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Been There, Done That, Made the Video
Been There, Done That, Made the Video

From b-roll and copyright issues to a school visit from Justin Bieber, this small communications shop has learned its lessons about creating multimedia the hard way

By Carlos Barroso


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Working at an independent boarding and day school can have its share of surprises, but standing onstage in April 2012 with Justin Bieber in a theater filled with screaming teens and tweens was something I never could have envisioned. And, musical taste aside, it's the last place I wanted to be.

As part of a two-person communications and marketing team at Saint Andrew's School in Florida, I would have preferred to use the multimedia skills I'd accumulated during the previous year to document the pop star's visit. Unfortunately, the teen icon's handlers had other ideas: No publicity whatsoever, including professional photos or video by anyone but a Team Bieber representative. Ouch.

So how did I make it work? Let me rewind a bit to explain my journey from video and multimedia novice to capable producer. As someone who's self-taught, I've experienced my share of successes and blunders. Here's what I've learned along the way.

Gearing up

In May 2011, Saint Andrew's was four months from starting its 50th year. I gave myself one year to integrate multimedia into the marketing mix for the golden anniversary celebration and beyond. I didn't want to be limited to video. Text, audio, photography, art, animation, and other forms of media are just as important to promoting our school's stories.

As I sat in my office, I remember thinking, How and where do I start? I looked at my desktop computer and saw a relic—a dinosaur akin to the giant machines of the 1960s. It was time for a change. Hello, Apple.

After begging my IT department for new equipment, I was like a kid at Christmas opening my inexpensive Sanyo flip cam and setting up my gleaming 27-inch iMac, which included the user-friendly video editing program iMovie. It seemed like my first video request came five minutes later. Could I shoot a video to celebrate the school reaching its $1.3 million annual fund goal? Gulp. Game on.

Keep it simple, stupid. That's what I repeated to myself as I brainstormed ideas. The academic year was about to end, so the pressure was on to get content. I scoured Google for inspiration and found a short, sweet example of an annual fund thank you video created by another Florida independent school. My strategy was set: Film cute kids on campus saying thank you. Since most donors to our prekindergarten through 12th-grade school are current parents, I figured that filming our smiling students thanking people for supporting Saint Andrew's would be perfect.

I spent a couple days shooting and editing. At the end of June, the annual fund director emailed the donors a link to the video on our website. Donors were happy. Mission accomplished. I rejoiced for a few moments, then took stock of my first foray into video.

  • Show, don't tell. Rather than starting with statements about reaching our goal, we went straight to what mattered most to our parent donors: their smiling, happy kids. Remember, fundraising is always about the donor, not the institution.
  • Convey the message quickly and simply. Even though our unrestricted annual fund raises money for several different parts of our school budget, we didn't weigh the message down with unnecessary details.
  • Natural light is your friend. I took advantage of the warm, sunny Florida weather and shot the video outside, in part because I didn't know anything about properly lighting a video. Ambient light, whether outdoors or inside streaming through a window, helps produce a more realistic, natural look.
  • Get students' perspective. Since many of the students are shorter than I am, I often got down on my knees to film at their eye level.
  • Keep it brief. The video lasted 55 seconds. I figured most of the audience would have a limited attention span since they were receiving the email during summer vacation. Regardless of the season, shorter is generally better when it comes to video. According to the online video hosting and analytics company Wistia, 50 percent more people will finish watching a one-minute video than a two-minute video. (The Wistia site also offers a free learning center with tips on video production, strategy, and marketing. I use it often.)
  • Get a good music source. I used a royalty-free MP3 sound file as background music for this video, but I knew moving forward that I would need a good source for licensed music.
I want a four-part series

After the success of the thank you video, our alumni officer called with his own request for the fall 2011 semester: a four-part interview series with longtime faculty members who are popular with alumni. Oh, great. How do I plan this one?

After some storyboarding, I shot the videos during the next couple months. In each one, our alumni officer would interview a different faculty member. Upon completing the last of the four, I reviewed each of them and cringed a bit. The reasons:

  • B-roll is important. During the interviews, the master shots focusing on the alumni officer and faculty member went too long without switching to a cutaway shot or using b-roll-supporting shots and scenes that provide context and continuity for your story. Using b-roll would have helped drive the narrative.
  • Sound quality matters. You could hear hissing and echoing throughout all four videos. Unfortunately, the flip cam didn't have an audio input. Oops. I needed to learn more about getting good sound.
  • Apply the rule of thirds. I tended to center my shots. Using the time-tested photography principle of placing the subject off-center would have created a more pleasing effect.
  • Remember the law of diminishing returns. Despite the long hours of filming and editing, I ended up with a subpar video series. Travis Warren, president and founder of WhippleHill, a New Hampshire–based online communications consultancy for independent schools, gave me some good advice: With my lack of experience, I needed to stop trying to produce A+ work each time and realize that B+ videos likely were good enough for my audience. They were tough words to hear for a communications director who prides himself on making things look perfect, but the guidance helped me adjust my perspective and forgive myself as I experimented.
What do you mean I can't use that song?

As I gained more experience, I set up a school YouTube channel, giving myself and a lower school faculty member—who also produces videos—administrative rights to upload content. Late one evening in fall 2011, I got an email from YouTube disputing our use of a copyrighted piece of music. What?! Perplexed, I emailed my colleague and learned that he had received written permission from the artist to use the song. Phew.

Once I uploaded the artist's consent the next morning, I vowed to learn more about copyright law, fair use, and YouTube's Content ID program. After doing some research and becoming more well-versed on these topics, I found RoyaltyFreeMusic.com. I paid $700 for an annual subscription, which includes as many as 30 downloads and 300 sound effects a month, and I've used the service ever since. One of the site's best features: You can search for background music based on genre or mood. Another option is YouTube's Audio Library, which offers more than 150,000 royalty-free music tracks sorted by genre.

What do you mean you need a video by tomorrow?!

Soon it was December 2011 and holiday break was fast approaching. I was finalizing some end-of-year communications when the chief information officer stopped by. The school would implement a new technology plan for the 2012–2013 academic year, and administrators wanted to quickly inform parents about it. Leadership team members suggested a video. For a technology plan? What could I shoot?

Students and faculty were preparing for exams. School leaders wanted the video ASAP—meaning yesterday. Then an idea struck. Forget video. I would create a multimedia presentation that incorporated text, photos, and music but make it feel like a video with Mac's Keynote program, which is similar to PowerPoint but a bit easier to navigate. The end result was a short, informative presentation that explained the rationale and goals of the school's technology plan by featuring questions and answers that moved across the screen accompanied by pictures of students working with digital devices. This experience taught me to challenge myself to combine different types of media.

Remember what your audiences can do

In spring 2012, Saint Andrew's was ready to roll out the second iteration of its mobile website, and school administrators knocked on my door because they wanted to let smartphone users know about the latest features. Screencasts are a useful how-to teaching tool, so I used TechSmith's Jing—a free service that lets users capture onscreen images and share them online—to record myself navigating through the site. Just before I began the online broadcast, a colleague advised me to speak slowly, since English is not every parent's first language. (Saint Andrew's students come from 25 different countries.)

I recorded the screencast, but I didn't receive much feedback from parents after I sent a link to the file. I understood why some of my colleagues were ribbing me about the presentation when I listened to the screen­cast again. I talked too much in the beginning, and I didn't engage the audience by maneuvering the screen arrow or clicking on a feature until 30 seconds into the recording. I also spoke way too slowly (sounding a bit like Kermit the Frog) to ensure people could understand me. I should have recognized that viewers could replay any part of the recording if necessary.

When the Biebs comes to campus

In April 2012, a trio of tween Saint Andrew's siblings won an online challenge made by Bieber to raise the most money for Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit organization that builds schools and increases educational opportunities in economically developing countries. The prize: a school visit from Bieber. I was overjoyed, knowing that the publicity would boost our marketing efforts. I devised a media strategy, which included hiring an outside communications firm and a professional videographer to document the event. Things were looking great until the final conference call with the pop star's team, which nixed any publicity.

When the big day arrived, however, word of our famous guest had leaked through our students and parents. Every Florida news outlet imaginable called my phone number. The local newspaper led with the headline "OMG! Boca Raton school gets Bieber visit," causing a large crowd to gather outside our campus entrance.

Bieber wasn't scheduled to perform, but he did ask the hundreds of students gathered in the theater to help him sing one of his tunes. And I couldn't record any of it! Disappointed, that evening I turned on the TV to see the local news showing crowdsourced amateur videos from audience members. No one had said anything about banning students from taking photos or videos with their digital devices. Local news value trumped the poor-quality footage, leading several stations to broadcast some of the clips, including one that has reached more than 114,000 views on YouTube.

The ubiquity of smartphones can be a double-edged sword in a school environment, but it worked to our advantage in this case. I held up my end of the bargain by not promoting the appearance ahead of time, but I quickly went online to mark the cellphone videos as favorites so that they would appear on the school's YouTube channel. This experience reinforced two crucial points: Authenticity can outweigh production value. And our constituents, who constantly use their mobile devices to document and share events, can be an institution's best ambassadors.

Don't be afraid to upgrade

By 2013, it was time to invest in new equipment. I was ready to graduate to cameras with more capabilities and a professional-grade video editing program. I did some research and purchased a Canon Vixia camcorder and a Canon EOS Rebel DSLR digital camera to shoot at a higher resolution with a shallower depth of field. I also added a fluid head tripod, lavalier and shotgun microphones, and Final Cut Pro X software to my toolbox. These items give my shots better stability and motion, improved sound quality, and dynamic editing capability. My equipment buying advice? Don't be afraid to upgrade; but you're not Steven Spielberg, so there's no need to go too high-end either.

I also knew that I needed more training. I've gleaned great tips and tricks from Wistia's Learning Center and Lynda.com, a paid-subscription service that helps users learn video production techniques and other skills through video tutorials. I've also developed a network of video professionals I can tap for advice, such as Justin Hearn from Lynn University in Florida, Mitchell Powers from the University of Virginia, and Miami-based multimedia photographer Tom Salyer.

My efforts have led to higher-quality videos with more entertainment value; sharper resolution; and better branding, such as the inclusion of the Saint Andrew's logo and tag line at the beginning and end of each project. A November 2013 video demonstrating how one of our fifth-grade teachers uses Skype in the classroom was showcased on the education section of the company's website and shared on its social media channels. In January 2014, my multimedia slideshow about a student's love for math was highlighted by national math honor society Mu Alpha Theta. The end result feels like a video because I combined high-resolution photography with the subject's voice and classroom sound effects in ways that make viewers feel like they're present. This kind of mixture brings life to the storytelling process when you're not using traditional video footage.

The learning continues

My school's demand for multimedia seems to grow exponentially. I've tried to learn lessons from each misstep and success, which have helped build confidence in my ability to produce quality multimedia projects in-house. But I'm also wise enough to know when it's time to hand a larger job over to a professional videographer.

I take risks, when appropriate. I've learned not to get sucked in to spending too much time on projects and how to live with an imperfect final product. And I know that I still have much to learn about producing multimedia. Mastering the art of lighting, thanks to some help from Lynda.com, is the next item on my to-do list. Wish me luck. But if I can do it, so can you.

About the Author Carlos Barroso Carlos Barroso

Carlos Barroso is the director of marketing and communications at Saint Andrew's School in Florida.

 

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