People who have been impressed by the work my team does often ask what kind of equipment we use. They then ask what I think they should buy so their videos can look as good as mine; as though the secret to making great video is buying the right gear. I say it’s time to stop believing the myth that the secret to taking your productions to the next level is buying better cameras and upgrading your editing apps. If that were true, then anyone willing to run up his or her MasterCard could master the craft. In reality, it’s not what you own, but what you know, that makes you a great producer; and that is incredibly encouraging. Chances are, the equipment you own right now is more than capable of creating video good enough to broadcast. Producing like a professional is more about how you think than anything else.
In this article we share seven time-tested tips and insights that will help you approach your productions with the right mindset for making media. If you commit to putting these seven simple principles into practice you’ll lay a firm foundation that will allow you to build more powerful productions without dropping a dime. While some of them may seem simple on the surface, the discipline of actually doing these things will make a big difference in what you see on the screen at the end of your edit.
1. Commit to Quality
The best way to create great work is to begin with the end (or in video’s case, the edit) in mind. Determine at the onset that you will produce the highest quality work that you can. Set your expectations for production quality high, and determine to do your best. While this sounds like a tip you can shrug off, commitment to quality may conflict with, and lose out to, the other expectations that you have and hold; getting the project done fast, or making the job as easy as possible. The value of committing to quality above all else stems from the mindset that anything that distracts the viewer from the story and makes them miss the message is a mistake. The best productions draw the viewer beyond the surface of the screen and allow them to enter into the story. Whether you are making movies or infomercials, the content is always king. Poor production practices of all kinds call attention to themselves and compete with the content you are trying to communicate. That’s why making a commitment to quality is number one on our list.
2. Learn to Love Lighting
The quality and execution of lighting is one of the biggest differences between hobbyist and professional-looking video. Before you even think of buying a better camera or updating your editing app, invest some time and energy into learning lighting. This one aspect alone has the power to propel your productions towards a more professional level.
Light is essential to video. The basic purpose of lighting is to illuminate your subject, but it does much more. Good lighting enhances color, improves contrast, and creates the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional screen. The way you position your lights creates a mood that influences the way your viewers feel about the subject and the scene. Although lighting is complex in principle, it is simple in practice. You don’t need to have a professional light kit to get started, any source of illumination will do. Cable your camera to a monitor, plop a person in a chair, frame up a shot and experiment. Play with light position, altering the angle of impact from straight, to profile, to behind your subject. Alter the intensity by moving your light closer to or farther from your subject. Bounce your light off a card, or use diffusion to change its quality from hard to soft. The best way to learn lighting is to get your hands dirty doing it. So go do it! We’ll be here when you get back.
3. Improve Your Audio
Awful audio can kill good video. Always use an external microphone and monitor your audio at the camera using headphones while you roll so you know what you’re really recording. It should be very apparent whether you’re capturing audio from a camera’s onboard mic or the external mic. If you hear rustling, a buzz, or nothing at all, stop and fix the problem before you continue. There are few things worse than recording all day only to discover an audio problem in post. One of the cardinal rules of recording clean, clear audio is proximity. Get the mic as close to your subject’s mouth as you can. Make a decision about whether your mic should be seen on the screen. Aside from singers on stage or reporters in the field, most professionals hide their mics so that they’re invisible to the viewer. This can be done by running them inside your subject’s clothing or by positioning the mic just outside the frame. Good sound can make good videos great, but bad audio will kill even the best looking footage. So make every effort to record awesome audio.
4. Keep Your Camera Candid
Good camerawork is more about the work than the camera. The rule that anything that distracts the viewer from the message is a mistake really hits home here. Shaky shots, drifting focus, indecisive camera moves and automatic camera adjustments have no place in your edits. The best camerawork is invisible to the viewer, so be ready to shoot steady. Whenever possible, use a tripod to support your camera. To achieve the most solid shots, frame up your subject, lock the drags, and take your hands off the camera when you roll. Even resting your hand on your tripod can create vibrations that will be visible on playback.
Understanding how your lens works can be a big benefit. The telephoto end of your lens doesn’t just enlarge your subject in the shot, it also magnifies every move the camera make so that even wee wiggles become giant jerks. An insider secret to shooting steady is to leverage the mechanics of your lens by zooming wide and moving closer to your subject. Use the zoom control to help compose and frame your shots, but don’t record your zooms. Instead of whipping your camera around to capture an entire scene in one shot, plan a sequence of shots. Start with a wide shot to establish your setting before cutting to a closeup. Whip pans and zany zooms are the hallmark of home video, but you rarely see them in the professional productions you see on TV. Start looking for them in the shows you watch. You’ll see what we mean.
5. Plan Your Production, Produce Your Plan
Producing a video is a lot like building a house. You need a blueprint before you begin building. Avoid shooting from the hip and winging it as you go. Think about what you need to shoot before you show up on the set. Make a shot list and shoot what’s on the list. This could be a broad checklist scribbled on a napkin or complex collection of notes that go into great detail.
For my productions, I typically create massive spreadsheets with shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene details that include notes on camera position, talent position and action, and lens settings (but I have been accused of being a bit of a control freak). How ever you log your pre-shoot notes, always shoot with the edit in mind. As the producer/director it is important that you can communicate the purpose of your production to your actors and crew, and to keep that clear purpose in mind as you produce. Don’t try to communicate too many messages. Make a plan. Shoot your plan. It’s always fine to shoot more than you need. When it comes to editing, extra options are always awesome; as long as you have everything you need. Be careful to not miss essential elements because you get distracted shooting non-essential extras.
6. Know Your Audience
The success or failure of a professional project isn’t determined in a vacuum; it is based on whether or not the piece elicits the desired response within the target audience. Before you start your production you need to know who will be watching your video when it’s done. Once you know who you want watching, you should make aesthetic choices with that demographic in mind. Amateur producers tend to create things that they like themselves (their choice pace, music, font choices, color palettes, formality of presentation, etc.) without much consideration that the actual audience may have tastes that are different than their own. When you produce, do it with a specific viewer in mind, and produce differently depending on who will watch (preschool children, senior citizens, teens, business people, a church congregation, etc.). Know whether or not your audience cares about details such as perfectly composed interviews – for a friend’s best wishes to a newlywed couple, audio may be all that’s needed. One of the great disciplines of professional production is the ability to lay aside your own personal tastes to cater to those various different audiences.
7. Use Restraint
Putting your all into your work doesn’t mean using every trick in the book in each edit. Restraint and discernment are essential disciplines to cultivate. Remember that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should! While it’s good to have a variety of tricks up your sleeve, you should only pull one out if the production demands. Things like wacky wipes, freaky fonts, crazy colors, 3D titles, rack focus effects, shallow depth of field, and slow motion can all be used to great effect in the right context, but 99.9 percent of the time, less is more. Resist the urge to throw visual effects into every edit. By design, visual effects are the equivalent of sending a text or email in all capital letters. They shout in the face of your viewers and call attention to themselves. If you are making car commercials, go for it, but otherwise, your effects need to stay special.
The next time you’re considering buying the newest gadget released, remember that in six month’s time, something newer will come along and you probably don’t need it; you just want it. Will it improve your work? Maybe, but if you have the proper knowledge and skills, techniques will beat out technical every time. So, keep your money in your pocket, or take the kids out for ice cream. Begin taking steps to improve your productions by changing the way you think about the content you create in these seven areas. Before you know it people will be asking you to share your secrets of success.
Sidebar: Conditioned Consumers
According to The Nielsen Company, the average American watches nearly five hours of TV each day. That adds up to well more than months of TV time every year. This number is even greater when you add video watched online. While we’re sure there are all kinds of insights that psychologists and sociologists could glean from this statistic, there is something important for us to acknowledge as video producers. Whether we like it or not, our viewers have been conditioned by the content they have consumed. They know what network-quality TV productions look like, and they can tell the difference between a top-notch program and a second rate video in about two seconds. The result is that, whether it’s fair or not, the videos you produce will be compared to what your viewers see on TV, and your viewers will assign a degree of credibility (or a lack thereof) to your work, and to the message you are trying to communicate, based on the quality and professionalism of your presentation. Consider that the next time you pick up your camera or sit down at the edit bay.
Chuck Peters is a 3-time Emmy award-winning writer and producer. He is currently VP of Production at KIDMO/Rivet Productions in Nashville, Tenn.