Dustin Dumas, Producer, Station Manager, SOMA-TV
What do poor lighting, indecipherable audio, busy backgrounds and improperly set video cameras have in common, they make poorly produced shows, every time. This is never what you want for your show if you can prevent it and, fortunately, it is something that can be prevented with a little preparation and knowledge.
I am Dustin Dumas and I have been part of community television stations in Illinois, California and New Jersey so I have covered both coasts and the Midwest. I have seen many different styles of television production and have learned a lot along the way. I am a host, producer and station manager; however, in this column I am focusing on independent producers. While this information will certainly help independent producers, it will also help others who want to elevate the production quality of their shows. Since most stations that are producing community shows during the Pandemic are taping virtually, I will address that form of taping in this column.
Online Web Conference Tools
First, let us discuss the web conference services available. Choose one that you are comfortable with and then make sure your guest is comfortable with that specific tool. Every web conference tool has its own nuances and it is best to know where basic things are, such as the mute button, how to select gallery view versus speaker view and other basic functions. Since most independent producers will have dual responsibilities, as both host and engineer for a show, go over the specific buttons so you know where they are before taping. After you have decided on the best web conference tool for your show, walk your guests through the technology. Never assume that they understand how to use that tool even if they have been using the same technology for months during virtual meetings. Passive users who use that same tool during a meeting, may be flummoxed by something as simple as screen sharing during a live taping so go over any function of the particular web conferencing tool you will use. Now that you have decided on the tool you will use, let’s cover four important aspects of a successful web conference taping: audio, video, background and lighting.
The independent producer no longer has the convenience of being in the studio where the audio is handled by the studio engineer. In the past all that was required was a mic check from the control room. You, and your guests, are now responsible for determining the best audio for your show. Whether you use an internal mic or an external mic, test the mic before taping, always. Even if your mic quality is fine, your guests now have to determine the audio quality of their mics, something they may not know how to do without assistance. Since some guests may choose wireless versus wired headphones, check audio equipment for sound consistency. I have had to help guests find their mic settings to adjust them since most have never had to deal with this. However, as an independent producer, it behooves you to make sure all participants understand how to adjust their audio settings to get the best quality end product. There is nothing more frustrating to viewers who have to hear several rounds of “Can you hear me?” when this could have been avoided with a mic check before taping.
Now that independent producers have become consultants for their own shows, they have to manage everything before every virtual taping, including video. I prefer the external video cameras since cameras that are built into laptops and monitors were never intended to be used for taping television shows. Using internal cameras, may result in letterboxing, pixelation or a myriad of other things that will diminish the quality of your overall show. The good thing is that external video cameras are relatively inexpensive with many being under $50.00. So a small investment can elevate the overall quality of your show. However, if a built-in camera is the only option, make sure it is set to the best quality available for your device. This could mean, for example, going from 540p to 720p if 720 is your max.
Another reason to choose external cameras is that they usually include a mic. The microphone in an external camera may be superior to the internal microphone of your device. Just as you would test your microphone, test your camera before you tape a show and assist your guests in testing their cameras too. Your guests may not be used to adjusting the video settings but it will increase the overall quality of your video. In addition to checking the video settings, ensure a great video by placing the camera so that each person is in the center of the frame and is looking straight into the video, not leaning down or looking up. The viewers should not be able to see the ceiling or the floor, just the person in the frame, straight on. This will make a huge difference when taping a show. A head and shoulders picture is best as it will allow for postproduction edits such a lower third titling. If the subject is too close to the camera, the lower third titles may be across the subject’s chin or neck. If the camera is too far from the subject’s face, the lower third titling could be across the subject’s stomach. A solid head and shoulders shot will ensure that lower third titles will be placed properly in your video. And never underestimate the usefulness of a good lens cloth. I once had the experience of helping a guest adjust his camera settings, to find that there was still a haze over the entire picture. I suggested that he wipe the lens and that cleared everything up, pun intended. Seriously though, some of the most basic housekeeping can result in better image quality.
Some web conferencing tools will allow everything from virtual backgrounds to added animation. My focus today is on the real backgrounds. If you and your guests have taken the time to dress appropriately and check the equipment, ensure your room is camera ready. This means both you and your guests must be aware that what is seen in the background will be seen on television. An unkempt background will have viewers wondering what is in the corner instead of focusing on what is being said and may actually decrease your credibility. A jackhammer may have viewers thinking about possible renovations, an unmade bed may have viewers wondering if that speaker just woke up and cases of paper products may have viewers assuming that you have just returned from Costco. These are all examples of things that I have seen and wondered about myself.
Avoid lopsided shows where the host has prepared a great background but the guest’s background looks messy and disorganized. It will not only diminish the credibility of the guest but lowers the overall production quality of your show. It is up to you to speak with your guest about the importance of a neat background. I have seen many otherwise good shows, ruined due to a messy background by one of the parties involved in the taping. It is fine to show your personality in your background but just keep it neat. Taping in front of a plain wall is fine too. It’s clean and will ensure that viewers focus on your every word.
Last, but not least, is lighting. I cannot emphasize enough that lighting works in concert with the other elements discussed above and is just as important. The light source should come from in front of the subject and, if possible, include light sources on either side of the subject and above, for balance. If in doubt, turn on every light source you have, overhead, in front and on the sides. I have yet to see a video that has too much light so always err on the side of what you perceive as too much light as opposed to too little light. You can always look at your monitor to see how you appear. We no longer have the studio lights, which are more powerful and brighter than anything we have in our homes, so when in doubt, add more light. In addition, in lower light, most cameras will attempt to brighten the video and the tradeoff may be a slightly brighter but grainy video which never looks good. If you have a subject who is completely silhouetted in a video, that is usually due to backlighting without an equivalent front light source. A window will create such a silhouette. A simple and easy way to prevent this is to reposition the camera and subject so that the natural light source is in front of the subject or add a light in front of the subject and on the sides to balance out the backlight.
Audio, video, background and lighting are a few of the many things that an independent producer must focus on when taping outside of the studio. But if these four areas are done well, the final show will be successful look great and the information from you and your guest will be well received.
Dustin Dumas is the host and producer of Dustin’s Kaleidoscope and What’s Up Around Town. She is the station manager of SOMA (South Orange Maplewood) Television and serves as Vice Chair on the Jersey Access Group, External Relations Committee.