Prompting Your Talent: A Look at Cue Cards, Paper Scrolls and Computer Screens

Do your videos include remarks that are pre-scripted for delivery on-camera? If
so, then you need that ingenious gadget that lets TV politicians read canned
speeches while seeming to ad-lib them as they gaze sincerely into the lens. You
need a video prompter. (Professionals informally call them
TelePrompTers(tm), but “TelePrompTer” is actually a registered trademark.)

A video prompter frees your on-camera talent from the drudgery of memorizing a
script or the awkwardness of visibly reading it. It helps them intensify their
connection with viewers by seeming to address them personally. Finally, it
helps give your programs that extra polish that marks a truly professional

The cost? As little as $400 for a state-of-the-art model if you have a
personal computer and are willing to invest an afternoon do-it-yourselfing.
Better yet, with a computer you can make a great video prompter in under ten
minutes, for under ten bucks–or even for nothing!

So stick with us while we survey the various types of prompters, compare the
pros and cons of each, and show how to make and use them.

Prompter Species
Video prompters come in many shapes and sizes. You can sort them by the
following traits:

Medium: prompter presents text to the reader either as hard copy (on
cards or rolls) or on a video display.

Position: the text of some prompters appears beside the camera lens while
that of others projects directly in front of the lens.

Delivery mode: some prompters display text in batches (one page at a
time) while others show it in a continuous crawl.

In general, the cheapest, simplest prompters display hard copy on pages beside
the camera; the most uptown versions use video displays to project
continuous-crawl text in front of the camera.

But things aren’t quite that cut and dried, so let’s take a look at the main
prompter species: cue cards, paper scrolls, beside-the-lens video displays, and
before-the-lens projections.

The Classic Cue Card
Cue cards are large (perhaps 24 x 18 inch) sheets of white cardboard on which
text is hand-lettered with felt markers. They’ve been around in Hollywood since
at least the 1930’s, when the great but progressively pickled John Barrymore
could no longer memorize dialogue.

Cue cards are simplicity in action. Just print the text in letters an inch or
so high and hold the stack of cards next to the camera. As the performer reads
down to the end of each card, pull it aside to reveal the next one. (For a
comparative summary of cue cards vs. other types of prompters, check out the
accompanying matrix, “Video Prompter Features and Applications.”)

Cue cards require no start-up investment, but at 75 cents and up per sheet
they can set you back $25 or more for a long video.

They’re also somewhat tedious to hand-print; and if you have to revise on the
set, you’ll need to discard and replace one or more whole sheets each time.

On top of that, cue cards can only be as effective as their handler, who has
to follow the text and pull each page smoothly in a rhythm that matches the
speaker’s delivery.

But the biggest problem with cue cards is their sheer size–not only are they
akward to carry around, but they make the reader’s eyes dance in a painfully
obvious fashion. In order to conceal a reader’s left-to-right eye movements
across an eighteen-inch line, the camera must stay at least fifteen feet
away–20 feet if the shot is a loose close-up. (See the sidebar, “Video
Prompter Viewing Angles” for more info.)

The bottom line is that cue cards are simple, fairly inexpensive, and
reasonably portable. But they are clumsy, hard to write and edit, and harder
still to position so that the reader’s eye movement is not evident to the
viewer. But if you need a prompter only once in a while, they’re a reliable,
low-tech solution.

Paper Scrolls
An equally simple alternative is a continuous scroll prompter. To make one,
just write the text on a long paper scroll. Then, holding the scroll beside the
camcorder lens, you slowly pull the paper up as the talent reads it.

There are many versions of this prompter (including one contributed by reader
Jim Dyssel in the September, 1994 Videomaker). Personally, I prefer to
use a roll of paper towels. To prepare a towel scroll:

  • Buy cheap paper towels (the less absorbent they are, the less your ink will
  • Write your text on the towels and then roll them up “heads-out” –that is,
    with the beginning of the copy on the outside of the roll.
  • Install the roll on a towel-holder intended for wall mounting, but in this
    case place it on the floor.

To operate the prompter, hold a short section of dowel or broomstick
horizontally beside the camera, a few inches above lens height, with the start
of the paper scroll taped onto the dowel. As the performer reads the lines,
rotate the dowel to draw the scroll upwards in time with the reading. For
retakes, re-roll and repeat, as necessary.

Compared to cue cards, a paper towel scroll has several advantages:

  • At under two bucks a copy, it costs a lot less than even a few cue cards.
  • Since the text is slightly shorter than twelve inches wide, scanning it
    requires less eye movement. This means that the prompter can operate closer to
    the reader.
  • The text movement is continuous rather than page-fed, which some readers
    find easier to handle.
  • Because the towel material is so soft, the system is virtually silent–an
    important consideration for paper that is cranking directly past an on-camera

On the down side, you can’t revise a towel scroll without tearing the roll
apart at the insert point, preparing new sheets, and taping them in place.
After just a few of these alterations, the paper will refuse to roll up

Even without revisions, the sheets will fall apart after several run-throughs
(because that’s what they’re designed to do, of course). And if the narration
runs longer than a few minutes, the length of the prompter roll makes it
tedious to roll up and reset.

Still, for cheapness, simplicity, and overall ease-of-use a paper scroll
prompter can’t be beat. Like cue cards, it’s a great once-in-a-while

What if you need a prompter more often than just occasionally? Then you need
some sort of video display system, and you can make one for practically

Beside-The-Lens Video Display
If you’re among the sound majority of all Videomaker readers who own
personal computers, you can press your PC into service as a video prompter.
Here’s how to do it.

First, get your text into a word processor file, either by pasting it from a
script or by keying it directly. (Note: though I use WordPerfect for
Windows, I verified that all the following steps work equally well with the
very simple Windows Write word processor supplied with every copy of Windows.
Macintosh systems will function equally well, except for those models with tiny

Next, format the text for the video prompter:

  • Set margins so that one is as far left as possible and the other forces a
    text width of six to eight inches on the computer screen.
  • Set the text to display in 36-point type or larger, with margins flush-left
    and ragged right. Your word processor may allow you to adjust the screen
    display size independently of the printing type size. For readability, choose a
    simple typeface. Avoid fonts like Helvetica, which are so featureless that they
    look confusing when set as body text. Resist the temptation to type all-caps.
    Upper- and lower-case letters are easier to read, because the eye actually
    recognizes the unique shape of each word. (For examples, see “Dos and Don’ts of
    Video Prompter Type Faces.”)
  • Set the document’s page length to match the number of text lines displayed
    on-screen at any one time. That way, when you press the page down key, the new
    text will fill the display screen without cutting through the top or bottom

With your copy prepared, you’re ready to set up the hardware.

Rigging and Using Your Computer/Prompter
As you can see from figure one, the basic idea is quite simple: just snuggle
your computer monitor as close as practical to the camcorder lens.

If an assistant is available to operate the prompter via the computer
keyboard, you’re ready to go. If not, invest in a keyboard extension cable (I
found them at discount office supply companies for well under $10) so that the
reader can hold the keyboard below the frame and use it to advance the text.
(But test your keyboard first. Some are silent if you press the keys gently.
Others, no matter how softly pressed, emit a click audible to a microphone.)

This home-made video prompter works beautifully. Copy is supremely easy to
write and revise. More importantly, the text is so narrow and so close to the
lens that you can read it at ten feet without noticeable eye movement–even in
loose close-up.

If you desire even narrower viewing angles, place the system further away from
the talent. Your word processor should allow you to enlarge the font as

Finally, the rig is easy to set up and, if you already have a computer, the
price is right: ten dollars max.

But nothing is perfect, of course: you have to break down your PC in your
office or den and rebuild it in your shooting area. It’s heavy and clumsy to
take on location. (A laptop will fix this problem if, and it’s a big if,
the display is bright enough to read at a distance. Also, you will need an
assistant to work the page down key, since a laptop keyboard is not

And perhaps the greatest drawback of all: the display is still beside the lens
instead of directly in front of it. Even though the angle is very small, the
reader’s eyes are not aimed perfectly at the camera. To fix that, of course,
you need a before-the-lens system.

Mirror Mirror
Though before-the-lens prompter systems come in several flavors, they all work
in essentially the same way, as you can see from figure 2: a half-silvered
mirror (also called “one-way glass”) rests at an angle in front of the camera
lens so that it reflects the image of a prompter monitor toward the performer.
The video camera shoots through the mirror, which is transparent from that

The great advantage of this system is that it allows the reader to look
directly at the lens. Combine that with the very slight eye movement required
to scan a line of text and you have an almost perfect illusion.

Any disadvantages with a before-the-lens prompter? You bet there are; two of

First, they cost money. A complete plug-and-play system with monitor, mirror,
mounting and masking components, and a text generator could run you up to
$6,000. If you use your own computer you can get a similar rig for $900.

For $300, plus about $100 for supplies, you can get a “Smooth Talker”
prompting system from Video Design Associates (P.O. Box 1089, Lake Worth,
Florida 33460-6624). Their entry level package includes a hand-held prompter
controller, a video on how to build the mirror system, and a software disk.

Why software? That’s where the second disadvantage shows up. You will need
software to provide scrolling capability and to reverse the type. Since a
mirror flips the image, the text has to appear backward on the computer monitor
so its mirror image will read correctly.

Run Silent, Run Text
If you want a very low-cost before-the-lens prompter, you can get around the
problem of reversed text by using a periscope (two-mirror system) instead of a
single mirror. A periscope has two advantages over a one-mirror system:

  • Because the two mirrors reverse the text twice, it reads correctly without
    special software.
  • Since the computer monitor does not have to hang vertically below the
    one-way mirror (see figure 2), the structure is simpler to build and the
    monitor is easier to set up and adjust.

If you think you might like to make a periscope, look over the information in
figure 3. Note that the two mirrors should cost very little. The bottom one can
be ordinary mirror glass, rather than a front-surface optical mirror, and the
top one is nothing more than window glass covered with the silver-faced film
used to darken windows.

Speaking of which, keep in mind that any one-way mirror system, home-made or
store-bought, will reduce the light reaching the camcorder lens by about half.
That means that the lens will work at one f-stop lower (wider) than

And, if you plan to use a video prompter all the time, you might consider
building a permanent one. If you have enough skill to do a bit of programming,
you can set up an obsolete and otherwise almost useless computer like an
elderly Commodore, Atari, or Apple II to display large-size text.

Once that’s done, you can use the system beside or in front of the camcorder,
whichever you prefer.

So there’s the scoop on video prompters. Depending on your needs, you can make
any kind you like, from humble cue cards to a before-the-lens computerized
system as sophisticated as any you’ll find downtown at Channel 92.

And once you see how natural and convincing a prompter makes an on-camera
reader look, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without one.

The Right Distance

The illusion that video performers are not reading a prompter depends on
concealing their eye movements, as seen on the screen. You can do this
by controlling two things: how much their eyes actually move and how big their
eyes appear in the video image.

You can limit eye size by framing performers in medium (waist) shots or
head-and-shoulder close-ups. But to reduce eye movement, how far should your
video prompter be from the on-camera reader? Obviously, it depends on the size
of the prompter.

To get a more precise answer, Debbie Weigel, a student in my advanced media
arts course, helped me conduct an experiment in the studio. First, we
identified three variables:

  • Medium: we prepared 18″ cue cards, a 12″ paper towel scroll, and a
    computer monitor displaying 6″ text (36 point type).
  • Distance: we marked narrator-to-lens distances of 5, 10, 15, and 20
  • Shot size: we decided to frame a medium shot (head-to-waist) and a
    loose close-up (head and shoulders) with each prompter type, at each

Next, we recognized that the smaller the narrator’s eye movements, the easier
they are to conceal. so we calculated eye movement size in degrees, again for
each prompter at each distance.

Next we taped a narrator reading the same copy 24 times, varying shot size,
camcorder-to-subject distance and prompter style. See diagram for details.

Finally, we studied the narrator’s eye movement on a 27-inch monitor. Though
necessarily subjective, our conclusions are pretty reliable:

  • Never work at distances under ten feet, if possible. It’s tough to conceal
    eye movement, and the short distance requires an unflattering wide angle lens
  • The longer the distance the better, as long as the text remains easily
    . If you have to increase the text size, you must increase its
    width as well, which defeats the whole purpose of gaining more distance.
  • About six degrees is the maximum eye movement that you can conceal when
    using a waist shot. For a loose close-up, around four degrees is tops. Three
    degrees or less works beautifully.

Tips for Reading Video Prompter Copy

You can set up a video prompter so that an on-camera reader’s eye look is
absolutely convincing; but if the reader sounds like a Bartles and James
commercial (“Thank yew fer yer support”), the illusion falls apart.

Here are some tips for avoiding the tell-tale visual and verbal giveaways that
you’re reciting copy from a prompter.

Hold a Conversation
In conversation, you communicate meaning and attitude by expression as well as
voice. But when you read aloud, you’re not talking to anybody, and it often
shows. Your voice may be perky as all get-out, but your blank expression says
only that you’re concentrating hard on something off-camera. (You are: the

The trick is to address the camcorder lens as if it were a person–a person
whose interest, sympathy, and agreement you want to win. Convince that lens and
you will convince your viewers.

If it’s hard to relate to a hunk of glass, imagine a specific person instead,
someone you know who likes to listen to you and with whom you feel comfortable.
Instead of reading the copy to the lens, talk the copy to your
attentive friend. Your eyes will light up, your face will grow more animated,
and your viewers will feel that you’re addressing them directly.

The best way to study this technique is to watch professional news people do
it. Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in America at least partly
because he seemed to carry on a personal conversation with each and every

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!
A word about movement. Don’t.

As you speak, a certain gentle shifting of the head and body is all right; it
prevents you from looking stiff. But most amateurs move far too much. To see
this, look at the talking head experts summoned nightly to the McNeil-Lehrer
Report on PBS. Those who are not seasoned TV performers often jiggle and
gesticulate until you want to clap them in irons. To avoid these jitters:

  • Don’t talk with your hands. That’s fine for a cooking show or This Old
    , but not for a situation in which you’re just talking. On the TV
    screen, semaphoring hands and arms are extremely distracting.
  • Don’t substitute your head for your prohibited hands. Some people tend to
    nod almost constantly as they talk, unconsciously reinforcing what they’re
    saying. On screen, this looks like an affliction.
  • Watch for other distracting mannerisms. One woman I know signals a clever
    thought by parting her lips slightly and letting her tongue dart in and out,
    just once. In real life the effect is charming, but on the screen it’s, well,

To sum up, move just enough to avoid appearing rigid, but not enough to
distract from what you’re saying.

Sing Your Song
Many people sound flat and wooden when they read aloud. Why this happens and
how to fix it would take a whole article by itself, but there is one simple
idea that you can practice: find the tune and sing it.

North American English tends to be rather flat, in the sense that the pitch
(highness or lowness of the sound) doesn’t change much from word to word. A
sentence begins on a mid-level monotone, varies only slightly throughout its
length, and then dips at the end for a statement or rises modestly for a

But if you listen to people like radio announcers, you’ll hear that they vary
their up-and-down pitch much more strongly. (The great Gary Owens overdoes this
on purpose, for humorous effect.) Practice this as you read. See how far up and
down the scale you can range without making it corny. It may surprise you how
much more lively and interesting your voice sounds.

Read It While You Write It
Most people don’t understand that your eyeballs don’t have to breathe but your
lungs require oxygen on a regular basis and get downright testy if they fail to
get enough of it.

Go ahead: read the previous sentence out-loud. See? You can’t do it without
wheezing like a just-landed trout, because that sentence has no internal pauses
in which to grab a fresh breath. To prevent this problem, read all spoken text
aloud as you write it. If you can’t find a breathing place every eight or ten
words, rewrite the sentence to provide one.

And while you’re at it, check for killer word combinations. Inflation sent
the price of texts soaring
may look okay on the page, but just try saying
it out-loud!

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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