Visually Challenged? Here Are Some Tips For Producing Great Video

November 17, 2009 1:42 pm in Concert, Drumset, Marching by mark wessels

I’ll admit it…  I am, and have always been, a “hack” at video production. I never studied it in school – so I wouldn’t consider myself an expert.

But – as with most things that we do – we work at it,  gradually get better, and eventually stumble upon little tricks that make what we do look as professional as possible (for those of you who may not know, I’m the “Director of Internet Activities” for Vic Firth, so a lot of the video that you see on the site, I film and/or edit… Along with Marco and my assistant Andy, of course).

Because video is such a compelling “calling card” for presenting your ideas, or marketing yourself, I’ve decided to spell out a few of the tricks-0f-the-trade that I’ve learned along the way. Hopefully these ideas can help you to produce great looking video for your projects.

MYTH #1:

Believe it or not, good looking web video doesn’t require a $3,000 camera! Sure, the “prosumer” cameras have great optics (lenses), great chips for low-lighting situations, etc. — and are completely necessary for “Broadcast” or DVD quality productions — but having one is similar to having a Ferrari to go grocery shopping… it’s just not necessary.

A new camera that we’ve been experimenting with is the Kodak Zi8.  It’s a pocket-sized high-def camcorder that can record in 720 or 1080p onto a SD card – plus has a mic input for external sound. Cost: $180.  (It doesn’t come with a card, so factor in another $40-60 for a 16gig SD card).

In situations were lighting is good and the camera is mounted on a tripod, this cheap camera can deliver video quality that rivals my $2,500 GL2!

MYTH #2:


Maybe I’m in the minority here, but when I watch video, 99% of what makes it compelling is the CONTENT – not necessarily the video quality. I’ve seen $100,000 video productions that can’t hold a candle to blurry youtube quality videos BECAUSE OF THE CONTENT!

Sure — a clean, clutter-free, visually interesting setting is preferable to a dingy office with a filing cabinet and a ficus tree, but don’t let the perception that you have to have a stage or studio to film in deter you from making your own video! Take everything out of the background and hang up a few posters for accent color. As long as you have something compelling to contribute – you’ll be fine!

MYTH #3:


Okay, this one is at least nearer to the truth than the others. From everything I’ve read, 80% of producing great looking video is from good lighting and 20% is the quality of the camera. I can take my $2,500 camera into the dark at DCI and it will produce crap video – or I can take my $170 camera into a well-lit room and produce ‘professional looking’ video.

The short answer to this problem is that you don’t have to have thousands of dollars worth of lighting gear to make your videos look good – but having some low budget lights will help tremendously.  Search on YouTube for “video lighting techniques” and you can find a ton of great resources!  Just a little attention to lighting your shot will go a LONG way to producing great looking video.

MYTH #4:


This one is partially true. I can’t stand to watch videos, even if they have great content, if they sound like they were “recorded in a cave”.  But the fact is that you don’t have to have crazy amounts of audio gear to make your videos sound good!

First (and foremost) – never, never, never use the camera’s built in mic for your audio. There’s a few exceptions, but even professionals with $10,000 cameras use external mics. The problem is that the camera’s built-in microphones are generally cheap – and you have very little control over the mic placement (in most cases, you’ll place the camera several feet away to get your whole setup in the frame – which is not where you would place a microphone to get the best sound). The new Zoom Q3 is the exception (but only has 640×480 standard def video).

So, which microphones should you use?  It completely depends on your budget, your instrument(s) and your own taste. Here’s what I (generally) use on my shoots for the VF website:

Speech/Interviews: For most lesson series videos and interviews, I use a cheap ATR-35S lav mic. It’s small enough to be next to invisible – and the cable is long enough to run all the way to the camera (where it plugs into the mini-plug input). It has a great sound that rivals most “professional” lav mics with XLR inputs, battery packs and transmitters. No phantom power required.

For some situations where there are multiple people speaking – or if the camera must be placed far from the subject, I’ll use a more expensive “shotgun” mic. Without getting too technical, this kind of mic has a very narrow field, so it picks up very little ambient noise (Google “Shotgun Mic” to get more info). For VF, I invested in the AT897 and it works very well.

Playing: On almost all of my filming sessions, I use a AT-822 stereo mic. It’s pricey – and I guess has been discontinued – but it does an overall good job at handling all the various situations I’m in  (from drumset to drum corps to solo marimba). I’m sure someone can suggest something specific to your needs that’d be more appropriate and probably less expensive. Another alternative I’ve used lately is the Zoom H2 digital audio recorder. It requires that I match the audio file to the video when editing, but it records well in a wide variety of settings.

Other recommendations: When I record a lesson, I generally have one mic for speech and one for the instrument. This gives me the best of both worlds – close up mic placement for speech and great mic placement for the instrument(s). And it allows you to set 2 different levels for each.

Depending on your situation though, this might not be an option. If you’re forced to use only one mic, my best recommendation would be that you set the level to “auto” and leave 3-4 seconds of silence AFTER YOU STOP PLAYING BEFORE YOU SPEAK. The most difficulty I have is when teachers either play while they speak, or speak immediately after they stop playing. Giving the mic level a few seconds to adjust will give you the best balanced sound.


This is by no means “the final word” on producing great video.  It’s taken me years of trial and error to get what I consider “decent” looking and sounding video for the VF website.  But, the one thing I have learned in the process is that you should NEVER BE INTIMIDATED into not trying!

In today’s multi-media world, to get noticed – video is almost REQUIRED, whether you’re a teacher or a performer. You can count on the fact that today’s web audience simply won’t read or listen anymore – they want to WATCH you teach or perform.

Don’t be left on the side of the road – jump in head first! It’s not as difficult as you might think – and you might even have some fun in the process.

Please post your questions and comments!  I’m sure a great discussion about this can help us all get better at producing videos!