Last night I found myself watching some old documentaries my Dad had on VHS (mostly episodes of old Discovery channel series, circa 1990), as much to watch how they used footage from varying sources and how they handled voiceovers as for the information they were presenting–although the subject matter was something I find interesting. It’s much easier to deal with poor quality old footage today than it was then–what I’d try to do is digitize it into Premiere, then export it to a Photoshop filmstrip, then export that into PhotoDeluxe and use its automatic cleanup, then take it back into Photoshop and then back to Premiere. The result wouldn’t be perfect but in five minutes you could have a film clip that looks a lot better.
I’m not sure I can ever watch TV for enjoyment ever again–I find myself analyzing it, trying to figure out how I’d do something comparable, or better. Then again, aside from baseball games, I haven’t watched TV for enjoyment with any regularity since 1992 when Quantum Leap went off the air, so I don’t think my new hobby changes anything.
My next video project is a documentary. I won’t be spending much time behind the camera; I’m putting my journalist hat back on and doing the interviews. I don’t know yet if I’ll be the one assembling and arranging the clips. The challenges here are really different from my music video projects, but I don’t see it as being very different from my old magazine projects in college. The biggest difference is that now I can add audio to help tell the story, and the pictures can move. But it’s still a matter of gathering the story, then gathering elements that help tell the story.
This is a big change for me though. In Journalism 105–the second journalism class I ever took–they exposed us to the basics of all the major forms of journalism: newspaper, magazine, advertising, radio, and television. I learned how to write a basic, straight news story in high school, so newspaper writing was easy. Magazine writing appealed to me a bit more because you could get more creative. Radio was a nice challenge, because you had very limited space to tell the story since it would be read aloud. Advertising was the most different unit but I didn’t struggle with it too much, at least not in that class. The only unit I disliked was the TV unit, because I didn’t like storyboarding. I think I know what changed though. When I learned TV writing, we were still in the linear era. Non-linear editing systems existed, but they weren’t widespread, so that wasn’t what they taught us.
Fast-forward six years. A couple of media professionals in St. Louis taught me how to use Apple’s Final Cut Pro. I was competent in an afternoon. To me, it looked almost like desktop publishing software, the biggest difference being that final output was playback, rather than a printed page. Suddenly TV made sense, and I caught myself thinking I’d like to go back to journalism school and get a broadcast degree. Sanity quickly returned.
Video resources online. I’m going to let the cat out of the bag. The biggest obstacle to learning video editing is a lack of footage to work with. Sure, if you’ve got a DVD-ROM drive, you can rip video from DVD and use it, but then you can’t legally use the result for anything unless you go get the appropriate permissions. You want to get permissions before you start on a project, but you don’t want to wait around for permission before you start getting your hands dirty. The answer is to mess around with some public domain video. Then you can do anything you want.
The lowdown: Anything produced in the United States before 1922 is now public domain. This includes video, photos, and music–although a specific recording can be protected by separate copyright. As a general rule, it’ll be 2067 before you see widespread public domain music recordings. Anything produced by the U.S. Government, whether in 1776 or five minutes ago, is public domain. And a large number of works produced since 1922 have fallen into the public domain for one reason or another–the most noteworthy example being the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If you’ve ever wondered why 800 of your 922 cable channels, seemingly including ESPN, C-SPAN and the Cartoon Network, are showing that movie at any given moment in December, that’s why–any TV station can play that movie without paying anyone a dime.
Public domain video or stills can also be useful if you’re in the middle of a project and need to illustrate a point and none of your sources (whether your own video or other video you’ve obtained permission to use) illustrate it adequately.
Finding public domain stuff is a little harder. So here’s a core dump of all the resources I’ve found in the last couple of days:
http://www.pdinfo.com — public domain music
Links page from above, includes other media
The Internet Archive’s Movie Collection, over 950 downloadable PD movies, mostly short informational or promotional pieces.
Rick Prelinger’s journal, related to the above collection.
Kino International, a distributor of old movies on VHS and DVD, some of which is in the public domain.
Retrofilm.com, a distibutor of public domain material on professional-grade media such as miniDV–they don’t sell material on VHS or DVD. Their catalog is surprisingly large and recent, including a 1980 made-for-TV movie about Jonestown that I remember seeing at least twice.
Tips for handling files from The Internet Archive Collection on various platforms
The Public Domain: How to find and use copyright-free writings, music, art and more, a 300-page book on the subject.
Tools. There’s a non-linear editing project for Linux called Broadcast 2000 that got rave reviews, but unfortunately, DMCA-related litigation caused development of the program to be halted (presumably because of fear of lawsuits, either due to liability or due to people possibly using the program to violate the DMCA) and the developer no longer offers it for download. I did find the source code on Tucows, and recent versions of SuSE and Mandrake are supposed to have it. Since the program was GPL, you can still legally download it and do whatever you want with it. GIMP was abandoned by its original authors early in its development cycle and subsequently picked up by others, so maybe Broadcast 2000 still has a future.
I found some Broadcast 2000 tips here.
Regardless of what tools you use for editing, be sure to get Virtual Dub–do a search on Google. You can use it to crop your video clips and convert between formats. I’ve had good results using the Indeo 5.1 codec at a high quality setting. Slice the video you want to use into the segments you want, leaving yourself a few frames on either side just in case you need to stretch the sequence out or decide you want to use transitions.