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  • Options for non-video people to record themselves

    Posted by Neil Orman on July 31, 2022 at 5:41 pm

    I work as a nonprofit video producer, and especially since the pandemic, it’s often helpful to ask remote video subjects to record themselves. For that, I’ve found smartphones offer the best combination of good video and audio quality (much better than laptop-based options like Zoom recordings, with the tinny laptop audio etc), and ease of use. So I wrote up a how-do guide with some brief bulleted tips such laypeople can follow, on how to record with their phones as well as set up their shot easily, share the video files via Dropbox etc. However, it’s still challenging to get some remote subjects to do it, especially older or especially busy ones. So just curious if people agree with this smartphone-based approach, or think there’s a better way (again, for laypeople to easily record themselves).

    Grateful for any feedback or tips!


    Jerry Kornbluth replied 1 year, 9 months ago 6 Members · 10 Replies
  • 10 Replies
  • Patrick Donegan

    July 31, 2022 at 11:27 pm

    Smartphones would be a smart way to start out.

    Show some examples to people so they understand a little more.

  • Mark Suszko

    August 1, 2022 at 12:10 am

    Smartphones are simple and ubiquitous but they aren’t all of equal quality. Even among the same cameraphone models, the cameras on the back are often superior to the ones on the selfie screen side, which your users are going to utilize. If I was going to do, say, a “real” documentary with correspondents all over the map, using their phones, I would mail them a tripod, wired lav, and a goof-proof soft lighting package, and include a prepaid shipping box to send it on to the next correspondent.

    Assuming everyone is putting the phone on a desk or kitchen table and sitting at arm’s length from it, lighting becomes the biggest quality-affecting issue. Making a lighting setup that a completely unskilled “civilian” can deploy successfully, on a budget, is just the kind of challenge I like. In the past I’ve recommended a Miniature “V-Flat” made of two sheets of white foamboard, optionally with crinkled aluminum foil contact-glued to the talent-facing side, as a passive bounce-lighting system. This leverages the lighting already in the room and makes it softer and flattering. You can even attach a bracket to the v-flat to hold the phone instead of needing a tripod. Go one step cheaper and cut a horizontal hole across the joint of the v-flat, and the phone fits into that hole snugly, eliminating the need for the bracket. You can get fancier and add a glued-on strip of LED lights to the far left and right sides of the v-flat; such strips are available at discount places like Five Below as well as Walmart and Big Lots, for five bucks, running on USB or a AAA battery pack. Mount them with a layer or two of diffusion made of clear frosted scotch tape. 10 to 12-foot-long USB extension cables are a common find at gas stations near me. Adding a USB wall wart is another twelve dollars. The cheap ones *might* introduce flicker at anything but their brightest setting, ergo, the layers of frosted scotch tape to soften and attenuate. You could also punch white Christmas tree bulbs thru the foam to get a pleasant softlight effect, but that’s extra.

    The V-flat could in theory be built using sturdy, folded cardboard sheets, clad on the inside with foil that’s been balled-up, smoothed back out, and glued-on with contact cement. <font face=”inherit”> In a way, that lets it be its own shipping package; just by inserting the separate third bounce card between the two hinged ones, taping-up the side opposite the hinge of the “V”. Slap the shipping label right on the outside. True, it would be oversize. But not heavy at all. Might be cheap enough, depending on your budget, to mail out one to every participant instead of having each participant forward it to the next one. They’re basically disposable. Or send them the instructions to build the V-flat locally and only mail them the lav mic, if you’re choosing to lav them. Then you could just have the participants mail the wired lav mic to each other, with prepaid mailing envelopes from </font>Fedex<font face=”inherit”>, DHL, or etc.

    Audio-wise, kitchens aren’t generally the best places to record good sound because of refrigerator noise, and it’s a burden to ask people to unplug the fridge just to record. So a dining room table would be my first choice: it gets the camera and subject up close to each other in the room most folks take some trouble to make look good. Lighting will generally be from right above, or a side window, but by guiding their seating based on a still shot of the room, you could get the on-site practical lighting as good as possible, and you can lay a separate bounce card on the actual table to add a fill-in up-light under their jawline. It’s important that this v-flat setup doesn’t count on any additional lighting, though of course you can add some table lamps left and right of it, just out of frame, to help.

    Here’s a quick and dirty visualization attached. The center hole for the phone can be a single rectangular hole, or two vertical slots that can accommodate any width. The whole thing folds up flat, with the tape hinge on the back, the loose bottom bounce card in between the outer panels. Tape the edges closed with a colored tape and instruct recipient to cut the colored tape to open (not the black gaffer tape hinge). Insert the phone to lock it all together.

    To use the better-quality rear camera sensors, the interviewee or a friend can operate the camera control start/stop from behind the unit, then sit the person down and start the testimonials… let me know if any of you folks try this out for a shoot. This is the same rig I suggest to my beginning ukulele video-making friends because it’s so easy and cheap to make with local materials from the dollar store. The cheapest it costs to make is about $5. Less, if you have Reynolds wrap foil, tape, and large used amazon cardboard boxes at home already.

  • Neil Orman

    August 1, 2022 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks Patrick, good point on sharing examples of self-taping with smartphones. Those are below. Just FYI, I always advise these remote subjects to use window light, to simplify that challenge, and give them reference pic examples on framing their shots, where they should be in the frame etc. Just let me know if you have further thoughts, and Mark I’ll respond to your great points, too, separately.

    Thanks again, Neil

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  • Michael Grenadier

    August 2, 2022 at 3:13 am

    often, the limitations of recording from a laptop are the result of recording via zoom. Although I haven’t used it, someone did share a link with me for an app that allows you to record locally while your zooming. Might be worth a test. This would allow you to “direct” remotely….

  • Jerry Kornbluth

    August 3, 2022 at 4:32 pm


  • Jerry Kornbluth

    August 3, 2022 at 4:35 pm

    Thanks for posting Neil, and all of you.

    Some interesting ideas here.

    Neil, would you be willing to share the how-to guide that you put together?

    Does anyone else have any handouts that they can share?

    I’ve been working with the Greenwich Village Folk Festival and have put together a guide for musicians and others on HOW TO LOOK & SOUND LIKE A PRO ON LINE on a minimalist budget. It’s at

    Hope it helps someone.

    Any suggestions for updates are certainly welcome.

    Jerry Kornbluth

  • Neil Orman

    August 9, 2022 at 3:52 pm

    Sorry for my slow reply, Jerry. And sure happy to share that how-to guide. I’d welcome any feedback or suggestions for improvement, if anything occurs to you or others, as I continue to share this with most of my remote interviewees. And that guide you shared looks great too! Thanks for sharing.

  • Greg Ball

    August 18, 2022 at 5:02 pm

    Neil, your document does not open.

  • Neil Orman

    August 28, 2022 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks for the heads-up Greg. I should’ve attached that tips doc as a PDF, which I’m doing here. Hopefully it will be accessible now, but let me know if you can’t open. And like I said, I welcome any suggestions for improvement.

  • Jerry Kornbluth

    August 28, 2022 at 8:54 pm

    Hi Neil,

    Couple of suggestions:

    Use the front facing camera (not the selfie camera). The video quality will be much better.

    Find an uncluttered background to use.

    Make sure the room is quiet (no TVs, radios, or other extraneous noises, or people talking in the background, no loud appliances in the area). A constant background sound (AC hum, etc.) is better than one that starts and stops, or changes.

    Try to stay within 2-3 feet of the phone (less if the video framing allows it) so the phone’s microphone has a decent chance of cleanly picking up your voice.

    Don’t move your head or body around too much as you tape. Look at your phone, imagine that it’s your best friend, and talk to that friend directly.

    If you feel that you’ve made a mistake and need to re-tape something, don’t stop the recording, just calmly go back to the beginning of your sentence or thought and re-record it. Even professionals almost never tape their entire videos in one take.

    The trick is to go back quickly and to try to keep your focus, speaking pace, the tone of your voice , and the energy of your delivery the same as it was. Also, try to keep yourself in the same position for the repeat, so the two pieces don’t look strange when edited together.

    Hope these help,

    Jerry Kornbluth

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