My Video Career

A while back I decided that it would easy and useful to video record  some lectures. Little did I know!

I use the blackboard. I hate powerpoint, as do many students. For one thing it’s a lot of preparation work. Also it’s too easy to present way too much information. Click, click, click, each slide crammed with information. The blackboard slows you down to just the right pace.

Part of what got me thinking about video was a mainly good experience with still photography. I would put an effort into writing clearly and laying the blackboard panes out neatly, then I would take pictures. I would post them on line and thus the students had lecture notes.

What should have tipped me off is my discovery that even taking still photos of blackboards is not straightforward. The naive approach is to stand right in front of the board, point the camera at it, and press the shutter.

Two things can go wrong, depending on what happens next. If the flash doesn’t go off, chances are there won’t be enough light on the board. Your camera (which of course you’ve set on automatic) uses a long exposure and the image is blurred.

On the other hand, if the flash goes off, there’s a big bright spot in the center of the photo where the flash reflects off the board. Nothing in the middle of the board is readable and photoshop won’t fix it.

Experienced photographers know how do it properly. One solution is to set up a remote flash that illuminates the board off centre. However I didn’t have one and didn’t want the hassle of setting it up for every class.

The other solution is us a tripod (and no flash) but again I didn’t want the hassle of hauling equipment to class and setting it up.

Finally I came up with a third solution: take the picture (with flash) from just on the side,  and a few steps back. In the resulting photo there is no glare spot, though the board is distorted. Fix the distortion with photoshop skew, and you’re in business. A bit if extra work, but worth it. I used this for several classes over many terms.

On to video

Encouraged by my still photography experience, I decided to move on to video. All I needed was a camera and (unavoidably) a tripod. I already had a tripod and borrowed a video camera from a friend (who used it to record things like birthdays).

I brought them in to class set them  up, aimed the camera and turned it on. I began lecturing as usual … couldn’t wait to see the result.

Which was awful. The image was low definition (probably 480p) and was useless because you couldn’t read the blackboard.

OK, I need a camera that can take high definition movies. I settled on a Canon digital SLR – a Rebel T1i  (the series is now up to the T6i). I bring it to class, set it up, aim it, turn it on, lecture, then view the final result.

Which is OK till about half way through the lecture, when the video stops in mid sentence. Huh? I didn’t turn it off!

Out of desperation I consulted the manual and soon found the problem: it can only take 30 mins of video at a time, something to do with buffers filling up (it doesn’t matter how much the card will hold). After 30 minutes it stops recording. And the worst part is, it does so silently, without the slightest beep. There is no remedy and all the comparable cameras work the same way.

Also, the results weren’t that great. I had to place the camera far enough back that both blackboard panels appear. That meant they were both small and hard to read and most of the image was wasted.

So it was just not practical to simply set the camera up and let it run for an hour.

Plan B

The backup plan that emerged was to move the camera up to one of the blackboard panels (usually the left one) and have it fill the viewfinder. Also, I got a remote control for the camera so I could turn it off and on without leaving the blackboard. The idea was to record not the whole lecture, just highlights a few minutes long each.

This worked pretty well. No danger of the camera switching off, and the writing on the board was clearly readable.

I didn’t want to go back and forth pointing the camera at each of the two panels in turn. No need – the classrooms I was in had sliding panels. So I’d work on one panel and  film, then turn the camera off, slide the right panel to the left, then start lecturing and filming again.

The trouble began after the filming. I had to stitch together these short filmlets. Not hard – though I had to learn iMovie to do it.

The next step is to actually watch the resulting movie, and if you follow in my footsteps you’re in for a shock.

The first shock is seeing yourself as you really are. You may look fatter than you imagine, or older than you imagine. Maybe you notice a sort of smug smirk you didn’t know you had, or some annoying mannerism (none of this applies to me, of course). Unfortunately iMovie can’t help here – it’s not photoshop. In time you’ll get used to you (or not; many people don’t even want to start filming for fear of what they’ll see).

Yawn

The second shock is realizing just how boring your lecturing can be. For example, perhaps you go way too slow, or give too much detail. But you can fix this.

One seemingly unavoidable source of boredom is writing on the board. I said earlier that the blackboard slows you down and this is a good thing. Not always.

Suppose I’m doing a logic course and want to deal with the resolution method. I announce that we’re going to look at the “Resolution Method” (so far so good). The next thing I do is turn to the blackboard and start writing RESOLUTION METHOD on the board. Except it seems in the movie to take about a week.

R – E – S (clack clack clack) O – L – U (clack clack clack) …. H – O – D

(“clack” is the sound of chalk hitting the board).

And all the time what are you looking at? My butt.

Here, iMovie can help. You cut out most of the clack-clack and crossfade stick the ends together. Then it’s magic. I announce Resolution Method to the class, turn to the blackboard, raise my chalk, clack … whoosh … RESOLUTION METHOD appears instantaneously, and I turn back to the audience.

In the end the videos began to look quite slick – you can see one of the more popular ones here.

Epilogue

So where are all these slick  videos? I left some on youtube, you can find them by searching for “billwadge”. But there were never that many.

The reason is that once the fun wore off, I realized that it was all a lot of work. Hauling the equipment to class, setting it up, sliding the panels,  turning the camera on and off, editing in iMovie – worse than preparing powerpoint.

My conclusion is that it’s not practical without help. Ideally, you need a camera operator if not two cameras and two operators. Plus someone to do good video editing. Plus maybe some good lighting.

Anything less is too much work for the poor lecturer and not helpful enough to be worth the effort.

[FADE TO BLACK]

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About Bill Wadge

I am a Professor in Computer Science at UVic.
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