Tango Words

Thoughts on Dance Competition Videos: Part 1

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Julie and I spent the weekend of 12-14 February filming The 2016 UK Blues & Smooth
Dance Championships. Over the past few years I’ve made many videos and DVDs… dance performances, teaching DVDs, promos, weekender videos, and so on. This is the first dance competition I’ve been asked to video. It’s been an interesting learning experience.

I think it’s great that competitors get a chance to see themselves, and the rest of us can gain inspiration from watching a variety of outstanding dancers interpreting some excellent music.

For anyone else who wishes to tackle this subject I thought it might be useful to note some of my thoughts and ideas. Please feel free to comment and add any ideas or suggestions of your own. As I said, it’s a learning experience!

Preparation

Advanced preparation is vital if you’re going to video efficiently and be able to edit and upload with reasonable alactrity.

First, get hold of the brochure, which will normally include a list of the competition categories. You’ll also need a timetable listing the events and heats to ensure you’re in the right place at the right time!

Assuming you’re going to video all the categories, you’ll need appropriate ‘tops and tails’ (opening and end titles) and lower thirds (those bars that appear along the bottom of the video, rather like chapter or section headings in a book). These you can prepare in your favourite graphics editing program, so long as it can output transparent pngs.

This is where the brochure can be invaluable. Contact the organiser or brochure designer (in this case my friend Tracey Barnes of SmartDesignWorks) and ask for the psd file/s or copies of the images used. There may be a logo or some identifying image you can use in the titles.

In this case there wasn’t a logo but I was able to incorporate the ‘heart background’ as a background for the opening title. For the end title I put together a quick logo by taking one of my own pics, turning it into a silhouette, dropping onto the brochure background and adding a few stars and a border.

There are three opening titles, one for each day… same background with slightly different text. The end title I did in After Effects, but many basic video editing programs now include fancy built-in effects for animating titles.

The logo and lower thirds need to be pngs or animated as movs with transparent backgrounds so they’ll sit nicely on top of your video.

I prefer to use two cameras to film most events. I think this is essential if you’re going to stand any chance of making a comprehensive record. You’re almost certainly working in a fairly large room, with several couples dancing at once. You’re going to need a mix of shots, some general and others closer, concentrating on one or two couples.

I had a camera at each end of the room, one on a shoulder support and one on a monopod. The latter gives sufficient stability while allowing more freedom of movement than a standard tripod; I’ve used a tripod dolly but I could see this getting tripped over at regular intervals by circulating judges. A good shoulder support gives you wide freedom of movement and also allows the attachment of barn doors (cut down disco light reflections/flare), lights, etc. (I did use a ‘steadicam’ device briefly; these are fine if you need to move around a lot, but a pain to set up and handle. And heavy!)

The built-in microphones on video cameras, even expensive ones, are pretty poor. I highly recommend you use a decent video mic. Although, sadly, fewer and fewer low- and mid-range video cameras come with a mic input.

I usually prefer to edit using the camera soundtracks, then add a clean music track taken from the original recording for the final mix. I suggest you don’t lose the camera soundtracks completely; mix them in at an appropriate level to give you some ambient sound — whoops and applause? — fading in the final audience reactions at the end, perhaps.

With the Blues & Smooth Champs videos I stuck to the camera soundtracks, to avoid the delays and complications of getting hold of and mixing in some like 50-60 ‘clean’ tracks. So I’m afraid the sound isn’t brilliant; there’s not much you can do about the room acoustics (or someone standing next to your camera and talking loudly…). Sorry about that.

Don’t forget you’re going to be shooting a lot of footage. At the Blues & Smooth Champs we shot over 13 hours of video. That’s around 73 GB. So glad we’re using SD cards instead of tape! (In fact when I made my first videos — a series of DVDs on advanced balloon modelling — we were shooting on VHS tapes…) My cameras take 32 GB cards so you should carry spares, and make sure they’re good quality Class 10 suitable for full HD video recording.

To continue stating the obvious, make sure that your camera batteries are fully charged (preferably carry spares) and that you have fresh batteries in your microphones. And chocolate.

Oh, and you’ll need a good night’s sleep the night before! Especially if you want to get in some dancing as well.

A note: you can film with a single camera. This certainly makes editing a lot easier! But you’re bound to miss stuff and maintaining continuity within sequences can be a problem. Although the judicious use of cutaways can help.

On the Day

Check out the venue and find suitable positions for the cameras. You’ll need to be able to view the whole area between you. And if you can position yourself near a power socket; this can be handy if a camera battery is getting low.

Make sure that both camera operators understand their roles. Perhaps one can be fairly fixed and concentrate on general shots and closer shots of dancers near to them. The second camera can then be more mobile and try to capture individual couples. For diveristy of shots, it’s useful if the fixed operator keeps an eye on the mobile one to ensure they aren’t filming similar areas at the same time.

I suggest you set up a simple signalling system for starting and stopping filming so that it simplifies syncing later.

Always record for editing. Remember that at some stage you’re going to be sitting down with dozens of clips (over 90 in this example) and you’ll need to be able to select and sync up the right ones. I suggest you start recording early and speak the category and session name into the mic, or point the camera at the appropriate bit of the announcement board. Even then, in the early hours of the morning, brain perhaps operating somewhat short of full capacity, you’ll almost certainly find yourself frantically searching for some elusive clip. (I speak from painful experience.)

Using two cameras has many benefits, but it also brings one major problem: you’re going to have two sound and two video tracks which will need very precise synchronisation if the competitors are going to be shown actually dancing to the music… always a plus! Whenever possible I use a clapperboard, which gives a nice clear spike on the soundtracks which you can line up on. That’s fine in my studio, but not practical in a competition.

There are clever programs which claim to be able to sync soundtracks automatically. I have one. It works some of the time.

What I recommend in these circumstances is: start recording early, when the organiser/MC is making his announcement. This should give you clear patterns on the sountrack to aid syncing (see below).

On the same subject, keep both cameras running for as long as possible if several heats are being run straight after each other. Then you’ll only have to sync up once at the start of the sequence. Between heats or songs I suggest you put your hand in front of the camera lens for a few seconds or point it up to the ceiling so you’ve got an easy visual reference when you come to edit out unwanted material.

Shoot cutaways! Between the actual dancing shoot a few cutaway shots: audience members looking on appreciatively, judges looking thoughtful, organisers looking tired/harrassed but happy, a DJ looking cool (the last may be more difficult; just choose your moment carefully).

Why cutaways? How ever carefully you plan there’ll come a time in the edit suite — hopefully lasting only a few seconds — when neither camera is showing an acceptable shot. That’s what your overlay track is for… just drop in a suitable cutaway. The soundtrack on the cutaway won’t match, but that isn’t a problem; just delete it.

Don’t forget, competitors and judges come first. Try to stay out of their way and don’t inconvenience them. Judges are going to walk in front of your camera from time to time (usually just when you’ve framed a beautiful shot). Don’t worry. They’re part of the event and can add to your video. And you can always use a cutaway.

Don’t forget, either, to keep an eye out for amusing little events and happenings. An ‘out-takes’ sequence can be fun. (And if they’re really embarassing, there’s always the possibility of an extra source of income…)

That’s the easy bit done. We’ll look at editing in Part 2.

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