DIY or professional?
A consideration of the pros and cons of in-house video production:
DIY video production can work well when the main objective is to get people involved in a process, have fun, make something for friendly audiences already “onside” with your message and not needing a lot of persuading - like making a home movie, at work.
Where your objective is to make a video that will interest a more challenging or external audience and perhaps influence their attitudes or behaviour - typical reasons for being willing to commit budget and time to producing communications material - approach DIY with caution.
If you have video experts on staff, DIY can be an excellent choice. Otherwise, if you can afford it, go professional. If money is tight, find a producer who can work to your low budget. Attempting DIY without specialists on staff is likely to to produce poor results, and to be more expensive, slower and more frustrating than you realise at the outset.
There’s a school of thought that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. With communications, this is undoubtedly true. If your audience and your communications objective are worth the time and trouble it will cost you to prepare and distribute video for them, you probably want that video to be as effective as it can be. Your audiences deserve it.
Trickle or flood?
Where an organisation is to commission a regular flow of video productions, it can make good business sense to identify the skills needed and recruit accordingly. Opinions vary, though, as to whether better results (in cost and communications effectiveness) are achieved by developing specialist buyers who know the processes and the production market, or by bringing the various technical skills in-house.
If less regular production is envisaged, the balance changes. The staff time needed to carry out the work, learning on the job, will come at a cost. It’s likely, too, that you will end up paying for more equipment (sound, lights, camera support) and software (edit, graphics, output) than you realise at the outset.
And beyond mechanics and costs, there are bigger pitfalls for the in-house video producer.
Write for your audience
Your staff are probably steeped in your organisation, its values and its jargon.
It may be hard for them to take a step back, to see things afresh as the audience does. Yet this objectivity can be helpful in planning how best to present your message to a (usually) sceptical audience. And if your in-house team do achieve an excellent, audience friendly perspective, their managers can find it harder to accept unwelcome truths from staff members than from carefully selected specialist suppliers.
The devil’s bargain
For the producer, this takes away the need to spend time researching your audience and message - and the costs involved. So the producer can quote a lower price.
Sometimes, producers seek business advantage by offering a production service based on your organisation providing the script. This can be a quick route to a sale.
This is also likely to remove from consideration at script stage the essential balancing of production resources in service of overall objectives for the video.
Unless you have a professional video script writer on staff, this approach is likely to be a mistake. The script, and the production approach it embodies, are key central planning tools for your production. It’s very hard to make a decent video without a good script..
A professional writer or producer, probably, will want to consider a variety of possible approaches, and weigh them for likely impact, memorability, fit with your audience and organisation, cost and practicality. She will want to consider all aspects of your message as well as available resources, and make sure that your budget is spent where it will have most impact in delivering your message to your audience.
Your in-house communications team probably does not have skills or experience in this field that anyone outside your organisation would pay for. Writing for video is different from writing for print.
If you are committed to using a producer who asks you to supply the script, then you should consider engaging a professional scriptwriter for the task.
Full service production
If you take on a video producer, he or she will work with and for you to arrange an appropriate package, typically including script, location planning, camerawork and lighting, sound recording, any performers, props, settings and costume needed, specialist video or motion graphics, library image sourcing, editing, music sourcing and rights clearances, and outputting to appropriate distribution media. The producer will plan with your budget in mind.
She will probably find or use people with the skills and experience to be hireable for the specialist tasks needed - something that can be hard for the DIY producer to achieve. He should be able to deliver you a professional-level result, in line with sample productions showed you in your selection process. The overall cost, allowing for staff time, is likely to be lower than you could achieve in house for similar quality.
Some time ago, I had the (genuine) pleasure of coming in late as a script and production consultant for a video project for a large multinational. This was a project with a substantial budget.
The company’s reason for seeking an outside consultant was simple: a similar exercise had been undertaken in previous years, and the results, by the senior managers’ description, had been boring and disappointing for the audience. Could the same people following the same processes produce different results this time?
Half a loaf
The problem quickly became apparent. Most of the major production arrangements were in place. The communications team had hired a production company, but kept all script and directing responsibility in house. With deep knowledge of their organisation and a commendable appetite for hard work but with little professional video background or training, the team had done its best. But the results were not good. Most professional production companies would not have accepted or submitted the work produced. (Not a frame of their various productions for this client made it to the production company showreel.)
For the version I worked on, I was able to raise a number of points in group discussions that led to significant improvements - on completion I had a charming and congratulatory thank-you e-mail from the senior manager involved. Yet both the production company and I know that the results could still have been so much better, for the time and money spent.
The halo effect
Not wanting to bring in professional help for the crucial editorial and managerial roles of programme making is not unique, and there may be a perceived cost element to some such decisions. Often, though, they appear to based on either (charming if misplaced) confidence that expertise in one area will seep across to film-making, or on a failure to recognise that writing, directing and producing programmes are indeed skills. If carefully chosen, professional programme makers are your key to getting just the kind of programme that you want, that works for your audiences, at a better cost than you will achieve if working directly with camera crews, graphics houses, music suppliers, edit facilities and other specialist services.
Lipstick on a pig
A familiar variant on this is the request to apply polish to already-produced amateur material. Two quick if painful examples:
A smaller advertising agency brought in nearly three hours of self-shot video for a health and safety project, looking for a price to turn this into a three minute programme. After a review of their audience and communications objectives, we settled in together to look at the material - which turned out to be truly “home movie” standard. There were barely 30 seconds of usable picture - stable, in focus, adequately exposed, showing a subject relevant to audience and objective. The project team faced the stark and unwelcome choice of having poor visual wallpaper over a voice track, or of generating new visuals. A mix of new animated graphics and fresh filming was the eventual choice.
A software company made contact, wishing to fix a long, poorly received customer training video they had made. Their request was for a camera session to reshoot the screen shots of software in use, and the supply of a professional voice-over to replace the company trainer’s spoken commentary. On review, the reasons for the poor reception of their material were obvious. The footage was fuzzy - the screens were unreadable. And the presenter, an in-company trainer, rambled, you-knowed and erred his way through a strangely chosen subset of the software’s features and likely user operations. The remedy: identify the types of user the software was for, watch users with the software, find out from users what their typical objectives were, and produce a series of short, focused, professionally-voiced, screen-capture based videos explaining just the steps needed for the most popularly requested tasks.
Story story story, or the audience’s lament
A well-known company made contact after discovering a (barely catalogued) archive of several hundred old, black-and white photos, and determining that these could make a suitable intro for a high-profile global management conference celebrating a company anniversary.
Concerted efforts by a writer / producer team (with a strong record with the client) failed to persuade the buyer that simply putting the photos together, edited to a music track, would not be enough to produce a suitable conference opener... Job lost.
Many weeks later, conference day looming, the buyer is back - with a dismally boring 5 minutes of photos edited to music. The buyer is all too aware that, at best, this might be usable as the visual equivalent of muzak, as background in the coffee breaks, but would be desperately disappointing as an event opener. Faced with poor results, she’d reviewed her processes - and realised that perhaps she should have looked for a story to interest her audience that could be told using the newly discovered photos. With the conference then imminent, the best fix that could be managed was to shorten, tighten and enliven what was there - a patch of the programme as presented, not a patch on what it could have been.
At worst, this fear of allowing outsiders into the circle discussing the editorial elements of video creation can cause damage.
On one unfortunate occasion, I was faced with the stark choice of quitting a project - nothing I said could persuade a company that it could not call Russia a part of Africa in a video destined for a broad public, whatever their organigram showed. Faced with the disruption of losing their producer mid-programme, we were able finally to negotiate something acceptable to us both - which included no silly geography.
Another time, a multinational was well aware that some of its senior managers were not coming across as well as their peers and competitors, and asked for outside help - direction on the day of the shoot, which was already booked with an in-house crew and a teleprompter. So, standard preparation - discuss audiences and objectives, look at past tapes of the performer and others from the company, talk to the crew, ask to see any script, talk to the performer.
Past performances were wooden, rabbit-in-headlights painful. There was no script as yet - the performer, a main board director, would provide his own on the day. The public relations team felt he would be too busy for a meeting prior to the shoot, and that he would not accept script input.
Bad news. Clearly, this smart and thoughtful person had not had media training. An emergency call to his office and a chat with his PA later, the performer called back, with a detailed idea of what he’d like to put across. He was more than happy to discuss it - he knew the problem. After talking it through, he was delighted to have his message condensed and polished into a small stream of its key elements - and cut to a quarter of its original length. Given the choice of learning these short passages or of improvising around his key themes a section at a time for subsequent editing, he opted for the latter. On the day, he delivered with passion and clarity. Yet organisational etiquette dictated that no-one offer opinions to the directors - just take notes and follow instructions. This in-house inhibition on giving the independent, objective advice so needed had left the directors desperately exposed. Trying to read long, complex prose pieces from a teleprompter is a challenge for even the most experienced of presenters, and a potential disaster for the non-expert. Normally, such material is rewritten into an appropriate spoken style before recording.
With corporate communications, it’s all too easy to overlook how differently the world outside may view your organisation and its messages, and to produce material that preaches only to the already converted. This risks boring, alienating or unintentionally amusing those outside of the commissioning organisation’s inner circle - probably including your target audiences.
If your audience and objective are worth the time and resources it will take you to get them to watch your video, probably you want that video to be as effective as it can be. If you can’t show them something worth watching, why waste their time and yours showing them anything.
After all, “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”.