A friend recently learned she’ll be taking on more media production responsibilities at her job. Shooting, editing, that kind of thing. She’s already an accomplished photographer and graphic designer, but wasn’t quite sure were to start learning about audio and video production. She sent me an email asking for advice (and luckily for her, I’m not the only resource she turned to).

It’s been a while since I’ve produced a video, but it was the primary way I supported myself for about three years. I still record and edit audio regularly. A search of my mental memory banks returned the following tidbits as the most relevant results:

Understand the big picture

Being on set – be it a multi-million dollar hollywood production or just you, a friend, and a camera in your backyard – is the best way to learn the ropes. A lot of things about how videos, documentaries and the like come together might not really make sense until you’ve see them in person. That was my experience, anyway.

Unless you’re fresh out of school, you probably don’t have the freedom to hop out to California or NYC and intern on some productions. A decent substitute that you probably already own are the “making of” and “behind the scenes” featurettes included with many DVDs. Nearly all productions have the same basic ingredients. They’re just at different scales. The more you’re on set (actually or vicariously), the better you’ll get at identifying the patterns of what works and what doesn’t.

Shoot often

You won’t learn camera work from books or videos. You could read photography books all day long for a year straight and still not know how to take a decent picture. Shoot a lot, and be around other shooters, paying attention to how they do it.

Going from photography (which captures instants) to video (which captures sequences), you’ll have to learn to watch for distractions and aberrations that take place over time. The hum of an HVAC unit. A fluttering curtain. A cloud passing the sun and altering your light.

Wear headphones

You’ll fuck up the audio more often than you fuck up the video. The feedback that confirms you’re recording video is obvious and familiar – solid red lights, REC, and your shot on the viewfinder. And while bouncing VU meters might indicate that sound is being recorded, they do nothing to tell you where it’s coming from or of what quality it is. I’m trying not to remember how many shoots I’ve blown by thinking I was recording audio from lapel or shotgun mics only to find out it was actually coming form the (terrible) built-in microphone.

So wear headphones. Even better, have someone whose sole responsibility is to monitor sound. This is worth striving for even on a small shoot. A few bad shots can be covered for much more easily than muffled, overblown, or missing audio.

Make checklists

Doing a new thing? Write down each step you take in the order you take it as you’re doing it. Refer to that list the next time you do the thing. Cross out what didn’t work well, add what you forgot to do the previous time, and repeat until you don’t need the checklist (this might be several years).

Make a checklist for packing to leave. For unpacking on set. For setting up your camera. Make a checklist for beginning to record. Make a checklist for things to check while you’re recording. For tearing down your set and packing up. Ingesting video from tape or disc. For organizing your project, editing your video, applying your effects, mastering your audio, rendering your final, and delivering the piece to its final destination. You’re absolutely completely crazy-pants if you think you’ll absorb the hundreds of micro-steps required to produce even a simple video on your first or 10th or even 20th production. Make a list.

Oh, and make a checklist of which checklists to use.

Shit in is shit out

The production equivalent of “measure twice, cut once”. “We’ll fix it in post” is a jokey cliché’ for a reason – fixing in post (post-production – i.e. after the shoot, in editing) is hard and expensive, when it’s even possible. Bad shoots make for bad edits. Bad edits make for bad videos. Focus on quality from square one. If you need to cut corners, cut them downstream, not up.

Read the manual

Professional programs have professional documentation. If they don’t, you bought the wrong program. Much of my knowledge is built on the thorough and articulate work of technical writers at Apple and Adobe. Seriously, check the help file. I learned how to do a green screen shoot from the initial lighting set-up all the way to the final render solely from After Effects’ documentation.

In conclusion

The real bitch of all this is consistency. You’ll knock it out of the park on one shoot and completely mess it up on the next. Keep at it, keep learning, and keep updating those checklists. Your own experience will always be the best resource you have.

AuthorScott Kubie
CategoriesUX and Design