When you hear the word "research" you may think of folks in white lab coats peering at test tubes; but we all do research, if only to read a software manual or use the phone book. That’s because research, basically, means looking things up. And, like any other procedure, research has its tricks of the trade: the methods and tools that make the process faster and more productive.
"Well, that’s very exciting," you say, while politely concealing a yawn, “but what’s research got to do with videomaking?”
- If you consult a back-issue Videomaker column on desktop video editing techniques, you’re doing production research.
- If you find out how many other tapes are on the market to compete with your masterpiece about African violets, you’re pursuing business research.
- If you read up on Rotary International for your video about local service clubs, you’re engaging in content research.
We’ll look at each of these three areas, in turn.
As we do so, we’ll cover the tried and true resources of libraries, and then turn a spotlight on electronic research through commercial online services and the Internet.
Why feature surfing the wires? For two reasons: first, researching online is a new craft and fewer people are familiar with it. Perhaps more importantly, a PC and a modem give you almost instant access to staggering amounts of information in virtual libraries that never close. At your own convenience, you can stroll through many of the world’s great archives without ever leaving your desk. It’s no exaggeration to say that your computer is by far the most powerful personal research tool yet devised.
But before we get ourselves wired, let’s start our scenic tour by looking at some traditional techniques for looking things up–starting with research on production.
You undertake production research when you want to find out about videomaking equipment and procedures, like what are the pros and cons of the Hi8 camcorder format, or what is “A/X-roll editing?”
For doing library look-ups, try local university, college and community college libraries. Public libraries tend to be thin on video-related materials, but if the college offers any regular or extension courses in film or videomaking, its library will more likely have the necessary reference materials.
And don’t overlook the campus bookstore: that’s where they sell the textbooks used in those courses.
Magazine articles are another source of library information and there are several specialized publications that cover the field, many of which are available at the library. Frankly, we can’t cover magazines without tooting our own horn just a bit, because the whole purpose of Videomaker is to present useful information on videomaking. I started saving my back issues long before I began writing for the magazine, so I have several years worth of copies. If I need video production information, I’ll find it in my Videomaker library nine times out of ten.
That library is easy to use because each December issue indexes all the articles and columns published during that year. To make looking things up even more painless, listings are organized by topic. Want some info on time code? You won’t have to trudge through entries on camcorders to get to pieces about it.
In addition to production research, there are times when you need to look up potential clients to check out the competition or look for ways to get your program before the public. That’s business research.
When you’re trolling for clients, the library is the lake to do it in. There, the reference librarians can point you to literally dozens of reference volumes from companies like Moody, Standard and Poor, and Dun and Bradstreet that will tell you everything there is to know about corporations great and small.
By discovering what companies make or do, whether they’re locally owned, how big they are, and whether they carry on training or advertising, you can narrow the field of prospective clients for your services.
As for researching the competition, the process is both easy and difficult.
If your competition provides local video services, such as wedding, inventory or training programs, researching them is a piece of cake: a quick shuffle through the yellow pages will tell you who the other players are. To learn more about them, however, youll have to do some detective leg work rather than library look-up. That is, you need to get price lists, services offered and other information that can only come from the competition itself, or from people knowledgeable about them.
If the competition is a product (programs like yours that are already on the market), you’ll want to answer several key questions:
- How many videos on my topic are already available?
- How should I price my video to stay competitive?
- How slick and professional do other tapes on the market look?
- How can I make my product distinctive and attractive to buyers?
To answer the first two questions, check the catalogs of wholesale video distributors. You may find them in the business section of your local library; or get friendly enough with your local video store to use their catalogs. Another source is magazines devoted to your subject. If ads for videos on African violets are going to appear anywhere, they’ll be in journals like The Window Sill Gardener.
But you can answer the other two questions only by buying (or at least renting) the competitive tapes. Whether the competition is a car, a computer or a video, the best plan is always to buy one and tear it down for analysis. To create a more attractive alternative, you need to pinpoint the weakness of competing programs (such as poor organization, missing subject matter or inept production) and then figure out how to make your product better.
Finally, when it comes to research on distributing your programs, the files of Videomaker may once again be your most comprehensive resource. In numerous articles and columns, we cover every method of distribution from mail order sales to leased access broadcast.
But no matter how much time you spend on business research, you may spend even more in looking up information to use in your program–that is, doing content research.
When you think about the content of a video, you generally mean the information it contains; and, yes, scripting a program often involves research. But two other kinds of content research also deserve attention: the hunt for stock and resources.
“Stock,” of course, means existing materials that you can incorporate in your program. The most frequently use stock item is music. The best way to research stock music libraries for selections appropriate to your program is to obtain the index CD’s offered by many of them in the pages of Videomaker and other publications. For a very small sum, they’ll send disks with snippets of every music theme they offer. When you’ve selected the music you want, you can rent or buy the rights to it from the library.
Stock still photos are available from many agencies, and the best way to find them is by looking at the annual stock “workbooks” carried in many libraries. These workbooks contain hundreds of pages of high-quality color stills, along with the services and contact phone numbers of the agencies that supply them.
Likewise, there are a number of agencies that provide stock video and film footage–shots of breathtaking natural scenery, cities, seascapes and just about everything else you can imagine, all waiting to be included in your next video project. The fees charged for stock footage vary widely, so be sure to do your homework before you decide on a particular stock footage library.
When we speak of researching content resources we mean shooting locations and content experts.
To find local locations (like a spooky Victorian mansion, a green city park or an auto repair shop), you just have to do your own leg work. But if it’s a scenic wonder you’re after or some other special place, get a roster of state government offices at your library and look up the film commission (or office or department). Nowadays, almost every North American state and province has an outfit dedicated to making film production attractive to film makers.
Of course, they’re more likely to deal with Walt Disney Studios than with Ed or Edna Entrepreneur; but if you phone them with a query, they’ll be happy to tell you where to find a waterfall or an antique car museum or a working water mill or…
Whether considering research on production, business or program content, we’ve so far confined the discussion to traditional methods; but if you have a computer and a modem, you’re likely to find it both easier and more productive to do your look-ups online. By doing so, you can access a mind-boggling amount of information on every conceivable subject, through the Internet or through one of several commercial online providers
Commercial Online Services
Major commercial service providers include America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe; well use the latter here as an example.
For all-purpose research, CompuServe offers well over 50 different major reference volumes and specialized databases. Here are just a few of them:
- The Bettman Archive Forum, from which you can download historical photos for use, say, in a family reunion video. (Content research.)
- Magazine Database Plus, where you can look for magazine articles on video equipment and techniques. (Production research.)
- Supersite, a database that classifies all US zip codes by criteria such as education, income, housing, and employment. You could use Supersite to help assemble a mailing list for your African Violet program. (Business research.)
- IQuest, an information retrieval service that will search more than 850 different databases for information based on key words you supply. (Any kind of research.)
And on and on and on. With a little ingenuity, you can find just about anything, or at least find out where to find it.
CompuServe also features forums devoted specifically to video–bulletin boards on which you can post questions about production and talk with fellow video enthusiasts. For example, the Multimedia B Vendor Forum is where companies like Fast Video hang out. You can also get information in the Consumer Electronics Forum and the Consumer Electronics Vendor Forum, home of Videonics, Sony and many other video companies. (Again, the other major commercial services offer similar information resources.)
Surfing the Net
For access to resources even more vast than those offered by commercial services, there’s (literally) no place like the Internet, especially the two easiest and most popular subsets of it: Usenet and the World Wide Web.
But before we get into the specifics, youll need to know how to get connected to the Internet so you can access these services.
The traditional way of connecting to the Net falls into two categories: universities and independent service providers. The former is available free to most all college students, so if youre currently enrolled, you just might have free Internet access waiting for you as you read this. As for the latter, the business community usually makes use of the bulk of independent Internet service providers, with personal users gaining ground in recent years. For a listing of service providers in your area, check the yellow pages under Internet service providers.
And if youre a subscriber to one of the above online services–CompuServe, America Online, etc.–the good news is that most of them have begun offering Internet services along with their usual fare.
Now that weve covered the various ways to access the Net, lets move on to the two specific areas we mentioned earlier: Usenet and the World Wide Web.
Usenet is a gaggle of over 4,000 so-called "newsgroups," which are, in fact, a kind of computerized bulletin board. Here you will find groups devoted to single topics as specialized as lampreys, boomerangs, the Three Stooges, Kool Aid, hangovers, bungee jumping and ketchup. However odd or humorous some of these topics may be, their range is so broad that you can find almost any information somewhere among them.
Individual Usenet newsgroups have names that belie their computer-nerd origins–names like alt.activism or rec.games.chess. The words between the periods are usually self-explanatory; a general category (games) followed by a specific one (chess). Its the first part thats often confusing; these separate the Usenet hierarchy into its broadest categories: rec for recreational/leisure pursuits, alt for alternative groups that fall outside the normal Usenet structure, comp for computer-related questions, etc.
Here’s an example of how these user groups can help. Just yesterday I posted a query on rec.video.desktop regarding computer cards that translate vga computer images into NTSC video images. Less than 24 hours later, a helpful person had posted an answer–from a home base 3,000 miles away.
The World Wide Web is an immense and rapidly growing subsection of the Internet that allows users to post and receive multimedia imagery–graphic images, sounds, text and even short video clips. But before you can access the web, youll need a specific piece of software called a browser. This is the computers way of taking the language of the Web and translating it into the graphics, text and various multimedia components that end up on your computer. The two most popular browsers are currently Netscape and Mosaic; Prodigy and America Online have their own browsers built-in to the service.
Once youve got your browser up and running, heres what youll see: a collection of so-called “home pages,” each devoted to a particular subject or group of subjects. Both the tables of contents and the text entries on these pages are connected by "hypertext links" to related topics all over the Web. To use a Web page, simply click your mouse on any highlighted word or phrase that interests you and you will instantly jump to text on that subject.
The number of Web sites is growing so fast that any list of video-related home pages would be obsolete before it appeared in print. Instead, here are just a few examples.
On the public service side is the home page of the Media Literacy Online Project, maintained by the University of Oregon’s College of Education. The address is http://interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/Homepage. Here, you’ll find an astonishing richness of resources on video literacy–the language and rhetoric used in this medium to communicate its message. Since I teach media arts courses, this home page is one of my favorites.
On the commercial side, The Electronic Mailbox offers desktop editing products for sale, along with helpful freebies such as glossaries, advice and even a complete online desktop editing manual that you can consult for free. Their address is http://www.cris.com/~videoguy.
Whether you’re thinking about trying a commercial online service, the Internet, or both, you may have two questions: how hard is it to use and how much does it cost? To answer them, I need to inject a brief personal note:
- An hour ago, as I write this, my wife dialed up our commercial service for the very first time. Within ten minutes, she’d found out how to access to the Net, and now she’s bopping all over cyberspace (and I’ll probably never get my data phone line back again). That’s how hard it is.
- On my service, unlimited commercial usage and limited Internet usage can be had for under $10 per month. For an extra $15, I get 15 free hours on the Internet and reduced charges thereafter. That’s how much it costs. (The dedicated second phone line I mentioned is only a nice-to-have, if you’re online a lot. You don’t really need it.)
Of course, if you work for or study at an institution with a Net account, access may cost you nothing at all, beyond local phone charges.
So that’s the scoop on doing video-related research. The traditional methods are as good as ever (better, in fact, since the libraries themselves have gone online) and the new resources offered through desktop look-up are nothing short of amazing.
Don’t believe me? Hey, you could look it up!
Videomaker on the Web
Videomaker’s not just a print resource any more because we now have a home page on the World Wide Web. (Our address is http://www.videomaker.com.)
Surveying the whole site would take an article of its own, so let’s focus on just the sections that offer the best opportunities for research. These include:
- FAQ, which is Internet jargon for Frequently Asked Questions. If you’re just starting out in making videos, this is the place to get answers to over 100 basic questions (beginning with the first question of all: “Should I buy a camcorder?”).
- Fundamentals of Videomaking. This section supplies exactly what its title promises: sound advice for video newcomers.
- The Video Forums are give-and-take discussions for all skill levels. Though not always efficient for looking up specific information, forums are great places to ask research-related questions.
- The Glossary includes hundreds of terms, from A/B roll to zoom ratio. Since videomaking is as burdened with technicalities and jargon as desktop computing, this section is invaluable for everyone.
- The Desktop Video section offers aid and comfort in one of the more complex and fast-changing areas of videomaking. Want to learn what a jukebox drive is? This is the place to ask.
- The On-Ramp to Video Distribution contains frequently updated advice and strategies for getting your programs to the public.
- Picture, Sounds, and Movies offers actual content components that you can download and use in your own productions.
In addition to research aids, our web site has the editorial content of the two most current issues, plus selected articles from past issues, announcements of upcoming events and other services too numerous to mention here.
So check us out, why don’t you?