Podcasting Church 101105

I’ve had an idea for a book in my head for a few years now. Since there is a challenge afoot, I started, November 2, 2010, to write that book. This blog will contain the very rough draft and I hope I’ll get a chunk of it out this month. No guarantee I’ll write everyday, but I hope this won’t be the last entry.

There are certainly levels of audio production beyond what I’ve discussed in the previous section, but this is just an overview. If you want to go beyond the scope of this advice, please seek the advice of a competent engineer or consultant to add the subtleties that take a basic installation to a professional one. I don’t claim to be that person, I’m an enthusiast who has practical experience in these areas that I want to share.

Video Killed the Radio Star

So audio isn’t enough for you? You need to take it to the next level? Maybe video will satisfy. One quick piece of clarification: the audience will forgive bad video before bad audio. Start with the audio. If the audio is excellent, slowly adding to move from good to great is permissible. If you

have excellent video, but the audio is lacking, make the audio a priority.

I recently was watching YouTube and saw a video on lighting for photography. It was quite informative, but what concerned me was that the audio changed. As the speaker introduced the concept. He looked fine, but sounded hollow, distant, and echoey. I chalked it up to bad equipment. He was a photographer doing a video after all, so that seemed permissible. Unfortunately, things changed when I heard him describe what he was doing setting up the lighting rig. Suddenly his audio was full and beautiful. He sounded wonderful. For a moment I thought my memory was failing. Surely the bad audio of earlier was a trick of my memory. Just then he resumed talking on camera, confirming my earlier assessment.

Consistently bad would have been better than bad-good-bad. That made me wonder why he hadn’t stuck to the good microphone. Maybe it was too bulky in his mind. Maybe he didn’t think he could sync the audio from his audio recorder to the video on the camera. Maybe he had a thousand good reasons, but now I’m still wondering why the shift?! Worse still, I’m forgetting his content because I’m wondering about his production.

This brings me to one of my underlying rules: “Never let the message be overshadowed by production–good or bad.” In this case, I don’t remember the message because of bad production. The opposite is also true. I once had a producer at church who saw a star wipe that I did during practice just for fun. She said, “That’s so cool. Can we do more of that?” I disagreed that it was a good thing, but knew that she wanted flash/eye candy. I stopped her and told her that I wanted the message to be the message, not the video transition. I’m for flashy in flashy’s time, but not for no reason.

If audio starts with a microphone, video starts with a camera. Today the choices are exceptional. A DSLR can shoot video that George Lucas would have drooled over in 1999. The Red camera is a few thousand dollars, but equals Hollywood cameras in most respects. Even the lowly Flip HD camera takes video that’s much higher definition than $100,000 studio cameras from only a few years ago.

Let’s start with the camera. So what separates a Red from a Flip and between a studio camera and a DSLR? Glass, the sensors, storage, and connections are all factors. First, a small HD cam can be great for certain situations, but especially in low-light and situations that require editing and live switching, it’s less ideal. Smaller cameras make some sacrifices that the casual observer might not see, but seasoned professionals can instantly pick out the differences. A mechanical zoom is essential in the field. Magnifying the image before it gets to the sensor will almost always be preferred to simply enlarging the pixels so the image appears larger.

A larger sensor will always outperform a smaller one in low-light situations because the amount of light that hits the sensor. Let’s say one sensor is 1/4 the size of another. They’re both in the same environment, shooting the same thing at the same time. You might think they’ll get an equivalent image, but if light is low, there is actually more light hitting each pixel on the ccd or cmos sensor. As such, the subtleties of lighting are more easy to reproduce.

For storage, most cameras use some sort of solid state memory. Imagine that one has a fixed amount. The other has swappable cards. This means the down time between long shoots is virtually eliminated as a card can quickly be swapped out and the footage moved from it later instead of importing all of the footage from the camera in between shots or when the camera fills.

For simple video podcasts or heavily edited ones, a great camera and a good eye are all that you need to get a great product. Editing takes tons of time. I had one of my pastors ask how long it took to cut out 10 minutes in a sermon. My answer was about 5-6 minutes (minimum) for each minute we took out. We took out 10 minutes and it too about an hour. I’ve been editing since 2000, so it was fast. Potentially, it could have taken hours. For this reason, let’s concentrate on a live-to-tape shoot. This can take a 20 hour editing project and reduce it to mere minutes.

For a live-to-tape shoot, connectivity is absolutely essential. If you run a couple of cameras through a switcher, you have to consider how to get your signal from the camera to the switcher. In the analog world, this was often quite easy. Composite, svideo, or component each offered increasingly better bandwidth for image transmission so you’d choose the best for your situation.

Now with digital video consumer formats like HDMI don’t provide such flexibility. HDMI was designed for a constant handshake between two displays for the purposes of copy protection, not ease. HD-SDI is a better choice if you have it, but often the equipment with HD-SDI is professional requiring other professional components end to end.

Often these cameras have an analog output meant to display video on a monitor. This is a good choice for prosumer switchers and older SD units. Component especially has the bandwidth to transmit 1080p despite what the MPAA would have us believe.

At it’s most basic, you can start with a single camera. As I write this, a nice 3 ccd SD camera upscaled to HD can often be mistaken for native HD when shown in widescreen mode. When your delivery mechanism is the internet and most video is shown on smaller devices and not full HD 42″+ screens, few people will be able to tell the difference.

A few years ago, every church that did video used either a Videonics MX-Pro or an Edirol (now Roland) V5. These entry-level switchers produced a clean switch in signal. To accomplish this, they would use on-board “frame syncs” to sync the video of two of the sources to enable a clean switch that a passive push button video selector couldn’t produce.

Switcher technology that moved more toward computer and HD resolutions soon followed. Since churches tended toward displaying video on projectors capable of higher resolutions, better switchers always produced better results.

Almost as important as cameras and switchers for a live-to-tape video podcast is an array of monitors. In a small setup, fewer people need to do more jobs, so one person that can operate all cameras on static shots and choose between shots, is an essential. A bank of monitors enables a single person to glance wherever she wishes and see all shots at once. In a television studio, lights tell the director and technical director as well as floor crew and talent what camera is on and what will be next. These tally lights prevent mistakes in communication and perception.

No studio would be complete without adequate support for the cameras. Our eyes and brains work together to minimize shake in our vision, but cameras are much more susceptible to distracting movement. The standard piece of equipment for this is the tripod. If no movement is required, make sure the tripods can support the cameras and be locked into position.

When movement is required, better tripods with fluid heads are essential. I’ve used $5 tripods and I’ve used pedestals costing over $100,000 and the latter is like dancing with a professional. Movement is easy and fluid. Movements are limited by your imagination. If you plan episodes that require movement (like a worship service or musical performance), you may not need a top of the line pedestal. Don’t expect to spend less than a couple hundred for the bare minimum. It’s better to get a better tripod that you don’t have to fight with than a super nice camera that shakes and shudders with every movement. The only thing to watch out for is that your tripod isn’t too big for your camera. Bogan and Manfrotto are the brands to look at for the best bargains in prosumer tripods. They just go up from there (in both cost and function).

Depending on location, video lighting is a must. The exception to this is for outdoor shoots where God’s provide superb lighting in the sky. CommandN, one of the the earliest video podcasts, has shot nearly episode outdoors (in Canada even in the winter) for this reason. With a creative eye( and some practice), your light kit can be as simple as halogen work lights, some can lights, and some foam core to bounce the light off of.

As with everything, the more you spend, the easier it is to work with. The next step above the hardware store special is a portable light kit like the ones manufactured by Lowel among others. These kits might contain quartz, incandescent, or even fluorescent fixtures. Make sure you get a video light kit as photo light kits often have strobes meant to light the area for a fraction of a second.

If you have the flexibility of having a permanent studio, you can install theatrical lighting. A lighting designer can help you evenly light your subject using pars, fresnels, ellipsoidals, and other fixtures. Other than LED and fluorescent fixtures, these tend to be hot and power hungry, so a qualified electrician might need to do some work to make sure every episode isn’t punctuated by a sudden loss of power. Because of the heat, you might need to call your HVAC contractor as well. Building a studio can get expensive fast, even for the enthusiast.

Now you need a mechanism for recording, editing, and adding graphics and preproduced video elements. Remember that in a live-to-tape scenario you want to have the completed product when taping ceases. In a low budget situation, these functions are typically accomplished with a couple of computers.

Editing, compression and transcoding are the heaviest lifting done in the process. You want your best computer tasked with this job. I’m primarily a video editor so I’m very opinionated about the tools for this job. It can be done by a PC running Windows and Adobe Premiere, Sony Vegas, or even Windows Movie Maker. In your position, I’d spend the money on a good Mac and Final Cut Studio instead. I switched from the PC to the Mac for Final Cut. It’s stable and works well with without endless hours tweaking settings. There’s nothing worse than having a completed episode that is too big to be distributed, but can’t be compressed because some setting needs to be tweaked or some piece of spyware or virus has clogged your machine.

In church production, we have the advantage of many great software packages for presentation. Easy Worship, Live Worship, Mediashout, and my personal favorite ProPresenter will handle this task if you can match resolution between your computer and the cameras, switcher, etc. PowerPoint is adequate to the job, but presentation software is often just what you need.

Finally, this needs to all happen somewhere. A set can be as simple as a background and a chair. I’d challenge you to watch what comes out of Hollywood and New York that’s similar to what you’re trying to do for ideas. Maybe an office setting for weekly words from the pastor. Maybe you’d choose a practice room for worship insights with your worship leader. Make it fit, but don’t put a dark-skinned person against a white wall or vice versa. SD cameras can’t handle the contrast. HD cams are better, but these extremes are often used for certain stylistic reasons.

You can easily set up a studio spending millions, but careful planning can get something basic for much less. I’m planning to rework my home studio using pieces I’ve collected for years and hope to do so for almost nothing. It’s really up to you, your budget and the time you have, but video is much more complex than audio so keep that in mind as you plan what you’ll be doing.