Some tips on the use of video camcorders in business

It's a rare technology that moves from the home into business. Telephones and computers, for example, became household regulars only after they were well established in business. Video cameras and recorders, in contrast, have been popular in homes for a decade and only recently have begun moving into the workplace.

Most businesses still reserve videotapes for special occasions, such as trade shows. Demonstrating a piece of machinery can be done much more effectively with pictures and sound than in print. Training new employees might also best be done with the help of video.

But consider, too, your weekly management presentation. Practicing in front of a mirror might show you a few ways to improve your form, but watching a videotape of a real meeting is the best way to see yourself as others see you. Applied analytically, this technique can lead to dramatic improvements in the style, and even the content, of your presentations.

Or what about using video to keep an audiovisual notebook? You can tape a company meeting or a conference for those who couldn't make it, put together a realistic tour of potential new office or store locations, and even record interviews with job applicants to let more people in your company size up potential hires.

Finally, consider this idea: instead of putting your polished 10-minute product profile on a cassette with only 10 minutes of tape (as most professional duplicating services do), put it at the beginning of a standard two-hour tape, and give this tape to your prospective clients. They can watch the tape at home and then rewind and reuse it for whatever they want. This strategy can ensure you private time with a prospect, time that may be hard to come by in a busy office.

You have two choices for making business videotapes: hire a professional video production company, or do it yourself. For critical tapes -- a key sales presentation or public introduction -- a professionally produced tape is usually the best choice. Expect to spend about $8,000 to $13,000 for a polished 10-minute video and far more if you want something really fancy.

For less-than-special occasions, however, doing it yourself is becoming more and more practical. To tape a presentation for internal review, for example, you need only a video camera, recorder, and a tripod -- just aim and shoot. With the proliferation of equipment for the home video market, you have plenty to choose from for your average business needs. And you won't need to hire a professional photographer: anyone who has mastered a 35-millimeter single-lens reflex camera will have little trouble picking up the basics of making a business video.

So, to get video up and running in your company, you'll need to budget for the video maker's time, and make a onetime investment in equipment. A 10-minute video takes from a few hours to a day or so to make. The total outlay for basic equipment bought through a discount house is about $3,000 for a camcorder (a compact combination video camera and recorder), a tabletop videocassette recorder (VCR), a television, and an editing controller.

Equipment choices
What kind of equipment should you look for? The key difference among types of video equipment is format. Probably the most familiar format is full-size VHS, which has dominated the home VCR market since Sony's Beta began fading some five years ago. Today the main choice is between VHS and 8 millimeter.

VHS (Video Home System) is actually a family of formats that use half-inch-wide tape. Full-size VHS tapes hold two hours of video at the highest and best-quality speed, six hours at the slowest speed. (An eight-hour tape is available but not recommended for ordinary use.) Camcorders that take full-size VHS tapes are big and heavy; they are fine for use around the office but are cumbersome if you have to travel with them. The main advantage of full-size VHS camcorders is playback ease; you can pop a tape directly from the camcorder into any VHS deck.

VHS also comes in a compact format called VHS-C; the tape cassettes and camcorders are about one-third as big as full-size VHS equipment, so they are much easier to take on the road. With a slightly awkward adapter, VHS-C cassettes can also be played on any VHS deck. VHS-C cassettes run for only 20 minutes at the standard recording speed, however, so they are not suited to long taping sessions. At the slowest speed, a VHS-C cassette will run for one hour, but you must be willing to accept a poor picture.

Better video-recording techniques have modified ordinary VHS to produce two other formats that boast a significantly sharper picture: full-size Super VHS and compact Super VHS-C. Super VHS decks and camcorders can record and play back ordinary VHS tapes, but an ordinary VHS recorder cannot play back a Super VHS tape. Both ordinary and Super VHS images can be viewed on any television, however. The improvement of Super VHS over ordinary VHS is striking enough so that if you decide on the VHS format, you should get Super VHS for recording tapes.

Even smaller than VHS-C or Super VHS-C, and technologically more advanced, is the 8-millimeter format (not to be confused with 8-millimeter movies). About the size of an audiocassette, an 8-millimeter tape can hold as much as two hours at normal recording speed and four hours at slow speed. The 8-millimeter VCRs and camcorders are better designed than their VHS counterparts, and the format has other advantages as well.

Because the format is small, 8-millimeter camcorders can incorporate a full set of recording and playback features that are lacking in VHS and VHS-C camcorders. Smaller size means lower power requirements: an 8-millimeter camcorder can use smaller batteries than a VHS model. And 8-millimeter has a special advantage: because compatible equipment is rare in homes, your employees are less likely to borrow the camera for their kids' birthday parties. The one area where the 8-millimeter format lags behind VHS is picture sharpness, but an updated format, 8-millimeter Hi-Band, which should have about the same sharpness as Super-VHS, will appear by 1989.

Once you have decided which format you like, choosing a camcorder boils down to its features, including convenience. Just reading the specs of different models won't tell you everything because overall convenience depends on your specific combination of camcorder and playback VCR. (See "What to Look for in a Camcorder," next page, for a comparison of four popular camcorders.)

Editing techniques
A videotape will almost always need editing before it is presentable. A rough but effective form of editing can be accomplished during playback with indexing, a feature on many recent VHS and 8-millimeter camcorders and VCRs that invisibly marks the beginning of every scene on a tape. When you are playing back an indexed tape, you can skip to the next scene or skip a number of scenes. You haven't eliminated the bad or unnecessary takes, but at least you can fast-forward past them.

To make a finished video, you need to create an edited tape by copying, or dubbing, selected sections from the original tape onto a new tape. You can do this manually with two connected VCRs: put the original tape in one VCR (the playback deck) and record onto the second (the recording deck). The process -- starting and stopping each deck as you find the scenes you want to preserve -- is tedious, and the results are usually pretty ragged unless you are able to control the decks accurately.

The first practical device for making do-it-yourself video editing easier is the editing controller DirectED, from Videonics Inc. You mark the beginning and end of each scene you want to keep, and DirectED assembles them semiautomatically. DirectED works with most video equipment, including camcorders; the only requirement is that the recording deck have an infrared remote control, which the DirectED uses to turn the deck on and off. For editing 8-millimeter tapes, Hama makes Videocut 10, an editing controller that takes advantage of the Control "L" remote-control jack built into most 8-millimeter camcorders. The recording deck can be any format with an infrared remote control.

You'll want multiple copies of many of the videotapes you make. If you need more than a few, send the original finished tape to a video-duplication service. With two VCRs, you can make copies yourself, of course, and you can convert your tape to another video format. To convert an 8-millimeter original into VHS, for example, you'll need to copy from an 8-millimeter VCR connected to a VHS recorder. For tapes you are planning to circulate outside your company, you will almost always want copies in the full-size ordinary VHS format, which is currently the most widespread in the consumer market.

In the future, personal computers will play an increasing role in business video production. Camcorders and VCRs will come with built-in computer interfaces, so a complete editing system could be built around a personal computer. Such a system will be much easier to use than the editing equipment available today. Improvements of this kind will help make video indispensable to businesses.


A shopper's guide

Four popular camcorders are reviewed here -- Sony's 8-millimeter CCD-F40, and three Super VHS-C models: Panasonic's PV-S150, Toshiba's SK-S80, and Zenith's VM6500. (These models, and many others on the market, may also be sold under different brand names. The Zenith VM6500, for example, is the same as the JVC GR-S55, and the Panasonic PV-S150 is also sold as the Magnavox VR9260.) All four are priced below $1,700, and all work well, although they are quite different. Whatever camcorder you decide on, you will need at least two accessories: a spare battery and a tripod, which can eliminate the shaky pictures that always plague handheld shooting.

* Size and handling. All four models are the compact variety that most people should opt for, with the Zenith being the smallest and the Toshiba the largest. To shoot, you hold the unit in front of you, much like a still camera. (Full-size VHS camcorders have one advantage over these compact units in that they sit on your shoulder while you are taping, a more stable position).

Of the four, the Zenith handles best: its handgrip is near its center of gravity, and its controls are well placed for easy operation. Sony's 8-millimeter unit ranks second in "feel." The handgrip on the Panasonic is so far forward that the camera does not balance well in your hand, and its controls are less convenient. The relatively bulky Toshiba has its tape-transport controls (play, rewind, and so forth) on top toward the front, where they are hard to operate quickly. It ranks last for handheld shooting, but it is the only model that comes with a full-function remote control that lets you shoot without being next to the camera.

* Picture quality. The images produced by all three Super VHS camcorders are sharper than the 8-millimeter image, but, as it turns out, sharpness isn't everything. In a comparison of the same scenes shot with all four camcorders, indoors and out, bright colors in the 8-millimeter picture came closest to what you see with the naked eye; there was less distortion of straight lines; and the light and color in scenes with bright sunlight and dark shadows were better balanced. Among the Super VHS models, the Toshiba gave the best picture. The Panasonic was next, trailed by the Zenith, which had the most trouble handling mixed sunlight and shade.

* Sound quality. Camcorders all have built-in microphones, which pick up sound effectively as long as your subject is close enough. The built-in microphones also record sounds you may not want; in a quiet location, you can pick up the camera motor. The Sony is the quietest of the four models. The Panasonic runs a close second, and the Toshiba and Zenith camcorders pick up a little motor noise in a quiet room. All the camcorders can also accept external microphones.