Doing A Video (Part 1)
Cheap ways of getting your band on the box.
Not every video promo has to be shot on an elephant in Sri Lanka. There are cheaper ways to get your band on the box as Jon Lewin explains in a startling two parter, beginning this month.
Picture the scene: the office of a Top Record Company Executive, the head of A & R at Liebfrau Records, a company with a reputation for encouraging new talent. Behind the vast acreage of his desk, Jeremy awaits the morning mail; his secretary enters, swinging the two bulging mailbags sensuously between the potted palms...
"What have we this morning, Nicola?" drawls Jeremy.
"Another 3,235 cassettes, 45 party invitations, and a video-tape. Included with the cassettes were 12 grams of coke, and almost £2000 in used notes."
"Another bad day... Deal with them, will you? But what was that about a video?"
As the 3,235 cassettes are consigned to the dumper, Jeremy slits open the jiffy-big and carefully removes the video. Although it is only accompanied by a short letter, he is obviously intrigued.
"Now here's a group with imagination, intelligence. They could really go places..."
His right hand slots the black plastic box into the waiting VCR, his left is already rummaging in the second drawer down, hunting for the contract...
It isn't necessary to kidnap a Getty in order to afford to make a video. All you need is a few ideas and a little cash, and it is perfectly feasible for any band or solo artist to make a visual record (if you'll pardon the pun) of their music. I know, because I've done it.
Obviously, the more money you have to spend, the more professional your video will seem. But it is certainly not compulsory to spend £350,000 on zombies rearing up out of graveyards, not to mention the difficulties involved in reviving Busby Berkeley to choreograph your dance routines.
In the same way that independent record labels can use their flexibility to outmanoeuvre the more conventional majors, so it is possible for do-it-yourself videos to challenge the glossy artifice of expensive promotional films. Tube-watchers may remember a video by the Geisha Girls, made to promote their single "I Am A Teapot". It cost around £300 to make, and was easily the funniest thing on TV all week. Shot in the front room of a council house and in the local park, it starred the Geisha Girls plus their mums, dads, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and even somebody's grandad all dancing about pretending to be teapots. Absolutely ridiculous and quite captivating – it made Adam Ant's "Puss-In-Boots" look like Panorama.
I have set an upper limit of £500 for doing-it-yourself videos. This may seem a bit high, but it's no more than the cost of a Portastudio. After all, if you intend to use your video to help land a recording deal you might just as well blow your cash on this one big effort (confidence is what you need), as commit your moolah to churning out endless demo tapes.
I must stress that this is an upper limit. The video I made with my band cost us just over £100, and could have been finished for less. The amount of money you spend should depend on how you intend to use the end product. If it is simply to act as a demo, then the visual quality need not be too high, as long as the ideas are good. Should you intend to show the tape in public, either on television (if you're lucky), in a nightclub, or on a chain of the increasingly popular video jukeboxes, it's necessary to go for the best quality available, which means using something known as High-Band U-matic. This will give you pictures of 'broadcast' standard.
"ere really like the single, are you doing a video..."
Before we go any further, it helps to have an understanding of the types of video-recording that you can work with, as there are many advantages and disadvantages associated with each. Each level employs different techniques, particularly for editing, which are easier to exploit if you know how they work; trial-and-error methods work with video, as it's simple to record over the mistakes, but it takes a long time learning how to avoid them.
The cheapest and most common type (he said snobbishly) is that used in domestic VCRs, be they VHS, Betamax, or V2000. The ½" width of the tape means that the magnetic information stored on it has to be crammed in very tightly, leaving no room for the niceties of perfect reproduction. That's why copying from one VT (jargon for "video tape") to another causes a rapid decline in quality; the signal stored on the tape isn't strong enough to prevent this degeneration.
Next step up from domestic video is U-matic. U-matic tapes are themselves divided up into High- and Low-Band, the unifying factor being that they still use cassettes of tape rather than open-reel. High-Band is expensive, and represents the bottom end of the 'broadcast' standard applied by the TV companies.
On average, High-Band equipment costs three times as much as Low-Band, so at £10,000 for a Low-Band camera, it's easy to see why you probably won't have a chance to work with High-Band. Low-Band U-matic runs on ¾" tape at a higher speed than VHS or Betamax. It's the lowest quality on which it is possible to edit professionally – using the facilities provided by editing 'suites' (this is jargon for equipment; it is not a reference to sofa and chairs for sitting on while editing).
There are other formats of VT, such as the 1" and 2" open-reel varieties used by the BBC. These give the best quality picture, but are so costly they are limited strictly to professional use. The best (for 'best', read 'most expensive') videos are shot on film which gives a greater depth of field than video tape, then edited down onto 2" tape prior to copying.
Given a choice between shooting your video on U-matic or domestic video, you should obviously opt for U-matic, both for its higher quality and for the greater facilities offered for production (editing, special effects, etc). But if you can't find access (more information concerning that later) to U-matic, you will have to settle for home video's lower standards. Some domestic VCRs can cope with a camera input (available for hire from around £25 per week from specialist shops – try Yellow Pages) but make sure you check the compatibility before parting with your fivers. These cameras plug into the VCR and record onto ordinary tape. Editing is done 'in the camera' by starting and stopping in the right places. This is known as 'assembly editing'. You are limited by the length of your lead (aren't we all?) as to the locations available for filming, which is a further problem. While you can do wonders with a couple of sheets hung behind the nascent video stars, outside shots are not on, unless you really want to see the group gambolling in the flowerbeds under the window. For more exotic locations (if the cable won't reach into the bathroom) you will require a portable camera and recorder. As with the ordinary camera, it might be possible to borrow this equipment for home video was a popular hobby for young executives two or three years ago. If no compliant member of the wealthy classes is available, they (the camera and recorder, that is) can be hired.
Hand-held cameras have an unpleasant tendency to wobble in their user's hands. As nothing becomes a home movie quite so much as this, it's sensible to rest the camera on something solid and stable. If no tripod is available a table or such-like will do – but make sure the edge of the balancing object is out of shot.
The assembly editing method requires a lot of pre-planning, as shots have to be accurately timed, and buttons pressed on cue with the music, otherwise it's back to the "On The Beach At Cromer" scenario, instead of the snappy and entertaining explication of your art that you had expected. A & R people may still be impressed by the idea of visual demos, but they can recognise incompetence when they see it.
Considerably less crude than assembly is the process known as 'crash-editing'. This involves plugging two VCRs together, and mixing from one (the slave) onto the other (the master).
This frees you to arrange your shots in any sequence you wish, even repeating movements over and over again (if that appeals to you). It is a basically simple process that is complicated by the machinery currently available. All videos have something known as "pre-roll". This is the name given to the eight or ten seconds of time that the VCR needs to settle down into smooth operation, before you can start recording. Because of this pre-roll, it's not possible to set up edits accurately on the spot – they have to be calculated with a ten second delay. This means that you have to hover over the pause button on the master, waiting for the desired sequence to appear, in order to drop in at the right place. If you get it slightly wrong, CRASH! This is the noise made by the sudden and unwelcome appearance of a glitch. Glitches are unpleasant little bastards that infest the surface of domestic video tape when you record a new signal from the slave on top of another signal already recorded on the master, a glitch invariably gets in the way for it is glitches that you see on the screen, causing the old picture to distort as it is over-ridden and replaced by the new one.
With a little practice, and careful timing of the pre-roll, crash-editing can look almost professional. And if you get it wrong and smear glitches over the screen, you can always rewind and try again.
All of the above applies if you cannot find U-matic gear to hire. With perseverance, you can produce a work of tolerable quality, both technically and aesthetically, although it will lack the special effects and accurate editing available on U-matic.
One application of low-definition domestic videos is suggested by their extensive use as coaching aids in sport. You can use your VHS tape to watch yourselves performing, which can be an enlightening experience. No more will guitarists pull such hideous faces during solos, once they have seen themselves in action; no more John Curry impressions from the bassist and I guarantee at least one member of the band will have his or her hair cut the week after seeing their fringe flopping limply about on screen.
I would not recommend spending large amounts of money on the hire of domestic video camera equipment. If you can borrow it, all well and good, as any experience with the medium is an advantage. Working on my group's video was the first time any of us had been exposed to the technicalities of visual recording; this inhibited our ideas at the start, which stopped us from making as much use of our available time.
By the end of that day, each of us felt we knew the capabilities of the medium, which in turn gave us many more ideas for camera angles, effects, and other excitements we hadn't known about before.
Our video was shot on Low-Band U-matic, and we had the luxury of an editing suite and special effects generator – aids which can bolster inadequately shot footage – but even these wonderful toys could not compensate for our initial lack of preparation. Experience of thinking in visual terms is invaluable.
Before you consider working with U-matic, you have to find somewhere that hires it out. Until a chance remark to a friend put me on the trail, I had no idea that facilities were available at less than commercial rates – which is where this article comes in. Having discovered cheap access to professional video facilities, I can't keep the secret to myself...
Community centres. Community centres are the miracle workers of cheap video: there are numerous places around the country which offer the use of cameras, lights, and editing suites at greatly reduced rates. Subsidies by local authorities, the Arts Council, and Channel 4 means that equipment is of a high standard, as is the training offered by the 'officers' in charge during the frequent courses.
Our video was completed with the help of the '33' Centre in Luton, so I can only speak of their set-up, but a list of centres providing similar services is in the British Film Industry Yearbook (see your local library), or available through your regional Arts Authority.
Obviously, you don't get something for nothing. The '33' Film & Video Group is funded by Channel 4, the Eastern Arts Authority, and by its own commercial ventures. It operates a three tier hire rate, ranging from members, who pay £20 p.a., through community projects, to commercial or full rate. In return for their annual subscription, members are entitled to ten hours per week free editing time, depending on availability. When you consider that the hourly commercial rate in some places is double '33's annual membership, it looks even more appetising. Members' hire rates for cameras etc are correspondingly lower as well, effectively reducing the costs of your musical "Ben Hur" to the price of tapes (you still have to buy something) plus a few pounds.
Now that you know where to do it, you can start wondering "how?". Next month's instalment won't quite reveal that, but it will tell you how not to; all that and more in your handy wash-and-wipe do-it-yourself video column, only in...
Feature by Jon Lewin
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