Help me find the right film and AV equipment for my nonprofit
July 18, 2011 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Help me find the right AV equipment to buy for my cultural events nonprofit! I throw literary events that are awesome and generally undocumented. Tell me what I should buy (cameras, software, mics) to visually convey a sense of their awesomeness. Bonus points on tutorials on making podcasts and workflow process for videos.

Hi there. I run a NY-based literary arts nonprofit—we do events with emerging and established writers in our own space before a live audience. Think of your local indie bookstore reading, though we often try to mix it up. We’ve presented novelists and poets in concert with performance artists, hip hop groups, civil rights lawyers, and so on.

What we need to do is a better job of documenting these events in a way that shows exactly how awesome they are. This is especially urgent since we’re on the eve of launching a web magazine which will present editorial content oriented around the magazine (interviews with the authors, photos from the event), as well as original AV content (e.g., oral histories; one possibility would be a weekly video message from the staff about upcoming events). I’ve put a shopping list below with quantities and ideal price. Please help me figure out what equipment to get and how to use it! I’ve seen these prior posts (advice on doc film equipment; more doc film advice; more doc film advice; amateur film advice;, but I thought I would post anyways, since products seem to get obsolete quickly and I have some more specific questions; also, unlike most posters, I’m not trying to make a feature film here, just crisp attractive film and still images. We're hoping to spend between $900 and $2000.

1. 1 Video camera ($500-$1000). We want to get an HD camcorder that records onto a hard drive, as well as a microphone attachment to go with it. I’ve been told we can get this for about $500 for the camera. I’ve been told that a better setup would be a Panasonic DVX100 (about $900 for new), which is not HD but seems to be a great deal. Someone else recommended the Canon VIXIA HF21 Dual Flash Memory Camcorder ($450-800).

2. 1 microphone for camera ($100-$400). I’ve been told that the basic mic would be about $100 (e.g., Azden SMX-10 Stereo Microphone ($65) and DM-50 Directional Stereo Microphone ($95)). However, I’ve been told to spring for a shotgun microphone ($200-$400 for a decent one).

3. 1 still camera ($300-1000). We need a digital still camera we can use to take pictures at events, especially at high-toned cocktail parties. I’ve been recommended the Canon G11 ($500), nikon d3000 ($370), Canon S90 ($350), canon G9 ($1000), Canon Digital Rebel XSi 12.2 MP ($425-750), Canon Powershot G12 Digital Camera ($496), Canon Powershot S95 ($400), Canon Powershot SX230 HS Digital Camera ($350).

4. 1 miniDV tape deck to convert past videos (around $800). I’ve been told that we don’t actually need a deck, we can just convert using the two cameras that we have. Is this true?

5. Software. Given all the controversy lately regarding Final Cut Pro, is it still worth getting?

6. Computer dedicated to media. We have a second-hand iMac that we hope to use to do video editing. It’s an iMac 5.1 with OSX 10.6, a 2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 3GB 667 Mhz DDR2 SDRAM of memory and an ATI Radeon X1600 graphics card. Is this fast enough?

7. Audio recorder & podcasting. We already bought a Zoom H4n Handy Recorder, which we can plug into our PA. Is this good enough for podcasting? This previous ask.mefi seems helpful. Any tutorials on how to actually turn the sound files into podcasts and get them on the itunes store?

8. Where do I get this stuff for cheap? I’ve been told that online is the cheapest place, though BandH is supposed to be good in NY, where I’m based. What websites would you recommend?

9. Workflow. Like most nonprofits, we have a very small staff. If it helps, we currently use an old consumer digital camera and two low-resolution camcorders that record to tape rather than hard-drive, as well as a low-resolution Flipcam that runs out of HD space quickly. For the events themselves, we have a pretty outdated PA that we connect to a few microphones. We hold about 1-3 events a week, usually in our own space, but often at art galleries and universities. We have a pretty large backlog of famous authors on DV tape that hasn’t been converted yet. Our staff is largely untrained when it comes to video, but from what I’ve gathered from talking with other nonprofits, it seems like it’s possible to set up a rudimentary workflow system where interns or anyone can quickly cut down video and throw it up. Obviously this is most likely unrealistic. Any advice on workflow processes to make sure these images get on Flickr or Youtube/Vimeo? Are there any NYC film schools that have externship programs?

Thanks for all your help, everyone!
posted by johnasdf to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: How long are the things that you're recording?

If it's less than 10-15 minutes per clip, I'd buy a dSLR that can do HD video (Canon T2i is highly recommended). They don't do great at continuous recording like a normal camcorder, but the quality is OHMYGOD AMAZING. It rivals or outperforms legitimate professional ENG cameras, and the Magic Lantern custom firmware adds even more video-centric features to the camera. Versus a normal camcorder, you lose smooth zooms, smooth-ish autofocus, the ability to record really long clips, and usable built-in audio. In return, you get stunningly good quality. If you're recording a locked-shot video with a single camera, and are already doing audio separately, that should be an acceptable compromise for your application.

Also, you've got a tripod, right?

The T2i also makes a pretty great still camera, if you don't need to use the two simultaneously. (Or you could buy two T2is and be done with it) You want a DSLR for your stills.

Are your performers always going to be Mic'd through your PA system? If so, then I'd consider doing video separately from audio, and syncing everything up in post-production. DualEyes or the new version of Final Cut Pro can automate this process, and your Zoom H4N can record room noises (nice to have for video) using its external Mics while ALSO recording the output from the soundboard as a separate track. Alternatively, you can use the Zoom as your only recording/mic device.

This way, you can avoid needing that shotgun mic.

If you have a working MiniDV camcorder, you can import old video straight from that. Make sure you have the right kind of FireWire cable (Monoprice have cheap/good cables.)

Your iMac is fast enough. Consider bumping up to 4GB of RAM (dirt cheap), and buying a pair of 2TB external hard drives (really, any will do). HD video takes up lots of space. Why a pair instead of one? BACKUPS!

Final Cut -- be it the new or the old should be fine for your purposes. It's easy to get the hang of, and honestly, the new one actually has a bunch of stuff that's perfect for somebody in your position (ie. audio auto-sync, and dead simple color correction). You might even be able to limp along with iMovie. Premiere's fine too. Your editing needs are quite simple, and hopefully can settle into a workflow where you can quickly import, do your edits, and upload the thing to YouTube or Vimeo (all the cool kids use Vimeo these days). Making sure this gets done is a management problem -- not my department!
posted by schmod at 12:25 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: Assuming Final Cut Pro X supports your camera, it's perfect for you.

I’ve been told that we don’t actually need a deck, we can just convert using the two cameras that we have. Is this true?
Yup, just plug it in via Firewire and capture into iMovie or FCP.

I'm more of a stills guy, but I've done a fair amount of video work. The Canon DSLRs do great video, but as schmod says, the recording time per take is kinda limited to about 10-12 mins per take. Bear in mind that that's fairly long for a lot of things, and you can just press stop and record again. The T2i is probably the best for price/performance. It's not listed as compatible for FCPX, but users have reported it working perfectly. if there's a natural break in proceedings. If you need something with longer takes, I believe the Panasonic GH2 can record further. It's not a camera that I've used, but it seems to be highly regarded.

If you want a traditional camcorder, the Canon HF series is popular and well regarded for the price. The Canon XA-10 is a great little camera, but possibly beyond your price range. I've used the Panasonic DVX100 quite a bit, and it's a great standard definition camcorder, but it's really very long in the tooth now, and probably best avoided.

For sound, you probably want (in increasing order of price) Rode VideoMic, Rode NTG-2, Sennheisser ME-66. Take this seriously - without it your projects will feel like cheap amateur work. It will pay dividends to get the sound right, especially for oral histories and other documentation work. Make sure that you or the sound person listens very closely through headphones while recording. Listen out for noisy helicopters or trucks, computers buzzing in the room, family members slamming doors etc. If you're interviewing someone, remember that you can ask them to repeat sections. I cannot stress how important good sound is.

The Zoom is a great piece of kit. When you're filming stuff, you can plug an XLR mic into it to record the sound in high quality. Then synchronise it later, replacing the poor quality sound from the camera.

Lastly, you'll probably want some lighting for those interviews etc. Unless you have some naturally awesome lighting, it'll really enhance the quality of your videos.

Here's a random guessed shopping list from B&H
Canon T2i (for photo and video purposes) including kit lens (not amazing, but it'll do for now) - $749
Rode NTG-2 (with cable etc) - $299
Final Cut Pro X - $299
Lighting kit - I don't really know of any good options in your price range, but there seem to be a lot of them. Here's a 2 head softbox kit that seems too good to be true - $595
Good video/still tripod - again, I haven't used this one, but it's a decent brand, and going to be servicable at worst - Manfrotto 055XDB - $273
Sandisk 16GB SDHC Extreme Pro card - you need the fast write speed to guarantee no video issues, plus Sandisk have been very reliable with me for the past 5 years - $69
Ultimate Support mic stand - never used it, but it can't be thatbad... right? - $29

That puts you at a budget-bothering $2014. You might be able to shave that down by shopping around, but B&H are pretty good.

Alternatives might include ditching the lights and spending that money elsewhere, like RAM or more hard drives, but I'd really think seriously about lighting. As I said before, it'll up your production value infinitely. Alongside good quality sound, you'll be there in terms of hardware.

Sounds like a pretty decent use of $2k to me.

Also, feel free to memail me with any questions.
posted by Magnakai at 1:27 PM on July 18, 2011

Response by poster: Hey schmod and Magnakai, these are pretty amazing responses. You guys really thought of a lot of great things that weren't on my radar, which is awesome and exactly why I wanted to do an Ask.Mefi post about this.

To answer your questions:

1. The events usually last 40 min to 1.5 hrs, so would that disqualify the dSLR that can also do video?

2. We probably do need to do still and film simultaneously, but it's not a super high priority. Would it be possible to take high-res stills out of the video?

3. Performers will usually be mic-ed through the PA, but they often speak away from the mic. Also, given our lack of technical proficiency, is the shot mic still worth it? Is it hard to synchronize the audio and visual?

4. I could possibly go up to $3-4K on the budget. It wouldn't be ideal necessarily, but this is a long-term investment, so I want to make sure we're buying great equipment we can use in the long haul. So if that liberates you guys suggestion-wise, let me know if there are better models I can get.
posted by johnasdf at 2:16 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: Opening up the budget like that takes you in a wide variety of directions.

The Canon XF100 is an excellent little camcorder. I just used it's big brother (the XF305) for a couple of shoots, and the results were great. Main problem is that it's $3000. So, I guess you're probably going to want to stick to the consumer market.

If you want to do a single 40min - 1.5 hour shot, then yes, I'd definitely recommend a purpose-built camcorder. The world of consumer camcorders is dazzling in it's options. I've had good results using Canon's ones in the past. The Canon HF M41 is apparently a good option, and it's affordable at $799. It comes with 32GB of internal memory, but you'd probably want to pick up at least one SD card, just to give you some breathing room for recording long events.

If you've got room in your budget, and you want good stills, I'd definitely recommend picking up an SLR with a telephoto lens. My default direction is Canon, and the T2i recommended previously should still be a good purchase. In terms of the lens... well, I shoot with very expensive gear, which may be a bit overkill for you. The 55-250mm has the right length, but it's not good in low-light. However, it's only $250.

If not, then you'll be able to get acceptable, web-quality stills out of the camera. You wouldn't want to print them, but they'll do fine for a website.

If you're happy with the sound from the PA, and you're not going to do the oral histories/other stuff, then the shotgun mic's not necessary. However, if there's the remotest possibility that you're going to record sound, then I'd get it in a heartbeat. Again, I cannot stress how important good sound is. Syncronising isn't that difficult. FCP X has a pretty good inbuilt solution, and if not, DualEyes is an inexpensive dedicated package.

Honestly, it's a bit of a tough call. There's always better built gear, better looking gear, better performing gear... but you've got to stop somewhere.

I think a good investment would be to purchase some training. I'm sure other people will be able to direct you better in this area, but her goes. I know do great work, but they don't have anything on FCP X yet. This Ripple training sounds pretty good, and should get you confident in the software, at least.

Good luck, and have fun!
posted by Magnakai at 3:55 AM on July 19, 2011

Best answer: johnasdf: "Is it hard to synchronize the audio and visual?"

With FCP X or Dualeyes, no.

And, yeah. If you're doing a single shot for an hour, you'll need a purpose-built camcorder. If you're filming lots of 5-minute talks, that's a somewhat different story.

Also, you can get occasional close-up video shots at other angles with the DSLR if you've got someone to operate it, and the time to edit everything together. Two cameras are better than one. Watching a fixed shot of a 40-minute talk sounds excruciating.

I'd use your Zoom recorder to record your PA output on one channel, your shotgun mic on another channel, and put it in a place where its built-in mics can pick up the performer, just as a last-resort option.

Also, non-wireless lavalier mics are very cheap. They're a bit of a logistical pain, and you've got to be really careful about where you place it on your talent, but..... done properly, they sound really fantastic. Could be something worth looking into...

Good lighting and audio are key, and often overlooked. If you've got good audio and lighting, but otherwise crappy gear, you're still actually in a pretty good place. Magnaki is absolutely right. "Giving a damn" is 95% of the job; the gear is the other 5%. Don't let any techies hear me say that!

It's, erm....possible to do good lighting on the cheap too. I'm not saying you should use work-lights from Home Depot, or that your talent will love you for doing so....but, given a constrained enough budget, you can cut corners on your lighting kit.

Oh, and as with any project, leave at least a 10% slush fund in your budget for cables and other unanticipated expenses.

FINALLY, go check out some of SpeakeasyDC's videos. They do a similar oral history/storytelling thing, but each story is about 10 minutes long, and broken out into its own video. Pick a few at random, and note how some are great, and some are lacking due to bad sound/lighting (the video is a single-shot, but pretty good across the board).
posted by schmod at 9:02 AM on July 19, 2011

Feel free to MeMail me if you have more questions...
posted by schmod at 6:35 PM on July 20, 2011

Response by poster: Sorry guys, I've been swamped at work lately. I'm going to review this and come back shortly.
posted by johnasdf at 12:15 PM on July 22, 2011

Response by poster: Okay, once again, you guys have been really incredible. I really need to check out those SpeakeasyDC videos, as we're probably going to do a few things similar. Also, I totally get the point about ambition being more important than gear...

I think I can open up the budget a little bit more. Combining what you're suggesting, how about the following list:

Canon Vixia HF M41 - $800
Canon EOS Rebel T2i $750
Rode NTG-2 Shotgun Mic $300
Impact Octacool-9 Light Kit $600
Manfrotto Tripod $273
2 Sandisk Memory cards $138
Trip stand $28
Sales Tax $258
Ripple training $40

That's Magnakai's list pretty much with Ripple Training and tax, without FCP X, which we may be able to get via nonprofit discount--all for about $3200. Okay, some more questions and I promise I'll go away.

1. Any advice for lavalier mics? Also, are there any cables, etc., that I'm missing? Cables? Lighting stuff?

2. Is B&H the best place to get this. It gave me a shipping discount.

3. I got the M41 and the T2i--is that the best way to do this? I figure with these two cameras, we can get dual video and photo plus video.

4. If I expand the budget to $4-5K would you keep the same items and supplement? Or would you replace the cameras. Obvioiusly, I'd prefer to keep prices down as much as possible, but I also want to make a solid long-term investment. Would I see exponential benefits if I threw in a little bit more money or is this a pretty good list as it is?
posted by johnasdf at 8:29 PM on July 25, 2011

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