Laptop Prompters

If you ever record people reading prepared text on-camera, you will need a magnified script to prompt them.

You could use hand-lettered cue cards, but they’re clumsy and time consuming. Instead, try importing the text to a slideshow program like Corel Presentations or Microsoft PowerPoint and

displaying the script on a laptop

computer placed next to the camera.

Of course, you could invest in a television-style prompter like TV stations use, but they are a bit pricey for prosumer budgets. Professional prompters are semi-permanently attached to tripod-mounted studio cameras (though lightweight field models are available for a price). Why not just use any old desktop computer? Because monitors are heavy and awkward to support at camera-level.
Laptops easily adapt to prompting chores because they’re light and can run on batteries, a plus in the field. Most importantly, they could cost you nothing if you already own the hardware and possibly the software too.

Laptops do have drawbacks, compared to professional, scrolling script-prompters. Because they can’t be placed directly in front of the lens, they require readers to look slightly to one side of the camera. And because slideshow software can’t make lines of text roll continuously up the screen, they must display one page at a time. Both of these limitations can be overcome, as you’ll see if you’ll step this way.

Before setting up your rig to tape a commercial, classroom lecture or company report, you need to prepare some text to read; so let’s start with the fundamentals of copy design.

Laying out Your Text

As you probably know, presentation software lets you design a program shell, including the backgrounds, typefaces and sizes, and transitions from one slide to the next. Then you enter or import the copy, breaking it up into individual slides as you go.

Start by selecting background and type colors. Use a plain, dark background (like navy blue) and set white as the text color. (You’ll use yellow too, as we’ll see in a moment). As a rule, light text on a dark background is easier to read than the vice versa.

When you specify text, pick a simple serif face like Times Roman, which was specifically designed for readability . Avoid sans serif faces like Arial or Helvetica, even though they may appear simpler and cleaner than Times Roman. Typographers have long known that it’s easier to lose your place in a sans serif paragraph than in a traditional serif font . For the same reason, set your copy in normal capital and lower case letters. All caps take up more space and are harder to read (Figure 1c). Finally, aligned text to the left margin and ragged on the right because this too helps the eye move reliably from the end (right) of one line to the start (left) of the next one.

How big should you make your letters? It all depends on the size of your laptop screen (12-inch, 13-inch, 14-inch or 15-inch) and the distance between the video camera and the reader. As a very rough rule, text smaller than 48 points tends to be busy and hard to read, while text over 72 points restricts you to too few words per screen. Since type size is easily changed, just play around with the problem until the result looks good to you (Figure 1d).

Working with Page-based Programs

Since PowerPoint and Corel Presentations change copy one whole page at a time (in effect, cutting from shot to shot,) it’s easy for readers to lose their places when one page is suddenly swapped for another. Here are some strategies for fixing this problem.

First, never break a page in the middle of a line of copy (Figures 2a & 2b). Instead, break the text at the end of a sentence, clause or phrase, so that the new page starts at the beginning of the next sentence section (Figures 2c & 2d).

Next, overlap the text from screen to screen as illustrated in (Figures 2e & 2f). In the second screen, notice that:

  •   The last clause of the outgoing page is repeated at the beginning of the incoming page.

  •   The repeated text is yellow to indicate that it’s a duplicate.

    When the system is in use, cue each page change as the reader is completing the last sentence. You’ll find it’s remarkably easy to find your place in the contrasting colored copy on the new page.

    Also, be sure to put a big, fat page number at the bottom right corner of every page, so that the reader, director and prompter assistant always know where they are in the script.

    Finally, dramatize the transitions between pages with short (half-second) but gaudy digital video effects (DVEs). Among the many transitions built into presentation software, checkerboard break-ups work well. Here’s the purpose: on-camera readers are concentrating on several things at once, so it’s too easy to miss a page-turn and get hopelessly lost in a new page of text that looks just like the old one. A DVE transition flags the screen change more insistently than a straight cut.

    Using Your System

    The key to a successful prompting system is eye-look: readers should seem to be gazing straight at the camera as they talk to the viewer. Professional script-prompters achieve this by displaying text on a half-silvered mirror mounted directly in front of the lens, so the presenter really is looking right at the camera. Since your laptop cannot block the lens, you need to place it with attention to both position and throw (lens-to-subject distance).

    The best position for your laptop screen is on either side of the lens and as close to it as possible. The lens height should be about halfway up the side of the screen. Directly under the lens is also an option.

    The longer the throw, the better, as you can see from . The farther apart the camera and reader can be, the smaller the angle between lens and laptop, and the more convincing the performer’s look.

    To achieve the minimum acceptable throw distance, try to separate your subject and the camera by at least 10 feet, using a mild telephoto lens setting to frame a close shot. At this distance, a head-and-shoulders closeup should preserve the illusion that the reader is looking at the lens.

    If you’re stuck with the camera’s built-in mike, 10 feet is too far for optimal sound quality. The best solution is to buy a lavalier (tie clip) mike. Wired models are available for well under $100 and the wires present no drawback in this setup.

    But if you have to make do with your built-in mike, move your camcorder closer, and compensate by zooming out to a waist shot. The eye-look on this wider setup is less critical.

    With everything set up and tested, you’re ready to read copy, DVE-ing from page to page as you go. The best way to control the presentation might be to give the mouse to the presenter and then frame off the desk and the arm that’s working the mouse. That way, talent can control its own reading pace. If that system is too distracting, an assistant can cue the page changes. If you want to get really fancy, most laptops can feed an external monitor at the same time, so the assistant can watch the text from a convenient distance.

    About those mice: you can get a cheap mouse extension cable that will give you a 10-foot reach. RF (radio) mice operate up to about eight feet from its receiver. You can place that receiver out on the floor between mouse and laptop because RF doesn’t need a clear line-of-sight to work.

    Finally, a tip about the wheel mice used for Web scrolling. If you remove all the toolbars from the full-frame PowerPoint work screen, the text is big enough to use. That way, you can scroll backward as well as forward, to shoot pickup lines and such.

    And that’s about it. Once you’ve invested in the setup time, you’ll find that using your laptop as a script-prompter is a snap.

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