Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.
As baby boomers retire and your audience fills with generations x, y, and millennials, you might find the demand and expectations increasing for information products that contain more than just words on a page. The pressure is on to capture the attention of those who have grown up with technology that bombards all their senses. If you don’t provide this stimuli, the likelihood is that someone else will—YouTube is filled with amateur instructional videos that explain how to use your software, repair your hardware, or work around issues in your product, and your audience knows how to find them. For example, just yesterday, when I searched for information about exporting an MS Excel file to XML, my first hit was a four-minute video showing me exactly what I needed—not from Microsoft but from someone at Northern Kentucky University. (The first hit from Microsoft, three down, gave me only part of the information I needed, in a long, entirely text-based web page.)
So you want to add a little pizzazz to your web site or create a short how-to video. How hard can it be? Just turn on the recorder and speak into the microphone, and you’ve got something of potentially similar quality to the alternative YouTube product. Unfortunately, that seems to be the thought process of many companies—purchase a copy of Captivate and your technical writers become instant video producers. Assuming, however, that you want to put the same care into producing audio/video content as you do in producing your text-based content, there’s a bit more involved.
What to Include
When producing professional audio/video content, plan for and track the following activities:
- Scripting. Your script-writing process should follow the same path as your writing of chapters or topics, including a full-editing cycle. Although your printed text, if any, can serve as a source for an audio or video script, there are different standards for the spoken word than for the written word. People don’t talk the way your documentation is written, and, if you try to talk to them in that way, you’ll sound stilted and unfriendly. However, you also don’t want someone to simply speak “off the cuff” as they demonstrate the use of the product. You want to ensure that specific information is covered in a clear, friendly manner. In addition to typical writing and editing time, plan for a read-through of all spoken words to ensure that they don’t sound awkward when read aloud, that they are easy to say and flow well together, and that pauses are adequately marked.
- Pre-production meeting. Do not assume that a finished script can be simply handed to a production team. Allow time in your budget and schedule to ensure that everyone involved—scriptwriters, recording crew, talent, director—understands the script and what is expected. In addition, provide time for the director to break a script into a shot list that will allow for the greatest efficiency in camera set-up and so on. A disorganized shoot can take at least four or five times the length of one that has been well planned.
- Administrative tasks. Probably more than any other discipline, producing audio or video requires a measurable amount of administration. Selecting, scheduling, and coordinating talent, arranging for sites and equipment, and gathering costumes and props (if needed) all take a significant amount of time and effort. If you are recording the use of a software product, this category includes setting up the appropriate data needed for the demonstration.
- Recording. Obviously, a recording will take much longer than the planned length of the final piece as you allow time for an on-site rehearsal and multiple takes. In addition, ensure that you include recording time for all talent, the recording crew, and a director. Even if you are recording only audio, you should have a director listening to the recording session to ensure proper pronunciations, pauses, and inflections. In addition, build time for contingencies. Sick talent or bad weather can have a significant impact on an audio or video production schedule. Unlike writers who can just pick up their work the next day, it could be much longer before a recording session can be rescheduled, especially if it is off-site.
- Editing. It is highly unlikely that you will have a perfect recording in one take. Plan for editing time to select the best takes and piece them together. In addition, editing time includes clean up. For example, some speakers have a “noisy” mouth; a good editor can reduce these sounds to improve the overall quality. Finally, editing time includes saving the files into the appropriate formats.
- Filing. As with your static media, be sure to allow time within the audio/video bucket for applying metadata to the resulting source and finished product so that it can easily be found for later updates or reuse. You will likely want to use the same metadata scheme that you have in place for other media.
- Rework. The most significant difference between planned and actual budgets in audio and video production directly relates to rework. Once an audio or video file has been created, if it’s wrong, you can expect in most cases to pay almost as much for the correction as you did for the initial creation. Although the script might need only minor corrections, you will need to schedule another recording session, gather all the resources again, and, of course, edit the file again. In addition to cost impact, schedule impact can also be significant, since you might need to wait for availability of talent or site. Further, imagine if your filming was originally done in snow, but that snow has now all melted, and it’s June, so you have months before you’ll see snow again—the entire scene might need to be redone, that is, if snow wasn’t a key element to the scene. It is likely unrealistic in your planning to expect no rework. Set aside time and budget for rework and monitor your trends in that area to improve your estimates the next time.
In addition to planning for time in these activities and the cost associated with that time, you might need to plan for additional costs, depending on what equipment and capabilities you have available. These costs might include talent, equipment rental, and site fees.
Finally, like all disciplines, audio and video production should have standards that all finished products conform to. Plan for the development of these standards if you do not have them in place already.
You will find that your cost per finished minute of audio or video varies significantly based on these factors:
- Talent. Unfortunately, not all talent is created equal. You will likely find, for example, that some of your talent require fewer takes than others; others might require more cleanup editing. It is a great temptation to use your own staff as talent, especially audio talent. When determining the cost effectiveness of this approach, be sure to look at the entire cost, including editing time which will likely be higher for an untrained artist, and time lost from their primary jobs.
- Subject matter. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the cost of recording mouse movements within a computer program differs significantly from the cost of recording pilot hand movements in the cockpit of an airplane. From the difficulty of writing the script to the difficulty in arranging the shoot, subject matter will have a significant impact on the cost of a finished minute.
- Length/Number of sessions. Set-up time tends to remain fairly constant whether you are doing a 10-second or a 10-minute spot. Hence, in single-session recordings, you might notice a reduction in the cost per finished minute on longer pieces because the cost of set up is spread out over a longer time. However, as the number of sessions required for a piece increases, so does the cost. When planning a project, consider the number of sessions and sites required to complete your video work. Even if you are recording the same number of minutes as you have in the past, if the number of sessions increases, you can expect an increase in cost.
- Equipment. If you are planning to make audio and video contributions a regular offering, you should consider investing in tools and hardware specifically designed for the production of these files. Although you can create content in other less expensive tools, the cost savings in capabilities and efficiencies realized by these tools is measurable and will justify the initial expense.
- Experience of personnel. As with all disciplines, experience of the people involved is an important factor in estimating costs. It often can make the difference between having to schedule a makeup session and being able to work with what you have. For example, I had the privilege of working with an audio engineer who could scavenge for single words in other audio files by the same talent and replace that single word in another file so that it sounded just like it had been recorded that way. Over the period I worked with him, he saved us hundreds of hours on makeup sessions.
Interpreting Your Audio/Video Metrics
Because the phases of an audio or video project are fairly diverse, a trend in one area does not necessarily mean you can expect the other areas to follow suit. For this reason, it’s important as you monitor these projects to dig deeper into any trend you notice to determine the reason and expected impact on future parts of the project.
Early overages in the scripting process could indicate a corresponding increase in the number of finished minutes. It’s important to catch these trends quickly. Even though it may take more writing time to bring the script back within the time guidelines, this is the cheapest place to bring the project back to expectations. Only one or two people are likely involved in the scripting process, but during recording that number can easily triple or more.
On the other hand, overages in the scripting process could be completely contained to the writing process and have no impact on the number of minutes. For example, the writing might be taking longer to provide clearer instructions to the production crew. In these cases, take the time to determine if the script writer is overdoing these written instructions. Ask your production team to evaluate whether the instructions are necessary and provide feedback on what could be eliminated from the writing either because it is a standard procedure that the crew would know or it is information that could easily be conveyed in the production meeting.
Conversely, if the scripting process is taking less time than expected, you might have the opposite problem. Inexperienced scriptwriters frequently create great scripts for the content, but tend to skimp on description and instruction for the production team. Again, ask your production team for an early evaluation of the scripts. You might want to send the script back after a production meeting to better document the expectations.
Overages in the recording stage of an audio or video project could indicate a lot of takes on the same content, which in turn could lead to increased editing time piecing together the good parts. In these cases, track down the reasons for the multiple takes. For example, perhaps you will need to use different talent in the future. There may be little you can do to bring the schedule and budget back in line for the current project. If you have other recording sessions scheduled, you may be able to address the issues on the later sessions. Or, you may need to eliminate multimedia elements to stay on budget and schedule.
Overages in the recording stage could also have little impact on the later editing schedule. Difficulties unique to the specific day (for example, weather or lighting) could have made the video shot set-up more difficult than planned, but the actual footage may not require additional editing time.
Overages in editing time could point back to problems in recording. If you have additional recordings scheduled, make sure to get the editor’s feedback about what could be improved in the recording sessions to make editing easier.
Finally, ensure you are monitoring the amount of rework required after finished audio or video files are ready. As much as your schedule will allow, try to save the rework until enough changes have built up to fill a reasonable recording session. Many onesie-twosie fixes add up much faster than one larger session. Monitor the reasons behind the rework to address the issues with continued work on this project or on future projects:
- Was the script wrong? or unclear?
- Did pieces get left out during recording? Were the right camera angles not achieved?
- Was the video or sound quality unacceptable? Were there mistakes in pronunciation or movement?
Remember that your primary purpose is not to point fingers, but to improve your estimates and production process in the future. When you find the problem, address what can be done to fix it. For example, if talent mispronounced unfamiliar words, ask script writers to add pronunciation guides to the script and to sit in on recording sessions to ensure correct pronunciation.
Audio/Video Tracking Pitfalls
A common mistake in audio/video estimating and scheduling is not planning for the time it can take to schedule the talent, sites, and equipment required for a recording session. Frequently, you’ll need to schedule these weeks or even months ahead. However, a common mistake is to wait until the script is done with a schedule that wasn’t built to allow a gap between script completion and recording. Be aware of the lead times you’ll need for recording. Either build it into the schedule appropriately after the script is done or schedule it without script completion. Monitor script progress closely so that you can bring additional resources to get the script completed as scheduled or reschedule the shoot if it becomes apparent the script won’t make it.
Be aware of the granularity of tracking that you require on audio and video projects, especially if the audio or video is simply a small piece of the overall whole, such as, voiceover for an interactive tutorial. Even if you are tracking all other disciplines at a lesson level you might find it impractical to track audio. To save costs on audio sessions, you will likely collect several scripts for a single session. It is difficult for your audio engineer to assign the work involved in recording those scripts to their respective lessons, especially when these files are small rework efforts. It is unlikely that you’ll get accurate data rather than a random guess by the people involved as to how much time was spent on each lesson. You may be better off gathering the time for the entire product, and dividing it across the total number of minutes.