Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Artists' Guide to Video Production: 5 Questions for a Pro

As managing director of NYC-based production company Production Directorate, Jonathan Smith has gone to sea aboard a nuclear icebreaker, filmed rare HD footage of polar bears in the Arctic Circle, and has worked extensively as a solo shooter and field producer in southern Africa. He's worked in long-form, documentary, news, live events, reality TV and just about every other form of production for diverse outlets including The History Channel, MTV News & Docs, NBC Universal and the United Nations Association. Did I mention that he's a Yale graduate? A longtime friend, I sat down with Jonathan to determine if his experience and expertise could translate into practical advice for bands and artists on a budget. Here's what he said.

Many artist EPKs and other press-related videos require some sort of artist interview segment. What should an artist do to ensure that the interview feels natural and that the soundbites obtained achieve the goals of the segment?

Have a friend interview you by asking questions off camera in a casual, conversational style. Take your time with it. Above all else, don't sit there thinking about soundbites or how it will look -- that's what editing is for. Make sure to discuss your goals with the interviewer, write out some questions or an outline of what main points you want to hit (a good outline is better than a list of questions), and leave it to the interviewer to get those bites from you.

If you are reading from a script, people will tune out in about five seconds -- and viewers can tell right away if something is scripted. When producing these kinds of segments for television, producers do use scripts... but scripts are written after an interview happens. For example, if MTV News is doing a profile of Justin Bieber, they will sit down and shoot an interview with him -- usually lasting at least a half hour. The interviewer is often a producer asking questions off camera. Then, the interview is transcribed and the best soundbites are written together into a script with voiceover from the host. The script is then given to an editor to assemble.

It is important to note that to achieve any kind of professional-looking video, you're going to have to invest in or track down some basic editing software (iMovie, Sony Vegas and Final Cut Express are all good options). Turning on your camera, letting it roll and then uploading an unedited clip to YouTube won't cut it.

What is 'B-Roll' and how should an artist incorporate this into a video project?

If you work around media long enough, you'll run into the term 'b-roll' and become familiar with it. While many people know what b-roll is, hardly anyone seems to remember the other part of the equation: 'a-roll.' The interview material described above, for example, is 'a-roll'. These terms come from the old school tape-to-tape (reel-to-reel) editing systems where film was often literally cut and pasted together in the editing process. A-roll is the backbone of your story. It is the dialogue, narration, interview material and voiceover. B-roll is all the material you see over the a-roll while people are talking. You need lots of b-roll to make a video interesting and compelling, and you also need it to cover all the edits in an interview. It takes a lot of editing to cut a half hour down to a few minutes of the best bites in a coherent story, and all those edit points in the interview need to have some other footage over them so it looks natural.

The rule of thumb is to have b-roll showing everything discussed in the a-roll. For example, if, in your interview you say "I am performing this week at The Rockstar Lounge," you need to have some footage of that performance. It's not enough just to say it, you have to show it. That's the power of video. It's very important to get a lot of b-roll. For every hour of interview footage, you need about three hours of b-roll. It is important to get as much of whatever you can -- even generic shots of you walking down the street, hanging out with friends, etc. It's your video, so make sure your viewers get to see as much of you as possible.

By now, you're probably starting to sense that it takes a lot of work and a lot of footage to get even a short video put together. It does. It takes patience, and it can be tedious at times -- just like any creative process. But it can be a lot of fun, and it is always a great feeling to see your finished product. It is also a very good investment in your career.

What common mistakes would you expect an amateur videographer to make while shooting a live performance video?

If you don't have a tripod (or something else you can set your camera on to keep it steady, like a stepladder), don't bother. The occasional hand-held shot can add some nice style elements, but 90% of your footage needs to be on a tripod.

Your brain is moving faster than you realize, and the typical instinct is to move around a lot and try and get all kinds of different shots. It takes a lot of discipline not to do that. If you do that, the footage will be useless. At the very minimum, make sure to count to ten either in your head or on the camera's timecode reader before changing shots. Don't zoom in and out other than to go tighter or wider a couple of times during the performance.

Also, get fan reactions. Remember, this footage will be edited together, and most live performance videos are not actually a record of the whole song from start to finish. It will usually be cut down into a minute or two, so you don't have to worry about getting every aspect of the performance. As you prepare for your shoot, watch and study other performance videos online and on TV. Keep a close eye on the techniques they use.

Before shooting, do a little research on the concept of "shooting for post." This will help a lot.

If an amateur video camera is used, what can be done to ensure that the quality of light and sound are as good as possible?

The line between professional and amateur cameras is blurring every day. There are some outstanding, affordable HD amateur video cameras out there, and they produce great results (Flip, the iPhone video camera and the Kodak Z18 come to mind). As with professional cameras, you can only get those results with the right planning and attention to details like light, sound and using a tripod.

You might not expect this, but with internet video especially, the audio quality is more important than the picture quality. That's not to say you don't need to worry about getting good picture -- you need to put just as much effort into getting good sound. One obvious point that's easy to forget: make sure you record your interview in a place where there's not a lot of noise.

Also, the built-in microphones on amateur cameras are usually not good enough for interviews and other a-roll shoots. Fortunately, there are many good, affordable third-party microphone options available (a lavalier mic is what you want for an interview, and a decent hardwired one doesn't need to cost more than $40). In fact, the audio gear you use to record your tracks may come in handy. Make sure your camera has a place to plug a mic in (there's usually a 1/8 inch port that looks like a headphone jack). If there isn't a mic jack, you can record to a computer or digital recorder and sync up the audio to the footage -- just make sure to make a loud clap after you start recording on both the camera and audio gear. The editor will use that noise to sync the material together. Your camera person should bring headphones and check to make sure the sound is good. Record a few seconds and play it back to check. There's no worse feeling than going through all the work and effort to shoot an interview only to discover later that the audio is bad. Most things can be fixed in the editing process. Bad audio, unfortunately, cannot be. It has to be recorded right.

For lighting (and in general), it is much more important to make sure your bases are covered than it is to try and be super creative. Footage that's too dark isn't usable. Too bright can sometimes be a problem too, but your camera will, in most cases, keep that from happening. Your focus should be on making sure there is adequate light without a lot of shadows. For HD cameras especially, soft, natural light is best. I've had a lot of luck with simply placing an interview subject facing a window with good light. If a lot of light is coming in, tape a white sheet across the window to diffuse and soften the light a bit. Also, don't be afraid to shoot an interview outside if the weather is ok. Natural light is cheapest, easiest and best. The first hour after dawn and the hour or so before sunset has the best light for this (the so-called 'golden hour'). The midday sun is usually too harsh.

If that's not an option, it may be worth it to invest in some of those higher-end soft light bulbs (the expensive ones at the grocery store-- they run about $10 a pop). Pick up two of those and put them in a couple of regular lamps, and use those lamps to light the room where you are shooting. Lighting is very important, and it takes a lot of time to get it right, but, at the end of the day, it is more of an art than a science. For a TV interview, setting up the lighting often takes more time than the interview itself. Plan to spend some time on it, but don't overthink it. If it looks right, go with it.

Let's assume that an artist does have a small budget to produce a video project and is able to hire somebody. What minimum qualifications should the artist expect from a shooter/editor, even on a budget?

Understand that it is always a lot more expensive than people think. For a fully produced professional video, it will cost at least $1,000 a minute -- usually more. It takes a lot of time, equipment and highly skilled expertise. If you post an ad on Craigslist offering someone $100 to do a video, it's not going to happen. You are most likely going to need to find a film student or someone who is just getting started in the industry who needs to build a portfolio. Students also have access to a lot of awesome, high-end equipment and facilities, so ask around and try and connect with someone enrolled in some kind of media production class or academic program.

In terms of qualifications, make sure you find someone who has at least a little bit of editing experience and access to editing equipment. An editor can become a cameraman a lot easier than the other way around. Make sure you work with the person you hire to set a schedule with reasonable deadlines. Understand that there are standard workflows in production that may not seem obvious to you. You need to work with the person you hire to make sure you are both on the same page about everything from the get-go. When projects run into trouble, it is almost always because of the little things. For example, if you want a YouTube video, don't assume that the person you hire can just crank out a DVD too. Go over everything in detail and understand that you are entering into a creative partnership.

It's also important to understand that most people working in production are freelance and their livelihoods depend on a steady flow of projects. If you come knocking and ask someone to do an "emerging artist profile" -- something that would usually cost thousands of dollars -- and can offer a few hundred bucks, understand that people get hit up for that kind of thing all the time. You may well be able to pull it off, but you have to make it worth their while. How are you different? Why is this cool? Why would I want to donate my time to this project?

Throughout the entire process -- from considering candidates -- to the final delivery, make sure that you are listening to and communicating with your production partner. The first conversation should include some work examples (yours and theirs), sharing some creative ideas and some thoughts on how to pull it off. Look for someone you feel you can communicate with and rely on to get the job done. There will always be bumps in the road and obstacles to sort out. It's very important that the person you are working with knows how to tackle those obstacles (that's not to say he or she needs to have all the answers, just the right approach to figuring it out) so that you can work together to produce an awesome final piece.

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