Video for think tanks: shooting like a pro (on a shoestring)

7 March 2016
SERIES Think tanks and video 12 items

[Editor’s Note: Diego Velasquez from Makaco Producciones delivered a workshop for think tanks from Latin America and Africa as part of an effort to support the communication capacities of the Evidence and Lessons from Latin America (ELLA) programme.The workshop was delivered in Lima and Diego drew from Michael Kleiman’s excellent article for On Think Tanks on how to produce a video: How to Make a Compelling Policy Video. This post is an edited version of Diego’s presentation and focuses on getting the basics right: Sound, Lights, and Frame.]

As On Think Tanks has argued before, events should never be produced without some kind of recording. They should always be registered, not only because it is good to keep a record of what we do as a research centre but also because of the enormous possibilities that a video gives us to share and scale up the reach of our ideas.

Just as the printing process accelerated the free flow of ideas through Europe in the 15th Century, today, video,  along with new communication technologies can help spread knowledge through every part of the world and to everyone who wants to watch and listen. One of the reasons why video has become so popular in different sectors is that we now (almost) all carry a camera with us. And apps let you film, edit and share:

A good video can help us deliver our message to people who for different reasons couldn’t be at our event, to policy makers who would otherwise be hard to reach, and to the general public.

But our video must be good, must have a good quality and be engaging and entertaining, otherwise it will be discarded, it will get lost in the vast and overwhelming sea of information that is directed at us every day.

This constant amount of near infinite information has brought one big problem: a reduced attention span. This is a very real problem and it affects almost everyone, so if something doesn’t engage the viewers in the first minute it is very likely they will click on to the next item in their feed.

So, how to engage people? How to make our video appealing? Where does the thin line between success and failure lies when producing a video?

The basics: audio, light and image

Surely it is not easy to name exactly what makes a video good, there will always be a measure of personal taste, but there are some things that every good video has:


Some times, when producing videos we forget or neglect the great important of audio. But just listen to a video with a badly recorded audio and you will very rapidly become frustrated, bored or annoyed. The importance of getting good audio is enormous. We could even have captured a bad image, poorly lit or shaky. But once we get to the editing room we can put another image in its place, we can use infographics o stock footage, and as long as we have a good audio the video will be watchable. Also.. with good audio you could have two outputs: a video and a podcast!

When recording audio we can have two methods. One is to capture de overall ambient audio. This will include the voices of our panelists or interviewees but also everything that happens in the background. Wind, nearby traffic or even low flying airplanes may be heard.

The other method is to use some kind of directional audio. This could be done through the use of clip-on mics, booms, or directional microphones made for cameras or phones.

I know this lecture is all about keeping your costs to the minimum but If you are planning to start producing videos for your organisations I really recommend making the effort and investing in audio equipment. And it doesn’t even have to be too expensive or specialised. Something as simple as a directional microphone for your Iphone can greatly improve the audio you get when recording using your phone.

Of course, if you don’t have access to such equipment then, as always, good planning is what you must rely on. Try to keep the environment as controlled as you can. Avoid open areas with lots of wind or passing cars. If done indoors, look for spaces that don’t produce too much echo. Keep control of doors or equipment that could start to emit sounds in the middle of something important.

Lights come first

We have all heard the shout of “Lights, Cameras, Action!” It is no coincidence that the lights are the first thing that need to be accounted for before shooting a scene.

Everything we see, we see it because the way light interacts with it. And I am not only talking in a physical way. Light has an amazing artistic and expressive power. Just look at how it has been used not only on the history of cinema but also in painting and theater.

The most basic array for lighting a shot is called 3 point lighting. It basically consist on 3 lights that have very specific roles.

  1. The first is the KEY Light: It is the main light in our scene. We should usually try to point it in an angle to our main subject. It should never be directed straight to the camera as it would make everything else look dark.
  2. The second is the FILL. Usually set opposite to the key, in a way that it softens the shadows produced by the KEY. It also helps to add volume and information to those areas the KEY can’t get to.
  3. The third is the BACK, it is used to differentiate or cut out the subject from its background.


But what about us? What can we do if we don’t have dedicated lights? Well, we look for the lights we have and how can we use them to try to replicate the 3 point lights array.

  1. An open and big window could be our key light. Lets position our subject so it lights them in an angle.
  2. As a Fill light, we could use a big white board. It will bounce the light off the window and in to our subject side.
  3. Finally, if we have a lamp, we can put it in the ground, behind our character in order to use it as BACK


When in doubt, I advice that you allow more information in. That means, avoid cropping your subject’s head or the background. A good frame conveys enough information for the viewer to understand what is going on (even if the film is paused). Make sure the frame lets the viewer understand what is going on at first glance: include background, a glimpse of an audience or the interviewer, etc.

Other good ideas to make it look profesional

There are other “tricks” to make your video seem professional. These include:

  • Using a tripod, even a small one, or placing your camera or phone on a table or book or resting your arms on a fixed object will greatly increase te quality of your video.
  • Depth of field can help you focus on a face or an object while everything else appears out of focus. This can help convey a professional feel to your film.
  • Entertaining value: Some may have reservations about this. “We are serious researchers, we do not need to worry about banal thing such a keeping someone entertained” you could argue. And yes, surely your research carry the outmost importance, but a video is just a tool, no an end. A means to an end. The objetive of the video is to get the viewer interested in the theme. To challenge them and invite them to explore it. To guide them to our institutions, where they will find all the hard data and findings we have. Remember this: the Economist does not just publish important facts. They embed them in interesting analysis, personality driven articles, inforgraphics, etc. They want their readers to be entertained –while they are informed.
  • Script and direct. It is very important to avoid chance. By developing a script and directing your players (interviewer, interviewees, panelists, audience, etc) you will avoid mistakes and ensure that you get the footage you need to edit a great video. Just as in a good event, you need a good narrative and a good moderator to see it through.

This advice can go a long way towards making sure you get the best possible materials to work with in the editing room. Combine it with Michael Kleiman’s three steps to producing a video (planning, shooting and editing, and distribution) and you will be set to go.