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Visual environments: simple video production techniques.

VISUAL ENVIRONMENTS: Simple Video Production Techniques

In the '50s and '60s children grew up being socialized and entertained by television. By the '70s television was being used as an electronic teacher. Now children and young adults need a greater understanding of how video images shape ideas. They also want to do things with television. With a little help students can learn to use this medium to think independently and express themselves.

Television viewing and television production are parallel processes. The omnipresent technology (VCRs and camcorders seem to be everywhere) is allowing a large cross section of Americans to pick up a video camera and explore the conventions of the medium.

New technology increasingly allows the user to shape what happens on the TV screen. In addition, the research suggests that learning the processes involved (in producing video programming) helps students become more intelligent video consumers at home. It also helps them visually express their thoughts and experiences at school.

When students learn to use the technology as an extension of themselves they take a measure of control over the medium and their video-intensive environment. Creating in video requires some knowledge and skill of basic video production techniques. This means some understanding of how to use sound, music, lighting, editing, camera angles and visual composition.

Using a video camera

To begin with, students can examine quality TV programs, films, photographs and paintings to understand how visual artists create images. This helps them understand some of the philosophy behind frame composition.

Holding the video camera steady is still the biggest problem for the amateur. The video will look like old home movies if the camera is allowed to bounce around. Learning how to get a steady shot by bracing the camera or using a tripod is one of the first lessons in camera work.

Figuring zones of coverage and how cameras and people should move is another common difficulty for students new to video production. You usually move the video camera up or down, right or left, but not both in the same shot. It is important that students realize that the camera should not be moved without a reason.

It is also important to teach students how to pan, tilt and zoom. A panoramic, or pan shot, is a horizontal move of the camera. A tilt shot goes up or down. (Tilt up, pause, change camera angle, and tilt down is an effective technique for beginners.) One way to zoom is to start with a long shot to establish location and then zoom in. More advanced students can try to cover the zoom with a movement of either the subject or the camera. Even though it is rarely done on American television, it's better aesthetically to hid the zoom.


Using lighting in video production is like using brushstrokes in a painting. One excellent exercise before shooting is to have students examine how light is used by painters and photographers to heighten the intensity of a scene. When combined with good composition, good lighting can help the video maker at any level paint a powerful vision.

Lights are nothing more than a source of illumination--it's what you do with them that counts. While a diffuse light can make a subject look dull, too much shadow can add too much mystery.

Most video producers tend to overlight--because the cameras of yesteryear needed it. New cameras and camcorders allow you to cut the light intensity. Leaving some dark places lends mystery, adds interest, helps tell the story, and reveals a great deal about a picture. Reflector boards can pick up natural light and illuminate faces.

A simple rule of thumb for beginners is if it looks bad to the naked eye (which is more forgiving) then it is bound to look bad on camera. And throwing almost any kind of light on the subject can help a little. If you can get some kind of natural light--from the window or whatever--it helps a lot. Reflector boards, tinfoil or a mirror can bounce light around the room--or off the ceiling or wall. Even a white tablecloth can reflect light up into someone's face.


Sound without pictures is radio. And pictures without sound are "technical difficulties." Sound can be used to set the mood of a scene, to aid in transitions and to restore a certain dramatic equilibrium. Most of the time sound is added in the post-production phase. A simple cassette recorder can be plugged into your VCR or video editor to add new sounds.

More advanced video producers don't just use the automatic one-dimensional microphone in the video camera or camcorder. They often use a shotgun or lapel (tie pin) microphone. If you place a shotgun microphone a foot and a half in front of and above the subject, you can get good sound. Varying the sound levels can add drama.

A lapel (tie pin) microphone also produces good sound. It is placed on the outside of clothing and worn twelve to fourteen inches below the neck. Encourage students to look out for noise from necklaces, silk ties or metal material. Any metal on metal sound is a problem. Even a hum in the lighting or an air conditioner can sound much louder on a videotape.

If more than one person is involved in speaking you can have them hand the microphone back and forth. A recording mixer simply takes sound from several audio channels and mixes them. Some advanced school production classes even use dialogue replacement when they do the audio portion in a loud situation. Sometimes you can even do the sound better after the video is finished and you have a quiet room.

Some children seem to believe that actors make up what's said as they go along. They don't. Writing a full video treatment of any fictional or non-fictional subject involves the basic idea, the characterizations, the story structure, the creation of scenes and assembly of scene elements to tell the story. The specific structure of each scene should be listed in terms of visual and aural details.


Students can learn to approach video production as an artist approaches a painting. What colors do they end up putting on canvas, and why? Using the powerful images that they (or others) create can encourage novice producers to challenge ideas that are taken for granted about how both the technology and the world works.

It is essential to plan how the editing will be done before shooting. When even lighting is used with a two or three camera setup, editing becomes simpler. Multiple cameras make it easier--if less interesting--to get coverage. A single camera facilitates mobility.

Many of the new inexpensive camcorders allow for smooth transfer of scenes to a VCR. Less desirable is simply hooking two VCRs together and transferring the scenes you want. It's better to use an editor--whether the cheap or expensive variety.

Classical Hollywood editing is the most familiar editing style. This is commonly thought of as shot 1, shot 2, shot 3, etc. The classical Hollywood style is the medium shot, long shot and close-up shot.

Montage editing can be described as a visual language of conflict between images that crash together. Many commercials use this technique originally developed by Sergi Eisenstein.

Mise en scene is an editing technique involving camera movement. Here you move the camera rather than making a cut. This style of editing involves long takes where the actors develop scenes.

Directors may use different editing styles for different films. Woody Allen, for example, used the classical Hollywood style in Annie Hall, the montage style of cut, cut, cut in Sleeper and mise en scene in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Future do-it-yourself video productions

As world culture becomes saturated by video imagery, visual literacy has been added to the list of new literacies. The rapid diffusion of VCRs, camcorders and related "home entertainment" technologies means that children may already be familiar with the specifics of how to use the technology. But it's the rare student who systematically approaches the subject with some degree of depth. It is how the mental processing is activated that determines the quality of video message, production and reception.

As computers add video processing to their list of functions, the use of interactive electronic visualization tools will expand into new domains for learning. Every era of instructional technology has had its own combinations of interesting ideas, issues and possibilities.

Children seem more comfortable than adults in adopting new uses of video. As television production technology evolves, equipment becomes cheaper and easier to operate. This gives students the freedom and opportunity to create aesthetically pleasing visuals. Learning the conventions of electronic imagery can help students look for creative meaning while becoming more intelligent video consumers.

Neither children nor adults can afford to view the world through a myopic prism. Video can be used to advance what education has always been involved in: helping children and young adults come to terms with themselves, current communications media and the world.

Dr. Dennis Adams is a professor in the College of Education, University of Minnesota, Duluth, Minnesota.
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Author:Adams, Dennis
Publication:School Arts
Date:Dec 1, 1989
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