Due Diligence and Video Production

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We just returned from Ecuador where I shot over three hours of digital video and took nearly 200 high resolution photos.  I wanted to tell a compelling story designed to pique your curiosity about potential expat life in South America.

While making the 11 videos of our adventure, I thought I would share with you some of my video production tips.


There is little excuse for not producing good, interesting, and entertaining videos that people enjoy watching.  But it will take some effort on your part to pull it off.  Here are a few production tips you can use to improve your video skills.

Today, for just a few hundred bucks, anybody can go buy a camera that shoots some sort of decent video images.  But if you want to do it right, plan on spending about $500 minimum for a decent camera.  Today, cameras that record to video tape have all but disappeared.  Cameras recording data to hard drives are quickly going away as well.  But cameras that record directly to memory chips (built in or removable) are the growing trend.

However, just having a decent camera is only part of the solution.  You also need to have a computer and a basic editing program to turn your jumble of random video clips into something cohesive and intelligent. 

String these two elements together and you have the basic components for making awesome home videos.


CAMERA BELLS AND WHISTLES

Aside from jerky camera movements, the one thing that screws up any home video production is lousy audio. 

I own a small, high definition camera from Sony called the HDV CX700V.  While this is few steps above the traditional consumer's video camera, there are a few features on this unit that are also available on lower price units. 

The two most important camera features you should be on the look out for are (1) an auxiliary microphone input and (2) a headphone jack.  The mic input allows you to connect an external microphone so as to get clearer and crisper sound recording when shooting on location. 

The headphone jack allows you to plug in a set of stereo headphones (ear buds work fine) so that you can monitor all the sounds when you are recording anything.  For example, you may be outside shooting a scene when you hear (through the headphones) someone revving the engine on a car or worse, strong winds distorting the audio.  By monitoring the audio as it is being recorded, you can either wait for the engine to stop revving, move to a different location or change your angle so as to block the wind.

IMPROVING YOUR SOUND WITH AN EXTERNAL MIC

Microphone quality on newer cameras are getting better with each generation but nothing is better than having a good microphone inches away from the source of the sound.  You see it all the time on TV with the use hand held microphones or wireless mics clipped onto a persons shirt or lapel.

The good news is consumer videographers, like yourself, can finally go out and purchase wireless equipment, almost as good as the pros use for less than $160.  Here is a two mic kit, the Azden WMS-PRO VHF Wireless Lavaliere Handheld Mic System.  It can be purchased from B&H Photo for only $159.  That's the microphone I am using on the Charlie Benson video # 7.  Quality is very good, and as you can hear, picks up both Charlie and his wife perfectly while my camera was mounted 10 feet away.

This mic can be used indoors or out and has an effective range of 250 feet.  Now you see why you want a camera that has an external mic input.


PLANNING YOUR SHOOT

Almost as much planning goes into the video preparation as does the actual itinerary planning.  In fact the two can go hand in hand.  As I planned our trip to Ecuador, I was also thinking about what sort of video I needed in order to tell our story.  I knew WHY we were doing this trip.  I knew WHERE we were going.  So as I was finalizing our itinerary, I was also make notes that lead to the creation of my video shot list.  My initial shot list looked something like this:

Video 1 - Liberia To Ecuador

  • Establishing shot LIR (airport)

  • Interview in terminal (AB-FB).  Discuss purpose of trip

  • Onboard plane.  Record take off - looking outside - shoot wing

  • Inside cabin commentary - random shots - flight attendant serving

  • Arrival in Quito - Welcome to Ecuador sign - Quito terminal - FB interview

  • Quito B&B - gather exterior shots of building & gardens for cutaways

  • Fran interview at B&B

It also provides a high level game plan of what shots I need and as an outline when I begin the editing process.  I approached our entire itinerary using this "deconstruction" methodology.  When I started out on this trip, I knew in advance that I was going to be creating multiple videos, telling my story in 5-8 minute chapters.

TELLING A STORY

When you decide to make a video of an event, you are telling a story.  All stories have (at least) three components, a beginning, a middle and an end).  Our Ecuador video is no different.  The beginning takes us from Liberia to Ecuador.  The middle consisted of a series of interim trips within the country and ended with a summation. In my case, it went a bit deeper than that.  For most of my 11 videos were actually stand alone segments in their own right and each had its own beginning, middle and end.

Most people with a video camera simply point and shoot, collecting very limited detail of the action.  From a viewers perspective, it's like watching a football game from the last row in the end zone.  You see everything, yet really see nothing.  Shooting video is the same way.  Every scene is made up of multiple shots, that when strung together tell the story.  And here is the good part, you don't need to record them in order.  That's why you edit. 

Here is a good example of telling the story.  Let's say you and your wife were in a gelato store in Naples Italy eating an ice cream cone.  You whip out your camera and take some video of you and your wife eating your cones.  You record her then she records you.  You then add some commentary describing how good the gelato is. 

as to how good the ice cream is.  But wait... where are you.  What is the area like.  What other flavors are available.  What about that goo looking Italian guy preparing the cones.  Before leaving, you now go back and shoot some close-up and medium shots of the guy scooping out gelato and making cones, shoot the array of various flavors in the display cooler, capture the sign on the shop and than finally a long/wide shot of the street and your approach to the actual gelato shop. Now when you get back home, all you need do is to assemble these various clips in the right order, trip their length to an appropriate duration.  You have created a sequence that tells a story.

THE SELF-INTERVIEW

While a picture is worth a thousand words, voice and picture are worth a million.  I like to use the "self-interview" as a way of describing an event or a place by putting myself right into the action.  This is done by flipping the viewfinder around so that it faces you.  You will be able to "frame" yourself in the viewfinder.  Hold the camera at arm's length, turn on REC and start talking.  Speak clearly and don't worry if you screw up.  Just do it again.  With practice, you can use this technique while walking.  It makes the viewer feel like they are right ion the middle of the action.

SIMPLE VOICE-OVERS

A voice over is commentary that is added to a video production that describes what is going to happen or is happening.   As you will see in my Ecuador video series, I make extensive use of voice-overs to move my video story along.

Professional videographers use very expensive microphones and specialized recording studios to create these voice-overs but I have a solution for you that will allow to add high quality commentary to your videos.

  • Step #1: Decide what you are going to say BEFORE you say it.  That means, write it out.  I use a word processor, and tweak every single word to say exactly what I want to convey.  When that's done, print it out.  Practice saying it by reading it aloud until it feels natural and sounds natural.

  • Step #2: Using your camcorder, take your script into a clothes closet.  Record your voice over a couple of times.  If you screw up, just say "REPEAT" and do it again. 

  • Step #3: Transfer your voice-over clip(s) back to your computer.  Since your voice over was recorded as a video, the clip contains two tracks, one video track and one audio.  Take the clip and add it to your video editing software's timeline.  Discard the video portion and use only the audio portion. 

  •  Step #4: Add whatever visual content you feel is appropriate to support the audible commentary you just added.

THE FIVE SECOND RULE

How long should a shot be?  Well that depends on what is happening.  If you recording a performance or doing an interview, you record as much as you need in order to capture the event.  But let's say you are at the beach recording the kids or the dog playing, plan on shooting any one scene for no more than 5 seconds.  Let's face it, while you may love your kids or you dog, other people watching a scene will grow horribly board watching your kid dig the same hole in the sand for 2 1/2 minutes.  Here is the good news, let's say you do shoot way more than 5 seconds, when you edit, only use the best 5 seconds (or less) you need to visually describe the event.

Another thing to avoid is shooting long duration shots from a moving car, either through the windshield or out a side window.  It might be fine for an approaching shot but excessive use of this tends to really grate on the nerves of the viewer.

CUTAWAY SHOTS

A cutaway shot is the interruption of a continuously filmed action by inserting a view of something else.  Here is a good example.  You in a bistro back in Naples recording some dancers performing on a nearby stage.  You are recording them for more than a minute (breaking the five second rule).  Now begin shooting video of other people in the audience watching who may be watching the dancers.  Look for smiling faces, tapping feet, clapping hands etc., anything that shows crowd emotion of the event.  Now when you edit that sequence, insert the various cutaway clips so as to appear that the dance action sequence is visually interrupted with shots of the audience.  The important thing top remember is, the audio of the original dance sequence must remain continuous and uninterrupted.

While we are on this topic, make sure to include all orts of signage that describes where you are.  These are invaluable in setting up WHERE you are.

CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS

I like to conduct interviews with people because it adds dimension and other perspectives to what I shoot.  In the Ecuador series I had two expat interviews, one was planned (Benson #7) and the other completely unplanned (Masters #10).  Because I forgot my wireless mic on the day of the Masters interview, I needed to find a quiet area with no wind noise the ability to place the camera close to the subject for best possible sound quality.


EDITING YOUR VIDEOS

The key to all successful video productions is editing.  Again, more good news.  A good laptop and some decent software and you are producing professional looking videos.

If you are a Mac user, you can use the free application that ships with the Mac's operating system.  Its called iMovie.  Its OK but if you are the least bit serious about making quality videos, you should look into getting Apple Final Cut.

Windows users have a veritable cornucopia of products from which to choose.  The Windows operating system ships with its own free product called Windows Movie Maker.  However, take it from me, this product completely BLOWS!  I am using a product called Pinnacle Studio 16 Ultimate from Corel.  It's a $110 bucks on Amazon.  It's easy to use and very powerful

Once you have the right computer and the right editing tools the fun is just beginning.  You are only limited by your imagination as to what you can produce.  Start with some basics.  Here are my recommendations:

  • Eliminate unwanted or redundant scenes.  Shooting out the car window as you drive through the Tuscan hillside is the same as shooting out the window driving through Umbria.  I know I've been there. 

  • Cut out bad shots.  The ones where you were jerking the camera around as if you were on a bucking bronco.

  • Shorten the length of the clips.

  • Change the order of clips to better tell the story

  • Add titles

  • Add background music.  If adding music to a video clip with its own audio track, don't forget to either eliminate or lower the sound levels of video track so as to let the music sound more pronounced.


IN SUMMARY

As I said at the beginning, there is little to no excuse for producing crappy, boring, redundant home videos, unless of course that is what you want to do.  With just a little bit of time, energy and some imagination, you can be producing videos that will have people coming back and asking for more.

If you still have questions, please feel free to write.



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