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Independent Producer Corner: Four Ridiculously Simple Things That Will Increase the Production Quality of Virtual Shows

By Dustin Dumas

As we slowly return to in-person studio shoots, there will still be many who may not be able to return to the studio and some who will prefer the flexibility of filming outside of the studio. That’s great but what elements are important in virtual video production. In this column I will discuss network connectivity, camera phones, clothing, B-roll and images.

Network – Keeping It Connected

Producing a show outside of the studio has its own unique set of challenges but when taping a show via a web conferencing tool, there are additional challenges, especially when striving to create a product comparable to one taped in the studio. One way to get the highest quality product is ensuring your network is operating at maximum capacity. While having Wi-Fi is nice and very convenient, when shooting a show virtually, the stability of your Internet is extremely important to the overall production quality. It is best to be connected “straight into the wall” as opposed to using Wi-Fi. Some of the issues with Wi-Fi are that during taping, the frame may freeze, the video and audio may become unsynchronized or the connection may drop altogether. These are not things you want to have happen during your taping, especially if this can be prevented by connecting your cable directly into the wall to your device. You may still have issues with direct connectivity, but your chances are significantly reduced compared to relying solely on Wi-Fi. There are so many other things to worry about when taping virtually, your connectivity should not be one of them.

Internet cable plugged into wall

On the other hand, if you have to use Wi-Fi because you are unable to connect a cable to your device, disable all other unnecessary devices connected to your Wi-Fi while taping. If you are familiar with your router and it has an app, many will allow you to prioritize devices. This is useful when disconnecting other devices is unavailable to you. By prioritizing the device (Computer, iPad, iPhone, etc.) you will be using to tape, this will allow that device to have the strongest connectivity. However, ideally, disconnecting other devices that will be competing for the same bandwidth is ideal.

Regardless of whether you are using Wi-Fi or are plugged into the wall, do a test run before your actual taping to ensure everything is set up as you want. Things may still not go as planned but with a little preliminary work, you can, at the very least, prevent a major mishap.

Camera Phones – Use What You Have

Independent producers continue to have to use resources outside of the studio and many times that means using the camera that they have. And in many cases that means their phones. If you had told me five years ago that producers would be relying on the device that they had in their pockets as a means of producing a show, I would have wrinkled my brow and thought that it did not seem feasible. My thinking would have been that phone camera videos are a novelty where you can shoot a low-resolution clip of an event and send it to on to a friend but would have nowhere near the quality of an in-studio production. Well, here we are in 2021 and not only have circumstances prevented us from using the perfectly good equipment in the studio for the last year but the camera phones available today are excellent! My phone has 4K capabilities and there is already a next generation phone after it! If you will be using your phone for taping, there are a few things to consider. Storage is one. 4K videos are huge and if you do not have enough storage on your phone, it does not matter if you use 4k if you can only store 5 minutes on your phone. Determine if the highest resolution available is the best solution for you, otherwise, use a resolution that is compatible with the storage capacity of your phone and the requirements of airing on television, such as high definition (HD).

The other consideration is the orientation of your phone. Unless you are going for an artsy look and want to have black bars on either side of your footage when it airs on television, turn your camera so that it is in landscape mode, not portrait. That simple 180 degree rotation turns your footage from one a concertgoer may have taken to footage that may be indistinguishable from something shot in a television studio. Shooting in landscape mode increases the overall production quality of your end product and makes it look more professional. I have used footage from my phone in HD and 4K on television and no one knew it was shot on the phone due to the quality of the footage. However, there are other things to consider, such as audio and lighting, which I have covered in a previous column.  The bottom line is you can shoot great footage with the camera you have as long as it meets the specifications for where it will air.

Clothing –What Not To Wear

Virtual taping is new to many of us and one thing we may not be used to is the head and shoulder shot that is inherent in taping with virtual web conferencing tools. As a consequence, be aware of clothing that may have unintended consequences. In a taping that I did early on, after we had decided to tape shows virtually, I wore a blouse with thin shoulder straps. The unintended effect of having my hair over the straps was that it looked as though I was topless. Seeing the obvious faux pas early in the taping, I was able to correct it, but it reminded me that even clothing choices had to be thought out carefully to ensure that the production quality stayed the same. My choice of clothing would not have been a problem with our traditional studio shot but because our shots were all head and shoulder shots, my clothing choices had to be approached differently.

In addition to making sure your clothing choices do not make you look nude, if you choose to use a green screen, be aware that your clothing choices will make parts of you disappear depending on if there is green in your outfit. This has always been the case but because you don’t need an actual green screen on some of these web conference tools, people have forgotten that they cannot wear green. Choosing your clothing for a virtual taping has to be intentional due to the restricted frame space and color limitations if you choose to use a green screen. One thing that people have been taking advantage of is that you do not have to wear the accompanying skirt or pants when wearing a suit jacket so that is even more of an incentive to make sure that everything in the camera frame looks great since you do not have to worry about the bottom.

B-Roll and Images

Unlike being in a studio where you can have performers and multi-camera shots to create movement and visual energy to a show, taping shows virtually usually becomes talking heads talking straight on in square boxes. Unless the people are famous, charismatic or have a huge fan base, you are going to have to keep the attention of the audience. The number one way is to tell a great story and have a compelling discussion; however, there are a few ways to enhance the story that only take a few more minutes of preparation.

The first way is inserting images. For example, let’s say the show is about a new electric car that is coming to the market. The people discussing the car may talk about the specifications of the car such as the time it takes to get from 0-60, the horsepower, the green footprint of the car and more. These are all nice things to verbally describe the car but when an image is inserted at the very instance when the car is being described, the audience not only hears about the car but they are now able to see the car. This impact on the viewers takes the car from a theoretical concept to an actual physical car. They now have an image that allows them to see the size of the car, the shape and even the color of the car. Now your audience is more accurately able to understand this specific car and, thus, become more engaged in the story that you are telling.

Now let’s take it one step further and talk about B-Roll. B-Roll is additional footage that complements the current discussion. Using the example above where there is a new electric car coming to market and it is being described beautifully, now, instead of inserting an image, you insert a video clip of the same electric vehicle in motion. Now, as the car is being described, you audience gets to see the size of the car, the color and the shape. However, they also get to see just how fast the car is, as it speeds away, along with the screeching of the tires with smoking rising, if audio is included. The viewers are treated to being able to see the movement of the car and the sounds of the car. The B-Roll footage provides additional information to the audience that complements the discussion and makes for a fuller, more engaging story to keep your viewers engaged, interested and excited. This is what you want as a storyteller!

Inserting images and B-Roll can be as simple as inserting an author’s book image when she is saying the title of her book or inserting a few seconds of B-Roll from the author’s book signing. The reason to insert B-Roll and images is to keep your viewers engaged, connected and enhance the story you are telling.

As independent producers, understanding how network connectivity, camera phones, clothing, B-Roll and images can produce a high-quality product that will keep your audience engaged is important. All of these pieces working in concert, can assist in telling a wonderful and powerful story.

Dustin Dumas is the host and producer of Dustin’s Kaleidoscope and What’s Up Around Town. She is the station manager of South Orange Maplewood Television (SOMAtv) and serves as Vice Chair on the Jersey Access Group, External Relations Committee. She has been part of community television stations in Illinois, California and New Jersey and enjoys helping people tell their stories.