The Studio Assignment


With the studio really up and running, I want to expand the possibilities. Last spring I gave out an abbreviated form of this lesson – which didn’t quite work cause of technical issues in the control room. This year advanced students will produce a talk show as the major part of their second quarter grade.

I’ve posted the entire assignment on The VJ Classroom and will post the individual forms there soon.

The lesson is meant to teach students

Technology – how to use the control room lights, mikes, cameras, editing
Teamwork – they must collaborate and work together to achieve their goal/grad
Communication – pull all of the elements together to communicate with a targeted audience (which they must define)

And finally – not taught but highly encouraged – creativity. Don’t mimic, don’t go through the motions…have fun and make something new and real. Here are the basics.

• In a four person team, come up with a concept, set design, lighting, show open and close, and invite guests to appear on a (shot as live) talk show.
• Must have show open and close and an insert segment that contributes to the mood/theme of the show
• Possible themes could be sports, politics, teen issues, music, performing arts, academic subjects, community issues, or one suggested by your team.

The teams each have four students, each of whom has an assigned roll in each stage of production.

The show must run between five to ten minutes. I’m allowing about seven weeks to create this show…it has to fit into the schedule of daily taping of the Daily Bulletin, which will alternate this quarter between second and fourth periods. Additionally advanced students will have other assignments as they arise.

The rubic takes into account procrastination – there are a series of mini-deadlines that must be met so I know they are not putting off the inevitable. They are also (very) responsible for keeping a paper trail…a folder with all production paperwork including scripts, production forms, etc.

Let’s see how this plays out.


Basic studio setup…

I will admit I’m blessed with a pretty sweet setup at my high school. The TV studio was actually (somewhat) planned and built for a purpose – to be used to teach broadcasting/multimedia and to produce a daily program.

So the configuration works. There’s the studio floor and the control room. We have more gear than necessary for a basic show (ignore my occasional whining…).

But what if you’re just getting started and you have to work in a space not designed for studio production?

I’ve seen “studios” that were almost as low-end as you can get and still get a show out. Sheets hung from the wall in a long narrow room with one camera shooting directly to tape using the built-in camera mike. And yes, that works. Skills learned include teamwork, directing, script reading, eye contact. I would never scoff at those with less than me if they do the best with what they’ve got.

But let’s assume you want to move up in the world a little. Play with two cameras and real clip-on or desktop mikes. You can make this work without a switcher or audio board…I did for a few weeks when our switcher went down.

Just work with your camerafolk so they know who is shooting what at what point in the script. You could start with camera one on a two shot, then go to camera two on one anchor…while that anchor is reading, have camera one go in for a one-shot on the other anchor. Edit the two tapes together, add in titles, FX, etc.

Want to add more? Again, I am lucky to have a studio com (communications) system so that the director in the control room can communicate with the floor director and floor camerafolks.

A cheap alternative might be some two-way radios with headsets so that the “director” (who may just be in the back of the room with a script) can “talk” to the floor crew.

Moving up the scale again. Lights. (Thank you LUSD for my light grid.) Room lights are okay…but with a fairly low cash outlay you can add some light for a more professional look.

Here’s three ideas, in order of cost. Go to your local feed store or hardware store and find one of those cheap scoop tin lights – we use them in the shop or for heat for baby chicks. You can put up to a 100 watt bulb in them and they clamp on to anything. Around $9-$15.

Next up – shop lights on stands (or clamps)…probably around $35-45 or so. They’re nice for the younger set cause they come with a screen to keep hands away from the hot area…you can cut the screens out with wirecutters if you don’t want the pattern they make. Low and high level settings and pretty balanced light. Only problem is they can’t go much higher than three feet.

Finally…getting into pro lights. If I were to go buy a kit, I’d avoid the scoop light kits altogether (why not just buy from the feed store for a lot less) and go straight to lights with focus (spot to broad) and more light (250-1,000 watt).

Gotta run for now…but back later with the rest of how to get your studio set up…

Okay…went through the relatively simple stuff. Hopefully for the rest you have cameras that will work.
Audio – right up there with video as part of studio needs. Don’t make your audience struggle to hear information. So your cameras must have mike inputs OR you need a way to feed audio from the studio floor into your “control room” (or equivalent) mixer or switcher.

Mixer – takes two or more audio sources and allows you to set levels for each so that they are matched.
Switcher – generally refers to a video (or audio/video) switcher that allows you to choose from a variety of sources…cameras, tape decks, DVD players. When you switcher video, the matched audio follows.

At this point in the game you should start looking at what you’ve got and what you need for a very basic control room. This includes:

A switcher
Two (or more) cameras
Record/playback deck
Audio mixer
Necessary cables (XLR, RCA, S-VHS, coaxial, etc)

And now you need to be prepared to spend some money. If you get a box setup (like Tricaster) you’ll still need your cameras, mikes, playback decks. If you piece your control room together, you’ll need monitors to track each visual input and a preview/program monitor.

Preview shows you what you’re doing/about to do.
Program shows what you are actually recording.

Choosing a switcher can be a bear. There’s a relatively new toy in the gamebox called “Tricaster.” Broadcast studio in a box – you feed your audio and video cables in and it contains the monitors, switcher, mixer. Costs begin around $3,000 and up. These little boxes are gaining popularity in the broadcast industry too for their simplicity and ease of setup and use.

The other alternative is a separate switcher – my studio boasts a Focus Enhancement MX-4. Now that it’s working properly, it is a dream. We can preview all effects…got the greenscreen up and tested today. Audio feeds through a mixer (mixer takes in two wired mikes, a wireless, DVD player, tape playback) which feeds the audio into the switcher.

Switchers can run the gamut…from $1,000 to the sky.

If you’re new to this, find a reputable company to walk you through the gear, what does what, what connects to what, how they mesh. Ask for a barebones system and then ask for a list of upgrades to get you to your final goal. You don’t have to start with a complete system.

Even though I have most of the goodies I need, my students are currently working only with switching two cameras – for a reason. I’m still working on getting the bugs out. We have on again/off again impedance problems with one of the mike lines. We’re trying to standardize our scripts and instructions for the floor crew. Each week brings new anchors and new crew who need to be trained.

The goal is to start simple and add on challenges every week or month as students gain experience.

Next post: How to format a show that keeps the audience looking forward to more.

McNair’s EagleVision TV Studio…

Here’s an update on what the TV/broadcasting studio/classroom at Ronald E. McNair High School in Stockton (CA) looks like.

First…below is a rough diagram of what the layout looks like so you can relate to the photos.

Rough diagram 7/09
Rough diagram 7/09

And now for the tour. We’ll begin in the control room. The room can easily hold up to five students working and has a window looking out to the floor. It is NOT soundproofed…but since the control room crew works quietly, that is not an issue.

The studio has some real professional aspects and some parts of the design are frankly amateurish.

The pro aspects include the greenscreen and grey curtains that cover completely the south and west walls. Nice. The light grid…we only have two 1Ks up there, but can add probably another twenty of varying sizes…all controlled in the control room by a progamable light panel.

With the hole/pass through between the floor and the control room, students can set up in minutes. The anchor desk was a find – a display from a bankrupt store. Very heavy, holds two comfortably, and on wheels so we can move it around.

I’m still working on work stations in the control room – but here’s the basic layout. Enter the room and the light control is right inside the door. The rest of the workstations are in this order:

Audio board
Preview screen for switcher
Video switcher
Playbacks (DVD, mini-DV)
Sony DVCam record deck to record the show

Next is the on-air monitor for showing the Daily Bulletin as we playback for the campus – I currently have our Pansonic mini-DV deck hooked up for playback, although it really belongs over in the playback area.

We can also hook up the mini-DV deck to the small TV set for viewing tapes. Finally, a DVD duplicator.

There’s also a table in the room to hold the crew headsets and to work on scripts, etc.

I’m waiting for at least three (I hope) more computers…two to go just outside the control room for Internet access – none of my computers are currently hooked up.
Plus one computer (please let it have a DVD burner) for any add-ons to the show. Right now students are only switching between cameras and we have to edit in bars/countdown/show open and credits. As they get better, I’ll add in more components (live playback while shooting of bars/countdown and show open and credits).

Procedure to shoot the show.

Director and anchors get script (I type it due to time constraints) and read and mark their individual lines and which camera(s) will be up for each part of the script.

Floor Director is in charge of pulling mike lines and placement of microphones for the anchors. S/he also has to hook up their headset to their com line. Also is in charge of anything that happens on the floor, from working w/cameramen to communicating with anchors (plus telling students not working on the show to shush).

Cameramen pull cables (S-VHS and com line) to tripods and place tripods. They then get cameras/batteries and place cameras on tripods and hook up video to camera and their headset to com line.

Director is the boss and runs the show. All of the following must be stated over the com system so that all crew knows the Director is running through the checklist.
First s/he checks that all crew are in position and tells cameras what their first shot is.
Call for Floor Director to get “Quiet on the set!”
Directs switcher to roll tape and gets confirmation.
States that tape is rolling and to “stand by.”
Tells Floor Director to begin the countdown in “ten…nine…eight…”

We are keeping the switcher’s job pretty simple right now…all they have to do is read the script and switch between the initial two shot and then between anchors as they read their lines, ending on a two shot.

I also keep the camera/anchor ID simple. Anchor One and Camera One are on the right, from the viewpoint of the Director in the Control Room. Anchor Two and Camera Two are on the left. Anchor One’s camera is Camera One – and Anchor Two looks to Camera Two.

Remember…we’ve only been doing this for two weeks and I felt it was best to keep it simple initially.

My final bugaboo: choosing anchors, rotating anchors, philosophy of student participation. This is a developing philosophy..and I’m gonna wander off a little here with some personal opinions.

When I worked in TV news, one of the things that really bugged me was when administrators marched out the same top-of-the-line kids every time media came on campus. We never saw real kids…just perfect kids.

My principal I know does the same…and I understand why. He wants to make the school look good. Good PR.

But by only allowing a select few opportunities, you create a culture of segregation. Those who have and get it and the great unwashed. Those who get to look and live in envy and crushed hopes.

Call me a daft – a fool – but I am in a way jettisoning decades of training that says that only the best and brightest deserve the spotlight. I want my slow kids and my gangbangers and my quiet bright kids to have the same opportunities as those with who live life with a silver spoon.

So the initial anchors for the Daily Bulletin were a semi-toughie (advanced student) who has always been a bit of a classroom clown and problem and who proved that my faith in him was warranted by anchoring like a pro (with only a few errors). His co-anchor a quiet B-Boy (yeah I love my breakers). After a week I rotated my clown into the Control Room as Director and pulled in a shaggy haired quiet advanced student. Every week I pull in a new anchor to work with someone from the previous week. And I’ll be going outside my classroom because I’ve appealed to staff to give me their readers – students who would like to try to anchor two a two week period.

Another important part of my plan is to keep the show interesting. When the Bulletin was read over loudspeakers to the classrooms, kids just didn’t pay attention. It was boring.

With the addition of the video Bulletin, we can keep the audience interested by changing visuals daily. The anchors appear daily in the show open. The credits (:30-1:00)change daily from animations shot by my students to highlights of the football game to campus events. The plan is to include as many students at all levels as possible so that at least once a week or more a student can say, “I was on the Bulletin or I saw someone I know on the Bulletin.”

This past week I sent out a notice to all staff that if they had events or meetings or games and could either provide video/stills or give me enough notice so that I could send a student to shoot the event, we would include them in the Bulletin credits. I sent the email on Friday morning and before the day was out I had every spot for next week filled with more coming in.

Our school librarian was even more on top of the situation. She has some of my students in her after-school Eagle Readers Club – and is having them produce a commercial about what a great club it is.

Final note: this is NOT a news show, so I am treating it as a community service program. We will, on occasion, insert a story, but building this into a real news show will take time. I need to build some depth in my crew…get students who want to return again and again so that their strengths and background will allow me to do more and more.

As always…please leave comments; let me know what you’re up to; criticize…thank you.

Rethinking my position…

We are now officially three weeks into the new school year and I’m looking over the changes I made in how I teach – and rethinking whether I should have done them.

Originally I always started students off with Basic Shots – got the cameras into their hands and them out in the field to shoot seven shots using video. Then they came back and edited using iMovie.

This year I had them shoot some basic composition using stills and then brought into the computer using iPhoto; then pulled into iMovie and edited.

What I’m seeing is that learning two (albeit very basic) programs at the same time has slowed things down immensely. Of course having two classes with forty students each may have something to do with that. Everyone finished the composition assignment – they’ve all moved on to Basic Shots and are having fun with their first real video assignment.

If they retain what they learned about iMovie, they should be able to speed through BS and on to Animation within the week…and then maybe things will be back on a normal schedule. I am seeing better shooting in the Basic Shots assignments…which was my intent when I shoveled composition in front of it.

My two big issues – not enough tripods and ALL of the Eluras now have stripped threads, so we can’t use them with the non-existant tripods. Actually, it balances out pretty well…about seven tripods and seven (older) video cameras. The seniors have the drill – work when there’s gear and kick back and work on other class assignments or chill out or talk with the teacher about video. The freshmen are somewhat confused…they aren’t used to sitting creatively. They’ll learn.

I love my little groupies who have formed teams and sit and encourage and help each other on every assignment…they are bonding and learning more than either of the other two types of teams.

Friday was mellow…once I got the gear checked out, I had time to set up the studio gear and run each class through a quick look-see and hands on session. Monday we start for real. I’ll have a script for the directors so they will know exactly what to say (Quiet on the set! Stand by to tape. In 10-9-8….) to the floor crew. We’ll have copies of the Bulletin for the “anchors” to rehearse with. Only two anchors to start with…will add in the third in a week or so.

Everyone will be REQUIRED to learn every role on the floor crew, control room, anchor desk…and once we start for real they will be required to rotate through every position with the exception of anchor. Yeah – I want the shows to look good and flow smoothly and nothing screws things up worse than a reluctant anchor.

And counting down to September 3 in 10-19-18-17…

And here’s what the studio looks like!

Got the anchor desk hauled into the studio this weekend (love you Ron and Lexi for working in 100+ degree heat to haul that monolith) and went in this morning to snap some shots.

If you want a closer view, just click on the individual photos.

Word of explanation – for the past three years I’ve taught broadcasting in “almost a studio.” It had the configuration, but I was also teaching English – which mean more than half of the room had desks, blocking off any ability to really do studio work. This year my English class is moving to another room, so the studio for the first time is dedicated to what it was meant for.

This past year the light grid was installed – and there it sat. I don’t have a variety of lights – just three 1K Arris, two of which were mounted by Theater Manager Brian Harrower last week. Big improvement – we can use the controls to light up and dim down AND no more potential disasters waiting to happen with power cords running all over the room.

My buddy Kathy Newell pointed out that TV station controls rooms do NOT look out over the studio…many times they are located elsewhere in the building. The response is – hey, I’m a teacher and have to maintain a visual on the kids. Besides, it kinda looks neat.

The anchor desk – formerly known as a store fixture – bought from the local Gottshalks, which is going out of business. Five by five foot platform with a four foot high desk. Just enough room for two anchors. It will be painted (most likely a neutral grey) before school starts. Oh – it has wheels, so we can roll it to any location we want in studio.

The hole in the wall!! I’m still excited about it. Just some corrogated plastic pipe and a couple of toilet mount fixtures. About five inches wide (I think). Mounted right below my monitors in the control room.

And the student comments and 48HFP (48 Hour Film Project) musings on the board…this is what happens when students are no longer learners but part of a team under deadline. I didn’t even really see these until I returned to the classroom the Monday after the event. Made me want to cry….

Hole In the Wall!!!!!

Life is GOOD.

In the past few days something in the universe clicked and said, “Let’s be kind to Cyndy.”

Yesterday I went into my TV studio at McNair High School and the district techies were meeting with the contractor who is wiring me up so we can send a signal campus-wide for daily bulletin. Been waiting two years for this to happen.

Then Brian Harrower, our theater manager, came in and hung two of my 1K Arris on the light grid and hooked up to the lighting control panel.

In the meantime I’d pulled all of the equipment and cables out of the control room and was cleaning and setting things up in a more organized manner for school this year…buddy Kathy Newell was down helping and she figured out that the Focus Enhancement MX-4 switcher was NOT broken…the kids had just punched about every special effect they could and it took her more than half an hour to sequence through everything to reset it.

Finally – and this is big – I went in this afternoon and THERE WAS A HOLE IN THE CONTROL ROOM WALL!!!

Another battle won! Steve, the contractor with Bright Wire Corp had gotten the OK to cut a hole and fit it so I have a place to run cables from control room to studio. Up until now we’re been propping the door and running cables thru it. Not practical cause noise comes out of the CR and there’s always the danger of cables getting clipped if the door shuts.

So this year Ronald E. McNair High School starts the year with a fully functional, professional control room and studio.

Oh – and the final Whoopeee is I won’t have to teach English or non-broadcasting classes out of the studio, as I have the past two years. Explained to my principal that would entail spending half of each broadcast class dragging desks/furniture out of the way and back so we’d have room to do studio work. He said check with the VP, but he was okay with me teaching one class in a real classroom.

And Newell and I are heading to the hills for a couple more days of girl time with cameras before I settle back into my role as mom/wife/teacher.

Once again, life is sweet.

Studio up and ready to run…

Moms get caught up in all kinds of stuff…so yesterday INSTEAD of working on the taxes, I spent time on campus as the official teacher in charge of the school’s Winter Guard (of which third daughter is a member). Part of that time was invaluable. Word is the campus may be wired soon – which means my kiddies may be able to do the daily bulletins during second period every morning.

I finally opened up the unused control room where all the cables and gadgets have been sitting unused for the past three years and cabled nearly everything back together. We can now switch from two cameras, a DVD player, and a mini-dv tape player and record directly to DVD or min-dv tape. Gotta take care of audio cabling next…which should be a snap.

Lesson planning is next (for those of you not in teaching, this is the foundation – kinda like reporter notes – which allows teachers to walk around the classroom spouting knowledge in an organized manner – think of it as an hour or longer live shot in a cage with wild animals). Have to introduce my two advanced students to the gear first so they can help me with the other 30+ vidiots. All this when we return from break in a week and a half.

Spring is in the air and there’s a lot going on here at the (not quite a) farm too…one batch of chicks rescued from a demented mama hen who took them for a stroll in the middle of a storm. A new fair goat. The demon mama hen from hell (she goes after your face if you get within ten feet) is broody on another batch of soon-to-be feral chicks (not if I get my way). Seedlings in my excuse of a greenhouse. Nettle up to the hips in the garden area…and plans to chop it down and begin planting next week.

And at sunset I plan to go out and shoot the sun in perfect alignment with the road. After all, it is the spring equinox.

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