A practical guide to creating learning videos: part 2

Practical guidesIn part 1, we looked at the various forms that learning videos can take and the ways they can be used, either as a stand-alone solution or as an element in a blend. We move on to the practicalities of getting a video made, starting with what the film and TV industries call pre-production – essentially all those tasks that need to be completed before you press record on the camera.
Seeing as we are concentrating on the absolute basics of video production, requiring the minimum of technical expertise and equipment, you might feel that pre-production is a bit of a grand topic to be spending any time on. But even the simplest productions need some planning, as we shall see.

Develop your concept

You need an idea. You can’t just press record and shoot the first thing you see. This idea must be compelling to some degree or no-one is going to take the time to watch. So, take the time to consider what you could contrive that would enhance the lives of your audience in some way. In a learning context, that could mean showing how to do something, explaining a difficult concept, or allowing people to share their thoughts and opinions on a matter of some importance.
If we’re talking online video (and probably we are) then you have to figure out how to realise your concept in five minutes or less. That’s not a long time, but it’s all most viewers are prepared to spare. Keeping your video short also reduces the burden on you in terms of the more advanced production techniques you would need to sustain interest over a longer period.
Five minutes is not so long, but your video still requires a beginning, a middle and an end. Think this through up front – don’t expect to be able to fashion all this in the edit.

Prepare a script or storyboard

If your video requires narration or acted dialogue then this clearly has to be scripted in advance. Even if you are conducting an interview, you’ll need to prepare the questions and have some idea how you expect the interviewee to respond and for how long. You can prepare a script using Microsoft Word or similar word processing software, or use a specialist application such as Final Draft. Normally a video script will provide some information about the visual content in the left-hand column and the words on the right, although there is no law about this.

You can storyboard collaboratively with no more than some post-it notes. You can also use special storyboarding software.

Whether or not your video is going to contain narration or dialogue, if you intend it to be visually rich, with many different scenes, camera angles, graphics or effects, then you should seriously consider preparing a storyboard. This goes beyond a script to provide a rough idea of how each shot in each scene should be composed. A storyboard will be a great help both in planning and directing your shoot, reducing the chances that you will have to go back to shoot important elements that got forgotten on the day. You may find you can storyboard adequately using a pack of post-it notes. For something more permanent and sharable, PowerPoint may do the job. And of course there is specialist software available, like the free Celtx.

Find a suitable place to shoot

There are probably four main considerations when selecting a location for your shoot:

  1. Will it allow you to show what you need to show? If you were looking to demonstrate a task or act out a scene in an authentic setting, then this would be the over-riding issue. If a more contrived setting, such as a studio, will work equally well, then you have less to worry about.
  2. Will the environment be quiet enough? Without the right sound equipment, a noisy location could completely scupper your chances. If you really must work in a lot of noise, you will need a highly directional mic as close as you can to whoever is speaking. Of course this will not be an issue in a studio.
  3. Will there be enough light? Time was when every video shoot required dedicated lighting, but modern cameras – even the really cheap ones – cope remarkably well in low light. Having said that, you will always obtain best results when the scene is well lit, so if the ambient light is not likely to be good enough, hire some proper lights.
  4. Is the location available when you want and at an appropriate price?

Deciding what equipment you will need

Assuming you are intending to distribute your video online then, contrary to what you might think, the camera you use is not going to make a big difference to the quality of the end result. Why? Because practically all cameras – even webcams and the cameras built in to phones – provide adequate resolution for display on a mobile device or in a small window on a PC. Amazingly, many cameras can now record in high definition, which is fine if you are playing back on an HD-compatible display, but pointless otherwise. Don’t underestimate the processing power needed to edit HD video. Your computer will have to handle something like six times the number of pixels than it would with standard definition and up to 20 times the number you need for YouTube. If your computer can handle HD then fine, but don’t expect it to make any difference to the end result.

Video cameras
Video cameras come in many shapes and forms, including smart phones, digital SLR cameras and low-cost dedicated HD video cameras

If you really do need to record at high resolutions and to very high quality, then go for a professional camcorder (you’ll get something great for £1500) or one of the new digital SLR stills cameras with HD capability built in (the Canon EOS 5D Mark II sets the standard here). Otherwise there are plenty of excellent low-cost models to choose from, including what you have in your phone.
Much more important to the quality of the end result is the microphone. There will be one built in to the camera and this may be adequate, but if you want clear speech this has to be of good quality and highly directional. A much better option is to use an external microphone that can be positioned close to the subject. This could be wired or wireless, but does require that your camera has a socket to connect an external mic.
We’ve handled lighting already, which leaves the issue of a tripod. Some cameras have good integrated image stabilisation, but this can’t perform miracles. If you really need a rock-steady camera then support it on a tripod. Simple as that.
Coming up: the fun really starts with the shoot itself