Independent Producers Corner: Keep Your Virtual Toolbox Updated
by Dustin Dumas, Station Manager, SOMAtv, South Orange/Maplewood, NJ
In this column I regularly cover topics helpful to independent producers. Today’s column will cover some of the lessons I learned during the 2021 Eastern Video Expo that I will be placing in my virtual toolbox. I will focus on interviewing techniques, lighting and editing techniques.
Being able to tell the story means that interviewing skills are important. During the Expo, I learned some great strategies on how to tell a good story and was also reminded of strategies I currently use in telling a good story.
Be prepared and research your subject
An interview is not the place for you to “wing it” and hope for the best. The best way to engage is to know your subject. This means going beyond the fact sheet your guest sends. Learn about the industry and subject matter. You do not have to be an expert, but you should know enough to ask intelligent questions and engage your audience.
Ask “What happened next?”
A solid way to elicit an expansive answer is to ask, what happened next? This helps pull the story along in a linear fashion and it allows your subjects to tell the story at a pace that is comfortable for them. I have experienced a few interviews where my guest answered monosyllabically and asking this simple question would have elicited better responses.
Do a pre-interview
Part of being prepared is doing a pre-interview. This does not necessarily mean doing an actual interview but rather asking your guests what they would like to talk about. When you determine what they want to talk about, it will help you stay on topic and make sure you cover these areas if you find you are running out of time. Doing a pre-interview helps with a successful interview.
Do not ask the most important question first
This was a great piece of advice. How many times have you interviewed someone and asked all the important questions too early in the interview and the rest of the interview was anticlimactic? Asking the background questions that should have proceeded those important questions are not as engaging since you have already asked the most important questions.
Can you imagine having been granted an interview with the late Neil Armstrong and the first question is “What was it like to walk on the moon?” The questions that come after: Why did you decide to become an astronaut? How long was your training? Why were you the one to walk on the moon first? would pale in comparison.
Be silent after asking a question
Silence is important when asking a question. Sometimes an inexperienced interviewer will want to fill up every available moment with words since silence feels awkward, however, leaving that extra space may elicit a more thoughtful or sincere response.
One of the trickiest but most rewarding things to accomplish is good lighting. Lighting can take years off of subjects, create a mood or even tell a story. This session impressed how important lighting is beyond making sure that there is adequate lighting for the camera. Lighting can complement the story. The session was quite comprehensive, so I will focus on: using the correct lighting based on skin tone, storytelling and softening facial features.
It is rare that a studio adjusts the ceiling lights or even uses the floor fill lights for a show but doing so will improve the overall quality of your shows. For example, our studio often has guests who have both light and dark skin on the same show. Guests with lighter skin look fine as most lights and light set ups default to lighter skin. However, guests with darker skin should have extra light on the side, otherwise the skin can appear grayish and unnatural looking. Good lighting enables everyone to look natural and increases the overall quality of the production.
We were given great examples of how using shadows and darkness can help tell the story. We were shown video examples demonstrating how where the light was placed, (sides, back or front) in relationship to the subject, could create a story. For example, since the eyes follow the brightest point, wherever you place the light will physically lead the story in that direction. You can have a person seated and have a bright light to the left and the eyes will naturally be drawn in that direction. You can use light to create drama, fear or evoke other emotions you would like to use to tell a story. Using light and dark is a unique part of storytelling that is often overlooked.
Softer facial features
Everyone wants to look great on camera and depending on how well-rested your subject is, you can help them attain that rested look by how you light them. One strategy we learned was that if subjects have bags under their eyes, you can relax that look with correct light placement and a diffuser. In this case, you would place the diffused lights at ground level in front of the subject, pointing toward the face. This allows the face to soften, and it will not create a shadow on the face.
I was really looking forward to this session because I do a lot of editing for our studio, and I was looking forward to learning new techniques. This was another session with many good strategies so I will focus on the music because it was very interesting how they explained how important it is. Most independent producers have a music library available to them but how many know to correctly use music to create an engaging story?
The music you choose can create the overall mood of the production. Think about how the music from Sesame Street complements the series. Just as you would probably not put jovial music over a funeral scene, you would also not put typical funereal music over a children’s show intro. One thing I try to do when choosing music is to create an emotional feeling which is what the presenters recommended. One example that immediately comes to mind is Spike Lee’s use of jazz music in his movies. The tempo, the selection and the type of jazz music all align with what the audience sees. This not only helps to move the story along, but the music also helps tell the story.
Another thing mentioned in the session was that it is perfectly acceptable not to have any sound at all. I have used this when a sensitive subject has been addressed on an episode. Having no music is more impactful on what has just been viewed. The mind can focus on what has been seen instead of competing with music that does not add to the story.
As an independent producer, using the right type of music can let your audience know what to anticipate even before they see a frame, and silence can be just as powerful as a full orchestra if used correctly.
The presenters said that once editing is complete, then add the music. This was an excellent tip because until you have seen the finished product, you cannot fully expect to know how any music will fit in with the final edited video. You may have an overall idea of how the music will fit, but depending on the pace of the video, the end result can be quite different. Is the video capturing a national park with wildlife or is the video capturing an interview of a person graduating from college? The music for each of these videos is going to be different because the pace of each video will be very different. Another great suggestion was to set aside the entire project for a day and then come back to it. This is good advice for most projects but especially when you have been editing projects for long periods of time. This gives editors the ability to see things they may have missed by being so close to the project.
I have mentioned just some of the things I learned at the 2021 Eastern Video Expo that I will be placing in my virtual toolbox for future use, and I will be adding more tools as needed.
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.