7 Things I learned About Film Production and Business By Shooting Informational Videos

Recently we at Brent Clapp Media Services shot some informational videos for a local law firm. Many members of our little town are currently embroiled in a eminent domain conflict with a Boise-based power company. Many of the cases will soon be going to court. As such, this law firm wanted us to create a series of simple, straightforward informational videos to inform people about the basics of this issue and the rights they have as citizens.

The videos were to be simple talking-head videos to be coupled with titles to break up the monotony of someone staring at the camera for a dear-lord-god-boring length of 2 to 4 minutes.

Now, this may seem like a pretty boring job in the grand scheme of things. Well, it was. But the tragic truth of media production is that for every fun, creative project there’s at least ten boring ones. Boring pays the bills. But the bright side of the boring projects is that you can learn things that make the creative projects more fun, evocative and successful. And here’s a few lessons I learned from shooting the informational videos that, someday, I hope will help you or I to make that big, creative monstrosity even a little bit more beautiful and powerful of a product.

Talent Writes, You Rewrite

One of the first steps in any production process is scripting. And oftentimes the best person to say what they want to say on-screen is, well, them. In our business, ninety nine percent of the time our client knows more about their field than I do. So instead of trying to learn a junk-ton of information about their thing so I can write a script, I get them to write about it instead. At least at first.

Now, that being said, sometimes our clients don’t know exactly how to say what they want to say. That’s where we come in. Part of the value we bring to the table is helping them to learn not what to say but how to say it.

In this project, the attorneys wrote all the scripts. Success point one. The scripts were packed with good information and very professional and way more comprehensive than I could ever have come up with on my own.

However, what I didn’t do on this project was rewrite. And I should have. Why? Well, since four different attorneys wrote scripts for the same projects, not all of the scripts matched in voice and power. Some of them, while informative, were super boring. Not good if you’re going for a talking-head format with no b-roll. Your verbiage needs to be snappy to keep people’s attention. Other scripts were more terse and to the point, but they were filled with technical jargon. Again, a big no-no if your audience is a bunch of legally-uninformed citizens just looking for fair and just compensation for their land.

If I were to repeat this project, I would ask them to send the scripts a week before so I could try to make them a little bit more accessible to the average viewer. And consistent. That way, the powerful, knowledge-filled content is paired with a simple, straightforward verbiage making it simpler for viewers to understand and take in.

Light Simply

On many paid gigs, including this one, I bring only two lights with me on-set. One is a Lowell Pro 250w with a snoot for the backlight. I keep this little guy on a small stand that takes minimal time to set up. The other light is a portable Fotodiox Pro Professional 500-LED light I use for my key or fill. This light is a kickass little film tool perfect for the run-and-gun filmmaker with a portent for minimalism. Just like me. It’s battery operated, and it has adjustment dials for both power and color temperature. It’s light, portable, and provides drop-dead beautiful eyelight in whatever situation and for professional filming that’s important. These two lights together provide for everything you could need for a professional film-production look: back light, eye light, good key-to-fill ratio, etc.

The truth is that many filmmakers way overdo it with the lighting, at least for simple jobs. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are situations where a 4k softbox with a backlight on a 10 foot stand and two kickers are absolutely necessary to bring the image to life. But you can do a lot with a little, especially these days. For a simple, straightforward informational video project like this, two lights were perfect and just enough to give the a beautiful, polished look necessary to please the client and keep the cost down in setup time to boot!

Don’t Count on Daylight!

Daylight is a fickle mistress, especially on shoots that go for longer than an hour.

On this particular shoot I arrived at 7:45 am. I unpacked my equipment in the large, open library/conference room with a large window as my keylight. By 8:15 and by 8:25 am we were shooting.

We moved through videos quickly, but we had nearly 16 of them to get through. So by the time we were done the light had shifted. A lot. And it wasn’t until post-production I noticed just how much it had shifted. Daylight changes are not noticeable very often because they happen so gradually. Over a three hour shoot, the temperature and dispersion of the light can change drastically. And getting videos to match up in post-production is tedious and sometime nearly impossible.

Fortunately, because these videos didn’t require absolute uniformity I was able to get away with minimal correction in post production. But the takeaways remains the same: if you can, don’t rely on sunlight as a key, especially on a shoot that is going to take more than an hour or so.

For Big Rooms, Use A Lavalier

I have arguments with my co-worker and editor Katie about the type of microphone to use almost every project. She’s a big fan of the boom: deep resonances, a full sound and also no trace of it on the video screen. She’s a big fan, and so am I, for some projects at least. But not this project.

For this project, the room we shot in was large and had high ceilings. I would have liked a smaller room, but none of the rooms in the law offices were ideal. In big rooms, the closer your microphone is to the subject’s lips the better, and a directional lavalier is perfect for that.

That being said, I actually set up both a lavalier and a boom microphone on this shoot for contingencies. When I got into post, the boom microphone was still much more echoey and far less crisp than the lavalier. So the life lesson is this, kids: boom mics for small rooms, lavalier mics for big rooms, and always shoot in the smallest room you can.

More Videos + Less Sessions = Happy Customers

Film production ain’t cheap. And the look that people give when I lay out the hourly cost of production can sometimes be very depressing and frustrating simultaneously. For some reason there’s this assumption that video production, unlike all other forms of skilled work, shouldn’t cost above 20 bucks an hour despite the fact that the gear we use is equally and sometimes more expensive than other trades.

That being said, as a businessperson, we do have a loyalty to the customer to give them the biggest bang for their buck we can. And one way I’ve helped my customers to overcome the hurdle of the sheer cost of doing film production is to lump as much film production into one session as possible.

In this particular project, we had sixteen videos to shoot and we decided to shoot it in one session. This was an excellent way of handling it, though it took a little bit of scheduling gymnastics to get everyone in the same building at the same time on the same day.

This is a good way of doing it because, on a film set, a lot of money goes into setup time. If you want to make the shots beautiful and clean you have to experiment on set, a lot. And that takes time.

Now, that being said, once you’re setup, you’re setup. And one of the best ways to reduce the cost to your customer is to do as many videos in the same setup session that you can. In this case, that number was sixteen, a very efficient and practical shoot that saved our client money and got them one step closer to being a return customer.

Check Your Threads Before You Go

And last, but certainly not least, check your threads before you go. I’m a time-tried scrub, as many filmmakers are. But when you’re shooting videos for lawyers in suits you should wear a shirt that at least still has all the buttons. Unfortunately, my apartment has tragically low light. And this project starting at 7:30 am, I rushed out the door and didn’t realize until I was on-set that the shirt I’d chosen had dried, caked-in food in the threads and there were grease stains from frying bacon on my pants. I’m ashamed to say that this particular law firm got charged for ten minutes of me hiding in the bathroom rinsing out all the old oatmeal from my sweater.

Lesson? Don’t be like me. Check yourself in the mirror before you go onto a shoot. Unless you’re a union worker and you can’t get fired, in which case go ahead and wear all the grease-stained shirts you want and spend your down time pigging out at craft services like there’s no tomorrow.

—–

And that’s all my tips! Keep making videos and keep an eye out for more informational blog posts coming out of Brent Clapp Media Services. And whatever you do, don’t forget to have fun! What customers really want is a quality product and a fun experience making it.

Cheers!