Caught for the Web

The client wanted it fast, cheap and good. We were fully prepared to deliver at least two out of the three, but it was nine in the morning and the director could already feel an overtime headache beginning to blossom. The talent needed more takes than we'd anticipated and we were doing pickups like crazy. Our nice little Web content shoot was threatening to become an expensive proposition.
October 1, 2006

The client wanted it fast, cheap and good. We were fully prepared to deliver at least two out of the three, but it was nine in the morning and the director could already feel an overtime headache beginning to blossom. The talent needed more takes than we’d anticipated and we were doing pickups like crazy. Our nice little Web content shoot was threatening to become an expensive proposition.

Panic was rising, but that didn’t mean we should stop being sensible. We had a primary camera covering the talking head, but our second was grabbing what every producer dreams about – cutaways. That saved us.

Producing for the Web has its own traps and tricks. It’s a bit like juggling chainsaws: timing, precision and planning will get you through the day alive. Here are some of our steps to success:

Finding clients
Whether you focus on reality, history, science or tech, you can bet all your clients would like to see some of the content you create spun off into Web projects. While some want it as simple value-added – expanding current content into online real estate – there are others who want exclusive content to energize their brand engine.

The latter was certainly the case when it came to a project we did with one publisher. ‘The Better Homes and Gardens website is a brand extension that complements our magazine,’ says Dan Hickey, editor-in-chief of ‘Our website doesn’t duplicate the magazine, instead our aim is to enrich the overall brand experience by offering personal, interactive solutions.’ While online content was once mostly repurposed fare, clients are increasingly looking for original material that will give them some added value in the mind of consumers. That’s good news for producers.

The Web work is out there. But where to begin looking? First suggestion: examine your existing client base. Familiarity is a good thing when it comes to convincing clients to enter the new media world. All you have to do is convince them that you can shrink your pictures into a 300 pixel by 200 pixel idea space – roughly four by three inches, the average size of a Web movie clip viewer. (More on how to make that work later.)

Another way to find Web clients is to match your area of expertise with existing content-rich sites that might exploit it. We like science and tech stories and found we had a lot in common with Mains Associates in Berkeley, California. They develop content-rich sites for clients like NASA and the California Space Authority. Because we shared common interests, it was a natural fit, and we found ways to work together developing Web material.

One of the upsides to that partnership is that Mains already knew how their media partners preferred their content, and that cut out the possibility of costly trial and error.

But will it work online?
One of the biggest hurdles tv producers face is learning how to think small.

Remember that a talking head is now about 3/4′-high, and your dramatic mountain vista is the size of a postage stamp. Establishing shots of the city? Calm down, drink plenty of fluids, and start thinking and talking about your images in a different way.

David Kurns, interactive editorial director at Meredith Integrated Marketing in Iowa, supervised a Web-based project we shot starring Food Network personality Sandra Lee. We worked with Kurns’ team to produce 40 short segments for the Web, with only two days to shoot them.

‘One way we managed the project,’ says Kurns, ‘was to pick simple segments with big visual impact. We refined the final list from a wish list provided by the editorial staff [at Meredith], and at the end of it we pulled in a few projects of Sandra’s that she was comfortable with and still met our standards. We focused on the ones we could demo quickly and tried to simplify the visual presentation and keep it uncluttered.’ That’s good advice: simplify your shots and keep your segment ideas uncomplicated.

But, despite your best efforts, sometimes things do get complicated – and that calls for additional planning. One of our recent adventure productions for the National Geographic Society and Ford Motor Company posed real logistical challenges. The shoot was to last nearly a week, snaking down the back roads of California’s scenic Highway 1 south of Big Sur, and then through Yosemite National Park. Each day, the team shot an episode of a couple’s four-wheel drive adventure in a Sport Trac.

Jeff Pflueger, who assisted on the shoot, helped streamline the process because he knew the location well. ‘This was an outdoor shoot, in winter, involving half a dozen adventure activities with a schedule on steroids,’ he says. ‘Intimately knowing the weather, the light, the locations, and the exciting activities was essential to a great production.’ Solid location planning made that ambitious multi-part shoot a success.

There’s another approach too: keep things short. Randy Abramson, who oversees content for, says, ‘Having respect for the Web viewers’ time is critical. We understand that people are most likely multi-tasking or checking the site during quick breaks from their hectic schedules, so we generally keep clips under five minutes and ideally, around three. We have been successful in offering short utility clips that provide useful information to our users, as well as serving value-added entertainment clips that make a big impact in a brief amount of time.’ In other words, you can pack a lot of punch in a little picture if you consider how your content has to fit into your viewer’s multi-tasking brain.

Making it work for the Web
Just because the picture is small doesn’t mean your production is too. For Kurns’ Food Network shoot at Meredith, we had several test kitchens cranking out food and a bevy of stylists making it look great. For your on-camera talent, you still need hair and makeup assistance. A shiny forehead gets magnified, not minimized, by the small screen, because of increased contrast and loss of detail online. For the same reason, you’ll want to stay away from moody lighting with lots of shadows. Rembrandt and Caravaggio need not apply here. Shadows become oblivion and highlights blow out. The solution? Go with diffused lighting whenever possible. If shooting inside, Diva lights, with their soft glow, work well. Shooting outside? Think about what time of day you’re shooting. Noon might not be a good idea.

Is your editor begging to try some new effects and transitions? Save them for another project. Given the refresh rate of most computer monitors and the data transfer rate of most Internet connections, eye-popping transitions won’t pop on the Web, they’ll sputter. If a simple cut won’t do, use dissolves, simple wipes and white flashes between shots. Most anything else looks muddy.

Producing for the Web makes you think about your images and storytelling in a fresh way. You need simplicity and clarity of concept, maximum punch in your pictures, and a healthy respect for your viewers’ time. Re-inventing yourself for the Web might get your creative juices flowing, and a well-planned shoot can open new vistas for you and your clients.
Getting out alive
Tips for keeping Web shoot costs down

Think digital. You need not deliver a tape master. If you’ve taken your material uncompressed into your non-linear edit you can output a full-resolution file, be it Quicktime or Flash (or whatever your client might desire). You don’t need a formal online. You don’t need masters or dubs. You realize savings in time and money, and your client gets a ready-to-upload format.

Be generous. Shoot extra segments. Your client may want to scrap something and you’ll need backup. You’ll save on re-shoots.

Be square. Your DP likes to frame things at the edges? Not this time. Your image may be resized to fit the client’s Web space.

Keep it clean. Busy images won’t work as well as bold and simple ones. Bring your clients into the discussion about production goals so they don’t ask for the impossible on your production days.

Multi-platform. Shoot the best format your clients can afford. You’ll be able to give them the option to re-use the material.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.