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Helpful Tips For Improving Promotional Documentary Video

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Promotional video content for the web is a powerful way to communicate a message and it is used by many companies and organizations. It allows communication in a variety of forms including spoken word and visual imagery but it also facilitates a connection with the audience on a more subconscious level. A promotional video containing a product, message or guidance must look professional - but before you spend your annual marketing budget employing a production company, ask yourself if you can achieve appropriate results by applying the hints and tips below.

I am not suggesting these guidelines will work for all promotional creations because sometimes only a full production unit can create the quality of audio and video necessary for television broadcast, a DVD or Blu-Ray. However, if you are already creating videos and adding them to YouTube, Vimeo or uploading to your own website then this tutorial is for you. It's aimed at those who seek to improve filming and editing of interviews that might involve relatively straightforward cutaways of products in use, screenshots, explanatory diagrams machines or any number of activities. These are the sort of videos that companies and organizations commonly attempt themselves but fail to execute with a professional finish because they do not get the best from their participants and the facilities available. Below are my guidelines to making your own company or organisation video on a budget.


Who Am I?

My name is Peter Simcoe, I have been running my own multimedia design consultancy as a freelance designer for the last 10 years under the name Simcoemedia with a website at www.simcoe.co.uk . You can see my video channel at www.youtube.com/simcoemedia showing many examples of the hints and tips I will be discussing in this tutorial. I originally trained to be an industrial designer and graduated with a First Class Honours degree in 1995 from Loughborough Design School. In 1998 I went on to study a Post Graduate Diploma in Media Production.

My current equipment is a Nikon D7000 digital camera with 28mm - 270mm lens [approximately £1100] with a Sennheiser MKE 400 Video microphone [approx £150]. However, prior to May 2011 I was using a domestic camera in the form of a Sony DCR-TRV50 Mini DV Camcorder - this cost £600 back in 2004 - so we are not talking about spending a lot of money in relative terms as professional DV cameras cost £3000 +. This tutorial is about getting the best from any equipment you may have and significantly raising your production values when creating promotional features using interviews.


5 Tips For Budget Promos Using Interviews

1. Take a Realistic Approach to the Final Product

Special effects and fancy graphics are pretty much out of the question with low budget production so it is all about getting the best from the people and surroundings you have access to. Being creative with your choice of environment, ensuring quality of available lighting and finding the right people to discuss your project or convey your message is key. In summary - DO NOT expect to be adding effects or special graphic sequences but DO be adventurous in finding a good location in context to your discussion and encouraging your interviewer and interviewees to get the best answers.

Occasionally I am asked about using stock footage from archives such as Videohive.net in the productions I am creating. My answer is that, whilst it can seem a good idea, having footage in your production that does not seamlessly echo the same production values can be a risky strategy and become a significant distraction. So, use cautiously, if at all. Most of the time, the subject matter I deal with is so specific that generic stock footage is not appropriate - it becomes a matter of displaying specific demonstrations in detail.


2. Plan in Detail and Allow Time For Interviewees to Prepare

Whilst it may appear that I am stating the obvious, one of the significant factors in the success or failure of a video production is planning. It is important to establish the purpose and intention of the video and then to ensure that a series of planned sequences is covered during the allocated time. For the most part, these sequences require a solid base from which to describe the themes you wish to communicate - these may be one or more of the following:

  • A product's evolution from concept to production
  • An event from planning to execution
  • An activity and the benefits of the activity
  • An experiment and the associated research

1. Establish a list of questions to ask the interviewees about their project that will provide a narrative for the entire video. For this video the questions were structured as:

  • How did the project begin? Was this from previous research or experiments? What are the main drivers?
  • What sort of investigations will take place during the project? Who is involved?
  • Are there any collaborations with other institutions or commercial ventures?
  • What are the planned outcomes for the project?

The questions should ideally be formulated by the person directing the video but refined into a series of more specific questions about the subject matter by the people involved with the project as they will have a more detailed understanding of the subject.

2. Establish a date for filming any interviews well in advance (at least a couple of weeks) to enable participants to reflect on the questions they will be asked. Where permission is required to film in certain locations, this requires much greater planning and the process timing may be delayed whilst permission is approved.

3. Identify an interviewer eg colleague [part of the project or organization and preferably familiar or friendly with the person or people being interviewed] who is willing and able to ask the scripted questions. They need to be confident and fluent but they also need to be familiar with the work and keen to be involved. This will help to put the interviewee at ease and ignore the camera, therefore providing greater potential for a more natural answer.

4. Ask the company and staff involved to suggest some appropriate locations for the interviews. Check if written permission is required for candidate locations. Holding interviews in an office environment has some potential pitfalls such as anonymous context, lack of visual cues, interruptions and confidential material on display. Try to reinforce the context creatively, that is, give a visual message that works in harmony with the questioning. Consider outdoor locations as well as indoor. Interesting results can be obtained in public spaces or near to production lines or in creative studios. Check for issues with noise, safety and security.


3. Get the Best From Your Interviews

Getting the best from interviews is a crucial part of the process. Once the questions have been defined you need to establish an introduction that quickly conveys the subject matter and lays the ground for the viewers to understand the direction of the inquiry. I suggest the following:

  1. Provide the interviewer with a question sheet and brief on the aims of the video to provide context.
  2. Make it clear to the interviewee that he or she must form answers that indicate to the viewer what the question was eg "Why did you create this product with a blue digital LCD interface rather than yellow LCD screen?" answer - "we created a product with a blue digital LCD interface rather than a yellow one because we felt that it improved the functionality of X, Y and Z....."
  3. Do not allow the interview to take place whilst equipment is being set up - this can often cause the interviewee to try to remember what was discussed when the actual interview takes place. This often leads to the interviewee stuttering or being unsure of their answer whilst they try to remember what was said
  4. If the interviewee is unsure of how they should present their answer then it is sometimes useful for the director to give a model answer in front of the camera as a demonstration - this can assist the interviewee to define their style of answering. Dissuade interviewees from copying the style of the example!
  5. Go through the questions 2-3 times. This may appear to be tedious and take excessive time for the people involved in the process but this can improve the quality of the overall message - if one answer is not quite right then a second or third attempt might be perfect

4. Collect a Wide Variety of Cutaways

Cutaways are appropriate clips of video, photographs or diagrams that provide examples of activity discussed within the video and as many relevant examples should be collected as possible - even if it seems a little excessive. These can often be a life saver if the interview requires alot of small edits to remove snippets of spoken text to make the interview smoother eg stuttering, hesitation or the end of sentences or there are certain visual issues such as someone unintended in shot, then a library of examples to place over the audio track can assist in the fine tuning of your message. In the examples of the IDATER videos below [Useful Examples], there were a variety of video sequences recorded to illustrate examples but during the planning phase there was an advanced request for photographs and any previous video footage examples that were not possible to record during the time available or at the location chosen. The use of additional footage can be a risky strategy as there is no control over the quality, compression method or size.

In addition, filming an individual interview usually requires a single head and shoulders shot of the interview - product demonstrations or detail sequences often require a separate video sequence. By providing additional cutaways it is possible to inject further interest into the presentation as well as providing a direct visual example - it just breaks up the amount of time a person is seen on camera.


5. Set Up Your Equipment to Capture the Best Quality

Download the Interview Setup Guide [shown below] to assist you in setting up the video shot. Also refer to the rule of thirds image below.

Interview Setup Diagram

With reference to the downloadable Interview Setup Guide PDF, consider the following checklist when beginning your production:

  1. Lighting - use natural lighting where possible or buy a simple lighting rig - if inside, make the most of window light but try to ensure that the interview is conducted with the interviewee facing the light. Where there may be harsh shadows cast by sunlight, ask someone to hold a large white sheet of paper or a silver reflector as a reflector on the shadow side of the interviewee to disperse the light.
  2. Remember to White Balance your video to ensure the best colour accuracy and try not to mix natural and artificial lighting. Either use a well lit artificially lit environment or a bright outdoor location. Most video cameras will compensate for indoor or outdoor environments. Refer to your camera instructions for details.
  3. Switch OFF the auto focus and the auto exposure - these are tell-tale giveaway signs of an amateur production. Set up your interview shots carefully by ensuring the focus is sharp and ask the interviewee not to move.
  4. Sound - DO NOT use the built in internal microphone. Set up an external microphone on a separate tripod or support as close to the interviewee as possible without being in shot [allow for some space where there may.
  5. Switch of air conditioning where appropriate. Listen out for external noises such as doors, people talking aircraft or vehicles and reduce the intrusion of these as much as possible through your location or trying to gauge the intervals at which these will occur. This is also a contributing factor as to why repeating your interviews 2-3 times is useful.
  6. Use traditional composition methods for establishing the shot such as the rule of thirds and stick to familiar interview techniques such as filming head and shoulders unless there is a good reason you should allow more of the body in shot - ie a demonstration of a pieces of clothing.
  7. DO NOT expect to get it right first time. Get to know your equipment and editing workflow by trying a practice video first. This way you can evaluate where it was successful and where improvement is required. [See Test Video in Useful Examples]
Interview Setup Image


Useful Examples

The videos below represent the type of interview technique I have been discussing throughout this article. Upgraded equipment in the more recent creations have improved the fine quality of the video production [eg reduction in background noise and picture sharpness] but the principles described above have been applied to all videos.

Test D7000

When I bought my Nikon D7000 I created this short film about Tuberculosis in Farm Cattle with a local farmer I know. This helped the farmer communicate his idea and enabled me to practice using the new equipment before using with a client.

Research 1

Sony DCR-TRV50 Mini DV Camcorder [domestic] in Standard Definition. Natural lighting from windows above and either side of interviewee. Low cost microphone. Some background noise caused by air conditioning. Would benefit from more cutaways.

Research 2

Nikon D7000 digital camera in 720p HD. Sennheiser MKE 400 Video microphone. Improved sound quality. Reduction in background noise. Background images came from a nearby exhibition. Increased number of cutaways to increase interest.

Guitars 1

Sony DCR-TRV50 Mini DV Camcorder [domestic] in Standard Definition. High quality microphone. Video created in a photographic studio with black background. Used the photographic modeling lamp as lighting.

Guitars 2

Sony DCR-TRV50 Mini DV Camcorder [domestic] in Standard Definition. Basic video mic that came with camera. Video created in manufacturing workshops with either natural lighting or model lights.

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