Video is cheaper and easier than ever to produce. With basic tools and tips, you can make respectable short videos yourself, or at least direct a shoot with confidence.
Like most of the topics in this toolkit, entire books have been written on the topic. This is not a tutorial on shooting and editing video; there are plenty of those out there, and they do a better job than we could. For your work, we’re going to keep it pretty high-level. Like:
What video is good for
Video is not a good way to present information (unless it’s for training or something like a streamed info session), but can help create the emotional state necessary for receptivity to information.
How many of your favorite online videos are recordings of seminars or long interviews with people who aren’t even very interesting in person? Zero. Why? Because they aren’t funny, visually arresting, provocative, entertaining, whimsical, ironic, innovative, or any of the other adjectives that describe the kind of video that people respond to. Videos that you’ve reacted to probably have had one or more of these traits. But how did you come to watch them?
Here’s a great video about bullying and trans kids, by a trans kid named Corey Maison:
Now, here’s a video that also is about bullying, but it’s just an interview with a researcher and sort of the same length:
The first one isn’t necessarily “better,” but it gets its point across in a simple and powerful way that strikes an emotional chord. If you produced the latter video but were aware of the former, you might consider posting or sharing the video with the girl to get your audience thinking and talking about bullying, then pointing them to an interview about some helpful tips, promising research, or whatever. The point is, the first video has more than 1 million views across various channels and the second has about 1,300.
(As an aside, 6 minutes for an interview with one person and no cutaways is way, way too long.)
Chances are, it’s because you were directed to them somehow. Maybe it was a friend or coworker, or your Aunt Kate. Maybe it was one of the thousands of websites that are essentially media aggregators, like StumbleUpon or Upworthy. Maybe it was Facebook or Twitter. All these are some form of a share, and a share is the highest form of flattery when it comes to content. Now, ultimately, you may not care whether your video gets 20 views or 20,000. There are lots of terrific videos out there that no one has seen for one reason or another. But if it’s not likely to be shared or get people talking, you need to ask yourself whether it’s worth the time and effort that video requires.
Video is not a good way to present information, but it can help create the emotional state necessary for receptivity to information.
When to consider video
You should consider video if you:
- Have the tools, or can get/buy the tools
- Have the skills, or can get/buy the skills
- Have the time, or can get/buy the time
- Need to show something, or someone, that won’t come across any other way, OR
- Need to encapsulate something complex for people who just want the broad strokes
First, let’s talk about tools, skills, and time. Really, if you have a smartphone or any digital camera less than 10 years old, you’re most of the way there. A tripod is useful. If you have a computer, you can get the editing software free or cheaply, and you can even edit video on a smartphone. Editing takes some practice and facility with the software, but it’s not hard to learn. In terms of time, if you don’t know what you’re doing, shooting and editing a 2-minute video might take two hours or 20, depending on what it is and how much footage you start with.
If you didn’t know who Neil deGrasse Tyson was and just walked by a poster with a plain portrait that said he was an astrophysicist giving a presentation, you’d probably walk right by. But you’d be missing out, because on paper you can’t tell how interesting he is. But if you could show a short clip of him talking about the distance between stars, you could capture his engaging and dynamic manner in just a few seconds. Some people and things just don’t translate well to words and pictures, and those people need to be on video.
When communicating something like research, there are two types of audiences: Those who care about the nuances and those who are interested, but not enough to care about the nuances. Sometimes you need to try and engage both people, which is why posting a 2-minute interview along with a 1,000-word article can be extremely beneficial. News organizations do this almost by default now.
Do it yourself or hire out?
Professional video is still very expensive. Unless you have access to skilled interns or an in-house production team, it will run you at least $1,000 per minute of finished, rendered video.
Unless you are very skilled, or have a skilled team at your disposal, anything meant to impress (donors, visiting dignitaries, etc.) should probably be done professionally. You can’t afford to host a banquet and show a video on the big screen that is amateurish or overlong. (However, see the section on production value.)
If you’ve never shot or edited video, but you think it might be useful for your work, just try it. The beauty of nonlinear, digital editing is that is non-destructive, meaning that you really can’t mess up your original footage unless you intentionally go and delete it. You might discover you have a knack for it and enjoy it, or you might learn the opposite. But if you can either figure it out yourself or get someone in your office to take point, you can dramatically increase your engagement and save money in the process.
If you find you can pull it off in-house, a basic interview is a great way to start.
Shooting a basic interview
You need two things, at least, to shoot a decent interview: A video recording device and a tripod.
If you’re going to be doing this more than once or twice, invest in a relatively decent audio solution. You can buy an adequate wired lavalier microphone for around $25, some of which can plug directly into your phone and override the built-in microphone. Good audio is more important than good video for interviews, because what the person is saying is most important. Plus, you could spin off the audio only and use it as a podcast.
The advantage of a lavalier mic is that it is low-gain and close to the audio source. It picks up very little of the room, which is a catch-all phrase for the sound quality imparted by the recording environment. It is much easier to get clean audio this way, and it frees up more options for where to record. If you use a lav, it’s always good to use a second device for audio recording, such as a phone (or a second phone if it’s your video device) or a small digital recorder, or even a laptop. Then, if something is wrong with the master audio you have a backup that you can sync later.
If you’re recording off your device using just a built-in mic, you’ll want to find a small room with soft surfaces, like carpeting, false ceiling and drywall. Avoid hard (or high) ceilings, tile or wood floors, paneling, etc. Soft surfaces reduce the “bounciness” of the sound that can make an ordinary room sound like an empty gym. Remember, though, the camera will pick up EVERYTHING.
If you have a lavalier, learn how to use it and definitely test it out on yourself first. Make sure you start recording on all devices before the interview begins.
The camera is like a fly on a wall for an interview, not a subject or object.
When shooting an interview, use the rule of thirds to frame your subject. Place the camera such that, if they are looking at you (or the interviewer), they are looking across the camera plane, not at it. Use the landscape, or horizontal orientation. You should see both their eyes; if you can’t, the camera is too far to the side. The interviewer should sit just off to one side of the camera, which should be level with or just slightly above the subject’s eyes. A good way to frame seated subjects is from about the elbows up, but you might go wider if they gesture a lot.
If you have an option for frame rate, choose 24 (or 23.976) or 30 (or 29.97). Anything higher looks amateurish.
Put some distance between your subject and anything behind them if you can. In any event, don’t put them really close to a wall, bookcase, etc. You want the background to be blurry, which you can even get with a phone if it’s far enough away.
When you’re set, it’s a good idea to lock exposure and autofocus so the movements of your subject or changes in light don’t throw off your settings.
There are hundreds of options for placing a smartphone on a tripod, like this one.
Here’s a recent video I shot that has some simple interviews. We didn’t have lights, so we chose a brightly lit room with a closed door.
Light should be behind and above you, especially windows. You don’t want shadows on your subject, but you really don’t want anything bright behind them. If brightness behind them is unavoidable, use exposure compensation to lighten your subject, which probably will “blow out” (make pure white) your background.
If you need more light, resist the temptation to crank up the ISO on the camera or apply auto gain. Instead, try and add light to the scene. If you have a movable light source but it’s too harsh, bounce it off something like the ceiling or a large piece of foam core.
Conducting the interview
Plan some questions in advance, but don’t lock yourself into asking just those. Pursue interesting threads and probe deeper as the opportunity arises.
Explain to the subject that your questions are prompts to say something declarative about whatever topic you’re discussing. Encourage them to include part of the question in their answer, like a topic sentence. Consider this question:
How do practitioners separate good research from research that isn’t as relevant to you?
If your subject just answers the question, they might say something like:
Well, it’s a matter of considering the source and talking to colleagues more than it is reading journal articles.
Without the context the question provides, the answer doesn’t stand on its own. You might have to flash the question on the screen, which reflects a lack of planning and is, frankly, sort of boring. But if the subject understood what you wanted, they might have answered:
As a practitioner, it’s vital to distinguish good research from that which isn’t necessarily relevant to you. It’s a matter of considering the source and talking to colleagues more than it is reading journal articles.
Also encourage pauses between trains of thought or lines of reasoning. Keep these thoughts complete and together; if they misspeak or get off track, ask them to start that whole thought over rather than pick it up right where the error is made, because that makes for tricky editing later.
Remind them that you’re looking for short sound bites, not an impromptu lecture, and that most of what they say won’t make the final cut.
The hard part of producing any video piece is editing. Basically you’re making a highlight reel that flows in some logical manner and transitions cleanly from one segment to the next.
There are innumerable resources for how to edit, but here are some general guidelines to aid the process.
- If you have something to cut away to, like “b-roll” of a building or people, or close-ups, use them to cover up cuts between different trains of thought or answers to different questions.
- If you don’t have b-roll, use something like a quick fade to black and fade up to indicate a transition. Don’t use a dissolve, but also avoid most of the built-in, “fancy” transitions. Dissolves (where appropriate), fades and cuts are all you ever need.
- Don’t just cut between different parts of an interview, like if they said something interesting to start with and end with. Look for other ways to combine those sections.
- If you have a second camera, consider setting up a second angle so you have something to cut away to for visual interest.
- Keep titles/lower thirds basic, using typography that either is part of, or complements, your brand.
There’s nothing wrong with adding some background music to your video as long as you’re free to do so. Most recorded music is not okay to use in a video that will exist on a broadcasted medium, like YouTube. Showing it to a roomful of people is different, and not illegal.
Our favorite resource for free music is the Free Music Archive, which is fairly robust and easy to use. Generally, you’re looking for something that has a commercial license. Just attribute the artist somewhere.
If you use some music, make sure it is way, way underneath your primary audio. Listen with headphones to be sure.
Rendering and posting
It’s a good idea to output to some kind of master file that has very low compression, like .mov. Sites like YouTube and Vimeo add their own compression, so if you go straight to .mp4 you’ll get compression on top of compression and it won’t look as good. Make sure your output frame rate matches the rate you edited with (usually this is automatic).
Whatever you post to, make sure you use metadata thoroughly. Tag the heck out of your post so people can find it, and write a good description. Consider even annotating or captioning the video.