving them wondering the whys and wherefores of it all. Consider a news report: the presenter always introduces who they are and that it’s the news, night after night.

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Step 1 - Your filming equipment 

This first step – and indeed the rest of your video – requires a few bits of kit for best results. In no particular order you need...

  • A camera or smartphone (obviously)
  • It is recommended that you use a tripod or some kind of stand to steady your shot
  • Decent lighting is essential for quality - this ensures everything can be seen
  • Ideally some kind of microphone system. If someone is speaking in the video, a microphone is a vital piece of equipment for any video presentation. Without it, your audio quality can be very poor.

    While smartphones, DSLRs and video cameras have in-built microphone systems they are not great (or rather they operate best if they are in very close proximity to the person talking). For a shot where you have your camera or smartphone a few feet away from the wargame table plus the presenter/gamer so as to get everything in picture, this isn’t an option.

Instead of listing a catalogue of model numbers and makes, it’s best to keep things simple. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of affordable blue tooth and wired microphones available aimed at the influencer/vlogger market sold from high street electronics retailers, online or even discount stores. If this seems a bit much too much faffing about then there are other ways. You can either film everything first then dub on the narration after although this could possibly complicate your edit – more in this later.

Unfortunately consider not all smartphones and video cameras are compatible with these external microphones. In which case you will have to dub on your narration after. Either that or go with the not so great quality of the built in mic. It’s up to you and how much effort you want to put in.

Step 2: Film angles and setting up your subject

So what next? Once the scene is set and the introduction delivered, your wargame should start moving as one side begins manoeuvring its forces and the other side does the same during their turn. The simple act of moving your camera closer to focus in on a crucial dice roll, a unit or area of the battlefield immediately ups the interest level and pulls the viewer deeper into the game.

Top Tip: Avoid the temptation, however, to leave the camera in one place and zoom in and out like some gun emplacement looking for targets. Not only can this disorientate the viewer, but – depending on what smartphone or camera you are using – a couple of functions may kick-in according on how far you zoom in and how poorly lit the place is. These are the gain and shutter speed which in such circumstances can conspire to make your image grainy and appear as if things are happening in a weird blurry slow motion. Plus when zoomed in the shake of your image will increase meaning a bump on the table or even someone walking across the room looks like an earthquake.

If things are dark when you move the camera closer for a close up shot maybe use a small portable light to boost the brightness levels. Just remember to take it away afterwards for the wide shot as having a formation of French line infantry clamber over an Ikea lamp is rather anachronistic.

You can quite easily, and simply, repeat this wide shot-close up-wide shot sequencing for the entirety of your wargame. By doing so the viewer can hopefully see the bigger picture of the battle evolving over the course of the game while at the same time showing the detailed action and nuanced plays during the encounter. It does though impact the game’s continuity and delay proceedings as you reposition the camera and deliver your updates and thoughts on things so far.

And this raises an important point...

How long is your miniature wargame video be?

A video that covers the game in real time can be overlong in terms of expecting someone to sit down and watch it all. This can be a painful point for many a wargamer documenting the entirety of their battles and campaigns in video form. Rather than capturing every shot of a three hour wargame many people would often prefer something cut down into a digestible easy to watch duration: perhaps half an hour to an hour or so depending on how things are filmed and edited together.

Step 3: What shots do I need to capture?

It’s easy to chop down your game’s running time. There are two basic things you can do, either you just film every third move for example with perhaps a bit of an announcement highlighting what happened in the previous turns. Or you film the whole game and cut things in the edit.

In terms of keeping your sanity and preventing your computer from withering under the assault of many gigabytes of video files, it’s simpler to only film part of the wargame timeline. Sure, it may mean you could miss a unique and exciting event, but you can at least fill the viewers in on what’s just happened with a quick voice over or caption.

Use more than one camera 

Now, those are the basics. What about moving up a gear and making things that tad more sophisticated? A simple move is to use another camera, or cameras, and have them filming simultaneously. This gives you the advantage of not having to reposition your lone camera every time you want to change the shot as you can leave it set up covering another aspect of the wargame. However, cutting between two shots that don’t change can be a bit dull visually. Better is to use this other camera as a means of changing angle, getting closer and possibly occasionally showing to the dice throws or opponent’s face as they react to the game play. Basically it gives you the opportunity to cover more and cover it easier: Ridley Scott’s Napoleon used no less than eleven cameras filming simultaneously to capture the battle scenes in his recent film.

This multicamera set-up all adds to the visual interest and keeps things moving depending on how its cut together during the editing phase. Remember, when you watch something on television or at the cinema the shot is changing after every few seconds. While such a tempo may be too fast for a wargame, having the opportunity to cut back and forth regularly will hold people’s attention.

Managing two cameras and playing a game can be a drawn slow process. So it’s important to manage those expectations and prepare for some delays and frustrations, especially if you intend on actually playing a competitive game instead of a demo. Needless to say turning up at your regular club game night unannounced with a load of lights, cameras and microphone gear may take people a tad by surprise.

Thus far the onus has been on just one gamer doing all the talking by acting as a kind of presenter or off screen voice over. Even better is to have all gamers mic’d up so what they are saying can be heard, picked up by the cameras and included in the edit. Things will be more entertaining this way plus it’s a more effective way of letting the viewer know what’s going on. However, this requires having more than one mic, ideally each of which is clipped on to the gamers’ lapels. Although it is possible to just have one and leave it secreted somewhere on the wargame table, or suspended from the ceiling somehow, so it picks up speech. Just bear in mind if you do leave it on the table it will pick up the clatter of dice rolls, moving figures, tapping the table and all sorts of other noise that could compromise what is being said.

Step 4: Editing and cutting down your video

All these cameras, microphones and other gizmos are great but there will come a time when you inevitably need to make sense of your material and bring things into the edit. The editing process is something misunderstood by the wider public and is an art form all to itself. At its simplest it is the straight forward ordering of material according to a pre-formed plan. At the other end of the spectrum it’s the corruption of time into a dazzling array of events that enhances the basic story.

Some wargame videos may just be a simple progression of the turns with things either cut out or left in, while others may start backwards with a teaser shot of a player’s reaction at the end of the game – perhaps weeping in the corner after their expensive and lovingly painted army is wiped out – before cutting back to the intro. The choice is up to you, just remember an earlier point: if you can get your concept across simply then your audience will easily understand things. Don’t overthink it!

Editing applications can offer a dizzying array of add-ons, graphic options and basically all sorts of visual goodies to sprinkle into a film. Don’t let them confuse you, stay focused on what you need to do and only use things sparingly. Remember people are watching your video to see a wargame, not your skills with animated graphics or spinning titles. An edit application’s prime purpose is to stick bits of video together!

So what edit options are out there. The answer is: lots. You’ve got Adobe Premiere, DaVince Resolve, Final Cut, iMovie, Premiere Rush and so on. The list is long, confusing and can be a rabbit hole to fall into. Some are sophisticated professional systems that offer lots of flexibility and options for editing while others are basic aimed at casual users and can be limited regards their features. Much like the advice regarding cameras, it’s perhaps best to start off with ‘whatever you have to hand’. Most laptops will have some kind of proprietary editing application while many editing apps for smartphones can be obtained for free. However, for those with little or no experience of video editing, it can be a frustrating and confusing experience at first; keeping track of your video files, cutting them and assembling them can put your head in a spin. This will be further compounded if you are editing a prolonged film on a smartphone as keeping track of everything on a small screen can become a descent into madness.

Step 5: The Final Cut

So what else can you do in your edit? You can fill in many of the blanks you either forgot to film or were unable to. For example a key dice role can be shown by simple text in the corner of the screen or a turn not covered by camera can be summarized by another caption. Also you can add some voice overs to cover other points or even add music and sound effects. Plus you could show an important rule paragraph by having it appear in close up or as a photograph.

Consider that editing is also a time when the film maker can attempt to correct mistakes. The options and possibilities available while editing are near endless however remember these words from George Lucas regards the film making process: “A film is never finished, only abandoned”. Consider this wisdom and take it to heart, otherwise you may spend days or weeks in a small dark room cobbling together your skirmish wargame video as you become obsessed with the editing process. It does happen. (remember, Greedo shot first...)

Some additional tips for filming miniatures

So what final pointers are there? If you are unhappy with hard edits, most editing apps have transitions called cross fades, dissolves, wipes etc. These can smooth over the cracks so to speak and feel free to use them.

Should you need to reposition your lone camera, try and keep filming in the same general direction otherwise it can confuse the viewer. To explain, if you have the camera filming from one side of the table and then position it on the opposite side so it’s facing the back other way, it can disorientate the viewer. Also where possible try and use the manual settings on your video camera or smartphone’s video app. This way you can have better control over things like focus meaning your shots will stay sharp if you move it about.

White balance is worth thinking about, it’s the way your camera establishes whether its filming in natural or artificial light. If left on automatic or set incorrectly your images can either have a washed out blue tinge or a dirty orange hue. However, that being said, don’t worry too much about these points. Modern cameras and smartphones are quite capable beasts and often their inbuilt automatic systems can handle a wide array of situations.

For those using two or more cameras it’s possible the image quality between them may vary. Especially if they are different makes and models. So when it comes to the edit you may discover the video from the different devices are of different resolution or size. However, this can be corrected at the post production stage.

Finally, headphones. This relates to microphones. While it’s all very well to wear one, how do you tell if your microphone’s audio quality is good? The simple act of plugging headphones into your video camera or smartphone – if you can – is the best way to check your mics are working and sending quality audio. It’s worth taking a few moments before you start filming to check this point. If not you risk filming for an hour or so only to discovery your video material is mute. Ooops!

Hang on in there and have fun. And remember, the more videos you make, the more you will improve.

For more top tips on miniature wargaming, including scenarios, painting and much more, be sure to check out our monthly Miniature Wargames magazine. Available now in print and digital editions. See our Miniature Wargame magazine subscriptions offers and find out how you could save money on your subscription.


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