Anatomy of a Corporate Video
Posted Dec 1, 2008

You may have been in this scenario when you were filming a wedding reception: A guest asks you questions about your camera, about editing, and about website encoding. Then, he tells you he’s thinking of making a video for his company and wants to know which camera and software are the best for him. Sure, you’ll answer his questions as best you can, but in most cases, the most useful advice you can give him is to avoid a disastrous do-it-yourself project and encourage him to hire a professional (that’s you) to produce the video for him. If time permits, you strike a rapport with him and get his phone number—before you hand him your card. That way you can take the initiative and glean a corporate client from this wedding gig. Later, when you call him at his office, the moment of truth sets in. He really does want to make a video for his company, they have been thinking of getting a video on their company website, and he asks you all sorts of questions about the process:

Here’s a look at some strategies for developing corporate projects that will help you answer those questions and do the best—and most profitable—work you can for the client.

Research and Planning
Let’s say you will be producing a marketing or training video for a company. The filming will take place at the company’s office, and you will hire a voice-over narrator. You’ll need a script for the narration as well as descriptions of the shots and other elements.

There are several ways to proceed: You can hire a professional scriptwriter, you can let the client write the script, or you can write the script yourself. If the client has a decent budget and you’ve never written a video script, consider hiring a scriptwriter with corporate video experience. He or she will probably conduct some research on the topic, home in on the audience demographics, and come up with a clever and creative approach to the production. The client could write the script, but if his or her writing experience is limited to print, the script could lack imagination and visual descriptions. That leaves you to take the role of scriptwriter.

Even if you have not done this before, consider writing the script yourself. The client could provide plenty of written information. If you get into a bind, you can hire a writer to help you behind the scenes. They call these writers “script doctors” in Hollywood.

The client probably has brochures, procedure guides, press releases, and other written materials from which you can get the facts. You can probably even copy sections word for word, with permission; the company may, in fact, prefer to use its particular phrasing. A PR person or another staffer may be chosen to act as a content specialist to help you write the script. It’s best if a single person takes on this responsibility; you don’t want decisions made by a committee.

Ask this person to state the goals or objectives for the video. As you write your script, you can refer back to these objectives; they are the backbone of creating a video that meets the needs of your client. Try to assess the client’s behavioral objectives; these are particular actions that the client wants the viewers to remember after watching the video. These actions might include a customer buying a product, an employee performing a procedure, or an individual joining an organization. The more specific you can be about addressing the client’s objectives, the more you can target your video to fulfill those objectives.

As with objectives, the more specific you are in defining your audience, the easier the planning process will go. Having knowledge of the viewing audience is an important factor in helping you target your script. What is their demographic? What do the viewers already know about your subject? What are their attitudes on the subject? Some video producers will perform market research on their audiences. They might gather demographic data or even conduct focus groups.

Focus groups are a popular technique that market researchers use to obtain data. A focus group is a group of 5–10 people with demographics similar to your target audience. The focus group discusses some of the facts and ideas that you want to present, and its members let you know what they think works and what doesn’t. Focus group participants usually get paid for their time, and they don’t have any connection with the client or the producer. Another way to develop ideas and elicit creativity is to conduct a brainstorming session with the client or typical audience members. Brainstorming is a fun process where participants are encouraged to come up with wild and crazy ideas. A “scribe” writes all the ideas on the board. There is no right or wrong response. Sometimes the discussion takes off in humorous and silly directions. Frequently, one or more of the “silly” ideas will work for your video. It may be just the hook to grab the attention of your audience and help them remember what you want to show them.

Unless you have a totally new idea or concept to show, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. You can gather relevant data and specific facts for your video by conducting research on the internet, by speaking with experts on the subject, and by collecting brochures and other printed materials. Specific facts and statistics will add credibility to your video. Look for some out-of-the-ordinary approaches to your subject or some human interest stories to maintain viewer attention. You may also find some usable graphic material such as photographs, charts, and even video clips. Make sure you secure permissions before using any copyrighted material.

Think creatively as you plan your video, and select from a variety of frameworks. Frameworks include such filming styles as documentary footage with voice-over narration, reality-based show with live audio, news-type footage, re-enactments, and interviews. Anything that you can put on videotape can be used for your framework. Your video could include photos and text graphics, and it could feature dynamic graphic animation.

A common approach for instructional or informational videos is to use a voice-over narrator. The viewer sees the action on the screen and hears just the voice of the narrator. You see this frequently in educational films and on television news reports. Listen to demonstrations from professional narrators to choose one that best matches the culture of your client. Consider involving your client by making him or her the narrator; the client gets to play producer, and he or she best knows the type of voice to represent the company.

A common use of video, but unfortunately the least effective, is the talking head. This is an on-camera presentation where the host looks at the camera and speaks. This format works if the host is a celebrity or a professional actor. Sometimes a charismatic company president who is a good public speaker can play this role. However, it is best to minimize talking heads. If the boss wants to speak on camera, try to limit the screen time for that section. Perhaps you can add B-roll shots of what he or she is talking about, or have a host interview the CEO. Your audience will appreciate that you took the time to come up with creative concepts that limit talking heads in your program.

Writing Treatments and Scripts
Use the notes you gathered from researching the subject, talking with the client, and interviewing typical audience members, and perhaps you could include the results of a focus group session. The treatment phase is the time to develop your concepts and choose frameworks to make the most effective video you can. Creativity sometimes comes when you least expect it, so give yourself time to develop these ideas. Sometimes a walk on the beach or quiet meditation will help you to relax. When your mind is at ease, and sometimes when you are not even thinking about the video, is when the ideas start flowing.

Next comes the think-to-ink phase. Start recording your ideas onto whatever medium is available, whether it is a notepad on your nightstand, a voice recorder, your PDA, or your computer. Don’t write in sequence; just get your ideas recorded. Later you can develop your attention-grabbing introduction and knockout ending.

Then, start writing your treatment—in sequence and in paragraph form. Submit the treatment draft to the client to get his or her ideas or approval prior to writing the script. This is the time to make changes in the concepts and ideas, not after you spend a lot of time writing the script.

While dramatic videos require a word-for-word script so that the actors will have lines to say, many documentary videos do not need such wordy detail. Training and marketing videos probably need each word approved by the powers that be. And be certain to describe the visual elements with as much detail as you can.

If you hated grammar in school, now is the time to get even with those persnickety teachers. Script-writing is your chance to break the rules of writing. Scripts are more like speeches—you are writing for the spoken word, so write as if you are talking to a friend. You don’t need to write in complete sentences. Sometimes a phrase will suffice. Do you have a knack for poetry? Get thee to a computer and employ such techniques as rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and alliteration. The sound of the words rolling off a mellow narrator’s tongue can be as effective as the meaning of the words themselves—maybe more. Invest in a few poetry books, and write them off on your taxes.

Then, let the words come out as they will. Take your time, and jot down whatever ideas come to you in whatever sequence they come. Remember; don’t start at the beginning of your script, unless the words are right there. Write the body of your script first and then start working on the opening and conclusion.

After you have a draft of your script, try to put it away for a day or longer. Later you can view it with fresh eyes. You may come up with even more ideas during that incubation period.

You can write the script using the two-column approach: one column for the visual description and the other column for audio. Or you can write the visual descriptions across the entire page and indent for the audio. Either way works; just make it clear enough that your actors and narrators can find their lines easily.Your script should have enough detail that the director or producer (that may be you) can develop a budget. The script should help you determine how many locations will be needed, how many camera setups are required, when actors will be needed, and what other details are needed, such as props, sound effects, and graphics.

Budgeting
After the script has been approved, you can develop a shooting schedule, or what Hollywood calls the “script breakdown.” Think efficiency as you schedule the shooting locations, talent, and crew and develop the schedule. You’ll need to determine how long it takes to set up equipment, capture all your shots, and move the equipment to the next location. Experience is your best teacher, but if you are new to this, ask a colleague or hire a more experienced corporate director as your consultant.

Breaking down the script into a shooting schedule can help you minimize the number of hours of the production crew. That shooting schedule will also help the editing process run quickly and smoothly. Without good planning, shooting and editing frequently can consume an inordinate portion of your budget.The shooting schedule is what the producer will use to develop a budget. Generally a more detailed treatment or script yields a more accurate budget estimate. The producer estimates the number of hours of shooting by totaling the quantity of different shooting locations and camera setups. Within each location there can be several camera setups. Each one usually involves setting up lights and planning each of the camera shots. Your budget should include your fees for production planning, writing, shooting, talent, editing, graphics, props, travel, and other budget items that may not be readily apparent. If you overhear producers talking about formulas for budgets based on the running time of a video, keep in mind that these formulas rarely work. A 30-second spot can cost more to produce than a 1-hour lecture video. Budgeting is a process of figuring out all the elements needed in your video and knowing how long each process takes.

After each production, note the actual time and expenses spent and compare those numbers to the budgeted amounts. If you determine the variance for each item, you will start to develop a system for better budgeting. For example: How much longer did it take to set up lights than you thought it would take? How much extra time did it take to pick up rental equipment and learn how to set up special gear? In postproduction, keep track of the number of edits you are able to complete in an hour and how long editing graphics and effects take. This data, collected over several productions, helps you become more accurate in your budget estimating.

When we speak of budget planning, we are talking about charging your client by the day and hour, not on a flat rate. Unless you have complete control of the script and the shooting, offering to produce a video for any set amount of money can result in you working for minimum wage—or less. There may be times when the client has a fixed amount of money to work with. Learning to estimate budgets will help you determine if the flat rate will be profitable for you. Before taking the flat-rate job, write down the amount of time you estimate for each phase of the proposed production. The total should not exceed the flat rate offered. If possible, it should come in lower than the flat rate in order to take care of unplanned expenses. If you do produce a video on a flat rate, make sure you tell your client the daily/ hourly rate for any changes he or she wants to make to the project.

Shooting
Talk with professional production coordinators. They can point out details you may encounter well before the shooting day. They look at the script and take care of some of the mundane things that can eat up precious time. Wardrobe, props, location permits, actors’ permissions, parking, and meals are some of the details that the creative producer can sometimes miss. Murphy’s Law reigns supreme on the shooting set. Try to anticipate whatever you think you will need and have contingencies and backup equipment to recover gracefully when things go wrong. Arrange for on-camera hosts and actors to bring extra wardrobe items. A few days before the shoot, let them know that such patterns as pinstripes or herringbone can cause interference with the television scan lines. Women should be advised to minimize eye shadow and rouge, due to the high-contrast imagery of video. Dangling necklaces can bang against a clip-on microphone.

If you will be filming an on-camera narrator or are going to shoot some talking head material, consider renting a teleprompter. The teleprompter uses a sheet of glass set at an angle over the lens that reflects text from a computer monitor. The talent appears to look directly in the lens, but he or she is really reading the text off of the reflecting glass. For lower-budget videos, cue cards may be used. The best way to handle cue cards is to hold them just above the camera lens. One way to make cue cards is to enlarge small amounts of text from your word processing software and print in the landscape mode on card stock.

poor man's teleprompter

Consider shooting with a green screen and chromakey software. The green color is replaced with a virtual background of your choice, and this can give your videos a livelier look than with a plain background. Just make sure your on-camera talent does not have any green in his or her clothing.

greenscreen

Learn some good lighting techniques, including using soft lights and reflectors. If the budget allows, hire a gaffer—a film lighting specialist. He or she will work magic to make your actors look their best while minimizing unwanted shadows. An art director or set designer can create a background and color scheme that delivers the style and panache that attract the attention of the viewer and complement the message.

Shooting Meetings and Corporate Events
With your skills at producing social event videos, recording conferences and seminars should be a snap. Busi- nesses and associations develop additional sources of revenue by selling DVDs and CDs of their educational programs. You can easily justify your fee to a client by putting together a simple proposal showing the expected revenue from selling your DVDs. If you can repurpose your videos by making audio CDs and encoding video for the company’s websites, that will provide an additional profit center for your new client.

If the seminar format includes a panel discussion, or if you need to record audience questions, two or three cameras will provide the best coverage. Make sure the cameras’ color and brightness settings are matched with one another. If you are shooting in a banquet hall, consider hiring an outside lighting company to set up lights on tall stands. Ask them to put diffusion filters on the lights to soften the image. If the budget allows, hire one or two sound recordists; they can hold shotgun mikes on fish poles to help you capture the audience’s questions.

If the presenters plan on showing PowerPoint slides or other projected images, try to obtain the graphics files, and edit them into the final video afterward. If that is not possible, a second camera can be used to get those images. For lower-budget meetings, a good camera operator can carefully pan and zoom between the presenter and the projection screen.

In order to record high-quality audio, you may want to tie into the auditorium’s PA system. This will be necessary if there is a panel discussion, audience questions, or several presenters. Arrange for access to the PA amplifier with the facility to get a clear feed, and bring along a line-to-mic adapter such as a direct box together with other audio adapters. If there is just a single presenter, that person can wear a wireless, clip-on microphone that will be used for the video camcorder.

Reserve the meeting room prior to the presentation, giving yourself enough time to set up your equipment. Take care of such issues as access to the building, parking, and exiting the building with your equipment. If lunch is being served to the participants, make arrangements to feed your video crew or allow for additional time for them to get to a restaurant to eat. Find out in advance if your client wants the crew to wear particular business attire. You don’t want them showing up wearing jeans if everyone else is wearing suits. Stage hands frequently wear all black; that way they blend in with the background and don’t draw attention to themselves.

You may record a conference at a hotel at which you have already videotaped a wedding or party reception. That can be a foot in the door when trying to make that sale to an organization if it is planning to hold its business meeting there. Telling corporate clients, “We have videotaped at that hotel many times,” can help ease their minds, making them feel comfortable enough to sign your contract. Your professional video equipment and the creative production techniques you learned as an event videographer make you well-suited to take on those corporate video projects.

Stu Sweetow (sweetow at avconsultants.com) runs Oakland, Calif.-based video production company Audio Visual Consultants. He taught video production at UC Berkeley Extension, was associate editor of Wedding and Event Videography, and was a contributing editor to Camcorder & Computer Video magazine.