It's All in the Approach: Creative Approaches for Video Productions

Some informational programs use gimmicks like butter on popcorn, to hide the bland taste of the subject matter: "Hi! I’m Percy Peatmoss, and we’re gonna meet some exciting lichens!" (Suuure, we are!) Though spokes-mosses like Percy went out with 16mm projectors, promotional, training and educational programs still need what you might call a presentation method.

As the term implies, this is a systematic approach to laying out the content of a program. Mr. Announcer on the sound track, Julia Child behind the cooktop, the talking head in the interview each of these is a presentation method, deliberately selected because it’s well-suited to the program’s subject. What are some of these presentation methods and how do you select the right one(s) for your show? Step right this way, folks; the tour starts here.

When you come right down to it, there’re only a few basic presentation methods: documentary, interview, expert presenter and full script. As we look at each method in turn, you should remember that most informational videos still use them in various combinations.

Documentary

A documentary purports to capture and display a subject as it really is, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions from their impressions of the material. In some programs, they’re assisted by narration or commentary, while in others the edited footage appears to speak for itself. (We say "purports" and "appears" because no documentary is a truly passive, neutral pipeline of information. For more on this, see Liar, Liar! in the October 2000 issue of Videomaker or at www.videomaker.com).

The documentary method works well where you want to convey a free-form impression of your subject. Beautiful Downtown Burbank, Recreation in Bigfoot County, Where your Sales Tax Goes these are good subjects for documentary programs.

The most rigorous documentary form (represented by the films of Frederick Wiseman) uses no verbal commentary to organize the presentation and point the message. The entire effect comes from the selection and juxtaposition of shots. To the newbie, this may seem like the easiest form of program ("Hey kids, let’s showcase Fillmore High!") but it is in fact, the hardest to do successfully. Without the guidance of voiceovers and titles, the result is often an inexpressive jumble of footage.

That’s why many professional documentarians (notably Ken Burns) use multiple voices on the sound track often a mix of narration, dramatized voices and interview quotes. This method is easier because it allows you to comment on the footage as you display it. However, juggling multiple audio sources is a sophisticated process.

For fail-safe simplicity, try mating documentary footage to voice over narration. By scripting a single stream of commentary, you can control your presentation more precisely.



Interview

Interviews offer ways to get variety into your presentation, especially if you include several people. Interviews are great for subjects that are essentially verbal and require some expert input.

As the sidebar, Pictures, Words or Titles? explains, some topics are difficult to visualize. No matter how many photo albums you have, they don’t display family history, but only moments from that history. For the actual narrative, nothing beats Great Grandmother on the sound track. Other good interview subjects include Our Corporate Five Year Plan (interview with the CEO) and Coping with Depression (interviews with sufferers and therapists). As these examples suggest, interview programs come in several different flavors: single, dual and multiple.

The single interview doesn’t look like a Q&A session, but like spontaneous conversation by the subject. The interviewer is never seen or heard, and the questions (dropped on the cutting room floor) are phrased to elicit statements rather than answers ("Tell us about the Boston branch of the family"). Because they omit the overhead of questions, single interviews are the most popular form in professional programs.

However, the dual interview is easier to manage. In this form, viewers can see the interviewer and hear the questions. Futhermore, replies can be free-form in this approach. For example, "Where were you born?" "Cleveland." is fine in a dual interview, but the answer would be meaningless in a single interview. Two-person interviews also offer built-in cutaway material in the form of the interviewer.

A more complex interview form is multiple voice. Using man-on-the-street vignettes or short sessions with the many people connected with the topic, you weave together a composite audio track that adds richness and variety as well as information. If people you know have some performing ability, you might try dramatized "interviews" with historic figures or people otherwise unavailable. Be cautious, however, because voice-only acting is a highly specialized skill and amateurish results tend to sound frankly embarrassing.



Expert Presenter

If you’ve watched a David Attenborough nature video ("The vegetation [wheeze] here at 15,000 feet [gasp] is, understandably [rattle] sparse.") then you’ve seen an expert presenter. This method has many things going for it. First, the expertise of the spokesperson lends authority to the whole enterprise. Secondly, he or she can often be relied on to flesh out a skeletal content outline by ad-libbing material.

The expert is best in the field whether that field is a studio cooking show kitchen or a construction site or the Sonoran desert. If that isn’t possible, you can establish the expert on camera in interview mode and then shift his or her remarks to voiceover narration.

The simplest approach is commentary: the experts react to whatever is presented to them. At its best, this method elicits priceless observations that would never occur to a script writer. At worst, it delivers the DVD prattle of movie directors reacting off-the-cuff to screenings of their films.

One step more formal is the demonstration, anything from a construction project to a science experiment to a cooking show. A demo is more clearly sequenced (by the steps in the project or recipe) but it still offers ample opportunity for ad-lib expert commentary. A demonstration format works best when the project can be completed at a single place in real time (except for the 45 minute baking period) and when the personality of the presenter adds interest to the show.

A popular variation seen on home repair, gardening and cooking shows is the dual (and sometimes dueling) expert format pioneered by Siskel and Ebert. This approach combines the virtues of the expert and interview methods, especially if one of the presenters serves as prompter/straight man to the other.

The next level up is a full-fledged lecture, either scripted or ad-lib. Since even the most dynamic expert is still just a talking head, it’s good to cut away as much as possible to visuals of the subject matter. In fact, a project like this often starts with the taped lecture; then appropriate visuals are scripted and shot after the fact.

Sometimes, the effect of a lecture can be created by a skillful one-person interview. The questions select and sequence the material, and then drop away, leaving a seamless narrative.



Full Script

An expert isn’t necessary when reading narration that’s been fully scripted. There are several reasons for going to the trouble of a wall-to-wall script. In some cases there are issues of legal or technical accuracy. You don’t want to misrepresent details of Employee Benefit Packages or Self Administration of Insulin, and the best way to avoid doing so is by writing down (and getting approval for) every image and word.

In training and similar how-to programs, you want the clearest camera angles and the simplest language possible. In highly controlled situations like this, you’ll probably want every sentence written and every setup storyboarded.

A scripted program can use any mixture of presentation forms, including an on-camera spokesperson, a voiceover narrator and superimposed title buildups. You can even use interviews if the questions are closely coordinated with the script. (In real world situations, the script is often revised after the interviews are completed, in order to bring it into line with whatever was said.)

Full scripts and/or storyboards are almost always prepared for professional commercials, infomercials, video press releases and training programs, for one overwhelming reason: the client. Most people and organizations are reluctant to spend good money unless they can see (or at least think they can see) what they’re getting.

As we’ve seen, the presentation method chosen depends first of all on the nature of the topic. But real-world constraints also play a large role. What if you don’t have an expert? Worse, what if you do have an expert who’s a droning bore but still wants to be in the program? In situations like this, you need to know the alternative methods available to you and their suitability to your topic. We hope this little survey has helped.

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