Making quality videos on a budget

Week of June 11, 2006

Q; A friend and I are planning to start a small business that will specialize in recording the memories of the people of our community on video. Our plan is to guide the interviewee through the events of their lives by means of a customized list of questions. After, the interview, we will provide the client with their choice of: a) the raw unedited interview footage, b) the footage edited to remove any unnecessary or irrelevant conversation or distracting background noises, or c) an edited version of the subject’s life complete with still photographs and narrative soundtrack.

My question to you involves equipment. Obviously, we are keen to maximize the quality of the footage that we shoot, but we also need to buy equipment that is reasonably easy to use and carry. Therefore, we are wondering if it would be appropriate for us to aim for a top-of-the-range digital camcorder, given the high quality of much of what is on the market these days, rather than the kind of camera that would be used by a professional? Bear in mind that we will need to buy lots of these cameras if and when our business takes off so price is also an important consideration. If so, could you recommend any particular brands and models?

Also, which of the many computer-based software programs would you recommend (whether Mac or PC) for editing our digital video footage?

-Fiona J. Mackintosh, Silver Spring, MD

A: I don’t think you need pro gear, not at all.   Even a $400 camcorder can record beautiful footage IF the light is good.   Low-light performance (as well as manual control capability) is where professional gear really stands out.

Whatever you buy, I recommend you use the MiniDV format.   With a generous budget, it is true you would be best served with a “prosumer” (advanced consumer camcorder suitable for some pro work, hence pro-sumer) model like a Canon GL-2 or Sony VX-2100.   They sell for between $2,000 and $3,000.   I don’t think you need that much camera to get started, though.

Why not buy a good, but modest camcorder, learn the ropes, then upgrade as your skill and business warrant it?   You can get a 3-chip camcorder from Panasonic, the PV-GS500, for $739 from a reputable online retailer, onecall.com.   It has optical image stabilization and solid low-light performance (for a small camcorder).   It’s not as good as a prosumer model in low-light, but much better than the inexpensive, tiny camcorders sold these days.

To help you get the most out of whatever camcorder you buy get a good microphone (either wired or wireless, the Panasonic has a mic input) and some lighting equiptment.   Use a couple of lighting softboxes (Photoflex makes nice outifts called Starlites) and do a good job of lighting your subject when you do the interviews.   A large, controlled source like a softbox will do a much better job than a small light mounted on a video camera.

Get a good camcorder like the Panasonic, do a good job lighting your subject (don’t forget to use custom white balance for perfect color!) and your footage will look fully professional!

Try to work from AC power when you can- no worrying about batteries then.   Control your equipment and your environment as much as you can and you minimize the chance of problems and surprises.

My preference for video editing is Macintosh- this was discussed in a recent column.   Since you are taking a professional approach, Windows systems such as Adobe Premiere are worth a look, too.   Adobe Premiere Elements, a basic version of Premiere, was the clear winner amongst Windows-based video editors I recently compared.

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