Six things I learned on my last TV show

In November, Powderhouse, a hot production company where I’d produced some TV shows a while back, called me and asked if I’d like to produce a quickie series of shows for Plum, a “multi-platform lifestyle network.” By “quickie,” I mean really rapid-fire — the first shoot day would be after I’d put in only 5 days on the job.

I said yes, and the whirlwind revved up. Welcome, Ron, to “Masters of Innovation,” a series about cutting-edge technology and how it’s going to affect our lives.

Even if you’re a veteran of the biz, you can learn a lot on any new assignment, especially if the calendar pages are flipping by so fast there’s no time for mistakes. Here are six things I learned — or re-learned — from about two months on the series. I’m telling you about them because they’ll be relevant if you want to make better online videos.

1) Every member of the team is key. Of course the host is key, because he or she is so visible — every instant of performance is subject to scrutiny. Fortunately, Jim Brasher loved the subject of the shows and really came through for us. But my point here is that  Steve Barker, the assistant editor, was also totally crucial; if he hadn’t performed way beyond his job description, we all would have been in trouble.

2) Organize, then organize some more. In video production, things will go wrong — a missed flight, an equipment breakdown. Since some things are beyond your control, it’s important to have everything you can control be nailed down properly. Do you have all of tomorrow’s interviewees’ cellphone numbers as well as their office numbers? Does your sound recordist know the best place to park? Luckily, associate producer Jessie Ward was even more compulsive about these details than I was.

closeup of my story notes3) Never lose sight of the story. Before each day’s shoot I made sure to list all the story elements I wanted to capture on tape. While filming, I kept consulting this crib sheet and scribbling more notes about things I wanted to shoot.

Tod Machover demoing "Chandelier"4) They’re called movies because they move. This may seem obvious, but it’s not. On “Masters of Innovation,” Jim interviewed a whole bunch of people, many of whom did demos — showing him everything from snake-like robots to iPad apps. When we started editing, we saw that there was often too much static talking before they dove into the action of the demo. That was boring. So, we moved the demos as close to the top of the story as we could. A lot of the palaver just disappeared. Much more fun to watch!

Close-up of small soccer-playing robot5) Remember the close-ups. I say this, because we didn’t, at least not on Day One. Sure, we shot some close-ups, but we were constantly rushing and we didn’t get enough, and the editors found their hands tied by this shortfall. Mercifully, we were able to go back and film the missing shots … and we made sure to get plenty from then on.

6) Stock footage and stills can save your story. Maybe you can be too rich or too thin, but you can never have too much B-roll. The lifeblood of video storytelling is B-roll, but sometimes there’s just not much to shoot, or you don’t have time or budget to shoot enough. That’s where stock footage and stills can make the difference between dull and delightful. On “Masters of Innovation,” we had a minuscule budget for stock, but some of the labs where we shot had produced their own videos and photos. We begged them for every bit of relevant footage, and bought a few shots where there was no other option. I could hardly believe how much of a difference adding this material made. On your next shoot, maybe the folks you’re filming have snapshots, videos or graphics they’ll let you use. (Make sure they have the rights to whatever they give you. You don’t want to use pirated stuff!)

I hope I’ve piqued your curiosity about the shows themselves. You can watch any of the four episodes of “Masters of Innovation” online if you click on the title screen below.

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