Video Hobby vs. Video Profession, Part 2: Make Money Converting Tapes to DVDs?

Understanding the differences between hobby video projects and professional video work is, unfortunately, not the same as acknowledging it. Many novices want to treat video work as an unskilled trade, comparable to flipping burgers or operating a forklift. To these folks, it’s a make-money-fast scheme — and education, knowledge and experience is unnecessary.

For consumers, the ability to distinguish between an amateur- or hobby-based service can mean the difference between high-quality work and merely passable quality work. Or in some cases, the difference between a successful project, and a disaster (lost or damaged videos). In Part 2 of this editorial series, consumers can learn some tips on how to spot a non-professional video company.

For video enthusiasts, it’s important to know your limitations. Part 1 of this editorial series covered the most important differences between video as a hobby, and video as a field of work. Part 2 of the editorial will focus on bad advice that encourages a hobbyist to “make money” in their hobby, and give examples of what often happens when unqualified individuals start their own video editing or conversion service.

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Never Trust Magazines or Web Sites Promising Easy Income

Like the characters River Song in Doctor Who, or Gibbs in NCIS, I have a short list of rules that I live by. One of those rules is simple: “If I don’t know what I’m talking about, I keep quiet.” Unfortunately, most people don’t have any such rule. When it comes to advice on starting a video business, most of what you will hear and read is absolute malarkey, and will lead down a path of trouble.

Quite a few amateur writers encourage the ill-conceived idea that video is an easy scheme to make money in your free time, or in lieu of a day job. To see such ramblings online is no surprise, as anybody capable of signing up at a content mill, or installing software for a blog, thinks of themself a writer these days. But what really disappoints me is the frequency at which it appears in print.

In January, while browsing the magazine racks in the local book store, I came across an issue of Small Business Opportunities magazine. It was hard to miss — the cover looked more like the front of a comic book, with it’s cartoon fonts and images, than it did to the professional business magazines around it. The cover promised 100 ways to make money from home, by creating businesses with no or low start-up costs. About halfway through the article, which spanned dozens of pages, came the suggestion to start up a video business. Sandwiched somewhere between baking cupcakes, stuffing envelopes and mowing lawns was the ridiculous idea that you could run a video business with an old VCR, your home computer, and a $50 capture card from the local office store.

The idea that you can run a video business with such sparse tools, and a complete lack of knowledge on the subject, is absolutely ridiculous. The people who suggest such a business have likely never converted video tapes, much less provided those services to corporations, studios and other organizations.

I’ve long watched in horror as my former field (newspapers and magazines) has succumbed to ad/ed ethical morasses, skimped on copy editing, and hired bloggers instead of educated journalists. It really feels as if the writers of these money-making articles have lazily amassed information from random forums and blogs, without doing any research on the viability of the advice. I guess this is what happens when publishers are desperate to sell a pile of stapled paper in the online era.

Similar dribble can be found all over the web, usually on piddly spam blogs dedicated to “marketing” or “SEO” (two more skills where the writer generally has no authoritative expertise). With a quick Google search, I found one site that suggests this completely ignorant take on providing video services to others: “If you are a bit lazy and do not want to do the work, you can always outsource the physical conversion to a company and then add your mark-up to each conversion.”

As a consumer, is that the kind of business you want to receive video work from? If you don’t watch out, it might be!

How to ID an Amateur Video Service

For anybody educated in videography, identifying an amateur-run service is rather easy. Most of the time, the services in question are propagating myths as fact. Some go a step further, and try to spin the myths and use it as a marketing tactic.

Fear as Encouragement – “Do it now before it’s too late!”

Virtually all amateur services try to use fear as a way of gaining your business. I’m often reminded of the movie Blues Brothers, in the scene with Carrie Fisher and John Belushi. He screams out a long list of reasons for more than 20 seconds, at one point even claiming “Locusts!” The reasons given many video services are often just as ridiculous.

Some claim that VHS tapes will die in 5/10/15/20 years. Nobody agrees on the length of time, of course, as is the nature of myths: every person likes to exaggerate or tell the myth slightly different. Of course, this is all non-scientific hooey. The truth is that most tapes have lasted much longer than 5-20 years, and it’s common to find organizations and individuals with tapes dating back well into the 1950s-1970s (Ampex, U-matic, etc). And those tapes are not too dissimilar from VHS tapes in physical specs. In more recent years, archivists have been learning the hard way that it’s actually film that degrades rapidly, and not tapes or discs.

Fear as Proof of Knowledge – “Use Our Method, or Else!”

Some claim that DV tape is more archival than DVDs or hard drives. The truth, however, is that consumer DV tapes are less archival than VHS due to an inferior (cheap!) physical design. MiniDV tapes are based on a metal evaporate tape surface, instead of metal particulate. The tape is thinner, weaker, smaller. And to top it off, any minor damage can make the signal completely unreadable, because it’s digital and not analog. Only the professional DVCam and DVCPro tape formats are considered archival — and a professional videographer would know this important distinction.

Some now claim CDs and DVDs will die in 2-5 years. This myth can be traced back to a poorly-written article from 2006, which was unfortunately picked up by the AP. A German journalist, whose tech specialty was cell phones (not optical media), wrote an article that was based completely on the biased quotes of an IBM employee. At the time, IBM was developing a competing optical format (UDO). Professional videographers picked up on this rather quickly, while amateurs never seem to have gotten past the scary headline.

Simple Pricing and Policies

Always be wary of turnkey-style pricing charts and promises of fast project completion timeframes.

Most truly professional video services and post houses operate from either (1) a complex pricing table, with plenty of if/then type footnotes, or (2) a quotes systems. Most of them want to know your budget up-front, so that nobody wastes any time on what is possible. Video work that is given a one-size-fits-all type of pricing structure tends to be performed with bulk-rate churned methods. And that contradicts the very nature of video work, where every project is unique. No two tapes are ever the same, and each one needs custom care and tweaking to look as best as possible.

Again, video is complicated. And when done properly, a 2-hour video can take 4-8 hours to fully process (including both machines hours and man hours). Accounting for cool-down time of the hardware, each workstation can only handle a few tapes per day. Multiply that by the number of workstations. And then factor in the number of people available to give “man hours”. You can arrive at a figure that is probably much lower than any hobbyist would expect — especially if he or she is trying to supply a service at a rock-bottom price (because it won’t produce a living wage). The only way to cheat is to cut corners, which results in subpar output. Unfortunately, that’s how most amateur-run business operate, with their $10-20 tape fees and one-week guarantees.

Anybody who seeks video services needs to be very cautious to whom they give their videos.

Professional Videographers vs. Professional Liars

Sadly, a lot of amateur video businesses lie to their customers. Sometimes the lies are intentional, and other times the lies are due to ignorance on the topic. Quite often, the business in question is run by individuals who lack education or experience in the field, and have relied on unreliable online information: forums, Wikipedia, blogs, or whatever else comes up from a Google or Bing search.

Members of this site have pointed out several such sloppy operations in the tech myths forum, a section in this site’s video help forums. Similar to the fear-mongering discussed earlier, we’ve caught video transfer businesses spreading myths, insisting on nonsense like “tape fade” and “tapes only have 10 year lifespans”. (For the record, tapes cannot fade, being a non-photosensitive medium. And tape lifespans are in the 30-60 year range, given standard temperatures and RH% inside of most homes and offices. Even when stored in an attic or barn, a tape can last more than 10 years; I would know — I’ve handled them. Tape is fairly robust.)

When I’m presented with a problem video, there are three options:

  1. I know what the problem is, and it can be fixed. I can perform the work, or refer to others.
  2. I know what the problem is, and I know it cannot be fixed.
  3. I have no idea what the problem is. I’ll be honest with the client. If they think I’m stupid for not knowing everything, that’s their weakness, not mine. I would rather tell the truth at all times, as opposed to lying and potentially being called out for it later. If time is available, and the client wants me to investigate the issue further, I’ll write/call colleagues, refer to books on the shelf, and do some online research at known-authoritative sites.

Amateurs will beg for help in consumer/hobby forums (most of which are also inhabited by amateurs), or feverishly search Google for ways to solve their problems, because they don’t really have the skills needed to be in business. If this describes how you would work to resolve a problem, the video field is not for you.

What’s Next?

If you recall my notation from the beginning of Part 1, this editorial series is a reality check for those considering a career in video transfer/post work. It’s not meant to condescend, or to dissuade somebody that genuinely wants into the field. After all, some of us started as little more than video enthusiasts — including me!

In Part 3 of the series, I’ll answer some questions that were emailed by a college student wanting to consult an expert. (And again, I’ve never been comfortable with that term. If anything, I’d like to think experts get paid more.)

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