Video Production

Putting theory into practice

by Steve Dawkins and Ian Wynd

Your future within the media industry

Once you have completed some or all of the briefs in the book, you will have a good idea of the process of video production across a wide range of different types of video and the skills that each type of production requires. That does not mean, though, that you are a fully-fledged video professional who can enter the media industries immediately. Acquiring qualifications in media may certainly help in getting paid work but no media student can be guaranteed a job, especially given the current uncertainties both within society in the form of the ongoing recession and within the media industries. What is certain is that if you go for any media job, you will almost certainly be competing against hundreds (if not thousands) of similarly, or better, qualified people, all of who want to be there as much as you do. Being particularly brilliant or gifted doesn’t offer any guarantee of getting a job either.

So, how do you get a job in the media industries?

This indeed is the 64 thousand dollar question!

Despite the worries about programme quality mentioned above, the advent of more distribution channels and more programmes should be seen as an opportunity by media students as more people are being recruited across the planet, to produce more programmes than ever before. That means that it should, in theory at least, be easier than ever before to get a job in the media industries. So, the first question that you need to answer is really about what sort of person will be required to fill these jobs? We would argue that the skills necessary for getting a job are relatively unchanging, even in a rapidly-changing media world.

You will remember from the book that we argue that there are six essential elements that you need to work on throughout your video production career:
  1. Ideas and the research process
  2. Planning and management
  3. Process and equipment
  4. Reflection
  5. Flexibility
  6. Drive, enthusiasm and determination
Although the importance of these skills will depend upon where you are and what you are doing within the industries, it is all six of these that you need to continue to develop from the moment you decide that you want to work within the media. For the moment, we would argue that you need to work on all these areas in relation to three main areas:
  • your personal skills
  • your technical skills
  • your industry experience

Personal skills

One of the main areas that you can actively work upon is around developing your personal skills. As obvious as it sounds, one of the key factors in determining your chances of gaining employment is actually planning to secure a job in the media. This planning requires you to be proactive: that is, going out and actively working at your plans rather than waiting for things to happen. It should ideally start at the beginning of your course, not as you finish it! Having a plan is everything and could lead to something: not having a plan is likely to lead to nothing, unless you are unbelievably lucky. We would not recommend that you rely solely on luck. Throughout your time at college or university, you should constantly be looking beyond your course in order to acquire those additional skills that will provide you with the ‘edge’ that you need to get your first job. We will detail some of them in a moment but would say that anything in addition to your course that positively contributes to your professional experience and your portfolio should be undertaken.

Another thing you can actively do is to be realistic about what you would like to do in terms of work in the future. Look around at your fellow students on the course as they represent your potential competition for employment in the future. Who are the best students and what makes them the best? How do you measure up to them? What skills, personal, creative and technical, do they have that you don’t? Work out what it is with each of them that makes them so good, list these skills and qualities and start planning to build upon these yourself. In addition, working hard on acquiring and developing transferable skills, especially time management, communication and project management skills, at the same time as you are developing your technical skills, is one of the key things that you can do. It is these skills that employers are increasingly asking for, but that they may not be prepared to teach you.

The best bit of advice that we can give regarding personal skills is to smile when you’re on work placements, be personable and show willing at all times. It is really underestimated as to the importance of these basic attributes but if you think about your own experiences so far, it is much more likely that you prefer working with willing people who smile rather than miserable, unwilling people. The people looking to employ you are people just like you: it is likely that they prefer to work with such people too!

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Technical skills

Students often think that employers are looking for someone who, for example, knows cameras inside. While this may be true for the higher-end specialist jobs, for entry-level jobs many employers will say that that is precisely what they are not looking for as it takes them relatively little time to train people up on the technical side.

There is now an acceptance that having a broad understanding of the intricacies of the process of production and knowing how to use a broad range of media hardware and software is a minimum requirement for new entrants to the industries. However, for a large percentage of television output and media output over the Internet, the most employable individuals are those who are multi-skilled and can multi-task. The ability to direct, operate cameras, record sound and edit to a good standard are the basic elements of being multi-skilled but, given the increasing importance of the Internet, a familiarity with other aspects of media production, such as 2D animation, screen design, web building and digital design, is becoming much more central.

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Industry experience

There’s only so much you can learn within a classroom or whilst working as part of a student production team. To gain a real insight into how professional video productions are made, much can be gained from spending even short periods of time within the media industries and observing experienced media professionals at work. If you really want to know how a live television studio operates, by all means read about it, but the ultimate learning experience is to get a placement with a studio for a couple of days. When we spent the day at the This Morning studios for the research for the Magazine Programme chapter of the book, much of our time was spent merely watching, taking notes and asking questions. This obviously applies to any aspect of media production. Real experience is worth so much more than theory or simulations.

First, decide which area of video production you are most interested in. Is it, for instance, within pre-production, production or post production? Let’s say that you are very keen on working as an assistant floor manager and that you also like the idea of live or ‘as-live’ programmes. The next obvious step is to conduct some basic research such as finding out exactly what a floor manager does and which programmes use floor managers. Compile a list of all the live and ‘as-live’ shows from big budget programmes to micro budget programmes and everything in between. Spread your net wide. For example, one genre of TV programme which relies heavily on studio floor management is the shopping channels on digital, cable and satellite. This is very basic research, but essential to your success in acquiring the right placement, so you need to be prepared to spend the time compiling this information otherwise you will not know who it is you need to ask for a placement. It’s a bit like detective work really.

Next, think what type of production interests you; live daytime television, sports programmes, corporate video, studio-based news/current affairs, daytime drama, make-over programmes, quizzes. The simplest way to do this may be to consider what role you see yourself enjoying and carrying out well (you may already know this) and then think about different output or programmes that require people to do this type of work. Try to narrow it down to specific programmes. The point we are trying to make here is that you need to be clear about what type of placement you will benefit most from.

Once you have narrowed down your focus, you can start acquiring accurate up-to-date information about who produces the programmes and start getting some contact details. Many larger organisations, such as the BBC, have a very well developed placement provision and have done much of the hard work for you. Do not rely upon this approach as many hundreds of students will be applying this way. You should use this way only as a part of your overall placement strategy, but also be more imaginative as you are aiming to be much smarter than that!

Think practically, if the placement is in a city 150 miles from you, you need to work out how you will get there, how long you can afford to stay and where; yet more research, but important as you do not want to secure a 7 day placement when you can only afford to stay for 4 days.

Just sending a CV or and letter to a production company addressed to ‘Human Resources’ or ‘To Whom it May Concern’ simply won’t work: you need names. So, contact the programme’s production office (details are normally on the programme’s website) and, if you are polite and persistent, you just might be able to get a specific name, mobile number or e-mail address. If you’re a good detective you won’t rest until you have got a name and contact details. There are numerous ways to communicate to people these days: phone, fax, text, letter, email, MSM, Twitter. While written means of contact give you time to compose your correspondence carefully, they tend to be impersonal and can easily be ignored so you should always aim to speak to your contact in person. If phoning, be sure you know what you want to say before ringing and be polite, but direct. Once you have made initial contact, try and ensure that there is a next step agreed and that you keep your part of the bargain. For example, if you are asked to send a CV or resumé and letter or to call back in two weeks time, do it. Be persistent as your next goal is to negotiate and secure an agreed date for your placement.

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Contacts Book

Keeping a contacts book is one of the most important things that you can do to help you get on in the media industries. You should be keeping one from the beginning of your course and, if kept correctly, is a live document which is added to and updated frequently. In analogue form, it can be as simple as an inexpensive note book, each page being given over to a single contact and containing their telephone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses as well as details on when you contacted them, how, who else you may have spoken to and the outcome. It can, of course, also be kept electronically but needs to contain the same information
Where do I look for contacts?
You should always be on the look out for new contacts and actually making contact with them. We tell our own students to look everywhere they can: telephone directories, industry directories such as The White Book, websites, articles in publications like Total Production, advertisements, newspapers, credits, the back of DVDs, friend of a friend and so on. One of our students was in the audience for a live TV show and, as everyone was leaving after the recording, he spoke to the floor manager, expressing his interest in her job. He left with the manager’s e-mail address and telephone number. That’s how you get a contact: by never missing an opportunity. Remember, as a placement detective, it’s unlikely you will get contact details straight away, and you may need to go through a number of other people first: it can be a long road and doesn’t always reap rewards. Many of our students who are most successful in terms of securing placements may have pursued upwards of fifty contacts during the year. That’s a lot of work, but worthwhile if you are able to secure just one good placement.

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How do I make my placement a successful one?

Our work placement providers consistently tell us that there are only two types of work placement student: those they would be delighted to see again because they were enthusiastic, well-mannered, flexible, hard working, easy to get along with and had a genuine interest in the job and those they never want to see again. It is up to you to make sure that you are in the former group, not the latter.

Some companies see people on placement as a burden so it is your job to ensure that you are not actually so. Before the placement, you should have researched the company, sorted out transport and accommodation for the period you are on placement and ensure that you have the finances to support your time there.

When the placement begins, your time management must be impeccable. That means turning up before the time you are expected, especially on the first day. We asked a studio manager what they looked for in someone on placement and she told us that enthusiasm was the most important factor and added that she expected to find the individual at work when she arrived and still be there when she left (and she worked a 10-12 hour day!). So, enthusiasm and hard work are a very good start.

Initially, you may be asked to follow someone around and observe and perhaps maybe later be given some tasks to carry out. Do not be offended if these tasks appear menial. Carry out whatever you are asked to do with enthusiasm and pride even if it is only making tea. Never under any circumstances indicate that you are unwilling to undertake a task. Always be willing to learn, willing to help, friendly and flexible and very grateful for the opportunity to be there.

In short, then, you will need to:
  • Research what you want to do and in which media industry area - be specific and thorough
  • Start a contacts book
  • Construct or up-date your CV and write a short introductory letter
  • Be prepared to travel and consider costs implications
  • Invest the time needed to acquire company details and contact them.
  • Build in this research time into your weekly workload (an hour per week)
  • Arrive early and leave late
  • Be enthusiastic, even about the most mundane task. Work with a smile on your face
  • Keep a daily journal and take every opportunity to add to your contacts book
  • Keep in touch with people at your placement. They may offer you work in the future.
If you do all of these correctly, you may be asked back for another placement or, as many of our students are, offered a job!

A successful placement should, therefore, be seen as the end result of a three step process which starts with research and contact building, moves on to securing a placement and finally finds you earning a reputation as a proactive, positive and co-operative individual whilst on the placement.

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Increasing your skills and experience

We have already commented that merely studying a video production course is not enough to get a job in the media industries: you have to love it and live it! This means always looking out for yet more opportunities to increase your skills and experience. Work experience and placements are one way, but there are many others:

The self-initiated project

Some of our most successful students do not put down their tools every time a holiday comes around, but they use this time as an opportunity to do more work. This usually takes the form of a pet project, one they have always wanted to do and that they cannot do as part of their course. One of our best students completed his own project every summer: one year a drama, the following year a documentary. He learnt even more about production and got a bigger and better showreel than all his contemporaries. He now works as a BBC drama director and attributes his success not only to the studies and training that he undertook but to the other projects such as his self-initiated work. So, the basic rule is: keep producing. It is remarkably easy to forget the discipline that you need to maintain. Produce regularly and you will keep your skills up-to-date. This obviously applies even more so once you have finished your course.

Local Film Making Groups

If you don’t wish to set up your own video or film group, join an existing one. You’d be surprised just how many people are out there working on productions. Use the Internet and local press to find them. We are regularly approached by such groups who want to recruit students. In fact, we recently received some material shot on 16mm film and digitally edited from one of these groups. It looked great and highlighted the fact that there is an increasing number of people out there shooting their own very high-quality productions. Ask your tutor for more information if you cannot find information about local groups in your area. You may be lucky enough to be able to enrol on a video or feature film summer camp, such as those run by the British Youth Film Academy.

Competitions and Festivals

As we will see further on in this section, there are a vast number of video competitions and festivals out there and it’s your job to make sure that you enter them. Working toward competition entries is invaluable experience in developing skills, competence and confidence. You simply cannot afford not to do it if you are serious about working in the media industries. More about that later…

Freelance and Commercial Work

We have always offered our own students plenty of opportunities to undertake commercial or client-based work. Projects range from a single-camera shoot of the local infant school Christmas nativity play to a three camera live edit, recording and projection of a world climate change conference. Whatever the size of the project, the basic technical, creative and professional skills remain the same.

Companies will often approach universities and colleges directly with commercial work. If your institution does not currently take up these opportunities, talk to your tutor about setting up a small commercial video unit within the department or try to pick up some of the work yourself. This will add to your reputation, your confidence and to your portfolio. Do not be over ambitious by taking work that you do not have either the skills, the experience or the time to complete successfully. If you feel that you do not yet have the skills and the confidence to take on freelance work, see if you can take a small production role in another student’s commissioned or commercial work. If you’re really stuck for work, offer yourself for ‘freebies’. Post up messages on websites such a Shooting People saying who you are and what production work you’d like to do. You may be surprised by how many people contact you, especially when you offer to work for nothing.

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Getting your stuff out there

Like any artist, nobody is going to know about your work if it lies in a portfolio or remains embedded and untouched on a DVD. It should be your aim to get your work out to as wide an audience as possible; after all, you sweated blood to produce it, so people need to see it! As we mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, there are many ways of ensuring huge numbers of people have an opportunity to see your work,

Showcases

This is an inexpensive and easy way to start getting your work out to a larger audience than just the students on your course. Firstly, check out suitable possible venues such as cafés and café bars; some of these will let you hire you the entire venue for one night, free of charge as they’ll make their money on drinks. Work out likely numbers and choose the venue carefully, so that it is full on the night. Many contemporary café bars incorporate plasma screens into their overall design so, if possible, select one that has several connected to one PC or DVD player. Build a 40 minute showreel and make a couple of DVD copies. Make sure you test these out at the venue several days prior to the showreel event. Make it invite only and send out your invites two weeks prior to the event. Work on the basis that between 65% and 80% of the people invited will show up. On the night, arrange for someone to collect invites at the door. One year we organized showreels for four media groups in one evening which meant staggering the showreel time throughout the evening, but this ensured that the event was packed and all of the students had an opportunity to check out other groups’ showreels. It’s possible to have themed events: for example, a sci-fi evening or a comedy evening.

Launch Parties

Every year our students undertake a number of very large productions such as documentaries and dramas filmed in the UK and abroad. An amazing amount of work goes into these and production teams can amount to as 30 individuals. Some projects can last as long as six months and when finally completed they need to be launched. As with the showreels, an appropriate venue needs to be found and guests invited. Work hard on your VIP invites: given the scale of the productions, the time and effort they have taken and the likelihood that the production values will be high, this is an opportunity to impress and to establish relationships. Get busy on press releases too: if you can’t write them, get your college or university’s public relations department to do it for you. They will have all the local contacts to send it to. If you contact your local Arts Officer prior to filming, you may find they will support you with the launch; after all that’s their job and, given enough lead in time, they can be extremely accommodating.
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Exhibitions

At the end of your course you may wish to organise an exhibition. This differs from a showcase as the latter combines the work of a number of students, whilst the former affords each student the opportunity to exhibit the best of their work alongside their colleagues. Exhibitions can sometimes follow a theme and are physically built. Our own students are given eight foot high and four foot wide, ¾ inch deep chip board displays boards to build with and incorporate flat screens showing their work as well as storyboards and production stills mounted and displayed on the boards. There are so many ways to exhibit work and it takes months to make a group decision on which way to go, so start talking early (about 8 months in advance!). Some exhibitions show student work as individual instillations which have their own theme and tend to incorporate video and 3D construction. As with showreels and launches you will need a marketing plan and a project management team. Organizing an opening night tends to get VIP guests and the press in. Try and get a local media celebrity to open it.

Competitions

There’s a huge world of competitions and festivals out there. They run throughout the year, every year and include many different types of video and moving image. There are competitions in 2D and 3D animation, documentary, drama and shorts, regional, national and international. Information on them is usually sent to educational institutions, so keep your eyes on noticeboards and on the Internet for information.

Many competitions are run by large media companies such as Sony, JVC and Nokia and can offer big prizes while others are run by non-profit organizations. You don’t have to win but it’s nice when you do. To be a national winner is a great boost to your confidence and looks brilliant in your portfolio and on your CV. Even if you don’t win, entering a couple of competitions per year is important and can still go on your CV. Remember, entering competitions does not always necessitate producing new work, sometimes existing work can be used or adapted.

Festivals

The Cannes Film Festival is sometimes attended students just like you. It is the crème de la crème of film festivals and is the ultimate means of getting your stuff out there. It isn’t just big budget films that are represented, but lots of independents. If your work is not yet at a high enough quality to enter through the official channels, or is outside what they are looking for, save it as a dream for future years. Alternatively, if you are passionate about your work, do something slightly different: one year a guy made his own mini-cinema, complete with plasma screen, projector and two cinema seats, in the back of his VW camper van and drove up and down the main festival road inviting people in to view his film. Although his audience was minute, he was there!

There are hundreds of local, regional, national and international festivals for video. It really isn’t that difficult to get your material screened, just find out where and when your local art and media festivals take place and send them your films on DVD. There are frequent calls from festival organises for contributors. Check out www.withoutabox.com. This website acts as a broker for thousands of national and international festivals and will keep you in touch with what’s happening in the world of festivals. Work shown at festivals looks great on your ever improving CV.

Websites

There are hundreds of websites that host videos, often specialist sites such as documentary shorts. Often, it is possible simply to upload work (for example, on YouTube) while others will expect to see production documentation such as release forms and copyright clearance forms (such as FourDocs)

The web really is world wide, so uploading your films on to sites will give you a potential world wide audience. Ever considered creating your own website? You may already have one up and running. It really isn’t that difficult these days to build and maintain a site which could host information on you in the form of an interactive CV and also your current portfolio of video work. If web building isn’t your thing, get someone else to do it. You can purchase a web domain for £10.00 or less. Having a web site is one thing and getting people to visit it is another. One of its advantages is that you can use links to your site, for example, in contacting a potential client via e-mail you can create an electronic link to your site. The same thing can be done on other people’s web sites which offer links to yours.

DVD Portfolios

There are an increasing number of relatively easy to use but high-quality authoring tools available to you in addition to the authoring software incorporated into your computer. Select your very best work and creatively author it to DVD. This could include not only your video work, but storyboards, treatments, scripts, in fact, any relevant production materials. Exactly how you package your work is up to you, but package it you must. Ensure that you are selective in your choice of work. You may need to re-edit material in order to reduce running time. We would suggest that you do not offer all your work, but a careful selection of the best of it, which reflects the breadth of your skills and experience as a moving image maker. If necessary, you may need to produce more than one DVD portfolio depending upon what you need it for. If, for instance, you are pitching for work as an editor, then your DVD showreel should reflect this.

It is wise to remember that someone viewing your work will start to make decisions on its quality within the first few seconds. With this thought in mind you may wish to consider starting your showreel with a short opening montage or taster (30secs) which is basically a condensed version of highlights, often edited to music. The overall running time for a showreel varies but should be between four and six minutes long.

Think about not just content, but how the whole package looks and feels so do not neglect to package the DVD. You cannot force someone to watch it but you can encourage them to do so by smart or clever packaging. A well packaged DVD showreel may just stir interest enough to entice the recipient to view it: a poorly packaged or an unlabelled DVD will end up in the bin. So, it should have a printed disc and sleeve which contains basic, simple information such as your name and contact details. Consider putting the DVD together in conjunction with your website and offer a link to it. A disadvantage with using a DVD showreel is that it is not so easily updated: a website can be quickly and easily updated. You can also transfer your showreels and portfolios onto other mediums such as i-pods and MP4 players.

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Resources

www.rhizome.org – for discussions on the likely future of the media along with a superb list of links to other cutting-edge sites
www.wired.com – the website of the magazine with detailed future-gazing articles (In the UK, www.wired.co.uk)
www.onedotzero.com – for cutting-edge art videos and discussion
www.bbc.co.uk/jobs/workexperience/ - the official BBC work experience website
www.shootingpeople.org – the industry website with daily bulletins with numerous opportunities for work, both paid and unpaid, at all levels within the media industries.
www.byfa.org – the website of the British Youth Film Academy: an organisation that links UK students with industry professionals to make professional feature films.