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Meeting the challenges of creating a training video

By Geoff Hart and Marc Proulx (marc@thirdwavestudios.com)

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2005. Creating professional-quality training videos. Intercom February:18–22.

It's not always possible to travel to attend a training session, nor is it always possible to travel to deliver that training if you're the trainer. Budgets are tight, time is an increasingly scarce resource, and for corporate training in particular, it may be impractical to take a large group of trainees (such as technical support staff) away from their jobs simultaneously. But there's a solution: training videos. By combining the human interest of a videotaped instructor with the cost savings from not having to travel to attend or deliver a course, and by letting students take the course when it's most convenient for them, videos can represent a good investment.

A well-designed video provides effective training at the student's own pace, and lets a single trainer reach a much larger market than would be possible through live workshops. There's even some evidence that many students learn better or retain more knowledge from videos that follow sound instructional-design principles because the presentation stimulates multiple senses and provides a richer, more memorable experience than static text in a manual or software-only onscreen tutorials. Although books and onscreen demonstration or tutorial software can still be effective, they lack a human context (the presence of the trainer in the video) and thus, have a harder time retaining the interest of students.

In April 2004, Marc Proulx spoke to STC Montreal about his new career in producing training videos. In Marc's experience, video-based training has increased customer satisfaction even compared with the successful series of training manuals his company sells. This article is based on Marc's presentation. Note that it focuses on the brass tacks of producing videos rather than on how to apply the principles of instructional design to the task of producing a training video.

Selecting the topic

The first step is to select an appropriate topic. Because students won't be rewarded with an opportunity to travel on the company expense account, they must be motivated to "stay the course" and finish the training. This means that the topic must be:

For a video, the latter point seems obvious, but there's nothing so enervating as a video that features exclusively "talking heads". If the speakers aren't sufficiently dynamic to carry the action themselves, the material must lend itself well to visual illustration. For example, footage of the speaker can be interspersed with screen movies (e.g., for software), animations (e.g., for the assembly of a product), and physical demonstrations (e.g., in a first aid course).

Preparing to film

The opportunity to film a trainer before a live audience provides a natural setting and spontaneous, vigorous interactions. Particularly where you lack the budget to film in a dedicated studio, this represents a viable option. (That being said, many of the guidelines discussed in this section apply equally well in the studio.) Before filming the training, carefully consider the equipment, the location for the training, the trainer, and the students.

Equipment

Although you can record video with inexpensive equipment, the quality will be noticeably amateurish and you'll have little room for error when it comes time to correct problems with the video or sound. The videocameras should be of at least "prosumer" quality (intermediate between professional and consumer quality); ideally, use professional equipment. Better cameras typically have three CCD sensors versus the one sensor on typical consumer cameras. Although the resolution is similar, the three-CCD cameras provide more realistic color. The Canon GL2 is a popular camera with high video quality, as are the Sony DSR VX2100 and PD150 models. Digital videocameras that record onto mini-DV cassettes now offer quality equal to that of more traditional cameras, but eliminate the conversion from analog (film) to digital; thus, they both speed the transfer of footage to a computer for editing and eliminate quality loss due to format conversions.

Use at least two cameras, particularly if you only have one chance to capture a training session or must travel to do so, and use two camera operators. Unattended cameras generally work well when resources are tight, but can't zoom in or out or pan around to capture the action. Moreover, if the camera is knocked off its line of sight by a seminar participant, or if the speaker moves outside the recording area, you've lost irreplacable footage. Redundant cameras also protect against camera failure and provide alternatives to low-quality footage, such as when one camera captures the back of the speaker's head. Multiple cameras also improve the pacing and dynamism of the video by letting you alternate camera angles. Extra cameras also ensure you won't miss anything while you change tapes; with high-quality video, you'll typically change tapes hourly. Always overlap the start times of the cameras so that one will continue recording while you change tapes in the other.

Smooth zooms and pans are more difficult than they might seem, and require considerable practice. This is particularly true if, as with many cameras, the manual zoom and pan are too fast. A remote zoom and focus control such as the Coolzoom (www.coolcontraptions.com/prod01.htm) helps. This small, thumb-controlled joystick plugs into the camera and attaches to the tripod.  In addition to providing record and pause buttons, the joystick lets you control the camera without taking your hand off the tripod arm or your eye away from the viewfinder, thereby making it easier to zoom and pan smoothly and simultaneously.

Never rely on the camera's built-in microphone. Though suitable for home movies, this microphone provides noticeably lower quality than a standalone prosumer-quality model, and more often has obstacles or participants between it and the speaker. Thus, it's much more likely to produce inadequate recordings of the speaker and distracting background noise. To capture the speaker's voice, use a lapel microphone; headgear microphones also work, but may present an unprofessional image. To capture the audience, use a medium-range directional mike, perhaps suspended on a boom above the speaker or audience, or use a parabolic microphone. Both options require someone to reposition the boom when necessary. Where that’s impossible or impractical, an omnidirectional microphone fixed in place above the audience is a suitable replacement. Using a second microphone provides a backup during tape changes and an alternative to the pops and crackles occasionally generated by a wireless microphone. A wireless handheld microphone offers considerable flexibility, but audience members tend to be less spontaneous if they must pick up and speak into a microphone.

Ensure that the cameras and microphones won't move unless you want them to. Use top-quality tripods, and protect all recording devices from jostling. A good tripod also ensures smoother pans, and many have built-in leveling devices to help position the camera horizontally; failing to level the camera can create skewed videos that are impossible to reorient with the software available to most video producers.

Location

Choose a suitable location for filming. If you aren't using a studio, the location should be visually, sonically, and logistically suitable. An ideal location provides a single type of ambient light, since a mix of lighting leads to unpredictable variations in brightness during a long session. Artificial lighting is preferable because it remains constant. Natural lighting provides more natural colors, but light intensities can vary excessively. In some cases, it may be possible to install daylight-balanced ("full spectrum") bulbs. Whichever light you choose, consult your camera manual to see whether there's an optimal setting for that type of light.

Use good-quality spotlights if the room's built-in lighting is inadequate or if the primary light source is variable sunlight. Where possible, arrange spotlights to bounce light into the scene rather than focusing directly on the speaker, creating "hotpoints" (bright spots on the film) or forcing the speaker to squint and perspire. Do a test run to ensure that the lighting doesn't create glare from any surfaces (e.g., an overhead projector), from eyeglasses, or from a screen at the front of the room. Avoid "busy" backgrounds, such as heavily patterned wallpaper that can create moiré patterns (a visual shimmering) on the video, and remove artwork from the background; significant copyright issues can arise when you film someone's painting without their permission.

In terms of sound, make sure that the room doesn't create excessive echo; echoes can be very difficult to remove during editing, and may even force you to re-record segments of the speech. Sometimes you can hang blankets outside the frame or rent large potted plants to diminish echoes, but it's better to avoid them in the first place.

Logistically, look for easy and secure access to the room so you can set up and safely store your equipment. There must be enough room that your equipment won't interfere with the presenter or participants. If you use a boom microphone, the ceiling must be sufficiently high to accommodate the boom without letting the equipment enter the picture. Last but not least, your cameras must all have clear lines of sight to the speaker; pillars or columns conveniently conceal your equipment from the audience (who then respond more naturally to the speaker) and from the other cameras, and protect it from being knocked over, but can also make it difficult to choose a suitable position with a clear line of sight.

The presenter and presentation

Because videos should support self-learning, in short sessions tailored to the student's schedule, plan the video as a series of modules that can be viewed sequentially. To facilitate this approach, ask the speaker to structure the presentation somewhat more than might otherwise be the case. Breaking the presentation into clear modules lets you design the video around the modules rather than creating artificial breaks that leave "visible seams".

The speaker should, of course, be a skilled presenter. Even experienced speakers may benefit from a refresher course from public speaking organizations such as ToastMasters (www.toastmasters.org) or Dale Carnegie (www.dalecarnegie.com). In addition to minimizing hesitations (“uhms” and “ers”) and speaking clearly, speakers should vary their pacing and tone to avoid lulling listeners to sleep. If an audience is present and you'll be recording their voices, remind the speaker not to interrupt or talk over audience members. Because you may have limited freedom to move around while filming, remind the speaker to stay "in the frame" by borrowing a technique from Hollywood: use tape on the floor or physical features of the room (e.g., the edge of a stage) to help the speaker "stay within the marks” while you film.

Speakers should wear solid-colored clothing or an understated pattern that stands out from their background. They should avoid pinstripes and other geometrical patterns that can cause moirés. With some cameras, bright colors may also "bleed" (create visible fringes) or reflect too much light, so understated matte colors are preferable. To spot any problems before they're preserved forever on film, create a test film before the actual training session and change the speaker's wardrobe if necessary. For bald speakers, spotlights may create glare off their head; in that case, professional makeup or changing the angles of the cameras and lights can resolve the problem.

If you'll be filming before a live audience, inform attendees of your plans well in advance so they can opt out. (Not everyone dreams of a career in the movies.) In practice, it's nearly impossible to film around people who don't want to appear on film and to exclude their voice from the soundtrack. That being the case, anyone attending the session must be willing to be included in the tapes. Consider rewarding participants with reduced attendance fees or other perks. Encourage attendees to participate actively. Animated participation makes the speaker look better and keeps interest levels high. For your legal protection, obtain a signed release form well in advance to avoid problems with obtaining the necessary permissions and to avoid any surprises for the students. Sample standard release forms can be found online (for example, at http://www.videomaker.com/).

Editing the raw footage

Editing videos requires a high-powered computer—the faster the processor and the more RAM, the better. High-quality video also requires a huge hard drive, even by modern standards. Digital video easily consumes more than 12 GB (gigabytes) per hour of footage. For a full-day workshop that runs 5 to 6 hours, the footage from two cameras could use 150 GB of storage. Many professional producers use an external disk drive or a RAID drive array to provide this capacity.

Because modern editing software usually doesn't alter the original data, the only backup copy you should need is the original tape. Edits are typically stored in a separate "project" file, and applied to the original data (which remains untouched) to generate the output file via a process called "rendering". Edits and filters are synchronized with the raw footage by means of a "time code" recorded along with the video. The rendered footage can be saved in a range of common file formats. To create a DVD, MPEG-2 is the requiredformat. MPEG video is compressed using a "codec" (compressor/decompressor), which is usually software, and the compressed files typically use around 4.7 GB for 2 hours of video. Of course, creating project files can take considerable time, so always back them up carefully. The most convenient backup for such large files is an "image" of the entire hard drive stored on a second hard drive using software such as Norton Ghost.

To display the footage and the results of any edits or visual filters fast enough to allow iterative (real-time) editing, you'll require a powerful real-time editing card such as the Canopus DV Raptor RT2max or DVStorm2Pro+. You'll also need video editing software such as Adobe Premiere, image-processing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Jasc Paintshop Pro for still images, graphics software such as Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw for illustrations and logos, and miscellaneous other software such as screen-capture utilities (e.g., SnagIt) for software images.

Unless you've recorded voiceovers for the entire presentation in a studio, you'll have to spend considerable time fixing the audio recorded at the actual presentation. For example, it can be difficult to produce consistent volume levels throughout a presentation, and you'll likely have to edit out hisses, pops, crackles, and feedback, not to mention audience noise, throat clearing, coughs, and other verbal tics from the speaker. Most video editing software includes adequate tools, but additional dedicated software for audio editing, such as SoundForge (www.sonicfoundry.com), may come in handy.

Putting it all together

Multiple passes

Start with a blueprint of the presentation: a list of all the component "chapters" and the key points that must be covered in each one. These form the shopping list for the video footage and other content that you'll gather together, and serve as a checklist for the titles and transitions you must create in the editing software. Identifying the most suitable footage as well as any missing material you'll have to create requires several passes through the raw footage. Select a range of footage with different, interesting camera angles and good sound quality. Most presentations contain considerable dead space (pauses to shuffle papers or drink water, throat clearing), so be prepared to trim the original footage dramatically.

Review your selections with the presenter and decide what material to retain. Fill in any gaps, such as times when none of your cameras captured the desired material, with additional material. For example, replace poor footage of the presenter with animations, copies of the PowerPoint slides, photographs, or annotated screenshots, perhaps with the presenter's voice re-recorded for use as a voiceover to compensate for inadequate sound quality in the original footage. Newly recorded sound can be difficult to combine with video of the presenter ("lip synch" problems), but works well with other visuals. Review your final list of materials one last time with the presenter, since any questionable footage that you accept now will cause considerable disruptions if it must be eliminated later in the editing process, particularly if you're working on a tight schedule.

Visual consistency

As in any other form of publishing, videos must have a consistent look and feel. Work with a graphic artist right from the start to develop a consistent color palette and visual style (e.g., typography, positioning of recurring elements) suitable for the entire video. Depending on your design, you may also need to develop consistency guidelines for visual elements in menus (e.g., bullets, headings), callout arrows, highlighted text, photos (positioning, cropping, framing), and animations (including transitions between screens or chapters). Similarly, develop a standard "interaction design" for interactive (menu driven) DVDs; this isn't required for non-interactive VHS tapes. An ideal design should also work well in the support material, including the packaging, Web site, business cards, marketing brochures, and so on.

VHS or DVD?

Most people create either a VHS tape or a DVD. VHS tapes are still an obvious choice because VHS players are ubiquitous, thereby increasing your potential market. However, DVDs cost less per unit, and let students interact with the presentation by moving directly to the desired chapter via menus; in contrast, VHS tapes must be manually rewound or fast-forwarded, an awkward process. They also lack the "coolness" factor that's still a key selling point of DVDs, and their video and audio quality is noticeably lower.

Authoring the DVD

Using the blueprint described above, establish distinct chapters within the authoring software. This approach helps you to focus your efforts as you work on each component of the presentation, and it helps the students by providing convenient places to stop and resume their study. Gather all the necessary components (video, audio, graphics) together for each chapter, then finalize your editing of this material. Because you're working in the field of instructional design, keep the design simple. After all, you're not making a rock video.

Tie the chapters together with clear, logical, easy-to-use menus, then create chapter markers in the authoring software. Render the video into an MPEG file that includes both the video and the audio, including any additional audio such as looped music. Plan for units no longer than 2 hours if you're exporting to VHS tape or burning DVDs yourself; manufactured dual-layer DVDs can hold up to 4 hours.

Manufacture it yourself or outsource?

Once rendering is complete, you can burn your own DVD, create a disc image, or copy the results to a DLT (digital linear tape) drive, which is a standard used by many DVD manufacturers.

For smaller markets, you can create your own DVDs using a DVD recorder that supports a format (DVD-R) supported by most consumer DVD players. Recording a DVD takes time—typically 20 to 30 minutes with a 4X recorder (faster drives and recording media are becoming increasingly affordable)—and you must print and attach individual labels unless you have an inkjet printer that can print directly on the blank DVDs. This approach is practical for small quantities (up to 100 or so disks), and can cost less than US$0.50 per DVD if you buy in bulk. Burning your own DVDs lets you change the content of the DVD at will by recording new content and avoids the need for large inventories.

However, outsourcing is easier and often more effective. Home-made DVDs are recorded by altering the properties of colored dyes on the blank DVD, but these dyes aren't permanent. Commercial DVDs are pressed (stamped mechanically), and are thus more durable and have a lower defect rate. They cost more up front because you must purchase a minimum quantity (typically 500 to 1000 copies), but cost less per unit in large quantities. In addition, the disks can be professionally silk-screened, producing a higher quality image, and copy protection is available.

Packaging

Standalone DVDs can be packaged in the plastic jewel cases available from any office-supply store. These work fine for material that will be slipped into the back of a printed manual, but if you plan to charge significant sums for your training materials, a more professional package enhances their perceived value. Such packaging holds the DVD more securely, and provides space for an instructor's manual or student workbook, a "getting started” booklet, a feedback form, and promotional materials for your other products. Most commercial printers and DVD duplicators can provide a range of packaging services or can refer you to companies that provide these services, but shop around to get the best price.

The packaging must be large enough to hold these materials, but not so large it can't be stored on a bookshelf or carried home in a backpack. The package should be of sufficiently high quality to show off your graphic design to best effect. If you plan to produce multiple training products, choose packaging that lets you attach your own covers; this lets you maintain an inventory of blank packages and insert covers only as needed rather than creating a separate inventory of packages for each product. The packaging should be convenient to use (easy to open, closes securely), durable enough not to wear out if many students will use the same copy, inexpensive, and readily available so you won't have to wait weeks for additional units.

Putting the theory to work

The information in this article is more than just theoretical: it represents Marc Proulx's hard-earned experience gained during the creation of “Documenting APIs and SDKs”, a training video based on a workshop by Manuel Gordon in the popular Gordon and Gordon workshop series. More information about this video and about Marc’s video-production services are available on his Web site (www.thirdwavestudios.com).


©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved