Tech Talk: Videography for builders

Builders who want to grow or to branch into new fields like construction management, design/ build, or development have a problem: how to present themselves to a new and frequently younger set of clients. The hottest new technology in the struggle to get a leg up on the competition is video.
Of all the ways to tell your story, video offers the most comprehensive set of tools. Video’s ability to communicate with sound, movement, and personality sets it apart from the static images of the past. That’s why so many families are buying video cameras to document events such as marriages, births, and graduations.
Armed with a short video of perhaps 10 minutes, you can introduce yourself and show a sample of your building projects. Your clients can provide personalized testimonials, and you can show how your team works together to build faster and better.
Ported to tape or disc (DVD or CD), your video can be set to run continuously at shows and fairs. Ported to the Internet, your message is available on demand.
To test the practicality of this potent technology, I offered to serve for a few days as an unpaid member on the staff of Bowen & Watson, a general contractor in Toccoa, Ga. The firm has doubled its volume in the past 10 years and is expanding into construction management at risk and design/build. The company plans to mount the video on its Web site, www.bowen-watson.com.
The video took about a week to produce. The first day was spent installing a Matrox RT2500 video capture card and bundled software in a new computer running Windows XP operating system. Shooting the video with a Sony digital TRV9 camera took two days, because the six projects that Bowen & Watson wanted to show were scattered over the mountainous northeast Georgia. The rest of the time was spent editing the raw footage.
My experience was about typical of what you could expect of a computer-savvy staff member. The video will prove that I am obviously a video rookie who doesn’t like to read instruction manuals (until I get into trouble). But a satisfactory first video probably can be produced internally in a reasonable amount of time.
The most valuable lesson I learned is that it takes both good pictures and good editing to make a good show. Even the best editing cannot rescue bad video and bad sound, but without good editing all you have is home movies.
The easiest way to improve your video is to use a damped tripod. A tripod holds the camera steady and damping permits smooth camera movements. A monopod (one leg) is a less expensive alternative. The best way to improve sound is with a wireless microphone. The mike in your camera is effective only at close range.
If you’re shooting an interview, leave the camera pointed at your subject. Don’t be whipping the camera around to show other activities in the same shot. Shoot the other activities later and insert them into the scene when you edit.
Transferring video into your computer requires specialized software and hardware. Video has become so popular that dozens of vendors have jumped into the market. The price starts at free and goes up — way up. At the free end, Windows XP includes Movie Maker, Sony PCs have MovieShaker, and Apple bundles iMovie with its computers.
With so much free, why pay? The commercial products offer more features, more control, and more speed. At least two dozen programs are available for $50 to $150. Mid-range products cluster in the $500 to $1,000 range.
I selected Matrox at $900 (list price) because it includes a computer board that will capture analog (VHS) or digital images and speed up editing, which can be glacial in low-end products. The Matrox software bundle includes Adobe Premiere ($550 all by itself), cabling, titling, music, and utilities that will export the finished video to tape, disk, or Internet.
More importantly, Matrox provides technical support and will pay for the phone call after you leave a message.
The worst mistake I made was not striping my tape, as the manuals recommend. Striping means recording a blank tape (with the lens cap on) so a time code gets inserted on it. With time code, a Matrox utility can automatically divide all the tape you shoot into scenes that are easy to rearrange. Separating the scenes manually is time-consuming and extremely boring.
My second-worst mistake was not understanding how video cameras handle light. The first scene I shot had a bright background, and I did not change the default setting, which calculates exposure based on average brightness in the frame.
The result was an overexposed background and bald heads — and black shadows where eyes and mouths should have been. The second scene had the opposite problem: a dark background.
The result was an overexposed talking head. The camera has settings to compensate for those situations, but rookie-me wasn’t paying attention.
The editing process went smoothly, mostly because I was determined to keep it simple and quick, and to avoid the mindlessly spinning graphics on which television thrives.
The goal was to produce a video that was informative and persuasive, which meant letting the people and projects on the front side of the camera be the stars.
Some builders may insist on a video portraying current or recent projects; the video I produced will have a shelf life of maybe six months. Otherwise, the video should be useful for marketing or instructional purposes for many years.

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