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Shooting Good Video
by Prof. Jim Lengel, Boston University College of Communication

With the arrival of broadband connections in homes and schools, the growing availability of digital video (DV) camcorders, and the improvement of video editing software, we see more and more students and teachers using video as part of their computer and Web projects. I've seen third-graders explain the metamorphosis of a caterpillar with a narrated video. I've seen high-schoolers shoot and edit complex dramatic history stories with dozens of scenes. I've visited schools where digital video production courses are a growing part of the formal curriculum. They're using iMovie, Windows Movie Maker, Pinnacle DV, and Final Cut video editing software, with the computer as the development platform, and output to videotape, DVD, CD-ROM, and the Web.

Suddenly the generation that has grown up with six hours a day of television is enabled by new technologies to produce and distribute their own media. And many teachers are capitalizing on all this to use video production to strengthen learning.

While the kids tend to be facile with the computer and the editing software, they often ignore the quality of the video they are editing. We've all seen examples of good content, excellent cutting and titling and transitions, but with video that's tough to see, hard to hear, and not professional-looking. This article provides some practical advice on getting good video into your editing program. It won't teach you to be a videographer, but it should serve to improve those educational video projects.

No matter what kind of camera you use, or which video editor on your computer, following these guidelines for lighting, composition, audio, and retakes will get you started in the right direction.


You should make a list of the shots you need for your video project, along with the purpose and setting for each one. You don't need a detailed script, but you should prepare an outline of the images and sounds and voices that you need. Share this outline with the people you are shooting in advance of the session.


Make sure the subject is well-lit, preferably from behind the camera. Light from the side that creates interesting shadows on the subject, will provide video that shows off facial expressions, color and texture better than light from directly above or straight on. Indoors, you may want to use an extra light - any light will do - that shines from the side onto your subject. Classroom fluorescent lights in the ceiling can provide some light, but their color and location is not the best for video. Supplement these with an incandescent lamp at the side and you'll get better video.


Use a tripod if possible for all of your shooting. A tripod makes a bigger difference than you might think. Steady video is easier to watch, and compresses better for the Web. Carefully frame your shot in the viewfinder from the tripod before you start recording. Zoom in for as tight a shot as you can get. Don't be afraid to let the subject fill the viewfinder - if it's an interview, experiment with a shot that only shows the face. Keep the clips short and active. Avoid rapid pans and zooms. Unless you are trying to create a mood of activity and confusion, keep the background simple.


If you are recording an interview, use an external microphone placed near the speaker's mouth. Pin the mike to the subject's shirt, or have an assistant hold the mike for you just off-camera. You can get a small microphone from your local video or electronic store - a standard inexpensive microphone with a one-eighth inch phone plug will suffice. Connect the microphone to the microphone jack of the camcorder. If it's impossible to use a microphone, shoot from less than three feet away and tell the subject to speak loudly toward the built-in microphone in the camcorder. You can assure the quality of your audio by monitoring it, using standard headphones connected to the camcorder's headphone jack.


After you've shot the clip, and while the subjects are still available, rewind the tape to watch (also listen to) what you've just recorded. If it's not 100% what you need, shoot it again. It's OK to shoot the same scene several times and pick the best clip later. In fact, you might try shooting from a different angle, with different lighting, or with a new form of composition, so you have some choices when it comes time to edit the video. It's a lot easier to shoot the additional takes now than to try and recreate the shot another day. Always start the camera recording at least five seconds before you start the action, and let it run for five seconds after you're done.

Shooting Video

Now, you are ready to shoot the video clips for your project. You don't need long and involved clips for most educational projects. As you begin your movie-making career, it's best to make a short video rather than an hour-long documentary. A movie of two to three minutes is long enough to tell your story and to practice all of the capabilities of the editing software. This means planning and shooting brief, well-defined clips. And make sure you have a fresh DV cartridge, cued to a blank place on the tape, before you press the record button. If your camera is not wired to the electricity, make sure the battery is charged. Then follow these steps:

  1. Look carefully at your storyboard or shot list to see exactly the clips you will need. Note how long the clips should be.
  2. Mount the camcorder on a tripod and connect the microphone.
  3. Set up the scene and instruct any actors on what will be happening.
  4. Set the camera to the Camera setting and remove the lens cover.
  5. Press the record button to start the recording.
  6. Wait five seconds and begin the action.
  7. While recording, keep quiet and don't touch the camera or tripod.
  8. Press the record button to stop the recording.
  9. Switch the camera to the VTR setting, and rewind the tape.
  10. Press the play button and review what you shot.
  11. If you are happy with the results, stop the tape at the end of the clip and set up your next scene.
  12. If you are not 100% satisfied, set up the scene and shoot it again.

Follow these simple guidelines, and you'll be surprised with how much better your video can be.

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