At Home with Tech

Figure out which consumer tech you need, the right gear to buy and how to use your new gadgets.

Tag: YouTube

Eight Steps to Better Home Video Production

Once upon a time, you were pretty special if you shot and edited video as a hobby. The gear was expensive. The technology was limited. And it was hard to do a good job. It was truly a labor of love.
(I can only imagine how difficult it was during my father’s generation, shooting home movies with Super 8 film.)

Today, all that’s changed.
Shooting a video is as easy as turning on the kitchen faucet.
Every camera and smartphone you buy has HD video capability.

And who needs to edit anymore?
If your device has web connectivity, just upload a clip instantly to your favorite social media site.

Bam!
You’re done.

So it’s no surprise that home-generated content is gushing like a geyser into YouTube every day.

Technology has democratized the video medium.
Even my toddler knows how to shoot a video.
(Just push the red button.)

The Red Button
It’s amazing that pressing the record button is now really all you need to know.

But maybe you’d like to create a video that doesn’t look like my toddler shot it.  Sure, there are tried-and-true production tips to follow, but today, most everyone has thrown the rulebook out the window.

‘Experts’ say today it’s all about the content.
Nobody cares if the shot’s a tad shaky and out of focus.
A little cinema vérité is good for the soul.
If it’s funny… or compelling… or goes viral, who cares what it looks like?!

That said…
There are still people who have this crazy notion to create a more professional-looking product.

I’m one of the few, because of my background in video production.
I can’t not try for the perfect shot.

Last night at dinner, I watched my toddler help himself to two huge servings of greens out of our big salad bowl, using oversized wooden spoons.
I whipped out my pocket camera and started shooting, but missed a good portion of the moment.

I stood there in anticipation of round two.
He usually likes to repeat new accomplishments.
(What toddler wouldn’t want to keep piling it on?)
He grinned at me as I pointed the camera at him.
Nothing.

I said, “Would you like to give yourself more salad?”
His smile broadened, because he knew what I was doing.
“No!!” He chirped with glee.
I would have to be satisfied with the ‘one-take’ moment.

..but I digress.

The Eight Steps To Improving Your Home Video Production

In what appears like a natural backlash to the ‘anything goes’ video mindset,
some of my friends are suddenly more serious about creating better videos.
(for both personal and professional use)

Here are a few production tips and shortcuts, as well as some home-grown suggested purchases to amp up the quality of your little cinematic masterpieces.

1.  Pocket camera or DSLR?
Either will get the job done from a visual standpoint, unless for artistic reasons you need the better lens on a DSLR.
The question is which camera gives you the best audio?
If you plug in an external microphone, that choice will easily give you cleaner sound.
But unless you’re using a newer DSLR, you probably don’t have an audio input on your camera to connect your microphone.
So in that case, just go with the better onboard camera mic.

2.  Audio
As I just said, using an external microphone will get you the best audio.
But don’t worry if you can’t do it.
Just keep your camera close to your subject and make sure there’s not a lot of extraneous noise about.
(example: toddler singing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” in the hallway)

3.  Tripod
Unless your video is an action-oriented vignette with lots of movement,
please use a tripod.
I know many people don’t, but trust me… your video will look better if your camera isn’t bouncing about in your hand.
You can pick up a little desk tripod for less than twenty bucks.
(I’m partial to Joby Gorillapods.)

4.  Lighting
This is a really big issue to keep in mind…

Always keep the main light in front of you.
If you’re inside and there’s a window behind your subject, that will create a giant bright spot.
(That’s bad.)
((Move your shot away from the window.))

Beware of shadows.
If you’re just using an overhead light, that scenario will create deep shadows under your subject’s eyes.
(That’s also bad.)
((Remember, keep the light in front of your subject!))

If you want to get fancy, move your front-facing light source off to the side a bit.
This will create a soft shadow on one side of the face.
(That’s usually a good thing.)
Totally even lighting can look flat.

The good news is your lighting source doesn’t have to be high-end professional gear.
All consumer cameras today do much better in low light than their analog ancestors. That said, you’ve got to give your camera some light to work with. Otherwise, your image will look noisy as your camera struggles to compensate.

A garden-variety bright light bulb with decent white diffusion is a good place to start. But remember to keep your lighting ‘soft.’ No spot lights, please.
(I picked up a simple $14.99 lamp from Bed Bath & Beyond.)

Another option is to use the natural light from that window I just told you to keep out of your shot.
(which means flipping your set-up, so the window is in front of your subject)

Finally, don’t combine both indoor and outside light.
It’s like ‘crossing the streams’ in the movie “Ghostbusters”
Without going into a much longer discussion, just know that using both light sources will confuse your camera and mess up the colors in your shot.

5.  Background
If you’re shooting a talking head, you’ve got to choose something for your background that’s appropriate to the topic.
While inside your home, you should select a neutral space that’s not overly busy.
A messy bookcase is not a good example.
(unless you’re talking about messy bookcases)
An easy solution around this problem is to buy a large roll of paper for your background.
(Think of it as the ultimate in neutral!)
I bought a five-foot roll of white paper for $22.50 to obscure an otherwise unattractive home office shot.

6.  Teleprompter
For most people, talking naturally, clearly and concisely to the camera is not an easy task.
Instead of struggling through multiple takes till you get it right, I suggest writing down what you want to say and then using a tool used by both TV pros and politicians alike… a teleprompter!

Now, I know professional teleprompter systems cost thousands of dollars, but don’t despair.

If you’ve got an iPad, you’re only a few dollars away from owning your very first teleprompter.

There are numerous software choices available in Apple’s App Store.
I invested $2.99 on Quick Teleprompter.

There are more expensive options out there as well as a few free ones.
But shouldn’t you always have to spend a few bucks on good utility or business app?
(‘Free’ makes me wonder what the catch is.)

‘Quick Teleprompter’ gets the job done just fine!

There is one caveat to this particular production shortcut…
The way $2.99 and an iPad get you a working teleprompter is by placing your iPad just underneath your camera and then reading your script near the top of the iPad screen.
(This technique reduces the distance between the words and the camera lens.)

It’s a critical issue, because the further your eyes are from the camera’s lens, the more obvious it is you’re reading a script.
(It’s also annoying to watch someone when they’re not talking directly to the camera.)

Professional teleprompters use glass and mirror systems that place the script directly in front of the camera’s lens. So viewers always feels you’re looking right at them, and most don’t even realize you’re reading.

All this said, the iPad teleprompter solution works reasonably well, as long as you don’t forget to keep your eyes as close to the camera lens as possible.

7.  Length
This is easy.
Just keep your video short.
Assume the entire world has a very short attention span.
It does…
(So you’re likely going to need to do some editing.)

8.  Content
If you’re the star of your show, you’ll need to demonstrate some interest in your topic… and don’t overdo it. Just be yourself.
And if you can enjoy yourself a bit, all the better.
I guarantee your audience will pick up on your good vibes.

Practice Makes Perfect
Like most anything else, you’ll learn by doing.
And a $44 production budget shouldn’t burst your bank account!

Here’s your shopping list:
Gorrllia Pod Tripod -$18.25
Quick Teleprompter – $2.99
White Seamless Roll – $22.50

Now get to work…

Lights, Camera, Action!

I Am a Road Warrior

My essential gear stands ready for the morning commute. All systems are go!

I can see the technology police in my rear view mirror.
They’re never far behind.

Take heed of this story, which reminds me of man’s failed journey
back to the moon.
Dramatic advances in technology have not made returning there any easier.
Let me explain…

Before Thunderdome
I am a road warrior.
Or to be more precise, a Metro-North train commuter.

Let’s just say once upon a time I was cast out of paradise. And I now have a daily eighty minute work-commute to New York City.

Not that I’m complaining. When I board the packed train every morning, I walk past commuters with even longer commutes. But I can’t avoid the reality that my nights are now shorter because of my daily trek.

As a result, my 42” Plasma TV is mostly dark on weeknights.
My pride and joy from three years ago no longer serves up the majority of my media consumption.

What’s a healthy, red-blooded American TV viewer to do?

The silver lining to a long commute is converting the two hours of uninterrupted train void into something useful. Some people read. Others sleep.  I like to catch up on the TV I’m no longer watching at home.

How does that work, exactly, as I nimbly sit between two other commuters, (in the dreaded center seat) traveling seventy miles an hour on track three?

Maybe there’s an app for that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the ‘Preapplenary’ Dinosaur Era, without the conveniences of smartphone tech, I had it all figured it all out. Back then, I was moving my TV recordings like magic for mobile consumption onto my little DVD player.

My favorite TV shows were captured by my Panasonic DVR/DVD recorder. The shows were recorded first to its hard drive, and then transferred via a built-in, high-speed process to re-recordable DVDs (how environmentally friendly of me). Within fifteen minutes or so, I could prep six hours of mobile TV to take with me for the week on the train. No computer required.

I took my nimble Panasonic 7” DVD player that fit comfortably in my soft briefcase, and when I set myself up in my train seat complete with Bose noise cancelling headsets, people looked at me like I had invented cold fusion.

I was a mobile tech god, and feeling very much invincible.

Wrath of the Titans
Technology is supposed to make your life easier. And here I was, happily keeping up with all my favorite shows. What could be better?

Technology is always evolving.
And sometimes that can be a problem, when everything is already perfect.
Especially when there’s business profit on the line.

One rainy day a couple years ago, it was clear I had angered the technology gods, and a whole bunch of their lawyers.

First, Panasonic and other manufacturers of TV recorders with hard drives suddenly stopped making them.
“No more demand for the product,” they said.
I say, “All that free media copying. Very bad. You should be buying it. “

DVD recorders (sans DVR) were allowed to keep living, but I found their usefulness limited. You’re forced to constantly pay attention to how much space is left on a DVD and then swap it out every six hours. Or else your last-episode-of-the-season recording doesn’t happen. It’s back to the nightmare days of programming your old VCR. What a pain!

The killer blow came via my friendly cable company.
Cablevision, like all patriotic American companies, has a right to protect its product from being stolen. So they, like other cable companies, had been scrambling many of their channels to prevent people from illegally sampling all the programming goodness without renting a cable box. I have no problem with that.

The spigot began closing, and one day, my Panasonic DVR/DVD recorder just saw blue. Blue on every channel. Nothing but blue.

Yeah, I was blue. And a whole lot of other colors.
It wasn’t like I was trying to steal anything. I was paying Cablevision a pretty penny every month. But I was breaking the law.

You may ask, “Why not just have my recorder drink from the free digital broadcast stream in the sky?”
I’ve got bad reception at home. D’oh!

Wait a minute! I also had a built in DVR in my cable box! Couldn’t I still legally transfer my shows to my blue brick? Sure. But there’s a catch-
It’s real time transfer. No more high speed. That old technology is now illegal.

That slowed down the DVD transfer from fifteen minutes to six hours!
What commuter has time for that?

So after my glorious and free media age of agility, all my recorded media became imprisoned safely and legally back at home in my cable box.

What’s a road warrior to do?

I hate admitting this, but my solution was to simply lick my wounds and go cold turkey on my TV shows. Instead, I decided to focus on all the movies I was missing at the local multiplex. (As a new parent, I hear this is typical.)
As I was already a Netflix subscriber, I loaded up my movie cue and began packing the red envelope as a part of my standard travel kit.

Digital Xanadu
Now don’t get me wrong. Technology hasn’t abandoned the mobile viewer. Not one bit. There are plenty of options available today to facilitate mobile media viewing.

The problem is each solution has an added cost associated with it.
And I’d prefer not to pay for my TV shows a second time just to watch them outside the immediate vicinity of my home entertainment center.
I feel once is plenty, thank you very much.

All this said, here are some of your choices:

iTunes
This is what you’re supposed to do. It’s easy. It works. It’s fast. Perfect.
Of course, you’re paying $1.99 or $2.99 (HD) a pop for an episode of your favorite TV series. (Apple used to rent out episodes, but
they killed that option last summer.)
Yes, I’ve bought TV episodes via iTunes and quickly transferred the content to my iPhone, but I don’t fancy the idea of owning lots of memory-heavy episodes I only intend to watch once.

DVD Box Sets
You can always buy DVD box sets of your favorite TV series. But waiting months later to watch the most recent season brings new meaning to the concept of patience. Plus water cooler chat will ruin most of the good stuff before you get to it.

TiVo
I really want to buy a TiVo box.
(The prices have really come down, starting at $150, plus the $15 monthly service plan.) But I don’t own one precisely because all of its content can’t be easily transferred for portable viewing. Once upon a time, TiVo made their boxes with a DVD recorder built in. No more. Remember, that’s illegal.

Now, they’ve got something ‘better.’
It’s the one-two-three TivoToGo service, which allows you to transfer your TV recordings from a network-connected TiVo to your computer via TiVo Desktop Software. Then you compress the files for your smartphone via a program called Toast. Finally, you upload the file to your portable device.

“Yoi, Ishta Nem!”
(My mother would utter this phrase learned from her Hungarian relatives for times of complete frustration.)

So TiVo has taken my two-minute solution and created a several hour process. Ludicrous!

EyeTV HD
This is a little $200 DVR that bridges your cable box to your Mac, where you can watch and convert programming to iTunes. This seems relatively straight forward, but I’m still not too psyched to be using my computer as a prep station to route my TV shows to my iPhone. That’s still more work than I want to put in.
Pass.

YouTube
Yes, I know it’s built into my iPhone, and yes I’ve successfully watched its short form programming while on the train. But I never considered the 3G stream would hold up for 30 or 60 minutes. That said…

HBO GO
I tried a new service this week that a reader let me know had finally come to Cablevision subscribers- HBO GO.
All that HBO programming I never have time to watch. On demand. On my iPhone. Would full episodes really work over 3G? On a moving train, passing through black holes of cell phone coverage.

It did!

Now, it wasn’t perfect, and the picture did stall occasionally, requiring me to reload. But I am still very impressed.

Wow. This feels like a game changer. And it doesn’t cost any more!
(You have to already be an HBO subscriber.)

Slingbox
Now that I’ve realized 3G streaming while commuting actually works (mostly), I have a renewed interest in a box that’s been around for a few years called Slingbox.
This $180 device connects to your cable box or DVD recorder and then to your home network, creating a video stream to the web. Like a virtual universal remote, it can control your recorded programming (or live TV) for display on your mobile device via a download called SlingPlayer Mobile. ($30) There’s also a HD version of the box, but I’m not sure I’d want/need HD with 3G.

It seems almost too good to be true. And the product isn’t something I hear about a lot. Nor are retailers like Best Buy pushing it. So this device clearly hasn’t gone mainstream yet. (no pun intended)
But it’s gotten decent reviews. Maybe… just maybe, this could be my magic bullet.
I may just have to try this out one day soon.
Stay tuned…

The Dream Stream Won’t be Forever Free
It’s still sinking in. So now I don’t have to take my shows with me? They’re always out there waiting for me?  There’s even a Hulu Plus app?!
(yes, subscription required)

I know my newly realized mobile media dream solution has one fatal flaw. And I’ll soon be on the wrong side of the law again. I’ll be sucking too much bandwidth out of my all-you-can-eat data plan from AT&T Wireless. Their newer data plans already have caps, after which hefty charges are assigned to your monthly bill (ticket).

I know it’s just a matter of time before it suddenly becomes a technology crime to stream like this for free. My iPhone’s portal is gonna get locked down, and they’re throwin’ away the key. No doubt about it.

Until then, I’ve decided to make the most of it. I should commute like there’s no tomorrow! Maybe even sport a new iPad with Retina Display and 4G LTE.

Riding the speeding train with my full cup.
Drunk with the satisfaction that for now, technology has once again made my life just a little bit better.

Drink. Drink, like there’s no tomorrow!

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