Home Video Hints: Simple Steps for Camcorder Care

We tend to focus on objects in this column, things like cameras and microphones, lights and reflectors.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, because without this stuff, we couldn’t make videos.

But in wrangling our hardware, we sometimes forget that people are just as important. Probably more
so–people like the colleagues we shoot with and the clients we shoot for; people, above all, like the
subjects of our videos, the on-camera folks who animate our programs and make them interesting.

Trouble is, people are trickier to manage than dumb and patient hardware. A camcorder will take a lot
of abuse without protest, and if you push it hard enough, you can break it; but you can’t make it mad or
hurt its feelings. If only people were that simple (and if only you could send malfunctioning units out for
repair).

But they aren’t (and you can’t). Instead, people can be, well, difficult. For example:

  • Nervous and preoccupied. The bride grows a bit testy when you try to pose her against a better background.
  • Unsure of where your frame line is. Your volunteer boom operator keeps poking the mike into the shot.
  • Nervous about making a commitment. Your client keeps postponing final approval of your script.

Since people are indispensable parts of the video production process, it might be helpful if they came
with an instruction guide. They don’t, of course, so here’re a few tips for operating them successfully. Or, to
adopt a kinder metaphor, herewith the care and feeding of talent, colleagues, and clients.

People Basics

But before we examine specific production roles, let’s take a quick look at people problems in general.
Folks associated with your production can require TLC for many reasons, including:

  • Ignorance of the medium. Though the bride wants, in a general way, to look good, she hasn’t a clue
    that the blue sky behind her head will throw her into silhouette. And don’t try to explain it to her; she’s
    much too busy being a bride to listen.
  • Lack of real interest. The volunteer mike boom operator’s your spouse, and though willing to lend a
    hand, he’s not motivated to pay much attention to his mike position.
  • Conflicting agenda. Fearful that your training video may somehow put him at corporate risk, your middle-management client wants to dilute his responsibility. So every time you seek a final go-ahead, he wants to "just run it by Jack (or Jill, or Melvin) for their input."

Of course, there are dozens–maybe hundreds–of other situations that can cause difficulties. But no
matter how varied the causes, you can cope with most people problems in the same basic way: by
deploying empathy, consideration, communication and feedback.

Empathy means putting yourself in their shoes. If you can imagine what’s going through a bride’s mind
on her wedding day, or if you can feel the bureaucrat’s fear of losing his job, you’re on your way to
understanding why they’re acting that way.

It helps, of course, if you show people that you understand by displaying consideration for them. "I
know you have a million things on your mind," you say to the bride with a smile, "but if we take just one
extra minute to get this right, you’ll look twice as wonderful." The idea that you’re on her
wavelength may be even more effective than the blarney of your compliment.

In letting her know you understand, you’re communicating, and good communication with other people
is a clich idea that everyone acknowledges but remarkably few people practice. The fourth time your mate
lets the boom mike wander into the shot, you might ordinarily say something like, "Mike’s in. Again." The
trouble is, that tells him what’s wrong, but not how to fix it. You’d communicate better if you said, perhaps,
"I’ve got a medium shot now, so drop the mike just below waist-level." The difference may seem trivial,
but multiply it by a hundred different instances during a shoot and you’ll improve communication
tremendously.

And what should you do when he does lower the mike? Give him some feedback. A simple "That’s fine"
lets him know that he has it right. When the bride consents to repositioning for a close-up, telling her
"That’s gorgeous" or something similar delivers the positive feedback that reassures her and makes her feel
good.

Empathy, consideration, communication, feedback–all these concepts are old hat. But no matter how
well you know them, it helps to remind yourself to practice them, especially when you’re working under
the pressure of a shoot.

With these general principles acknowledged, we can move on to dealing with people in the differing
roles of client, crew and, to begin with, performer.

Handling the Talent

During one episode of the Muppet Show, Kermit the Frog yells "Cue the Pig!" and reaches new depths of
insensitive directing. (Admittedly, the performer is Miss Piggy.)

Unless you work with professional actors–and even in industrial videos, we often don’t–managing your
performers can require extra sensitivity for several reasons. First, they don’t understand the craft of video,
so they don’t know how to repeat action for different angles, how to stop on a mark that puts them at the
right place in the frame or how to keep their hands quiet as they speak.

The trick is to remember that you must explain things like these to amateurs clearly, patiently and above
all, in advance. It’s bad psychology to wait for someone to do it wrong before showing them how to do it
right. By anticipating and preventing their mistakes, you make your actors feel much more positive and
confident.

And if they’re camera-shy (as many people are), they’ll need all the confidence they can get. To remove,
or at least reduce, their videophobia, make your camera less obvious. Back off as far as practical (recording
audio with a separate mike). Roll tape even during rehearsals, because some people perform better when
they think they’re not on camera. (If you can’t disable the red record light on your camcorder, cover it with
tape.)

Not all amateurs suffer camera fright; some are natural hams. But just because they’re comfortable on
camera doesn’t mean they can act. So here are some techniques for obtaining more believable
performances.

First, if possible, don’t make amateurs act at all. Suppose you were to instruct the father of the bride,
"Now when she enters the room, it’s your first view of her in her wedding dress; so you get all choked up."
Could he do it? Sure, if he was Gene Hackman. Otherwise, forget it!

Instead, you might ask the bride’s mother, in advance, to go to him as the bride walks in and say
something like, "What do you think of your daughter?" while you catch them in a close-up. That way,
you’ll have at least a chance to capture an industrial-strength fatherly choke-up.

The second technique is to simply have your performers do only what they actually do in life. The bride
will be perfectly believable as a bride; the forklift operator will act quite natural while driving a forklift; the
baker will be convincing when he bakes…you get the idea.

Finally, if you do need to stage a fictional situation, have your talent play themselves rather than attempt
to create characters. (No matter what they tell you, this is what most professional film and TV actors really
do.) If amateur Wilmer Fribble’s playing a business executive, don’t tell him, "Imagine you’re as rich and
eccentric as Howard Hughes." Wilmer can’t imagine that, let alone play it.

Instead, say something like, "Conduct the meeting just the way you would in real life, Wilmer; only
remember you have a plane to catch in 30 minutes." Aha! Now there’s something Wilmer can imagine,
because he actually has been late for planes.

Finally, with all talent, regardless of ability or comfort level, give them constant praise, even if you have
to fake it ("You were doing just great, right up to the point where you fell into the ficus plant.").
Something about acting breeds insecurity, so remember that there’s no such thing as too much support and
reassurance.


The Video Crew

The topic of support offers a good place to shift our focus to those videomaking colleagues of yours, the
crew.

"Crew, shmoo," you reply, with a tolerant chuckle, "since when have I had that luxury?" True, amateur,
prosumer and entry-level professional videomakers typically work alone, or else depend on the occasional
kindness of strangers (or relatives).

Which is precisely why you need to treat these volunteer assistants with special care. After all, they’re
doing you a favor.

Typically, amateur helpers present two problems: they don’t know what they’re doing, and they aren’t
exactly passionate about doing it. For instance, your Significant Other is unaware that a good microphone
boom person plays a constant, teasing game with the video frame, sneaking that foam-covered mike as
close as possible while still keeping it out of the picture. He doesn’t know that in recording two people, he
needs to shift the mike position constantly to point it at each speaker in turn.

This problem is easy to solve: just show your spouse how to operate the boom, preferably as he mikes
an actual conversation while wearing headphones so he can hear and understand the effects of different
mike positions. Improving crew performance by showing them how to do their jobs is an almost painfully
obvious concept; but it may well surprise you how many videomakers ask their helpers to perform tasks
they don’t know how to do.

But if inexperience is easy to overcome, lack of enthusiasm is not. You have a natural interest in
videomaking; that’s why you do it. But if interests were universal, every last one of us would collect Barbie
dolls and pitch horseshoes. In reality, the chances are that your part-time assistants are not as turned on by
videomaking as you are.

In some cases, the only solution is to thank them sincerely and then show your appreciation by returning
the favor–find the time to help them out with one of their own avocations.

If you’re lucky, your assistant may actually develop an interest in video. The upside of that event is that
he or she will dispatch your needs with more enthusiasm. But there is a downside too: before you know it,
your once-docile apprentice will want a turn at the camera!

Whether assistants are enthusiastic or not, you can at least tell them what to do. Alas, the opposite is true
with clients. The people for whom you make video programs call the shots–often quite literally.

Taking the time to care for your video gear may seem as thrilling as sorting your sock drawer, but wait! Don’t you lovingly sponge off your golf club booties or rub nose oil on the joints of your fishing rod or burnish the tips on your stamp tweezers? Maintaining gear is less a chore than a ritual tribute to the hobby it supports. And if you reflect that replacing a lens can cost more than a new camcorder, you can see why video housekeeping’s well worth the effort.

Camera Care

Given its delicate components and precise functions, a hobbyist camcorder shouldn’t last a month. Its mechanisms rival a Swiss watch, its tolerances are measured in microns, and dust, heat, water, shocks and general negligence routinely mortify it. Nevertheless, it usually works for years with only minimal care.

That care starts with the camera body. Clean it with a microfiber cloth, just slightly dampened with plain water or whatever cleaning agent your owner’s manual approves. Do not use any chemical not specifically mentioned in that invaluable manual. Today’s equipment is fabricated from a combination of materials ranging from titanium to recycled newsprint; you never know when some benign kitchen solution will wipe the lettering off your buttons or even melt them down.

While you’re messing with buttons, open your camcorder’s on-screen menu tree and restore all controls to their default settings. Depending on your unit’s make and model, some special settings (manual focus, exposure compensation, high-speed shutter, etc.) may remain in flash memory even after the camera’s shut down. The next time you shoot, they can awaken and silently foul up your footage.

Though some folks make a production out of cleaning the tape transport, I do not. I view an open cassette bay like the mouth of a short-tempered shark and keep my fingers out of there. Mopping the interior with cotton swabs and carbon tetrachloride is not a job for civilians, so don’t try this at home.

Using a head-cleaning cartridge is safe if you follow the vendor’s instructions, except for their recommended intervals. Modern tapes don’t shed much iron dandruff, record and playback heads are delicate, and all, yes, all, cleaning systems are at least mildly abrasive. Unless you run a thriving wedding video business, one or two head cleanings a year should be about right.

Don’t forget your external LCD viewing screen. The panels themselves are delicate and the plastic membranes above them will actually distort if you push them sideways, so clean them with great care. I like lens cleaning solution and a microfiber cloth, but again, follow your manual’s directions.

Lens Care

This brings us to lens cleaning. Some micro-mini models seal the actual lens behind a protective glass (and often a snap-open lens cover, too). Other units may expose the front lens element and provide threads in front of it for adding protective or color filters.

With either system, you should cherish whatever hunk of glass faces the world by keeping it clean enough for a surgical theater. Foreign pollutants and abrasives like fingerprints, dust and salt spray degrade the sharpness of your images; and in bright sunlight, wide-angle shots can have such extreme depth of field that spots on your lens are in sharp focus.

If your lens has filter threads, keep a transparent filter (which will act like a lens cap) in place at all times. That way, when the water skier you’re shooting splashes Great Salt Lake all over you, a $20 filter is a painless sacrifice to protect a $1,000 lens. This filter may be labeled "UV," "1A" or "skylight" (the difference between these variants is meaningful only to the film cameras for which they were originally designed).


Videotapes

Videotapes need love too. Remove partly-recorded cassettes from the camcorder and label them. Mini DV labels are a trial for my 2nd-grader printing, so I usually just write the date and the total elapsed footage for reference when I next use the tape.

To rewind or not to rewind? Rewind cassettes that will be stored for long periods of time. But if you plan to re-use a tape within a month or so, leaving it at 41 minutes or wherever will save a tedious search for blank tape and maybe prevent taping over previous footage. (In the old VHS days, wasting 20 minutes of unused tape cost practically nothing; but digital tapes cost real money.) After all these years, there is still no definitive argument for shelving tapes standing or flat, but most professionals bring cassettes to a full upright position for storage.

While we’re in the neighborhood, let’s repeat a point we made earlier about preparing new tapes. You should prepare future tapes by putting blank labels on them so they’re ready for instant use in the heat of a shoot.

Accessories

Batteries are the subjects of another endless argument. Engineers say they don’t in fact have memories; users snort, tell that to my batteries! Either way, follow these tips to get the most out of your power packs:

  • Keep them warm before using them (in an inside pocket works well if you’re on the ski slopes) for more efficient functioning.
  • Run them all the way down in the camcorder, to help defeat that memory effect that may or may not exist.
  • Recharge them immediately after use and then top them up immediately before the next use.
  • Store them outside the camcorder.

And no matter how casual your shooting habits, invest in at least one spare battery – personally I use three in all (one in the camera and two in the external charger).

We’ve already mentioned the transparent lens cap "filter," which you leave on the camera, with the original opaque cap clipped on the front of it. If you also have a polarizer and/or neutral density filter, nurture them too. Their original cases are fine if you get the rigid plastic kind, but consider screwing them together to form a stack. A screw-on lens cap protects the top filter, and you can still get female-threaded caps for some filter sizes to protect the underside of the bottom filter.

If you have a tripod, it’s probably a lightweight consumer model with a disconcerting tendency to fall apart. In addition to cleaning it and spraying a bit of lubricant, check the legs for loose or missing pop rivets and repair them. And don’t forget the quick release, if your tripod has one. One half is built onto the head, but where’s its mate on the camcorder, in a pocket someplace? I mail-ordered in for a second camera-side release plate for my tripod, and keep it in my gadget bag for times when the original fails or turns up missing.

When you’ve buffed your gear to a spiffy condition, keep it that way with a dedicated bag. Many shooters like the traditional shoulder gadget bag, but I prefer a hiker’s fanny pack with belt-mounted camera bags on each side. During a shoot, I rotate the pack around to the front for easy access. Remember that videographers are like fishermen; we have society’s permission to look absolutely silly when festooned with our gear.

And in my case, maintaining dignity’s a lost cause anyway.

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