Whether in a classroom, boardroom, or even a family room, people everywhere are learning all kinds of new things through the use of instructional videos. Once reserved for highly technical operations in a manufacturing environment, training tapes can now be found covering every imaginable interest or process.

Titles such as "Raising Rabbits," "Better Public Speaking," "Mastering the Violin" and "Senior Aerobics" line the shelves of video stores and fill the pages of mail-order catalogs. There seems to be no subject too bizarre or too narrow to warrant a video production. And though this extreme breadth of product definitely represents a great learning opportunity for the public at large, it represents an even better opportunity for the videographer–the opportunity to create a production with very little funding or experience.

Practice to Perfection
"I really had no professional video experience. Well, no actual paid video experience," begins Matt Lester of Third Story Video. Lester describes his early days of videography as the classic Catch 22. "Nobody would hire me without prior experience, and how could I obtain experience if nobody would hire me?" With that paradox in mind, Lester embarked on his first professional piece: an instructional tape on gun cleaning. "I realized I would never get a legit job unless I created one on my own. So I thought about the types of productions I could pull off, and an instructional tape fit the bill. It would require limited actors, limited sets, limited production value and, most importantly, a limited budget."


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A gun enthusiast, Lester had the background knowledge needed for the shoot. With some detailed preproduction planning, he was able to pull off the gig, using himself as the only on-camera talent.

"I would set up the shot, trigger my camcorder, then move to my mark and demonstrate the various steps involved in cleaning a variety of firearms." Since most of the instruction involved in such a process consisted of tight shots, only Lester's hands were visible in the majority of the video. "I did a small on-camera introduction in which I discussed the importance of gun safety, and that was shot in the same manner as everything else. I pre-lit the set with the help of a monitor wired to the video output of my camcorder. I swung the monitor around so I could see myself on camera and kept readjusting the framing until I got a correct headshot. It was hard at first, but after several attempts, I got used to it."

Though the production was visually straightforward, Lester could have handled the audio portion in many different ways. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to mike myself and read a script while carrying out the steps involved, or if I should dub in a voice-over once the principal photography was finished." Lester decided on a combination of the two methods, relying on live sound as a reference for the final scripted voice-over narration to capture what is now present on the soundtrack.

Lester used a simple cuts-only setup with two camcorders to edit his footage, and an Amiga-owning friend output some graphics for opening, sequence introductions and end titles.

"I guess I wasn't sure what I thought I'd do with the tape when it was finished. But I looked at the project like every artist looks at his work. The more you practice, the better you get. And unless I took that step of creating my own production, I was never going to get any practice," said Lester.

Confidence Earned
Now when approaching clients, Lester confidently states that he has production experience under his belt. "It makes me feel better when I go out and look for new business. Before, I would have been worried that I may not be able to carry out a client's request. Not that now I am a consummate professional by any means, but at least I feel comfortable when discussing my abilities and what I can and cannot do."

While jumping headfirst into video production by creating an instructional tape probably isn't for everyone, Lester's story points out that the experience and opportunities this kind of exercise affords are often very beneficial.

In addition to the valuable experience he gained, Lester is also managing to cull some publicity and profit from his production. Taking a cue from other grass-roots producers, Lester approaches nearby video rental stores and places a copy of his tape on their shelves at no charge. "I don't do that to make money. I just like the exposure it gets for my business. The instructional section in most video stores isn't the largest, so the video store owner never minds having one more free tape to offer his customers."

This promotional method has led to paying jobs for Lester's growing business. "When I first started placing tapes in the stores, it attracted the attention of our town's local paper and they ran a story. From that, several people became interested in my services." Lester now services a full range of clients, albeit still in a "moonlighting" capacity. "Eventually, I'd like to be doing this full time. But I recognize my limitations and the limitations of the market."

Putting it on the Market
The manner in which Lester broke into the world of instructional video production is not uncommon. According to Tony Nicolas of Montreal-based Alliance Video Marketing, many of the titles in his catalog of "how-to" tapes come from first-time producers. "Who's to say what is and what isn't professional?" says Nicolas. "Obviously production value matters with product that is sold to the consumer. But if good information is presented in an easy-to-understand manner, then I don't think the viewer will be too worried about fancy editing, titles or effects. The purchaser is interested in one thing: learning something. If the video accomplishes that objective, then it's a sellable item."

When considering videos for inclusion in his catalog, Nicolas looks for two things: topics that haven't been covered to death and topics that can support an audience. "Many interests, like exercise and sports, are already backed by a slew of productions that range wildly in quality. The consumer doesn't need another stomach-flattening tape. That's why I look for something different, but something that appeals to a large enough group of people to make it worth marketing."

Make it From the Heart
So what does it take for the novice to produce his own instructional tape? Nicolas suggests that first-timers work with subjects close to their hearts. "It is always easier for a videographer to produce an interesting tape if he or she is really passionate about the topic. Not that good productions can't come from 'cameras-for-hire;' it's just that some of the most interesting and best-selling tapes I stock come from those folks who are working with a topic that interests them deeply."

Beyond working with a familiar subject matter, Nicolas also recommends keeping the on-screen instructions simple. A common fault of many instructional tapes is that the information becomes too detailed, often boring the viewer. "There is a fine line between giving adequate instruction to teach a skill and going overboard with information overload. I find that a lot of producers are so enthusiastic about their hobby or skill, they can't help but share their wealth of knowledge on the subject." This kind of overkill can easily turn an audience off, says Nicolas. "Save the detailed, nitty-gritty discussions for a second tape or an accompanying manual. The use of a manual has become something of a trend recently with instructional tapes. It allows the viewer to reference any information he may have missed in the initial viewing."

Nicolas concurs with Lester in that instructional videos appear to be a great place for beginning videographers to get their feet wet with professional production experience.

"It seems to be a good way for independent videographers to get their work into the market," says Nicolas. "It sets up a situation in which the videographer has nothing to lose. If the tape stinks, it really wasn't a wasted effort because of the experience gained. And if the tape proves attractive to an audience, the producer is on his way to becoming a professional in the field."


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