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Wrapping up the video production tips and tricks, this post addresses interviewing and capturing an audio feed.

One tip: You can subtly rephrase a question to get the most pithy and clear quote for a final edit — although covering the same material again may seem repetitive for someone who is used to interviewing for print. Along the same lines, when taping a video package, I’ve been advised to gather about 10 times the amount of the final product – including background visuals and cutaways, such as the reaction shots of a listener or audience to splice between quotes.

Approaching the interview

I liked producer Chris Bauer’s advice over at KQED’s QUEST. He sometimes tells subjects, “Your goal is not to impress people, it’s to communicate with people.”

Even kids may feel pressure and clam up, so it is best to spend extra time with them. Interviews may flow better if you take someone aside to a quiet, neutral setting. Away from peers and reminders of the daily routine, a person is more likely to be relaxed and speak in clear, jargon-free terms.

Interviewees can be prepped by reminding them the interview will be like listening to one side of a phone conversation, so it is important to speak in full sentences. To check sound levels while easing into the heart of the interview, a producer may chat a bit, or ask the subject to say and spell his or her name so that detail is captured right on the footage.

Attending to audio

Recordings pick up hum and undertones known as “room tone”. So it’s important to tape 20 – 30 seconds of silence that can be used underneath edits for a consistent transition.

Sound becomes another flavor to mix into the final edit. Natural sound provides ambience, while specific noises become sweeteners or punctuation. In the field, you might tape your own feet crunching in gravel, or a door shutting, and so forth.

Indoors, being conscious of the sound environment includes remembering to take phones off the hook, posting signs to keep visitors from bursting in, and otherwise avoiding noisy interruptions.

Equipment

QUEST’s Craig Rosa recommends a few options for external mics, which are far preferable to on-camera mics for capturing usable audio tracks:

  1. Lavalier mics clip on and can be hidden on a lapel; the versions with 12-foot wires provide scope and capture sound that is less echo-y than wireless.
  2. Shotgun mics can grab sounds from the environment – if it’s windy, use a fluffy, slip-on windsock to muffle the loud whoosh of strong gusts rushing past the mic.

Dual inputs capture audio from these mics on separate tracks, which is helpful when editing.

Rosa recommends plugging an XLR adapter into the camera for better sound. The sound level should be as loud as possible without having the indicator needle hover past the red or zero line. (See more on XLR here: http://videoproductiontips.com/video-equipment/audio-for-video-how-to-use-pro-audio-equipment-without-having-a-pro-camera/, http://www.videouniversity.com/shop/xlr-adapter-and-a-dual-channel-mixer).

Altogether, he estimates that assembling a decent video kit may take about $4,000, although borrowing equipment may also be an option.

The interview

Bauer frequently starts by asking, “Where are we today, and what are we going to see?”

Producers sometimes will forewarn interviewees ahead of time that they may be asked to restate something. Or they may simply ask during the flow of the interview, “That was really good – can you repeat that?”

To obtain an easy-to-comprehend response, Bauer suggests asking the subject to summarize a topic in a couple of sentences, as if talking to a person on the street or to a fourth-grader.

To learn the upshot of a topic, he may ask, “What does it mean to the future?” He also likes to ask researchers, “What’s your most favorite thing about what you do?”

A response delivered with some fire in the belly projects really well on the screen. I once interviewed a mild-mannered scientist who did not have expansive gestures but had quiet zeal. I noticed that glint in his eye seemed magnified on the screen.

Meanwhile, for my friends who decry the state of science literacy, I will add a link to a YouTube piece from earlier in the year that presents concepts in an engaging way, all while keeping minimal, “prosumer”-oriented production values: http://bit.ly/YouTube_EcoServices.

It’s by Hank Green, speaking to his brother, John Green. Together, they formed the so-called Vlog Brothers and committed to a year of non-textual communication – leading, this summer, to organizing the first conference for what they described as smart YouTube content, VidCon.

Finally, a vision of the future – highly portable video kits, with lights and external mics – were featured at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show: http://gizmodo.com/5443853//gallery/gallery/1

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In many respects, good visuals start with seeing in a different light.

Regardless of your gear, the human eye can see a far greater range than any camera. While we can distinguish a range of about 1000:1, the range of an inexpensive digital video camera may only be 100:1.

In preparing to shoot video, the goal is to have sufficient, and relatively even, illumination. You’ll want to avoid deep shadows, but still have the subject pop out. The concepts below should help you achieve your aims within the limitations of your budget and shooting environment.

Planning for color temperature

Indoors, tungsten lighting tends to have a warm cast, while outdoors, daylight is bluer in tone. Since cameras need to be set for one or the other, it’s best to not mix these sources of illumination.

Morning and evening provide the most pleasing outside illumination. During bright parts of the day, shooting in the shade will avoid harsh contrasts and unbecoming shadows.

If shooting inside, close the curtains and turn off fluorescent overhead lights. When setting up bright, makeshift studio,  lights at a house, use outlets leading to more than one circuit so you don’t blow a fuse. An average household circuit has about 1800 watts and lights for illuminating shoots can pull more than that.

When the scene is ready, zoom in on the subject to calibrate color balance, holding a white card as close as possible to the subject.

Light kits

Producer Amy Miller of KQED’s QUEST science unit recommends a Lowel brand tungsten kit that is one step above basic, and sells for about $1,000. Since these lights get hot, she brings gloves to use when moving the lights, and face powder to keep down the sheen on subject’s faces. Her other essentials are a grip clip, voltmeter, headphones, and small sandbags for stabilizing the base of the lights. A small monitor is also great for previewing how a scene will appear on screen.

For video interviews, setting up classic three-point lighting will provide a soft, even illumination. The components and their location are:

  1. Key light – positioned about 45 degrees to one side of the subject and about 30 – 45 degrees above their head. On this bright light, use a soft box for diffusion.
  2. Fill light – goes on the other side, also about 45 degrees away, and should be half as bright. She makes hers 2 -3 stops dimmer. Moving the light back twice as far would also halve its brightness. Good choices for the fill are a V-light or broad throw light.
  3. Rim (or shoulder) light – shines from above and separates the subject from the background by defining the edge.
  4. If available, a fourth light can be used on the wall – here, an omni light would allow the angle to be adjusted.

If you do not have lights, she suggested using daylight as a key light and a reflector as a fill.

Camera position

For added definition, having the background out of focus looks best, which means setting the subject as far from the background as possible. Move the camera far away too, take it off autofocus, and zoom in.

The interviewer will sit as close as possible to the camera, so the subject’s gaze across that space will appear natural to viewers.

Framing

Have the subject positioned slightly to one side of the frame, but not all the way to the edge. This framing is more comfortable to watch than dead center, and suits both wide and narrow formats (high-definition is wider than standard). For someone watching on a cell phone, frame fairly close, with minimal space above the head.

To envision some lighting guidance, see the following online tutorials. The final installment will wrap up with tips on interviewing and audio recording.

http://www.techlearning.com/article/1162

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcMX1RcNRYA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkUqBJoxZ-I

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Public media may be driving what’s been called “unimedia” – where web content encompasses video, audio and text. Integrating media, however, means diversifying skills.

That was the impetus behind a recent training by the experts behind QUEST, the multimedia science production at KQED. A handful of producers presented tips to community partners, who were invited to attend from Bay Area science institutions.

The trainers offered the following advice for creating accessible and readily shared web video:

  • Shoot fairly tight shots for small, mobile screen views
  • Be aware that text still gets the most hits in searches
  • Offer links for embedding in blogs, and DVD-quality versions for download
  • Provide high-definition, as well as standard, podcasts

The main message was that effective storytelling will always be key. With that in mind, start with a hunch of what the story will be about, and explore that. If need be, sketch out a quick storyboard. Anticipate what you can easily obtain given time, travel, and access restrictions. Ideally, your images and audio will all be of sufficient quality to support whatever way you ultimately decide to frame the story when it is time to edit.

Sometimes I think the online video medium will evolve to simple and practical forms – not exactly a la Max Headroom, the 1980s-era show where a video producer formed an entire TV crew, single-handed (or, headed – where the equipment was actually placed). When perusing online how-to videos, I am perfectly happy viewing simple sketches and illustrations shot with narration and a few waving hands. The simplicity is somehow engaging, pleasing and charming.

Already, news crews have shrunk to a single V-jay handling both equipment and interviews. Often, talking heads are beamed from to the studio by lower-bandwidth Skype than expensive satellite uplinks. It will be interesting to watch how explorations of online medium production by new messengers will evolve – ideally incorporating or adapting solutions already devised by pros, such as the suggestions that follow.

Storytelling – in video

Opening with an element of mystery, intrigue, or challenge hooks the viewer, says segment producer Chris Bauer. Clues and context can be sprinkled in like a trail of bread crumbs. As long as the first sentence or two are engaging, the crux can appear in what would be the 10th paragraph of a 100-paragraph piece.

The information should naturally encompass the basic journalistic who, what, where, why, when and how. Framing the story as a conflict that is resolved, such as a challenge overcome, adds drama and narrative thrust.

The piece should also lead to a take-home message, which KQED’s Chris Bauer calls the “and so . . .” To support a conclusion, think of parameters when gathering information – such as, what challenge was overcome to accomplish this? In what way is it superlative – first, best, longest, fastest? What is its context, and how is it unique? Meanwhile, in video, it is nearly impossible to be too over-the-top in dramatic action or gestures, so allowing your subjects to ham it up or go deep will also reinforce an aura of importance and immediacy.

Setting the stage

Quipping that he hates the “corporate plant” – the potted type that is* – Bauer discussed dressing a scene. Producer Amy Miller suggested other practical props, such as the warm glow of a lamp or candles, which typically appear over the subject’s shoulder, in soft focus, in the background.

As for people populating the scene, outfits that look good on camera come in solid, medium tones, like green. Large swaths of clothing in whites, bright reds, or pinstripes can render unpleasant effects in video, so should be avoided.

Some inspired improvisation will nearly always be part of this creative endeavor. For instance, Bauer joked that extraneous intrusions – like freight trains – often seem to find him. He recommends if you cannot avoid a jarring element, then shoot it, so it can be woven in. For instance, having seen a train could prime viewers to accept hearing a train whistle later at the tail end of an impassioned quote or similar material that might seem jarred by that unexpected intrusion, but be difficult to recapture in a more pristine state.

That’s a wrap on this topic for today. The next two posts will delve more into lighting, shooting, audio recording and interviewing.

*N.B.: A reference to Bauer’s dreaded “corporate plant” might also conjure the image of someone doing industrial espionage.

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