How to select the best video equipment for your school’s production needs without breaking your budget, and how to use it wthout straining your skills.

As the media-arts maven at the school where I teach (running first in a field of one candidate), I’m
sometimes asked to put together a list of video equipment for a classroom, a department, or a gift from a
community organization. The teachers or parents who seek this advice don’t care to become Steven
Spielbergs; they simply want a hassle-free way to tape school projects, games, or activities.

Which makes them instant members of the Getting Started club, whose motto is Low Cost, Low
Tech, Low Sweat. (The club also includes adult honchos in churches and community organizations because
they have similar needs: simple, low-cost video outfits that amateur grownups and kids alike can use to
make effective programs.)

So let’s see how to choose video equipment for school or other group activities. We’ll start by
surveying your hardware options, then look at some low-rent solutions for simple editing.

Since we focus on video newbies here, we need to acknowledge that many teachers already
preside over sophisticated video operations, often using equipment wheedled, scrounged, or otherwise
promoted with the selfless ingenuity for which teachers are famous. But even if you are an experienced
classroom videographer, you may find a useful idea or two in this quick review of the basics.

Selecting a Camcorder
Step one, of course, is to get a camera. And the eternal question is, what kind? VHS? VHS-C? 8mm?
Should you spring for the higher quality of S-VHS or Hi8? What about those camcorders with funny little
viewing screens attached, and what’s all this noise about “digital” anyway?

To dispose of the easy questions first: digital video is awesome but still for deep pockets only.
And the high-resolution S-VHS and Hi8 formats are nice-to-haves if you’ve got the budget. For basic
classroom video however, plain VHS or 8mm are fine.

Which one, then? At the risk of irritating small-format partisans, I vote for full-size VHS. There
are many compelling reasons for choosing this format:

  1. Simplicity: the larger, wider-spaced controls of full-size camcorders are easier for
    younger fingers to work (and for older eyes to see).

  2. Stability: Instead of propping them in front of your face, you rest full-size camcorders on your
    shoulder, where they’re easier to hold steady. Consumer models are so light that even elementary school
    children can manage them without fatigue.

  3. Security: equipment theft, alas, is a possibility, even in the schools of prosperous
    communities; and full-size VHS camcorders are simply harder to conceal than the much smaller compact
    formats.

  4. Compatibility: You can play VHS tapes in any standard VCR and, as we’ll see below, you can
    use the camcorders as sophisticated editing machines. (If you insist on a small-size camcorder, VHS-C is a
    reasonable compromise.)

  5. Economy: You can buy regular VHS camcorders very cheaply–often for as little as $400
    or even less.

Are cheap camcorders good investments? Definitely, for two reasons. First, their video and audio
quality are quite good because their essential mechanisms are very similar to those of more expensive
models. All the cheapos lack are the extra bells and whistles.

Less obviously, cheap models keep down repair bills. Since this is somewhat tricky to explain,
here’s a true example instead: a year ago a student dropped our $2,000 prosumer camcorder so that its lens
now telescopes admirably, but no longer zooms or focuses. Repair estimate: $1,000 for a replacement
zoom lens. Result: camcorder useless because there’s insufficient budget to repair it.

If we’d chosen a $400 model instead, our maintenance fund would have bought us a
replacement.

The moral is that hardware used by students is surely going to wear out or break down and repair
costs are simply fierce, with labor rates often at $90 per hour and up. In many cases it’s more cost-effective
to buy inexpensive camcorders, use them to death, then replace them instead of refurbishing them.

The Essential Classroom Outfit

In most situations, a camcorder is not enough all by itself. At the minimum, you also need a tripod
and provision for power.

A tripod is always important for jiggle-free shots, but in a classroom it’s doubly essential because
the camera often shoots long, static scenes. In our school, for example, the speech and debate class records
every oration for later review and critiquing. Without a tripod, recordings of these lengthy effusions would
rapidly make viewers seasick.

Here are some basic tips for getting a good tripod (obtainable for $200 or less, often much less).
First, choose a design engineered specifically for video rather than still camera use because the head will
pan and tilt more smoothly. Look for a broad camera plate to accommodate the base of the camcorder.
Demand a long, sturdy pan handle to facilitate smooth camera moves. If the unit features a camera quick-
release system, ensure that it’s robust enough to lock the camera securely. I have watched in helpless horror
as a student picked up a tripod, only to have the camera on top of it bid farewell to its baseplate and crash
to the ground. (This happens only on concrete, never above soft grass.)

The next essential accessories concern power. At least one spare camcorder battery is a must, and
it’s nice to have two. When working in class on a tripod, a long, safety-approved power cord will juice your
camera indefinitely. I like the bright orange or yellow ones, and I tape them down with duct tape, for extra
security.

Finally, a clear lens filter is a classroom must to keep grubby student fingers and sharp, scratchy
objects off the delicate glass of the camcorder lens. You should be able to pick one up for $20 or so.

More Hardware Goodies

With a camcorder, a tripod, spare power, and a lens filter, you have the essentials of a classroom
video outfit, and you may have spent as little as $750 for the lot.

But if you have more budget, you can enhance your system with a few simple accessories that can
markedly improve the quality of your videos.

The first add-on is a monitor, to free the videographer from the tyranny of the camcorder
viewfinder. You can get little external LCD monitors that work well, but tiny portable TV sets are easier to
set up and to see. Note, however, that the set you buy must have so-called “A/V inputs” because you can’t
usually cable the camera to antenna-style TV connectors.

Here, incidentally, is the one powerful argument for selecting a compact camcorder instead of
full-size VHS. Increasing numbers of small-format units feature a built-in flat-screen LCD monitor that
greatly simplifies shooting. Some models, notably from Sony, offer both tube- and screen-type finders on
the same camera, for the best of both worlds.

But whether stand-alone or camera-mounted, an external monitor is so convenient that it should
be your very first nice-to-have add-on.

The next should be some type of microphone, especially if you place your camcorder at the back
of the room to record student or teacher presentations up front. Because camera-mounted mikes are so
indiscriminate, they don’t work well when far from the subjects or in noisy environments (though your
classroom, of course, is never no never noisy).

The simplest external mike is just a PA system type on a floor or table stand, with a cable running
to the camcorder’s external mike jack. (One argument against the cheap cameras recommended above is
that they sometimes lack inputs for outside microphones. So look for this feature when buying.) Don’t use
an actual PA mike, though, because its plug won’t fit your camcorder’s audio input jack. Buy a mike with a
miniplug connector instead.

For just a few dollars more you can invest in a wireless mike that eliminates the cumbersome
cable to the camera. For lecture-type presentations, a tie-clip type works fine. For student scenes with
several people, a hand mike on a stand is better. Consumer electronics stores like Radio Shack usually have
both types of wireless mike, and they are surprisingly inexpensive.

Whatever kind of mike you get, invest in headphones for the camera operator. You see, plugging
in an external mike disables the one built into the camera. So if the outside mike fails for some reason, you
won’t get any sound at all. Without headphones plugged into the camcorder, you can’t tell whether your
audio is good, bad, or (disaster!) absent completely.

We haven’t mentioned movie lights, for several very good reasons. They’re expensive, they can be
a classroom safety hazard, and they require time and skill to deploy properly.

Most importantly, the “white” light from movie lights is actually more yellow than the cool light
from the fluorescents found in most classrooms. Mixing movie and fluorescent lights can result in some
peculiar colors indeed. (If your camcorder lacks a fluorescent white balance setting, use the “outdoor”
position instead. Some inexpensive camcorders automate white-balance selection entirely.) Also, unless
you teach in some Dickensonian relic of a school building, the light levels in your classroom should be
quite adequate for videotaping.

You may, however, wish to buy a camera-mounted, battery-powered fill-in light to perk up
people’s faces in closeups and banish shadows from detail shots. If you want to get fancy, try filtering the
light to match the classroom fluorescents. But you probably won’t need to bother for close work like
this.

Classroom Editing

Chances are nowadays that you have a cart in your classroom (or at least one is available) with a
monitor and a VCR; and that means you have two-thirds of an editing setup.

For the simplest possible editing chores, just connect the audio and video output signals from your
camcorder into the VCR input jacks. (If you’re shopping for a VCR, look for one with these jacks mounted
conveniently in front.) Then transfer selected shots, in the order you want, to an assembly (edited) tape.
When you play the camcorder tape while previewing or recording shots, they will show up on the monitor.
When playing back your assembly tape, the monitor will show the edited program instead.

But if you’re just a bit more enterprising (and if your camcorder is a VHS model) you can enhance
your programs by reversing the edit flow. That is:

  • Play your raw footage in your VCR, and cable it to the input jacks on your camcorder.

  • Cable the camcorder’s output jacks to the monitor, for display.

  • Use the camcorder as an assembly deck on which you build your finished program.

Why? First, because many camcorders feature special effects almost never found on VCRs–
effects like: fade in/fade out, wipe, and dissolve. With these digital effects you can add professional-
looking transitions. Also, some camcorders have built-in titlers, that you may find useful (though the
results look pretty primitive).

On top of special effects, many VHS camcorders (and some in other formats) have insert and dub
functions. Video insert lets you replace a section of previously transferred picture without disturbing its
accompanying sound. Audio dub does the opposite: it allows you to lay new audio over edited picture. This
is especially useful for music or voice-over narration. (And even young children get remarkably skillful at
lip-synching by speaking dialog to match on-screen mouth movements.)

Something to Edit

Though this edition of Getting Started looks at assembling hardware, we can’t wrap it up without a
word about “software”–what you or your students record in the making of classroom videos.

The biggest problem with most videos is their length: the numbing, real-time march of one thing
after another. How often have you suffered a passage like this one, from an imagined debate
tournament:

“So, in conclusion… [notes fall on floor] …I, uh, I, um, the gold standard, um, uh… [spends
several seconds retrieving and reorganizing the notes] …right: the gold standard has long been discredited
in modern economic thought!”


And the unblinking camera staring at the podium has long since discredited the speaker.

All you need to fix this problem is that editor’s sovereign cure-all, the cutaway. During a slow
moment the videographer moves the camera to a front corner of the classroom and turns it on the audience.
(It doesn’t matter whom they’re listening to at the time because you discard the audio of the off-camera
speaker anyway.)

In assembling the final tape, the editor uses this cutaway like this:


1, VIDEO: The speaker.

1, AUDIO: So, in conclusion…

2, VIDEO: The audience listening intently.

2, AUDIO: (speaker offscreen) The gold standard has long been discredited…

3, VIDEO: The speaker as before.

3, AUDIO: …in modern economic thought!

And all the scenes in which the speaker is dropping and retrieving notes have been invisibly edited out.

In its way, the cutaway shot is as indispensable a tool as a tripod or
even the camcorder itself. Get plenty of cutaways and you’ll improve the simplest classroom video
immeasurably.

Good shooting!

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