I’ve had an idea for a book in my head for a few years now. Since there is a challenge afoot, I started, November 2, 2010, to write that book. This blog will contain the very rough draft and I hope I’ll get a chunk of it out this month. No guarantee I’ll write everyday, but I hope this won’t be the last entry.
Stages of Production
Whether it’s a 5 minute podcast or a multimillion dollar epic, every production goes through 3 stages. When you think about it, it’s obvious. You need to plan, execute, and clean up. Those are just some common words for what we do everyday in each piece of our lives. As an artist, I’m not a huge planner, but I’ve found that my art is better when I do. This book is a perfect example. I’m carrying around a little slip of paper in my back pocket and a pen in my front left pocket. As ideas come to me, I make a quick note to myself. This very chapter was almost forgotten because I didn’t immediately stop and write down the idea for it among my notes. Now I’m writing it and soon I’ll go back and edit what I’ve written. Production is the same way.
This is a step that you might not know you do. Some people claim to do everything off-the-cuff. That might be possible for some things–a trip to the store for ice cream for example, but it’s rarely the case that anything is created without first going through some planning.
In Hollywood, this is script-writing, storyboards, proof of concept videos and animatics. In talk radio, it’s called show prep where the host collects data to have topics to talk about. Local news includes stories that are typically written and proofed before they’re read. Plays are written, actors are cast, and sets are built before a Broadway show goes into production. In our context in the church, few pastors walk up to the front, clueless as to what they’ll say. Some do, but most don’t.
Preparation for your podcast might be as simple as a few notes scrawled on a scrap of paper or as complex as a verbatim script with a pre-show run through. It really depends on your subject, your format, time constraints and what you’re trying to do.
For audio, I’d recommend an outline as a bare minimum. If shows are reliant on current events, make sure you mark stories as they come to your attention, tag them in email, or save them to a bookmarking service like Delicious.com. For audio, the elements should be gathered in advance (like intro and outro as well as transitional elements and sound effects). For video, this might be a lot more complex. If you’re fortunate enough to have a director, she might mark scripts to provide for adequate coverage. Video packages should be made and previewed.
This is the step in which you want to anticipate problems and solve them. In traditional media, the producer’s job is to do just that. I was amazed in my time in local news at the ability of a good producer to create possible run-downs and have a plan that always started and ended exactly on time. A podcast needn’t be that rigid, but good planning will help take a good production to great and help streamline processes.
Don’t plan forever. The secret to all great podcasts is they are actually made. Having an idea doesn’t make a podcast. For the young producer, that might mean just doing it and not caring that the quality isn’t quite there. We’ve all had great ideas that we never executed.
I invented the iPad in 1995. I didn’t really because I never took any steps to make it real. I just had an idea. I wanted something to wirelessly sync text and read to my heart’s content without having to re-dock and be able to take notes on the device. Fast forward to January 2010. The iPad is announced and the world has two reactions, “It’s just a big iPod touch” and “I want and must have one.” Many of the people reading this have the ability to do great podcasts, but won’t because they’ll never execute. It’s sad really. Don’t be that guy. Start today and it will be okay if you aren’t great just yet. No one was ever able to make something without making it. Don’t trust yourself to do it in the future. You can only control your current self. Start today.
We’ll spend a whole chapter on editing which is a piece of postproduction. Most people think of editing as the only piece of postproduction. That’s not completely accurate. Postproduction in a podcast includes editing, transcoding, blogging, posting, submitting to iTunes, and promotion. Make a list of the things you want to accomplish and spend time trying to do it better and faster.
Every week I edit our Saturday service for use at satellite campuses. Let’s look at that process through the lens of the stages of production. The preproduction starts long before the weekend. Our pastor takes July to pray and hear from God about the next year. He knows the series for the year long before anyone else. About a month before the series starts, the programming team gets a general outline of each week. That team brainstorms possible elements to flesh-out the week. A second team clarifies those ideas.
The music team schedules and then practices two weeks out. The video team starts production on video elements. Other teams prep the stage and props as needed. Tuesday before the service the leaders of the teams get together to talk through the weekend. Thursday night before the weekend the teams practice, ironing out rough spots. That’s preproduction.
Saturday there’s one final practice before a run through where everything is practiced in order with transitions. If the service doesn’t seem right, it might be tweaked to be more effective and touch a deeper spot with the people we’ve invited.
Saturday night the service is run and recorded on the audio side of things as well as in video. For audio, we have the ability to record microphones and instruments individually. Because of the expense of the media our cameras take, we don’t have the ability to record each camera. We do record the imag feed and graphics on the video. That’s production.
This is where I come in. To make sure I understand the service flow and what’s happening, I almost always watch the service. I know which pieces we need for Sunday and I separate them from the whole service. Our pastor knows not to reference Saturday night, but occasionally he makes a mistake and talks to someone who will be at another campus the next day or references something that happened on Saturday. I cut that out anyway I can. Sometimes it’s simple. Other times, I cover it with something. I just do my best not to make it obvious.
I export the video as a Final Cut Pro reference movie and take it into Compressor. I used to transcode to an h.264 1280×720 mov file. This created a beautiful file that was smaller than the original. It also took real time to transcode. Since I need to have it done for the next day, quicker is better. My video director suggested that I try m4v for AppleTV. This gives me a smaller file in about 1/4 the time. I pack up the whole thing onto a hard drive a drive it to our Frankfort campus the next day. I’ve considered creating a private rss feed to push these elements to all campuses overnight. This could easily be a podcasting workflow if we used it this way.
Why did I give you the details about transcoding? This is a perfect example of modifying the workflow for better results. This particular change only came at the cost of a file that wouldn’t easily upconvert to higher resolutions than we need. The upside was roughly equal quality at smaller file size and faster transcoding. Always look for ways to optimize the ways you do things, especially if the cost is something that you don’t care about.
For a podcast, quality needs to be adequate for how you expect the people to consume the media, but smaller is better. Remember that your audience won’t receive a hand delivered hard drive from you. They will get it by a download that will be stored on a device with limited storage.