THE EQUIPMENT DILEMMA:
Modernizing Your Legal Videography Equipment Setup
By Bob Ketchum, CCV
The good thing about video technology is that everything gets better and cheaper. The bad thing is your investments may become obsolete before they are paid for. And it's also hard to share Equipment set ups with others if the equipment list keeps changing. Then there is the "tape editing vs. digital editing" issue. Do you use a tape editing system or go with one of the newer non-linear digital editors?
Obviously, cost is a major consideration in all of these areas. But legal video cannot be treated lightly. This is a serious business and attorneys do NOT have much of a sense of humor when it comes to their cases. Therefore, the legal videographer needs to not only keep up with technology but always be on the lookout for anything that enhances his or her professional relationship with their legal clients. In terms of gear that might be camcorders, microphones, lighting, and other associated items. As far a operating and editing systems, after you make the first hurdle (analog or digital format), the rest of your choices are easier.
First things first: Analog or Digital.
Five years ago this was a no-brainer. Digital video editing was a cost prohibitive route. Not only did you need to make the transition over to computer-based editing but you had to tackle a very steep (and expensive) learning curve. Today, things are much different. Digital video edit systems are not only cheaper and more user-friendly, but the costs of hard drives are dropping even as I write this article.
I have been using a digital non-linear editing system on all my video projects since 1995. Just to give you an example, I bought a 4-Gigabyte video hard drive in 1995 for about $500. It was good for storing about 15 minutes of compressed video. Today I can purchase a 75-Gigabyte drive for just under $400 and store almost five hours of similar footage. That is some savings! Camcorders have dropped drastically in price as well, and better, more efficient digital formats & features have been introduced in the past year.
Back In "Olden Times"
I never was a great supporter or believer of the VHS format. I don't care for the colors and anything after a second generation copy starts looking pretty bad, so I opted for the more professional ¾" format back in the early 1980's. I used a single-tube (remember those things?) camera which connected to a 18-pound portable ¾" recorder through a very fragile 6-foot multipin cable. Since the deck was portable it only allowed for Mini U-Matic tapes, which ran only 20 minutes per tape. For a deposition that might take a LOT of tapes, which were physically large and took up a lot of room in a case. Monitoring was done with a Sony 12" color TV. The only good thing was that the ¾" format had two separate audio channels so I could mic the witness and ask attorneys to exchange their single mic back and forth during the course of the deposition. Ah, the good ol' days…………. NOT!
I found a good deal on a used ¾" editing system. It consisted of two Sony editing decks and a RM-440 edit controller. I also needed two color monitors. The entire system was housed in a roll-around three-tiered equipment rack which stood about five feet tall and had a very large footprint. In other words it took up a lot of floor space in the studio. The main advantage over the less expensive VHS editing system was that ¾" was considered the broadcast standard of the day. VHS quality simply could not compare to ¾". Even considering the extended 2-hour capacity of VHS recording on location, I did not want to compromise the image quality. Although I was schlepping around a great deal of heavy equipment which was more expensive to operate and maintain, the picture quality of the final product to my client was well worth it. I NEVER had a single complaint about my video production. I was also supplementing my meager income with television commercial production, doing local TV spots for the cable outlet. And when it comes to broadcast production, the VHS format was unacceptable so having the ¾" was a definite plus in the "extra income" area.
Time Marches On
The technical revolution still hadn't emerged by the 80's, so newer professional TV and video gear was still financially out of reach for independent videographers.All I could afford at the time was a small NuMark VAM 2000 digital video mixer. It had three inputs and a single time base corrector (TBC), so you could mix between three video sources without worrying about synchronization issues. It also had on board a four input audio mixer which made it easier to produce a good sounding and cleanly edited final product. But in early 1992, things were about to change. A small company in Kansas called NewTek released an entirely new animal called the Video Toaster. It was a desk top video switcher with multiple inputs, a CG (Character Generator - or titler), A intuitive paint program, and even 3D modeling and rendering software. It all came housed in it's own computer mainframe and sold for under $4,000. I was one of the first to buy one. The first thing I noticed was that all my video projects (especially the TV commercials) looked so much more professional, thanks to the ability to create great looking graphics and titles.
Two years later the same company delivered another salvo to the professional broadcast equipment industry when they released the Video Flyer, a digital non-linear editor which accompanied the Toaster Switcher, and the Desktop Video Revolution had officially begun. From that moment on, it didn't make sense (to me) for a person just getting into video and editing to buy into a linear tape-based editing system. Even today, VHS editing systems cost between $2k and $5K by the time you purchase all the "extra's". Add a top of the line VHS camcorder (or two… or three) and you are spending a decent amount of money.
Also, by the time I got the Flyer, my poor camera was obsolete and sorely in need of replacing. Tubes had been replaced by chips in cameras and I needed to keep up with the technology, but I was still reluctant to buy into the VHS format. I finally decided to purchase a Hi8mm video camcorder, which is arguably similar to S-VHS. The Hi8 system not only offered composite video signal but also features an S-video output, which separates the various video components that make up the signal and makes for a much cleaner image. It wasn't quite as good as the ¾" but was the only affordable thing available at the time and it was much more portable and offered a two-hour recording time. Not to mention it was MUCH smaller and my travel pack dropped drastically.
Cut To Today
Although I have gone through several more camcorder purchases since the 80's I still use the trusty Video Toaster/Flyer for all my video editing. NewTek is about to release the newest PC-version of their fine editing tool, called (appropriately enough) the Video Toaster 2, or VT . This new super editor will once again raise the bar for all others to match when it comes to video editing. There are a lot of different systems out there today for you to choose from, and the costs are not too different to those of a good tape-based editing system. Yes, tape editing is certainly safer and more familiar to those of you who have never explored digital editing, but I think the handwriting is on the wall. You can do SO MUCH more with a digital system. For one thing, you can go back to the start of a one-hour edited program in the computer and change it completely, adding or deleting clips, audio, or graphics. You certainly can't do that with a tape-based editing system.
Plus, now there are so many applications for both PC and Mac users that it is fairly easy to get started. The learning curve isn't as steep as it was back in the 90's, and the newer generations of software are more user-friendly. It's as good a time as any to take the plunge.
For my main camcorder I now use the Sony DCR-VX1000 MiniDV digital Handycam. It is a three-chip camcorder which uses the MiniDV digital format. Tapes run for an hour and are physically smaller than the smallest analog tape format. The absolute beauty of digital video is NO DROPOUTS. The playback of a digitally recorded tape should look like what you saw through the viewfinder as you were shooting it. Say goodbye to little flecks of white in your picture or dust particles contaminating the video during recording. Another great feature of this camcorder is the color video viewfinder and two audio tracks. You can also shoot video stills which makes it easy to document accident locations or make various views of a wrecked vehicle. Many times a still image is required during a long period of narration in settlement documenteries. The VX-1000 is a perfect companion for stills and video.
Today there are several digital formats available in prosumer camcorders. I have also used the new Hi8mm digital camcorders with great success. They use standard Hi8mm videotape (available at WalMart) but record a digital signal onto the tape. Also, the successor to my camcorder is the new Sony Sony DCR-VX2000, which has a flip-out color LCD screen. This would be very handy for deposition work as you would not need an external color monitor. There is even one more model above the VX series, called the PD-150. It looks almost exactly like the VX2000 but has professional XLR microphone inputs and line/mic selectors with individual volume controls, among other enhancements. I love my VX1000 but I am looking hard at the PD-150.
So What Now?
At the risk of instantly becoming obsolete as this article comes out, I would now like to list my current Travel Pack. I am not an endorser for any of these manufacturers but I have learned through experience to trust their products. First of all, I keep an equipment checklist and go over it when I am packing up for a location shoot. Different shoots may require different gear, so I have a list for commercials, legal depositions, and music video productions. My "basic pack" is always ready to go. I have everything I need for event videography, wedding, and other single event jobs. The basic pack consists of:
Sony DCR-VX1000 MiniDV digital Handycam and AC power supply
Three extra Sony NP-F730 lithium ion batteries for camcorder
Citizen 3.5 inch LCD color monitor w/batteries and AC adaptor
A Bescor Semi-fisheye 0.42X wide angle conversion lens with macro
Azden 111A VHF wireless receiver
Azden 31LT VHF wireless belt pack transmitter and lavalier microphone
Sony ECM-K100 shotgun mic
12 MiniDV blank video tapes
6 extra 9V alkaline batteries
1 6-foot extension cord with three-way AC plugs
All of the above items fit nicely in a PortaBrace camera bag.
I also carry a Manifrotto fluid-head professional tripod and quick-mount adaptor for the camcorder.
Where's the Kitchen Sink?
My second travel bag contains the following gear and accessories for depositions and/or music performance video production:
(1) Behringer MX802A audio mixer (with 4 LowZ mic inputs)
(1) Pair Sony stereo earbud headphones
(4) Sony ECM-30 Low Impedence (LowZ) electret condenser lavalier microphones
(6) 12 ft. XLR LowZ microphone cables
(2) Shure A95U XLR-to- ¼" jack impedance transformers
(2) 20 ft. stereo cable with RCA's jacks
(4) RCA-to-RCA adapters
(2) ¼"-to-RCA jack adapters
(1) 8 ft. 1/8" Stereo Mini-phone plug to dual XLR plugs (with built-in impedance matcher for connecting LowZ audio direct to cameras EXT MIC input)
(2) ground-lift AC adapters
(1) RCA SK400 Transient Voltage Surge Protector
(1) Stereo ¼"-to- 1/8" stereo mini-jack
(2) "y" cables (male RCA to dual female RCA)
(2) "y" cables (male ¼" to dual female ¼")
(1) Leatherman multipurpose tool
(4) climber's pinon clamps (useful for cable runs)
(2) roll red duct tape (for blocking stage markers)
(1) roll gray duct tape (for everything else)
(1) bottle aspirin
(1) roll Wintergreen mints
(1) pair of foam ear plugs
Go ahead and laugh, but those aspirin, mints and ear plugs can really come in handy sometimes! I also have a folding backdrop and black cloth fabric which I take with me to depositions. Most of the time my client has a nice conference room with floor to ceiling bookshelves which makes a nice backdrop for talking head shots and depositions, but don't count on it. Nothing detracts from the subject at hand more than a "busy" background or window with traffic going by. Also, if you always use the black backdrop you maintain continuity for ALL your footage.
My second unit is a Sony CCD-VX3 Himm camcorder. I use it for two-camera shoots and sync the footage from the two cameras up in post production. I also have a Stedicam JR motion stabilization system for the VX3. It can be changed over to the VX1000 in a matter of minutes. Since both the cameras are Sony and use the same chips and camera lens configuration the depth of field, color matching and relative light levels are compatible for a seamless transition from one camera to the other in post production.
For the past several years my settlement documentary projects have increased remarkably. I attribute that to (1) being an AGCV member, (2) Maintaining a solid professional reputation and a good video track record, and (3) settlement documentaries are being accepted into legal procedure more and more. Having the ability to shoot two cameras on location and sync everything up later helps a lot. I could do it with an A/B roll tape editing system, but I save so much time placing all the footage into the computer and creating any number of different videos out of the same material. Not to mention change any part of it in a non-destructive manner. You say you need some forensics animation depicting the auto wreck? "No problem, let me whip it out here in LightWave 3D." The more you can offer your legal clients, the more they will rely on you in future projects together.