HOWTO: Improve your Submission Tape

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[This article was originally posted on in April 2006, as a side bar to article by Jill Bernard about improv festival submissions. A site redesign there seems to have removed it. Three years later, I'm sure there are technical differences that might change some of my recommendations slightly, but I think the article is fundamentally sound.]

A lot of my opinions and assumptions here are based on filming shows in smaller, less-equipped venues,” Fuzzy says. “Of course lighting concerns, etc. will be different in a huge theater, but if you're playing places that big, hire me to come help you video your show. Also, I'm talking here about consumer and pro-sumer level equipment. If you have a DigiBeta or DVCAM camera I assume you don't need to be told whether it's Analog or Digital.

TIP #1: Use manual exposure
The number one problem I've seen with theatrical video tapes is 'flame-ghost heads' from using automatic exposure. If you use the automatic exposure feature of your video camera, it will see the vast expanse of your black-curtain backdrop and try to set the exposure as high as possible, which will completely blow out your brightly-lit faces and hands. No one will be able to make out your subtle and brilliant expressions.

Take a minute to look at your camera's manual and learn how to manually adjust the exposure. Ideally, when you get to the theater, have the lights operator dim the house lights and turn on the stage lights as they will be in performance and adjust the exposure then. If you have to wing it, I've found on Sony cameras that a setting 3 or 4 'clicks' down from full open usually works well.

[I've written a separate blog post about this tip.]

TIP #2: Use digital if you can
There are two main categories of camera: Analog and Digital Video. Analog cameras include VHS, C-VHS, 8mm, and Hi8. Digital Video cameras include the Digital8 and miniDV.

The main advantage of Analog cameras is cost -- they're cheap and the media is cheap. I have a real fondness for Hi8 cameras myself, but that's likely just nostalgia.

Digital has a number of advantages. Tapes don't degrade in the same way as analog recordings (though it is still possible to lose the information on a digital tape). And it's much easier to move from a digital tape to a DVD.

Digital cameras go through a big quality (and price) jump from 1-CCD (the device in the camera that actually records the visual information) to 3-CCD cameras.

Does it matter? Well sure, there are quality differences in the detail, color fidelity, etc. the better a camera that you get. I'd always recommend using the best camera you can, BUT specifically for festival submissions, it's really going to come down to the quality of your performance. So as long as the camera meets the minimum requirement of “can you be seen and heard?" I wouldn't stress about it.

I also have a fondness for Digital8 cameras. They're relatively inexpensive, and the media is a lot cheaper than miniDV cameras, which is great for 'tape every show' kinds of groups.

[This is the section that has changed the most in the last three years. Can you even buy analog cameras anymore? And there's the whole category of solid-state (memory card) cameras now.]

TIP #3: Avoid the LP setting
Most cameras have an LP setting which lets you get an extra 50 to 100% out of a tape (90 minutes instead of 60 on SP setting for miniDV, for example). But I wouldn't recommend using it unless you're stuck in some sort of situation where the show is going to run long with no way to change tapes or you'll need to press 'record' and then be backstage for 45 minutes or something. The LP setting does degrade quality and sometimes it causes problems if you play back that tape on a different camera.

TIP #4: More light is always better
Ask the light operator to turn the lights up as high as they'll go. If you're filming a performance in a place with really poor lights, consider bringing in some extra lights -- portable halogen lights are inexpensive and, while not ideal, better than not being seen.

Also, it's good theater advice in general to 'find your light', but extra important if you're filming.

TIP #5: Get close for the best sound
Well, if you're in an awesome theater, they've got the stage micced and you can get a feed from the mixer and put that into your camera. And then tell me where this magical theater is that lets improv groups perform there.

For starters, get the camera as close to the stage as you can, while still being far enough back to get it all (fixed camera) or most (someone running the camera) of the action.

If you're having real audio problems, you can add an external microphone to many cameras that will give you better (or more directional) audio than the built-in one.

TIP #6: Use your computer to make DVDs
If you've got a Mac, use iMovie to import your footage, give it some quick titles, and then click the little button marked 'iDVD' and it will magically make a DVD for you.

If you've got a PC... get a Mac. I kid... most PCs these days also come with simple video editing and DVD burning software. Both Roxio MyDVD and Nero have affordable packages.

TIP #7: Put your contact info everywhere!
Add a title screen at the front of your video that has contact information, write your group name and contact info on the DVD or VHS, and write it all on the DVD case/tape cover as well. I used to book bands and nothing's worse than finding a cassette (yes, it was a while ago) in a pile, thinking the band is great, and having no idea who it is.