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Making Money with Dance Recitals

I’ve been videotaping dance recitals for 15 years now, and it’s proven to be a lucrative segment of the event video market for me as owner of Digital Vision Productions. Parents spend a lot of time and money sending their kids to dance lessons, and it all comes together once a year at the big recital held at the end of the season, usually in May or June as school lets out for summer break.

Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all come to the theater to view the performances, and it’s a big deal. Younger performers might only be in one dance, with the 3 year-olds dressed in little bumblebee or kitten costumes, but those few minutes on stage are precious and will be cherished for years to come, provided they are captured on video. Older, more experienced students might take part in several dance numbers, with the best students getting their own solo performances to “show their stuff”.

Parents often bring their own camcorders and attempt to capture the event, but the auto-exposure of consumer camcorders will typically ruin stage shots by overexposing the performers so their faces become unrecognizable white blobs. The hapless parents don’t know how to override the auto controls to correct this issue and end up with junk footage. Having to run a camcorder also keeps the parents from “being in the moment” and truly enjoying the performance.

Most dance studios will offer DVDs of the recital, though the videos vary greatly in quality and coverage, with many being very amateurish. This provides an opportunity for professional videographers to step in and offer a superior product.

When I was first asked to videotape a dance recital back in 1994, I had just started taping weddings and was fairly new to the business. I accepted the job and it actually went pretty well. I used a single Hi8 camera, and would start each act on a wide shot, then would smoothly zoom in for a head to toe shot and slowly pan across the performers so their faces could be made out, then I’d return to the wide shot to show everyone again.

This worked well enough for a couple of years, and as my business grew, I added a second camera so that one camera was always wide showing all the performers, and the other camera would do close-ups and I could switch in post between the two.

While I was doing nice work, with good exposure and framing and smooth motion, some parents were complaining that during the close-ups they were then missing their own child who might be out of the frame for several seconds. They didn’t want to miss a single second of their child’s performance, but if I used only a wide shot the entire time, it would be impossible to even tell who was who from a distance.

By the late 1990s, I had picked up a second dance school and had switched to miniDV cameras and nonlinear editing and developed a new technique for shooting and editing my dance shows. I still used the two-camera close-up and wide shooting style, but rather than switching between the two, I combined both images using picture-in-picture and split-screen techniques.

While this did require more work in post, I immediately started getting great feedback from the parents – they loved it! Sales really took off after using the new editing style. If there are kids lined up across the entire stage, by the time I pull back far enough to get everyone in the frame, individual faces become unidentifiable. Meanwhile, there is a LOT of empty space in the frame, showing just background.

Rather than centering the talent, I frame them in the lower third of the screen, leaving the entire top two-thirds of the frame wide open for a PIP or split view from the close-up camera. By combining both images, parents can see their child at all times on the lower portion of the screen, and are also guaranteed some great close-ups as well. It’s a win-win situation for the viewers, and everyone is happy!

When using this method, proper framing while shooting becomes more critical to minimize or eliminate repositioning during editing. If shot properly, I can simply do a split-screen effect and not have to reposition either video source in post – they line right up! I use Adobe Premiere with the Matrox RT.X2 hardware, which eliminates rendering, so I can do PIP and split-screen effects along with titling and color correction, with no waiting.

One of my dance studios now has 4 shows, each almost 3 hours long, so you can imagine how much rendering time is saved when considering that almost every act uses some sort of PIP or split-screen view. Solos are of course a single close-up view, and some acts are so dynamic with everyone constantly moving about that it’s impossible to do any close-ups, otherwise I use the dual-view religiously and have never had a single complaint. In fact, parents go out of their way to tell me how much they love the DVDs because they never miss a thing!

Before each show, I also get access to the dressing rooms/staging areas to get some fun shots of kids getting their makeup and hair done, waving to the camera, warming up, etc., and this is also well-received and asked for. For the guys reading this, just be sure to have a “stage mom” verify that everyone is dressed and announce your entry to avoid any surprises!

Camera Setup
I’ve found it best to keep both cameras centered to the stage – panning from the side is difficult since the perspective changes as the camera pans. You may need a wide-angle lens adapter for the wide camera in order to see the entire stage, depending on the auditorium. I position the cameras side by side within a foot or so of each other, so the tripod legs are sharing some space together. While I run the close-up camera myself to insure that I get the desired results, an assistant runs the wide camera, which is easier work. Being in close proximity enables me to see the LCD screen of the wide camera to monitor both the framing and exposure, and I can even reach over and tweak the other camera settings if I don’t like what I see. I have on occasion ran both cameras myself, but it goes much better with help.

I set the white balance to the indoor, or incandescent, preset since lighting will be constantly changing during the performance. By using the indoor setting on both cameras, they will match and I can always color correct in post if necessary. (See my April 21st article,“Consistent White Balance for Live Events” for information on color correcting in post.)

It’s mandatory to manually control the exposure settings, since the spotlights on the dancers against a darker background will usually cause the faces and lighter costumes to completely blow out when using auto exposure. Use the zebra stripes function on your camera so you can identify hotspots and stop down the iris as necessary. If you get back to the studio and find that all the faces are overexposed, it is too late.

The recitals I cover have loud, high-quality sound systems in the front of the auditorium, and I’ve gotten good audio by simply using on-camera microphones. Some videographers like to place a flat PZM mic on the stage to better pick up tap shoe sounds, but this would be just part of the overall mix and not the main mic. If using camera mics, make sure there isn’t a fidgety kid squeaking his chair or digging into a candy bag near you, as these sounds will be part of the production!

However, wiring your camera directly to the sound board, recording only the CD tracks played for the dances, might seem like an ideal solution, but it is not. There will be no applause, no tap sounds or ambience of any kind recorded and it will do nothing to enhance the video.

After capturing both the wide and close-up clips into Premiere, I sync them on the timeline by simply looking at the audio waveforms and matching them up. I start with a roug
h match, then zoom in to the frame level and check the alignment. Since both audio tracks are the same for me, I will mute one track, then adjust the audio on the other for a good level.

Once the clips are synched and the audio level set, I then go through and set In and Out points and use the Extract function to remove the dead space between acts when the curtain is closed. I also color correct if necessary, then add my PIP and split effects and titling.

The end of an act will fade to black and silence, then I fade up a simple white on black title screen, and fade into the next act as it begins. The result is that when creating chapters for each dance act on the DVD, the chapter mark is right before the title fades up. No matter which chapter the viewer jumps to from the menu, there is no abrupt sound or picture coming in, it always starts on black then moves right into the title followed by the dance number. If the viewer skips through the disc with the “Next” button, it works very smoothly and cleanly.

DVD duplication and printing is handled in-house for quick turn-around and quality control, as well as cost savings. If you do just a few events a year that require a lot of DVDs, a duplicator-printer setup can pay for itself very quickly. I use the standard black Amaray-style DVD cases just like the Hollywood DVDs and print my own inserts, normally scanning the recital program and using that existing artwork as the basis of my insert design, quick and easy.

Sales and Marketing
So how should you price and market your recital videos? That will vary between producers. For my dance recitals, musicals and other stage events, I have assumed the risk when working with new clients. I give them a flat rate per DVD and handle the marketing and order fulfillment myself, so nothing is required of the dance studio.

I come in as an independent contractor and handle the whole job. I take care of making the order forms available, and parents can mail me the form with their check, or they can just phone in a credit card order, which a large number do take advantage of. The studio in turn gets a certain number of free DVDs for their staff and families as a thank you for the opportunity to cover the event.

Some producers will determine what they need to make as a minimum on the job, and will prepare a proposal that may require the studio to guarantee a minimum number of DVD sales, after which there may be a reduced rate for additional copies that allows the dance studio to make some money. When getting a studio to guarantee minimum sales, they will normally handle the sales and pay you for the DVDs themselves. In any case, get it all in writing with the studio to avoid issues later on in case there are any issues or disagreements as to who owes what.

I’ve been getting $30 per DVD in the Midwest, while I’ve heard of producers in other markets getting as much as $45 per DVD. It may help to put up a table or booth in the lobby at the recital where people can view your work and place orders. I’ve been with my dance studios for so long that everyone knows me and I just make sure that plenty of order forms are available both at rehearsals and at the show. You might wish to offer a discount when customers order two or more different shows to spur additional sales.

I do have a lot of post-production time setting up the multiple views and titling the acts. If you have the experience, equipment and crew to properly handle live-switching the event, this could definitely increase the profitability of the job.

One method would be to record the live switch, as well as having tape in the individual cameras, and then in post you can just do clean-up up editing as necessary before duplicating. Another more aggressive tactic would be to live switch directly to a DVD recorder, and as soon as the program ends, start running copies on a DVD tower using pre-labeled blanks and make them available immediately to get the impulse buys. If you choose the latter route, make sure you’ve got the procedure down pat, as many things could go wrong.

I believe I can always deliver a more polished product by editing in post, but that’s just my personal preference. Many successful event videographers offer live-switched productions and do very well with them.

In these hard economic times, it makes sense to diversify your offerings. Maybe you’ve always done just corporate video or weddings, but if business is slow, call those dance studios. In larger metro areas, see if the city park district runs a dance program in addition to the privately-owned studios. I’ve gotten some nice corporate jobs from parents who’ve seen my recital work, so don’t discount the idea. There could be a gold mine in your own backyard, and it repeats (and should grow) every year!

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Making Money with Dance Recitals