The 10 commandments of DVD production

The 10 commandments of DVD production

MORE AND MORE vocation directors are using live-action videos/DVDs to share their community’s story with men and women investigating a call to religious life. A DVD—including interviews and footage of your brothers or sisters, their places of ministry, scenes of your provincial house and shots of community events such as jubilees, professions, chapters and liturgies—can convey a sense of energy, enthusiasm and excitement, putting people and places on the screen that cannot possibly be conveyed in a brochure, a PowerPoint or a lecture. A fresh, inspiring and upbeat program can do wonders to energize the talk you present at a vocation fair, a classroom visit, a parish gathering, or a young adult retreat. A DVD is also a wonderful resource to drop in the mail or put in the hands of a vocational prospect. A live-action program is also a tremendous resource to put on your Web site, allowing surfers to stop and check out your community at any hour of day or night.

However, creating a DVD that captures your community’s charism, mission and spirituality with excellent writing, camera work, music and editing takes involvement and dedication. It isn’t luck or magic that makes it happen but hard work and attention to detail.

Over the past five years I have found myself intimately involved with a number of men’s and women’s congregations, working with them to create media pieces that effectively reflect their vocation messages. The final programs have ranged from mini-CDs to half-hour cable TV broadcasts. Each community’s message was unique, as was each end product. In all of these projects, I empathized as a fellow-religious, understanding the concerns and priorities of the vocation minister (and the leadership team and community standing behind him or her.) I also wore the hat of a professional writer/producer intent on creating programs that were cost-effective as well as breathtaking. My own expertise, coupled with the collaboration of the clients, has served these projects well. All of us together have done great work. However, I have also been privy to mistakes and problems that communities have experienced as they ventured into the expensive and potentially-dangerous area of production. Hence I share this article, offering basic information that may make DVD production a safer and more positive experience for vocation ministers.

1. Thou shalt decide what thou wantest. You don’t need to know everything up front, or all at once, but do spend some time addressing basic questions: Why do you want or need a DVD? How will it help you? Will it serve vocations only or have other uses? Will it include a history of your province or order? What language will be used in the master? Will it be duplicated as DVDs or simply used live on your Web site? It will be helpful to brainstorm basic questions with leadership personnel or a small production committee. Choose three or four people to walk with you through this process. They might be your vocation team, but if you don’t have this structured support, ask a few good people to fill this role. You will need intelligent feedback, straight talk, and instinctive reactions to many issues as you proceed. Don’t try this all alone. As the process continues, this group will serve as critics, confidantes and supports. Keep them close.

2. Thou shalt determine an available budget. Video production costs money. Like the biblical king who determines if his military might is sufficient to go to battle against his rival, you need to assess if you have enough money (or can raise enough) to produce your project. For years the benchmark number often used for production was “$1,000 per finished minute.” That figure is actually closer to $1,500- $2,000 a minute these days. I find that most average vocation projects running under 10 minutes fall into the $35- $45,000 cost range. For longer programs or projects with multiple parts, that figure increases. Many factors fall into the mix: How much travel is involved—multiple cities across the US? How many days of shooting are called for? What is the length of the finished program? To what degree does the project require special shots (say, from helicopters) or substantial post-production (with special effects)? The best advice is probably to “blue-sky” your project and then crash back to reality when the cost is more than your budget can handle.

But creative approaches to financing also abound: Can costs be spread across two fiscal years, across departments, or even across provinces? Can costs be reduced by shooting in one or two locations as opposed to five? Can costs be consolidated by shooting footage that will be used for completely different purposes? (I have done this successfully for several communities’ fund-raising and vocational projects and literally halved their shooting costs.) If all arithmetic fails, and you are nowhere near what a DVD project will cost, it may be time to seek out sponsors to underwrite the project or talk to your leadership. Remember, too, that a good program will last at least 5-7 years, so the production cost should be amortized over that entire period and not considered as a one-year expense.

3. Thou shalt imagine thy project on screen before you pick up the phone. It’s important to do some homework even before you do research on agencies and production companies. Try to imagine your program: Whom do you see on screen? Do you want to feature only young professed? Or a mix of temporary and finally-professed? Do you want to emphasize certain ministries? Geographies? Or tape everyone in one location? Do you want people’s stories to mesh or to be told individually? Will the featured members be interviewed? On what topics? Again, during the creative process, these ideas will be fluid and shift many times. But thinking about them early on will discipline you and your committee to select the best people in the best places for the best reasons—usually a mixture of time, travel, money and message. And remember, it’s not always the province’s good-looking “George Clooney” or attractive “Nicole Kidman” that make the best candidates. Think about the person’s ability to speak convincingly about his or her vocation, commitment, spirituality, love for ministry, etc. Authenticity counts—it’s not easy to fool the camera.



Video The medium used to shoot and edit your program, usually on professional beta SP or SX tape. Once a video master is created, the show can be delivered in any other medium.

VHS tape The half-inch size cartridge tapes used for years in videotape players. Since the arrival of DVD, VHS has eroded as a playback medium, but it is still readily available. DVD A 4½-inch full-size DVD disk holds about 2.0-2.5 hours of video content. DVDs play full-screen from any DVD drive— either a computer or DVD player. Onscreen menus allow the user to select the chapters or programs to watch. DVDs can auto-start if no menu is needed.

DVD master The original DVD disk created to marry the video material to computer programming commands so that every subsequent DVD disk will “obey” orders to play, rewind, eject, etc.

DVD dubs All other DVDs stamped or burned from the DVD master. Since DVDs are digital, the quality never degrades; the millionth disk is exactly like the first.

CD A computer-based 4½-inch disk can hold about 74 minutes of video playable in a small window on screen— not full-screen. CDs are usable from any CD/ DVD drive; they can also have menus. Mini-CD A computer-based 3-inch disk that can hold about 8-9 minutes of video which will play back in a small window on screen—not full-screen—from any CD or DVD drive. Can also auto-start or use menus.

Web video Your entire video (or selected scenes) converted into a file for use on a Web site. Files are usually prepared for use with Windows Media Player, QuickTime players, Real Players—or all three—allowing users to watch the video from your site.

PowerPoint A computer-based “slide show” that plays from a computer drive and can be stored on a CD. PowerPoints are usually used with groups; a live operator, a large screen and a projector are needed.


4. Thou shalt seek wisdom and decide if thou needest an agency—or not. When a business needs a TV commercial, it often hires an advertising or public relations agency. The agency person will meet with you; listen to your ideas and discuss them until they feel they understand you; create a concept and a script for your program; and then hire a production company to execute the shooting and editing. In this scenario, you will end up paying both the agency and the production company. At times this step is needed if you cannot work with the production company alone to bring your ideas to fruition. Agency personnel can also be helpful if you plan on creating an entire campaign with a new logo, print pieces, and other kinds of advertising (Web, radio, bus posters, billboards, etc.) The agency contact will coordinate the design and layout, buy the air time you need, manage deadlines, serve as the liaison with the production company, and act as the “point person” you need to call about everything. If, however, you can find a production company that understands your vision, “gets it,” and can deliver what you need without the presence of a third party, it is perfectly acceptable to eliminate the “middleman” agency. But be sure that the production company can shoot the material, write the script, and deliver a finished DVD according to your specifications and deadlines. Otherwise, you can find yourself in a strange land with no translator or guide.

5. Thou shalt distinguish between the “sheep and the goats” so as to bring this project to safe pasture. The person who will be most intimately involved in bringing your project to the TV screen is your producer. Assuming you do not involve an agency, he or she must have the ability to listen to you and your team; take notes; reflect back to you at every stage what you are seeking; explain the schedule and process that will be followed in detail before the shooting starts; establish a rapport with everyone to be taped; bring visual imagination to the story; interview the featured members with intelligence, empathy and thoroughness; know how to work and behave in religious environments; write a script that balances content and interest; stay on deadline; stay on (or under) budget; and finally, deliver a program that is simultaneously beautiful, inspiring, human and spiritual. Selecting the producer is a critical step. This person will serve in a role akin to a confessor/ lawyer during the months of production. You need to feel safe, trusted, respected and included in the relationship.

It is not enough of a credential that the producer is Catholic. Ask to see samples of the producer’s work. Be sure you see programs that include interviews and location shooting—not simply studio “talking heads.” While he or she may not have produced vocation materials per se, look for evidence that this person can deliver what you are looking for. Check references. If you have a willing contact at the local news station, remember that newscasters and local reporters generally do not work on longer-form pieces; their reports usually last under a minute. Think twice about hiring a reporter, a student, or an inappropriate person to produce your piece in the interest of saving money. (One client hired a man whose total video production world consisted of taping legal depositions on 1980’s-era equipment!) Finally, check on the equipment the producer plans to use. Digibeta, Beta SP or SX tape are still the broadcast industry standards for professional shoots; if the format mentioned is ½ inch or ¾ inch tape, beware. These are inferior and quite archaic. Digital video (DV or mini- DV) cameras are very popular and accessible now from every Circuit City or Best Buy. However, they are inferior to broadcast standards and do not produce the sharpest, brightest footage. Desktop computer-based editing programs are also all the rage. These are certainly capable of creating a program out of your footage, but the quality will largely depend upon the artistry of the editor. Ask how and by whom the program will be edited. You should know if it’s going to be done by a high school student in his or her bedroom— fine, as long as that’s what you are expecting and paying for. In general, ask yourself if you want your program to be a professional investment worthy of hundreds of dubs, seen and circulated as far as possible, or if you will be satisfied with a consumer-level “home movie” production donated by a friendly parishioner. The answer will dictate whom you hire and what you pay.

6. Thou shalt admonish, instruct and illuminate the chosen producer as to the vision of your heart. Plan to spend lots of time with the producer. He or she may be a creative, gifted and successful commercial creator, but remember that you are not selling widgets but inviting persons to explore a spiritual prompting and to “come and see.” The producer may need a crash course in religious life, and you will be the designated tutor! Concepts such as vows, ministry, charism, prayer, community, solemn profession, etc may require explaining and examples. Further, it will be your responsibility to name the people you want interviewed, the places where ministry taping should occur, etc. By all means listen to objections or concerns the producer raises, and be willing to consider any alternative approach, but the bottom line is that you will be answering to the community long after the producer has disappeared. So don’t be intimidated: talk, talk, talk together; borrow a few vocation DVDs you admire and watch them with the producer; meet with or conference call the featured members; go over the questions and concepts you want covered in the interviews. You are the supervising producer, so take the responsibility seriously.

7. Thou shalt not insist that every chapter document, all of the founder’s writings, and a detailed history of the order be included. Television is not print. It is not meant to be read and digested on a quiet, personal level. TV is fluid, momentary, ephemeral. It moves and flows. It is best at leaving people with broad strokes, the gestalt, a quick impression: Yes, I’ll try that soft drink; No, I won’t vote for him; Wow, that’s a cool car; Gee, those religious look happy! The most consistent fault I see religious make in television production is attempting to stuff as much content as possible into their shows. We have to mention the latest chapter decree.... Is there enough in there about our charism? What about our congregational history? Are we representing every ministry? Remember your audience: They don’t need to see or hear too much at this point. Yes, you clearly want to include enough information to identify your group, introduce your people, and make your impression. You also want to leave Web site information and a contact phone number or address. But don’t overload your viewers. You will lose them and leave a negative impression in the interest of “getting your money’s worth.”

8. Thou shalt not bail out at this point! Once major decisions regarding people and schedule are made, you cannot sit back and abandon the process and the producer. Go along on all the shoots; watch what’s being recorded; encourage the “stars” to relax and be themselves; confer with the producer. Listen carefully to the interview questions as well as the answers. What the person is saying, what they don’t say, how they respond, whatever their comments—will live forever on tape. If an interviewee doesn’t say something useful to the program during the interview, the moment is forever lost. You will not be re-shooting this. If you want it and need it in the program, this is the moment to ask for it. Quietly pull the producer over and relate your concern. If necessary, include the interviewee and share what is bothering you: Tom, I just don’t hear you saying anything about what role prayer plays in your life. Joan, can you explain again how your ministry flows out of your vow of poverty? Then let the interview continue.

Once scripting starts, stay involved. The producer may write the script or may hire another writer for the task. Do not volunteer for this yourself no matter how persistent that voice in your head becomes. Leave it to a professional screenwriter who knows how to balance sound bites from different speakers, create narrator transitions and find good “sound ups” from the footage. However—do insist on reading the text to be sure it reflects the language you want, includes the essential concepts, and creates a positive, engaging, inspiring picture of your community. Be disciplined as you read. If the script omits a major concept (say, novitiate or community) it will cost you time and money later on. Get it right before editing begins.

9. Thou shalt now relax during editing. This is the time to let the professionals work—getting transcripts done of the interviews, making selections of the best comments, writing narration, sorting through the footage, picking the best shots, logging these, and finally going into editing. Any day now you will receive a call to “come and see” yourself. When you finally screen a rough cut of the show, watch it critically: Are there scenes that were shot that don’t even show up in the program? Why not? Where are they? What happened to that great comment about celibacy you remember someone making? Hmmm … the show seems to bog down there and get too serious….They misspelled her name or got his title wrong. Remember that committee you set up at the beginning of the process? Keep them involved. Watch the show with them and note their impressions. You will be hearing these soon enough from everyone else in the province! Deal with their objections. At this point, you really are the last line of defense for your congregation: talk to the producer/ editor and insist that things be changed to your satisfaction. Your congregation is paying the bills; it’s your product. Be sure you can live with this program for a long time.

10. Thou shalt maximize and multiply your Good News. The producer will most likely hand you ONE video master or DVD master of the program. After that, get the show out there: dub copies, upload it to your Web site, show it at gatherings, take it to schools and vocation fairs, arrange dinners at which to screen it, mail copies away. Now you ought to have a show that you and your community are proud of. May it last through the years of your own vocation ministry—until the next director is appointed to produce a new one!

Judy Zielinski, OSF is a Sylvania, OH Franciscan who has worked in church communications for over 25 years, writing and producing broadcast TV and group media. She is currently Director of Faith & Values Programming at NewGroup Media in South Bend, IN (www.newgroupmedia. com.) collaborating with NRVC members and others on religious media projects.

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