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VIDEO Q & A
A COACH'S GUIDE TO VIDEO PRODUCTION
By Hugh Wyatt
Q. What are the keys to making a highlights video? Whether you're talking about shooting for a highlights video, for instructional purposes, or just at-home "shoot and show," it helps to think of the term "GIGO." It's an acronym we used at IBM, back in the Stone Age of computers, and it stands for "Garbage In - Garbage Out" - in other words, the quality of your finished product won't be any better than the quality of what went into it. (You may be familiar with an old coaching truism that means basically the same thing. Something about making chicken salad. )
In video production terms, it means that unless you start out with good quality, well-shot video, no amount of special equipment or skillful editing will save your finished product - your highlights tape. GIGO.
Let's assume you're planning on a post-season highlights video. Your first job has got to be to concentrate your efforts on making sure you start out with good game footage. That means two essential ingredients: a good camera and a good videographer. (If you were to ask me which is more important, I'd be inclined to say the person behind the camera. I've seen an awful lot of bad game videos, and it's rarely the fault of the camera.) If you're like me and you've got both, you're blessed. If not, you're at least fortunate that it's the off-season, and you've still got time to check out cameras, and find and train somebody. I'll talk a little more about both as we go along.
(The term "footage," by the way, has no relevance whatsoever to videotape, even though we all use it anyhow; it's a holdover from the days when we used real film, which was sold - and processed - by the foot. Ever notice how many of us old geezers still say we "look at film" when in fact most of us haven't threaded a Kodak Analyst in over 15 years?)
If you've already got a good camera, wonderful. But it still won't hurt you to have a decent layman's understanding of cameras.
Video cameras are sometimes called "camcorders" because they combine the functions of a camera and a tape recorder/player in one unit, unlike the early days of home videotaping when you had to lug around both the camera and the tape unit it recorded onto. Nowadays, though, professionals and serious amateurs seem to prefer the term "camera."
Video cameras come with an assortment of features in a variety of shapes, but they come in two basic sizes - full-size or compact, usually depending on the format (basically, the size) of the tape cassette they use.
There are two popular videotape formats, and the most obvious difference between them is their size. There's VHS (the kind of cassette you rent at the video store), and there's 8-millimeter.
The main advantage of VHS is its ease of replay. Practically everybody has a tape player (VCR) that'll play VHS tapes, so when you've shot something with a VHS camera, all you have to do is eject the cassette from your camera, insert it into your VCR, press "REWIND" to get to the starting point, then press "PLAY." It's that simple.
The chief disadvantage of VHS is its size. Full-size VHS cameras are rather large and bulky. They have to be, because they're built around the tape cassette itself. That's where 8-millimeter comes in. 8-millimeter cassettes are about the size of the audio cassettes that you pop into your car's tape player, which means that 8-millimeter cameras can be a lot smaller, too.Stores carry a wider selection of 8-millimeter cameras, with a greater variety of features. And you can always keep a spare 8-millimeter cassette in your pocket -no such luck with VHS.
The major disadvantage of 8-millimeter is that if you want to show your tapes on your home TV, you'll have to have your camera on hand, because you can't play 8-millimeter tapes on your home VCR.
So - VHS or 8-millimeter? Which one is best for you? I say, "neither". Stay tuned.
VHS or 8-millimeter? It really wouldn't matter that much, if all you were doing was producing game tapes to be watched exactly as they were shot.
But if you plan on producing something from those tapes, and then making multiple copies of your production - maybe even selling some copies - you're not going to be completely happy with the results you'll get starting out with either VHS or 8-millimeter. (Remember GIGO?)
The problem is something called "generation loss." You've seen it, even if you didn't know it had a name. You may even have had frustating experiences with it, swapping tapes with somebody. You sent him a nice, sharp tape, and when you looked at the one he gave you, it looked as if the game was being played inside a dirty goldfish bowl - the colors, especially the reds, "bloomed", as if somebody had colored outside the lines. And the players look as if they've been drawn by an etch-a-sketch. Some of them seem to have a ghost following them around.
What you got was a copy (referred to in the business as a "dub") of the original. Or, more likely, a copy of a copy of the original. Or even - you get the picture.
The original copy - the one that came right out of the camera - is referred to as the "first generation" tape. Copies made directly from it are called "second generation" tapes; copies made from second generation tapes are called "third generation" tapes. And so on.
Actually, to an untrained eye, especially one that's mainly interested in the football action anyhow, generation loss may not be all that noticeable in second generation tapes. But it's when you have to copy second-generation tapes, and then make copies of those copies, that real generation loss - "degradation" is another term used - can ruin the look of your production.
And if you intend to produce something like, say, a highlights video, expecting to give away - or maybe even sell - multiple copies of it, your finished tape is going to contain some third- or even fourth-generation tape footage. It's inescapable.
Here's why: from your original game tapes, you'll select highlights, and you'll copy those pieces onto your finished production tape. That makes your finished tape mostly a second-generation tape, right? Now do the math: the dubs you make from your finished tape - the ones the public gets - are going to be third-generation tapes.
What's a body to do? The solution lies in what are referred to as "High Resolution" or "High Performance" tape formats.
It's only fair to warn you right up front - no matter what you do, your final dubs are just not going to wind up looking as sharp and clean as your original game footage. Not unless you're willing to spend money on the kind of equipment your local TV station - or possibly your local cable company - uses. A certain amount of generation loss is unavoidable - get used to it. The trick is to get results closer to what the pros get than to what your next-door neighbors get, without having to spend what the pros spend. Which is where we left off - High-resolution formats.
Both VHS (the large cassette) and 8-millimeter (the small cassette) come in high-resolution or high-performance versions, called, respectively, "SVHS" (for "Super" VHS) and "Hi8" (originally called "High-Band 8").
The SVHS or Hi8 cameras - and the tapes they record on - don't look any different from the regular VHS and 8-millimeter versions. In fact, the recorded tapes themselves may not look all that different when you play them back. But they really do produce better copies. Generation loss really is less noticeable.
Think of it this way: driving around town, all radio stations seem equally strong. It's only when you start getting away from town that some of the signals start to get weaker and fade out. Others, though, remain strong even out in the boonies. It's because their signal was stronger to begin with.
In radio terms, SVHS and Hi8 may not look or sound vastly different in town - right out of the camera - from their low-powered cousins, but the further they get - the more generations removed - from the original tape, the better their copies will look in comparison. It's because they started out with a stronger signal.
To summarize - if it's important that you be able to produce copies of your finished tape that look acceptable to the ordinary viewer of video tapes, you really ought to be shooting your game footage in one of the high-resolution formats - SVHS or Hi8.
But not so fast! Before you run out and buy all new equipment, there's a new player on the scene, and from my experience already, it is worth a mention.
I referred to something new, and I'll get to it in a minute. But regardless of which high-resolution format you might decide on, it's only fair that I point out a couple of things about them that might put you off.
It's not as if you wouldn't quickly discover the main one for yourself - maybe you already have. It's the cost. SVHS and Hi8 cameras are more expensive than the "regular" format cameras.
Prices keep coming down, but expect to pay a couple of hundred dollars more for the high-resolution versions. Generally speaking, you can get a good SVHS or Hi8 camera for between $500 and $1000.
Since neither SVHS nor Hi8 tapes will play in a conventional VCR (a "tape deck" or just "deck" if you want to "talk technical"), you'll also need special playback equipment, too, and it's expensive. Tape decks for those formats range roughly $150-$200 more than VHS-8mm machines with comparable features.
(SVHS cassettes look exactly like the tapes you've been playing in your VCR, and they'll even fit into the machine. Go ahead - try one. It'll start to roll just like a regular VHS tape, too - but all you'll get is garbage.)
One slight advantage to SVHS over Hi8 is that, if you do buy a special SVHS tape deck, you can also use it to play your regular Blockbuster rentals, and all the VHS football tapes you'ce accumulated.
Oh, yes - and the high-resolution tapes themselves are more expensive, too - roughly two to three times as expensive as conventional tapes.
Hi8's major selling point is its compactness. The smaller Hi8 tapes are a lot easier to carry and store, yet you can pack just as much action on one of those as on a full-size SVHS tape. (In case you're wondering, that's two hours worth of taping - MAYBE as many as three football games - on one Hi8 cassette.)
When you begin accumulating and storing a lot of tapes, the space savings can be considerable.
And since the size of the tape cassette is a major factor in the size of the camera, Hi-8 cameras are smaller, too.
But don't let their small size fool you. Hi8 cameras get excellent resultsand they're loaded with some great featues. And you'll find a much wider selection of HI8 cameras - brands such as SONY, Canon, Sharp, Minolta, RCA.
SVHS, with the larger cassette, requires a larger camera - a so-called "full size" camera. At least, it did, until the smaller Hi8 cameras started taking over the high-resolution market.
Thats when the he main manufacturers of SVHS cameras - Panasonic and JVC - met the competition with a smaller cassette of their own - a mini-version of SVHS called SVHS-C ("C" for "Compact"). The smaller tape cassette allows the SVHS-C cameras to be smaller, about the size of Hi8 cameras.
But don't fall for it. This new compactness comes with some very unhandy trade-offs. First of all, since changing the width of the tape itself was not an option, the only way to make that casette smaller was to wind less tape onto it - as much as 75 per cent less than on a standard, full-size SVHS cassette!
Obviously, with less tape, the more compact SVHS-C cassette doesn't offer the same two-hour capacity that Hi8 (or Standard SVHS) cassettes do. Not even close. In fact, it's only about 30 or 40 minutes. At that rate, you may not even get an entire game on one cassette. And here's he worst - the 30-minute SVHS-C cassette is comparable in price to a 2-hour Hi8 cassette.
If you're going out to buy 12-ounce bottles of soda, you shouldn't have to deal with the hassle of having to buy 4-ounce bottles instead, handling three times as many bottles - at twice the price.
(Actually, there is a way to increase the capacity of these mini-cassettes, but you don't want to go there. Your camera probably allows you the option of recording at a slower tape speed than "SP" (STANDARD PLAY). Do not do it. Do not record in the slower, more economical mode, whether it's called "EP" or "SLP"! More about this later. Just take my word for it - the reason you are shooting in high-resolution format in the first place is that you intend to make good quality copies. So if you have any plans for editing your tape and making copies of it, don't even think about recording in any speed other than "SP".)
Another inconvenient feature of SVHS-C is that, because its cassette is smaller than the standard size, you can only replay it in a standard VCR if you insert it in a special adapter cassette. (Better make sure you always have one of those little devils handy!)
Of course, for filming games, you may not care about compactness. When you may be mounting the camera on a tripod up on the press box roof anyhow, it doesn't matter how big or small it is. Unfortunately, a good, relatively inexpensive full-size SVHS camera is hard to find nowadays, and the selection is really limited.
But if you can deal with the fact that to get a better end product you're going to have to spend a little money, the question becomes: SVHS or Hi8? Or a yet more expensive format that kicks both of them in the tail?
Until recently, I did all my work in high-resolution formats, employing a hybrid set-up: I shot my footage with a Hi8 camera, and did my editing on an SVHS deck.
And then I discovered "Digital."
The relatively new digital video (DV) format is really great. It enables you to produce near-broadcast quality video, not only because the image it produces is so sharp initially, but because it reproduces itself digitally. When you copy a digital tape onto another format - VHS, say - the resulting copy is as good as a first generation VHS tape right out of the camera. And as to digital reproduction, when you make a digital copy of a digital tape, you are in effect, cloning it, with no loss of resolution from the original.
DV is a relatively (in a generally high-cost field, everything is relative) low-cost way of producing video that rivals what you see on your TV, and, precisely for that reason, many professional production houses and TV stations are beginning to find uses for it.
As its name might suggest, digital video also enables you to feed digital images into a computer where, with the right hardware and software (and know-how) you can edit like the pros, and come out onto a finished tape without any generation loss. Trust me - your budget is probably not ready for this type of investment just yet. (Home-edit stuff for use on your PC is available at home-budget prices, but it is not intended to produce high-resolution output.)
Compared to other consumer formats, though, digital video is still expensive. I haven't seen any DV cameras under $1000, and the better ones start around $2000 and go up from there. But just in the last year, I've seen existing models come down in price, and I've seen lower-price models introduced. There's no reason to think that digital video prices won't trace the downward trend of the other video formats that preceded it. (In 1990, I paid over $1000 for an 8-millimeter camera that didn't have a lot of the bells and whistles that you would routinely get nowadays for half that price.)
Digital video tapes are expensive, too. Most cameras use the "Mini-DV" tape cassette. It's smaller than a credit card, and about 3/8 of an inch thick, and because of its small size, some of the new digital video cameras that use it are literally pocket-size. The Mini-DV cassette has a capacity of 60 minutes, and one of them will set you back about $15.
SONY, incidentally, has just introduced "Digital-8", which allows you to use 8-millimeter tapes in your digital camera and shoot in either 8-millimeter or DV format. 8-millimeter tapes are a lot less expensive than digital tapes, and you'd figure on being able to get two hours' worth of taping on a cassette. Not so - when you are shooting in the digital format, the capacity is only 60 minutes.
Because they don't use the Mini-DV cassette, Digital-8 cameras are not as small as Mini-DV cameras, and from all reports, the Digital-8 image is not quite what you'd get with Mini-DV, so it may not prove attractive to serious videographers. But SONY made one mistake back in the early days of the home video game when it bet on the "Beta" format, which despite its technical superiority lost out to VHS in the consumer market, and it's not likely to make a similar one this time. Should this format prove popular with the "point and shoot" crowd, prices will come down faster than they will on DV equipment. My experience with SONY equipment has been uniformly good, and for your purposes, you might want to check out the new Digital-8.
Anyhow - SVHS, SVHS-C, Hi8, MiniDV or Digital 8, let's assume you'll be shopping for a camera. You may still be deciding which format works best for you, and your knowledge of some of the features that are available - which ones are essential, which ones are useful, which ones are just cute, and which ones are useless - may help you make your decision.
Cameras come with all sorts of features, and many of them are special effects such as mosaic, freeze-frame, mirror-imaging. They're sexy-sounding but they won't be much use to you, but as long as they're included in the camera you want, no problem. If you can save money by buying a camera without them, though, by all means do so. Your camera, if you're interested in producing something with the tape you shoot, is going to be used for recording raw tape. High quality tape, but raw tape nonetheless.
You're going to be doing your editing afterward, not while you're actually videotaping.
There are, however, a few extremely useful features that I would recommend. One is the image stabilizer feature now offered by most camera manufacturers. (SONY calls its version "SteadyShot.") It is really incredible - it actually smooths out minor shakiness of a hand-held shot to the point where a good cameraperson could actually manage without a tripod - not normally an easy thing to do with the kind of compact, lightweight camera that you can't steady by resting it on your shoulder. (That is perhaps the one good point of a full-size camera. But try bracing a professional video camera on your shoulder some time, and you'll come away with a lot of respect for those guys you see down on the sidelines at big games.)
Automatic focus ("Autofocus") is a standard feature. You can't do without it, but fortunately, you can't buy a camera without it, either. But it's also useful at times to be able to focus manually. Fortunately, practically all SVHS-C and Hi8 camcorders offer manual focus as an feature, but you want to make sure yours does.
A power zoom is essential. It's also standard on all cameras. The zoom feature (controlled by something called a "zoom rocker" which rocks up and downas your fingers operate it) lets you get tight close-ups or wide shots. But don't worry too much about how much zoom your camera has - all cameras now offer you at least an 8:1 zoom. More than that is fine, but that's actually enough for your purposes. Don't get carried away by these 136-1 zooms advertised on some cameras. Other than the fact that it will serve no useful purpose for you, without getting technical about it, what accounts for most of that astounding figure is an extension of your regular optical zoom called Digital Zoom, which, when you use it produces a noticeably poorer picture.
What isn't standard anymore, though, is a manual zoom. It's a nice thing to have, and a lot of manufacturers are leaving it off. (For one thing, when youÕre operating on battery power, the motor that operates your zoom feature really consumes power.)
Another very useful option is a color viewfinder - you'd be amazed at how much of a difference it can make to a cameraperson who has to spend an entire game squinting at miniature black-and-white images in a viewfinder.
But why squint at all - even into a color viewfinder?
4-14-99 - Why squint into a viewfinder, when you can do what the professionals do - look at a monitor? Certain cameras now come with their own built-in monitors - miniature, fold-out, color TV screens attached to the camera itself. SONY calls its cameras with this feature "Viewcams," but lots of brands now offer it. The screen is small as TV screens go, but some are as large as 4 inches diagonal, and that's a whole lot larger than any squint-in viewfinder. It might seem like a frivolous feature to you at first glance, but I have used different ones since 1996, and find it to be extremely useful.
First of all, when professionals shoot video, their cameras either contain or are hooked up to actual monitors. They can't rely on a tiny image in a little eyepiece to let them see what they're shooting. This little fold-out screen is the next best thing to lugging a monitor along with you.
Your videographer will love you for it, because he (or she) can mount the camera on a tripod, flip out the screen to see what's being shot, and then take a seat. No more spending an entire game hunched over the back end of the camera.
Hand-held, it sometimes helps you get the tough shots that you couldn't otherwise get - if you ever find yourself shooting scenes in a crowd, you can hold the camera over your head and shoot down into the crowd and still see what you're shooting.
(As a viewfinder, the fold-out screen isn't the total answer - it's often difficult to see under bright lighting or out in daylight, but in that case, you've always got the regular viewfinder as a backup.)
Besides serving as a viewfinder, the fold-out screen has other uses as well. For example, when you're searching for a particular scene on the tape that happens to be in your camera, looking at an actual TV screen sure beats looking into a tiny viewfinder.
It's also a great help when you're analyzing tapes and you're away from a monitor. It turns your camera into a tiny TV-VCR that you can take anywhere, use anytime. I've used mine in the classroom, and I've used it on airplanes. I've used it to point something out to a player in the hall or in the locker-room.
For instructional purposes, a Viewcam is great: you can tape all or part of a practice session and stop and look at the tape at any point - right out on the field. If you didn't get it the first time, you can shoot it again. If you need to show your players something, you don't have to wait until you can get inside to a VCR. It's good for individual work, too - you can analyze a player's throwing motion (or a coach's golf swing!): tape the player in action, then, assuming that your camera comes with certain playback features, replay th action in slow motion or even frame-by-frame, right on the spot. Show him right then and there what you've been telling him all along.
When I'm editing, I often use a camera as my "play" deck (all "camcorders" have the ability to play as well as record tapes) - the one on which I play the "source" tapes from which I'll get segments to assemble my finished tape. I don't have to hook up the camera to an external monitor - I just flip out the screen to see what's playing on my source tape.
And how about this for efficient use of otherwise dead time? Over the last three years, we've had to take some pretty long (two to three hours) bus rides . When the game's over and we're back on board the bus, the coaches will huddle at the front and look at the game tape on our little 4-inch screen. (Did I say to make sure you have enough battery power?) We'll run the plays back and forth aas need be, slowing them down, occasionally pausing and passing the camera to someone for a closer look. From time to time, we might call a player up to the front to have a look at a particular play. By the time we get home, we've already given the game tape a once-over, before we even get off the bus. With a lot of our questions already answered, we're ready to catch some sleep and get to work in the morning!
4-28-99 - A remote control is a must. It's pretty standard on most Hi8 - and all digital - cameras, but not necessarily on SVHS-C camcorders, so you'll want to make sure. For one thing, you'll want it for replay - the tiny controls on a compact camera can be hellishly delicate to operate for someone with large fingers. It's also useful when you're using the camera to replay a tape for a large group and you want to be able to move around. And if you're videotaping an event and your camera is tripod-mounted, having a remote is an effortless way to pause and re-start the camera between plays, without having to stand right at the camera the entire time. Finally, some of the replay functions, such as slow-motion and frame-by-frame advance, can only be controlled by the remote.
Which calls for a pause. (And slow motion and frame-by-frame, while we're at it.) Check these things out, just as if you were buying a VCR. Ask them at the store to connect the camera to a monitor - if they won't (or can't) let you do that, why would you spend hundreds of dollars to buy a camera from them? Now, put in a tape and start to play it, then press the "Pause" button, and look at the picture on the monitor. Is it "rock-solid?" (That's good.) Or does it shake, maybe even with jagged lines or snow? (That's bad - if you have any intentions of using your camera as a play deck, scratch that camera from your list. It won't do.)
Next, check out the slow-motion feature. Look for slow-motion and frame-by-frame on the camera's remote control. If they're not on the remote, the camera doesn't have them. If your camera's remote indicates that it does have slow-motion, check to see how smooth, how distortion-free it looks. Check also for frame-by-frame, sometimes called single-frame advance. (Of course, if you don't have a nice, clear "Pause," you're certainly not going to have much of a frame-by-frame, which consists essentially of a series of pauses. Both slow-motion and frame-by-frame are essential if you're buying a "Viewcam" (a camera with a fold-out screen) with an eye to doing on-the-field analysis with it. And they're also going to come in handy if more sophisticated video production is in your plans.)
Incidentally, Digital Video scores very high in the area of replay. Not only have I found the pause - and therefore the frame-by-frame - on my camera to be crystal-clear, but the slow motion is smooth and clear as well. And, most remarkable of all, when you start up from a dead stop - when you pause a scene to "still" the action, and then release the "Pause" button to re-start the tape - the action starts immediately and smoothly. Try that on most SVHS and Hi8 cameras (or VCR's).
The ability to use an external microphone is a must for me. Look on the camera for a jack where you can plug in an external microphone, because not every camera has one. Every camera does come with its own built-in microphone, of course, but the built-ins are not the best quality microphones, and, worse still, they're "omni-directional." That means they pick up sound coming from all directions - including off-the-cuff comments by the camera person. And if you've ever had to watch a game while listening to asinine - sometimes cruel - comments made by someone in the press box, you'll appreciate being able to record without sound. Sure, you can always turn down the volume when you play the tape with the offensive audio on it, but you can't be sure others who borrow it - including parents - will.
Avoiding unwanted comments is just one reason why an external microphone jack - which lets you can plug in a hand-held mike - is useful, because simply inserting the microphone's plug into the camera's microphone jack automatically disables the camera's built-in mike. Now, if you don't want to record any audio at all, just leave the external microphone plugged in, and keep it turned off.
(Here's a trick I use when I consciously want to avoid picking up background comments with my camera's mike: attached to my camera strap, I always keep a plug, cut off the end of an old microphone cable. When I want to stop recording sound, I plug it into the camera's microphone jack, which disabling the camera's internal mike, and making it impossible to record sound - any sound. If you do this, be sure to remove it when you want to resume recording audio. I must admit that I have made that mistake once or twice.)
If you just can't stand to watch video without crowd noise, here's an old radio station trick that, if your location permits, you might be able to use: simply plug the external mike into the camera (make sure the mike's turned on!), wrap the mike's cable around something to secure it, then dangle the microphone out the pressbox window or over the edge of the roof (most of our stadiums in the rainy Pacific Northwest have covered grandstands) to pick up crowd noise - without picking up unwanted pressbox remarks.
If you or someone else will ever be doing on-camera interviews, an external microphone is essential, because of its ability to focus on the comments of the person speaking. Try using your camera's built-in microphone and interviewing someone at a crowded restaurant - the microphone will work its fool head off, trying to capture every sound within reach, unable to discriminate between the remarks of the person you're interviewing, or the hysterical laughter of the woman at the next table, or the kid crying across the room, or the rattle of dishes...you get the idea. Interview someone out on the sidewalk and your camera's built-in mike will do as good a job of picking up that passing bus as it will of getting the interview. There is a good reason why TV news reporters hold those microphones.
Your external microphone will come with an on-off switch, but how do you make sure it really is on? How do you know it's recording? How can you tell whether sound is making its way into the camera and onto your tape? If you're using the built-in camera, you can just accept it on faith - because if tour camera isn't recording audio at the same time it's recording video, it's broken.
But if you're using an external mike, there's only one way to be sure you're recording audio - headphones. Which means you need a place to plug in your headphones - a headphone jack. Although it's hard to imagine a camera with a microphone jack but no provision for monitoring the audio, they're out there, and you've got to be on the lookout for them. It just stands to reason that if the ability to use an external mike is a must, so, then, is the ability to make sure it's working.
5-10-99 - You will likely find a need at some point in your finished production for a "still" or "freeze." As an example, maybe you'd like to show the newspaper headline from the morning after you won the big game. There are separate pieces of equipment that will let you do this later on, in the editing process, but if your camera has has a very good pause, that will do the job when you play the tape. Some cameras come with a "still" or "freeze" or "photo" feature, which will actually shoot a still picture when you're recording.
How long would you keep a car that kept running out of gas - suddenly and without warning - because it didn't have a fuel gauge? But that's the sort of thing that could happen to you right in the middle of a play, or just as you're headed into overtime - if your battery runs out on you. If you had just known you were running low on juice, you'd have replaced it.
Find out what your camera will tell you: power it up, turn it on, and take a peek into the viewfinder. All cameras have certain indicators which you can turn on or off, including at a minimum a day/date/year display, and a tape counter, which measures the amount of tape (in minutes and seconds) that you've shot or played since you placed the present tape in the camera.
(First of all, make sure that it is easy for you to kill that day/date/year display when you are recording, because it may seem cool, but once it's on your tape, you can't get rid of it, and nothing says "home-made video" - and dates your production - more convincingly than having the time and date displayed in a lower corner of the screen.
All cameras have one indicator that you can't turn off, which is good, because it's the one that lets you know whether you are recording. Make good and sure that it is easy to look into the viewfinder (or at your fold-out screen) and tell right away that you are recording. If it is not obvious that you are recording, it is possible for the cameraperson to get out of synch - thinking that he/she is pressing the button to "record" at the start of the play, and "pause" at the end of the play, when actually things are reversed. Maybe this has happened to you - you sit there waiting to see the game tape, and you sit there stewing, realizing that until the cameraperson catches the error, you will be seeing nothing but huddles.
If you have a color viewfinder, there is less chance of error, because when you are recording, the word "REC" will appear nice and bold and red, somewhere in one of the corners (usually upper right); and when you are in record mode but not actually recording, a bright green "STBY" (for "STANDBY") will appear in its place.
Some cameras now even go a step further, emitting a "beep" when you start to record, and two "beeps" when you go back on standby.
Many cameras now let you know how much actual tape - in minutes - remains on the cassette you're currently using, and how much charge is left in your battery. If you're serious about camera work, you'll certainly appreciate that feature.
Which brings me to the batteries themselves. The "lead acid" jobs used by some of the full-size cameras are heavy and cumbersome, but to their credit, you can "top them off." That is to say, if you use them for a short time, you can re-charge them back to their maximum capacity. But the first generation of compact camcorders switched to a "nickel-cadmium" battery, somwhat smaller and somewhat lighter and capable of greater capacity. Except that unless you totally discharged them before re-charging, you would lose a little bit of battery capacity every time you did so. You can't imagine the frustration of having a battery with a "two hour" rated capacity giving out on you after 20 minutes or so. And packing enough batteries to power you through a trip could be a heavy proposition.
Not any more, though. SONY's "Infolithium" (lithium ion) batteries, half the size and weight of the old nickel-cadmium batteries, provide a consistent two hours or more of power. Their charge can be "read" by the camera, letting you know how much time you have left, and best of all, they can be "topped off" after every use, without having to be fully discharged.
5-26-99 -Most digital cameras contain three features worth mentioning: photo recording, time code, and FireWire. The sun will still come up tomorrow if you buy a good camera that doesn't have them, but if there is a chance that somewhere down the line you might be doing anything at all sophisticated in the way of editing, or web site construction, they will come in very handy. If you have a choice of cameras, take the one that has these features.
Photo recording gives you the ability to shoot a series of still shots, much like the digital still cameras you see advertised whenever you turn on AOL, and record them on as digital images on tape.
Time code is great. Ever had to hunt for a scene that you knew was somewhere on a particular tape? Maybe you wrote down its precise location in minutes and seconds (on your VCR's counter) the last time you had the tape in your VCR, but when you look for it again, you will have to completely rewind the tape and reset the VCR's counter to zero. It's a royal pain waiting for a tape to rewind. No such problem with time code. Time code is a signal imprinted on the tape itself while the camera is recording, giving every single frame (there are 30 per second, in case you wondered) its own number. Time code is an advanced feature that's found in all digital cameras and higher-range Hi8 and SVHS cameras. If you don't plan to be doing some fairly advanced editing, you can live without it, but the deeper I get into video work, the more useful I find it to be.
FireWire is the latest, hottest data-exchange device. It looks like a wire with plugs on both ends, and was invented and named by Apple, which promptly seemed to put it on the shelf for a while. Since then, other manufacturers have seen its value and begun to market it, some calling it a "1394" connector, not as sexy a name as FireWire. Maybe it has something to do with paying royalties to Apple. SONY calls it "i.Link," which I somehow doubt the rest of the industry will adopt. Most of the people I deal with just call it "FireWire," so that's what I'll continue to call it. Just be sure that you remember that "1394," "iLink." and "FireWire" are one and the same.
Through one tiny socket in your camera, the FireWire will allow video and audio data to pass back and forth between your camera and any similarly-socketed tape deck, camera or computer. I said data. It's digital information - bits and bytes - being transmitted, and FireWire is FAST. That's very important in transmitting video material, and the large amounts of data it involves. How fast is FireWire? According to Walter Mossberg, Technology Editor of the Wall Street Journal, FireWire is about 30 times faster than the highly-touted USB, found on the popular new iMacs, and now standard on all new PCs.
Right now, to the best of my knowledge, only the PowerMac G3 comes equipped for FireWire, but more computers soon will. I now use FireWire to go back and forth between my camera and my tape deck, and, since I am not transmitting a conventional TV signal between them but merely exchanging data, there is no "degradation" of the signal - no generation loss. Thus, I am able to copy something from my camera onto my tape deck, then, on the same FireWire, copy right back from the tape deck to the camera - with no loss of resolution.
For those people looking forward to editing on a computer, this is clearly the way to go, because it affords you the ability to load digital video through the FireWire, from your camera into the computer; to cut, paste, re-arrange and pretty-up the video with the help of one of a number of good programs; then send the edited material back out the FireWire to your camera, to be recorded onto another tape. And that newly-recorded tape is as sharp and clear as your "source" tape, the one you originally shot. (More about this later.)
Whatever camera you buy, before you leave the store, buy a clear filter - a so-called "skylight" filter. It just screws right over your lens. It doesn't really do anything - it's just clear glass - and it won't affect your video. What it will do is protect the most important part of your investment - your lens. This may be hard to believe, but I'm told that as much as half the cost of your camera can be in the lens. So protect it. If anything gets scratched accidentally, it'll be the cheap glass of the filter. And it's a lot safer to clean smudges off a clear glass filter than to take a chance trying to clean the lens.
One final note regarding "Digital-8." The Engineering and Post-Production Manager at the firm which copies my videos is not impressed. He thinks it's a marketing gimmick designed to upgrade the people who already have Hi-8, or catch the people who don't understand the importance of the DV format. He has a low opinion of the actual inner workings of most Hi8 cameras, and says that the Digital-8 cameras are using the same mechanism. Further, since the Digital-8 will record a digital signal on Hi8 tape, the same "drop-out" problems that sometimes plague users of Hi8 tapes will continue to occur whether you're recording Hi8 or digital signals on them. As for the savings on tape costs - yes, Hi8 tapes are less expensive than DV tapes, but you must remember that when they are used in the digital format, their capacity is only 60 minutes, not 120. Finally, he says that it is unlikely that his firm will "support" the Digital-8 format. In other words, the last thing his firm needs is one more format to have to deal with, and this one doesn't seem to have much potential use among professionals. The company already has enough equipment on hand to "dub" a huge variety of formats into VHS tapes, such as the ones I sell, and he doesn't foresee spending money on another setup to dub Digital-8 tapes. Which means if you have any thoughts of reproducing large numbers of tapes, Digital-8 could leave you stranded.
For those who have asked: For over a year now, I have been using a SONY DCR-TRV7 camera. I have been very pleased with it. I paid more for it than you ought to pay now, because the introduction of Digital-8 has been driving the price of DV downward, but I have no complaints. It is a good camera. I no longer see it advertised, so probably it is no longer made, and I don't know whether the newer models are really any better. I don't see too many of them with the relatively large (4-inch diagonal) fold-out screen that mine has. I assemble my tapes on a SONY DCR-1000 VCR. It is a killer machine, but it is expensive. (In one respect, video equipment is a lot like motorcycles. Years ago, when I bought my first one, a veteran rider advised me never to get on a larger bike than the one I owned - that if I did, I'd never again be satisfied with my own bike.)
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