by Martin French
Ever since Arts Council England, along with the BBC, took up the "Building Digital Capacity" mantle it's been one horrendous (and at times completely hilarious) mis-step after another.
Here in TheLab™ we would laugh and laugh were it not for the vast amounts of money being poured down the drain, especially on projects like The Space.
A few days ago ACE, via their Twitter feed, highlighted a document that is supposed to act as some sort of guide to buying and using video equipment.
It's not clear why the funding monolith chose now to push this thing on an undeserving public when it did but we thought it would be a good illustration of just how inept their entire "digital capacity" effort is.
My Eyes My Eyes
"Video kit, Picking What's Right For You" was, evidently, designed by a 5 year old suffering from a serious flu infection with access to a copy of "Kids Can Make PDF's Too".
The document was written by a gentleman called Mark Batey, who did work for the BBC as a "trainer" but, according to LinkedIN, he doesn't anymore.
Mr Batey starts badly by refusing to recommend any single piece of equipment because, according to him, technology is very "fast moving", which it isn't, but what the hell huh?
Sure, individual manufactures bring out different models almost every year but, buy the right camera, for example, and you're good to go for 5 or more years.
Safe to say that a guide for picking video equipment isn't a whole lot of use if it doesn't actually recommend specific pieces of equipment that you should, you know, pick.
Also, this is an online document that could be easily updated with new recommendations as technology evolves. Since the whole "digital capacity" thing is just window dressing though and regular updates would involve actual work then half assed non-advice will have to do.
A good indicator of the half-assed nature of this document is the section discussing focusing, manual vs automatic. Mr Batey says;
"Automatic focussing (sic) relies on the camera knowing what the most important part of your shot is, and sadly it doesn't understand your story, so will make mistakes. The most common mistake is seen in an interview, where the face is blurry but the background is sharp."
Let's be clear, cameras that don't let you focus manually belong in the trash. The first thing you need to learn about any camera is how to turn all the auto features off so you're in charge of the thing. Explaining that would, once again, require some effort so it's not welcome in the ACE/BBC guide book.
The section on recording media, what you actually record your video or sound onto, is a bit of a puzzler. Mr Batey spends a few paragraphs describing defunct methods such as DV tape and DVD Disc (of which only a very few ever existed). To be fair he does say they are "on the way out" but if that's the case then why describe them at all?
Some consumer level cameras record to internal hard drives or "solid state memory" but they should be avoided. Why? If they break they are expensive to fix, removable "card media" is cheap, easy to replace, portable and you can hand off what you shoot to someone else.
Why not focus (no pun intended) on the most cost effective, easy to use, blindingly bloody obvious option to help all of your potential readers?
Mr Batey erroneously describes "hard disk" recording as only being available in "top-end professional cameras" when it is the exact opposite that's true.
He might be referring to "data recorders" that can be attached to certain cameras to record high bit rate image data but that information has no place in a guide like this.
The HD Conundrum
If this document was written 5 years ago a side bar about high definition video "do you really need it?" might have been relevant. Incredibly Mr Batey uses some spurious reasoning to conclude that you "probably" don't need a HD camera at all.
Most still image cameras take photographs that are far too large, physically, to be viewed on computer monitors or via websites. That doesn't mean you should buy a stills camera that shoots tiny, web sized images. The higher the quality of the original image the better a scaled down version for the internet will be and the same applies to video.
You should always shoot at the highest quality and resolution you possibly can. The better your original images, the better the resulting, compressed web based output will be.
Buying a camera today that doesn't shoot in full HD is almost impossible though. It makes you think that the whole "do we need HD?" bit is just a space filler but the conclusion Mr Batey reaches is inexcusable.
We Can't Hear You
When this "guide" moves onto audio the vagueness jumps into overdrive.
Safe to say that according to Mr Batey an external microphone is better than an onboard one and you could use an external audio recorder but that makes things more fiddly in post production and you have to remember to press two buttons instead of one.
No mention of differences in audio recording devices, microphones or, god forbid, polar patterns. Mr Batey touches on this briefly near the end of the section when he writes;
"Directional "shotgun" microphones are most commonly used in video. They only pick up sound from the direction they are pointing in, and can be used to exclude unwanted sound."
Close, but no cigar. Directional microphones have a cardioid (or hyper cardioid) pattern, which is a fancy way of saying the audio pickup from the microphone will be concentrated within a certain area toward the front and sides of that microphone.
Sound however doesn't always play nice and has the nasty habit of bouncing off surfaces both indoor and outdoor and polluting your recording. Even the most expensive shotgun or rifle microphones will pick up sounds outside of their cardioid pattern.
"Manual sound levels is something you probably won't find on cheap cameras, but can be useful if you are recording interviews in noisy conditions."
Again, tortured grammar aside, this is completely inaccurate. Being able to manually adjust audio levels will not cancel out unwanted noise from your interview. Audio levels should be set to optimally record whatever you want to actually hear.
In the case of an interview, if there is too much background noise then, to be blunt, you're going to have to do the interview somewhere else if the background sound is overwhelming the interviewee.
Here in TheLab™ we cannot understand why such simple advice is so difficult to write down.
Apparently all of these technical issues can be solved with a "£15 tie-clip" microphone and a "£500 camera" though.
One good thing about this document is that it reveals a hitherto unknown secret about filming. You don't actually need lights, at all, ever! We assume that this is the case because lighting equipment is never mentioned, not even once. This entire paragraph may be nothing more than pure sarcasm mind you!
We could go on and on about the absurd advice given in this document such as possibly purchasing deprecated hardware like a Sony HVR-Z1 (an HDV tape based camera that ceased production years ago) or the even more ludicrous suggestion that a Sony PD150 (ceased production in the late 50's) might be a good second hand buy, but we won't.
From a reading and writing pointing of view the level of advice contained in the ACE/BBC document is somewhere around the capabilities of a 9 year old. The greater crime however is that it even exists at all.
Shooting and cutting together films, short or otherwise, is a complex, time consuming process that requires a lot of knowledge and skill on the part of the person or persons tasked with making said film.
Pretending otherwise means there will be a lot of really bad films getting made and a lot of money wasted on buying poor quality equipment that either falls apart or only gets used once or twice before being locked in a cupboard.
If you're serious about doing in house video production then it's going to cost a lot of money, it's going to take a long time to train people to do it professionally and then you have to face the serious question of skills retention.
When people don't use new found skills very often then they will forget those skills and have to be re-trained all over again.
Staff turnover is also a very real problem that needs to be taken into account. All the time and money spent training somebody up will be for nothing if 6 months later they move on to work for somebody else and, once again, you have to start all over again training somebody else.
Content production is a monster that never stops wanting to be fed and this document is an illustration of just how shallow ACE and the BBC's attempts are to tackle actual "digital capacity" issues in modern arts organisations.
Just for fun we decided to produce our own version of this particular document that actually gives some practical advice. Compare and contrast it with the efforts of the two organisations with the huge number of staff and hundreds of millions in funding to spend.