Online Video Production Best Practices - A Discussion with Arun Chaudhary from Obama for America

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Arun Chaudhary Arun Chaudhary, New Media Road Director for Obama for America, shares his thoughts on how to produce quality online video under tight constraints.

Jed Sundwall: What was your official title on the campaign, and what did you do?

Arun Chaudhary: I was the New Media Road Director, which meant that I oversaw 6 individuals, four on Barack Obama's plane and two on Joe Bidens plane, to gather and distribute media. One of us was was tasked solely with stills while the rest worked on video and writing. The video folks were real jacks of all trades—they had to shoot, edit and produce video on the fly. It was an exhilarating challenge because we had to make our workflow as efficient as possible. During the campaign, there was a high demand for immediate access to video footage of our events. There was also a HQ based video team led by Kate Albright-Hanna who did some more produced pieces.

That's interesting because you were dealing with economies of time that I imagine a lot of NetSquared readers won't be able to relate to (i.e. the rush of the campaign trail), but cash-strapped non-profits face similar constraints that require them to find efficiencies. What did you learn about workflow on the campaign that our readers might find useful?

When you're producing video, there are plenty of crunches that can make things tough. For instance, on the campaign, you can't act like a first year film student making a documentary, filming everything you see and spending hours editing it afterward. You have to know what you want and be economical about getting it. Anyone shooting video with purpose should probably do the same thing.

Also, if you're just one person, you don't have the luxury of having a sound person the way bigger crews often do, but that doesn't mean you can let audio go by the wayside. A lot of people will approach a video by finding a cool looking spot to shoot. Don't do that. Instead, look for a location where you can get good sound and go from there. You might think a certain location looks really cool, but there might be noisy construction nearby, or you might find yourself in an echo chamber.

Bad picture can seem like a choice, but bad audio will always seem like a mistake.

Is there any particular equipment people should have to get good sound?

Get a decent wireless lavaliere microphone. I'd imagine most NetSquared readers aren't filming people from long distances so you probably don't have to worry too much its range. You can get a good one for relatively cheap. Also always be looking for external sources of good sound. If you are in a place with a PA, talk to the sound guy about getting a direct line in. A smart move is getting a cable to hook in an external sound source into your wireless mic. That way you can roam free around an event but stil be getting the best sound possible.

Beyond decisions you have to make when actually filming, what are some other best practices that people should adopt to assist their video production.

It's all about the workflow. Whatever you're planning to record, get it figured out before hand and think through all the steps. For instance:

Are you downloading the footage to your hard drive while it's shot? If so, make sure you know how much storage space you have to work with. Loading up your computer with a huge video file can really slow things down, and you don't want to get caught running out of space.

What's the final format? Again, high quality will create large files that are cumbersome to work with, if you plan on compressing it anyway. But then again, now that YouTube itself has gone HD, you can get caught looking behind the times with a pillarboxed flick.

What's the audience and what are they looking for? In our case, sometimes we simply had to shoot a speech, which is observational, you want to take the person therem while other times we had to produce an instructional video for My.BarackObama.com, which is intructional, folks need to come away with certain information. Think about what you're doing beforehand, think about what your audience needs to see, visualize the final product and work backwards from there.

If you're making a 5 minute video, spend 5 minutes visualizing it. Same thing if you're planning a 30 minute video. What I'm saying is watch and listen the movie in your head in real time. This will end up saving you a lot of time in the long run and producing a better end result because the time that you have the most control over your video is before you shoot it.

Oh, and think about audio.

What about developing stylistic elements beforehand, like title images?

We used very austere video openings for the most part. I think we just presented the location and date using the campaign's standard font. I think that's all you need if you don't have a strong logo or cool graphic to work with. It's really more important to just have a solid informative and consistent opener.

I used to be a teacher at NYU, and I used to tell my students that the opening credits are the last chance to make a first impression. For instance, if I did an interview with a field organizer in Keokuk, Iowa and I didn't get their name or mention Keokuk in the interview, I can communicate those bits of information in the title. In the opening title, you can make up for other mistakes or things you've failed to address in the video.

Titles are also a good way to prepare your audience by setting their expectations. For instance, if you're filming a discussion about healthcare, but that's not immediately apparent, create an opening screen that sets that up well.

This is especially important for when you're creating video for the Internet. On TV, people know what to expect—how long a sitcom, sports game, or a commercial is. YouTube videos, however, can be anywhere from 30 seconds to 40 minutes. It was important to us to let people know what we were giving them in the title screen.

This also speaks to the importance of using effective video titles and descriptions when you post your videos on YouTube.

Exactly. The internet allows us to provide another layer of description to the video as well, which is also helpful and important to think through—what kinds of tags, title or description are going to help people find the video they're searching for?

What lessons did you take away from the campaign that you think non-profits interested in using video could benefit from?

You shouldn't have any assumptions about what people are going to respond to, so don't hold off on posting stuff. We thought people wanted short clips in today's world of short attention spans, but later on we realized that people that people wanted long uncut material.

The lesson here is that the internet can be limiting in terms of quality, but you can try a lot of things and be more responsive if you want to. It doesn't cost us anything to put longer videos on YouTube, so there's no reason to put the long videos on there.

It's funny, as we watched which of our videos did better than others, we thought a lot about what topics the clips covered or where they were shot. It wasn't until we put up entire speeches like the Iowa victory speech, that we realized (from numbers of hits and from comments) that people wanted the whole speech. Full speeches like Iowa rapidly became the most watched videos we put out, even beating out viral celebrity clips. That wouldn't have occurred to us, so we learned to not make assumptions about our audience and put out a lot more long videos than we may have otherwise.

What should people who are getting started with video not worry about?

People shouldn't be so worried about image quality. Not to say that that isn't important but people spend a ton of time when they get a new camera pouring through the manual to find out how to get the most vibrant colors and what not. Like I said before, think about the content of your video, think about your audience and what they want to see, visualize how you're going to get it to them. When you're creating video for the Internet, image quality need not be a huge factor but making your point is. THe better the picture is the better your video is, but it should be the final thing you factor, not the first.

And if I can give some closing thoughts, I'd like to say that anyone can do this. Our road team was pushed to the absolute limit. We had extremely high stakes. Sometimes we were in 5 states a day and we were lucky if we had 10 minutes to set up, but we did it. It's not because we're geniuses, but because it had to be done. If you're doing this for something that's important to you, there's no limit to what you can do.