Making Pretty Good Videos Pretty Cheap

4 06 2010
Dennis Meredith in SciVee video

Click on image to view video

As video cameras decrease in cost, and video editing software becomes easier to use, video is rapidly becoming an integral part of research communication. To help researchers make better videos, my wife Joni and I created this instructional video for SciVee, which is the leading service for syndicating research videos.

Besides the shooting tips the video itself offers, our experience in producing the video can be useful for researchers and communicators.

First of all, we “aimed low” in our production budget. We strictly limited ourselves to the equipment that an average postdoc or student could afford, and tried to wring the most production value out of it.

The camera was a Kodak Zi8 pocket camera, chosen because it has received excellent reviews, costs only about $140 and is the only pocket camera with an external microphone jack. I learned the importance of having good sound in videos when I took the Izzy Video series of how-to videos. This and other tutorials make the point that viewers will tolerate poor-quality video if the sound is good; and even the best  video will lose viewers if the sound is poor. The microphone in the camera  invariably produces hollow, echoing audio more likely to include room noise and random mumblings of the camera operator. To capture audio via the microphone jack, I bought an inexpensive wired lavaliere mike for about $30.

The Zi8 does lack many features of higher-end camera, including selective focusing, digital image stabilization, and adjustment of white balance, but it worked fine for the Web-quality videos I would be shooting.

If you use a Zi8 or other pocket camera, here are some shooting tips from Izzy Video:

  • Since the camera is very light, it is easily jiggled when handheld, so if you’re operating without a tripod, brace yourself against something and concentrate on holding the camera still.
  • Similarly, the camera’s lightness tends to encourage quick panning, so if you must pan, concentrate on panning slowly.
  • Since the camera has only an autoexposure, you can’t adjust to properly light a particular subject in the frame, so arrange your shot so make sure your primary subject is adequately lit.

The Zi8’s lack of white balance adjustment limited lighting possibilities. I couldn’t use the inexpensive tungsten work light I had bought at a hardware store, since it made the scene look yellowish. So, we ended up shooting in natural light on our screened porch, and coping with the changing lighting as clouds passed in front of the sun. The need to depend on natural light meant that the resulting video shows lighting  variation within scenes and my image is a bit overexposed because of the camera’s autoexposure feature.

A stable image is another key requirement for good videography, so we mounted the camera on an old camera tripod. If you don’t already have a tripod, a cheap alternative is the small tabletop tripod that is available for pocket cameras.

Background is also important. The main background for our shoot was a dark blue blanket, chosen because it was  non-reflective and highlighted the “talent” (me). To add interest to the background, we hung an image of the book cover on the blanket. To make the image, we printed out the Explaining Research book cover jpeg file on 11×17 paper at a office supply store and pasted it on gray cardboard with a 1/2-inch border to frame it against the backdrop.

When we shot outdoors to demonstrate how to include background, I found a place where the woods in the background were in shade, but I could be in sun. With a more expensive camera, I could have used selective focus to  make the subject stand out from a background; that  is, creating a shallow depth of focus so the subject is in focus, but the background is blurred out.

To make the video more visually interesting, I shot additional footage at the Duke Lemur Center, which I used to demonstrate a cutaway. Similarly, when you’re doing a video, think about cutaway shots that will relieve the viewer from having to look at you the whole time. The cutaway shots can be of experiments or relevant subjects in your lab; but they can also be still images or video footage from outside sources. The Explaining Research reference section includes a long list of repositories of both free and commercial still images and video footage.

The need to read from the script presented another production challenge. I wanted to use a script to make the narration as tight as possible, but when I tried reading it from a page holder positioned to the side of the camera, it did not allow me to look into the camera when talking. The solution was to print out the script in a large type font and mount the pages on poster board set on an easel directly behind the camera. Since the large-font script took up many pages, Joni had to shift the poster board as I talked to keep the text in my eyeline, while looking at the camera.

In editing the video, I opted for the high-end package Pinnacle Studio 14, rather than the free editing software that comes with Windows and Mac computers. Those are perfectly good for most purposes, but I wanted to have the capability of more advanced abilities such as special effects, multiple sound tracks and still-image choreography. Learning Studio 14 was certainly more onerous than learning the PC or Mac editing software, but it was worth it for the additional editing features.

Overall, the whole shoot—camera equipment and all—cost about $300. And we plan to use the same basic equipment for other instructional videos. However, although we could continue to use the Kodak pocket camera, I plan to use a high-end video camera we own for its more advanced capabilities.

Certainly, the result is not broadcast-quality, and with experience I can likely do better, but it’s a pretty good Web video, made pretty cheap.




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4 06 2010
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