How to Create a Performing Arts Video Work Sample (Part 2 of 3): Plan, Then Shoot.
Tips for hiring a pro or doing it yourself.
The first installment of this series was all about context – your video work sample as part of an application. Now, let’s talk about capturing the footage.
The key is planning ahead. Because you’re introducing a new, technical aspect into your work by filming it, you’ll need extra time to track down and set up equipment, and coordinate with people to operate it. In addition, you’ll probably have to troubleshoot something along the way; give yourself buffer room for this likelihood. The goal is to get into the habit of regularly documenting your work. Show your video to colleagues, and ask to see theirs – this can become a part of your artistic practice.
Doing it yourself vs. hiring a pro
Hiring a videographer means bringing another artistic collaborator into your process. Just as you might when hiring a designer or performer, think about how your videographer’s taste, availability, and cost will affect your work. Unless you are already experienced in filmmaking, choosing to shoot the work yourself truly means incorporating a new medium into your artistic practice, requiring training and the acquisition of new equipment.
Many public-access stations offer low-cost or free courses on filming and editing for local residents. Though they may not be geared specifically toward performance documentation, you’ll gain familiarity with filming equipment and editing software — and, potentially, access to free equipment access.
Media Education in NYC:
- BRIC – http://bricartsmedia.org/community-media/bric-media-education
- Manhattan Neighborhood Network – http://www.mnn.org/producers
- BronxNet Television – http://www.bronxnet.org/training
- Queens Public Television – http://www.qptv.org/learn
- Staten Island Community Television – http://www.sictv.org/training/
Online, you can find numerous websites with software tutorials and in-depth information about filming equipment.
Online Media Education:
- Creative Cow – free peer-to-peer media production forums and tutorials
- Lynda.com – pay a monthly fee for unlimited online tutorials in filmmaking, editing, and other subjects
- Vimeo Video School – free video tutorials
Finally, your local arts council may have further advice on training resources. (And, of course, check out NYFA Source!)
Equipment: Video and Audio
It’s hard to overstate the importance of recording equipment. Crystal-clear picture and sound bring the viewer that much closer to the original, live experience. Consequently, an important reason to hire a videographer is that he or she will most likely come with high-quality equipment and the expertise to use it well.
If you choose to secure the filming equipment yourself, your budget will determine which types of camera you can consider. Read online reviews and buying guides on sites like Consumer Reports and CNET and visit websites like DVX User to see camera demos and user feedback. Visit expert electronics stores and rental houses like B&H, Adorama, Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV), and Lighthouse Films, where staff can recommend different camera models and help you test-drive their features.
As technology advances, ever-cheaper cameras can record ever-better footage. In well-lit, up-close filming conditions, you may even be able to capture passable video on a smartphone camera. For lower light conditions, smoother and longer zooms, and more filmic image quality, you’ll need a fancier camera; a professional handheld camcorder will produce the strongest footage, but a high-quality consumer camera may satisfy your needs.
The big debate, as of the writing of this article, concerns whether to shoot on DSLR cameras or prosumer HD camcorders. DSLR cameras come from the still photography world; they record higher quality images frame-by-frame, but can run into problems like limited recording times (the camera will need to briefly stop recording every 20 minutes or so), noisy mechanics, and jerky zooming. A high-end consumer (or “prosumer”) camcorder is designed to film video — and will be easier to hold, will zoom further and more smoothly, and can record for hours — but offers less flexibility in the way you record the image, with fewer options for lenses and depth of field. Here’s a handy article on the subject.
If you invest in a camera, you’ll also want to get a tripod and an external microphone to use when filming. Built-in microphones on cameras are generally pretty dinky, and the audio you record with them may be so weak that it’s distracting — or worse, unintelligible. A good external microphone connected to your camera or a separate digital recorder will capture a clearer sound from the stage and reduce noises from the camera’s own mechanics, which built-in mics often translate as an annoying whirring sound in the background. The closer you can get the audio equipment to the performers, the better. If the production uses a soundboard, you may be able to record the feed from it. This gives you the same mix that is sent to speakers from the board during the performance, including prerecorded sound cues like music, and any sound collected from microphones around the stage or attached to performers. However, because this audio mix is designed to be sent out to the audience, rather than capture the aural experience from within it, it will miss any performance sounds that haven’t been picked up by stage mics, as well as lacking a sense of the house acoustics and crowd noises. If you want to get fancy, this issue can be fixed by mixing the audio from the soundboard with audio captured by additional microphones in the house, placed there for the recording. More advice from B&H on the subject of camera equipment, including microphones, can be found here.
If you’re just learning how to edit, try out free software like iMovie for Mac or Windows Movie Maker — or even the YouTube online editor. Since you’ll most likely need only basic tools to trim and organize your footage, these simple options should satisfy your needs. Sophisticated editors like Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro offer more bells and whistles, but have a steeper learning curve and can cost hundreds of dollars, depending on the version. If you want to invest the time to learn these advanced programs, they can be powerful tools, but otherwise you may be better off sticking with simpler editors or hiring a professional.
If you choose to hire someone to shoot and/or edit your video work sample, consider the same factors you would in hiring any other artistic collaborator to join your process. Ask for recommendations through your professional networks, view samples of their work, and be clear and specific about your goals and budget for the project.
- Richard Move’s Performance Documentation webinar with Creative Capital lays out his thorough personal planning process for working with a professional videographer and editor, including sample budgets, contracts, and advice on how to communicate during pre- and post-production, as well as a guided evaluation of his own work samples. Move and Creative Capital also offer a professional development workshop on the subject.
- Mandy.com is an online directory of film services and professionals for hire.
- OurGoods.org is a social network for bartering where you may be able to negotiate an exchange of services for videography, editing, or use of equipment
If you can’t afford to hire a professional videographer or production company, you may be able to find a film student who will offer a bargain rate in exchange for experience or footage to use in his or her reel. Investigate the websites of local film schools to see if there are job posting boards or faculty you can contact for recommendations.
Important: No matter how small your budget, please don’t ask students to shoot, edit, or mix for free.
Budgets span a vast scope. I’ve heard stories ranging from an artist paying as little as $75 to a film-student videographer and then editing the work herself, to a $12,000 outlay for a multi-camera shoot followed by several editing rounds by a film production company. If you buy your own camera, the cost could range from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand. If funders require video work samples in their applications, they generally want to see you budget for them in your next project — make this a regular line item for your work, and match increases in your video documentation budget with increases in your total production budget. Keep in mind, however, that many grantmakers will not fund equipment purchases.
Make sure you clearly communicate your plans to record with your performers, crew, and venue. Depending on union memberships and contracts, this may involve special preparations and restrictions, so give yourself time to check requirements in advance.
If you plan to share your footage publicly —on a website, for instance — you’ll need to be especially careful about securing the rights to film all aspects of your performance. Make sure you’ve gotten permission to use any copyrighted music or images that you have incorporated into your work. It’s also wise to have written proof of permission to film your performers – either within a standard union contract or a custom-built contract that you and your performers have agreed upon. Putting it all in writing helps you communicate clearly and protects your rights to use the footage in the future.
Some funders may ask to use your footage if they choose to support your work. Be prepared for that question and make it clear if you are sending them something that is for private viewing only.
The question of filming members of Actors’ Equity comes up frequently, and is a topic of some debate among artists and funders. Here is the response I received from Actors’ Equity about filming work samples involving AEA-member performers:
“There are some Equity agreements that contain provisions under which the theatrical producer may submit recordings for the purposes of grant applications and fundraising for the theatre, while other agreements do not contain these allowances. For further information about recording allowances in individual agreements you can browse our document library here: http://www.actorsequity.org/library/library_home.asp. The terms can be found under the Media clause.”
This is a touchy subject, since many theater applications require video work samples and many Equity agreements allow no video recording under any circumstances – an issue worth further examination than I can devote here. If you have questions, contact Equity directly, and ask around to see what fellow artists have done.
Before the performance: PLAN AHEAD!
- If someone else is filming your work, invite them to see a rehearsal or run-through if possible. The better prepared your videographer is, the better the footage will be. Discuss with him or her the most important parts of the performance to capture. In addition, give your videographer a heads up about tricky moments to film — for instance, if it gets really dark or really loud at some point in the piece.
- You might also provide your videographer with earlier footage of your work, as well as any writing about the piece being filmed. Familiarizing your videographer with your aesthetic and engaging with him/her as an artistic collaborator will benefit recording quality.
- Visit the venue ahead of time (with camera in hand, if you can) to consider issues like shooting angles, lighting levels, microphone placement, feeds from the soundboard, etc.
- If possible, give yourself ample setup time before the performance. Delegate, make lists, and do what you need to do to ensure that camera placement, sound recording, and any necessary lighting adjustments for filming are taken care of before curtain.
- Choose camera location(s) with a clear shot at the stage, avoiding the tops of people’s heads or other obstructions. If you only have one camera, aim for a balance between being far enough to capture the full stage picture and being close enough to record the performers in detail. If you have two cameras, each can serve one of these purposes.
- As Richard Move says, attempting to stuff the entire stage picture into your video is “Dullsville.” Avoid completely static full-stage shots. On the other hand, using too many close-ups without any clues about context or scale will make it hard for video viewers to piece together a mental image of what’s happening in the performance.
- Smooth, continuous footage is the ideal. Being familiar with the movement and key moments in the performance will enable your videographer to capture these things through “in-camera editing”; seamlessly panning and zooming like an audience member’s eye on the work. Courtney Harge, in NYFA’s fiscal-sponsorship department says: “Good footage is artful and invisible.”
- Recording an actual performance is generally preferable because it captures that special live energy and the sound of the audience. However, an additional filming session outside of performance may sometimes offer you a backup if there are problems during the live recording, and most funders will accept this footage.
Takeaways from Part 2:
- Plan ahead! Recording your performance is a production itself.
- You want an expert to film your work – hiring one or becoming one requires research
- Videographers and editors are your artistic collaborators
- Good footage follows the movement of the performance like an audience member’s eye.
— Lisa Szolovits is NYFA’s Researcher, Artist Resources.