If you’re short on video equipment and expertise, go long on planning. It’ll help your video take off.
Heres a remark to chill the blood of any Getting Starter: “Say, I notice you got one of those video gadgets, so how bout filming a little show for our club [church/school/charity/lodge]? Nothing fancy, okay? Like maybe half an hour.”
If youve tried even one or two video projects, you have some instinct for the amount of work involved in a piece that runs only ten minutes, let alone “maybe half an hour.” And you also know that despite their insincere compliments, your audience will compare your amateur effort unfavorably to the professional videos they see on TV. So its no surprise that you want to answer "Gee, Id love to; but next week I plan to fall and break both arms."
The bad news is that your instincts are sound: a typical community-service program may demand more video expertise than you feel you yet command and it could easily take 100 hours or more to complete.
The good news is you dont have to make a "typical" program.
To illustrate another approach that can work just fine, heres the tale of a show that a bunch of us parents once perpetrated for a local grade school to raise funds for the schools cub-scout troop. The show was a mini saga on The Day They Sold Rides on a Hot Air Balloon. Our hardware was a raggedy gaggle of 8mm and VHS camcorders. Our low-rent VCR had no flying erase head to guarantee clean edits–let alone to make audio dubs for adding music, effects, or narration. Of course, we had no way to create even the simplest fade in/fade out transitions. As for titling hard- or software, it was to laugh. In short, the setup was as high tech as a neolithic bashing rock and as posh as the Deadwood jail.
To make an effective program under these conditions we had to work smart. We spread the shooting chores among several parents, we assembled the show using techniques as simple as our editing lashup, and to launch the project we created the most important (and most often neglected) production tool of all: a plan.
Now Heres the Plan…
Getting together a week before the Big Day, we asked three big questions about our video:
- What’s its subject?
- What’s its purpose?
- What’s its delivery system?
If those questions seem a bit pompous for a simple neighborhood video, hear me out; the answers turned a vague idea into a well-focused project.
At first the subject seemed too limited to warrant extensive coverage: 1) folks climb into basket; 2) balloon goes up; 3) balloon comes down; 4) folks climb out; 5) new folks climb in; 6) loop to step 2. It all might be worth maybe two minutes, tops, before ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!
But then we examined several supporting activities designed to round out the main event: a craft session in which kids would build small hot air balloons from tissue-paper kits; an altitude contest to showcase these working models; and a fundraising book stall with a name borrowed from local hero Ray Bradbury: “Icarus, Montgolfier, Wright.” We realized that if we covered all these activities we could weave them together into a solid 10-minute program.
But why bother to do all this in the first place? What was our purpose here? After much discussion, we saw that our goal was not just to document the day, but to convince parents, kids, and school officials that events like this were worthy, productive, and fun. In short, our real purpose was to promote cub-scout fundraising at the school. Suddenly a pointless chronicle was transformed into an infomercial with a designated job–a purpose.
With subject and purpose agreed upon, we considered the delivery system, that is, the method of showing the program and the conditions in which it would be screened. Our epic would debut at a follow-up scout meeting and then be run twice again at a school assembly and a school board meeting. In each case, we would use a three-lens, front-projection system to display the video onto a movie screen in the school auditorium. By thinking about the delivery system (screening conditions) we realized that the mediocre brightness and resolution of front-projection mandated strong, simple visual compositions and bright, contrasty colors. On the plus side, the auditorium’s fine sound system meant we could deliver an impressive audio track (if we could lay one down with our editing rig, which was strictly from The Flintstones).
So now we knew what we were shooting, why we were doing it, and how we would show the results. To complete our planning, we assigned two videographers to each of the three major activities. One camera person would document the essential process (operating a tethered hot-air balloon, making and flying balloon models, selling books on balloons and flight). Meanwhile, the other shooter would capture inserts (details of the action) and cutaways (wider shots of the fairgrounds and of the people participating) for later use in editing.
By making specific shooting assignments, we gave each contributor a sense of purpose and increased the odds that the designated editor would get enough material with which to edit. To increase the odds that the said material would be usable, I held a quick, informal workshop to demonstrate just what the heck inserts and cutaways were.
On with the Show
On the great gettin’ up morning, we took the field at dawn to capture the initial inflation of the giant hot-air balloon. For fail-safe simplicity, the six Getting Started videographers had cameras set on full autopilot, including white balance, focus, and exposure; and everyone had at least one spare battery. I’d divided my volunteers into two VHS teams and one 8mm team, for reasons we’ll see shortly.
Meanwhile, I focused on getting shots to use in place of the editing transition effects that we didn’t have. For example, I faked an initial fade-in by filling the frame with the dark mass of the balloon fabric when the operator started shooting hot air into it. As the balloon inflated, the black screen brightened into a gaudy rainbow as the fabric swelled to a globular shape. Great opening!
And then, as my students might put it, I lucked out majorly: the balloon’s gas burner malfunctioned and died and the great bag slowly wheezed flat again, returning my frame to the darkness in which it’d started. Without even trying, I’d recorded a final fade-out as well, and one that mirrored my opening, exactly as if I’d planned the whole thing (heh heh).
Then, off we went to complete our shooting assignments. By the end of the day, I had 10 hours of material on four VHS and two 8mm cassettes. The final challenge was to assemble an effective program on our improvised edit system.
Bargain Basement Editing
Here again we used planning to sidestep our limitations. Although our editing system and final program were both in VHS format, we didn’t copy our 8mm originals to VHS. Instead, we saved a tape generation by using an 8mm camcorder as the source deck for the 8mm footage, and a VHS camcorder as source for the VHS tapes.
That’s why we’d assigned the two 8mm camcorders to the same topic (the balloon-model contest, as it turned out) so we could switch back and forth between main footage and cutaways without having to constantly swap 8mm and VHS camcorder source decks. (See Figure 1.)
With the main footage edited, we needed end credits, and one last time our planning paid off. We’d saved discarded pieces of the colored tissue paper from which the kids had built balloons. Now we used them in a titling project at a followup cub-scout meeting where the troops hand-lettered credits on art board and decorated the cards with the scavenged tissue paper.
To make the transition, we shot a closeup of small hands shaping colored paper that matched similar shots of the balloon-construction sequence at the actual fundraiser. Inserted at the end of that sequence, the shot effected a magical transition to the end credits.
Finally, a little balloon music, Professor. After the opening shot of dark fabric transformed into a balloon by the propane furnace (with impressive flames roaring on the sound track), we cut to a dust jacket on the book-fair counter that showed an 18th-century hot-air balloon ascension. At that point–right after the whoosh! of the flames–we used sections of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons as the rest of our audio track.
To do this, we cued up our second-generation edit master to the point just after the audio of the propane furnace bursting into flames, cabled the audio inputs of the recording VCR to the line out jack of a boom box, and rerecorded picture and sound track together (again, see figure 1). This destroyed our existing program audio for the rest of the production, but it wasnt needed once Vivaldi was playing. The result was a third-generation program tape of quite-acceptable quality.
The payoff? Well, at the school-board showing, the audience was so blown away it insisted that we rewind and reshow the program immediately.
And that’s how a bunch of Getting Starters delivered an effective community-service program without killing themselves in the process. Lacking video expertise, they used the smarts they did have instead. There’s a moral in there someplace.