A striking full-page advertisement on the back of a magazine caught my eye. It showed an open landscape, with a ruined castle silhouetted against the sky. Bold letters across the photo told me it was a travelogue of a beautiful stretch of English countryside.
Having once spent an enjoyable week in that part of the country I sent off for the tape. It was as delightful as the advertisement proclaimed.
But I discovered something that impressed me even more.
The video company making the tapes was a small outfit, consisting of a father and son team with a few others brought in for special contributions. A historian had coordinated the research and written the commentary.
But this was no random collection of camcorder shots; this was professional merchandise developed by the 2-man team. Together they planned the story-lines, chose the music, carried out the editing and marketed the tapes.
They’d rented pro-cameras and employed a commercial transfer company to churn out the copies. It was a smooth operation, and they sold an incredible 10,000 copies.
Could a videomaker, armed with a good quality consumer camcorder, do anything similar? You bet.
The English travelogue took in a large area, and involved the makers in considerable research and travel. Your project needn’t be so ambitious.
Look at your local town; whatever its size it will be teeming with places of potential interest. Look at its churches, its bars and its theaters; an imaginative writer could produce interesting stories about all of them.
But first, you need facts.
Research is the first stage in preparing a travelogue or documentary. Whatever subject or location you choose, you’ll probably be able to find a great deal of information about it. Your local library will have appropriate reference books and staff to help you. Books on specialist matters will have lists of titles, authors, and publishers. Don’t skimp the initial research because you’ll need all the background information you can get to flesh out your story.
Newspaper offices provide further sources of information and may have photographs that you can incorporate into your production. A one-time fee or video credit is often all they ask. You can find useful material in newspaper archives, including photographs of historic events and buildings. Comparisons between past and present provide great material for the travelogue or documentary writer.
Having decided on a treatment, the next step is to talk to people, particularly those who’ve been around long enough to recall past events.
During your investigations you’ll find people who are both knowledgeable and interesting. Bearing in mind that you may want some of them to talk to camera, keep a note of their details. At this stage, never offer anyone a part in your video. Leave your casting until you’ve finalized the script–someone more interesting might turn up later.
An essential strategy when consulting experts is to make them believe you have little or no knowledge of the subject. Experts respond freely to people who appear to be new in the field and are keen to learn, but they clam up if they think the questioner is merely trying to confirm his own theories.
Shooting and Editing
How you shoot and edit your travelogue depends on your equipment. Technology is moving fast, and there are now numerous possible approaches to shooting and editing your production.
People make successful travelogues with equipment at both ends of the spectrum. One tape I saw featured an unusual hill-top garden near Capetown in South Africa. The tape had commentary, music and visual sequences of plants and trees– all assembled in-camera.
There are several techniques for shooting a travelogue with just a camcorder. One technique requires a portable battery operated tape-recorder. You must add everything–commentary, background music, even sound effects–at the moment of recording. This may sound unthinkable to the purist. But we’re not talking cinema epics–we’re talking small operation shooting of a straightforward story.
To practice the technique, make a short documentary of your home and yard. Plan what you’re going to show and where the cuts will come. Find some suitable music and get someone to talk to the camera.
Combine the background music with the external mike, and feed the mix into the camcorder’s mike input. If your camcorder has no mike jack, try playing the recorder close to the built-in mike and fading it up and down by hand. It will work tolerably well because, being background music the slight loss of quality is acceptable.
In this type of videomaking, the audio consists primarily of a narrator talking to camera or giving a voice-over. Use cue-cards and typewritten script to give the speaker confidence and minimize retakes.
The most difficult task when shooting an in-camera production is judging the length of each shot. The natural reaction is to hold pictures far too long. Rehearse by taping dummy subjects at home using a stop-watch. You’ll find it helpful to talk to yourself while you shoot–this door fronted the old city jail for over forty years. Cut. Close-up of door handle–Locked in at night, the prisoners had little chance of escape. Handle moves. Cut.
You can add sequences by video insert into the master tape, but take care not to wipe out important existing material.
Going pro is simply a matter of upgrading your equipment. If you’d rather rent than buy, you can pick up professional camcorders from companies that supply the TV market. After a short period of time you’ll find them as easy to operate as your own camcorder.
In using professional equipment you’ll discover the many services available to you–the world really opens up. You’ll be able to shoot without restriction making sure that you have lots of material to edit.
Regardless of how you shoot or edit your travelogue, you’ll need to consider musical copyright. If you’re shooting in a church, you might persuade the organist to provide the backing (ensuring the sale of at least one tape). For more info on music and copyright, see Copyright Counts in Videomaker’s October 1994 issue.
For the first few tapes you sell, you can probably handle duplication yourself. Later, when you find your product has created interest, you’ll need to step up production. This is a good time to turn the job over to a commercial transfer company. They will offer a price that combines the copying fee with the cost of blank tape–the more copies, the cheaper it gets.
Once you’ve successfully marketed your first batch of tapes, you’ll be able to judge its profit potential. You might decide it’s worth expanding your operation into a full-time commercial business.
Where’s The Market?
Finding buyers for your tape must be your first consideration. Local subjects will interest local residents, and they’ll buy tapes to send to friends or relatives (particularly those abroad). So when you cover a locality, your own or otherwise, make sure you include shots of people’s homes.
Use your commentary to say things like, “This is Walnut Street in which the houses, built at the turn of the century, are set in large pleasant gardens,” etc. This entices the owners of the houses to buy and generates some useful word-of-mouth advertising. For some free advertising, remember to encourage a local newspaper to attend the shooting. Stage a newsworthy event that will provide good copy or an interesting photograph.
The biggest buyers of travelogue tapes are those tourists who possess VCRs but don’t own their own camcorders. You offer them a souvenir of their travels which will revive pleasant memories and give them something to show their friends.
To tap this market, display your tapes in hotel reception areas–if possible on the front desk. You can usually arrange this with the hotel owner; offering a small cut will often seal the deal. If possible, hang a wall poster showing a color photo-enlargement of your tape packaging.
Label the tape boxes attractively with a color picture on the front. For small quantities, try embellishing a master photograph with stick-down lettering, then re-photograph the finished artwork. You can reproduce the labels can as re-prints, or duplicate them on a color photocopier. Compare costs. For really professional work, you should have the labels commercially printed.
A Growing Niche
The great thing about making taped travelogues is that each tape sold brings the producer a profit without further work–a great inducement to break into the market! And the sales will continue for a long period if you’re careful to exclude anything that dates the production.
Making travelogues, like most serious videomaking, should never be regarded as a one-person operation. To get the best results, it’s essential that you undertake the project as a team–however small. This way the producer sheds part of the load while benefiting from other people’s support and advice.
Some popular tourist attractions already have specific videos available, but the vast majority of sightseeing stops do not. Videomakers with the time, talent and persistence to tap into this growing niche will reap the rewards.
You could be one of them.
Bernard Wilkie, a Videomaker contributing editor, designed special effects for the BBC for over 25 years.