Cheat Sheet: Make your Video Shine

I often think that being an instructional designer is a lot like being a reporter. We spend tons of time interviewing our subject matter experts and then boiling things down for our audiences. And just like in reporting, it’s sometimes more effective to include a direct quote. One of the best ways to do that, of course, is with video.

Way back in the olden days when I started as an eLearning designer, video was a rarity.  Cameras, lights, and editing stations were so expensive, and the skills so arcane, we had to hire teams of professionals. Cost was a huge barrier. So was bandwidth. And processor speed. (Anyone else remember 240 by 180?)

Today’s inexpensive equipment and software make video far less cost-prohibitive. It’s even possible for many of us to bypass the pros and do it ourselves. But sometimes we get back to the office and discover that our shoot didn’t turn out as well as we hoped. The audio is buried in background noise. The video looks grainy or flat. Our interviewees stumble on their words, but editing makes them look like they’re twitching. Turns out there’s a bit of an art to it.

Don’t despair: you can still produce good-looking interviews, even if you don’t have the budget to hire a pro. Here’s a “cheat sheet” to help you improve the quality of your homegrown video.

  1. Do use a dedicated camera if you can. True, most mobile devices have the ability to capture video, but not all are at a decent resolution. Use only if you know yours is at 720p or higher. And be careful to light your subject well.
  2. If you have access to actual video equipment, include lights in your kit. Even daylight can be hard to get right — it tends to produce harsh shadows on a sunny day, and flat, undifferentiated surfaces on a cloudy day. If you must shoot outdoors, try early morning or late afternoon, when light is softer.
  3. Give the interviewee a couple of chances to get it right. Try to email the questions in advance, asking them to reply by email “so I know what to expect.” This forces the interviewee to plan and refine what he or she will say. You can also take the email response and print it out really large, to use as a cheap version of a teleprompter. Hold the print-out up near the camera lens so your expert doesn’t end up looking down at the desk the whole time.
  4. Shoot the interview from two different angles, either with two cameras simultaneously, or by recording a second time from a different angle. This comes in super handy for cutting out pauses, ums and uhs, and other stumbles. You can “cut to” the other angle where you need to. Otherwise, you end up with something that looks like a glitch, where the person suddenly jumps to a different position because they moved a little bit.
  5. Use a lapel microphone if possible, but listen carefully to make sure you’re not picking up the person’s heartbeat. I had that happen once and didn’t know it till we were in editing.
  6. Record a few seconds of ambient sound, without anyone talking. Use that sound to cover up deep breaths, or those clicks people sometimes make with their tongues before speaking. (This is a good trick for audio-only interviews as well.)
  7. Don’t ask the interviewee to change clothes to make it look like you recorded on different days. Inevitably, you’ll end up editing the interview in ways you didn’t anticipate. I remember one video where the SME was wearing a red shirt, then a beige shirt, then the red shirt again, in the space of about 90 seconds. Holy time warp!
  8. Speaking of clothing: beware tiny prints and textured weaves. In video, they produce an unpleasant distortion called “moiré“.
  9. If you can’t travel to the interviewee, consider conducting the interview via Google Hangouts. There are a few computer programs that let you record those sessions and, in that kind of situation, people seem to accept that the quality won’t be as high.

Do you have any tips to share? Post them in the Comments.

(by Rissa Karpoff)


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