Creating Good Submissions, Part I: Technology

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pictured: HawkinStroth

Submitting to a festival can be daunting sometimes. Even with the tools on this site that help expedite the process, you’re submitting information alongside dozens or hundreds of other groups. You want to be recognized. You want the festival producers to see what it is you love about your troupe. This is your resume and you want it to stand out.

Ultimately, each festival will be looking for different specifics, but they’ll all be looking for two things; good content and easy access to it. A little work on your end can elevate both of these and make your submissions much more likely to be considered for festivals.

Almost every festival requires a video of your show. This requires some tools of technology. Some groups have access to theatres or friends with fancy technology. Others don’t. And that’s OK. Even with very crude technology, it’s possible to make a quality submission. No one cares if your submission is in HD as long as they can see and hear you.

Camera specs

That said, better cameras will take some of the work off of you. If you’re considering buying a video camera, the salespeople will try to sell you features that may be useful to many customers, but not to you. Here are some features that will help you make more useful submissions (and a few features that won’t).

  • CMOS: This can be an expensive option, although it’s getting cheaper all the time. Most improv shows are done in lighting conditions that most cameras weren’t designed for; low light and high contrast. Cameras that can’t handle these conditions well will “blow out” the difference between performers with lights on them and their background. This means glowing faces and bodies. Part of the joy of seeing an improv show is the intimacy, and seeing the expressions on players’ faces. This can be lost if your faces look like a million burning suns. CMOS is the best low light option in a reasonable price range, but CCD or any “low light” option is better than none.

What is going on here?

  • External microphone jack: Depending on your venue, the camera might be quite a distance from your show, and almost always on the other side of the audience. If it’s a struggle to hear you, you’ll get tuned out. That said, you do not need 5.1 surround. Believe me, I know it sounds cool. But this means capturing sound from behind the camera, which is likely your tech booth. With great respect to your tech booth, I don’t need to hear it.
  • Flash Media: There are still amazing cameras on the market that use tape based media. They are for making movies. Tape can be expensive and time consuming for recording theatre shows. Unless you are planning on archiving shows on tape, which would become insanely expensive, you’d be re-using tapes. Tapes are mechanical devices and wear out quickly. You’ll find shows are garbled on tape after a few recordings. Capturing your shows to a computer for submission purposes is also in real-time, which means 30 minutes to capture a 30 minute show and you need to be near the computer to process. This doesn’t sound so bad, until you remember that usually you get home after shows pretty late at night and you don’t want to babysit the computer week after week. Hard drives are also not the best storage solution for recording shows as it requires moving the camera to the editing station often. HDDs also still have limited storage space. A single SD card can typically store a week’s worth of shows at most theatres while a HDD can store only one night’s worth.
  • Simple Workflow: This is not going to be on the “specs list” for any camera — you’ll have to do a little research. No cameras (that I’m familiar with) on the market today support NTFS storage. I won’t bore you with the technical explanation of what this is, but here’s what it means to you. Cameras can only record a small handful of minutes at a time. This is fine for most people who don’t need long continuous shots. But a typical improv show is recorded live for 20-45 minutes. In cases like this, each camera manufacturer has their own methods of combining several small clips together to make one continuous file on your computer. For some cameras this is a quick simple process that you don’t even realize is happening. For other cameras, it is cumbersome. Also, some cameras apply unique codecs and wrappers (which is a fancy word for file types) which can’t be read by certain computer programs. At the time of this writing, Sony has the most simple and useful tool for importing longer files to computers, but in 2014 and beyond other cameras may be more useful.
  • Appropriate lens: Most festivals want as much of the stage visible at all times rather than a camera person moving the camera. A single shot covering the whole stage is preferable. Each staqe is uniquely shaped and you’ll want to find a lens that can capture the stage without diminishing the performers. If your stage is particularly wide, consider a wide angle lens — or at the very least a camera which supports 16×9 mode. If your stage is particularly small, this won’t be as large of a concern.

What you don’t need

  • 120hz: Also called Motionflow or Cinemotion or some other catchy name depending on the company. It can be very useful for recording NASCAR races. For an improv show, it doesn’t affect how the festival producers see your show.
  • Steadycam: As we are about to discuss, your camera should always be in a fixed location, not handheld if at all possible.

Making the best with what you have

All the features listed above will help, but it’s ultimately up to you to make sure your technology suits your environment. Here is how to record a show that will be easier to watch

  • Use a tripod: If you don’t have a tripod, use a shelf or a tabletop. Set up a shot that will capture the whole stage and lock down the position. The people viewing your show aren’t looking for creative camera work, they’re looking for a consistent view of everything going on. A handheld camera will miss parts of the show; it will be making choices for the festival producers and eliminating their scope. Boring single shots win every time.
  • Exposure: You can play with all the other settings you want, but the one that really matters is exposure. Get into the space ahead of time and simulate the lighting conditions of the performance with performers onstage. Too much exposure leads to a blur of white, too little exposure leads to a blur of black. Turn the exposure to a point where you can see the players faces at the front of the stage as this is the area where they are closest to the lights.
  • Separate the camera from the audience: I have watched hundreds of videos where the camera is in the middle of a laughing audience. Laughter is great, but not if I can’t hear the show. Put the camera, or the microphone if external, away from the laughing audience.

Creating a video

Once your show is done and you’ve dumped it to a computer, it’s time to get it online to be seen. At this point, you’ve done all you can do for the video quality, all that’s left is to make the show viewing as effortless as possible for festival producers.

  • Don’t include a long intro: It is often appreciated to have the name of the group and the date of performance at the top of the video. This shouldn’t take more than five seconds. Certainly, no one wants to see your promotional “hilarious” video for three minutes before watching your show. The same applies for the actual onstage intro to your show. Some videos include an MC introducing the show, some don’t. Either is fine as long as it’s very brief. If your actual show doesn’t begin by the sixty second mark, you’ve already lost the attention of the viewer.
  • Don’t break up your show: Many video sites have time limits which means breaking up your show across three video links. Nobody wants to load three links to watch one show. Vimeo allows files up to 500Mb on their free account, which should suffice for most shows.
  • Make it embeddable and accessible: Many festival organizers embed your submission video into whatever submission review tool they use. They don’t want to go to another page. More importantly, they need to be able to access it. Facebook is a big offender on both counts. Many videos can’t be embedded, and some cannot even be viewed unless the festival organizer is your “friend.”
  • FOLLOW DIRECTIONS: Many festivals have specific requests for shows. Read them. Make sure your show meets them.

Taking care here will make sure that your video can easily be viewed and more accurately represent your group. Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of which show to submit. For the answers to that see Part II.

Bill is an instructor at The Torch Theatre and producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival. He tours teaching and performing across North America. Bill is also a founder and website administrator for the National Improv Network. He’s always looking for feedback on how to make the website and the community stronger. Say ‘live long and prosper’ to @whbinder

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