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Our first video production workshop

GDS video workshop

We recently held our first ever video production workshop with a small group of participants from the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG). The aim was to pass on what we've learned about making films in the last couple of years. We went through our list of basics (last spelled out in How we make films at GDS) and added a practical session too. Since it was our first attempt at a workshop like this, it was as much a learning opportunity for us as it was for the OPG team.

Do it yourself

The easiest way to make a short film is to pick up the phone and call in a professional production company. That gets great results, but is usually very expensive. You can easily spend £1,000 per minute of finished film.

When we started making our own films, we wanted to help spread the word about agile working around the rest of the civil service. We also wanted to explore agile filmmaking. We thought: what if we do it ourselves? What kind of production values could we achieve? How good could our own films be?

We soon learned a few things:

1. Stick to interviews. They’re quick and easy to turn around. Talking to clever people about what they’re working on is a really good way of passing on that knowledge.

2. When video works and when it doesn’t. It works well for sharing experiences, or the feel of doing something. But if you need to go into detail, video isn’t the answer. A film of someone talking, together with a detailed blog article or some guidance (like in the Service Manual), adds a human element that can really help demystify a new or complex subject.

Making good decisions

One of the points I made at the workshop was the importance of good decision making.

The first things I do when setting up the camera for an interview are:

  • decide where to put the camera
  • how to make best use of the available light
  • how to compose the shot

How do you learn to do these things? It gets easier with experience. But you can also improve by thinking ahead, trying to anticipate the challenges you may face. One of the things I’ve found myself getting better at is seeing the light; I’ve worked on this by doing things like looking at people’s faces and studying the work of artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt to see where the light falls.

Don’t neglect sound. Always use a good external microphone, and monitor it through headphones while you’re recording.

It’s all about the sensor

In the afternoon practical session, we got the attendees to conduct a short interview in front of three different cameras, so we could compare the footage from each.

The cameras were, from cheap to expensive:

  • a smartphone with an external microphone (iPhone 4 & Rode smartLav mic)
  • a semi-professional camcorder (Canon XA10)
  • a full frame DSLR with a professional quality lens (Canon 5d Mark iii & 70-200mm L lens)

(Note: we’re not endorsing or recommending these particular products. They just happen to be the ones we use for our films. Many equally good alternatives are available.)

This exercise confirmed to us and the workshop participants that you get what you pay for. The external microphone for the smartphone is only £35, a fraction of the cost of a DSLR, but the quality of the final product takes a hit. The DSLR gives you that better quality, and will quickly pay for itself if you’re not hiring a production company.

On the one hand, the workshop attendees were really impressed with the look of the footage we could get with a DSLR. On the other hand, everyone (myself included!) was surprised at how well the video from a smartphone held up against the semi-pro camcorder. As a result, I can see us using a smartphone more in some situations (always on a tripod though).

Learning from mistakes

For me, the main thing to take away from the workshop is that, yes, you can make films yourself - but you need to give yourself time to do it.

People often say that one of the good things about agile is that it’s very tolerant of failure. If something doesn’t work out, you improve it. The same is true for making films: the way to improve is to practice and make mistakes.

We’re planning to do more workshops, and we want to improve them too. One piece of feedback from our workshop attendees was that the practical session should be longer and be more hands-on. We’ve taken that on board and we’ll change things next time.

If you think you or your team would like to attend a future version of this workshop, please get in touch via my colleague Alexandra Kelly:

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  1. Comment by Suzanne posted on

    Great post - wondering whether I can touch base to find out more about the use of graphics in video content - how to use them effectively, specs, what has worked well for you and what hasn't, that sort of thing?
    Be great if that's a possibility!
    Thanks in advance

  2. Comment by Steven Gardner posted on

    Interesting post, thanks! I agree that experience really shows in end products and comes with time and practise. Re the sticking to interviews... I tend to talk customers away from any video that involves talent doing or talking about anything that isn't natural to them. It's not natural for most of us to be sat in front of a camera, being fed lines or acting a role rarely works well (in my experience). I agree that a narrative from someone knowledgable with nice cut-aways to add some added interest is far better.

    On using mobile phones for user generated video (if your workforce need to create video that you can't help with) check out the video tutorials on the BBC Academy site particularly the smartphone video and smartphone audio links. Loads of quality info on here to keep you busy 🙂

  3. Comment by David Bloomfield posted on

    Thanks Graham thats helped me a lot.

  4. Comment by David Bloomfield posted on

    Great article.

    For subtitling on videos, such as, do you rely on YouTube automatic service or do you add them yourself?

    Also is it a legal require for government videos to be captioned?


    • Replies to David Bloomfield>

      Comment by Graham Higgins posted on

      Hi David, thanks for your question. No, we don't use the YouTube automatic subtitling feature as it tends to be a bit hit and miss. But if you upload a typed transcript of the spoken words in the video, YouTube does quite a good job of matching the words to the audio. You need to fine tune the timings a bit in the YouTube video manager dashboard, but it's a lot quicker than trying to do the timings yourself. And yes, it is an accessibility requirement to provide subtitles/captions. We also provide a full written transcript in the blog post that accompanies the video.

  5. Comment by Sam W posted on

    Good piece. I've used my smartphone for videos in the past and the quality has always been pretty good - a tripod is definitely a must since you're bound to get the shakes from only using your hands. But as you know the DSLR is even better.

    For editing videos I've used Premiere but I primarily use the Apple's iMovie, which is free and it's very good for a professional finish!

    We also sometimes forget the questions in interviews - I think they're equally or more so important than the equipment!

  6. Comment by simonfj posted on


    What (free) software do you use for capture and editing?

    • Replies to simonfj>

      Comment by Graham Higgins posted on

      Hi Simon
      Thanks for your question. I use a Mac with Final Cut Pro for editing, but you can get very good results with iMovie which is £10.49 from the App Store. For video screen capture we use QuickTime and for still grabs Paparazzi! both of which are free.

      If you're using Windows, one of the cheapest options for editing is Premiere Elements, which is a scaled down version of Adobe Premiere Pro, but still pretty good. I've used Camtasia for screen capture on Windows machines in the past, which I found very easy to use and also good for basic editing tasks.

      You can also do basic editing for free in YouTube now.

  7. Comment by Andy McAleer posted on

    Great article. Very informative. Thanks.

  8. Comment by K Hughes posted on

    Learning as you go is great, however sometimes you only get one shot at capturing something.

  9. Comment by Dumet School posted on

    Thank you so much for useful information. Really appreciate it.

  10. Comment by Pete posted on

    Really interesting piece. I was recently tasked with producing a short film for a staff event. Having had very little experience of film making, it was a big dive into the deep end. Your pointers ring true in terms of careful planning, allowing enough time and the sound quality. We are fortunate to have lapel mics at our disposal and a quality HD camera but poor sound quality really has a big impact on the final product. One of the interviews we shot was taken outside on a moderately windy day, needless to say that the wind effect on the mic was noticeable but luckily didn't quite dominate the audio. I quickly learnt from those mistakes and having experience really matters for film making as there are so many factors that change the end result.

  11. Comment by Andrew Dennehy-Neil posted on

    Great blog Graham with some really helpful tips. Already looking forward to hearing more from you and the team at a workshop.

    Would be really interested in a blog on your post-production experiences.

  12. Comment by Dave Thackeray posted on

    Epic job folks. Video's great. But...

    Unless you've done a literally fantastic job of turning it into a performance, an interview on video can be banal or dull no matter the prestige of your interviewee.

    There's so much noise out here in internetland that unless the final footage is 30 seconds long, or there's a cat dressed as the one with the big forehead out of Ant and Dec mooching about in the foreground, you've lost your audience.

    You need to be changing the scenery every five seconds at most to lock 'em in. Fortunately you can do that by showing other things relevant to the interview - screengrabs, photos, whatever - so it's not beyond reach for even the most amateur filmmaker with a bit of nifty editing.

    Love to come to one of your workshops. Your team is brill.