It’s the halfway point in the semester, so I thought this would be a good time to report on the video course I am teaching. Video has always been part of the Visual Communications sequence here at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. But until the spring 2009 semester, we’ve always incorporated video into our other VisCom courses — a little in the Introduction to Visual Communications course, a little in the two Photovisual Communications courses, and a little in the Graphic Design course.
Over time, however, it became clear that we needed a stand-alone video course, one that would cover significantly different material from what the school’s broadcast majors learn.
Developing the Course
So, the VisCom faculty got together last spring to design an experimental course that would introduce students to the tools and techniques needed to create videos for mass media outside the traditional broadcast realm, such as the Web. Over the summer, I attended a week-long Video for Teachers program at the Maine Media Workshops, which taught me about video and audio equipment, designing lesson plans and assignments, and using Final Cut Pro.
Last fall, we put the finishing touches on our course, which is called Videography for Mass Communications.
The first challenge of actually teaching the course was to assess the skill level of the students. Because this is an experimental course, we decided not to have prerequisites — the course was open to any student in the journalism school.
As it turned out, most of the students who registered were Visual Communications majors, many had had some experience shooting video, and a few were familiar with Final Cut Pro. In one of the semester’s first classes, I made sure every student got a hands-on demonstration of our Sony PD170 cameras: how to attach the camera securely to the tripod; how to use the manual settings for iris, shutter, and focus; and how to determine correct exposure using zebra lines.
I also decided, based on an exercise we did in Maine, to focus the first assignment solely on camera use and basic storytelling — editing would be done in camera, meaning we would see exactly what the students shot, and there would be no audio or text.
For their first assignment, the students, working in groups of four, had to create a two-minute video that would teach viewers how to perform a simple task. In my assignment description, I used the example of changing a flat tire.
Suppose you got a flat tire on a back road, miles from the nearest service station. You have no cell-phone reception, and the instruction manual for changing a tire is missing. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to watch a short video on your iPhone showing the step-by-step process for changing a tire?
This assignment, although simple, had many learning outcomes. First, it forced the students to zero in on a narrowly focused topic. Second, it made them break the topic down into a sequence of actions that could be captured on video. Third, it showed them the value of having a written shot list. Fourth, it made them convey all the information visually, using no audio or text. And fifth, it introduced the students to a few basic Final Cut Pro techniques—capturing video from the camera, placing a clip in the timeline, and using QuickTime compression—without having them delve into all the complexities of the software.
Two of the groups chose cooking as their topic—how to bake cookies, and how to make 30-minute enchiladas. One group showed step-by-step instructions for doing your laundry, and one group demonstrated how to dye your hair. You can view the results on YouTube.
We learned many important things from watching the results of this assignment. First, having no audio directs our undivided attention to the video. Consequently, we notice any and all glitches in camera technique, especially camera instability and overuse of pans and zooms. Second, compressing a 30-minute task into two minutes of video requires a cinematic technique for showing the passage of time. In other words, the students needed to come up with a way to show the audience that time had elapsed between shots.
One method was to have the actor briefly doing something else while she waited for her clothes to finish washing or her hair dye to work. Another was to show a timer being set on the oven as the cookies or enchiladas were put in to bake.
Finally, we learned that even a short, simple video needs a well-defined story arc to give the audience a sense of fulfillment. The cooking videos set up the expectation that we would see the finished product at the end — and indeed we did. The other two videos suggested that we would see the completed task — a pile of clean, folded laundry; a young woman with a new hairdo. But instead, they had inconclusive endings, and this was not as satisfactory.
Adding audio to video creates additional challenges, including how to mic your subject so what he or she says is clear and understandable. We are fortunate to have a variety of sound-recording equipment available for our students, including wired and wireless lavalieres, a boom-microphone kit, and a digital recorder. We also invested in several sets of high-quality earphones, so the student monitoring the sound can hear exactly what the camera is recording — another valuable tip I learned in Maine.
To show the students how to use all of this equipment, I recreated an in-class demonstration developed by Ken Kobré, professor of photojournalism at San Francisco State University. The demonstration involves using different types of microphones to record a subject, first with no additional background noise and then with a surrounding “Greek chorus” of people talking to each other and in groups.
We shot the initial sequence using just the video camera’s on-camera microphone. The result clearly demonstrated the microphone’s main drawback — it doesn’t discriminate between sound sources, so the subject was easily drowned out by the Greek chorus. We then tried the other microphones and discussed the pros and cons of each — the lavalieres and boom microphone outperformed the on-camera mic, but the lavalieres are hard to hide and sometimes pick up the rustling of clothing, and the boom requires a second pair of hands.
This demonstration prepared the students for their second assignment, which was to shoot a short personality profile. When we get back from spring break, the groups will put the finishing touches on their profiles and post them to YouTube.
The third major subject we tackled during the first half of the semester was lighting. Many of my video students have not yet taken our Advanced Photovisual Communications course, where lighting is covered in depth. So I did a crash course in lighting concepts, explaining hard vs. soft light, directionality, intensity, and light color. I then demonstrated the use of our two lighting kits—a Lowel hot-light kit and Lowel daylight fluorescent kit.
Because getting used to all this unfamiliar equipment can be daunting, I suggested the students look for sources of great natural light, such as a large window or a shady outdoor area, and to use reflectors for fill lighting — there is often no need to set up additional equipment. Video cameras can capture an image in low-light situations, so we generally use additional lighting to adjust the quality, rather than the quantity, of the light.
Finally, I recommended to my students Russ Lowel’s book “Matters of Light and Depth,” the best resource for understanding purposeful lighting for both photography and videography.
Armed with these new tools and techniques, our students are now ready to continue their exploration of video during the second half of the semester. Stay tuned!