Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Getting kitted up (again) for video journalism

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 28, 2010

For the first time since I wrote this article in 2008, I have been able to invest in some new kit.

Although my £500 all-in film making gear has given me a great start and helped me produce films in difficult environments, including Baghdad and Basra, I felt it was limiting me in some of the bigger projects I have planned for this year.

Meanwhile the fast moving camera market and an increased interest in audio slideshows have made video capable DSLRs a very practical option in the last year – and I’ve been desperate to get my hands on one.

The camera

The moment to take the plunge came as soon as Canon announced the release of the EOS 550D: a digital SLR camera from the same family as the revolutionary 5D MKII and 7D – but at a fraction of the price.

For between £600-800 you can pick up a 550D and it comes with many of the same features as its more upmarket siblings. Photographically, it does everything the majority of professional DSLRs can do, with high quality RAW images, a range of manual settings, a large sensor and a good LCD screen.

With video it gets interesting: it is more limited than the MKII or 7D but still powerful enough to work for professional video journalism. It shoots in 1080i High Definition at 24fps, and can get up to 50fps at 720 definition. You have full control over aperture, exposure and shutter speed.

The main reason to enter the DSLR market, as well as the fact it enables me to shoot images too, is the potential of the lens. At the moment I have the basic 18-55mm EF lens which will do your basic shots, but I hope to invest in a fast lens before the year is out.

The audio rig

The big  let down with DSLRs (even the best ones) is the poor audio quality. The 550D has an on-board microphone, but I wouldn’t use it to make a phone call, let alone record an interview. It comes with an external 3.5mm audio input, to which I have connected a Rode Videomic, a high quality camera microphone, (£80) as well as my cabled lapel microphone for interviews (£20).

Like all DSLRs this camera has only automatic gain control, so it’ll be interesting to see what the quality is like. You also can’t monitor your sound levels on the camera which is an issue.

As a back up, and for the production of audio slideshows, I have also invested in the Tascam DR-07, a portable audio recorder first recommended by David Stone at BroadcastJournalism.co.uk.

Many DSLR shooters are using audio recorders to record their audio in high quality separately and then syncing it in post production. Software like PluralEyes (www.singularsoftware.com/pluraleyes.html)  makes this possible, but it’s also nothing a simple clap when filming can’t solve.

I have yet to give these a good test yet, but it’ll be interesting to see whether audio becomes a deal breaker.

The extras

I’m recording onto a Class6 SD card, and I also needed a new tripod. Manfrotto’s Modo is both affordable (£40) and very light and small – but exceptionally versatile. With fully flexible legs and a good quality ball cam head it’s a big improvement on my previous rig.

I’m also keeping my Kodak Zi8 with me and for the time being I still have the handy Panasonic NVDX100, although probably not for much longer.

The Workflow

The one thing I’ve learned from experimenting with lots of different kit over the years is the importance of researching a workflow. That means the step-by-step process it would take to shoot footage and get it edited.

For example, did you know although the Canon 550D shoots in .mov format, it needs to be transcoded through Pro-Res before it can be used in Final Cut Pro? Experts like Dan Chung and Philip Bloom are good stops to find stuff like this out as well as all the forums out there.

I’m currently shooting my first commission with the new kit ahead of the General Election; as soon  as a finished product is available I’ll post it up.

DSLRs which shoot video remain a controversial topic, with some offering high praise, others critical of the set up. Personally I think they offer huge potential, if you’re prepared to work around some of the early problems. Sure, I never thought I’d have to sync audio from two different devices, but it really doesn’t add much to my time in the edit.

The ultimate budget film making kit

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 23, 2009

Last year I wrote a post about my ideas for the future of TV news. It’s been one of the most read articles on my blog and solicited a lot of nice comments.

One comment, by blogger Thoroughly Good, made a (thoroughly good) point:

“Grab a camera or a microphone and go make the stuff *you* want to make. Stick it on the web.  If no-one consumes it then satisfy yourself with the thought you’ve satisfied yourself making something which satisfies you not the audience .. That’s the most important thing of all,” he said.

“So, when exactly can we see something?”

Good question. The prize is out there for those who go for it. Another media blogger, Dave Lee reckons 2009 will be the year Video Journalism ‘arrives’.

And I hope to be in the welcome party when it does; but the problem is cost. As great as it is to “grab a camera and a microphone”, it’s not cheap.

Sure, there’s lots of talk about how cameras are a fraction of the cost they used to be ‘and no-longer prohibitively expensive’. But if you want a decent filmmaker hallmark – say the Sony Z1 – you’re talking £2,000 ($3-4,000).

Here’s a good example: in Andy Glynne’s (excellent) book “Documentaries…and how to make them” he details the different set up costs for filmmakers. His “basic kit” is this:

  • Camera: Sony HDR-Z1E –> £3,000 + VAT
  • Batteries x 2: £99 each
  • Microphone: Sennheiser ME66 + shotgun –> £400
  • Headphones: Sennheiser HD201 –> £15
  • Mic grip: –> £77
  • Camera bag: Portabrace –> £180
  • Tripod: Manfretto MN755 –> £148
  • XLR cables, raincover etc: –> £80

TOTAL: ~£4,000

And that’s before you get to editing. The upper range kit he suggests, reaches £7,000 and beyond.

For me – and many other young independents – that IS prohibitively expensive.

But I haven’t let that deter me. Over the last five months I have been compiling my own VJ kit, for a fraction of the cost. In fact, I believe I have managed it for just over £500.

I’ve decided to publish how I did it- maybe it’ll inspire some other budget filmmakers to give it a go.

The ultimate budget film making kit

I’ve learned there are two secrets to getting a kit together on the cheap:

  1. What you don’t spend in money, you must spend in time – that’s time looking around, not rushing into deals, properly exploring the options.
  2. Know exactly what you need each piece of kit to do: a £600 HD cam is no good, if it doesn’t have anywhere to plug in an external microphone, for example.

The camera

For a professional/semi-professional film maker a camera MUST have the following elements: manual focus, manual white balance, external mic option, hot shoe for attaching a mic, manual sound control. And ideally: 3CCD (for broadcast), manuel iris/shutter control and 16:9 widescreen, although these are by no means compulsory.

That immediately wipes out a lot of the consumer models, regardless of how light, cheap or flashy they are.

The budget filmmaker must be content with 2nd hand models as well. Often on ebay these are auctioned at cheaper rates. Ebay also has a healthy selection of 2nd hand Canon XM1s, XM2s and even XL2s – but these will eventually sell for at least £700.

Some of the manuel settings on the NVDX100

Some of the manuel settings on the NVDX100

In my searches I discovered two reliable options that remained cheap: the Canon MVX250i and the Panasonic NVDX100. I was outbid in the former at the last second, but I snapped up the latter for a David Dickensian £189. It retailed at £2,000 when it first went on the market so a good buy by my reckoning.

It runs on MiniDV and being old is a tadge cumbersum, but it has 3CCD and more manual options than you care to mention. It came with three batteries, and a camera bag.

The microphone

A brief search round the internet brought me to Pro Audio Systems, a UK company specialising in professional audio. There I picked up a mic, with hot shoe attachment for £42. It has it’s own battery and a wind cover.

The tripod

Some VJ’s argue a tripod is an option rather than a rule, especially if you want to really push the envelope with creative filming. I would still argue it’s necessary for close ups, and long interviews. But you don’t really need it to perform amazing pans or tilts, so don’t overspend on a flashy Manfretto/Vinten. I picked one up for £15.99 on Ebay. It has a quick-release head to get the camera off quick which is good, and it’s very light.

The edit machine

Here I have had to make one of the biggest compromises. A VJ doesn’t look like a VJ unless they’ve got a laptop for portable editing. And ideally a Macbook. But that’s way out of my league, and instead I’ve opted for the best power v cost ratio.

And that means a desktop. Old school, I know. But editing won’t work without the following key elements: 160GB harddrive (minimum), 2GB of ram, 3ghz processer, and firewire port. We’re talking near the £1,000 mark for that in Apple form, but with a desktop that is within reach of £200 on Ebay.

After literally months of patient stalking in the Ebay jungle, I snapped up a surplus order from Ireland, for a meagre £150. With 250GB of diskspace, a 2.8ghz processor and 2GB of RAM it’s a bargain – and worth the wait.

The other crucial thing for editing is a good monitor. I picked up a 24” flatscreen from Play.com for £120 with free delivery.

The editing software adobe-screenshot

And of course without a Macbook, you are without Final Cut Pro, the staple of video editors everywhere. But even if I had been given a Macbook, FCP is prohibitively expensive. But there are other options: AVID are still a professional catchall, and Adobe’s Creative Suite are breaking new ground in the pro-sumer market.

In the end it was Adobe which caught my attention. Their software Adobe Premiere (currently on edition CS4) is well received. But best of all for the budget filmmaker, they produce a budget version – Adobe Premiere Elements (currently on version 7) , which retails close to £70.

There are some good bargains on ebay, but surprisingly it was Amazon who won this round – flogging it for £52 including free delivery. Cha-ching!

But what do you lose with the Elements version? Well, this is where knowing what requirements you need comes in. I’m a trained bi-media journalist, and after hours on Final Cut Pro, and in the classroom learning the craft of writing to pictures, I think a VJ really only needs a few basic requirements from their editor: the ability to separate audio from video, and a large number of audio/video tracks on which to multitrack. Without those, no matter how great the special effects or “upload straight to Youtube” functions, you can’t perform basic edits.

I spent a long time researching Adobe Premiere Elements, and eventually got a confirmation it is capable of those key functions. And having messed around with it on my own too, I can confirm it’s very similar to Apple’s Final Cut Pro in terms of usability. Click here to check out what it can do for yourself.

Straight to checkout…

  • Camera: Panasonic NVDX100 :: Ebay :: £189.00
  • Microphone: Audio Technica ATR25 :: Pro Audio Systems :: £42.00
  • Tripod: Camlink TP-2100 :: Ebay :: 15.99
  • Edit hardware:  Dell Optiplex 745 :: Ebay :: 150.00
  • Edit monitor: Acer 24” flatscreen :: Play.com :: £120.00
  • Edit software: Adobe Premiere Elements 7 :: Amazon :: £52.10

TOTAL:£569.09

So that’s the full kit – for just a smidgen over £500. I hope any other young journalists/filmmakers who feel it’s all out of their range will read this and see it is possible.

And if you’ve got great ideas and some creativity, you can make great content with the most basic of items.

“So, when exactly can we see something?”

Hopefully, very soon.