Depending on what your audio-visual sales concept is, you may or may not use the information in this chapter. But many of the best audio-visual concepts do involve video recording, even if it's just a quick product demonstration or a testimonial clip tucked into the midsection of your sales page. So even if you don't think you'll use this information with your current page, it's not a bad idea to quickly browse this information anyway. If nothing else, you may get a few good ideas for a more elaborate direct sales site in the future.
Cameras: Dos and Don'ts
We talked briefly about cameras in the last chapter, mostly in terms of what your needs will probably be (depending on your concept) and what your budget can bear. But in order to really translate your idea into a video presentation that you can work with, you'll need to make sure your camera is equipped with a few vital functions, and you'll need to make sure and avoid a few common errors for firsttime camera buyers.
Above all: make sure that your camera has a jack for an external microphone. We talked about the reasons for this in the last chapter--you need to avoid capturing humming feedback from the camera itself, you need to make sure you can record strong directional audio--but it's important enough to repeat here. Having an external mic jack frees you from dependence on whatever equipment you start with and lets you record audio in a variety of situations.
It also--and maybe more importantly--ensures that you don't have to record and synchronize your audio separately, in the editing room. Anyone with painful experience editing video and audio together will appreciate the ability to avoid this extra step. You can make sure that your camera is picking up both video and audio in a single chunk of data, you can avoid extra time and technical problems later, and you can ensure that your audio is of the highest quality possible. An external microphone jack: do not try to do without it!
A tripod seems as if it'd be equally as important, but in practice you can often get away without using one. Any indoor shooting you do will probably give you some opportunity to place your camera in a secure location, even if sometime it takes a little bit of imagination to do so. Outdoor shooting will invariably be more complicated and it's worth investing in a tripod if your sales concept requires a lot of outdoor shooting or testimonials that you plan to film on site. (Whatever you choose to do, make sure that you don't just fall back on holding the camcorder in your hands: it's shaky and irritating to watch and it just looks unprofessional.)
How your camcorder records film is another important issue. The choice of which recording method you want to use is going to depend on what software you plan to use to edit your footage into something you can put on the web. Ideally, you'll want to start with the highest resolution, frame rate, and picture quality that you possibly can--streaming or downloading video on the web always requires some loss of quality, and the more high-resolution your raw footage is, the better you'll do after compression.
There are plenty of different options for actually saving your video data. But in reality, there are two workable options: mini-DV tapes, or an on-board hard drive and a direct USB connection. (Don't even think about trying to use non-DV formats for filming audio-visual material: you'll have to invest in expensive "capture cards", you'll suffer a major loss of video quality, and you'll simply add endless amounts of hassle to your development cycle with no clear reward.)
Mini-DV tapes have the distinct drawback of being expensive, unless of course you keep erasing and reusing old tapes. Doing that, though, eliminates one of the best advantages of the mini-DV tape format: archiving your footage. One man's trash is another man's treasure, and if you can't use that nice exterior footage you filmed for this project, you can certainly use it for a future audio-visual project without spending extra time on filming things twice. You also have a permanent backup of any critical footage (an interview with a difficult-to-contact but well-known actor who uses your product, maybe), in case the worst happens, you lose your edited movie files, and you have to start over from scratch. Over time, you'll likely find that the added peace of mind and convenience of having your footage backed up far outweighs the hassle and cost of buying tapes.
A direct USB connection is the other viable option. You lose the ability to store all of your footage, since you'd have to store it on a computer rather than on tapes, and your footage will quickly eat up too much of your hard drive space if you're filming at high quality. But you do save on the cost of tapes, and you do have the ability to quickly grab the day's footage from your camera and shoot it directly into your editing software without any hassle. Mini-DV tapes sometimes require complicated interfaces in order to get your footage into your computer, and transferring your footage from peripheral to peripheral can lead in a worst-case scenario to losing significant amounts of quality. If you don't want to mess around with this problem and you don't think you'll need to retain much of the footage you've been shooting for future projects, just make sure your camcorder has a USB connection (honestly, you'd have to work pretty hard to find a new camcorder that doesn't.)
The only other thing to remember when choosing a camcorder is, of course, to test it out before you buy it. Make sure you like the control options--zooms, resolutions, effects. Make sure you like how the camera captures and displays light: if everything looks overexposed and difficult to make out just in your test footage, you're not going to want to wrestle with the thing for your entire project. And again: make sure that the camera's resolution and file format works with your editing software, and that it's reasonable as far as how much memory it takes up. There's no point in getting perfect footage if doing so will inevitably crash your editing software.
The Face of Your Product
No one expects you to hire John Gielgud to be in your software commercial. That said, though, you don't want to go as cheaply as possible where actors are concerned. It just takes one halting delivery, problematic accent, or other flaw to turn your site into the laughing stock of the Internet. Either use people in-house who you can rely on to represent your product, or consider investing a little bit of time in finding an actor or actress.
This isn't as expensive as it sounds, especially if you're near a major city. Any college town or large urban center will have a population of actors, many with impressive technical training, but few actual production credits as yet. If you find a sufficiently young and resume-poor actor or actress through online creative services sites (Craigslist being a classic option) or through other channels, you can often convince them to do a day or two of shooting with you for nothing but the experience of being on camera and a good letter of recommendation to future potential employers. There's plenty of talent out there waiting to be discovered, and there's no reason to let it lie fallow when you could put it to work for you or your project for almost nothing.
If you live in a rural area or just don't have a good local talent pool, you'll have to use someone in house. There are endless books written about the difficulty of casting, but as a general rule, pick someone with a pleasant, friendly face and pick someone who's easy to understand. It'll make your content seem more professional and it'll provide a more positive emotional branding for your product.
And if you simply don't have other options, don't overlook the power of testimonials. Get some friends of yours who've used your product and who like it to let you record them talking about how much they enjoy the product. In this case, their lack of technical acting training is an asset: it'll give your production an air of authenticity and make the testimonials that much more convincing. Plus working with friends is an all-time good deal, since they'll most likely be excited enough by the prospect of appearing in your "commercials" that they'll work for friendship, or for free.
Professional lighting probably isn't in your budget, but it's not usually a good idea to rely on natural lighting alone. Natural lighting on video tends to make an image look flatter than it would otherwise be, washes out colors, and just makes your image look drab and home-made. It doesn't really separate your content out from anyone else's.
You can get a professional lighting effect without paying professional fees, though. If you're shooting indoors, all you'll need is two light sources--three, if you happen to have a spare lamp lying around.
One light is your primary lighting source, responsible for creating strong areas of light and strong shadows. Another light, placed directly opposite the first but further away, is responsible for filling in and softening some of the shadows created by the first light, but still preserving the greater contrast and definition. The third light, if you've got one, is small and placed behind the image you're shooting in order to provide a little bit of separation from your background.
That's really all it takes: three light bulbs and some creative ideas for placement. Jack Black (of all people) provides a good tutorial for creating this lighting setup at acceptable.tv (full URL: http://acceptable.tv/tutorial/18 ) The presentation is a little bit absurd and the tutorial is more geared for creative/dramatic work than for commercial purposes, but the information about how to design a lighting setup and place individual lights is simple, solid, and usable. (The integration of the video player into the design of the site itself is also something you'll want to pay attention to, since the custom coding and visual distinctiveness of the video player is what gives the acceptable.tv site a great deal of its charm.)
Notes on Chroma-Keying
Depending on what your basic concept is, you may need to plan your video recording sessions to take into account the process of chroma-keying. Chromakeying can be an incredibly powerful, cost-effective, and exciting tool to make your video projects more dynamic and visually interesting. But it also gives you a host of new challenges to deal with in your shooting and can lead to some serious technical problems along the way if you're not careful.
Chroma-keying, often called "bluescreening" or "greenscreening", is the process of filming actors, set pieces, and other foreground elements in front of a large solid green or blue-colored screen. The raw footage is then taken into editing software and the solid color is removed entirely, allowing the editor to place an entirely different image in the background. Most TV weather reports use chroma-keying to superimpose the image of the weatherman on top of a map, for example. Chromakeying is also a commonly used technique in modern CGI-fueled motion pictures-the recent Star Wars prequels, for example, used green screens almost exclusively to create elaborate digital backdrops.
The word "professional" here does not have to mean "expensive." There are plenty of online tutorials (like the one at http://www.stormforcepictures.com/howtobuildamobilegreenscreen.php, notable for its focus on sensible budgeting and easily-found materials) that teach you how to make your own chroma-key screen that'll give you professional performance on a modest budget. If you want to do something interesting in the background of your video--placing a spokesman talking about GPS functions on top of stock footage of cars racing through deserts, for example--you'll want to invest some money and time into chroma-keying.
There are two critical points to remember when preparing to shoot chroma-keyed footage.
One: make sure that you light the scene deliberately in order to limit the number of shadows and highlights that show up on your chroma-keyed backdrop. Strong shadows or lights change the apparent color of the chroma-key backdrop in your raw footage, and you won't be able to remove the area of shadow from your footage without a lot of messy frame-by-frame hand editing. If you light everything to eliminate shadows you can save yourself an infinity of headaches down the line.
Two: make sure that your editing software can deal with chroma-key footage adequately! Badly-done chroma-keying leaves your image with large, weird areas of color in some frames, which looks much worse than no chroma-keying at all and will definitely break your emotional connection with your potential customers. In the next chapter, we'll discuss some of the most common editing suites in detail, with some specific focus on this issue.
Preparation for Editing
Actually filming your audio-visual project is extremely complex, the subject of entire film school courses, and well outside the scope of this book. There are a few key principles to remember, though, in order to save yourself some hassle later on: shoot multiple takes, make sure your key images are large and interestingly framed, and shoot enough footage to give yourself some leeway in editing.
Shooting multiple takes is just common sense. You might shoot what you think is a perfect take of a testimonial, leave your shooting location to plug your footage into your video editing software, and find out that your microphone wasn't plugged in correctly and didn't pick up any sound whatsoever. Or you might find that your sound levels are fine, but you've inadvertently cut off one of your performer's heads or even your product's logo. Or you might find any number of things that would have been easy to fix while you were actually shooting--but you're not shooting any more, and to go back and reshoot will cost you money and time. So shoot multiple takes, even if you don't think you'll need them: better to be safe than sorry.
Framing your images is a huge film-school subject, but here are a few guidelines: make sure that whatever the subject of the scene is fills up most of the camera frame, and try not to center your images too closely. If you frame your subjects too loosely and leave too much of a blank border around your image, you're wasting space and you're making your footage look much less interesting. Why would you want to film the walls of your garage when you could be devoting that space to a bigger close-up of the new power tool you've invented? The rule about centering is less vital, but it's still a good trick to remember: placing your primary subject slightly away from the absolute center of the camera's focus adds visual interest to your footage, engages your viewer's attention, and makes your audiovisual presentation much more interesting.
But some of these issues are just icing on the cake. Your basic concerns with video recording are simple: make sure your images are clear, make sure you can easily transfer your footage to editing software, and make sure you leave yourself plenty of leeway when it comes to editing.
(And again: get an external microphone jack! If you follow that advice and you also buy a good external microphone, you shouldn't have any problems with recording and synchronizing good audio. If you don't follow our advice or buy a good external microphone, at least you'll be getting a lot of good, tedious practice at synchronizing audio and video in there, and you'll be making sure that your hearing and your potential customers' hearing gets a good workout.)