Rethinking a Workshop Presentation

This past weekend I gave a presentation at The Digital Artistry Workshop, held at our facilities at San Diego City College to coincide with Adobe MAX, an Adobe event being held this year in San Diego.  My presentation, a 2-hour 2-part seminar was on shooting video for still shooters.  In it I attempted to cover the world of serious video production as I had known and worked in it for over 20 years before coming here to teach photography.     

Following the workshop presentation, I’ve spent the weekend wrestling with a vague unease that although I know the material I presented was good (apart from whether or not it was presented well) I had a growing sense that it was not, in fact, what many of the participants, perhaps most of them, actually wanted or needed from that sort of venue.  I still think it is a viable topical outline for a full-on class, but for a short form presentation it was, I am coming to think, massive overkill.

So I re-contacted several video producers I have known, competed with, sometimes worked for, over the years and whom I still respect.  I had done that from the first and they dutifully answered my questions relative to the accuracy of the information.  But this time I changed the question to what I should have asked in the first place: what about the material’s relevancy to today’s crop of would-be filmmakers and video shooters. Whoa… different answers. Only a week ago their revised answers would have surprised me; this time they did not.  They saddened me for a loss to the industry but reality is reality despite our closely held delusions to the contrary.

While there may still remain some few who do have an interest in high quality serious filmmaking with all that still entails, the consensus was that due to the evolving technology (just as it has in the still world) the new digital video world is populated by people who perhaps started out wanting to make good stills professionally, or who were not even into photography but into design and web creation, but who have been asked by clients to provide video material.  On the web that is now the new gold standard for illustration for sales sites, service sites, for even agenda laden “documentary” sites.  But they are not being asked for what we old timers were required to produce.

We were: serious professional creators of high quality motion production on film or tape for a discriminating audience of clients whose major points of reference were the movies or broadcast TV. We were expected to produce even industrial and corporate programming to emulate that quality.  And we had the budgets that would allow us to do that.  Typically, in the Denver market which served clients from Canada to Mexico and from Kansas City to Salt Lake or even LA, our production budgets would START, for a low end video, at $1,000 per FRM (Finished Running Minute) with a minimum charge of about $5,000 to $6,000. 

The production side, that is the “principle photography,” was done pretty much the same for all levels: professional grade shooting and sound recording on professional grade equipment, made possible by a good experienced crew of at least 4 people.  Where things started adding to the cost were when we needed professional talent in front of the camera, careful scripting, special equipment such as a crane or Steadicam™, professional grade editing and sound design, additional animation or special graphics, etc..  Those additional elements put some major new pressure and requirements on the production itself but mostly on post production and had sometimes an enormous influence on the budget.

But that is NOT today’s world.  Too bad; we produced some stunningly beautiful programming even for the most banal and mundane of topics.  Even our corporate training productions looked like they were done by film crews out of LA.  We had good, experienced producers and directors, cinematographers, gaffers and grips all who understood the vision for the program being done and gave all of their talent to see it completed as well as it could possibly be.  For the most part, any mid-range corporate video could stand proudly next to the day’s TV shows in terms of quality.

Alas, in the immortal words of Roberto Duran… “No mas, no mas.”

To a degree that shocked me out of my delusional stupor, I have learned virtually overnight that a growing majority of video production is being requested by clients not of high level production companies, but from still photographers and even from graphic designers and website designers.  Increasingly business web sites are wanting video content to show off their products or services.  But they apparently have never seen a good, well produced industrial video; they’ve seen only the work produced by someone who thinks the “movie” button on their DSLR magically turns them into a filmmaker and that has become, sad to say, their point of reference. 

And because the results are not worth very much, those lowered expectations result in lowered budgets and clients are demanding video production for costs that we, in our day, would not have taken seriously much less been willing to work for. Our out-of-pocket production costs were considerably higher than the final charges are for much modern production being done here in the San Diego area.

That is not the entire world of video production, to be sure.  But just as the still photography world has dramatically changed in the age of digital acquisition, so has the technology changed the video world.  And it is not just that the production values have fallen, the “Fulfillment/Distribution” aspect has changed and with it the expected quality.  In the pre-2000 era, if you did not have a client who wanted your programming, you had no reasonable way of getting it seen.  If you wanted to do a movie, even a short feature, without some way to distribute it at least to appropriate festivals, again you had no reasonable way of getting it seen. You could make popcorn and show it to your awestruck friends in your man cave but that was about it…  

But today we have YouTube and Vimeo and other social media where you suddenly have a film festival consisting of a world wide audience available not just annually at some venue, but every hour of every day.  And you can get your work in front of them FOR FREE!!!  The Web master for a company can insert the video into the website and instantly it is viewable by the entire world: no more having to make and send out copies to sales personnel and special clients. And the resolution has only to be good for computer display, not for a 30 feet wide screen.

From concept to completion today’s world is a very different one with very lowered standards than the world in which I and most of my industry friends worked.  But it is the world from which the participants and audience for seminars and workshops on shooting video is drawn.  My presentation exhorting them toward the creation of high quality serious production might have been well made and presented, it might have been of intellectual interest to the audience, but it was not why they were there.  They were there, as my friend Jack Dinkmeyer, one of the best of the old school producer/directors noted, to hear how to make “simple videos” for minimal budgets for website or internet viewing.  Period.

They wanted, Jack noted, only to know what equipment they needed and where to get it.  Learning what cameras, tripods, microphones (and for the really serious ones, maybe lighting equipment), would suffice was their goal.  They wanted to know what it would take to create acceptable and useable footage, to record acceptable production and post production sound (e.g. for voice over narration), how to make any needed graphics, and where to find music they could use. The operative word was “acceptable.”  And finally they wanted to know how to do a simple edit of those pieces together and output it for their clients.  Our old-school questions were about what was going to give us the highest quality results.  Their current questions are limited to what is going to just get it done.

OK, to be fair, that may not have been true for ALL of them.  But in large measure that is what many of them wanted answered from me.  And to my discredit I didn’t do that.  It would never have occurred to me to do that as I had no experience with that level of production need.  I should have done more homework… I committed the too common sin of antiquated old fogies like me, I assumed today’s needs and wants would be the same as they were for me.  I knew that was not true in the still photo world but I did not understand it to be true in the film and video world as well.

Well I know now so it is back to the drawing board for an upcoming presentation on the same topic at The San Diego County Fair.  But this time I can hopefully give the audience what they need for the world in which they work today. 

I’ll save the serious stuff for the full class which we should be able to run next Fall at City College.  I still think it has major value for serious entrants expanding their (I hope) high end still work into the world of video production.  Technology has made that world available for incredibly reduced prices.  That should not be an excuse for reducing quality as well.  Compared to “our” day, colleagues like Jack Dinkmeyer, Jim Katzel, Jim Furrer, Paige Evans, Sheri Kaz, could now produce our quality of program for far less out of pocket costs.  They could be more efficient economically but not at the cost of reducing quality.

For example, my broadcast quality camera sold new for over $30,000 in the mid 1980s and the lens was just short of $9,000 with another few thousand going to batteries, tripods, cases, etc.  just to make it work.  Camera with lens was 26 pounds and the battery brick was another four pounds.  Today for well under $10,000 I can outshoot it frame for frame and do so with a less than 10 pound rig.  I no longer need a $2,000 tripod and head to carry and balance that sort of weight, plus I can buy a mini-jib/crane for well under $1,000 and even a workable substitute for a Steadicam for about the same price. In fact, used correctly, a good high-end DSLR such as the Canon 5D MK III or Mark IV can outshoot it and they are not even dedicated video cameras.

Professional grade video and sound editing applications are now available for desktop/laptop computers for astonishingly low prices compared to the major AVID(tm) and ADO(tm) systems I learned on (and are still around, by the way). The edit bay I used cost several hundred thousand dollars to create and editing was between $300 and $500 per hour.  We used to estimate that we would need an hour of editing for every finished minute of program… do the math.  But today, for really simple “slam together” needs, there are even a number of viable FREE editing programs available online.

It truly is a new world for motion capture and production.  My contention is that there is no reason to drop quality standards if – IF – you really know the processes involved and are willing to put ego aside and seek help.  Learn how to properly handle motion capture, learn the well established language and protocols of camera movements, learn that one-man-band operations are dangerous to final quality and budgets because who is going to tell you “No” when someone needs to.  I found that the collaborative process in motion production ALWAYS resulted in a better final product.  No one person can truly excel at ALL of the parts and besides, no one individual can physically perform all of the tasks required to be happening, often at the same time, without something falling through the cracks.

As Spock was fond of saying… “Fascinating.”

So now it is off to rethink and rewrite that presentation.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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