Whether you’re the designated family videomaker or an experienced video professional, you’ll come to a point where you have projects that require an upgrade of your current acquisition system. (By acquisition system, we mean the gear that you take with you on the shoot, as opposed to the VCRs and edit controllers you may have in your editing system.
When it’s time for an upgrade, many beginners rush out to the nearest mall or video discount house, flash their credit cards and buy every new gadget they can think of. Without thinking ahead and planning their purchases, they end up with a closet full of expensive but useless stuff that won’t work together and doesn’t meet their videomaking needs.
Professionals, however, don’t just go out and buy a bunch of stuff. They purchase video acquisition systems. They make sure they have all the video, camera support, audio, lighting and accessories required to meet the needs of their video productions.
In this article, we’ll define four major levels of video systems, from the casual shooter to the corporate/production video professional. Then we’ll take a look at the different types of equipment that make up a workable video system for videomakers at each level. We’ll toss out some specific products as representativ samples of what you’ll find at each price point.
With this information, you’ll be able to make an informed choice about the videomaking equipment you need, rather than relying on a salesperson (or your own appetite for shopping) to choose your equipment for you. You’ll end up with more than just a bunch of videomaking equipment; you’ll have what the pros have–a video acquisition system.
Levels of Video Production
Before you can even think about putting together a video system that best suits the level of production you want to achieve, you need to know what those levels are. You’ll also need to know where your video projects fit into the overall videomaking picture. The four basic levels of sophistication in video production are the casual shooter, the serious amateur, the small-budget pro and the corporate/production video pro.
At the first level is the casual video shooter. This level of sophistication includes those happy owners of the family camcorder as well as those who make a serious effort to document their vacations and family gatherings with steady video. If you’re one of these, the gear you’re likely to find in your closet or car is a fairly good but basic camcorder and a tripod.
The next level of sophistication, the serious amateur, consists of videomakers who spend their weekends doing simple video projects for their friends and family, as well as creating the occasional movie for their own artistic satisfaction. If this is your level, your current video kit probably includes a camcorder with a few special effects, a sturdy tripod, a camera-mounted or external mike, at least one light and a few other accessories thrown in for good measure.
The small-budget professional probably owns a good 3-chip camcorder, a very solid tripod or other form of camera support, a wireless mike system and audio mixer, location lighting, gaffer supplies and a closet full of video accessories that have accumulated over the years.
The final level of sophistication for video production is the corporate/production video professional. This level includes those of you who produce corporate/industrial videos in a fairly well-equipped production facility. At this level, you should have at your fingertips a very good dockable small format camera, a color monitor, a high-quality tripod with fluid head and some other form of support such as a dolly, broadcast-quality mikes and mixers, full location lighting with a complete gaffer’s kit and a utility dolly with a complete grip kit.
Now that we’ve gone over the four levels of videomaking, let’s discuss the first step in purchasing a new system: planning.
When putting together any level of video production system, you must base your decisions on two very important points: what are your video production needs, and how much can you afford to spend?
When determining your production needs, ask yourself a few questions. Do you shoot most or all of your projects indoors, thus needing versatile lighting equipment? Do you mainly shoot outdoors, hiking to each location with only yourself or a friend acting as designated grip/pack mule? Do you make nature programs that require a lightweight yet rugged tripod with a very smooth fluid head and a camcorder with interchangeable lenses? Will interviews be a major part of your productions? If so, you may want to buy a soft light and other supplemental lighting equipment as well as a good wireless microphone system.
Your budget may help you decide whether you should buy the expensive wireless system or settle for a less expensive shotgun mike connected to the camcorder. With this in mind, read over the video production systems matrix. Keep in mind that every step up to a new level will more than double your investment in equipment and accessories. Take a hard look at the types of programs you would like to produce and the money you’ll need to achieve the level of sophistication you desire; if your pocketbook can’t accomodate the level of videomaking you d like to achieve, you may have some hard choices ahead.
Once you have fixed firmly in your mind the type of video needs your system must address and the budget you must live with, you can then put together a video production system to meet those needs. The following basic principles will help you in making your decisions.
The production system must include video, video support, audio, lighting and accessories. The first four categories are essential to the quality of your programs. The fifth category contains those things that make life easier but you probably don’t need.
Many of us have seen the productions of those who buy expensive camcorders but forget the rest of the system. After watching only a few minutes, it feels like the final moments on a sinking ship; shaky, dark video that makes you seasick and audio that only the producer can understand. Good video productions start with solid, smooth video, quality audio and good lighting that matches the mood or style of the production. A video production system must provide all of these essentials.
To get the most out of your system, buy individual components that are similar in quality, capability and cost. Shooting that important project with your new $1500 camcorder and a $50 tripod will be a very disappointing experience. It also makes little sense to use a $2300 tripod with a $600 basic camcorder. Choose your equipment so that each piece matches in quality and compatibility and complements the other parts of the system.
It is also very important to stay within your budget and buy only what you need. The price of a piece of equipment has very little to do with whether it will satisfy your production needs. Though the more expensive model may be a better piece of equipment, it may not provide the best bang for the buck.
For example, a $300 wireless microphone system is usually better than a $50 system. It provides a better frequency response, higher quality audio and a greater operating range. A $2000 wireless microphone system may be even better than the $300 system–but not worth the extra $1700 to meet your specific needs.
Film directors and cinematographers are fond of saying "The quality of the picture begins with the quality of the piece of glass." When putting together your own system, you too should start with a "good piece of glass"–a quality camcorder, a sturdy, smooth camera support system, an audio system that gives good reproduction quality and lighting equipment that provides the luminance needed for the camera to produce a good picture.
Once you have the solid basics and have paid for the quality your projects demand, you can look for inexpensive substitutes to handle the job of accessory equipment. The ability to do a lot with a little is always welcome. In lighting, you can often find substitute equipment and accessories. For example, instead of spending hundreds of dollars on a professional "butterfly" to light a large area with diffused light, build a frame of inexpensive PVC pipe and use lightweight tracing paper as the diffusing material.
It’s also important to plan your video system with the future in mind. The more video production you do, the better your skills become. Better skills often lead to a desire for better, more sophisticated equipment. There will also be a greater demand for your skills. Unless you have an incredible nest egg or win the lottery, you won’t be able to completely replace your current system. Build your new system one step at a time, improving one component of the system at each step.
Keep your needs in mind and buy to meet those needs. If you have a project that demands very smooth, steady camera movement, you may want to invest in a more expensive tripod even though it will probably be overkill for your current system. You should look at every purchase in terms of how the individual piece of equipment will complement the present and future equipment.
Assembling the System
Now that you have a firm grasp of your budget and you know what you want to spend your money on, you’re ready to buy, right? Hold on. Before you rush out and damage too many credit cards or run up the company’s equipment budget, look over the following suggestions and study the video production system matrix.
These suggestions provide an overview of specific equipment models. Most of the prices quoted are list and should give you a starting point for comparing the prices you find at your local video equipment outlet.
As noted before, thematrixcontains basic information for each level of sophistication and provides ballpark figures for the actual cost (after shopping around) of buying a system.
Level One: The Casual Shooter.
As we said before, the casual shooter only needs two basic pieces of equipment: a camcorder and tripod. The Panasonic PV-IQ505 VHS-C Palmcorder ($1000), RCA’s CC422 full-size VHS camcorder($800) or Sony’s 8mm CCD-TR65 ($1000) partnered with a Bilura Model 820 compact tripod ($75) would provide a quality basic system that is easy to use, provides a few nice features (all three have color viewfinders) and delivers good solid performance.
Level Two: The Serious Amateur.
At this level, you’ll want to be able to add some special effects to your productions and take your creativity to new heights. The JVC GR-AX75 VHS-C camcorder ($1200) or the 8mm Nikon VN-870 camcorder with a built-in color monitor ($1100) offer the convenience of compact size and a number of extra features.
When buying a camcorder at this level, look for those features that will enhance your particular type of projects. You should be able to find features such as special effects, audio/video dubbing, manual override of all functions, wireless remote, character generator and color viewfinder. (For more information on camcorders and their features, refer to the December 1994 Videomaker camcorder buyer’s guide.)
You may want to include the Citizen M329 full-color video monitor that slides into the accessory shoe of your camcorder ($250). An external monitor like this one or the one found on the 8mm Nikon VN-870 camcorder offers a great deal of flexibility to your system. You no longer have to strain your eyes to compose your shot and the color monitor provides an instant check of white balance and lighting contrast.
No matter how fancy your camera is, if you don’t provide solid, smooth support, your video will still look as if you’re shooting it with a $500 blue-light special camcorder. The Bogen 3021 tripod ($146) with 3130 head ($85) offers rock-solid support with smooth pans, a quick-release plate and the ability to adjust the height from 10 1/4 to 71 inches. If you shoot on the go, you may want to opt for Sima Products Corporation’s Mini VideoProp ($40), a support that rests on the user’s chest, using the body as the tripod. You might also consider a monopod such as Bogen’s BTH-3249 ($50).
We sometimes think of audio as video’s little brother, but it’s an integral part of the production. Bad audio will destroy a video production even if the video is awesome. To supplement your camcorder’s audio system, you may want to look at the Crown Sound Grabber ($99). This PZM-style area mike has a long cable and works with any consumer camcorder. Another direction you may go is the Nady VCM-100 Camera Mount Microphone ($65). To hear your improved audio during recording, pick up a set of headphones with a mini 1/8-inch connector ($30-$80).
If you provide enough light and reduce the contrast between the dark and light areas in a picture, VHS and 8mm tape can produce some amazing results. For supplemental lighting, consider the Sun-Pak CV-20s Video Light ($100 for the kit, including battery and charger).
For accessories, the serious amateur should consider extra batteries for the camcorder and light ($35-$150 depending on the equipment). Finally, a gadget bag ($35-$100) will make getting your equipment around a lot easier.
The Small-budget Professional. This level has become the focus of a great number of equipment manufacturers and has the widest range of pricing.
Aimed directly at this level of production is the "prosumer" line of equipment that you can find in almost any video equipment and supply house. Your camcorder choice should be either an S-VHS, S-VHS-C or Hi8 model with over 400 lines of resolution.
Knowing your budget and production needs is critical in buying a camcorder at this level. In the S-VHS or S-VHS-C format you may choose the Panasonic AG-456U ($2495) or the Panasonic AG-3 camcorder ($3570). In the Hi8 format, consider the Hitachi VM-H71A ($1900) or Sony’s CCD-VX3 ($3800). If your productions depend on interchangeable lenses, you will want to take a look at Canon’s L2 ($4000).
At this level, you should include alternatives to the standard tripod camera support. One such alternative is the Steadicam JR ($500). This small version of the professional Steadicam, while a little difficult to master, is well worth the effort. It provides smooth camera support on the move. The Bogen Deluxe Video Dolly ($164) is another addition to your camera support system that you may want to consider.
As your video improves, so must your audio. For interviews, you’ll need a good wireless lapel mike system like the Nady 351 ($299). The Shure M267 professional mixer ($535) can be battery powered to handle your mixing needs in the field. You will also want quality headphones such as Sony’s MDR-7502 ($62).
Clear, well-lit video is the sign of professional. The Lowel Standard Softlight 2 ($825) provides a soft, controlled light that will enhance your interviews and any location shoot. To supplement the Softlight, consider an NRG two-light Photoflood kit ($340). Don’t forget to add a lighting kit that includes Gaffer’s tape ($12 per roll), 3×4 foot sheets of white foamcore for bouncing light, black poster board for flags, 3-pin to 2-pin AC adapters, extra extension cords, a power strip, clothespins and any of your other favorite lighting accessories.
One item that the low-budget professional will find very useful is a video cart. Most professionals that work at this level specialize in being a one-man band. The Bretford BPDUO-EW ($205) has a big wheel assembly for smooth transportation of your camera, tripod, lights and everything else. It also has a built-in 4-plug power strip and 20 foot cord. If you need to travel, it comes apart quickly and fits neatly in a van or car trunk.
The Corporate/Production Video Professional. You will still find S-VHS, S-VHS-C and Hi8 at this level of production. However, the level of sophistication in the cameras is greatly enhanced. The camcorders at this level include Panasonic’s S-VHS format AG-DP800 ($9900). This level also includes cameras with separate "dockable" recorders such as the JVC KY-27U camera with dockable BR-S422U S-VHS recorder ($15,000) and the Sony DXC-325 camera with the EVW-9000 Hi8 dockable recorder ($9000). If your budget can afford a dockable unit, it will be more adaptable in the future should new and higher quality video formats become a financial possibility.
The larger cameras found at this level require more substantial video support. The Vinten Vision System 5 tripod and fluid head ($3295) is a sturdy lightweight example of such a system. The Vinten Vision 3319-3B castoring dolly ($635) will add even more flexibility to your remote shooting.
For audio at this level, you need to purchase broadcast-quality mikes. The Audio-Technica AT815a shotgun ($300) is a good all-around location mike. For voice and handheld work, the Shure SM58 ($215) is a solid performer. A high-quality wireless system and production mixer are also part of the formula for successful audio at this level.
You may want to supplement your production capabilities in audio with a portable audio recorder. The Marantz PMD 430 portable stereo cassette recorder ($599) is excellent as a recorder for ambient sound and sound effects.
The corporate/production professional usually has an array of lighting kits for various location setups. The Lowel Ambi kit ($1695) is a very versatile kit, usable in a number of situations. The lighting budget should also include items such as flags, gels, reflectors and C-stands for holding it all.
Finally, the closets and desks at this level are usually overflowing with all kinds of accessories that simplify life and add to the video professional’s abilities. One accessory that will make life easier is a van. If you’re on good terms with an auto dealership, you may try to spring for a production van. But, until they hand you the keys, load up your video cart and enjoy your videomaking experience.
Having lots of cash, a van full of equipment and a dream budget does not guarantee super productions. You must put a great deal of time and effort into the preproduction (planning, budgeting, scriptwriting) portion of the videomaking process. If you plan your productions well, keeping in mind your equipment’s limitations, you will be successful.
Remember: you can create quality programs at any level of sophistication if your productions have well-lit, steady and composed video with clear audio. To reach the next level of sophistication in both equipment and programs, you must define your needs, establish your budget, do your research and shop with the future in mind.