Adventures in YouTube-Land: The Making of “World Wide Wade Goes West”

It’s one of the cardinal rules of startup life: stick to your knitting. Don’t get distracted by all the cool things you could do, at the expense of the thing you already do well.

At Xconomy, we’ve followed that rule pretty well: We’re journalists who write about technology and entrepreneurship for a living, and we publish text, lots of it. Beyond the occasional in-line photo or slide show, we haven’t ventured much into multimedia. We don’t produce a daily podcast, we don’t stream our conferences and events live on the Web, and we don’t have a TV studio in the back room, like TechCrunch or CNET.

wwwww-thumbnailsBut that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy audio and video content, or that we don’t think from time to time about how our form of journalism might translate into other media. My recent cross-country drive from Boston to the Bay Area gave me a perfect excuse to start experimenting in this area, starting with video blogging. In today’s column—the first written from my new home base in San Francisco, and my 100th overall—I thought I’d talk a little about that experience, with an emphasis on some of the technical lessons I’m learning.

If you haven’t seen the video series, which we called “World Wide Wade Goes West,” after the title of this weekly column, you can check it out at our YouTube channel, You can also view the individual videos here at Xconomy, including the pilot/preview video; Episode I: Gloucester, MA; Episode II: Rochester, NY; Episode III: Who’s Wade?; Episode IV: Torch Lake, MI; Episode V: Minneapolis, MN; Episode VI: Wall, SD; and Episode VII: Denver, CO.

The idea for the videos was really a by-product of the decision to drive across the country, which was the most practical way to get both my car and my 13-year-old dog Rhody out to California. Once I did the driving-distance calculations and realized that it would be inadvisable to try to complete the drive in less than a week, I had to come up with a way to generate my share of content for Xconomy San Francisco while I was in transit. The trip itself seemed like perfect fodder. We knew we’d be stopping along the way in a variety of places that, to many businesspeople on the East and West Coasts, are simply “flyover country.” So it seemed like a great opportunity to bring along a video camera and get perspectives from real people in middle America about technology trends.

We figured we’d ask our interviewees about the same technologies that innovators in Boston or San Francisco are immersed in every day, but seek out the unvarnished perspectives of these technologies’ real users and consumers, rather than the inevitably myopic viewpoints of their creators. We also hoped to get a read on the conditions for business and entrepreneurship in various regions of the country.

When I say “we,” I mean myself and my co-pilot and collaborator on the trip, Graham Gordon Ramsay. One of my oldest friends in Boston, Graham is an author, educator, composer, and photographer who has been exploring videography lately as part of his teaching at MIT’s Experimental Study Group. He knows his way around a video camera, and even more important, he’s got a working knowledge of Final Cut Pro, the video editing software package made by Apple. He was the videographer and editor for all of the videos. I was the writer, interviewer, and on-air talent.

You can judge for yourself whether we succeeded in our mission to gather some fresh perspectives on high-tech trends and the state of entrepreneurship—and I’ll share a few of my own observations about that soon. But in case you’re curious about the technology behind the project itself, here’s the rundown. We used a Canon Vixia HF-R100 high-definition digital camcorder to capture the original footage. We had a wireless microphone attachment for outdoor distance shots (it was a cheap one that didn’t work as well as we’d hoped). We transferred all the footage to a MacBook for editing and post-production, for which we used Final Cut Pro; we used a 1-terabyte USB hard drive as the scratch drive for FCP. In the car, we powered the MacBook and charged up our other information appliances (an iPad, two iPhones, and three cameras) using a DC-AC inverter purchased especially for the trip. We compressed the finished videos to the QuickTime format and uploaded those files to YouTube, via whatever broadband Internet connection we could locate. Finally, we embedded the YouTube videos in articles on Xconomy.

But those are just the mechanical details. The process of creating one coherent four- to five-minute video every day turned out to be pretty interesting to this multimedia newbie, albeit extremely tiring. Here’s how a typical day went:

6:00 a.m.-7:00 a.m. Get up, shower, shave, load car, walk Rhody, drink coffee.

7:00 a.m.-8:00 a.m. Shoot establishing video and introductions or closings for the video interview captured the previous day (call it Episode A).

8:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. Drive. Transfer video from camera to laptop. Make a log of the Episode A video. Drink more coffee.

12:00 p.m.-1:00 p.m. Lunch. Plan next shoot.

1:00 p.m.-6:00 p.m. Drive. Assemble logged Episode A footage into a coherent video of no more than four minutes. Add intro and outro material (the nifty motion graphics, provided by our series sponsor, Pixability). Compress video. Drink more coffee.

6:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m. Arrive at next destination. Shoot interview footage for Episode B.

7:00 p.m.-8:00 p.m. Dinner.

8:00 p.m.-12:00 a.m. Upload Episode A to YouTube (a very slow process for the typical 800-megabyte QuickTime file). Write introduction for the accompanying Xconomy article. Embed uploaded video into article. Schedule article for publication the next morning. Get some sleep.

Rinse, lather, and repeat for seven episodes and 3,600 miles. (It’s actually 3,106 miles from San Francisco to Boston by the most direct route, according to Google Maps. But our route, which took us through upstate New York, Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nevada, was a little more circuitous.)

What did I learn about video production from this project? Probably nothing that isn’t obvious to real video professionals, but one point really stood out: Less is more. When you’re shooting video, you have to encourage your interviewees to be pithy and brief. The more video you capture, the harder it will be to sift through it and edit it together. Plus, Web audiences have a limited attention span anyway. We probably should have tried to keep our videos to three minutes, rather than four or five (though that would have meant leaving a lot of great material on the cutting room floor—i.e., the scratch drive).

Along the same lines: Improvising is a bad idea. Just a few minutes of planning can save hours of heartache later. When we shot the intro for the Rochester episode, for example, we hadn’t scripted anything beforehand. It took about 30 takes under the wilting sun before I could spit out something usable—all material that we had to view, log, and sort later.

Overall, this was a hugely educational project, and I’m pretty proud of the 32 minutes of footage we produced in total. I’ve got the Vixia now, and I think I picked up enough video editing tips from Graham to make my own vlog posts here in San Francisco. In fact, I hope to mix things up a little by bringing out the occasional video column in this space, in place of my usual long-winded essays. So stay tuned.

As a parting gift, here’s a behind-the-scenes video starring Graham, shot at the Starbucks in Savage, MN:

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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