Saturday, December 27, 2008

Make Money with Video Vignettes

Video vignettes are brief, live recordings of individuals reading from short personal bios/notes, or bios/notes of someone whose special story/memory they wish to preserve. The vast majority of video vignettes I have produced have averaged 20 minutes to a half-hour in length. Some have been as brief as 15 minutes, and others as long as an hour. Occasionally, but rarely, longer.

I have also produced video vignettes of clients speaking extemporaneously, as well as working from a script and a scrolling prompting system using an old Amiga computer and some rather antiquated software, poster board prompts, even sheets of typing paper with key words. Depending on the length of time spent, such productions can generate a couple hundred dollars income, sometimes but rarely thousands - it all depends on your fees, the complexity of the productions, and client budget, of course. The trick is to minimize your editing requirements.

How do you go about getting this kind of production work? Work, by the way, that offers a lot of scheduling flexibility, and provides income generating opportunities virtually any hour of any given day. This is an excellent way to get in some production time during those off days and slow weeks, adding to your bottom line. The preservation of personal memories and stories with professional quality production work can be especially lucrative during economic hard times. People tend to focus more on such things, and the family unit rather than expensive dinners, new cars or boats, or major trips.

Set up is quick and easy, videotaping and audio acquisition is (or can be) down and dirty still with excellent results, and virtually no editing. Planned properly, and with the right client, you can almost edit in-camera and hand it over at the end of the session. But, you probably wouldn’t want to. Why?

A little touch of added production quality: titles, brief opening/closing music score, closing credits and packaged in a nice DVD case with graphics printed on the disk as well as custom color inserts makes all the difference in the world. It takes very little time to spice up the production this way. Making the effort often results in additional sales of copies, referrals to others in the client’s social circles, and can generate even better paying gigs of interesting and varied commercial value. It’s (almost) all in the presentation and delivery.


As with a lot of things you can do with video to make money, you need something to show. You will need to give a little to get a lot, and it doesn’t take much effort. Notwithstanding the family and friends you have around you (known, and excellent resources for practice or developing samples) there are also other avenues to pursue.

I started marketing this production service at retirement centers, convalescent centers, community senior and citizen centers, and most recently picked up a couple from a holiday party gig we booked Christmas week. Two clients there, encouraged by the telling of an old war story by the company owner’s 85-year-old father, have scheduled their own video vignettes for the end of January 2009.

Give a little to get a lot? Well, my first adventure was in a retirement community. I personally visited the facility director and offered to spend a day on location at one of the clubhouses. I proposed to set up a small interview area with 3-point lighting, camera on a tripod and wired mic. (I now use the Zoom H2 standalone digital recorder for virtually all such audio acquisition). I wore a suit and tie, had professional quality business cards and a brief 10-minute video of my Dad sharing one of his many “stories from the past” just to give an idea of what I was proposing.

I told the facility, and also the activities, directors if they had residents who were physically independent, could communicate and were active and interested in having a story or two of themselves on video that they could share with family, friends and others in their social circles, I would be willing to record their brief stories and make a quality production for each of them - no charge.

I explained that I would need them to distribute fliers giving the date, time and clubhouse/activities room location, advertising that the video interviews and one copy for each participant would be free of charge. I asked for permission to provide cookies and punch (if you feed them, they will come) and asked them to encourage family members to attend if they were curious or concerned. I handed out releases to be signed, noting that I would be using the resulting productions for further marketing.

The fliers were distributed and I videotaped and interviewed 18 individuals during an eight-hour day. Some brought hand-written notes on a tablet or notebook, one brought a laptop computer, and others had various and assorted note cards. A couple brought a friend or family member to interact with, telling them “the story” while I recorded. Those came off so natural and relaxed. A few brought photo albums or a representative photo of the story they wanted to record. The excitement level was high and there was a friendly, almost party atmosphere.

I did what I promised, and I sold several copies to most of the participants. Over time I received many other orders, and contact from friends and family members to provide similar services for them. The first year I did this I had all the bookings I could handle, and the scheduling was very flexible for most of them. Only a few had some kind of serious time line they wanted to meet - a reunion, milestone birthday or anniversary coming up.

The best part of that initial experience was being called back not once, but several times over the next two years by the facility to do it again, this time for “paid” gigs. I was also contacted by associated facilities, as well as people who worked with veterans, retired and active senior groups, with interesting stories they wanted to have recorded. They’d heard about, or watched one of the productions and were enthusiastic about doing the same thing.

Another way to get these gigs is to get addresses for community centers and senior/retirement facilities, even churches, in your service area. Develop a single-page letter with the basic information, and create a five-to-ten minute DVD demo to include. It doesn’t always generate interest or immediate response as well, however, as a personal face-to-face.


This is fairly basic production work. Pretty much any kind of light source(s) will work. I have an NRG 3-point lighting system that I found reasonably affordable many years ago, but there are any number of ways to generate soft, pleasant lighting. Also, depending on the time of day, you can utilize available lighting resources as well - just be sure to white balance your camera for optimum results. Avoid harsh shadows. Soft, indirect lighting sources are best for a pleasing and flattering image quality. I also keep a box of tissues handy for blotting oily or shiny faces.

I have found that most community centers and activity rooms have pleasant, soft non-directional lighting, as well as comfortable chairs, and artificial plants, or a side table and lamp, to help in the prop department.

I do a sound check, of course, asking the participant to speak in their normal, conversational voice.

To get the best, most natural shoots, and to help (sometimes) prevent overloaded nerves, after setting up the camera on a tripod for either side, direct, or over-the-interviewer’s-shoulder perspective, checking the lighting on my monitor, I remove the headphones, abandon the camera (leaving it running - if you cannot turn off the blinking red light, put a piece of tape over it) and seat myself in a position that allows the subject to focus on me, telling me their story, rather than worrying about what the camera (or the person behind the camera) is doing.

I ask the subject a few general questions in a light, interested, conversational tone just to get him/her into it. When I see them relax a bit I encourage them to start reading, or telling me their story. This sounds like a long process, but it only takes a few minutes most of the time. Of course I adjust my approach when they have their own props, or have brought a friend to participate in the story-telling process. Be flexible. Don’t let yourself come off anxious or everyone around you will tighten up, making for some seriously tense footage, or even re-takes.

Before the subject leaves, check your footage and your audio to make sure, then call out “next!” Don’t make the mistake of allowing them to see or review the footage. If you are on a production time line, this will seriously screw up your ability to keep on schedule. I usually tell them (if it is so) “looks good, sounds good, you’re gonna love it. I will let you know as soon as your production is ready to delivery.”

They already know an estimated time line for delivery, and have usually given me a photo of themselves, or the story subject, along with their information sheet. So, “next!”

Pricing, of course, is whatever you want it to be, and what your particular market will bear. Set your own values, but first I’ll tell you what I started out charging, and what I charge now, and some variables that sometimes occur.

That first experiment was entirely on spec - meaning, of course, I was willing to shoot and deliver a product for free. I charged $20 per copy and averaged five copies per subject. Some bought 20, others a couple, one took the free copy and “bye-bye.”

Today, I charge $100 per hour and spend, on average, two hours with most clients, including setup and break down. I require a two-hour minimum, unless the client is only going to read from five pages, or less, of copy usually taking about 10 minutes. I’ve done many one-hour gigs, including setup/tear down, but have almost always wound up with copy sales of a dozen or more offsetting the minimum fee.

The hours can add up when a video vignette client winds up being a documentary client or a “This is Your Life” subject with multiple interviews, additional resources and visual materials, extra locations, audio enhancement, etc. This is a whole other subject, and I try to keep my focus when promoting video vignettes as opposed to full scale documentary production work. It is, however, all in the hours and, of course, the amount of editing you wind up having to perform. I currently charge $100 (two-hour minimum) to shoot, and $75 an hour for editing for serious documentary work. I advise that editing can run about one hour per finished minute. Keeps everything in perspective - sometimes.

Video vignettes need to be simple and straightforward with little, if any, editing. Get your clean ins and clean outs, make sure your white balance and audio levels are proper going in, then whip that project out and collect your money. “Next!”

1 comment:

Jay Michael said...

Great article EC!
If you are interested in this fantastic marketing idea you can also send these stories to the veterans history project. This may also help you market the concept by offering to record stories for submission to the project. Follow the procedure as EC wrote but you can also offer sending the footage to the VHP and this will be an added value! A great way to get some fantastic stories plus you are helping preserve history!

Check out this article on my blog about the Veterans History Project: