Video Art: Create Strange New Worlds with your Camcorder

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2002

Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine Camcorder & Computer Home Video Magazine Logo

Do you feel the creative urge, but you can’t draw even a straight line? Do you have an eye for beauty, but have not yet found your own medium? Do you have access to a camcorder?

With a little camcorder and a large imagination you can create exciting visuals that delight and entertain, dazzle and inspire. Your palette is your camcorder and your canvas is the TV screen.

We will show you how you can create your own works of art with any camcorder, but first, let’s visit with San Francisco artist, Patricia Tavenner.

An Artist who Works with Video

Tavenner trained as a painter and decided to take her visual sensitivity into video. Her attention to intense color is evident in her work with collages and flowers. “I wanted to make my collages move,” muses Tavenner. “I paint with video.”

Tavenner hoped to get into video 15 years ago, but the cameras were too heavy. A few years ago she bought a Sony TR101 Hi8 camcorder. “Once I got that Sony in my hands, I knew that was the camcorder to buy. It felt right in my hands. I can reach every button without looking. It’s like playing the piano.”

Tavenner walks through a rose garden near her home, stopping to grab macro shots of colorful flowers in bloom. Later she takes these video clips to a local editing studio where she runs them through a Video Toaster. Tavenner also brings slides of her collages and uses the studio’s Tamron slide transfer unit to layer them in with her video.

While the studio technician changes colors on the Toaster’s Chroma FX, Tavenner slowly zooms into her slide on the Tamron. “This editing takes four hands,” notes Tavenner. Together with her slide zoom, Tavenner adjusts the color on the Tamron. At the same time, the technician is creating slow transitions on the Toaster as he adjusts the color from the camcorder tape. All this gets recorded in real time on the edit master.

“I go into my mental space, as if I am in my studio,” says Tavenner. “We work spontaneously until we get the effect we are looking for.” Tavenner says she likes to use the smoky dissolve effect on the Toaster and performs the transition very slowly. “If the video motion is slow, the viewer does not even notice the transition; that’s what makes the piece beautiful.” Tavenner says that the process is slow and laborious; it takes her about five hours to produce only 2 ½ minutes of video. She explains that the technician had to make special adjustments to the equipment because her colors were so intense.

In addition to working at the professional studio, Tavenner works at home using Adobe Photoshop and Premiere on her Mac 8500 computer. The 8500 has a built-in video board with standard RCA video input and output connectors. She places flowers and her collages on her scanner and uses Photoshop’s drawing tools with her mouse to create abstract colored backgrounds for the flowers and collages.

What Does it Take to Be a Video Artist?

According to Tavenner, “everybody can do it. Everybody has the aptitude, but not all have the inner fortitude. It takes a great deal of inner faith.” Tavenner goes on to say that while the culture doesn’t value artists, it is the arts that allow the culture to heal itself. That may be the reason there are more artists now and more art stores than ever before.

Computer users have a vast array of software tools to allow them to express their budding creativity. Many camcorders have built in special effects and image processing features. However, you don’t need a fancy camcorder to produce video art. Any ordinary camcorder coupled with your extraordinary brain can produce aesthetically pleasing, visually stunning video art.

Video Feedback

You can create a kaleidoscopic effect by aiming your camcorder at its TV monitor. Mount the camcorder on a tripod so that it aims, not directly opposite the tripod handle, but at about a 90-degree angle. Then turn the tripod so the camcorder points at the monitor. By adjusting the tripod angle as well as zoom and exposure, you eventually will find a spot where geometric patterns move out from the center of the screen.

You can modify the feedback by placing objects in front of the lens. Start with a finger and try a wide-toothed comb or crinkled plastic wrap. Try adding pieces of colored plastic, leaves and other household objects.

If your camcorder has any special effects features, try engaging them at the same time. For example, some camcorders have “picture art,” mosaic or negative image. Switching to negative enhances video feedback imagery. Experiment, and be sure to play appropriate music to complete the audiovisual experience.

Smoke and Mirrors and Colored Lights

The Video Toaster has a smoky effect that creates a dreamlike transition from one scene to another. If you are already a smoker, enjoy a cigarette the next time you are shooting with a camcorder. At the end of a scene, slowly blow a mouthful of that delicious smoke right into the camera lens and then stop recording. Set up your next shot, and blow another puff into the lens as you push the record button. The smoke creates a soft transition from one shot to another.

Non-smokers can go to a novelty store and purchase a pack of smoke bombs. Take your camcorder outside, put one of the bombs in an aluminum foil tray and light it. Hold the smoke close to the lens as you end one shot and begin another.

Two items no video artist should be without are a large, magnified make-up mirror and mirrorized mylar. The latter is a plastic sheet with a mirror coating, used to block sunlight from windows. Most home center stores carry mirrorized mylar. Aim your camcorder into the mirror or mylar and aim the mirror at your friend, a bed of flowers or simply colored scraps of paper. When you move the mirror, you can create some distorted images that appear abstract but are bent reflections of your scene.

Do you want another use for those old Christmas tree lights? Grab a small clump of those tangled twinklers and hold them in front of your camcorder lens. This works best in a darkened room and with camcorders that let you turn off autofocus. You will get an array of soft glowing colors that you can move to the music.

Now, bring in your make-up mirror or mylar and try positioning the clump of lights so you can see their reflection in the mirror. Experiment with various combinations of reflected lights and lights directly in front of the lens. Try changing the focus and exposure, if you can.

Everyday Materials to Boost Your Creativity

Visit your local home improvement store to get materials you can put in front of your lens, or use as backgrounds. Shooting through decorative glass and plastic panels can give your videos a unique design. Get some window screen material, and fold it over itself. You can create what’s known as a moiré pattern—a geometric pattern that changes as you move the pieces of screen.

Next, stop at a fabric store and get some very sheer white and black material. Cut out a small square of this cloth and rubber band it over your lens. Then shine lights or flashlights directly at the camera lens. With black material you should see starburst patterns. Turn the filter and the stars will rotate. With white material, you may obtain a foggy, cloud-like scene. Find some patterned lace and experiment with shadows you can create with lights shone through them. Put the lace over the camera lens and try moving it ever so slowly.

Distorting Reality

While filters over your lens and mirrors will physically distort your scene, you can find aesthetic imagery in everyday settings. The next time you are at river or lake, watch the patterns on the water. How does the sunlight reflect off the surface? How do waves bounce and ripple against each other? Zoom into a portion of the water that has the most interesting patterns. A tight close-up can reveal a pattern that most casual observers would ordinarily miss. With your camcorder you can selectively show art in everyday life.

If that river has a small waterfall nearby, try turning the camcorder upside down. Zoom in, and your viewers won’t know what they are seeing! Get down on the ground and move through the grass. Turn on the macro lens and view life from a bug’s perspective.

Now it’s time to look to the clouds. Zoom in on unique patterns, and maybe you can convince your viewers that your videos are indeed heavenly. Find a sunrise or sunset and zoom into a particular part of it that moves you—an image that grabs your attention. Again, your viewer won’t know what he is seeing and may be pleasantly surprised when you zoom back to reveal your secret.

As Tavenner says, anyone can be an artist. But only those with enough fortitude to take their time to do their best are going to succeed. Experiment until you get the effects that you are absolutely delighted with. Don’t settle for anything less than terrific. Try out different materials and different techniques, and, most importantly, have fun.

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