Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Shooting and Editing Home Video

© 2012, Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I bought my first video camera in January 1988. It used full-size analog VHS videotapes, was quite large, and used a large and heavy battery, which required an even larger and heavier charger. Over the next 15½ years, I shot 76 hours of home movies. In September 2003, I bought my second video camera, which was digital (but not HD). It records to 1-hour tape. In the 8 years since, I have recorded about 65 hours of home movies, which I have edited down to 61 1-hour DVDs.

In December 2011 and January 2012, I converted my 38 2-hour analog tapes to digital, and edited them down to 35 1-hour DVDs. [It took me quite a few tries to do this over a multi-year period before I found an approach that ended up with video that was at least as good a quality as the original analog tape.]

In this essay, I'll share with you some of the things I've learned along the way to creating 100 hours of edited video.

Being Realistic

A big promise of shooting one's own video is the ability to edit out the silly or boring bits as well as those minutes of film of the ground as you walk along thinking you had switched off the camera, but hadn't. Plus, you can add from those thousands of transitions and special effects that came with the editing software. [For example, mine allows me to transition from one scene to the next by folding the final image into a paper airplane and then having it fly off into the next scene!] However, editing video requires some idea of how to make a movie, and no training comes with the camera. Be prepared to spend time figuring out what you'll need to do to be successful.

If you thought you could get by with only a few blank video tapes/discs because you can reuse them, you'd better be ready to edit your video and burn it to DVD within 30 days of returning from your trip. In any event, you can't reuse your media until you've at least copied its contents off to some other place, even if you don't do any editing. (See later below.)

Some terminology

First, let's define some terms:

frame — Each separate image recorded. Most frames are the video content contained within scenes. A few are titles that introduce each chapter, and one set on each disc will be the menu for the set of chapters on that disc.

scene — That continuous piece of footage taken from the time you press Record until you press Stop Record. For example, you shoot a 30-second scene of little Mary showing you her new bicycle. Then you shoot several 60-second scenes of her riding it around in front of the house. Later, you shoot a 90-second scene of her riding it up a ramp and through a flaming hoop, blindfolded, while steering with her knees. [With an analog recording, nothing special is recorded with each frame. However, with a digital recording, a time stamp is written for each single video frame of the scene. And if the time between two consecutive frames differs by an amount greater than the length of time it takes for one frame to record or play, any device reading that video can tell that there must have been a scene break between those two frames. That is, with digital video, a reading device can detect the start and end of each scene automatically, which is useful when it comes to dealing with transitions.]

chapter — All of the scenes that together make up a single event. For example, all the scenes of Mary riding her new bike make up one chapter, possibly titled, "Mary Knievel Gets a New Bike". When we say, "I made a home movie", we're talking about a single chapter.

transition — The space between the end of one scene and the next within a chapter; the space between the end of a chapter and the next chapter's title frame or between a chapter's title frame and the first scene. Either way, if you do nothing, one scene simply gives way abruptly to the next without any smooth transition, such as fading out and fading back. To understand transitions, watch any movie or TV show and see how they handle the changeover from one scene to the next. If done well, the casual observer won't notice the change.

title — A special frame that introduces a chapter. It is often a digital photo representative of that chapter or a frame extracted from that chapter. [In the case of my analog conversions, I had almost no digital or digitized photos of the entire video subject, so I adopted one of my editing software's title templates, and used that for all titles.]

menu — The top-level title of a disc that shows you all the chapters available on that disc, with the chapter list possibly spread over a number of frames. [The way I've designed them, my menu frames hold six chapters each. Each menu frame then has arrows allowing me to move to the next/previous menu frame.]

It is important to note that except for content frames, none of these things exists until you edit your video. What comes directly out of your video camera has no scenes, chapters, transitions, titles, or menus, only a set of content frames (each possibly with a time stamp).

What's in My Camera Bag?

I have two golden rules regarding what to put in my camera bag besides, of course, the camera:

  • Always carry a spare, fully charged battery apart from the one in the camera. The one time you forget to do that will be the one time your primary battery runs down 10 minutes into your 2-hour round-the-island boat tour. (Ordinarily, I do not recharge a battery until it's completely discharged.)
  • Always carry at least one spare blank tape/disc/memory card (I usually carry at least two). That way, you'll have plenty of recording time regardless of what's left on the tape/disc/memory card currently in the camera.

Occasionally, you can get caught in the rain, so it's worth putting a strong zippered plastic bag in your camera bag in which you can seal your camera. It can also be used in places with high humidity.

Despite being in the high-tech business, I also carry a pencil and some paper to make the occasional note about certain scenes to be read during editing. I also pack some business cards. And I almost always have a few emergency rations (like a chocolate bar).

Once you have filled a disc/tape/memory card and you get back to your hotel, take that media out of your camera bag, and leave it in the hotel (maybe even locked in your room safe). Leaving it in your camera bag increases the risk that you might lose it or have it stolen when you take your bag outside again.

Although I pack my battery charger in my camera bag when I'm traveling, I never take it with me when I'm out shooting locally.

The other essential thing I carry is a basic digital still camera. For the most part, I use that to take pictures from which I chose the title of each chapter. Occasionally, I have a bunch more nice shots and if there is space at the end of a DVD, I add a chapter made up entirely of still photos, each separated with a 4-second transition, making a nice slide show.

One habit I follow religiously is to close the catch on my bag each time I take the camera out or put it back in. The reason for this is that if you lose your balance (on a slippery hiking path or on the deck of a boat, for example), the stuff in your bag won't all fall out and down a steep ravine or overboard.

Shooting Video

Know your equipment. If you plan to go out and buy a video camera to use on some big trip, take the time to learn how to use it properly. Shoot some video with a variety of settings and in different lightings. And if you can watch it on your home TV too, that will help you learn what to do, and, just as importantly, what not to do.

Each time before you record, clean the camera lens with a soft cloth. It's too late when you are editing that scene once you are back home to find distracting dirt, dust, water droplets, or some such impurity right there in the middle of the action. [Regarding cleaning the lens, my good friend John recommends a hand air blower, which is a rubber bulb that when squeezed directs a jet of air at the lens. This is especially good for removing particles too small for the naked eye. Besides, even a soft cloth risks scratching the lens if there are tiny pieces of grit or sand there.]

Don't forget that cameras record sound too! This might be obvious, but watch most people shooting video and you'll see that they say little if anything. However, don't say the obvious: "Now I'm zooming in on Johnny"; "As you can see, the train has stopped"; "Now we're lighting the birthday candles". Also, as you stretch that extra distance to take a better shot, and you bump your head hard on some object, that Mother-of-all-swear-words you say will also get recorded right there along with darling Johnny's school play.

Think about what you are going to say before you start filming. (After all, you are playing movie director; seriously.) Provide information that will augment what the viewer will see.

Don't pan (that is, move the camera sideways or up/down) too fast. This is definitely one thing to practice at home. Watching some people's video is like riding a rollercoaster; everything just flashes by. If you think that you are going slow, you'll likely find that you are still going at least twice as fast as you should. S-l-o-w i-t w-a-y d-o-w-n!

Don't zoom too quickly or too much. The zoom control on my first camera required a heavy touch while that on my second didn't, so it took some practice to zoom slowly. Two much zooming will make viewers lose interest. And when you are at maximum zoom, the slightest movement of the camera is greatly magnified, so if you can't hold it really still, use a stand or lean it against something.

Don't shoot too much of the same subject; it gets boring. And shooting too little means that the scene is almost over before it starts.

Don't shoot into the sun, a bright light, or a fire, or with a bright background behind someone (such as someone sitting at a window).

If you have an on-screen date/time marker, remember to put it on at the start of the first scene of each chapter, but don't leave it on for more than 10 seconds.

All of the digital cameras I've seen allow you to view through an eyepiece or on a small screen. I usually use the eyepiece, as that significantly reduces the battery use. And while you can only see a small window via the eyepiece, with a bit of practice, you can open your other eye, so you can see the window from the eyepiece superimposed on the actual view allowing you to move the camera smoothly to action happening outside that window.

Make sure you have a strong safety strap on the camera and always put your shooting hand through it, so the camera can't fall far if you drop it.

When shooting each scene, start the camera a few seconds before the event you are filming and/or before you start talking, and let it run late. You can always delete any extra time during editing, but you can't add missing audio or video.

The more experience you get from editing, the better will be your future filming, hopefully, to the point that your chapters need little or no editing.

Uploading Video to a Computer

A digital camera should come with a cable that connects it directly to a computer via a USB or a FireWire port. If a CD-ROM also came with the camera, install the software it contains. What you eventually want is for the video on the camera's media to be uploaded/acquired/copied to the hard drive as either an MPEG or a DV file. (The former is much smaller than the latter, but doesn't have the latter's high quality.) In the case of my old analog camera, I connected that to an adaptor that converted from analog to digital and then sent that to the computer via a USB or a FireWire port. As my analog film sound was in mono, I used a splitter cable to record the same sound on both the left and right channels.

As I mentioned earlier, the timestamps on digital media allow scene starts and ends to be detected automatically, which is a great help when it comes to editing. That way, it's easy to find the place to insert a transition. With analog video, my software (Pinnacle) allows me to define artificially a scene as a given number of seconds. Whatever duration you chose, it will almost always be wrong, but that's not the point. The longer the scene the harder it is to edit it. After some trial and error, I settled on 20 seconds, so when digitized, each of my 2-hour VHS tapes became 360 20-second artificial scenes, and that proved to be a good choice. Of course, most actual scenes ran much longer than 20 seconds, in which case, I did not put any transition (that is, delay) between artificial scenes that really went together to make up a real scene. I did not combine artificial scenes into real scenes, although I could have done so. There was no advantage to doing so.

My software allows me to trim the start and/or end from a scene, and to split any scene into two at the point I specify. And the two parts of a split scene can themselves be split again.

With a digital camera, the acquisition software uploading the video controls the camera through a serious of mouse clicks. In the case of an analog camera, you have to use one hand to operate the camera controls while the other is clicking the mouse on the software. As such, you can "lose" a second or two of video when your software doesn't start recording until after a few frames of video have played. Given the time stamp on digital recordings, the software knows then the video ends; however, for analog input, you need to tell the software to stop acquiring. The speed of the acquisition is the normal playing speed of the camera, so it takes an hour to upload an hour of video.

One of the problems I had initially when acquiring analog video was that the result was of lower quality than the physical tape from which it was taken, and that didn't seem right. What I was doing was playing the tapes on my old analog camera, which appeared to be working just fine. However, I had a new VHS/DVD deck and I tested that against the old camera. And the result was just as good as the original tape. Apparently, the read heads on my old camera were dirty making the video acquired via it of lesser quality. So, clean your player headers thoroughly before acquiring video especially from old VHS tapes.

[When I first started uploading digital video more than 8 years ago, I made sure I had plenty of disc space available. However, when I first tried an upload, the software tested the speed of my disc and told me it was too slow, and wouldn't be able to keep up with the camera. I was using a high-speed FireWire connection, which was quite a bit faster than the then-current USB 1.1. With today's faster connections and cheap/fast discs, that probably won't be a problem unless you are using some old equipment.]

Editing Video

With my software, it's quite easy. In one window you select the digitized input file, which is opened to reveal all the scenes as pages of thumbnails (using the first frame from each scene), presented in chronological order. In a second window, there is a blank storyboard to which you drag scenes from the input window. You can't edit a scene until it's been dragged to the storyboard. Scenes can be trimmed, split, removed, or rearranged, as you like. I never mess with the audio, as it is fine the way it comes, but your software probably will let you dub over video.

In my case, I record to 1-hour DVDs. So, I drag all the scenes from the input window and make a pass over them, getting rid of "obvious" stuff I don't want, identifying chapters, and inserting chapter titles. There are two main scenarios for recording video. In the first, you shoot a few minutes now and then on different and probably unrelated subjects. As a result, you might produce a disc of "miscellaneous" stuff. In the second case, you cruised the Caribbean and shot 100 minutes of video. In this case, you might try and condense that down to one disc, so that is the only thing on the disc. That makes it much easier to make copies of the whole disc to give to the friends who accompanied you on the trip.

Over a 25-year period, a number of close friends and relatives have featured prominently in my videos, so I plan to put together one or more composite discs containing all the chapters pertaining to them. This is straightforward. I create a new, empty storyboard, and cut and paste whole, already edited chapters from other storyboards I edited earlier.

Once I figured out the editing process and I started shooting video with editing in mind, I found that my video needed less and less editing to the point where I could edit and produce a 1-hour DVD in about an hour once it had been uploaded.

Video Disc and Content Indexes

Once you have created final, edited discs, how do you track what is on them such that you can find the disc(s) and chapter(s) of interest later on? There is a limit to how much you can write on a label or on the disc itself, and that limit is small. At best, you can write a disc ID/number, an overall title, and the dates spanned by the disc's contents.

In my case, I have two sets of DVD's: those produced from digital video have IDs of the form DVD-nnn, where nnn is a 3-digit number 001, 002, 003, and so on; those produced from analog video have IDs of the form AVD-nnn. This allows for 999 discs in each series, which I fully expect will be sufficient for my lifetime.

I maintain two separate index documents:

  • A formatted text document that for each disc, contains the disc ID, an overall title, date span information, and a list of the chapters on that disc with chapter numbers and titles. This is printed and a hard copy is stored with the discs, which are themselves stored in a zippered DVD binder.
  • A spreadsheet that contains one row per chapter. That row contains the following columns: the raw source filename, date taken, the DVD ID, chapter number on the disc, the chapter name/title, and keywords I wish to associate with the chapter (primarily the names of all the main people, events, and places depicted in the chapter). I search this in electronic form to find any or all chapters involving a particular person, place, or event.

Preserving Without Editing

Consider the case in which you have a bunch of old analog tapes whose contents you'd like to preserve before the tapes deteriorate. Even if you don't have the time or skills to edit them now, at least consider uploading them to a hard disc. [Truly big discs—as much as 3TB—are quite cheap and compact these days.] The same is true for digital recording media. If you want to reuse it (and why not?), you'll have to upload the contents first. Of course, once you record back over the media you can never go back to the original. That is, the copy you have on the hard disc is your only copy, so you should consider having a backup as well. [I have 3 2TB discs, each containing the same contents, but which are stored in different locations.] Oh, and by the way, if you think that would cost too much to have spare, big discs "lying around", ask yourself what you'd be willing to pay to get back your video if you lost the only copy. (See the subject of backup in my essay, "Technology, Unplugged – Part 2", from December 2010.)

Some VHS/DVD decks have the ability to digitize an input tape onto a DVD, allowing some minimal editing and addition of titles such that the resulting DVD can be playable directly. I didn't play much with that option, as I knew I wanted to do some serious editing along the way. [In fact, more than 50% of my original analog video fell on the cutting floor during editing.] That said this option might be attractive as the easiest, quickest, and cheapest way to go initially. And, later on, you should be able to upload the resulting DVDs to your computer for editing.

Which DVD Format Should I Use?

Computer-friendly DVDs comes in various flavors: +R, +RW, -R, -RW, and -RAM, among others. A format ending in R is read-only, so you can only write to it once. A format ending in RW is rewritable, typically up to 1,000 times. [There are also Dual-Layer discs, whose designations end in DL; however, despite their increased capacity, not all of my DVD players can handle them, so I don't use them.] Ideally, I wanted to record my videos on the same kind of media on which store-bought/rental videos are recorded; however, I've never been able to find out what that format is. In the meantime, DVD+R and DVD+RW work fine for me, as discs of this kind play in every video and computer-based DVD player I've ever tested them in.

When I have completed a 1-hour storyboard and have proofed it as much as possible using the editing software, I burn a copy to a DVD+RW disc. I then play that disc on several DVD video players connected to TVs as well as one on a computer to make sure it works okay. Assuming it does, I then fire up my DVD-copying software and make a copy, writing to a DVD+R disc, which becomes my master copy. [I actually have two DVD burners on my network, so copying from one to the other is easy. If you have only one, copying will be done via a temporary disc file. When copying a disc, always be sure to choose the copy-with-verify option, if that is available.] I then erase the DVD+RW disc ready for the next editing session. I never write my proofing copy directly to a DVD+R disc. If I did and there were problems in the chapters/titles, which I wanted to correct, I'd have to throw away the disc instead of reusing it. So while you'll need a supply of write-once discs on which to make your permanent recordings, also keep a handful of rewritable ones for temporary use.

Even though DVD formats are universal, that does not mean that everyone can read/play everyone else's DVDs. For example, the world is broken into a number of regions each having a different region code. And DVDs recorded for one region can only be played on machines for that region. [If you put a "foreign" DVD into a Windows-based player, it will allow you to play it several times after which time Windows will switch permanently to that region code only!] The good news is that there is a truly international region code, and my editing software uses that (as do all editing products, I suspect). Such discs can be read on any player worldwide.


There are always newer, bigger, and better options available for shooting and editing video, so if you use that as an excuse to wait "until the sales next Christmas", my guess is that you really aren't serious about making videos. In my case, although cameras with mini-discs instead of tape were just becoming available, they were more expensive and were not as proven as the old tape technology, so I went with tape. Since then, personal HD cameras have become available. C'est la vie!

Until about 15 months ago, my TVs were all analog, each having the classic US 4:3 aspect ratio, so my videos looked okay, as that matched my video cameras. However, once I went to a wide-screen set, I found it better to set it to the "narrow screen" mode, so people and pictures didn't get stretched out of proportion.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Don't underestimate the discipline and effort needed to be successful. And like most things in life, the more you do, the better you get, so the sooner you get started editing, the better will be your shooting, and vice versa. Best wishes on that "short feature" Oscar Nomination!