We tend to focus on objects in this column, things like cameras and microphones, lights and reflectors.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, because without this stuff, we couldn’t make videos.
But in wrangling our hardware, we sometimes forget that people are just as important. Probably more
so–people like the colleagues we shoot with and the clients we shoot for; people, above all, like the
subjects of our videos, the on-camera folks who animate our programs and make them interesting.
Trouble is, people are trickier to manage than dumb and patient hardware. A camcorder will take a lot
of abuse without protest, and if you push it hard enough, you can break it; but you can’t make it mad or
hurt its feelings. If only people were that simple (and if only you could send malfunctioning units out for
But they aren’t (and you can’t). Instead, people can be, well, difficult. For example:
- Nervous and preoccupied. The bride grows a bit testy when you try to pose her against a better background.
- Unsure of where your frame line is. Your volunteer boom operator keeps poking the mike into the shot.
- Nervous about making a commitment. Your client keeps postponing final approval of your script.
Since people are indispensable parts of the video production process, it might be helpful if they came
with an instruction guide. They don’t, of course, so here’re a few tips for operating them successfully. Or, to
adopt a kinder metaphor, herewith the care and feeding of talent, colleagues, and clients.
But before we examine specific production roles, let’s take a quick look at people problems in general.
Folks associated with your production can require TLC for many reasons, including:
- Ignorance of the medium. Though the bride wants, in a general way, to look good, she hasn’t a clue
that the blue sky behind her head will throw her into silhouette. And don’t try to explain it to her; she’s
much too busy being a bride to listen.
- Lack of real interest. The volunteer mike boom operator’s your spouse, and though willing to lend a
hand, he’s not motivated to pay much attention to his mike position.
- Conflicting agenda. Fearful that your training video may somehow put him at corporate risk, your middle-management client wants to dilute his responsibility. So every time you seek a final go-ahead, he wants to "just run it by Jack (or Jill, or Melvin) for their input."
Of course, there are dozens–maybe hundreds–of other situations that can cause difficulties. But no
matter how varied the causes, you can cope with most people problems in the same basic way: by
deploying empathy, consideration, communication and feedback.
Empathy means putting yourself in their shoes. If you can imagine what’s going through a bride’s mind
on her wedding day, or if you can feel the bureaucrat’s fear of losing his job, you’re on your way to
understanding why they’re acting that way.
It helps, of course, if you show people that you understand by displaying consideration for them. "I
know you have a million things on your mind," you say to the bride with a smile, "but if we take just one
extra minute to get this right, you’ll look twice as wonderful." The idea that you’re on her
wavelength may be even more effective than the blarney of your compliment.
In letting her know you understand, you’re communicating, and good communication with other people
is a clich idea that everyone acknowledges but remarkably few people practice. The fourth time your mate
lets the boom mike wander into the shot, you might ordinarily say something like, "Mike’s in. Again." The
trouble is, that tells him what’s wrong, but not how to fix it. You’d communicate better if you said, perhaps,
"I’ve got a medium shot now, so drop the mike just below waist-level." The difference may seem trivial,
but multiply it by a hundred different instances during a shoot and you’ll improve communication
And what should you do when he does lower the mike? Give him some feedback. A simple "That’s fine"
lets him know that he has it right. When the bride consents to repositioning for a close-up, telling her
"That’s gorgeous" or something similar delivers the positive feedback that reassures her and makes her feel
Empathy, consideration, communication, feedback–all these concepts are old hat. But no matter how
well you know them, it helps to remind yourself to practice them, especially when you’re working under
the pressure of a shoot.
With these general principles acknowledged, we can move on to dealing with people in the differing
roles of client, crew and, to begin with, performer.
Handling the Talent
During one episode of the Muppet Show, Kermit the Frog yells "Cue the Pig!" and reaches new depths of
insensitive directing. (Admittedly, the performer is Miss Piggy.)
Unless you work with professional actors–and even in industrial videos, we often don’t–managing your
performers can require extra sensitivity for several reasons. First, they don’t understand the craft of video,
so they don’t know how to repeat action for different angles, how to stop on a mark that puts them at the
right place in the frame or how to keep their hands quiet as they speak.
The trick is to remember that you must explain things like these to amateurs clearly, patiently and above
all, in advance. It’s bad psychology to wait for someone to do it wrong before showing them how to do it
right. By anticipating and preventing their mistakes, you make your actors feel much more positive and
And if they’re camera-shy (as many people are), they’ll need all the confidence they can get. To remove,
or at least reduce, their videophobia, make your camera less obvious. Back off as far as practical (recording
audio with a separate mike). Roll tape even during rehearsals, because some people perform better when
they think they’re not on camera. (If you can’t disable the red record light on your camcorder, cover it with
Not all amateurs suffer camera fright; some are natural hams. But just because they’re comfortable on
camera doesn’t mean they can act. So here are some techniques for obtaining more believable
First, if possible, don’t make amateurs act at all. Suppose you were to instruct the father of the bride,
"Now when she enters the room, it’s your first view of her in her wedding dress; so you get all choked up."
Could he do it? Sure, if he was Gene Hackman. Otherwise, forget it!
Instead, you might ask the bride’s mother, in advance, to go to him as the bride walks in and say
something like, "What do you think of your daughter?" while you catch them in a close-up. That way,
you’ll have at least a chance to capture an industrial-strength fatherly choke-up.
The second technique is to simply have your performers do only what they actually do in life. The bride
will be perfectly believable as a bride; the forklift operator will act quite natural while driving a forklift; the
baker will be convincing when he bakes…you get the idea.
Finally, if you do need to stage a fictional situation, have your talent play themselves rather than attempt
to create characters. (No matter what they tell you, this is what most professional film and TV actors really
do.) If amateur Wilmer Fribble’s playing a business executive, don’t tell him, "Imagine you’re as rich and
eccentric as Howard Hughes." Wilmer can’t imagine that, let alone play it.
Instead, say something like, "Conduct the meeting just the way you would in real life, Wilmer; only
remember you have a plane to catch in 30 minutes." Aha! Now there’s something Wilmer can imagine,
because he actually has been late for planes.
Finally, with all talent, regardless of ability or comfort level, give them constant praise, even if you have
to fake it ("You were doing just great, right up to the point where you fell into the ficus plant.").
Something about acting breeds insecurity, so remember that there’s no such thing as too much support and
The Video Crew
The topic of support offers a good place to shift our focus to those videomaking colleagues of yours, the
"Crew, shmoo," you reply, with a tolerant chuckle, "since when have I had that luxury?" True, amateur,
prosumer and entry-level professional videomakers typically work alone, or else depend on the occasional
kindness of strangers (or relatives).
Which is precisely why you need to treat these volunteer assistants with special care. After all, they’re
doing you a favor.
Typically, amateur helpers present two problems: they don’t know what they’re doing, and they aren’t
exactly passionate about doing it. For instance, your Significant Other is unaware that a good microphone
boom person plays a constant, teasing game with the video frame, sneaking that foam-covered mike as
close as possible while still keeping it out of the picture. He doesn’t know that in recording two people, he
needs to shift the mike position constantly to point it at each speaker in turn.
This problem is easy to solve: just show your spouse how to operate the boom, preferably as he mikes
an actual conversation while wearing headphones so he can hear and understand the effects of different
mike positions. Improving crew performance by showing them how to do their jobs is an almost painfully
obvious concept; but it may well surprise you how many videomakers ask their helpers to perform tasks
they don’t know how to do.
But if inexperience is easy to overcome, lack of enthusiasm is not. You have a natural interest in
videomaking; that’s why you do it. But if interests were universal, every last one of us would collect Barbie
dolls and pitch horseshoes. In reality, the chances are that your part-time assistants are not as turned on by
videomaking as you are.
In some cases, the only solution is to thank them sincerely and then show your appreciation by returning
the favor–find the time to help them out with one of their own avocations.
If you’re lucky, your assistant may actually develop an interest in video. The upside of that event is that
he or she will dispatch your needs with more enthusiasm. But there is a downside too: before you know it,
your once-docile apprentice will want a turn at the camera!
Whether assistants are enthusiastic or not, you can at least tell them what to do. Alas, the opposite is true
with clients. The people for whom you make video programs call the shots–often quite literally.
Taming the Wild Client
The people who commission, finance and eventually use your video programs fall into three general types.
Corporate clients engage you to make training, promotional or sales videos. Private citizens hire you to
shoot events like weddings and reunions. Public service clients ask you to produce freebies for schools,
churches and community organizations.
Clients resemble leopards kept as pets: no matter how much they behave like pussycats, they can turn on
you unexpectedly. I have seldom had a client who didn’t offer difficulties of some kind at some point, and
the worst of them have made me wonder about seeking a more pleasant way to earn the rent money–such
as mopping hot tar onto roofs.
It’s not that clients can’t be decent human beings; most are. But there’s something about the very role of
clienthood that temporarily renders even good folks ignorant, timorous, controlling, devious or all of the
Their most telling defect is ignorance of the medium. They don’t understand the technical limits you
must deal with ("You may place your camera here in the sanctuary. It’s about 80 feet from the altar.").
They have no idea of the amount of work involved ("If we give you the tapes of our twelve games, will
you edit them into a reel of season highlights? You know: with music and narration and titles and
All you can do to cope with client ignorance is to explain production matters patiently and with good
humor, and then hope the client will understand.
Clients, especially corporate clients, are also timid. We mentioned the management types who won’t
give the go-ahead for production because they’re afraid to take responsibility.
Other clients are afraid of innovation, especially in approaches to the script. They "know" what a
product roll-out video looks like, or a training video, or a point-of-sale promo piece, and they want the one
you’re producing to look just like all the others. But if you do give them what the want, they grumble
because it doesn’t seem fresh somehow.
Or, to put it another way, when you’re developing the script, clients want something that’s different from
everything else–but the same. Later, when they’re critiquing the results, the want something that’s the same
as everything else–but different. You can’t win. All you can do is to fight politely but persistently to sneak
innovation and creativity into the production.
Corporate clients are also the type most likely to over-control the production process. These people
second-guess you on everything from the shooting schedule down to the color of an actor’s tie. Some
clients micro-manage to prove they’re doing their jobs. Others do it to exercise power.
And some, I think, over-manage in order to allay the insecurity they feel because they don’t really
understand what’s going on.
There are strategies for dealing with this client syndrome. If it’s a question, answer it fully. If it’s a
suggestion, consider it carefully (but make your own decision about implementing it). If it’s an order,
explain any negative consequences to both the client and to a third party in the organization.
Then, if necessary, grit your teeth and obey the client’s wish.
If micro-managing is tough to deal with, client deviousness is next to impossible. People have all kinds
of hidden agendas that you never learn about. I know of a wedding videomaker in a small town whose
business started falling off mysteriously. It wasn’t until months later that he discovered the cause. The
mother of one groom was displeased at the videomaker’s unflattering footage of her son (whose face could
stop a clock); so she’d been badmouthing his wedding video all around her church, in which she was a big
In my own case, the best and most ambitious corporate video I ever made was never used by the
company. In fact, the company suppressed it so completely that I couldn’t obtain a copy to show to other
It took me two years to ferret out the truth: my video was a major effort on the part of an executive who
was later defeated in a corporate power struggle. Her winning opponent had killed all her projects,
including my innocent video.
The picture’s not completely bleak, however. Some clients are indeed supporting and cooperative. Some
are even delighted with your work. When my advanced media arts students made a promotional video for a
community cause, the sponsors were so surprised by its professional look that, to this day, they proudly
show it to anybody they can grab and shove onto a chair.
Now that’s the kind of people I take a shine to!