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A Pro’s Guide to Recital Videos


How to pick the right company and get the features you need

By Rob Rothkopf

We all know the tremendous amount of work that goes into the creation of a dance recital, gala show, or big competition number. And as the date grows near, the signs go up: “Purchase DVDs Here.”

Your video is a key component of the performance experience. It’s a retelling that allows for review and future growth, showcases your work, lives in your students’ homes for years, and may even serve as a portfolio piece for college admission. In my company’s 13 years of shooting dance productions, I’ve spoken with hundreds of dancers, studio owners, parents, and professionals about what they’ve seen, liked, and disliked in their dance videos. What I’ve learned can help you make informed choices about production videos.

Know your audience
Typically, there are three categories of viewers:

  • Studio owners and teachers, who always want to see the full-ensemble choreography. They may want to use the video as a training tool for future classes, to recall the choreography later, or for self-assessment.
  • The dancers, who want to watch themselves and their friends and who may learn from the pieces in which they didn’t appear as they watch the DVD repeatedly. They’ll benefit from seeing full-ensemble choreography and would also enjoy closer shots.
  • The families, who want to see their own children. For this audience, the wide, back-of-the-house shot can be frustrating because the dancers may appear too small to be easily identified.  

Choosing a videographer
Here are a few factors to consider when searching for the videographer who is right for you.

Experience with dance. Just as chefs develop their palates for specific cuisines, video professionals who are familiar with dance will be able to, as I call it, “dance with the dancers.” That is, they can feel and understand the intention behind the dance and capture (shoot) and retell (edit) it properly. As their familiarity increases, so too will their ability to smoothly transition the shot framing as the choreography progresses during a dance. For example, an inexperienced camera operator might stay wide” or full stage even during a solo for fear he might lose the dancer by zooming in.

Commitment. Is the videographer a professional with an established company? Will this person be around for many years to meet your needs reliably as your school grows?

Trustworthiness. Do a “gut check” to see whether you’d be comfortable having this videographer around children, especially if the work involves being backstage to capture “extras” footage. If possible, ask for references from other schools.

Capabilities. Ask the videographers you’re considering for samples of videos they have produced that are similar to what you envision; their work and references are the best ways for you to see their abilities. Do they shoot with one camera or more? What do they do for audio? Can they provide a backstage video feed for the performers waiting to dance? What does the packaging look like? What extras do they include? Do they meet your quality standards and turnaround requirements? Can they grow with your visions? 

Raising these points is particularly useful if you’re looking to replace a videographer who hasn’t worked out for you. “I think many studios hold back on changing their videographer,” says Michelle Spezio Ferm, owner of Spezio’s Dance Dynamics in Getzville, New York, “because of the fear of selecting the wrong new vendor and ending up in worse shape than before. Making the time to search for a new videographer is important if you have discussed specific changes with the first video person and clarified expectations and then they are not met.”

Once you’ve hired someone, communicate early and well. As the recital date grows near, stress levels will rise. Try to iron out details—including a realistic and agreeable delivery date—long before the actual recital, if possible. Requiring videographers to attend a dress or tech rehearsal gives them the chance to find out about any special circumstances (for example, a number in which dancers enter through the audience), test the sound feed, and validate camera placement.

The shoot
Part of hiring a videographer is discussing the shooting options open to you. So it’s best to familiarize yourself with some basic techniques.

Camera options
Videographers who shoot properly with multiple cameras can create a polished, professional video that’s far better than the “camera-on-a-stick” method (a single camera placed in the back of the house). “I like the multi-camera DVDs much better,” says Janeen Cole of Hoffman School of Dance in East Aurora, New York. “It is just a more professional look; you get different angles instead of the straight-on shot.”

A multi-camera setup eliminates the need for frequent zooming. By using tasteful dissolves, transitions can match the pace of the music and dance. And it allows solo performances to shine. While one camera stays on the full-stage/wide shot, another can track the dancer as she moves around the stage and a third can focus on highlighting a technique or an expression. These varying perspectives can be edited to effectively retell a performance.

Multiple cameras mean there are backups. It’s live performance and there are no retakes. “I have experienced both [single- and multi-camera videos],” says Ferm. “Single-camera is fine, but there are drawbacks and one big one is what happens if the video doesn’t turn out. Then you have nothing.” Multiple cameras can also allow the videographer to hide bloopers, such as a dancer’s pratfall or a “costume malfunction.”

With multiple cameras, ensemble choreography can stay intact and closer views of performers can be shown at the same time, making everyone happy. Several techniques are possible; talk with your videographer to determine which will work best for you. “Sometimes over-production is not the best for dance video,” says Ferm. “You need someone who is experienced with dance video production.”

Multiple cameras are necessary for a split-screen approach such as an upper-half/lower-half screen shot. (Image courtesy of Rob Rothkopf, Candlelight Productions)

There are three common methods for shooting with multiple cameras.

Upper-half /lower-half: In a typical full-stage view the performers occupy only the lower half of the screen and the upper half shows only a cyc or backdrop. With this option, the screen can be split so that the lower half shows the full stage (all of the dancers) while the upper half pans across individual performers. This allows viewers to choose whether to watch the ensemble or close-ups. However, some people find the split screen aesthetically displeasing, and some find it distracting to have both views on-screen at the same time.

Picture-in-picture (PIP) inlay: While the main view displays the full-stage choreography, an inlay that shows a closer-up pan of all the dancers is displayed in an upper corner for a short duration during the dance. This technique is

Dancers can be featured equally in close-up shots through use of a picture-in-picture inlay. (Image courtesy of courtesy Rob Rothkopf, Candlelight Productions)

less distracting than the upper/lower split since it’s displayed only part of the time. It’s more aesthetically appealing, and the individual dancers get equal amounts of close-up time. However, there are fewer close-ups due to the shorter duration.  Mostly full with occasional pans: The full-stage ensemble is shown most of the time, but sometimes closer pans are shown full-screen. The editor can re-create and sometimes even enhance the retelling by doing what the audience would do; that is, sometimes watch the entire stage and often scan across a line of dancers (for example, during a kickline). This may be more suitable during slow dance numbers. An advantage to this method is that individual dancers appear bigger during the pans than with the split-screen or PIP options. On the downside, during a pan the full-stage view is no longer visible and some dancers will be out of the frame.

HD vs SD
High-definition video isn’t necessarily better than standard definition. Although it does record more detail, shooting a recital in HD will offer little benefit if the end product will be on standard-definition DVDs. When the end product is a medium that displays HD video, such as Blu-ray disc or an online download, the benefits of HD can be realized. (Some videographers offer online streaming as an option.)

Keeping the audience in mind
Camera placement is an important consideration. During the show, the audience wants unobstructed views. However, everyone also wants a great video.

A camera placed in the back of the house (behind the audience) will be the least obtrusive to the audience. Consider blocking it off in such a way that attendees do not walk in front of the camera.

When cameras are placed in the house within the seats, or mid-house in a horizontal crossway, there are ways to minimize the impact on audiences. Although the camera may need to be placed a bit higher, make sure the cameraman can stay lower. Also, block off enough seats behind the camera operator so that paying customers encounter minimal obstruction. If any seats are likely to be blocked, let people know in advance.

Just as chefs develop their palates for specific cuisines, video professionals who are familiar with dance will be able to, as I call it, “dance with the dancers.”

Have a plan for dealing with disgruntled parents. One time, a dad who sat near a blocked-off section (partially obstructed) actually shoved members of my video team and threatened to unplug our equipment 30 seconds after the show began.

The human eye is much more forgiving than video. Be aware that some kinds of lighting will appear harsher and more intense on video than others. Heavy use of red lighting often bleeds into other colors, making it difficult to see details on costumes and performers’ faces.

LED lighting is increasingly being used theatrically due to its low heat emission and infinitely variable color combinations. On video, however, it sometimes produces a flickering effect (for example, on backdrops) and is so intense that it washes away other colors. Videographers who calibrate their cameras for typical floods and fills (which are a different color temperature) will find the videos rather saturated by the LED lights, especially when they’re used to illuminate the skin. Minimize this problem by using LEDs and incandescent lights together, with the latter used for front illumination.

Don’t light the back of the stage (e.g., the cyc or backdrop) at the expense of the front. If the dancers’ expressions are important to you, make sure there’s adequate front light.

Audio considerations
Many people now have televisions hooked into their home stereo systems and they’ve grown to expect high-fidelity sound, even from a recital DVD. Audio recorded from a board feed, when recorded in stereo, can have the same fidelity as the original audio, but such onstage elements as taps, claps, and singing may be missing or too quiet. An ideal mix includes the recorded audio, house audio (audience applause), and stage audio, whether it comes from boundary microphones at the edge of the stage (sometimes called “tap microphones”) or hanging microphones above the stage. A videographer who records all audio sources separately will be able to boost them as needed for the videos.

The product
Once you’ve decided how you want your video to be shot, it’s time to consider what to include, how to set prices, and how to handle ordering.

Additional features make your video more accessible and enjoyable. Consider including backstage footage of the dancers’ preparations and commentary from the studio owners and teachers to capture the excitement of the day and allow the performers to relive the moment. And rave reviews make the performers feel proud of their accomplishments. Consider filming audience members’ responses to questions like “How did you like the show?” and “What did you like best?”

Chapter marks allow you to navigate from dance to dance easily, while a dance index (a menu option) lets you select individual dances.

A “making of” photo slideshow of the recital preparation, the studio, or special events throughout the year can be included. “It personalizes the children and their efforts,” says Janeen Cole at Hoffman School of Dance. “I have a former student take pictures at our dress rehearsals of the dancers getting ready, performing, and waiting to go onstage. The kids love it, and it will be a great memory for them to look back on.”

A DVD menu can be either generic or customized with your recital artwork.

High-quality discs will minimize compatibility problems in home DVD players.

And don’t forget packaging options, which could be simply a clear jewel case or full-color printed DVDs and cases.

Studios typically sell professionally produced dance videos of a single recital performance for $25 to $45, which includes sales tax. Studios that handle sign-ups and distribution often keep a small portion of the DVD price to offset their costs.

Since studio owners pay attention to the total costs for parents (lessons, costumes, travel, DVD, etc.), they need to find a balance between what they think will be acceptable to parents and the value of the services provided by the videographer. Many videographers will request a guaranteed minimum to ensure that their base costs are covered. If you’re hiring an out-of-town professional, additional negotiations may include travel and/or accommodations near your performance venue.

“Videographers need to realize that people are willing to pay only so much before [DVD] sales go down,” says Ferm. She adds that “many studios will pay someone to video the show and then send the video to a production service that costs very little. This gives a much higher profit margin, but is the end product worth it?”

Sign-ups and order forms
One method of DVD sales is to have a sign-up sheet at the studio, collect all video payments, and give the videographer a final count at an agreed-upon date. The videographer should be paid once the DVDs are delivered. The studio owner schedules a pickup date and handles distribution.

Alternately, you can hand out order forms before, during, and after the recital. Forms can either be turned in at the venue or mailed directly to the videographer, who handles all fulfillments, including mailing the DVDs to the families. (Postage is paid by the recipients.)

Agree in advance on the date when you and/or the families can expect their DVDs, and build in “padding time” so you don’t have a line of upset parents if the date slips a bit.

Building a relationship
Loyalty is a valuable part of all relationships, both business and personal. So keep communication open and, if needed, call a meeting to talk about your needs and vision.


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