Video Hobby vs. Video Profession, Part 3: The Interview

As is the case with most professional fields, a hobby can turn into a career, and video is no different. If you’re a TV show collector, the appointed family videographer, or simply interested in editing movies on your home computer — and you like doing it, and want to get paid for doing it — then having a job or career in that field is certainly possible.

In the era of Youtube and Vimeo, where anybody can upload virtually anything, you could find yourself as the next overnight meme. All you need is a camera, some video editing software, and creativity.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to know. Video is literally dozens of photos per second, with audio, and it has a steep learning curve. Those who are patient, willing to learn proper methods, and able to overcome a “get rich quick” attitude, can succeed at it long-term.

Everybody has a story of how they started in their line of work. This is mine.

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An Interview with LS

Q: What led you to this hobby?

I liked cartoons. Those three words really reflect the entire reason I ever got into video in any capacity.

Although I had long been using VCRs and cameras, I consider 1992 as the official start date for video becoming a serious hobby. The catalyst was the introduction of Cartoon Network on C-Band satellite, several years before most people even knew it existed; cable networks were slow to adopt the fledgling station.

You really need to step back in time a bit to understand why CN mattered to me: This was in the era of VHS tapes, at a time when DVDs/Blu-ray were still just science fiction. The fastest home or office computer available was a 386, and digital video was impossible to do outside of a special effects lab. Studios had completely ignored TV show enthusiasts, and there were only four ways to watch televisions shows:

  1. Cross your fingers and hope a local network picked up the re-runs (and broadcast at times when you were home and awake).
  2. Buy or rent “best of” style volumes from a local video store or grocery store. Remember that quite a few videos were released to the rental-only market in those days, and not bulk released to consumers. When it came to cartoons, you might find 10 episodes at very most, from a series that lasted a minimum of 65 episodes.
  3. Buy an outrageously expensive video from Columbia House for $30 per tape, two episodes per tape — and that’s assuming they even offered the show you wanted to watch in their small inventory. The only way to buy these videos was to become a member of their club, which in turn forced you to buy a minimum number of tapes. In modern terms, it was the equivalent of paying $300 for a DVD box set of a single season of a TV show — and that’s not even accounting for inflation!
  4. Record it yourself, and then you can watch it whenever you want.

For the first time, I was able to see cartoons I had only heard about from older siblings and cousins (1960s cartoons like Top Cat and Fantastic Four), as well as watch cartoons from my own childhood — toons that had long since gone off-air. The early 1990s also gave us the Sci Fi Channel, a re-done USA Cartoon Express (to show more non-HB shows), MTV’s Liquid Television (and subsequent shows like Beavis & Butthead and Aeon Flux), and Marvel Comics on Fox Kids (starting with the X-MEN animated series).

Within three years, I burnt out two VCRs from recording some favorite shows daily. By 1997, I had adopted S-VHS VCRs, and continued to record cartoons until about 2000, burning out several more VCRs in the process. To this day, I still watch some of those recordings for the first time.

Q: Had you had any prior training?

No, I didn’t, and that’s what led to my heavy interest in video restoration. As far back as 1993, when the first VCR was going out, I became acutely aware of video errors. My 1990-made Emerson VCR was creating undesirable chroma artifacts on the recordings. Variations in tape grade were readily visible, adding grain that needed removal, and I quickly learned that the cheap $2 bulk-grade tapes were not going to suffice if quality mattered. Even the broadcasts themselves would have bad color from obviously degraded broadcast masters.

One of my earliest attempts at restoration was to dub a tape through a color corrector, and make a new master copy that looked better than the original. It was not an ideal fix, of course, as tape-to-tape copying incurs generation loss. By 1996, I was already investigating what might be possible with digital video (MPEG-1 on a home computer capture card), though it took five more years for such a computer to really exist as I desired — 2000′s ATI All In Wonder Radeon card, and Pentium 4 computers capable of processing everything in realtime.

Had I been “trained” in video, there’s a good chance that I would have dismissed errors as the accepted status quo, as opposed to looking for ways to fix it.

Q: If so, where did you attend? What was your major?

Without giving away too much personal information, I went to a large accredited four-year public university, and earned a degree in journalism. During my time there, I was exposed to broadcasting, as well as early modern graphics and Internet technologies. For example, Silicon Graphics servers and workstations during the RISC era, which included MediaBase video encoding. Early Avid workstations, too.

Q: Who was your mentor during the video process?

Nobody. In those early years of analog projects, I could not find a single person that knew more than I did -and- was willing to share their knowledge. At best, I was able to get small tidbits of advice from people I knew at cable companies. (In those days, most cable operators were still independents, long before the likes of Charter, Time Warner and Comcast gobbled them up through mergers and acquisitions. And they did a lot of small production work in-house.)

I had the same problem during the early digital video years — there was nobody to turn to for advice. I did a lot of reading. Much of it was jabberwocky that made no sense, so I’d just read it again and again until it started to make sense. I still remember forcing myself to read the manual for the first version of Final Cut Pro, which was somewhere around 500 pages, and discussed video and DVD theory, in addition to simply being a how-to manual for the software.

Words can never describe the level of frustration I felt, seemingly alone in the video universe.

Within a couple of years, however, I made contact with two extremely helpful individuals — one was the video director at a large studio, and the other was a retired broadcast engineer from a large NYC television station. Names withheld for my/their privacy. Within a year of their mentoring to solidify my knowledge and skills, I was in business professionally. (We’ve kept in contact, too, and both have stated that I’ve surpassed each of them in knowledge and abilities — quite a compliment!)

In more recent years, I’ve made great contacts at studios, post houses, and television stations — both retired and currently employed. These days, we sort of mentor each other, I think.

Q: What is one of the most common misconceptions about our hobby?

The most common misconceptions are that video is easy, inexpensive, only requires a few software programs to “make a movie” or transfer videotapes, and is a goldmine for making money on the side.

The first two parts of this editorial were written specifically to address this. To summarize:

  • Video is difficult and complicated. Success in your video hobby does not equal being qualified to make video a profession. Knowing how to do basic recording and editing is simply not enough experience.
  • Video projects take an incredible amount of time — far longer than what is often imagined by those lacking knowledge in the subject. It’s become increasingly aggravating to deal with, too, in our current instant-gratification, easy-button, “best bang for the buck” (cheapskate) society.
  • Video is expensive, whether you’re a service provider, hobbyist or general consumer. Hardware is always going to be the financial bottleneck.

Software piracy is also a bothersome issue, as quite a few novices think they download some magic super double-secret software that will outperform hardware. That’s just not going to happen. Hardware is always going to be the front-end centerpiece of a good video workflow. Lacking that, you have nothing. Software is what happens on the back-end, performing whatever task is not (yet) possible in hardware alone. One of my biggest pet peeves is the person who asks if he/she can skip time base correction, and use software instead. NO!

Q: Do you have any tips for anyone who wishes to learn video restoration?

The most important aspect of becoming a video hobbyist is to remember that it’s a hobby. A lot of video enthusiasts get overenthusiastic, and want to jump into offering services to others after having success with their first couple of projects. To quote my grandmother, “don’t get too big for your britches.”

As far as actually doing the work — learn, understand, and respect the limitations of hardware and software. Remember that restoring video is about making it better, not making it perfect. Understand that sometimes there are trade-offs in improving quality, meaning that you sometimes have to make one aspect worse in order to make two or more better. The net result is what matters.

Never throw away master tapes — new technology will likely make yesterday’s impossible project plausible.

Don’t be cheap. If your hobby area is television shows, buy the DVD releases when available. Don’t foolishly sit there and waste thousands of hours in order to save $100. Or if you want to convert videotapes, buy a good VCR and TBC.

Q: What are a few things one should never attempt during the novice stage?

Never start out with rare or irreplaceable videos. You can easily destroy a tape beyond repair. Always use test tapes that can be replaced or trashed.

Watch your attitude online. You never know who might be an employee of (or freelancer to) a studio, with whom you can forge a great relationship. Or a broadcaster, TV actor/actress, script writer, artist, video software developer, etc. Everybody is online now. In fact, people have been online for a while now. I’ve met some of my “heroes” online in fan forums and through eBay — the creators of the cartoons I like most, and they sometimes have insider stories that you’ll cherish!

And in case it’s not been mentioned enough, never offer services to others. You’ll more likely destroy a project than complete it to anybody’s satisfaction.

Q: Do you have any pet peeves regarding video and DVD releases?

When it comes to TV box sets, studios take too many shortcuts. Yes, studios need to make a profit on releasing DVDs, but sometimes I think they want 99% of sales to be profit, and 1% to cover the costs. Warner Brothers has been most egregious about this in past years, with sets like Tom & Jerry or Thundercats filled with mistakes and errors. So what we get is cheap mediocre work.

What is truly aggravating is to see a studio use superior source (compared to what any hobby user has access to), yet create a DVD set that is so shoddy that a homemade hobbyist-restored DVD set ultimately looks better. For example, it’s not uncommon for a video collector to rip a DVD of a B&W movie or TV show, fix audio hiss flaws, and create a new master that can be watched without being annoyed. Why didn’t the studio do that? Hiss is not nostalgic, it’s annoying.

The “volume” treatment is also aggravating in the age of box sets. And again, Warner Brothers is the biggest offender. Fans do not like single-disc releases, 4-5 episodes at a time, for $10-20 per disc. WB tries to double-dip on fans, too, by creating the volumes, never finishing the set in single-volume fashion, and then releasing a box set at a much later date. And then the only way to get the last few episodes is to buy the box set, effectively re-buying episodes from earlier volumes. Now, here’s where it gets infuriating: If those overpriced single volumes do not sell well, WB will not release the box sets! Argh!

Companies like Shout and Warner have also started to skim on the bonus features — not giving us interviews with original voice casts or show creators, not including time period commercials featuring the characters, etc. To pick on WB one more time, some of the bonus features have been ridiculous. The Wil Wheaton interviews on Thundercats Volume 1 Part 1 stand out as cringe-worthy unwatchable schlock. The Warner Archives collections, while appreciated, come with barebone menus that look like a homemade DVD set, and lack any bonus materials of any kind.

Fans will do whatever it takes to acquire high-quality uncut/unedited copies of their favorites shows. Most fans will buy uncut HQ material when released by studios. It’s when a studio angers or ignores the fans that alternative methods of acquisition have to be used: recording it yourself, downloading from torrents, etc. However, TV-related video hobby communities are shrinking, thanks to sites like Hulu, and the rapid releasing of DVD box sets immediately after a season has ended.

Some of my current work involves restoring video for a studio, for their online version releases.

Q: Am I the first to approach you for an interview?

Not at all. I’ve been interviewed by other students, as well as writers for international publications. Some of my written research has been used by the academic and forensic communities, too — everything from a graduate student thesis to a law enforcement “best methods” manual.

There is a one interview, however, that still aggravates me. I spoke with the journalist over the phone, and gave very coherent reporter-friendly answers. (Remember, I have a similar background.) When the story was published, I was not happy. The woman twisted up most of what I said, and further used it out of context in a way that made me look like a criminal. I had acknowledged that copying DVDs was possible. I had acknowledged providing DVD services. And I had acknowledged burning thousands of DVDs in my years of work. This bimbo made it look like I was selling thousands of copied DVDs — she just squished everything together. I was heavily misquoted, and she didn’t even get my name right.

So I did a little background check on who this hack writer was — and what I found was hilarious. Her previous writing gig was for Penthouse, where she wrote dildo reviews. I’m reminded of the Bill Engvall joke about shark bite suits, “You know there’s only one way to test that!”

Closing Thoughts…

One thing that nobody ever asks is if I had ever planned to work in video, or if I enjoy video work. It would probably surprise most people to learn that my answer to both is “no”. Video was always supposed to be a hobby, a means to an end, with that end being a collection of favorite cartoons on tape (later DVD). Adopting professional methods was simply an extension of the pursuit of high quality work. The obliteration of my field after 9/11 left me with few options to earn a living. Having acquired the knowledge and equipment to provide professional video work was simply well-timed.

I still enjoy video projects, when it’s for myself. But when you work in the field, the last thing you want to do is go home and turn on a computer to “rest” by doing the very thing that tired you out all day long.

That is something would-be professionals need to consider.

In the final editorial in this four-part series, I’ll go over the tools and knowledge that is required to start up a small video company capable of offering quality transfer and editing services.

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