A few months ago--in a New York City coffee shop that I frequent--a waitress deposited her brand new $6,000-plus HD camcorder on just the spot I had been expecting my breakfast.
"I hear you know about these things," she insisted, observing the look of surprise that spread across my face.
"Not as much as you might think," I responded. "Don't believe everything you hear."
As the conservation proceeded, I quickly realized that compared to her almost nonexistent knowledge of video, I did have some sort of dubious knowledge.
Why, I wanted to know, did she spend all this money on a high-definition camcorder?
"I want to make videos," she responded confidently. "So I bought a video camera."
She had, I learned, spent her last dime on the camcorder, assuming that ownership of this sexy new machine was her ticket to leaving that dreary waitress job. Now, she too could enter the "glamorous" world of TV production.
Whoa, I thought to myself, how do I respond to this? I didn't want to discourage this magnificent act of chutzpah, since the world needs more of it these days.
But--at the same time--I didn't want to feed her illusion that the simple act of buying a camera was all that's needed to become a competent creator of video images.
It turned out that her sole knowledge of video was limited to the camcorder manual. She had bought no accessories--therefore had no microphone, lights, tripod or head. Not even an extra battery.
But why did she need all that stuff, she asked, showing me that the camcorder made decent pictures in available light right there in the coffee shop. And the audio from the camera's built-in microphone sounded just fine to her.
I gently suggested that video production involves much more than just aiming the camera at a subject in available light. That good videographers learn a craft, and that process can take years.
Fine video images, I explained, are shaped with the creative use of light and shadow. The videographer has to learn how to use lighting as a tool, just as a painter uses brushes.
Lighting skills can be acquired on a very basic level, but it is essential that every competent videographer learn them, I said.
I recalled the words of lighting innovator Ross Lowell, founder of Lowel-Light Manufacturing, that the goals of lighting are "to enhance mood, atmosphere and drama; separate planes; suggest depth; reveal character and texture; enrich and, occasionally, bedazzle."
I suggested she study Ross Lowell's excellent writings on basic lighting for video. Once she grasped the key elements, she needed to practice by lighting various scenes and then study how they look on camera.
She grimaced when I warned that she was going to need at the very least to purchase a small lighting kit. Just pointing and shooting the camera was not going to cut it.
She looked dejected. My breakfast was now the last thing on her mind.
Turning to sound, she wanted to know what was wrong with the on-camera microphone. Nothing, I responded, unless you want to record good dialogue, interviews, or anything beyond ambient sound.
Sound recording, I explained, is another craft in itself. Just as with lighting, the best practitioners can deliver good sound in virtually any production situation. Sometimes sound recordists turn their work into an art form itself.
Good sound, just as good light, doesn't just happen. (A bit like breakfast doesn't just cook itself.)
Microphones are also like paint brushes--for the sound. You pick the right mic for the specific task at hand. Mixers combine the sounds from microphones, and headphones are necessary in the field in order to know the results of your work.
I noted that I sometimes see a video sound operator on the streets of New York City working without headphones. Occasionally, I naively ask how they know the sound they are recording is of good quality without hearing it. The answer is always the same: they watch the levels on the VU meter.
In the early days of video, an answer like that would have gotten you fired, I explained to the young waitress.
A sound operator without headphones is playing Russian Roulette with the audio, not actually knowing what's on that video sound track until raw footage hits the edit room.
Now she looked alarmed. "How am I supposed to learn about all this?" she asked.
When I came along in the 1960s we had mentors, I said. "You know, people really good at their craft who are willing to teach those skills to a younger person."
But that's not so easy today. "Great mentors are now in short supply," I lamented. "It's best today not to learn the habits of a lot of people working on a professional level. The craft is not what it used to be."
I suggested going to school or attending workshops to develop specific skills. A good workshop, taught by a master, can change your life.
I told her of a lighting workshop I took in the early '90s with Billy Williams, the great British cinematographer who had made "On Golden Pond." Held at the Film and Video Workshops in Rockport, Maine, it was a very intense week. We lit a series of locations--from rustic barns to churches--for a wide range of scenes.
Under the supervision of a creative force like Williams, it was an immensely valuable experience--one that I credit with changing the way I use lighting today even when I make a simple snapshot.
The waitress looked concerned. "Those workshops are kind of expensive, aren't they?"
"Yes, but you get what you pay for," I responded--aware that money is very tight for her, but also annoyed that she had exhausted her entire budget, more than $6,000, on a camera that was vastly beyond her modest needs as a beginner.
She disappeared for a few seconds, returning with my long overdue breakfast.
Thankfully, she left me alone to eat. Probably because I'd already told her more than she had originally bargained for or even wanted to know.
A few days later she left her job at the coffee shop. I have no idea where she went or what happened next in her video adventure. In fact, I don't even know her name.
But I have a wish for her. In a few years, I would like nothing better than to flip on one of those award shows and see her honored for a program she creates.
That way, I'd know she had broken out of the pack and found a way to learn the craft.
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.