It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to make good video. With a little ingenuity, you can find ways to produce work you can be proud of.

I should know. As the mass media instructor at a small, rural high school, I faced a formidable challenge: to develop a high school video production program-complete with a daily news program-without much in the way of resources.

The minuses: very little funding, equipment or video experience.

The pluses: an enthusiasm for video and a determination to succeed.

It could all add up to fairly advanced programs using two cameras and prerecorded sources. Here’s how.

The Learning Curve

There were just five of us: me and my four-count ’em, four-mass media students. We knew we’d have to learn quickly; the principal was pressuring us to televise the announcements as soon as we got a system up and running.

Since we lacked substantial video experience, we decided to keep things as simple as possible. Instead of producing a live newscast, we would prerecord the school’s daily announcements to air at a later period.

Fortunately my personal camcorder was the same make and model as the school’s. My only other assets: 1) an adequate understanding of audio and 2) a couple of external microphones, both products of time I spent playing music in my earlier days

The actual shooting proved a bit tricky, since the school had no tripod. As the cameraman-none of my students had ever operated a camcorder, so I was it-I steadied the camcorder while seated in my desk chair. Its coasters allowed the option of dollying and trucking, which came in handy for shooting our homemade graphics off the board. The lucky student assigned to flip cue cards navigated my chair. The cues, placed in an oversized three-ring notebook, hung over both my face and the camera’s viewfinder. Effective if uncomfortable.

We had no audio mixer, so we used a portable cassette player and a pair of headphones to provide audio mixing effects. We simulated audio mixing, fades and boosts by taking headphones set on high volume and physically manipulating them in and out of the face of an external mike. We threw in a generous helping of jittery camera work marked by amateurish pans and fades: voila-NWN Central News was born.

An extensive period of trial-and-error production followed, interrupted only by summer vacation, which I spent discovering the world of flying erase heads, edit controllers, SEGs and more. Eventually, using only equipment found in most high schools, I managed to develop a rather sophisticated approach to low-budget, high school video production.

Back to Live Television

The key to this approach was camera switching. I’d read about those TV specials of the 1950s, which were produced and edited live on site with this method.

I wanted to get away from all those cheap pans and fades. Yet I knew it would be years before I could afford such luxuries as digital mixing boards with synchronized switching, character generators or even DTV, I wasn’t willing to wait. Visions of the golden years of live television dancing in my head, I began to look for low-budget alternatives.

My first step was to purchase a second VHS camcorder with flying erase heads and a couple fluid-head tripods. Now, instead of being limited to a single tape-fed camera, I could explore the possibilities of camera switching.

I mounted both cameras on the tripods, strategically positioning them to handle a variety of shots and applications-including mounted graphics, credits and newscasters. From the cameras, continuous video signals were sent into an inexpensive four-channel video switcher purchased from Radio Shack. A simple flick of a button determined which video signal proceeded to the tape-fed recording VCR (positioned for line in or aux).

The next step: audio. I ran an external unidirectional mike to both the news anchors and sent the signal into a basic five-channel audio mixer. Other audio sources-including source VCRs 1 and 2 and an audio cassette player-were also run into the mixer. Finally, the mixer’s audio signal fed into “audio in” of the recording VCR.

Three televisions served as monitors; the Channel 1 monitor displayed the recorded VCR’s video signal while two portables, situated on a cart, monitored visuals from each of the other two source VCRs.

The New Multi-Camera Set Up

Not only did this new multi-camera setup smooth out a slew of production rough spots, but it greatly expanded the potential for handling news coverage. Now each newscaster had his own camera. We employed a mixture of one-shots and two-shots with each camera, enhancing both flexibility and creativity. The most thrilling improvement: the way our video production imitated the TV nightly news by simulating an A/B roll.

Here’s how we did it.

Say the school’s basketball team just won a big game. On one tape, we’d video record the game; then on a second tape shoot post-game interview footage of the coach and/or outstanding players. Next, we reviewed the game tape and selected highlights to air on the show.

The next day, before the show, we placed each tape into source VCRs 1 and 2. The interview was “paused” in source VCR 1, hooked into the video switcher input 3; the highlights tape was “paused” in source VCR 2, hooked into switcher input 4.

Now our news anchor could do more than simply announce the results. Camera 1-hooked into switcher input 1-displayed the anchor providing the basic story and set up for the source clips.

With both source tapes positioned and cued, we’d source VCR 1 out of the pause mode and roll just as the anchor concluded her comments. The switcher button was flicked to the post-game interview; the audio mixed for listening to the coach’s comments and analysis.

As the coach continued his remarks, a second switch displayed highlights in source VCR 2. Viewers watched game highlights, while continuing to listen to the coach. A third switch returned to source VCR 1, providing a final visual of the interview.

As the interview ended, the remote reporter signed off with a bit of dramatic reality, “This has been Ben Dyke reporting for NWN Central News. Now back to you, Megan.”

Flick. A final switch and back to the anchor, “Thank you, Ben, and now in other news….”

Sound a bit tricky? It was. We needed some practice to master the timing; but once we had, our show assumed a whole new look.

We took advantage of the source VCRs. With a bit of creativity and planning, we learned to integrate remote coverage right into the news for added visual interest and drama on regular basis.

The Problem of Synchronization

There is one significant drawback to the system we developed. The Radio Shack video switcher will not provide a synchronized signal. So what does this mean?

In most cases each switch will render a momentary, but noticeable glitch onto recordings. Unfortunately, there is no low-budget alternative for this one. The most reasonable solution might be to purchase a Panasonic Ave-5 digital mixing board. The retail cost: around $1500.00. Out of our budget.

For us, this synchronization problem does not negate the pluses of the system. We still find that the expansive benefits of this type of video production greatly outweigh this disadvantage.

Special Applications

We never let the lack of equipment or experience get in our way. I encouraged students to undertake as many video taping projects as possible-sporting events, video contests, pep rallies, spirit contests, assemblies, dances and more.

The multi-camera/live switching setup provides endless production possibilities: sports talk shows, commercials for school groups and community businesses, even videotapes of school plays. In this latter case, we monitored the recording VCR’s signal with the school’s large screen TV. The audience loved it.

Most recently, we produced a commercial supporting the passage of our school’s bond issue. It aired over two local cable stations. Another project involved producing a twenty-minute video for introducing teachers and courses to next year’s incoming freshmen.

To Dream of Upgrading

As our video productions improve, so does our appetite for equipment. There are a number of manufacturers making equipment for home video production, offering lines of equipment within the financial reach of many aspiring high school video programs like ours.

Useful items such as Videonics’ Titlemaker and Boing Box offer attractive expansion alternatives at a low price. Other desirable basics: the Direct Ed Plus edit controller, upgradeable to the more accurate and advanced Pro Ed machine.

As mentioned earlier, the Panasonic Ave-5 digital mixer also appeals to those serious about video production. The list continues- from low-end industrial equipment lines to the more expensive world of desktop video.

One thing we did discover: when it comes to video upgrading, the array of product and price can dazzle. We learned to assess our needs and research equipment before making any purchases.

The Next Generation

The success of our program has prompted us to develop a long-range plan for our high school video production program, one that counts on steady progress toward our videomaking goals.

The key to future success will remain constant: ingenuity. As Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

And a lot cheaper.

(SIDEBAR #1)
More Hot Tips for the Budget-Conscious Videomaker

1. Purchase full-size camcorders with flying erase heads. The full-size market is on the decline; prices are too. The VHS format is probably compatible with many organization’s’ present equipment.

2. Write cue cards on 12″ by 18″ drawing paper using markers. Hang them directly over the camera viewfinder for direct eye contact.

3. Place cue cards in oversized three ring notebooks with the rings left open. As the cues are flipped, simply remove each sheet.

4. Borrow a music stand for shooting graphics. They work great.

5. Situate an additional mike at your audio/video station. Let technicians provide narration for remote clips and dramatizing titling.

6. Use VCRs with real time counters, at least for source VCRs. Real time counters will improve timing and accuracy not only in the live production, but also in post-production edit decision lists (EDLs).

7. Teach beginners effective audio and video techniques from the get-go. Spend the first month on operating equipment, understanding signal flow, storyboarding, lighting, and editing procedures. Set aside additional time for continued learning and development.

8. Storyboard everything. Emphasize that video is all about telling stories through the use of visuals.

9. Purchase only quality equipment, especially accessories such as quality fluid-head tripods, mikes, cables.

10. Critique and improve your productions. Watch the nightly news; steal the best ideas. Exchange ideas with others involved in video production.

Bio: Rick Nolletti, a language arts teacher, also owns and operates his own audio/video production service.

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