Starting a Video Production Department - Part Three

Finding equipment for your video production can be expensive and challenging, but there are some lower-cost alternatives to consider.

 

As any one who's looked at video equipment prices knows, prices can be very expensive. In addition, technology changes very frequently, making it harder to keep up-to-date. There are also training, upkeep and safety issues to consider.

Even if you're lucky enough to have a budget to purchase equipment, it likely won't be enough to purchase everything you need, so it's best to find ways to stretch your dollar.

CAMERAS
Many school video programs use consumer-grade camcorders that are wired into the switcher or closed circuit distribution system with simple RCA cables. Some school programs may be equipped with higher quality cameras. It's interesting to note that many professional television stations are using cameras originally designed for field use as studio cameras, so having fancy cameras designed for studio use isn't necessary.

The most basic way to mount cameras is on everyday tripods, preferably with wheels. Tripods range in cost from $20 to hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Visit a local electronics store and review the selection it offers. Compare prices and quality carefully; it's usually a good idea to pay a little bit more for a tripod that will be sturdier and hold up better, as well as prevent cameras from being knocked over by accident.

Tripods without wheels will limit the amount of camera movements you'll be able to do, but for most simple productions this isn't an issue. Don't forget, too, that you can still achieve a variety of camera shots by simply pivoting the camera or adjusting the zoom level for each shot.

TELEPROMPTERS
Teleprompters are a great tool for programs that are content heavy and help your talent keep their eyes directed to the lens. Teleprompters come in a variety of configurations, including ones that can be mounted on tripods. However, these are very costly and there are some easy and cost-effective alternatives.

For a low-tech solution, cue cards often work well. Experiment with type size and try to hold the cards as close to the camera lens as possible so it isn't obvious cue cards are being used. You can usually print cue cards on standard letter-sized paper, eliminating the need for large, expensive sheets.

Often having the cue cards above the camera works best to avoid having your talent looking too far from the lens. This can be tricky but can be solved by building a homemade cue card holder (it's a little corny, but it works).

To create one, take two sticks about four feet wide (such as thick dowels, broomsticks or scrap wood) and attach them together for form a "T" shape. Then, tape your cue cards across the top of the "T" from left to right for talent to read. If necessary, additional cue cards can be taped to the top row of papers so they hang underneath. A crew member can then hold the device above the camera, carefully adjusted the positioning as the talent advances through the copy.

SWITCHERS
Simple switchers are available that allow your crew to output specific camera, video and graphics feeds. For school productions, basic switchers are often more than adequate. However, even low-end models still require a substantial investment and, unfortunately, there aren't very many alternatives.

Programs requiring only one camera and no playback devices or graphics probably don't require a switcher. However, for a more polished look, multiple sources are needed and therefore, a switcher becomes key.

A low-tech way to switch is to use simple A/V source boxes to toggle between video inputs at the touch of a button. You can find these boxes at most electronics stores for reasonable prices. The downside is these boxes usually aren't designed for live switches between sources and often have a small jump when changing from one source to another. Though it's not the most refined look, it does the job.

AUDIO BOARDS
Similar to a video switcher, audio boards select which source or sources are outputted to the final program. Audio boards range from simple to complex and prices vary accordingly.

Like video switchers, there aren't many alternatives for an audio board. Using an A/V source box as described above is one way to select audio sources. However, you'll be limited to only outputting the audio that comes with the video source that's currently being used. This isn't helpful when, for example, you want to play music over a live camera shot. One workaround for this limitation is to simply use a CD player placed near the microphone to play your music and fade it out using the volume knob.

LIGHTING
If you're using consumer-grade cameras and producing your program in a simple classroom environment, the existing lighting is often adequate for video production. You can accent dark spots with the clamp lights found in hardware stores. Adding colored bulbs can create interesting effects. Higher grade cameras, however, have more finite lighting requirements and require theater-grade lighting and, possibly, a professionally wired ceiling grid to hang lamps from.

VIDEO PLAYBACK
Assuming you have a way to switch between video sources, video playback is rather simple. If you're producing on VHS, standard off-the-shelf VCRs connected to your switcher will work very well (DVD players will work the well, too). The same goes for most other types of playback media including a variety of tape formats, DVDs or hard drive based storage. If possible, having at least two playback sources is best, especially with tape or DVD based systems since these require time to eject and reload your media and limit your ability to play video back to back.

EDITING SYSTEMS
If your program includes pre-taped content, you'll most likely need some kind of editing system. In its most basic form, an editing system can be as simple as two VCRs wired together. One is used to play your source tapes and the other records the clips you select. This does limit the amount of control you have over editing, but with some practice and patience can be quite effective. If you chose this method, look for VCRs that allow you to turn off on-screen text or your video will have these words over it.

If you're limited to this type of editing system, it's usually best to keep your content simple. Having a voice over narration and interviews isn't a requirement; often just editing together various clips from an event with its natural audio can be very effective.

That said, there are many options on the market for affordable video editing, both in tape-based (linear) or computer (non-linear) editing. Although non-linear editing is much more flexible, it also has a higher learning curve. In addition, there are still many companies, especially in television news, that still use linear editing, especially in smaller markets. Because of this, it's a good idea to ensure students are familiar with linear editing to give them a breadth of experience. In addition, non-linear editing systems draw basic concepts from their non-digital counterparts.

If you're considering computer editing systems, keep in mind that not only will you need to buy the software (which can be expensive, even with education discounts), but you'll need a powerful computer with adequate memory and storage space. The major editing software includes Adobe FinalCut, Avid and Media 100. Each has advantages and disadvantages that will be dictated by your needs, budget and computer configurations.

WIRING AND CABLES
If you're using consumer-grade and lower-end professional equipment, it a good idea to become familiar with a several wire and connector types.
• RCA: You've probably seen these cables when you've bought a TV, VCR or camcorder. They are typically two black cables fused together with single-prong connectors on either end. Often the cables will be labeled yellow, white and red and transmit video or audio. This color-coding is done more for convenience than functionality, because in reality all RCA cables are the same and will carry audio or video. For color coding purposed, yellow is for video, white is for the left audio channel (and mono) and red is the right audio channel. RCA cables can be purchased at most electronics stores in a variety of qualities, lengths and colors.
• XLR: These are three-pronged cables that are most commonly used for microphones and other audio devices.
• Coax: Short for coaxial, this is the same type of cable used to hook a television or VCR to the cable jack in your home. These are rather thick cables most commonly have a one-prong connector that can be screwed in for a secure fit (again, similar to your home TV). Coax cables can carry audio and video.
• BNC: A type of connector used on coaxial cables. Also a one-prong, connector, BNC connectors have a twist-style locking mechanism.
• Stereo connectors: Used to carry audio, these are one-prong connectors that come in two sizes. Quarter-inch connectors are typically used for higher-end equipment while mini connectors are found on most consumer-grade equipment (this is the same connector found on headphones on CD players).
• S-Video: A four-prong video cable found on many cameras and playback devices. It is not, however, exclusively used for Super-VHS as many people believe.
• FireWire: This connector will likely only come up if you're using computer-based editing. This cable is designed to quickly move digital video and audio from one device to another. More and more devices are being made with FireWire connectors.

In any video production setup, you'll inevitably have a mix of cables and connectors that need to talk to each other. For this reason, various adapters exist to convert one connector or wire to another. While most video stores carry a good selection, it can sometimes be tricky to find what you're looking for. In addition to adapters, you can also buy adapters that allow two cables of the same type to be linked together, creating a longer cable.

However, be careful about using cables that are too long or use two many adapters or extensions, as this can cause significant degradation of video and audio.

It's a good idea to stock up on common adapters and wires of various lengths so they are available when you need them.

MEDIA FORMAT
Many school productions use VHS because of its inexpensiveness and availability — but also VHS drops out of favor, new formats must be considered. Media such as MiniDV and DVCPro are also becoming viable options, though these tapes are significantly more expensive. DVD is also becoming a good choice, though pricing and availability is still catching up. When selecting equipment, try to stick to one format wherever possible as some formats don't talk to each other or require expensive or complicated converter devices. For audio-only playback, CD is still the best option for school production. CD players are very affordable and a wide variety of sound effects, music libraries and other content is available on CD, plus most computers allow you to burn CD audio discs.

TRAINING
Once you've assembled your equipment, be sure to provide your crew with adequate training. This will ensure students are learning new skills as well as using equipment correctly to prevent damage. If manuals are available, consider making copies and making them available to students, while the originals are filed in a safe place. However, remember that manuals are often overly complicated. To solve this, create your own users' guides with clear, large print and step-by-step instructions. Use a digital camera to illustrate each step.

UPKEEP
Along with training, it's also important to be vigilant with the care and maintenance to keep the equipment you worked so hard to acquire running its best for the longest amount of time possible. Keep equipment free of dust and away from liquids and extremely cold or hot temperatures. In addition, it is highly recommended to ban food and drinks from all areas of your production space, including the studio, control room and edit rooms. Spilled beverages and crumbs are some of the worst things for electrical equipment.

SAFETY
One final note with equipment: always remember electrical safety. Check with building maintenance staff to ensure the outlets you're using can accommodate what you're plugging in. As a general rule, consumer-level devices eat less power. Avoid using too many power strips, and do not string more than one together. Be sure that equipment has adequate ventilation to prevent overheating and ensure wiring won't be tripped on easily.

Michael P. Hill is a Web specialist and graphics designer for FX Group, a leading set design, fabrication and installation firm located in Orlando, Fla. He has launched three video production programs at the middle school, high school and college level and is a regular contributor to School Video News. E-mail questions and comments to .