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Filming talking heads fast Q+A 9: Does it need to be scripted?

If we have a presenter who is not confident in skilled in public speaking situations then a script and an autocue / teleprompter is required. And to be honest they help get the job done fast even when the presenter is a skilled public speaker.

When presenters write scripts they can tend to be a little ‘written’ which comes off unnaturally when read to camera. We never underestimate just how different written and spoken forms of English are.

To alleviate this we make sure that all possible spoken contractions are contracted in the text itself, and not left for the presenter to amend on the fly. (ie. it is = it’s, we are = we’re). English of course is not a stress-timed language like, say, Italian and so we can choose to place the stress wherever we like - and we've found that it is not as predictable as you think when you have a presented making those decisions on the fly while reading an auto cue with a bunch of cameras pointing at them - it can help therefore to capitalize key words that carry where the MAIN sentence stress should fall in the context, or in fact where the main STRESSES should fall in the CONTEXT.

These days, teleprompers designed to work with a tablet device can be rented cheaply from an A/V store. We learned to avoid using the prompters that work with iPhones after getting some very squinty results.

If we have a client who is exceedingly well versed in the topic, an expert who may have taught or coached the subject many times before - we use an interview format which allows for a more natural and less strictly precise flow of language than required in scripted contexts. We either have the presenter sit at a table with an interviewer, coffee shop style so the viewer feels like they are sitting right there are the table with them. There is more room for manoeuvre. With no requirement for a script this can save the presenter considerable time in prep. The only thing we pre-script are the questions so that the presenter can be prepared. We want the online learner viewing the video to feel they are part of the conversation so try to create a ‘coffee-shop’ format around a small table -the camera positioned to give the viewer the feeling they are at the table too.

Filming talking heads fast Q+A 8: How do we frame the head?

This is key. For talking head situations, we make sure the top of the presenter’s head is very close to the top of the frame. Bigger hair can also be ‘cropped’ outside the frame. The tendency to frame the head vertically central can make the presenter look like they are too short to fit into the shot and that you should have lowered the camera or stood them on a bucket. This may seem obvious. However, besides sound quality, this is the number one problem we find with pre-made videos we are given by our clients.

Also think about whether it is essential to use 16:9 ratio. 16:9 is wonderful for wide panoramic vistas and we’ve all just adopted it without questions.  But as we control of the platform and player that the video will appear we are considering moving back to the squarer 4:3 ratio that is way more natural fit for talking-head situations.

Filming talking heads fast Q+A 7: So shall we just use the camera’s mic?

For educational contexts especially, the audio is probably more key than the video. Good editing software can disguise a multitude of sins but it can only go so far so it’s vital that the source is a good as possible. While we can remove a distant phone ring or siren in post even the best sound engineer can do little to alleviate the low hum of a fridge or air conditioning.

We’ve eventually reached the conclusion that we just have to use lapel mics. Zoom and directional mics will capture too much ambient and intrusive sounds that a lapel mic will barely pick up, and the difference in the quality in timbre is significant.

Lapel mics keep you in control of the day, not the people cutting down trees three blocks away (we speak from experience). While more expensive, we found it is well worth using wireless lapel mics which results in less clothes rustle. And the recorder won’t go flying when the presenter rushes off to the bathroom (though we’ve learned to our chagrin that it’s vital to turn the wireless mic off if they do.)

Whoever is looking after sound must have a good set of headphones and be paying attention for intrusive external noise at all times, which can be surprisingly easy to miss if multi-tasking.

We also capture 60 seconds or so of ambient room noise. This is useful for plugging gaps between edits.

When editing we’ve also learned along the way to avoid the temptation of using all of the editing suite’s noise-reduction capabilities. The ability to get a very clean sound can be seductive, but keep some ambient noise in - occasionally even add it. This keeps it warmer and more natural while disguising the inevitable close up sounds of ‘lip smacks’.

For online output we also push the levels a little higher than you would in conventional contexts as the the end users will more than likely be listening in on laptops or mobile devices with low volume low quality speakers.

Filming talking heads fast Q+A 6: Do we actually need lights?

Lights. Yes we need them.

And these days LED lights don’t break the budget.

But we’ve learned to be minimal and careful of overkill as the presenter can end up looking washed out if we throw everything we have at them - especially if the background is lighter. We’ve also learned at our peril to cover windows in rooms with plenty of sunlight because passing clouds will dramatically affect the continuity. If you are filming outdoors changes in light caused by passing clouds will look fine and natural during a take, the issue lies in keeping continuity between takes which will present a challenge in the editing phase.

Filming talking heads fast Q+A 5: Do we need a clapper board and everything?

We need the sound of the clap (or rather the spike on the wave form) for syncing external sound capture with the video. We rarely, if ever, have needed to match the external audio with a ‘visual’ clap i.e. the clapper being clapped in front of the camera with the scene and take refs. If we are being good and keeping our audio and video file notes for each clip we really don’t need the scene and take numbers written on the clapper board either. This can really just waste precious time - even if our cameraman insists!

However we do make ourselves go through a little routine at the start of each take. This is a vital little ritual as the sheer degree of multi-tasking can make it easy to miss something obvious like making sure the audio device is recording. And we make sure to carefully rehearse the presenter on the routine too so everyone is one the same page.

The sequence goes like this:

1. Camera operator “Camera Rolling”
2. Audio operator says “Audio Rolling”
3. Clapper board clapped (or hands slapped for audio spike)
4. Crew comes to silent rest position
5. Presenter assumes ‘smile position’
6. Director indicates with fingers slowly... ‘one, two, three…’
7. Autocue rolls (if used)
8. Presenter starts speaking

Filming talking heads fast Q+A 4: Will splicing together too many clips look bad?

Ok. Promise you won’t admit this to your filmmaker buddies. For most online educational videos, if we film in 1080 definition we have a degree of wiggle room to ‘zoom’ in a little when editing stage when needed.

That is if we need to splice a paragraph-worth of speech from one take with a paragraph from a second take we can simply ‘zoom’ by expanding the size of the clip within the given ratio and select an appropriate unobtrusive transition such as a cross dissolve (‘barn door’’ transitions are never good).

On the subsequent splice you can ‘zoom’ out. Used sparingly this creates the illusion of an intentional storyboard choice rather than an obvious blooper splice. To be effective, cross dissolves require sufficiently different data in the two clips to be joined. That is if you zoom in only slightly with the presenter in the same place, the transition will look blurred and awkward.

Filming talking heads fast Q+A 3: How do you keep track of the production?

The Learning Designer / Director should keep brief detailed notes so that whoever needs to edit the all the pieces of the final video together has a clear idea of exactly what material to use. We use a table with the following headings:

Video File | Audio File | Scene | Take | Quality | Notes

What constitutes a scene is fairly arbitrary, can be quite a fluid concept throughout, and will vary depending on how at ease with the situation the presenter is.

In a 20 minute scripted presentation you may decide on say ten two-minute segments to try to capture in one go. Each of these segments would constitute a (so-called) scene. Each attempt to capture that scene is take.

The ideal length of a scene seems to entirely depend on how comfortable the presenter is with the camera and what the goal of the piece is. A promotional piece needs to be high energy and every line can be excruciatingly difficult to get just right. This results in very short scenes - as short sometimes as a single paragraph or closing sentence - and usually many takes. In a less formal or forced situation a scene might be several minutes long and can be captured in minimal takes.

We tend to go with the flow rather than being beholden to a predetermined scene structure. If the presenter is on a roll then we just go for it while the momentum is there. The Director needs to balance the perfection you may capture by doing repeated takes with the resulting inevitable loss of energy and authenticity.
It can also be worth it to just keep the take running even if the presenter makes a mistake. If the energy is good it can be fixed in later when editing rather than losing the momentum by cutting and setting up a new take.

As we capture each assign a quick quality judgement to the take - we use a rough 0 to 3 star system - 0 for unusable, 3 a stellar performance. This is then used in the editing stage to save time rummaging through and reviewing all the clips.

Filming talking heads fast Q+A 2: Just how small a crew can we get away with?

Once everything is set up, during the shoot, you’ll need to be juggling at least the following:

1. Camera
2. Sound
3. Autocue
4. Makeup
5. Keeping notes
6. The presenter
7. The script
8. The delivery

While we had more people in the early days we generally just have a crew of two once we got the multi-tasking down. The camera person does the science looking after setting up the lights, keeping an eye of the frame, and working the camera and audio. At Learnbase, the Learning Designer takes care of the art - which means doing anything and everything they can to ensure that the presenter is at their best throughout. The Learning Designer essentially becomes the director and will ideally be the initial editor. They will work with the camera tech to capture the ideal frame as they will be most aware of how the final product will appear within the learning application. They should be solely responsible for deciding when to cut and giving performance feedback to the subject.

Filming talking heads fast Q+A 1: One or two cameras?

If we are filming a panel discussion, live workshop or some other event, we need two cameras to ensure nothing is lost when swapping out batteries, memory cards or in case someone walks in front of one of the cameras.

But for controlled talking-head situations when we can control when to roll and when to cut - one camera is advantageous. The secondary reason it that it is significantly less work during the shoot as well as to later edit.

The primary reason though is that visually, we want the viewer to feel that they are being directly engaged. This means we want the presenter looking directly at the camera.

When we have tried to add dynamism by cutting briefly to a side shot, the end-user feedback we have received, in no uncertain terms, is that they feel we have diluted the authenticity and the content appears disingenuous and distinctly less trustworthy. A single angle has more impact.

Making The Working Artist promo video for organizations

Our client Crista Cloutier of The Working Artist has had great success with her course among a fast-growing cohort of artists learning how to reframe (pun intended) their art careers.

Here's a video we made for her to help explain the programme to universities, art colleges and other art organizations...


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