The Next VHS?

I’m a Middle School Theater Teacher. For the past 10 years we’ve been recording all the students’ performances onto VHS tapes. Two years ago we tried using recordable DVDs, with the problem that the DVD player took too long to format the DVD, and we couldn’t get through all the performance in a 42-min period. What format is as convenient as VHS (inexpensive, easy to record, available to most)? Recordable DVDs didn’t work, not everyone has Mini DV players at home, so what’s next? Your insight is greatly appreciated because I feel this is my last year of using VHS tapes (some students don’t even know how to put them in a VCR). Thanks.
Oliver Wiehe
Harmony, PA

There was a lot that was less-than-ideal about VHS, but you could put a lot on a tape, which was dirt-cheap and readily available – and just about everyone had a VHS VCR back in the day.

However, in the post-VHS age, there are a few things to consider for distribution. As far as physical formats, DVD is currently the only thing worth considering, but as you experienced, it takes some planning to get everything right, and a lot of set-top recorders make discs that aren’t fully-compatible with all of the DVD players in the wild.

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You might consider capturing your class performances directly to a computer (a laptop would work nicely). You should be able to capture into most editing programs, but you could certainly use a dedicated capture program such as VirtualDub (free, www.virtualdub.org) or Adobe OnLocation ($799, part of Adobe Premiere Pro CS4, www.adobe.com). While capturing DV streams is relatively painless, capturing HDV streams live can be hit-or-miss, depending on your camcorder and your software. If trying out a few pieces of software doesn’t yield a good solution, just record onto a tape and capture that tape after class. (Capturing footage after class is also your only option if you use an acquisition format other than Mini DV or HDV.)

Authoring a DVD later gives you control and latitude, including marking chapter points for when the next student comes up to perform, editing things out if you need the space, creating menus and setting up for the best-possible encode quality (or, at least, letting you decide the question of video quality vs. amount of footage to be crammed onto the disc). If your source footage is HD, you can encode your DVDs as widescreen to get the very best quality possible out of your video. Then it’s just a matter of making copies.

You might also consider compressing the performances for web distribution. You could set up a private YouTube channel or just make the footage available to students as H.264 clips on your school’s server. Increasingly, this might be the best way to go. (There are other file formats that may work too – consider WMV and QuickTime.) Alternately, you could have students bring in USB drives to grab the files that pertain to them. Consult your district’s IT policy for guidelines on distributing files.

If cost is an object, consider a web-cam; however, many webcams don’t have zoom lenses, meaning that your students would have to mug for the camera rather than for the whole class. Not ideal for a drama class, natch.

Blu-ray Disc is worth a quick mention, but it’ll still be a while until there are as many Blu-ray Disc players as DVD players in the wild.

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