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Producing Informative Video

Pay careful attention to lighting, camera angles and your background when producing information video. Keeping your microphone on axis and in range will improve the sound of your on-camera presentation. Whether you’re producing a personal video blog, how-to, or news show, high-quality production values will help to communicate your stories to viewers. Even if your camera and microphone are built into your laptop and your lighting is a desk lamp, you’ll find it challenging to make your information-based video look and sound better.

When it becomes too difficult to concentrate on the quality of your production and gathering information for your shows, it’s time to get help.

Creating a Strong Visual Presence on Camera

Video blogs, how-to videos, and news reports put you (or your talent) center stage. Take a little extra time to find the best camera angle and lighting when you’re shooting talent (even if that talent is you). You may find you need a little translucent face powder to tone down a shiny forehead or nonreflective eyeglasses on camera. I’ll let you decide about makeup, but test it on camera before the shoot—particularly if you’re shooting in HD or HDV, which can be unforgiving.

This is no time to feign modesty; looking good is part of the job. Creating an interesting, flattering image takes the focus off the person talking and puts it back on what’s being said. When your viewers don’t have to wonder why your talent didn’t comb her hair, your show will have their attention where you want it: on your story.

Many news and commentary shows feature young, pretty women behind the anchor desk; some are skilled actresses, others smart journalists. If you use actors (or anyone other than seasoned journalists or subject-matter experts) in front of the camera, however, they’ll need good scripts to deliver effectively.

Real faces are interesting and add character and variety to your work, but few people look good on camera without a little extra attention to shooting them. Most people’s faces aren’t symmetrical. If you ask, they’ll often tell you which side they think looks better. When you can, position your talent with his best face forward.

Developing an On-Camera Style

Some basic wisdom from television applies here. Simple necklines, jewelry, and hairstyles are less distracting for viewers than their more ornate counterparts. Avoid stripes and distracting patterns, which can strobe on camera—especially in the type of highly compressed video you’ll deliver on the Web. White shirts can reflect too much light and take attention away from faces.

Men should make sure they have a close shave or neatly trimmed facial hair; it’s hard to pull off “artfully grizzled” without looking disheveled. Don’t be afraid to add a little tinted lip balm or even have your hair and makeup professionally done if it makes you look your best and feel more confident. If you routinely use your hands to gesture, consider getting a manicure. Make what your audience sees as interesting and appealing as possible.

Highlighting Your Talent

Marlene Dietrich never went anywhere without her lighting man, and she crafted an iconic image we still remember. Give your talent an extra boost and the sparkle of glamour by creating flattering lighting for him or her. That doesn’t have to mean studio lighting. The magic hours just after sunrise and before sunlight give everything an attractive glow. You can also work with diffusers, reflectors, and battery-powered fill lights outside to give available sunlight an extra boost.

News teams routinely add fill light for stand-ups even when shooting outside. Television newsrooms use spectacular arrays of light to get the effect we’ve come to expect on TV. Keep your eyes open just before the commercial break on network news shows. They’ll often pull the camera back to a wide shot, and you can get an idea how complex the lighting is and how many lights it takes to make your favorite new anchors look their best.

Your lighting can be one soft light or a stronger light bounced off a ceiling or wall plus reflectors, or it can be full three-point lighting. But don’t make the mistake of blasting your talent (or yourself) with lights so bright they cause squinting or so harsh they’re unflattering. The simple setup shown in FIGURE 4.10 uses one soft light.

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10 I used one light with a chimera for a how-to video about barbering techniques for a client.

You’ll also need to turn off overhead lights, which cause unflattering shadows. Avoid lighting from beneath unless you’re going for monster movie effects. Also, turn off fluorescent lights if you can. Not only do they cast green light, but they can interfere with your soundtrack. The best lighting makes subjects look lit from within or like the sun shines only on them, kind of like an old master’s painting.

If you’re showing a process or a product, make sure you have enough light and that the light you use doesn’t cast harsh, distracting shadows that will confuse your audience or obstruct their view. Using a chimera or white umbrella to diffuse your light helps to keep it soft.

Controlling What Viewers See in the Background

Your background can be a simple roll of photographic background paper that comes in many colors and patterns, a (matte) painted wall, or a room that you’ve arranged carefully in the background. Video Shooter author Barry Braverman (see Chapter 2, Shooting for the Web, to read more about Braverman) warns that viewers are naturally cynical and suspicious and always looking at the background to see what they can find out. Although this may not be the best way to watch video, it’s only natural. We’re always trying to attach meaning to what we see, even if it’s a series of unrelated images, and as a Web video producer, it’s important to be attuned to what your audience is looking for. Visual storytelling often includes playing with viewer expectations and assumptions.

Less is more when it comes to backgrounds. I once dashed into a photo store on my way to shoot a series of interviews in Sweden and picked up a marbled cloth background. My boss joked that the interviews looked like they were shot in a cave. Having too much clutter in the background can be distracting (FIGURE 4.11).

Figure 4.11

Figure 4.11 This backdrop provided by a trade show was too shiny and called too much attention to itself.

Setting the Stage for Your Story

When it comes to backgrounds—and, for that matter, anything that might appear in the frame other than your subject—look at what appears on-screen and think about what it says to your audience. If you show viewers a scene of disarray, they will see creative chaos, conclude that you’re a messy housekeeper, or simply think, “This person works in dismal surroundings.” If any (or all) of those messages contradict the effect you’re going for, clean up before you shoot. Make sure anything in the frame of your shot is there on purpose, looks good, and adds to the story you are telling, or at least doesn’t get in the way.

When you’re shooting on location, don’t be afraid to change things a little to make them work for your shot. On one occasion, before I shot an interview with a college president for a documentary, I spent an hour arranging the contents of his cluttered desk in artful disarray.

Producers of the movie Brother From Another Planet used a friend’s garage for a scene set outside a “funky Harlem garage.” The location scout found what he thought was the perfect funky garage, but the set team spent half a day repainting the wall.

If you don’t want to clean up your basement, office, or garage to create a set, invest in a half roll of photographer’s background paper (about $20) and a small roll of gaffer’s tape to attach it to the wall behind your talent, and keep her far enough away from the wall to prevent shadows. If you want to get fancy, you can buy a simple background stand that can be supported by two light stands. Use a conservative, light gray or blue paper instead of white. Most people look better against a neutral color than stark white.

Creating Interesting Compositions

I really hate the look of video blogs shot with Webcams. Almost nobody looks good looking down into a Webcam (FIGURE 4.12). Instead, frame your shot, here’s why. Most Webcams have wide-angle lenses that distort anything close up and at the center of the frame. That can make your nose look, well...prominent, especially when you look down into the camera. You’ll have more flexibility to define your shot if you use a simple video camera with a zoom lens on a tripod rather than a fixed-lens Webcam.

Figure 4.12

Figure 4.12 The overhead light in this shot is creating back light which tricks the camera into the wrong exposure for the blogger in the foreground.

It’s also important to connect with the audience. Professional newscasters and talk-show hosts make talking into a camera and reading off a teleprompter look easy. It’s not. Practice looking directly into the camera to connect to your audience, or you’ll end up looking like you’re talking to yourself. One way to practice is to have someone stand behind the camera and talk to her. Having another person in the room will keep your tone conversational and prevent you from declaiming as if you’re taking part in a debate.

While they’re standing there, you might as well have them shoot. If you frame the shot and control the lighting, even your roommate or significant other will often get a better shot than a stationary Webcam. But use a tripod, and don’t let your recruit get carried away with zooming in and out. If no one is available, consider putting a picture of a smiling friend on the wall at eye level.

Scripting Information Video

Working with a script will help you to communicate information effectively on video. You’ll need a teleprompter if you want to read a script without constantly looking down. Fortunately, teleprompters come in a range of shapes, sizes, and costs. Some from companies such as the Prompter People fit directly over your lens. Some blogging software programs, such as Adobe’s Vlog It!, include an ersatz teleprompter (FIGURE 4.13). With these you read from your laptop screen and control with your mouse or a specialized device that controls the speed of scrolling text.

Figure 4.13

Figure 4.13 The built-in teleprompter in Adobe’s Vlog It! software package.

Working with a teleprompter isn’t easy. You’ll need to control the speed of your text as it rolls by and look like you’re not reading while doing it. You can control the speed of laptop-based teleprompters with a special mouse, or you can buy an inexpensive teleprompter and mount it in front of your camera. But if you’re working solo or with a small crew, you probably have enough to deal with already.

Looking good while reading and controlling the speed of your text scrolling on the computer screen can really be difficult. Try cue cards written out large and taped to the wall instead. You can also print your script in a large font and perfect the art of looking down to read and then up at the camera to deliver your lines. Or you can make notes and then ad-lib for a more natural effect.

Either way, don’t try to memorize. Trying to recall what you planned to say on camera looks awkward and won’t give your video the conversational feel you want. Even if you have a real teleprompter that projects the text in front of the camera’s lens so you appear to be looking into the camera, reading from it is a skill that takes practice.

Choosing a Flattering Camera Angle

Camera angle is an important part of any video. Using a tripod is the best way to adjust camera height but there are other ways to gain more control over the height and angle of your shot. If you must use a Webcam, balance it on a suitcase, or put your laptop on a stack of dictionaries to get just the right angle and improve your shot.

For most people, talking to another human makes a difference. You communicate differently than you do talking to an abstract audience. When I’m shooting interviews solo and see my subjects drifting off, I often wave from behind the tripod or point to my eyes or my heart to get their attention refocused.

You can vary your shots by moving the camera closer or farther away. Using a camera with a 12x zoom lens (as soon as you can afford one with a microphone input) makes things easier. A consumer camera with no mic input (that is, one that requires using your camera’s built-in mic will work in a quiet room if the camera itself isn’t too noisy, but it won’t make you sound your best.

Developing a Visual Style

Add visual interest to your shots to give your viewers something to watch. Use expressions, thumbs up and down, graphics, props—whatever it takes. Once you develop a style, it’s not hard to replicate. If your video blog includes footage you’ve shot in advance, make it the best quality you can with good lighting and good sound, even if no one is talking.

Create a signature style, a standard greeting, a way of dressing, or an approach to your work and adhere to it consistently. It will help your audience focus on your message rather than thinking, “Now what’s she doing?” But don’t be afraid to add some surprises.

Getting the Sound Right

Many people are uncomfortable with the recorded sound of their voices. A good microphone will add warmth and resonance to your voice and give an authoritative air to whatever you have to say. Buy a lavalier (clip-on) microphone; even a cheap one with a mini-plug attached will give you a better sound than the microphone built into your camera or laptop.

Have someone else monitor your sound on headphones. If you’re working alone, record a short take before you get started to make sure your levels are good and there are no distracting noises in the background. Traffic noise, people talking, air conditioners, fans, noisy radiators, bathrooms, elevators in close proximity, and even ice machines down the hall from hotel rooms can be distracting. Test your recording setup. If what you hear is great, proceed to record. If not, try again until you get it right.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to get a good-quality microphone as soon as you can. When much of the information you have to share comes through the soundtrack, it’s important that your viewers be able to hear clearly what’s being said. If you’re sitting at a desk as part of your commentary and you have a desk microphone, consider integrating it into your shot, but you’ll have to remember to talk into the microphone. Sound is critical to informational video, and nothing sounds more amateur than sound that’s recorded into the camera’s mic. If you’re using a desk or shotgun microphone, make sure it’s pointed at the person speaking and remind her to talk into the mic.

Each information genre has its own special concerns and technical challenges. Start by learning the techniques that make your production easier and better (see Chapter 2, Shooting for the Web) and then borrow from other styles of shooting and presentation to create a distinctive style that will work for you and your audience.

Using Software for Video Blogging

One product designed specifically for video blogging is Adobe’s Vlog It!, a software application that makes it easy to record a video with your Webcam, add titles and music, and get it up on the Web (FIGURE 4.15).

Figure 4.15

Figure 4.15 The Vlog It! interface includes a wizard that walks you through creating a video blog with titles.

Some text-based blog-creation applications such as TypePad have plug-ins for video, but most video bloggers send their video to YouTube or a host more equipped to track viewers and get advertisers, such as; then they add links to their videos on their own Web sites.

Choose the option that’s best for the way you work and your skill level. If you’re comfortable creating your own Web page and adding links, work with the video host that can give you the most support.

If you need help with HTML, use blogging software or a program such as Adobe Dreamweaver to create your site and embed your video or add links to it from your video host.

If you need an RSS feed (Really Simple Syndication, which enables viewers to subscribe to your blog), choose a host which makes it easy by allowing you to set RSS as an option when you upload your video.

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