minidv potential -- real or malarkey?
August 10, 2006 8:28 AM   Subscribe

I've decided to make a film on MiniDV. I'd like it to look and sound decent.

I pretty much plan on learning as I go along, but I'd like to have a basic idea of how to make something that looks better than your average home movie (this is a super-duper special home movie, you see). I'm not expecting professional quality results, because I'm an amateur and I'll be working in an inherently amateurish format. I just need some guidance.

Does anyone know of any helpful guides to shooting a (reasonably) technically qualified movie in this format, mostly in terms of lighting/cinematography/sound? Is this even possible to accomplish with a cheap little MiniDV camera that has a built-in microphone?
posted by jimmy to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Well, no.

That said, you're eternally welcome to try.

The built in mic isn't going to help you at all, and that camera almost certainly will not have manual audio level control, nor a "Real" (XLR) audio input.

You don't have to go *far* up the pile to get a DV camera suitable for this these days, but that won't be it.

One camera that seems to be getting a *lot* of compliments (though I haven't shot with one), is the Panasonic DVX100A. It has large enough chips and glass, good audio, and shoots 24p -- also important if you want people to feel like it's a 'film'.

But, no matter what you shoot it on, the quality of sound and lighting, are, as you note, paramount.
posted by baylink at 8:39 AM on August 10, 2006

MiniDV doesn't do well with lighting contrasts. If you're shooting outside, for example, don't have the sun in the background and your barely lit subject in the foreground. The results will be dimly viewable.

Make sure you use a separate microphone for sound pick-up. The built-in mics on cameras are horrible.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:44 AM on August 10, 2006

Best answer: Whatever camera you end up using, read the instructions and learn to properly set the white balance. And re-set it every time you change location. Nothing says "amateur" more than scenes tinted yellow, green, blue, etc, due to improper white balance.
(Unless you want that "art house" look, of course.)
posted by Thorzdad at 8:45 AM on August 10, 2006

Best answer: The absolute first thing you're going to want is an external microphone. This is not a optional item. Your cinematography could be worthy of an Oscar, but if the sound is the typical in-camera tinnyness (with added benefit of hearing the DV-tape turning and/or the strap clinking against the camera frame) no one is going to think of your film as professional.

You could do this with a minidisc recorder and microphone, but then you're going to have to use a slate (the clapper board you see in film outtakes) to sync up the audio and video in the editing stage and this can take quite a bit of time.

If you watch some films done on minDV (anything by InDiGent is a good place to start), you'll notice that the footage might look unpolished, but the sound is always spot-on. It's a very, very important element.

Lighting plays a big part too (some say more sowith video than 'normal' film), but I don't really know what I can suggest (re: specific resources) beyond experimenting and looking at other films.

An important thing technical thing to keep in mind when shooting DV is the white balance. You might have some issues with the camera as it doesn't seem to have a manual white balance burron, but instead has several presets and 'automatic'.

Which actually reminds me. Don't have anything on automatic if you can avoid it. Auto-focus, auto-white balance etc. can all seriously mess up your shots. Cameras are quite sensitive to changes in lighting/focus and that one falling leaf might end up causing your camera to do a little focus jig, effectively ruining your shot.
posted by slimepuppy at 8:49 AM on August 10, 2006

On preview: pretty much what everyone else has already said.
posted by slimepuppy at 8:52 AM on August 10, 2006

I would also like to apologise for the horrible grammar and spelling in my reply.
posted by slimepuppy at 8:53 AM on August 10, 2006

On folo to Blazecock's comment (conflation is popular this week :-)

The MiniDV tape format is not what's intolerant of high-contrast shooting situations; it's the cameras that are commonly coupled with it -- especially at the consumer level. Small sensors, cheap glass, and crappy electronics all contribute to an inability to handle contrasty, poorly lighted scenes (you get about 3 stops, I think, where film can give you 5 or 6 on a good day).
posted by baylink at 8:54 AM on August 10, 2006

I xnd what everyone else has already said. If you can afford a higher-quality camera, buy it. I shoot on a DVX-100B, but I've enjoyed time spent with the Canon XL series too. If you can afford a high-quality mic, buy it. If you can afford a light kit, buy it. You can use all the quality you can get.

If you can't, read up on lighting and sound and do the best you can with what you've got. One thing I've had good luck with are "china ball" lanterns. They're cheap, but effective.

Most of all, though, have fun and learn. Your first film will not be great, but you will learn a lot. I love the medium, and encourage you to get involved. I've found that you will often be hot, stressed, and otherwise under duress on set, but, you do it anyway because you love it.
posted by Alterscape at 9:00 AM on August 10, 2006

Best answer: My honest opinion, though it's been a while since I've shot any DV, is that buying a big omg-magic-gadgets! camera when you're a) starting out and b) on a budget is counterproductive. I'll have to dig through my old course notes when I get home; there might be some good guides to getting started with DV. But some very quick tips:

1) SOUND: trying to use the on-camera mic is just plain stupid. Don't do it. 90% of the time the camera simply isn't situated in the proper place to pick up sound well, especially when we're talking about situations like when the camera is zoomed in from afar. One option, as mentioned above, is to hook up an external microphone that can be moved independent of the camera. I don't really think you need XLR for this; that's a nice thing to have and will give you better sound quality, but in a pinch a minijack input will be fine. If you want to go all out, get a portable DAT recorder; it'll record better sound than your camera, and allows you to have a completely mobile sound person without worrying if the cord is long enough or if the camera's gonna fall off its tripod. Sound is usually the technical element most lacking in amateur productions (partially because it requires a lot of work on set to hold that boom mic up, and partially because it's so hard to clean up bad sound), so if you get this right, you're ahead of the game.

2) LIGHTING. Buy yourself two or three film lights and a couple of gels: something to diffuse light (tuffspun is what I used when I was in university, there may be other options), something to alter color temperature (blue gels to simulate daylight; don't bother with orange gels, as I've never found a use for them) and some farm doors to block off light. Then read up on the differences between key lights, fill lights, back lights and the rest. Also look up the three-point lighting setup. Lighting is easier to fudge than sound, as cameras are quite good these days at dealing with low light, and you have to ability to check the image in the viewfinder8212;something that you couldn't really do with old-school film cinematography. Just remember that low light is your #1 enemy and you'll be okay.

3) TECHNIQUE. This is probably fairly easy to figure out, as anyone who's ever watched a television show or a blockbuster movie is already used to certain filming and editing techniques. It's called the continuity style of editing, and the rules are pretty simple: establishing shot to introduce a setting, then closer shots of the principal action; always keep the camera on one side of the axis of action (aka the 180-degree rule); cut on important actions. Learn the continuity style so you can use it as a foundation; then feel free to experiment.

Many people before you have bought cheap little cameras and made cult classics, and they had to use film. You'll definitely be able to put something of merit together with most miniDV cameras on the market. Remember that a good idea and good technique will trump technical specifications most of the time. One last thing: Experiment as much as you want to and try out whatever strikes your fancy. It's the best way to learn, and with digital video, it's cheap, too. Good luck!
posted by chrominance at 9:15 AM on August 10, 2006

technically qualified movie in this format, mostly in terms of lighting/cinematography/sound? Is this even possible to accomplish with a cheap little MiniDV camera that has a built-in microphone?

Not sure what you mean by "technically qualified" but the camera you linked to isn't it. Unless the camera has an external microphone jack don't bother trying for technical merit. I shot video professionally (Canon XL2) over a decade here's a shoe string set-up for what you want to accomplish.

1. (Camera)inexpensive but great results with external mic jack. Panosonic PV-GS150. If you can find one grab it! 3 ccd sensors and adequate external mic jack. Careful if you look at the GS 250 or later models as not all include an external mic jack. The Canon ZR 500 is the only cheap (under $350) camcorder on the market that I know of that has an external mic jack. Both have moderate manual controls. Learn them!
2. get a screw on wide angle lens for around $100 (You need it)
3. lighting. Use mother nature as much as possible. Sunny outdoor light is the best. Shoot as much as possible with the sun behind the camera. (Never ever ever shoot with the sun towards the camera.)
4. Indoors do not use normal florescent or normal indoor lighting instead head down to the hardware store and pick up some clamp-on cheapo heat lamp holders (under $5) and purchase Slvania Daylight bulbs. People will tell you the higher the lumens the better but its much more important that all the bulbs have the same lumens value. You'll do great using 100W bulbs with 1270 lumen output.

5. Video editing. Cheap alternative. The Microsoft Movie Maker Upgrade (under $50) or if you can get Sony Vegas you'll be thrilled with the results. ($499) or Adobe Premiere.

6. Remember it's illegal to use copyrighted music or video clips but there's a ton of Royalty Free Music, Sound Effects
, video clips out there. Just do some searching on the Internet.

I've successfully used the material I've listed here to produce some great extreme sport video with no complaints. Enjoy and Good Luck with your project.
posted by xenophanes at 10:09 AM on August 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ok, perhaps I overstated the case a bit, chrominance. :-)

BTW: those orange gels? They're for warming up windows to match your non-HMI lights inside a room.
posted by baylink at 10:09 AM on August 10, 2006

Forgot. You'll also need a mic. Radio shack has some cheapo's that work great.
posted by xenophanes at 10:11 AM on August 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ignore everyone else. That camera's fine.

The one thing you need to do is use manual focus, exposure and white balance, so that it stays the same throughout each scene (and only change when moving between lighting conditions). One of the dead giveaways of a home movie is the auto-focus and exposure constantly adjusting itself. It'll take some practice to get this right, though.
posted by cillit bang at 10:17 AM on August 10, 2006

Best answer: Consider planning your first movie in such a way that synced sound isn't necessary at all, i.e. make it silent, make it musical, make it voice-over only to be dubbed later using a great mic in a quiet room at home.

Not only will you not have to slate your shots or rely on the on-camera mic at all, but your setups will go faster, and you can put your resources and attention more towards visuals and editing instead of sound acquisition and sweetening.

Some people think that sound is a greater indicator of high production value for the viewer than any other single aspect of production. I'm skeptical, but it's true that good results for dialogue and atmosphere are unlikely to happen without a combination of decent equipment and some in-person help or guidance from an experienced party. But, you're the one planning your video and you can decide what role sound will play in it, so if this isn't the one where you can make live sound recording work, give yourself a project which doesn't require that.

Hint: if you do record the sound on some external source, use the on-camera mic as well -- it will serve as a sort of hinting system when it comes time to sync up. You can look at the waveform of the on-camera mic and the waveform of your acquired sound and visually match them up (this won't work if the camera is very far away from the source of the sound during the shot, because the distance will cause a delay).

Here is some stuff to get the gears turning:

James Arnett offers an interactive flash tutorial on 3-point lighting.

The BBC makes their own training materials on DV available for free and they're great.

If you are doing post on the Mac, Ken Stone's page is the place to learn nearly everything, and it also has some general tips on video.

Read Jay Rose's online articles about audio for video (pre-, during and post-) but skip his book. has loads of info once you have the basics down and are getting into advanced/theoretical territory.

Free effects plugins for FCP are on Stib's site (self-link warning -- one of those many listings is one of my plugins).

Here's a link (pdf) to a good explanation of how/why to calibrate a video monitor -- you're going to need it eventually.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 10:22 AM on August 10, 2006

Ignore everyone else. That camera's fine.

Gee thanks. I just spend 15 minutes of my time trying to help this guy out and you say just ignore me. He stated he wanted technical merit with lighting/cinematography/audio. That camera has 2 out of the 3. With know available external mic jack this camera fails his request. Hopefully he'll ignore you....
posted by xenophanes at 10:29 AM on August 10, 2006

With know available external mic jack this camera fails his request.

Sorry, I meant the people further up thread talking about $2,000 cameras. You're right, without an external mic jack that camera isn't really suitable.
posted by cillit bang at 10:37 AM on August 10, 2006

but its much more important that all the bulbs have the same lumens value.

Expand on this?

This sounds like you're suggesting the same amount of light being thrown at the subject from all the different angles where lights are placed... which isn't how *I* learned it...
posted by baylink at 10:50 AM on August 10, 2006

Best answer: First, I'm going to object. It's not a film.

Film denotes celluloid. I suspect you're talking about a Narrative feature (>90 min). While it's called by many a "film", it ain't. Yeah, I'm a purist (but I can knowledgely talk about production, post production and film transfers of DV, betacam and HD to actual film).

You're on the right path.

Sound: never ever, EVER use onboard sound. Get a boom or external mike. It might be nice to see what sort of budget you're looking at. Sony has an HDV camera for less than $1500. Sure it's a consumer camera and HDV is a pain to edit, but c'mon, it's only $1500.

Lighting: I don't actually believe you can learn lighting from a book. I think it's a combination of doing it and learning in the field (or in the classroom). If you're serious intern/volunteer with a videographer in your area.

Meanwhile, Three Point Lighting is the basis of lighting. The real art comes into play by using gels, scrims and flags to control the light.

There is a narrow amount of latitude that video cameras can handle (from the lightest part to the darkest part of whatever is being seen). DV is a bit more limited than "Professional" video (like digibetacam or HD formats). It's more of a Prosumer format. But all video formats struggle (vs. Film.)


Study shot composition from DVDs. You'll need a fluid head tripod (for smooth pans)

You don't know enough about hand held shooting to be doing so. If you try, it's likely that it'll look out of place with your lock down shots. Keep you hands off the damn zoom control too, especially during hand held shots. If you want a close up...move the camera closer.

Above all else, look into shot composition and the rule of thirds.

I'd take a glance through at
Film techniques
and Cinematic Techniques over at Wikipedia as well.

The other big mistakes I often see are Jump Cuts (a shot less than 30% different in Angle or in Size) and breaking the 180 degree line. The latter refers to screen direction...and is an essay itself.

Remember, less is more: if you want to shoot a 90 minute piece...try doing it well at 5 minutes. You'd be suprised how long it takes to get a good five minutes. If you're working with amatuers, remember they're good for three to four takes (at most.) Also, think about your audience (while maintaining your personal vision. Short attention spans (short of your friends) is the format to aim for.

After all, when was the last time you sat through someone else's 90 minute narrative video?
posted by filmgeek at 10:53 AM on August 10, 2006

Best answer: Home made steady cam, because shaky cam is really annoying.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:59 AM on August 10, 2006


I'm not suggesting that at all! I was trying to avoid an overly technical discussion on lighting. It has everything to do with how consumer level ccd's pick up light. If all the bulb lumens are the same then the light "frequency" will also match. If they don't match the color balancing in these cheap camera small sized ccd's get wacked out by inconsistent performance and will produce some strange video output. By all means be creative in your approach to lighting your set. Learn to use shadow and light to set moods, etr....
posted by xenophanes at 11:14 AM on August 10, 2006

Lumens are a measure of brightness and nothing else. You might be thinking of colour temperature, measured in C (or nm), which it is a good idea to match, and is roughly equivalent to light frequency.
posted by cillit bang at 2:54 PM on August 10, 2006

"Sure it's a consumer camera and HDV is a pain to edit, but c'mon, it's only $1500."

posted by slimepuppy at 2:57 PM on August 10, 2006

yea except you wouldn't see those colour temp measurements on the bulbs you by at a local hardware store, you should see the lumens, if the bulbs are from the same company and have identical lumens measurements then the color temps also match...
posted by xenophanes at 2:58 PM on August 10, 2006

Best answer: I agree with a few of the suggestions upthread - you do need an external mic (even a cheap one), a cheap camera is fine (so long as you have white balance, manual exposure & focus), and trying to make anything good longer than 20 minutes your first time out is madness.

I would suggest you experiment. If you have little or no experience filmmaking, the place to start is to Just Make Something, rather than worrying about lighting, sound and so forth. Make a small (5-10 minute) project; make mistakes, try crazy stuff, see what works and what doesn't. Then, go and buy a couple of books on filmmaking, read about lighting and editing and angles and sound and everything. It will make a lot more sense once you have tried without that knowledge, than just reading pure theory cold. Ideally make a few small projects, and read up at the same time, so you can put your learning into practise.

Be aware that filmmaking is serious business. It tends to require patience, learning, experience and determination to make a movie anyone would want to watch. I'm not trying to put you off at all, just that you can't just fall into filmmaking and expect to make decent movies. That said, a little knowledge, a little imagination and a little will can produce some wonderful things, so just get going, have fun with it, and keep learning.
posted by MetaMonkey at 3:10 PM on August 10, 2006

Best answer: I watch a lot of bad horror movies. Bad horror movies. As in, six of them for six bucks. They're great time-fillers and fun to laugh at, but they're additionally a trove of What Not To Do.

And almost all of them are on miniDV. And I've had to work with miniDV.

First off, everything everyone has said about the sound is absolutely true. Some of these films have been rendered unlistenable due to using a built-in microphone or other sound issues. Not just bad, I can't understand what is being said. Get a camera with an external microphone jack. And get a decent boom microphone.

Second, I'll jump back to the horror. That means a lot of "dark." With the use of miniDV, these films were grainy and looked like they had been shot through some kind of infrared nightscope. Consider spending money on lots and lots of lighting.

MiniDV has a reduced colorspace as compared to some other formats. Things will look a little washed out. Plan accordingly.

Get a decent tripod. I second the motion to look up the webpage on how to make your own steadycam for fifty bucks.

Last, get a bunch of poorly-made horror films and get a feel for the giant mistakes these guys made.
posted by adipocere at 4:55 PM on August 10, 2006

Response by poster: thanks, guys, your comments are invaluable.

to address the main concern, i planned on getting an external microphone, but was kind of discouraged by the fact that this camera has no audio input. using a slate and a portable recorder seems like a good idea, so i'll go along with that. i'm willing to invest the extra time spent aligning the audio and video afterwards.

secondly, the white balance advice is indispensable as well. it looks like this camera more or less allows you to manually set the white balance, exposure, focus, etc., so i should be fine there. but i'll definitely experiment beforehand to get a good sense of how to use these effectively without messing everything up.

the links in this thread are incredibly enlightening. i was familiar with some of these basic editing and cinematography concepts (rule of thirds, the 180 degree rule), but there's obviously a lot more to it than i originally thought. i'll try to pay careful attention to the rhythm of the editing featured in other movies and see how they've managed to pull it off well, just to get a sense of what i should be going for.

also, i'll probably try to write and shoot a few shorts beforehand to get some experience. that seems like a reasonable suggestion, and i'm in no rush to get this filim made.

i plan on checking out some other films shot on minidv as well. the indigent suggestion surprised me, as i've seen a few of the films they've put out and figured they were shot on a different digital format. i'll definitely go back and watch some of them again.

again, thanks a lot for your contributions.
posted by jimmy at 8:36 PM on August 10, 2006

Jimmy one more thing.

Go rent Robert Rodriguez's El mariachi, Desperado and Once Upon a time in Mexico. Skip the films. Watch the "10 Minute Film School" extra.
posted by filmgeek at 9:48 PM on August 10, 2006

Response by poster: Go rent Robert Rodriguez's El mariachi, Desperado and Once Upon a time in Mexico. Skip the films. Watch the "10 Minute Film School" extra.

oh, i certainly intend to. it was reading his "rebel without a crew" that inspired me to start working on this.
posted by jimmy at 10:01 PM on August 10, 2006

Oh yeah, one thing I forgot to mention: be sure to have fun.

Like it's been said, film making is a lot of hard work, it can be very stressful and things WILL go wrong, but it is extremely rewarding seeing your creation come to life. Especially at this level, just be sure you're learning and having a laugh while doing it.

And adipocere is on the right track. Watch some terrible, terrible films. They'll teach you more than any major Hollywood blockbuster will. Trust me, when you've seen Ankle Biters, you'll feel good about yourself and anything you produce.

Good luck! And be sure to post up any follow-up questions you might have.
posted by slimepuppy at 1:01 AM on August 11, 2006

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