Heads on a Stick

An unorthodox guide for dialing in your shot.

A mannequin just might be the assistant you didn’t know you needed.

Enjoy this special guest post by my good friend, Rico Molden from Even Sparrow Films.


This idea just hit me one day: Get a mannequin head to stand-in for me when I’m setting up for an interview.

When filming testimonials or really any video where you know the person on camera will be standing or sitting in one place, you can make sure that your composition and lighting are just right ahead of time, but only if you have a stand-in.

I used to have to ask someone to stand-in so I could adjust my camera and lights. Often times it would be an assistant that I needed to be working instead of just standing there. Or, if I was setting up alone, I’d just have to guess on my composition and lighting and hope for the best (which usually didn’t work out too well).  Guessing would also put added pressure on me because once the talent is on camera, that’s not a very convenient time to make major lighting and camera changes.

Enter the mannequin head:

With a mannequin as a stand-in I can now set up the scene with a model in the frame and have a subject to work with. No more guessing and checking. This lets me dial in the look on set more confidently and efficiently so I’m totally ready come time for filming.

Here’s my 3 step process:

  1. I’ll walk through the filming location with my camera in hand and the mannequin head on a stand. I’ll scope out the space trying out several angles and see what looks good on camera.
  2. When I find a look I like, I’ll start to settle in and put the camera(s) on tripod(s) and light the scene.

Note: I carry a spare set of eyeglasses if I know my subject will be wearing glasses so I can deal with any potential glare or reflections from my lights. Also, if possible, I try to know the person’s standing height or sitting height prior to setting up so I’m not setting up too high or low.

Another thing to consider – people part their hairlines on different sides. One time I set up side lighting for a more dramatic shoot only to find out that the person parted their hair on the other side in a way that covered half their face so I had to reset all of my lighting after the person showed up. I could have avoided this had I known ahead of time what their hairstyle was going to be like. #fixitinpreproduction

  1. I analyze the frame and see if there are improvements I can make to the background, I especially look out for distracting elements that will be behind the talent’s head.

Bonus Perk: You get to learn the sweet spots of your lenses.

The human face will change shapes depending on what focal length you use. Practicing with a mannequin lets you really learn your lenses and see what distances, focal lengths, and angles will exaggerate, neutralize, or minimize certain facial features.

So if you’ve made it this far into the article and you’re wondering where to buy some sweet mannequin heads, Simply Manikins has several to choose from.  Personally, I’d say go for the ones that have glass eyes instead of painted on. The glass eyes will be good for helping to see what catchlights are showing up.

I got mine used online from somebody that used them to practice makeup on, so maybe check Craigslist or Ebay for a good deal. I’d also recommend having a male and female version that way you’re ready for each scenario. 

Also, one last thing to look forward to – people’s reactions on set. When people see the heads on sticks they always say, “Wow that’s creepy”, followed by “That’s a really good idea!” Still, whenever possible I try to use my mannequin heads when setting up and then put them away before the talent arrives so they’re not creeped out.

In the comments, I’d be interested in hearing if you plan to try this and how it goes. Or are you doing something similar and what your tricks are for setting up?


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