Making a video essayEverything i wish i knew before i actually made one
I have recently released my first video essay! Unsurprisingly, it’s about monads. :)
Making a video about it rather than a blog post was a choice i made almost a year ago: i wanted to learn something new, i wanted to try something different. I started this journey basically from scratch: no knowledge of video editing, no microphone, no nothing. Looking at the result now, i am conflicted: on one hand i’m happy i have actually finished a project, instead of quietly abandoning it like i have done with so many others; on the other, now that i have a better understanding of what goes into making an essay like this, i see so many mistakes in the end product.
This is why i want to write this. The goal of this post is to collect a list of observations about the process, what went right, what went wrong, both so that i can refer to it when i work on the next one, and on the off chance it might prove useful to someone else.
The closest thing to a video essay i had experience with before starting was talks, presentations, classes. Their structure is very similar to the one of an essay: there is an overall point i’m trying to make and argue for, there are pieces of information i’d like to impart along the way, usually in support of said point, and there is some accompanying visual material: slides.
When writing a talk, slides tend to be at the center of my writing process: they dictate the rhythm of the presentation. What i actually say over them is not crucial: as long as i make the point i want to make, the exact words do not matter too much.
But, and this is a lesson i had to learn: stumbling over one’s words is much more tolerable in a live setting, in which there’s no way to do a second take. For a YouTube video, recorded in the comfort of home… leaving mistakes in is simply not acceptable.
And, well, i have a bit of a speech impediment: i stammer a bit, and often trip over my own words. Every line in the final essay had to be recorded at least twice (and often more) to get one good take… To reduce this, when re-recording the voice-over sections, i used a fully written script instead. Reading text, rather than trying to come up with good sentences on the fly, significantly improved the quality of the lines, and reduced the number of errors. It also made writing closed captioning easier, since i already had most of the text.
So, first lesson learned: i need to write a full script, and perhaps use a prompter. It is not enough to just plan the outline, get in front of the camera, and improvise.
Writing block and scheduling
However, i found it difficult to write down every sentence i was planning to say ahead of time. Most of the script i actually wrote after shooting the live sections, when recording the lines over the slides, on the fly. A main reason why is that i was struggling to put things in writing before doing at least one live recording, before i could get a feel for the flow of it. I tried to use Google Docs’ speech recognition tool to do a test recording, and use the transcript, but the result wasn’t really usable.
What unblocked me was to do a real recording, in front of the camera. That’s when i spotted a lot of issues, identified what needed work, found the flow. Unfortunately, due to some time constraints, that recording ended up being the only recording session, meaning that every bit of live video in the final product is from the draft. You might notice that there are more pauses, more hesitations in some of the live sections: that’s why.
So, moving forward, one big lesson: start by recording a real draft. It can be used to identify problems, unblock the script writing process… It provides a base, that can be even be used to do a draft of the editing. But, if recording a draft is one of the earliest things to do; filming the live sections comes last. Video clips are the hardest part to fix after the fact: the slides, the voice over, the editing, everything can be changed at the last minute. But live sections require make-up, lighting, set-up… So they should be done last, when the script is set, to avoid needing reshoots or aggressive cuts.
I do not have a dedicated camera, so i used my phone. Specifically, i used DroidCam OBS to use my phone as a video source in OBS on my computer. The upside was that i didn’t have to record everything on my phone, transfer it, and look at the result: i have direct visual feedback on my computer screen, and can pause / restart the recording without having to touch my phone. Overall, this worked pretty well, and i have no major takeaway here, beyond: it works. A phone is good enough for the video.
There are, however, two limitations i need to investigate for next time:
- the feed was not a steady 60FPS, and some frame drops can be noticed in the final video; this is probably because i was connecting to OBS over WiFi instead of USB, so this might prove to be easy to fix;
- with this solution i can only record in 1080p; the problem with this is that my final output is also in 1080p, meaning that any zoom / cropping of the recording visibly reduces the quality of the output; this can be observed in the essay, but is not shocking, but is nonetheless worth investigating moving forward.
Specifically, what i’ve done is to film from further afar than needed, to avoid problems of focus: my two first attempts at recording were lost because of that: in the first, my phone focused on the background, in the second the phone focused on my face and blurred the background. Filming from slightly afar gave a better result, worked better with the light, and i just zoomed the footage a bit during the editing. It might prove better to run experiments there as well to see if i can use the optical zoom of my phone to achieve the same effect without sacrificing the output resolution.
So, here, an obvious takeaway: take short test footage to test the parameters, instead of doing what i did and realizing after 45 minutes of recording that i am out of focus in the footage…
Good audio is primordial. It is commonly known that users can tolerate bad video quality, but won’t tolerate bad audio. I have invested in a decent dynamic microphone, with the idea that it would reduce the amount of background noise that would be picked up compared to a condenser microphone. I don’t know enough about the topic to know for sure if that was the correct decision; but the result, as far as my untrained ears can tell, is pretty decent: the voice-over sections sound pretty good: investing into a good microphone is worth it.
However, a downside of the particular microphone i’ve chosen: it has quite a short range. In the live sections, it is slightly too far compared to my setup during the voice-over sections, and the sound comes out a bit worse. There again, it should go without saying, but i seem to need the reminder: i should take short test footage to test the audio as well.
Two other improvements i’ll attempt for the next video:
- use Audacity instead of OBS to record voice clips, at least for the voice-over sections, to have more control over the result (i’ve noticed some weird artefacts in some places that i suspect might have come from the mixing in OBS?)
- i will invest in a pop filter: i’ve noticed that the plosives are very noticeable in some sections; i might not be able to use it in the live sections if i want my face to remain visible, but since my content is primarily voice-over it would make a difference where it matters.
I’ve been using DaVinci Resolve 18. I had no prior experience with it, and i didn’t have any experience with any other editing software either, so it’s hard for me to offer a detailed review, but: it’s free, it works great, it does much more than what i needed.
However, there’s one thing that’s been pointed out to me that i can relay and emphasize here: for live sections, avoid cross fades. I think there’s only one left that i forgot to remove, at the very beginning. Nothing wrong with them on a technical level, but that’s not what’s considered elegant nowadays as far as YouTube editing goes.
A small detail: it’s better to organize all the files that end up in the project (video clips, audio clips, images, sound effects…) under one given folder, rather than using them where they are, scattered across the drive, it makes making back-ups easier. There again, it feels obvious in hindsight, but…
Something extremely important to do on the YouTube side of things: always include close captioning. Exporting the script as a text file and feeding it to YouTube works surprisingly well as far as timing is concerned. The way it cuts sentences, however, is abysmal, and it took me several hours of work to get them in a good state. I’ll try next time to format the file differently to see if i can make the YouTube editor do the right thing on the first try.
Two other important accessibility notes that came up in the comments:
- include a warning if the video contains flashing lights, which feels obvious, and yet is often forgotten;
- avoid only using colors to convey information: information on screen should also be readable by colorblind folks.
This was a first attempt, and while i’ve learned a lot in the process, i now better realize how little i know, and how much more i have to learn. But, the essay was overall a success: small audience, as can be expected for Haskell content from a previously unknown source, but positive feedback. I think the most important takeaway of all is that you don’t need a lot of resources to get started. I used my phone, free editing software… the only purchases were a decent microphone (that i needed anyway, since i’m a remote worker, and i don’t want to inflict a sub-par microphone on my co-workers) and a simple ring light / phone mount. If you’ve been wanting to try your hand at making video essays, but weren’t sure you were cut out for it, i hope that the example of me somehow managing to get something out while only having only draft video footage will convince you to give it a try. :)
I’ll try to apply all of those lessons to the next videos. I have a few ideas
for what’s next, but nothing concrete yet. I hope this brief “postmortem” / look
behind the scenes was interesting,
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