What does it take to build a video studio from scratch? This comes naturally for me because I have built up my studio over the last 20 years, piece by piece, changing and growing as new technologies emerge. But what if you are just getting started? What does it take to get up and running? What are the essential components that you must have on your shopping list?
These were the types of questions that came to us from a friend who is jumping into the video game. Lawyer Alan Graf got his start in radio, hosting a daily call-in show for many years based out of the Portland area. He now hosts a show called the “Third Planet Report” on two radio stations in Tennessee. Podcasts have given him access to a national audience, and armed with a small camcorder he has expanded his concept to video, recording interviews and placing them on sites like YouTube and Google video. Now he has the opportunity to begin airing his show on local cable access with the goal of syndicating it to other stations as well.
Our company, Village Media, has helped him get started doing some initial shooting and editing. But that costs money, and Graf would rather put the money into equipment, build his own kit and produce his own shows. We offered to help him select and purchase the gear he would need to get started.
Building the Set
Although some segments and interviews for the show will be recorded in the field, the plan is to set up a portion of Graf’s office as a set, where he can set up interviews and record them. The location could be arranged with something basic and simple, such as a table or desk and two chairs, or maybe even a plant to soften the appearance, and a curtained wall behind the people on-camera.
Selecting a Camcorder
Without a doubt, the single most important and possibly most expensive investment is the camcorder. This is the starting point that determines the level of professionalism you are trying to achieve. Camcorders, of course, come in all shapes, sizes and price tags, and the video quality they can produce covers just as wide a range. Granted, all digital cameras on the market today produce far superior images to the VHS, 8mm and Hi8 camcorders of yesteryear, so image quality is a relative term. Nevertheless, we have to begin by looking at the bottom and working our way up to the top.
The principle point of comparison is the CCD, specifically its size and how many of them there are. Most consumer model camcorders have one CCD. Broadcast quality cameras will usually have three. With a single CCD, all color information is bundled together in one signal. When the camcorder has three CCDs, each internal chip is responsible for processing a separate element of the color information, preserving color purity and richness.
But CCD size is really just as important. The CCD is a flat surface that catches the light and turns it into electrical and digital data. The broader the surface area or face of the CCD, the better job it can do in collecting light and generating resolution. The CCD is covered with an array of pixels, and the number of pixels it has is directly translated into pixel count and resolution on the TV screen. A 1/3-inch CCD with a million pixels is going to give you better resolution than a 1/6-inch CCD with only 600,000 pixels. With three CCDs you triple the total number of available pixels.
The CCD in consumer camcorders start out at around 300,000 to 600,000 pixels, and go up to a million or more (for video, don’t confuse this with the resolution of still images). Panasonic has an entire line of consumer camcorders with 3 CCDs, but they are only about 1/6-in. to 1/4-in. in size. The big names in video like Panasonic, JVC, Sony and Canon all have a line of “presumes” or starter professional camcorders which utilize three, larger-sized CCDs that are the optimum choice for anyone with serious production aspirations.
The next big decision is whether to go high definition (which is the direction of things to come). Most of the new camcorders in this range can shoot to HDV, which is a 1080 line interlaced signal (compressed but still high definition) that can be edited on most current nonlinear editing systems. Of course, you’ll need a hefty computer, one that can handle the extreme amount of data generated by the large pixel count of high definition. If you want to keep costs down there are still camcorders available that have professional features and specifications, but only record a standard definition DV signal. They are certainly adequate for any type of production you want to do for now, limiting you only in meeting the production requirements of the future.
When setting up a video production studio, you must give serious consideration to the audio. Great pictures are of no value unless you have good sound. In most interview situations, the best sound is achieved though the use of a lapel mike, clipped to the shirt or jacket of anyone on-camera. You can pick up a direct wire lapel mike for as little as $30 from Radio Shack, or spend well over $100 to purchase a professional model. Nonetheless, wireless systems are ideal because they offer complete freedom of movement–it looks better in your video and gives you more framing options when there are no cables in the shot.
Wireless microphones are rated by the frequency range they use. Inexpensive wireless mike systems, costing under $200, transmit and receive on VHF frequencies. Unfortunately their range can be limited, and you are more susceptible to interference or a lost signal. Expect to spend several hundred dollars or more for a UHF wireless.
Now is the time to look a little more closely at your needs. The wireless systems often used by performers have large receiver units that sit on a console, desk top or mount in a rack. If you plan to use your gear conducting interviews in the field, you’ll want a more compact portable receiver. It will also work just fine in a studio situation.
Think about what type of video you want to produce. Will you be behind the camera while the other person is being interviewed on-camera? If that’s the case, you’ll just need one microphone. To have an on-camera host or interviewer and a guest you’ll need two mikes.
This can also affect what camera or camcorder you choose to purchase. Many consumer camcorders have no external mike input at all, or only connect a mike through a hot shoe. Ideally, the camcorder and external mike system should use mini-phonon jacks or the larger 3 pin XLR connectors. Note: the mike connector and camera input connections must match, or you could be stuck using troublesome adapters. Does the camera have two separate audio inputs or a single audio input stereo jack? A single stereo jack would require a splitter/adapter, again less than ideal. The better cameras have two separate audio inputs with adjustable audio level control.
Plan to have more than two people speaking on camera? Then you might want to consider using an overhead shotgun microphone. It can give you broad enough coverage to record a conversation among several people, but enough sensitivity to ensure voices are still strong and clear. Shotgun mikes are very directional, so the person in the center of the pick-up range will probably be louder than people to either side of you. Ideally, you will have a person or operator that aims the mike at the person speaking. This is also the type of mike used by news teams in the field where you do not have the opportunity to outfit someone with a wireless. Again, it takes an extra sound person to hold and aim the mike while another person operates the camera.
Recording in the Studio: How Many Cameras?
Studio recording brings other considerations into play that won’t usually come up when shooting in the field. Again you must decide if the person being interviewed will be talking to an interviewer off-camera, or an on-camera host. If the person conducting the interview will always be off-camera, then you might only need one camera or camcorder. If there are two people on screen, or you are producing a cooking show or an instructional video of some kind, then additional camera angles and shots may be needed, requiring more than one camera.
In the typical, host and guest scenario, one camera captures the wide shot that shows both people onscreen and a second camera is framed for a tight shot on the guest as they answer questions. Ideally there is a third camera providing the same close-up framing of the host or person asking questions. Your edited production should go from one view to another, providing a better view of the person speaking as well as keeping the content moving and more interesting. Start out with the wide shot, cut to the person asking the question and then to the person answering. Occasionally you’ll go back to the wide shot.
Then again, you can always get started with just two cameras, alternating from the wide shot to a close up of the guest, then back to the wide shot. Add a third camera when you can.
If you are going for a live production with more than one camera, consider purchasing matching models. Every manufacturer and camcorder model product line processes color slightly differently and has its own unique, distinctive look, especially when the images are compared side-by-side. When you are using two identical camcorders, the likelihood that the pictures from both cameras will be the same is far greater.
Now the question is, “How do you deal with three different sources of video and at least two sources of audio?” In an ideal studio situation, the signal from each camera is fed to a video switcher. The output of the switcher goes to a recording deck, or these days you can capture straight to a hard drive on your editing computer. A switcher operator monitors the video from each camera and then manually selects which camera will appear on-screen at any time, essentially performing edits in real time.
The audio from the mikes goes through not a switcher, but a mixer. Unlike the video, which can only display the images from one camera at a time (unless you are using a special effect), the various audio feeds are heard simultaneously–mixed together if you will. The audio mixer performs this task while giving you control over the audio level from each microphone, so that all voices are heard at the same volume level.
The Videodisc MX-4 DV is the latest version of a long line of video mixers that goes back to the early days of low-cost video production. It features four DV inputs and one DV output. Data Video’s SE-800 also has four DV inputs and one DV out, plus color control adjustments and a four channel audio mixer.
Of course if you don’t have a camera crew, mixer or operator, and you just want to go it alone, you can still get in the game. If your camcorder can record two channels of sound, then you can establish this as “Camera 1,” the main video track recording to tape. The second and third close-up cameras can also record on to tape. Download or capture the video and sound from all three tapes into your NLE, then place the three different video clips on separate tracks. Again, Camera 1 has the good, properly-mike audio, but you can use the audio picked up by the camera microphones on the other cameras to organize the tracks so that your sound and video is synchronized. By expanding the audio tracks to see the wave forms you can be even more precise in your synchronization.
Background and Lightings
To complete your studio, you’ll of course need to consider lighting. In the studio it’s actually best if there is no outside light, which is always changing and introduces additional color balance challenges. The advantage of working with studio lighting is that you can have a consistent look to your set every time you shoot. Your light will not only provide the overall illumination that good video requires, but also create depth and texture. Obviously there is a great deal of learning when organizing your light package, but ultimately it comes down to what looks best. Avoiding dark shadows requires multiple light sources–broad, soft lighting needs to be balanced with more focused spots in key locations.
Think about the look of the set. What will you have for a background? A blank wall is, well, just too boring. For cheap and easy, go with a curtain. A muslin cloth with its many folds is an acceptable look, and available in a variety of colors depending on the mood you want to convey. A dark black non-reflective velvet background is also commonly used particularly for dramatic, head and shoulder interviews. A talk show set may require some plants or props to provide a distinctive look and character.
When you raise a culture on video from the ground up, and then seed it with millions of affordable camcorders, it’s only natural to expect that many, many thousands of people will want to go from watching to produce. Your small studio is the home base for programs that can help you communicate to an audience. Now, all that’s left is to decide, “Who your audience is, and how you will reach them?”