The most honest form of filmmaking is to make a film for yourself.
Digital video and audio forms such as podcasts are widely used on all kinds of business and organizational web sites, and it has never been easier or cheaper to add short video programs, audio clips, or podcasts to your web and social media presence. The change in the video production industry has been remarkable, particularly over the past decade. With relatively modest video equipment and the average desktop computer, you can now achieve better technical quality video than a $100,000 studio could have made possible fifteen years ago.
At first, online video emulated older long-format styles of movies and television, with long cinema-style opening sequences and closing credits, and story lengths of twenty minutes or more. But as YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and other digital media sites began to be viewed as serious media distribution channels, fundamental shifts took place in the style of video storytelling itself, and a new genre of short documentary, news, and promotional videos has emerged. These new videos are short, anywhere from fifteen seconds to ten minutes in length, averaging about three to four minutes.
This doesn’t mean that the average web or communications professional can casually pick up a consumer video camera and expect to produce material equivalent to that of the best online media professionals. But the huge barrier of audiovisual equipment and software costs has dropped dramatically, and it is now possible—with training and experience—for small web and communications teams to produce useful and compelling audiovisual content without needing to hire a professional video team for every project. Just as important, YouTube, Vimeo, and social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and others have made it fast and easy to distribute video productions to a potential worldwide audience.
Web Video Strategies
Online video is a major communications channel, widely used in business communications, e-commerce, marketing, education, and popular programming. Online video is a distribution medium that rivals broadcast television for viewership, in number of viewers and hours watched.
Providing a good experience
The attention-grabbing power of audiovisual media demands careful user interface considerations to avoid annoying and disrupting the reader’s experience with an unexpected blast of video and audio. The Golden Rule in any audiovisual experience is user control. Users should have enough information to make an informed decision about whether or not to load the video. The user should always explicitly click a “play” button to initiate video or audio content.
- Provide important details. Video content embedded on your web pages requires more time from the user, because there’s no convenient way to rapidly scan the content of a video until it has fully downloaded into the browser. Try to give users the title, some caption description, and the overall length of the video.
- Do not autoplay. One obvious tenet of the Golden Rule of control is never to autoplay video content, but lately Facebook has been defaulting to autoplaying videos in its newsfeed, and raising alarm particularly from mobile users who are seeing their cell phone data rates rise sharply as a result. It seems we’re doomed to repeat the same user interface mistakes with every new medium: for all kinds of practical, financial, and basic courtesy reasons, never autoplay audiovisual content.
- Keep it short. People’s online video expectations and viewing circumstances are very different from conventional “long-form” television viewing, and there are substantial differences in viewing and video completion rates even between mobile and desktop viewing. Although mobile users often start videos, they are much less likely to complete a video program, particularly as program length goes beyond 3 minutes. While there is not a lot of research so far on the optimal length of informational or educational online videos, the marketing and news worlds have settled on 3–4 minutes as the ideal length for promotional and news YouTube videos, and not coincidentally this is similar to the average length of a single story in the major network evening news programs (about 2.3 minutes).
- Get to the point. Online video viewers are not generally “settled in” like television watchers for a long viewing of video content. You need to grab the user’s attention right away in short-form video with “fast-start” introductions that begin delivering real content right away, even while the title graphics are still on the screen. This means no long cinema-like introductions or corporate flying-logo sequences. Start the story immediately, and do your titles or other required information as graphics at the bottom of the screen.
Providing alternatives for audio and video
A text version of the audio track makes your video content more search-friendly, accessible, and discoverable. With text, every word in your video becomes a searchable item, which can be particularly useful for specialized or technical video content, where a title and a few keywords alone would not be sufficient to make the content discoverable. Text makes the information in the audio accessible to people who can’t hear the audio. When the text is presented as synchronized captions, people can watch the video while reading the captions. This type of multichannel presentation is helpful for everyone, aiding in comprehension, for example, for nonnative speakers of the language of the video.
Some technologies help with creating text alternatives. For example, speech-to-text technology can help in creating a text version of spoken audio, but the accuracy is not optimal. One option for creating a text version is to use a speech-to-text tool for the first pass and then edit the transcript for accuracy, for example, using YouTube autocaptions as a starting point, editing, and uploading a revised and accurate version.
However, professional transcribers are best at creating accurate alternatives, and the best approach is to budget time and resources for creating alternatives. Like good lighting, talent, and equipment, providing video alternatives should be just another facet of producing quality video.
For audio transcription, services like SpeechPad (www.speechpad.com), Rev (www.rev.com/transcription), and Amara (amara.org) charge by the minute to create transcripts from video. The process is easy: you provide the transcript service site with a link to your video, pay online, and depending on the service level you choose, you get a transcript text file back via email in several hours or several days. Uploading the returned caption file to distribution sites like YouTube and Video is straightforward.
Video description is a method for making visual information accessible to people who can’t see the video. The method uses the natural gaps in the audio track to narrate the action and information conveyed visually. Video description is also called audio description or described video, and is something of an art. wgbh’s Media Access Group (www.wgbh.org) is a leader in media accessibility, providing captioning and video description services. Like audio transcription, the best way to provide quality video description is to budget time and resources and hire experts, then integrate the results into your video presentation so that everyone can access and benefit from it.
Choosing a distribution channel
There are two ways of looking at online video delivery vehicles like YouTube and Vimeo:
- As “channels” that people visit to browse and find content, either specifically through searching, or by browsing through what’s current and popular on YouTube or Vimeo’s home and specialty pages, and on your own YouTube or Vimeo “channel.”
- As an embedded video played within your own web site, but sourced from Vimeo or YouTube.
Facebook is the other major video delivery channel for short-form videos. Facebook is not a major destination site specifically for video, but it is by far the dominant social medium, and should be a major component of a video content campaign. You can also embed Facebook videos and posts in your web site.
All three presentation forms should have a place in your video distribution strategy, as Facebook, Vimeo, and YouTube have different approaches, different strengths, and a different mix of audiences.
YouTube is by far the dominant channel for online video distribution, and YouTube is also the second-most-used search platform on the Internet, behind only Google itself—YouTube’s corporate parent. If you want your video work to be discovered and noticed, you must post it on YouTube. However, that doesn’t mean YouTube is the only or even the first place to upload your video content.
Aside from being the most popular distribution channel for video, YouTube is also free. Because YouTube is funded through online advertising, it might be the best choice if you want to monetize your video content by placing advertising on it through YouTube and Google partner programs. YouTube’s dominance as a search platform means that your video content is more likely to be discovered through web search, particularly if you always provide a full transcription of the video along with the video file itself (see above for more on audiovisual transcription).
The fact that YouTube is large, free, and advertiser supported is also the biggest drawback to YouTube as a distribution medium. YouTube is visually noisy, crammed with low-grade home videos, and does its best to distract your audience with enticements to view other “related” (perhaps competing) content at the end of every video. By default YouTube does not show your carefully crafted video at a high-quality setting. Yes, knowledgeable viewers can easily select higher-quality settings, but most users don’t know about and don’t bother with the setting.
Competition for attention is fierce in a distribution channel where one hundred hours of video are uploaded every minute, and YouTube itself works to cannibalize your audience by constantly exposing viewers to “related content.” In marketing videos it’s not unusual for competing companies to buy Adwords on each other’s names and brands, hoping to shift audiences away from competing products and services. YouTube distribution can also be complicated for business-to-business (B2B) communications, as many corporations and large institutions block YouTube content from their internal networks.
To take maximum advantage of the YouTube site itself, develop your YouTube channel page and carefully manage and prioritize the video content you feature on your channel. Provide professional-quality cover art and assign a staffer to keep the channel up to date with your latest videos, monitor the channel for comments, and report on the traffic levels on the channel. Always title and label your videos with likely search keywords and seo in mind, just as you would with other online content. Provide an accurate, edited transcript for each video, which you can upload along with your video.
Vimeo is the major alternative to YouTube for hosting and viewing online video content. While Vimeo is a much smaller company than YouTube, Vimeo has a loyal following in the video production industry for its high-quality video presentation services.
Vimeo is a much quieter online video service and distribution channel, primarily because it is a paid service that does not run advertising in or around its video content. Anyone can watch Vimeo content for free, but if you routinely produce and upload videos, you will probably opt for one of Vimeo’s paid upload and presentation services. The fee-for-service nature of Vimeo cuts out almost all the junky home videos and grumpy cats of YouTube—a strong attraction for professional corporate and institutional marketing and informational videos.
Vimeo attracts communications professionals with a sophisticated media player that is graphically quieter and more controllable than YouTube’s player, particularly in the ability to embed a video with higher-quality video settings so that the video looks its best by default.
Another strong attraction for media professionals is Vimeo’s ability to password-protect videos, making it an ideal means to share draft versions of videos in production with clients without exposing the draft to the larger web video audience. On YouTube you can upload a video and select an option to keep the video “private” from search and channels display, but “private” YouTube videos do not have passwords and are visible to anyone who happens to discover them. With the Vimeo Pro service you can also reserve some videos for paid on-demand viewing or purchase.
On the downside, while the Vimeo audience is substantial, it is tiny compared with YouTube’s gigantic worldwide audience. The chances of your video programming being discovered by a mass general audience is much lower on Vimeo, and you cannot generate advertising income the way you can with YouTube videos that attract many viewers.
If your corporation or enterprise already has a significant following on Facebook, the primary strength of Facebook video is the ability to leverage a large social media audience. Recently many more video publishers have begun using the social power of Facebook to launch videos directly on Facebook, bypassing YouTube, or at least launching first on Facebook before posting to other video channels. Many observers of the social media marketplace have noted the videos loaded directly to Facebook receive more Facebook user engagement (as much as 40 percent more) than videos posted to YouTube and referenced only in Facebook posts.
Of course Facebook video posts largely disappear from your followers’ newsfeeds in a few hours, and engagement drops to near zero within twenty-four hours (see “Social Media Strategy,” in Chapter 1), so despite the major social media advantages Facebook offers, you’ll need other channels to maintain a steady presence for your video content over time.
A multichannel strategy
The different strengths and features of Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo can be a plus if you use them all as part of a general strategy to maximize the presentation quality and audience for your videos. If you have a large Facebook following, the obvious first move is to post new video content on Facebook. You might use Vimeo as a higher-quality alternative for embedding videos in your own web site, and for launching new video content as part of email marketing and web-based communications campaigns. You could then post the same videos later on YouTube to take advantage of the much larger and more varied audience of YouTube, and the search visibility of YouTube content.
For Facebook, Vimeo, or YouTube always be sure to embed the URL for your web site in:
- The metainformation you supply to Vimeo or YouTube about the video (keywords, descriptions, and so on).
- In the video itself at the end: “For more information, see www.whatever.edu.”
Media player accessibility
Accessibility and adaptability are key considerations when choosing a platform for your video—how to ensure that your video content plays on all devices and is accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities. It’s important to evaluate the accessibility and cross-device compatibility of the media player that comes natively with the video distribution platform. Test the player in different platforms and devices to understand the user experience it provides out of the box. Also evaluate the accessibility of the player for people who use the keyboard to operate controls, and people who use assistive technology such as a screen reader. Do all the controls receive keyboard focus, and can you operate them using appropriate keyboard keys? Can you see which control has focus? Try using the media player with a screen reader. Are all the control names announced, and do they make sense? Also ensure that the media player offers captions, and that the controls to enable captions are accessible using the keyboard. (See Chapter 7, Interface Design, for more on creating accessible interaction.)
Until the past decade you didn’t see many short online videos, except those from news outlets and large corporations with media departments (and substantial media budgets), or very amateurish home-movie videos. There wasn’t much content between the two extremes because small but high-quality HD video cameras were expensive, as was capable professional video-editing software.
Lightweight video production doesn’t depend on simply acquiring a camera and software. Knowing what to do with either takes a bit of training and experience, but luckily the web itself offers a rich banquet of excellent video content on which to model your productions, as well as detailed and well-designed online courses on video hardware, production techniques, and video editing.
Equipping for lightweight video production
With lightweight video production the goal is to keep the equipment costs relatively modest and the logistics of video production manageable for a single person or a small video team of two to three people at most. Don’t buy more than you or a partner can carry. This level of audiovisual equipment will get you up and running and able to produce professional online video and audio results once you’ve mastered the equipment itself and had some practice with editing. Of course you can spend much more on video equipment, but our advice is to start modestly, and add more complex and capable equipment only once you thoroughly understand your needs, and have enough production experience to spend wisely on tools that will significantly upgrade your capabilities.
If your primary goal is to produce short online videos to support your web communications, then use a video camera, not a still camera that also shoots video. Still professional cameras (digital single-lens reflex cameras, or dslrs) shoot excellent video but typically have poor audio recording capabilities, with low-quality audio preamplifiers, and usually they offer no “audio out” or headphone jacks to monitor the audio recording along with your video. The ability to constantly monitor your audio recording is absolutely crucial to good video production technique, as most short videos are based on interviews, and good audio quality in interviews is paramount.
The best video cameras for lightweight video production are at the top of the consumer product lines—the so-called prosumer video cameras. These cameras offer a wide range of useful automatic focus, exposure, and audio recording modes, but more important, they allow manual control over the major camera functions. Manual focusing, manual control of exposure, and manual control of audio recording levels are particularly important to producing consistently professional results. Much of the time you can shoot great video in automatic modes, but if you can’t shift to manual control, there are many shooting situations where you just won’t get good-quality results. Most current consumer-level high-definition video cameras offer decent video and audio recording, and a headphone jack to monitor the sound you record, a critical advantage over most dslr cameras.
If you can afford to spend a bit more on a video camera, low-end professional cameras offer two significant advantages over prosumer cameras: they have built-in connections for professional audio “xlr” connectors, and they have many more physical dials and switches for controlling camera functions. The prosumer cameras often have the same features as low-end professional cameras, but it is much slower to dig through a series of touchscreen menus than simply to flip a physical switch or to turn a control dial. Balanced-line xlr audio connectors are the professional standard for both line-level and microphone-level audio connections, and all professional cameras have built-in xlr audio connectors. This gives you access to a large selection of professional microphones and makes it easy to hook your camera to professional sound systems used in auditoriums and event venues.
However, if you have a prosumer or more modest video camera, you can get an xlr adapter that will adapt the miniplug microphone jack on your camera to the larger xlr plugs. You can also use a video adapter/recorder, which both adapts your small video camera for xlr plugs and can record an additional digital soundtrack for backup in important recording situations.
If you haven’t shot a lot of video, it might seem odd to highlight a technically modest accessory like a tripod, but for day-to-day video production work a good solid tripod specifically made for video work is as important as a good camera. Video tripods are different from still-photography tripods in two important ways: they come with “fluid heads” that allow smooth panning and tilting during video recording. Even a good-quality, well-oiled still tripod head can’t match a fluid head for smoothness of movement. Video tripods also have a special central camera post that allows you to quickly level the tripod head, important for on-the-go shooting situations, and much faster leveling than the typical still-photography tripod.
All video cameras come with built-in microphones, but unfortunately these built-in microphones are useless for most video shooting, except perhaps for capturing the ambient sounds of environments where clear speech is not crucial. The two kinds of microphones that are essential for lightweight video production are lavalier microphones for interviews and shotgun microphones for interviews and most other kinds of recording situations.
Lavalier microphones (“lav mics”) are the little microphones you see clipped to the shirts or collars of people interviewed on television, or onstage at speeches and other events. The most convenient lav mics for interviews are wireless, so you don’t have a dangling cord to conceal, or to run across the floor, creating a trip hazard.
Shotgun microphones can be used both for interviews and for general video recording. Shotgun mics are directional, with their maximum sensitivity pointed forward along the long axis of the microphone body. When mounted on a camera, shotgun mics do a decent job with informal interviews and for capturing ambient sounds in general video clips. They are also useful for recording events and speeches where you can’t get a feed directly from the “house sound” system to your camera. We prefer to use lav microphones for interviews because they do a better job of excluding environmental sound and recording a person’s voice, but a shotgun mic mounted on a microphone boom and pointed directly at the subject can work almost as well.
Modern video cameras can shoot decent video in surprisingly low light levels, but you will almost always want to supplement office-level lighting conditions with one or several small video lights, particularly for interviews. Plain office lighting usually results in dull-looking video, and the direct overhead lights are often unflattering to people’s faces. We recommend at least one 500-watt light, sometimes directly pointed at the subject, but more often bounced from a small white photo lighting umbrella to soften the light. In interviews this single light is just enough to open up shadows around the eyes and under the chin, and provides just enough “sparkle” for crisp-looking video. If you have time, a second 250-watt light to fill on the side opposite the main light will open up the shadows a bit more.
Planning a video
Most short informational videos are built around the backbone of an interview, or perhaps interviews supplemented with narration. In the short online video genre, narration is less common than in other forms of video and television, for several reasons. Professional narrations are expensive, and even for a two-to-four-minute video it can cost several hundred dollars to hire a pro to narrate (more on narration below). These days the best online videos use only the voice of the primary interview subjects, giving the whole production an authentic first-person feel. This also explains why good audio is so important in short video: your video will mostly be built around the interview, so a clear, clean soundtrack is crucial to making a professional production.
To do a good interview you’ll need at least one research conversation with your subject so that you understand the point of the video and the essential stories or explanations to cover, and to get a sense for how to construct a short video that conveys the core information. People who don’t do videos are used to longer television programs, and they may want to cram too much into a short video, or may panic when they hear how short the video is and think that they can’t possibly cover anything useful in 3 minutes or less. The average network television news story is 2 minutes, 23 seconds. You can cover a lot of ground in 60 seconds if you plan it well.
Try to arrange to do your interviews in a space you know well—ideally your conference room or other small room temporarily converted to a studio. If you do the interview in your subject’s office or work area, try to arrange a research visit to talk over the general point of the video and see the space you will be shooting in. Beware of noisy open-plan offices, or rooms with loud air handlers or air conditioning.
Bringing a small audio recorder or video camera and headphones to the research interview can be a real eye-opener. In daily life we ignore most of the subtle ambient sounds around us. We physically hear the noisy hvac systems, hissing vents, and distant traffic, but most of the time our brains screen the sounds before they reach our conscious awareness. However, video cameras and microphones will pick up the background noise. This is another reason why monitoring your sound with headphones is mandatory—with headphones you will hear all of that background noise, and can take steps to turn off the air conditioning, or move to a quieter room.
In any planning meeting or conversation find out about the possibilities for shooting “b-roll” of your subject’s work environment and plan for any footage you’ll need to illustrate the major points of the video. If the main subject of the video works closely with colleagues or friends, it can be interesting to shift between the main interview and comments from colleagues you also interview. But beware of trying to add too many voices to a two-to-three-minute video, as it may be confusing to the viewer to keep all the speakers straight. Usually an interview with one main subject is more than enough to make a great short video.
If you work in an enterprise communications department, you are already aware of any organizational polices on written permission to film subjects. Always get a signed permission form from anyone outside your organization whom you highlight in your film. Local policy may also require permission forms from staff members of your own organization. It is not generally necessary to get permission from people in public situations like streets, parks, or open campuses, but always err on the side of caution if your video appears to highlight a particular identifiable person, and get a signed release. Never film children or minors under any circumstances—public or not—without the close participation of their parents, and get signed release forms from the parents.
Short informational videos typically center on first-person perspectives and insights from one person, shared through an interview. To shoot effective interviews, create a comfortable setting, and ask the questions that will get at what is interesting and engaging about the subject. Given the right context, most people are eager to talk about their work to someone who is eager to listen.
Positioning the video camera and tripod well away from your subject is useful for several reasons. At a longer distance the camera is less “in their face.” If you are behind your lights, the camera is even less obvious and intrusive. The longer shooting distance also means you’ll use a more telephoto lens setting, which is more flattering to the face. Set up the camera on your tripod so that the lens is no higher than the subject’s eye level. A position slightly lower than eye level can also be flattering to many people.
The best situation is to have two people on the crew: one to ask questions, and another to monitor the camera and audio. That way you get a clean eyeline as well—just ask your subject to look at the interviewer and have a conversation. If you have to do everything yourself, sit just to the side of the camera, close enough to monitor the video, but slightly off the camera line. Ask the subject to look at you, not the camera lens. This slight off-axis eyeline creates the feeling that the viewer is watching a conversation from the side, just as she might if she were in the room when the conversation was recorded.
Whether you are doing the interviewing yourself from behind the camera or working with a partner, keep the following in mind:
- If you are only going to use the subject’s voice in the video and will not include the interviewer’s questions, remind your subject that he must incorporate the question in his answers:
- Q: Where were you born and raised?
- A: I was born in Chicago, but raised in California. My parents moved there when I was just a year old, and…
- Watch out for cross-talk in interviews. It’s perfectly natural for people’s sentences to slightly overlap when they are having a conversation, so ask both interviewer and subject to leave a clean pause between questions and answers, so that you can edit the audio later without hearing the questioner.
- Always provide generous glasses of water for your interview subject and interviewer. Speaking for an extended period of time is dry work, and speakers are always grateful to see the water.
Set the camera on a tripod and move it as little as possible. Always start with a relatively wide view that leaves you enough room to place an introductory “lower-third” graphic at the bottom of the screen without cutting off the speaker’s chin. You can do tighter shots later for more variety of viewpoints. Generally you should frame the speaker as shown in Figure 12.5, and avoid putting the speaker’s head directly in the middle of the video frame, a compositionally boring shot that is also much less flexible for any title graphics you may need to add in editing.
Interviews for short videos will be heavily edited, so assure your subjects that they are not “live on television” during the interview, and are free to stop, pause, and rephrase their words at any point. Ask them to pause briefly if they stop and restart, as this makes it much easier to edit the interview later. Often you’ll find that it can take several questions and a bit of time before even experienced subjects “settle down” and are their most relaxed and articulate, so try to schedule a minimum of twenty to thirty minutes with your subjects to get the best material. An easy conversational style is ideal for interviews, and helps put subjects at ease.
In informational videos based on interviews you usually have lots of opportunity to hide awkward cuts in the video caused by editing out pauses by “covering” the cuts with b-roll views that illustrate what the speaker is saying. Normally you want to avoid a “talking head” video that shows nothing but the interview subject. You’ll illustrate the speaker’s topics with b-roll, and occasionally come back to the “talking head” to remind viewers who is speaking. B-roll segments are a great way to hide editing cuts that remove pauses, mistakes, or other problems in the main interview.
Even if a speaker is nervous and requires a lot of editing to produce clean spoken words without a lot of pauses and “ums,” and “ahs,” make sure you have a clean fifteen seconds or so of speaker video that is long enough to put up a “lower-third” graphic to identify who is talking to the audience early in the video. An extended period where you’re not sure who is speaking will make the viewing audience restless, so always think about getting that introductory “lower-third” sequence.
For informational videos in which the speaker must convey a lot of specific information, do not have the speaker read a document. When we read aloud our voice tone and speech cadence changes noticeably, and it always sounds artificial. Try to get your speaker to prepare and practice making the points without reading. Having notes close by is fine, as long as the subject doesn’t just read the notes aloud.
Work through one sentence or thought at a time, and take out any pauses later in the editing process. Ideally you can cover the jumps in the video caused by editing out the pauses by covering the sequences with b-roll footage that illustrates each point, but be aware that you should occasionally cut back to viewing your speaker. Those sequences where you see the speaker must be “clean” run-throughs, because any pauses you cut out will cause a jump cut in the video.
Some very slow and steady camera movements may be required to keep a very active speaker properly framed, as some people move quite a bit when they speak, even when seated. Active speakers tend to repeat their movements in a pattern. If you are filming an active speaker, watch for the pattern, and frame your shot so that the whole movement sequence is within a stationary frame. Some people rock from side to side. Don’t move the camera back and forth or you’ll make your audience distracted and seasick. Watch for the limits of the rocking motion, and frame the shot so the speaker’s head stays in the frame.
When you shoot interviews, start the camera rolling and leave it rolling throughout the interview. You can always divide up the interview sequences later in the editing process. There’s nothing worse than hearing a great story only to realize that you did everything right—except hit the “record” button.
Scripts and narrators
Sometimes the best way to tell a story is to write a script and hire a professional narrator, or record your own narration. Narration is a special professional skill, with advantages and disadvantages. To some viewers the professional narration will sound too slick, particularly if you don’t coach the narrator well for the right tone and pacing for your program. To most of your audience a good professional narrator will be verbally “invisible”—that is, viewers will expect professional narration that doesn’t attract attention. If the video is personal reporting on a story, you might want to try recording your own narration, which you can easily do with the same equipment you use to shoot video interviews. While your personal narration will have great authenticity, you must still produce a clean, clear, and well-paced narration for it to work well. Expect to do some rehearsals and multiple takes to get it right.
- Keep it short. A script for a short video must be concise. Estimate about 125 words per minute for well-paced narration, and don’t forget to figure in the timing for any interviews you’ll use along with your narration. A three-minute video that also uses a few interview clips will amount to less than one double-spaced page of narration script, so “write tight.”
- Front-load the script: Tell a compelling story from the first second. Front-load your main points: let the viewers know as soon as possible the main topic of the video.
- Speak to viewers. Use personal pronouns like “you” and “yours,” and avoid stilted third-person language: “one” doesn’t do this or that; “you and I” do things. Use as much interview footage as possible to give the video the authentic voice of first-person experts, and to vary the voicing so it’s not just one voice droning on.
- Write the way you speak. Literally—speak the script as you write it. Keep the language straightforward, using short simple sentences without long clauses. If a sentence has more than one comma in it, break it up.
- Show the story, don’t just tell it. Make notes on the b-roll footage you’ll need for strong visual complements to the narration.
Hiring a narrator or “voice-over talent” is pretty fast and easy these days, and the whole process can be done entirely online. Research local narration talent through web searches. Often local television reporters do voice-over on the side. If your organization has a video department, it may already have a roster of local voice-over talent it uses. Ask for sample narrations. Most professionals can easily refer you to audio samples of their work on the web.
Once you have selected a narrator, share your script with him or her and discuss the tone and pacing of your video. An experienced narrator should be able to give you good advice on your script, and may ask for language changes to make the script flow more easily in spoken language. Ask for several different readings in the final recording, perhaps faster or slower, or with more or less emphasis, or a softer or more informal reading. This will give you more flexibility when you are ready to match the narration audio to your visuals. Most voice-over professionals have their own small home studios for digital recording, and can deliver an audio file of the finished narration.
Shooting b-roll and other sequences
The term “b-roll” is derived from the old days of twentieth-century movie editing. The backbone of a film is the visuals and spoken dialog or interviews with the main actors or documentary subjects (although you’ll never hear this footage referred to as “a-roll”). B-roll is any illustrative footage or cutaway shots that help explain the main narration or interview. For example, if your subject talks about her work in a research lab, while she continues to speak you might sometimes cut away from the interview footage to show your subject working in her laboratory, talking to colleagues in the lab, and so on, as a way of making the film more visually interesting and informative. The lab footage is your b-roll, and great b-roll is essential to making a quality short video.
Start conservatively and gradually add new tricks to your vocabulary as your skill increases. In informational and news videos—even the most stylish—the camera rarely moves, or moves so slowly you’d barely notice. Fast zooming within the shot is extremely rare, an instant mark of amateurishness. The zoom lever is there to quickly reframe shots between takes, not to use during a shot. The good news is that if your subject is somewhere in the frame, the camera is stationary on a solid tripod, and you’ve shot at least fifteen seconds of any b-roll scene or illustrative material, you’re off to a great start.
- Find a good viewpoint of your general subject.
- Set up the camera on a tripod. Level the tripod. Check the level in the viewfinder or screen.
- Carefully frame a wide shot.
- Record at least fifteen seconds of the shot without moving the camera or zooming.
- Choose one or several additional closer shots and detail shots, from different viewpoints, and repeat step 4 for each shot.
The essential difference between video and still photography is time. Give yourself and your subject time. You capture still photos in a 500th of a second and quickly move on to the next shot. Good video shots take much longer, and the longer the shot is the easier the editing will be. If you’ve bothered to set up the camera and tripod to capture a b-roll shot, record at least fifteen to twenty seconds of video per shot, with no camera movement. If you plan to move the camera in a pan or tilt, always give yourself about seven seconds of stationary shot before you move the camera (slowly!), and at least seven seconds again once you have stopped the camera movement. Move the camera slowly. A panning shot that moves the equivalent of a full viewfinder frame should take at least seven seconds from the start of the pan to the end of the pan.
Long steady takes are especially important for editing, as they give the editor flexibility to do hard cuts or slow dissolves, or to vary the rhythm and timing of the program from long slow takes to fast cuts, depending on how the interview proceeds and what you need to show to your audience at a given moment in the program. Photographers new to video almost always shoot material that is too short in duration for editing flexibility, because they treat videography like still photography. They set up, record a few seconds of the shot, and then move on to the next thing. These very short clips leave you with virtually no editing flexibility.
Even though current video editing styles rarely leave a b-roll scene in place for more than five to seven seconds before the next shot comes on, working with at least fifteen seconds of a raw clip (twenty seconds is even better) expands your options tremendously. Consider a typical slow dissolve shot that dissolves in from the previous shot for three seconds, is on screen for six seconds, and then dissolves out for another three seconds. That’s not a six-second clip; you’ll need at least twelve seconds of video to get the flexibility to make the start and finish dissolves work.
Although online videos rarely run more than five minutes, that doesn’t mean you need only five minutes of b-roll material. It’s not unusual for very experienced videographers to shoot raw video at a rate of 10:1 over the final edited version (not including the interview footage), and they’ll often shoot even more than that for short videos. In a short video you’ve got a lot of storytelling to do quickly, and you want the best, most informative b-roll shots you can get. Even the best videographers don’t always get the right shot on the first take. Good videographers are always looking for different, better, or more visually interesting viewpoints. In any kind of video storytelling, good b-roll “coverage” is golden, and makes the editor’s job enormously easier.
Composing video shots
The basics of video storytelling are not rocket science: wide shots help establish a sense of place and orient the audience, medium shots bring the subjects closer, and close-ups and extreme close-ups show you the details. These basic shot types are often abbreviated as ws, ms, cu, and ecu in video editing notes. When you enter a new environment to shoot b-roll, always keep these basic storytelling views in mind. How would you explain this place to somebody who had never been here? How would you orient the viewer? What telling visual details would you pick out to give your video interest and narrative texture? Even if you are not the final editor of the story, you must always think like a storyteller when you are out shooting video. One of the oldest and truest sayings in film is “shoot like an editor.”
Composing shots for video is not unlike still photography composition, or even older forms of composition for painting. You don’t need to go to school for an art degree to learn the compositional basics that underlie almost all videography.
In most situations an eccentric or off-center composition will look more interesting than a view of the main subject in the middle of the frame. Artists, photographers, and videographers have long used “the rule of thirds” to organize and simplify this principle, and it is remarkable how often the rule instantly improves a composition. Divide the plane into vertical and horizontal thirds, and place your main subject at one of the intersections (fig. 12.8).
Strong diagonal lines add interest and visual power to compositions, as they draw the viewer in and move her attention along the lines. This is particularly true when the diagonal lines form a triangle within the larger rectangle of the video frame. Psychological space is important when composing for people or any living thing that moves or has eyes. Organize your composition so that the subject is off-center and looking toward the larger space within a composition, not at the nearby frame edge. For moving compositions the subject should be moving into the space within the frame, not seeming to bump into the edges of the frame.
Until you have absorbed these basic rules of composition, try to always use a tripod. The steady viewpoint of a tripod allows you time to carefully consider your compositions. Many video cameras give you the option to show a visual grid in the viewfinder. This is handy for two reasons: the grid reminds you to think about composition and gives you reference lines that help you to keep the horizon level.
The lightweight video production revolution was not caused solely by small, inexpensive, and high-quality video cameras: nonlinear video editing software has also made it possible to edit sophisticated and polished video productions on most computers. Of course simply buying a copy of Apple’s iMovie or Corel’s VideoStudio Pro won’t instantly make you a talented video editor. But at least now you have a choice that few people had just a decade ago: for less than $100 you can buy more flexible editing capability than $100,000 would have bought you ten years ago.
Video and film editing is a vast subject that will not fit within this chapter, but there are a few basic concepts that will help get you on your way, and some editing conventions that have emerged that are particular to the short online video format.
Structuring the story
Videos of any length are first and foremost stories, about interesting people and experiences. The conventional story arc of introduction, body, and conclusion is fundamental, but within this classic framework there are thousands of ways to tell a story. After doing at least brief research, you could write out a likely script before you do any shooting or interviews, but this is exactly the opposite of the way most producers of short films work. Instead, let the story emerge out of what you see and learn as you engage your subjects, see their work and environment, and listen to them as they speak. This requires some trust and experience with the process of video storytelling, as you launch into each project not knowing exactly where the narrative will flow, and how your original notions of form and story will be bent by what you see and hear along the way.
If this discovery process sounds a bit nebulous and short on planning, it’s not; it’s simply realistic, and a way to remain open-minded as you gather the elements of your story. Unless you have perfect foresight, you will always be surprised as you progress in gathering the materials for a story. What you get from experience is an eye and an ear for what you need visually and verbally to tell the story, and what footage and interview questions you need. You’ll develop an ear for what makes a great introduction, what sections of interview are most informative and on the central story arc. Most of all, you’ll develop a gimlet eye for noise and parenthetic material that can be cut away, leaving a strong clear narrative without time-wasting clutter.
The following is a typical short video structure:
- Instant start with interesting or surprising interview audio, with strong b-roll visuals, and a title graphic
- Introduce the speaker with a “lower-third” graphic with name and title
- Set up the story context with some brief background description
- Make the major informational points, ideally no more than three
- Tell what was learned from the experiences (“what it all means”)
- Fade out with “further information” web links and the company logo
If you have never made an edited video before, start modestly. Interview interesting friends or colleagues about their work and shoot b-roll that illustrates what they said in the interviews. Whenever possible, stick to those voices and those words, without additional narration. Practice until you find the story in what they say.
Video editing software has become routine even for home moviemakers. Inexpensive and user-friendly programs like Apple’s iMovie or Adobe Premiere Elements have made video editing approachable, but they are not necessarily the best editing programs to use if you expect to routinely produce short videos. The most widely used editing programs for everything from short videos to major Hollywood films are:
- Adobe Premiere Pro CC, www.adobe.com/products/premiere.html
- Apple Final Cut Pro X, www.apple.com/final-cut-pro
- Avid’s Media Composer, www.avid.com/US/Solutions/byNeed/video-editing.html
We recommend either Premiere Pro cc or Final Cut Pro X because they are extremely capable at a moderate price. Avid’s Media Composer is the most widely used editing software in Hollywood and major television studios, but Avid is considerably more expensive than its competitors, and because of the cost we would not recommend it unless your in-house video department uses Avid already and there are advantages to working with the same editing software.
We recommend the more capable midprice video editors because, for a beginner, it takes just as long to learn the basics of iMovie as it does to learn the basics of Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. Video editors who routinely produce short videos quickly begin hitting limitations of “friendly” consumer-level software, and then find themselves needing to learn yet another “pro” editing program to grow the quality and complexity of their editing work.
Time compression techniques
Don’t use your favorite movies or television shows as models. In a three-minute video you won’t have time for opening credits, lengthy expository beginnings, flying and spinning animated titles, or drawn-out endings and credit crawls. Look at the best short video work and emulate the more relevant aesthetics, graphics, and editing of the online genre.
- Start fast. The viewer should almost instantly start to see and hear interesting content in a short online video. We also begin these “fast-start” videos with a title graphic laid over the initial video, so there is no cinema-like opening sequence, just instant information.
- Don’t bother with verbal introductions. You’ll need to identify your first speaker as soon as you can, but don’t bother with time-consuming verbal introductions. Just post a “lower-third” graphic with name and title as soon as you have a chance, and leave the graphic in place for at least ten seconds so viewers have a fair shot at reading it.
- Constantly trim. Assemble your initial interview and b-roll sequences, and then trim, trim, trim. You’ll often find that your initial “in” and “out” edit points in both interview and b-roll clips can be trimmed down a lot. Every second counts. In a three-minute video you’ve got only 180 seconds, so squeeze every clip.
- Keep graphics spare and simple. No shiny animated graphics and lower thirds. In the lightweight-and-short video production world these glossy graphics take too long to produce and just look wrong in the spare aesthetic of the online video world.
- Run your last interview audio right under the final graphics screens. Push content right to the end of the video. Use lower-third graphics to post information over some of the concluding video clips. If you have a company logo screen or “for more information” screen, start posting those conclusion graphics right over your last interview audio or closing music. Squeeze every second, and make each moment do double duty when you can.
- Use video slates to fill in the gaps, or to quickly provide background material instead of using a narrator. In video parlance a “slate” is just a text slide. Sometimes you realize that you are missing some crucial points of information, or have an awkward segue from one topic to another. Slates are a fast way to convey information or make a transition.
- Be ruthless, and don’t fall in love with your first draft. Often you’ll find yourself with a five-minute first draft, and further cuts just don’t seem possible. Bring in colleagues to review the draft, and to help spot redundancies or off-topic sequences. If you have the time, leave the video overnight and come back to it fresh the next morning. It’s surprising how often the new perspective allows you to see opportunities you didn’t notice when you were tired and emotionally invested in your first decisions.
You cannot use the pop, jazz, or classical music you listen to on iTunes or Spotify in your videos unless you have a legion of entertainment lawyers, and a lot of money to spend on licensing rights. If you use a popular music clip in your short video, you will probably not be able to post the video on YouTube, Vimeo, or Facebook, all of which automatically review uploaded videos for copyright violations and bounce any video that uses pop tunes in a soundtrack. However, there are inexpensive or even free sources of sound effects and music.
Occasionally you may use a properly licensed stock music piece and still get a copyright violation notice. If you quickly respond with information on the stock music agency and music selection that you have licensed, you can usually resolve the problem quickly and get your video posted.
Be very conservative when you mix background music with narration or interview audio. You should edit your videos wearing headphones, as this gives you the clearest rendition of your audio tracks, but headphones can also give you an artificially clear sense of how your audio tracks mix. When you have done the initial mix of your audio, try unplugging the headphones and listening to your soundtrack through the built-in computer speaker or external computer speakers, just as your audience is likely to do. You may find that what sounds perfect through your headphones sounds murky and distracting through speakers. Often your music mix will be too loud in the first draft, and you’ll need to lower the music volume to be sure the spoken words are clear.
Stock images and video
Stock images and video clips can be incredibly useful when you are facing tight deadlines and are short of b-roll, or you don’t have the budget to fly to exotic destinations to collect one or two photos to illustrate your narration.
Most stock used in low-budget short online videos is still photography, mostly for practical and economic reasons. Stock photos are much less expensive than stock video clips, and you can easily add (gentle!) panning or zooming motion to a still image with your video-editing program, so the transition from video clips to a still image is less jarring to the flow of your video.
If you are doing short videos on a regular basis, you will quickly accumulate video footage that has obvious potential for multiple future uses. Having a convenient collection of stock footage is invaluable in creating quality programming quickly, and it’s the only practical way to get footage that is particular to your subject matter and your organization. If you’re doing a “visit our campus” video in January in New England, you are out of luck on “campus beauty” shots unless you have access to stock video or still photography that you shot last May, when the campus looked its best. Stock reels are the easiest kind of videos to make because they are not programs. Just assemble a group of fifteen-to-twenty-second clips of your best b-roll shots, with simple hard cuts in between, in individual videos of about five to six minutes so the stock files don’t get too large.
- Artis, A. The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down and Dirty DV Production. Waltham, MA: Focal, 2007.
- ———. The Shut Up and Shoot Freelance Video Guide: A Down and Dirty DV Production. Waltham, MA: Focal, 2011.
- Asher, S. The Filmmaker’s Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age, 2013 ed. New York: Plume, 2012.
- Bass, W. Professional Results with Canon Vixia Camcorders: A Field Guide to Canon G10 and XA10. Boston: Course Technology-Cengage, 2013.
- Lynda.com training videos for video and audiovisual software, video production, and many other audiovisual and media subjects. The best, most cost-effective training we know of for digital audiovisual professionals, beginning at $25/month.
- Stockman, S. How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck: Advice to Make Any Amateur Look Like a Pro. New York: Workman, 2011.
Figures from Chapter 12: Video