Family Video Journals: The Home Movie

Tom Russell

The memory is vivid: my siblings and I lying on the carpet, Mom providing running commentary, Dad manning the projector.

For obvious reasons, our favorite cast member is Mrs. Buffalo. She comes out last. The last in a string of slightly blurred people emerging from an old wooden house in black and white; they’re moving a bit too quickly. Each person stops on the porch and waves, then quickly descends the steps and exits the frame. First, dad’s cousin; then a series of neighbor friends; then my grandma; then my grandma’s sister modeling some sort of faux fur coat; then some people nobody knows...and then...Mrs. Buffalo. She walks out like a movie star, giggles, and waves a hanky at the camera. Then she’s gone.

That’s all I know about Mrs. Buffalo – aside from her remarkable name.

Due to my older brother’s extraordinary skill as a mimic, he usually earned the right to be introduced as Mrs. Buffalo for the rest of the day. I still call him Mrs. Buffalo on occasion.

And I still remember the home movies – if not all of them, then most. I remember the sound of the projector and the way it pitched slightly higher when the last of the 8 millimeter film ran through the projector gate. I remember the smell of the dust on the bulb. I remember the Easters and the vacations and Mrs. Buffalo.

Today I teach film and video production at Brigham Young University; and despite the huge Hollywood blockbusters so many students strive to emulate, I think it’s quite possible that the greatest good they’ll accomplish as film makers may be within their own homes.

The purpose of this article is to help you make your own movies and memories—especially if you feel that video cameras and computers were designed as a means of personal torture.

To fulfill that purpose, we’ll learn a little bit about equipment (and we’ll try to leave out the techno-babble); we’ll share a few stylistic reminders, and we’ll try and figure out how to pick and choose—how to focus our efforts as we document things.

Video Cameras

Like the human eye, all a camera really responds to is the reflection of light. So our first objective is to find a camera that responds well to light.

Chips

When you’re shopping around, you’ll probably hear sales clerks talk about “chips.” They’re actually talking about things called charge-coupled devices (or CCD chips). Each chip is made up of light sensing elements called pixels; these pixels translate the light into an electronic video signal. The more pixels, the better the camera responds to light.

There are a few ways to get more pixels: we can increase the size of the chip or we can increase the number of chips...or we can do both. Broadcast cameras generally have 3 large chips; the rest of us have to settle for something less extravagant. But don’t worry, video camera manufacturers know that most families aren’t in a position to spend tens of thousands of dollars on video cameras. So they’ve created consumer-level cameras.

Most consumer cameras have a single 1/4 or 1/3 inch chip. They do a great job for our purposes. Two brands which tend to review well are Sony and Canon.

Firewire

Another thing to consider is functionality. What does the camera do? There are all kinds of bells and whistles on cameras these days – many of which are totally useless. There are far too many to list here, but I would suggest looking for a few key features if you’re planning on using the camera for home movies. First of all, make sure it has firewire—this is also referred to as IEEE 1394. Firewire allows you to transfer your video footage straight from the camera to your computer hard drive (we’ll talk more about that later). Firewire ultimately saves you money and greatly simplifies things.

Zooms

I also prefer cameras which allow you to manually adjust focus and exposure. The optical zoom range should be good; don’t be too impressed by cameras promising amazing zoom capabilities. Usually they’re talking about a digitally assisted zoom which doesn’t look nearly as nice as the optical zoom (the kind created by the actual glass in the lens).

Inputs/Outputs

Another thing I’d look for would be input and output jacks in addition to the firewire jack. On most cameras, you’ll have a choice between two modes: Camera and VTR. You know what the camera mode is; VTR mode basically turns your camera into a VCR. In VTR mode you can play back video or record it from another source. When we record things to our VCR’s (and yes, my VCR still flashes 12 o’clock over and over), we plug the recording source (like the cable wire from our wall or a cable from the TV) into the recording device (the VCR itself). We connect them with cables and plug those cables into “jacks” on the back or front of the VCR.

Since you’ll want to be able to use your camera in VTR mode from time to time, make sure the camera comes with jacks—they’re usually labeled “in/out” which means you can plug a cable into that jack and either record something from another device to your camera or record something from your camera to another device (like a VCR). This allows you to make VHS copies of your tapes.

Other Accessories

There are only two accessories I would recommend for someone just getting started. The first is an extended life battery and the second is a tripod. If you have to choose between the two, go with the extended life battery. Unfortunately, the batteries which come with most camcorders just don’t cut it. They advertise an hour or two of recording time, but I think the manufacturers must calculate time in dog years. That hour or two seems an awful lot like a half hour or so -- especially when it’s hot outside. So spend the extra money and buy the extended life battery. If you have any money left, get the tripod (fluid head tripods are the best). This doesn’t mean you have to use the tripod all the time. In fact, handheld is often much better. But if you ever need a steady shot or you want to start the camera and walk away from it, a tripod is quite helpful. You can even use your tripod for handheld shots. Simply attach the camera securely to the tripod, fold the tripod to its smallest size, and carry the camera around by the tripod legs. It smoothes out handheld shots without going to the expense of a steadicam.

Formats

Format refers to the way we record things and play them back. Obviously, we can’t play a video tape on a DVD player. That’s an easy one. But what happens when you try to play a DVD on your CD player? The CD player accepts the disc just fine, but it won’t play it. The same is true for tapes. Even if they look pretty much the same, unless they’re the same format they won’t recognize each other.

Remember camcorders when they first came out? Those gigantic things you hoisted up on your shoulder? The camera recorded straight to a regular sized VHS tape. Then somebody came along with VHS-C. We used smaller tapes, and inserted them into an adapter which played on our VCRs—a pretty good invention.

Next we heard about 8mm (it referred to the width of the tape); then Hi-8; (same size, better recording format). All of these were analog formats. Analog formats are kind of like sound waves. If you hit the table, the vibration creates a wave that travels through the air until it hits your eardrum. Your eardrum vibrates similarly—or analogously—to the original vibration. That’s analog. Analog is good, but when we start duplicating it we lose quality.

So now we’ve made the jump to digital (you may have heard of Digital 8 and mini-dv). A digital signal is arranged in strings of 1's and 0's. Those two numbers are the reason it’s called “binary code.” There are a few nice things about digital. First of all, it handles duplication better. If an analog signal is like a sound vibration, imagine the vibration bouncing off a series of canyon walls. Eventually it weakens and fades. But with 1s and 0s the signal is either there or it’s not. So we don’t generally experience the same steep generation quality loss with digital formats.

Another advantage of digital formats is that computers speak in binary code; so digital video makes computer based editing a lot easier (more on that next).Though these technologies change more rapidly than the weather, my favorite consumer level digital format to date is mini-dv (mini digital video). It really is an outstanding video format. The tape itself is similar to regular video tape, but much smaller—even smaller than the Digital 8 tapes. But despite the small size of the tape, it’s surprisingly robust. As the name implies, the format is digital (remember, that’s good for duplication and computer-based editing). If you’re thinking of buying a camera or you’re ready for a new one you should strongly consider mini-dv.

Computer-Based Editing

This section could get huge, so we’ll pick and choose.

In some ways I think the 8mm film home movies have advantages over the stuff we do now. One reason for that is sheer duration. When I used my dad’s 8mm film camera, I knew I had just about 3 minutes of available footage. So maybe we were more selective.

But today, if you’re like me, you go to recitals or baseball games and return home with an hour of footage. When it’s time to sit down and watch it, you just don’t have the energy to wade through it all. Editing allows you to condense your footage into something more manageable. It also allows you to add audio elements...in short, to make home movies you’ll actually watch.

As far as the computer itself goes, MACs used to have a clear advantage, but not anymore. Whether you’re on a PC or a MAC make sure you have at least 500 mg of RAM (more if you can afford it). The hard drive should be large. It’s best to partition your drive or get dual hard drives. If you’re not sure what any of that means, just ask any computer sales rep.

If you have anything less than a Pentium II processor, you’ll probably want to consider a new computer.

If you have an older computer but it still has the muscle, you should seriously consider buying an IEEE1394 firewire card (this is a port you’ll add to your computer so you can plug your camera into it using a firewire cable). With a firewire card and the appropriate software, you’ll actually be able to control your video camera with your computer mouse. And when you’re done editing, you’ll just record it back to the camera from your computer. Firewire truly does simplify the editing process.

In order to do the actual editing, you’ll need editing software. Some editing software also includes a firewire card. There are numerous consumer level editing choices, but there are a couple you’ll probably want to consider in particular. If you’re on a MAC, iMovie is an excellent choice for home movies (and it’s free with your MAC so you can’t beat the price). If you’re on a Windows based PC, Pinnacle’s Studio DV is also an excellent software. It’s available bundled with a firewire card if you don’t have one yet and it’s surprisingly powerful for the price. If your camera doesn’t have firewire, consider Dazzle MovieStar – also an excellent choice for home movies.

Now before you edit, remember that less is more. The mind possesses the remarkable ability to combine two seemingly disconnected thoughts or images into a single, coherent idea. Mistakes in editing are more often the result of saying or showing too much rather than saying or showing too little. Determine what the point of the shot is and show that. This is not to say that every shot is brief or that every home movie should consist of dozens of cuts. It simply means that you should avoid the temptation of letting events dictate the story you’re telling. You tell the story.

In-Camera Editing

Before you feel convinced that you need to run out to the nearest electronics store and buy a bunch of editing gear, there is one very affordable way to edit your material. Most stores don’t recommend this method for editing—but that’s probably because they don’t make any money if you edit this way. It’s called in-camera editing and it’s a perfectly legitimate way to assemble images.

With in-camera editing, you won’t have transitions like dissolves (though some cameras will actually create a dissolve in camera for you now), but you will have control over the sequence of images. It’s straightforward: each time you hit the pause button, the shot is over; when you start recording, the next shot begins. When you watch the tape back, you’ll see the piece in a series of cuts.

Obviously, you can’t make adjustments once you’ve finished the piece; going back and recording over one specific segment is not as clean as you’d like it to be. So if you’d like to tape a fictional story, plan out each shot in advance and rehearse the action before you start recording. If you’re shooting non-fiction documentary footage and editing in-camera, ask yourself what the shot is communicating. Once you’ve communicated that, hit the pause button. Treat each shot as if you’re limited to a three minute film reel; be selective.

Cost

So what’s this going to cost? Good question. Both Sony and Canon offer a level of camera sometimes referred to as pro-sumer (a not-so-clever way of saying it’s between consumer and professional quality and functionality). Pro-sumer mini-dv cameras tend to range between about $2,000 and $3,500 – a bit pricey for people who just want to create home movies.

The good news is that you can now find reasonably good mini-dv cameras—with a good chip and good functionality—for about $500 on up. Mini-dv tapes off the shelf range from about seven dollars each to twelve. But if you buy them in bulk online (www.taperesources.com), you’ll save quite a bit. I prefer Sony tapes.

Computer costs depend upon your situation. Brand new computer packages are available that will easily accommodate the requirements we’ve listed here for a thousand dollars or less.

Consumer level editing software is pretty affordable. As mentioned, iMovie is free when you purchase a MAC and Studio DV and Dazzle MovieStar are each available for a little over a hundred dollars.

A Few Tips About Shooting

The important thing to remember about home movies is that they’re not supposed to be perfect. There’s no need to make a major production out of them. But sometimes it’s helpful to remember a couple of simple principles.

Composition and Framing

A few words about pictures. For whatever reason, the human eye likes three’s. If you look at a screen and draw a tic-tac-toe grid over the top of it, you’ll be looking at something we like to call the “rule of thirds.” Perhaps it’s because the human face communicates from the upper third (eyes) and lower third (mouth) of our heads; and the eyes are located on the outer thirds.

Whatever the reason, horizons generally look better if they’re in the upper or lower third of a frame rather than straight across the middle. Subjects look better located in the upper or lower or outer thirds.

This relates loosely to something called “lead.” If you’re interviewing someone, try to avoid cutting off the top of the person’s head with the top of the frame; similarly, you’ll want to avoid huge space above the head. If the person being interviewed is facing slightly to the right side of the frame, leave more space on that side.

These basic rules are often broken and the effect can be powerful. But try to become comfortable with the rules before playing with them.

Exposure

Exposure refers to the brightness of a scene. Many cameras have automatic shutter speed or iris adjustment to keep your picture properly exposed. Still, you should remember a few things about exposure. First, if you’re using a flip-out screen on your camera (the cameras with side screens), the exposure on that screen has no effect on the actual exposure you’re getting. You may have it set dark and think the image is perfect, but it may still be too bright. If you’re outdoors and your camera has an “ND” filter, use it. ND stands for Neutral Density and it darkens excessively bright subjects. If your camera does not have a built-in ND filter, you can purchase one from a photographic equipment store (just know the thread size of your camera lens – it will be expressed in millimeters).

Also, be careful shooting in low light without lighting tools. The final image may be too dark to make out. One of the important keys here is to try and avoid extreme differences in exposure. If you’re trying to record bright noon sun and somebody standing in a shadow, you’ll probably have to make a choice. Try moving into the shadow and shooting the subject against a background which is also in shadow. Otherwise, the subject in shadow will be exposed properly and the background with the bright sunlight will be washed out. Experiment in a variety of conditions and view your footage over a TV monitor until you become comfortable with the camera you’re using.

Lighting

As mentioned earlier, cameras record light. So naturally, most people light the subject head on. If we’re outside, we make sure the sun is shining clearly on the subject. But the truth is, cameras are a little less cruel when we light our subjects from behind or with the light source about 3/4 behind the subject. It’s not always true and it may not be the shot you want, but don’t be afraid of shadows. I should include a warning here. Despite the fact that backlighting can be more complimentary to a subject, excessive backlighting can be almost too complimentary...too pretty. Don’t try and turn everything into a beauty shot. But if you’re wondering why your image looks flat, it may be due to direct light.

Zooming

Another thing you may wish to remember is that repeatedly zooming in and out can get a little distracting. Some zooms are necessary and some are even nice to look at, but you’ll probably want to keep them to a minimum. It’s usually better to press your pause button, reframe the next shot, then begin recording again.

Shutter Speed

One more thing to consider is something called shutter speed (not to be confused with frame rate). Your shutter speed has to do with the amount of time each frame is exposed to light. Film is shot at 24 frames per second and the shutter in a film camera allows each frame to be exposed for half that time -- meaning each frame of film is exposed to the light for a total of 1/48th of a second. It seems pretty quick, but if you’re used to still photography you know that you’ll get a bit of blur shooting with that shutter speed.

The images on film, then, often appear to have more blur than images on video tape. Many cameras won’t allow you to change the shutter speed manually; but if yours does and you’d like to give your video tape a little bit more of a film look, try reducing the shutter speed from 1/60 of a second to 1/30 of a second.

White Balance

If you own a video camera, you’ve probably read about something called white balance. White balance is simply a point of reference for your camera. Outdoor sunlight is bluer than indoor, tungsten light. So the video camera needs to be told what color white is—it determines the rest of the colors from that reference. Many cameras have an auto white balance which is basically a pre-set for indoor and outdoor light. But conditions change. So if you want to reproduce colors most accurately, find a completely white object or surface and zoom in on it until your entire frame is filled with white. Then push and hold the white balance button until your camera indicates that it’s set.

Finally…

Remember, the important thing is for you to record moments. Don’t wait for big events; life is usually in the details. Conversations, daily chores—even Mrs. Buffalo moments—are worth documenting and remembering. They don’t have to be beautiful or perfectly lighted or perfectly composed. Family, friends, acquaintances, places—these things are at the heart of what you’re doing; so don’t get too distracted by rules...you may miss the important stuff.

Have fun.

See Also

The Value of Family Cinema