For about eight years, I recorded video of burlesque shows in my area. Hundreds of shows, thousands of performances. It was mostly burlesque, but there were also belly dancing, pole dancing, and aerial performance shows. I got to be fairly good at it, and I learned what worked and what didn’t.
Use a Tripod
The most obvious problem with amateur video is an unstable camera. You can’t hold it in your hand and expect it to be any good. There is no substitute for a tripod. Image stabilization, both in camera and in post, are of limited value, and in many ways they make the image look worse. Get and use a tripod.
For video, a tripod should have a good fluid pan-tilt head. A $30 video tripod can pan and tilt, but it will stick and be jerky. (I did once pick up a $50 tripod – at Walmart even – that had a remarkably usable fluid head, although the whole unit is rather short.) As long as it is a true fluid head, it doesn’t really need to be expensive, as long as it can support the weight of your camera (even good camcorders are relatively light these days).
If you can, get a tall tripod. My favorite tripod for burlesque was a Manfrotto 475B. With the additional height of the head, it positioned my camera nearly seven feet high. This allowed me to be at the back of the room, shooting over people’s heads, and not have to worry about my shot being blocked my someone standing or walking in front of the camera. I could even have an aisle in front of my camera, and no one would feel compelled to duck down to get past the camera. Note that you will always see some of the audience in the shot, and if the performer gets down on the floor of the stage, he or she will be obscured by members of the audience and photographers in the front row. I consider this to be acceptable, as the presence of the audience conveys the sense that this is a live performance. If you have a short tripod (as the $30 one will be), you won’t like it. If you can’t get the camera at least up to eye level, your shot is going to be obscured too much by people in the audience. Trying to place your tripod on top of something will frustrate you even more.
Use a Camcorder
It’s tempting to use a DSLR for video, especially if that’s what you have. The photographic quality of a DSLR is certainly superior. However, because it wasn’t actually designed for video, a DSLR leaves you handicapped in a number of ways that are relevant to event videography.
A DSLR won’t take long recordings. Even with an external mic, the audio quality of a DSLR is bad. Because of the large sensor, a DSLR has a very shallow depth of field, making it very sensitive to incorrect focus. Burlesque venues are mostly dark places, and you’ll need your aperture wide open most of the time, which will make focus even more challenging on a DSLR.
The last camera I used for burlesque was a Canon XA20. Before that, I used a Canon VIXIA HF G10. Honestly, any camcorder will get the job done, but the more expensive camcorders will produce better quality (especially in the low light conditions on stage) and give you more control. Make sure you have plenty of battery (at least two hours).
Use a Shotgun Mic
A shotgun microphone will pick up more of what’s happening on the stage. Depending on the troupe or performer, this could be very important. I got my start recording burlesque troupes that did also did a lot of acting on stage. Some used live sound reinforcement (wireless mics), but they never worked perfectly. Being able to hear a performer on stage was important. Even outside of acting situations, there are always little things happening on stage that you want to record: spankings, verbal cues, costumes and props that make sound, pyrotechnics, and other action sounds.
At a burlesque show, there are three sources of sound: the performers on stage, the front-of-house speakers, and the audience. The audience is the loudest and the performers are the quietest, which is basically the opposite of how you want to the recording to come out. A shotgun mic brings you closest to this ideal. The built-in mic on the camera at the back of the room will give you all audience and nothing of what’s happening on the stage. You need a directional mic.
I always used a stereo shotgun microphone, ultimately settling on an Audio-Technica BP4029. Most serious audiophiles will tell you that a stereo shotgun mic is illogical. This is because the “mid” element of the microphone is highly direction, but the “side” element of the microphone cannot be, and they mix together to output a signal that is not really directional. This is true. Nevertheless, a stereo shotgun magically produced the result I wanted: the ability to hear subtle things on stage, along with a stereo image of the audience that felt present.
Also, you may need to use an attenuator (pad) on the microphone. A camcorder with XLR inputs is designed to record at a conversational speaking level, about 80 dB. Burlesque audiences scream in excess of 110 dB, which is much louder. Even if your mic can handle that, it will probably overload the inputs on your camera. On my XA20, depending on how I had it configured, it could look like it was recording okay (according to the microphone meter) but was actually clipping. I solved this by installing a pair of XLR attenuators between the camera and the microphone.
Power and Storage Requirements
Burlesque shows are typically 1½ to 2 hours, with a single intermission. Some marathon shows are longer. You need enough power to last that long, and you need enough data storage to record the whole thing.
Make sure you have plenty of battery (at least two hourCamcorder batteries are typically available in two or three sizes, and the battery that came with your camcorder is not the largest one available. Get a high capacity battery or two. Also, don’t believe the battery life estimate of your camera or the manual; perform a battery life test, with all the attachments attached, to know how long that battery really lasts. I bring two high capacity batteries with me, and each is good for about 2½ hours (even though the camera estimates more than 3). I also bring an external battery charger, in case I don’t know how long things will go, to recharge the first battery while I’m using the second.
If you got roped into this job at the last minute and you don’t have a high capacity battery, then bring your AC adapter and a long extension cord with you.
I record using the maximum bitrate (the least amount of compression), which is about 24 Mb/s. Typical shows are 15 to 20 GB on the memory card, and on my computer after I transfer it. However, I have had long shows take up 30 GB of storage. I use a 64 GB SD card, and I always bring a spare.
If You Can, Use a Zoom Controller
I tended to zoom quite a bit. Sometimes the action is all over the stage. Sometimes it is in one specific place. Sometimes you don’t know where it will be.
I’ve never had a camera that could zoom slowly and smoothly. Even with the zoom speed set to its slowest, the controls were just too sensitive and imprecise.
A zoom controller can make a world of difference. I used a Canon ZR-2000, which connected to the LANC port of my cameras. I could set the zoom speed to something very low, and the zoom speed could be so subtle that you often didn’t notice it.
If you can, you want to zoom in to see the facial expressions on performers’ faces and all the other detail about their performance. However, the challenge of zooming in close is that performers have a tendency to abruptly move out of frame. Pole dancers are the worst, because they like to drop.
You can strike a balance and not zoom in all the way, giving yourself an extra margin of safety when the performers surprise you.
When you are zoomed in, you should have your hand on the pan bar of your tripod head at all times, ready to respond quickly to the movements of the performers.
If you do it enough, you’ll start to develop a sense for when a performer is likely to move. I became quite good at it, to the point where I sometimes amazed even myself, but I can’t explain how it worked. (I have a clip of a short gag, during which I started to pan left before a performer appeared suddenly with no warning from house-left, and even though I remember feeling that it was about to happen, I still don’t know how I knew.)
Nose room is a basic concept in cinema, also known as “lead room” or “looking space”. You can search online for lengthy discussions and examples. It mainly applies to closer shots. Basically, it means that when a subject is looking toward the left or the right, you want to frame the shot so it gives a little extra space in the direction they’re looking. If you cram the performer’s nose up against the edge of the frame, it will feel awkward to viewers.
Prepare for Performers Off-Stage
If life were easy, the performer would get on stage and wait for the music to start. If there was a perfect plan, a producer or stage manager would warn the videographer before the show when a performer is going to start elsewhere. In reality, anything can happen.
And by “anything”, I mean the performer isn’t on stage when the music starts. That might mean the performer is back-stage and planning to make a dramatic entrance at an appropriate point in the music. Or it might mean that the performer is standing in left field and planning to sashay through the audience before taking the stage. Or (as once happened) it might mean the performer is reclining on the hood of a car at a loading door so far away from the stage that your line of sight is blocked by the tech crew.
So if the music starts and you don’t know where the performer is, then you’d better start looking around.
Talk to the Audience Around You
Shortly before the show starts, once it is clear who is going to be sitting near the camera, I frequently have a little conversation with the people who will be sitting nearest. They don’t realize until I mention it that I am recording audio from here, and their voices will pick up the loudest on the recording. I encourage them to laugh and cheer and catcall as they normally would, but don’t talk shit about the performers. It’s a sad fact that many audience members are vocally judgemental about performance, appearance, and costume, and I have had more than one video ruined because some audience member was clearly overheard saying something negative about the performer on stage.
You cannot rely on your camera’s auto-focus. Darkness will confound your camera. On the other hand, even the best camcorders are difficult to focus manually.
The strategy I use is to leave the camera on manual focus, but use auto-focus momentarily when I am confident it will work correctly. It helps greatly if your camera or zoom controller has an AF/MF button. Before the show begins, I will let the camera focus on something in the middle of the stage, and then I will switch to manual focus. I will record most of the show in manual focus. However, if I think the focus needs to be adjusted, I will wait for a moment when the camera is most likely to get it right (when the stage lights are bright, there is someone on the stage, and there is not some tall audience member staggering around in front of the camera), and I will switch to auto-focus momentarily.
This is complicated by some cameras, namely my XA20, which do not have a consistent focal distance throughout their zoom range. In other words, every time I zoom in or out, the subject goes out of focus and must be corrected. If the conditions are good, I will switch to auto-focus before I zoom, and then back to manual focus when I have finished zooming. Alternatively, I will zoom a little bit, correct the focus, zoom a little more, correct the focus, and so on.
Focus is one benefit of a camcorder over a DSLR. The camcorder has a relatively small sensor, giving it inherently deep depth of field. This means the performer can move all around the stage and remain in focus. This would not be possible with a DSLR.
If you can, record the whole set as a single recording. I only ever stopped the recording during intermission. One of my early mentors, who once made a living from candid video, constantly told me, “Never turn off the camera!”
The fact is, a burlesque show isn’t just a series of discrete performances, even when that’s what the show is intended to me. Quite a bit happens between performances, and it’s often something you’ll wish you had on video. The MC is really one of the performers, and their dialog is often gold. And of course, there is always the unexpected.
I normally made separate videos for each performance. (There was one annual show, the Shimmy Showdown, for which that was basically impossible.) My usual workflow for editing was to mark the start and end of each performance, and drag it into is own sequence in its own folder. Then I’d come back and do the rest of the work.
The folders were numbered in chronological order, so that later I could upload them in chronological order. The numbering also helped when there was more than one performance by the same performer.
The start of the performance was usually the start of the music, but there were some exceptions. The end of the performance was after the performance plus a little bit of the audience cheering. How much cheering I put on the end was always a subjective matter of art. However, at least some cheering is important; it’s one of the reasons the performers do what they do.
For each show, I created a style for titles and end credits. I placed the performer’s name as a title a few seconds into the video. The end credits included the performer’s name along with the date, the venue, the name of the show, the name of the troupe, and my copyright.
(Anecdotally, placing a copyright notice at the end of the video made a huge difference in people downloading and reposting the video on their own channel.)
I’ve settled on no fade in at the beginning of the video, but sometimes the attack of the audio need to be smoothed out a little. At the end of the performance, I would fade into the end credits, fading the sound at the same time.
Some of the shows involved a fair amount of acting between performances. In those cases, I would gather up all of that, skipping over the performances, and make a single video of that.
Once the video was edited, I would go back and find a good frame to use as the video’s thumbnail and export a still frame.
After I rendered the video and uploaded it, I would delete the rendered video and any temporary or cache directories, and then I would archive the project file and the raw footage. I still have every show I’ve ever recorded, and people still ask me occasionally to pull things out of my archive.
YouTube and Vimeo
It’s a fact that burlesque is performed to music, that most of that music is copyrighted by record companies, and that record companies have an army of attorneys who have bent the internet to their will.
When I got started, I uploaded videos to YouTube. YouTube tended to detect the music, and they did a variety of unsportsmanlike things to the videos in consequence. These included blocking the video completely, blocking the audio, or blocking the video in certain locations. My video became the property of the “content owners” (the record companies), and they got to choose what happened to my video. They put their ads on my videos. If I had wanted to monetize my video, I couldn’t, because according to YouTube, it didn’t belong to me.
I got tired of this, and I moved to Vimeo. I had to pay money for Vimeo, and there was a weekly upload quota that went with my subscription level, but they almost never detected music copyrights — at first. The video quality was also superior, and I could easily organize shows into collections. However, after a few years, they did start detecting music copyrights. They didn’t turn control of my video over to the record companies. They just deleted it. And they had a three-strikes policy. With thousands of burlesque videos online, it was just a matter of time before they terminated my account.
I want to mention that, according to copyright law, this should have been considered fair use. However, YouTube and Vimeo have no process for such a thing. The record companies’ attorneys have them wrapped around their little fingers.
I went back to YouTube, and I put up with their abuses. I still haven’t re-uploaded all the videos that were lost when Vimeo terminated my account.