Media Theory

Why is the Demand for Quality Video so High?

Sam Mestman wrote a post at that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. Ostensibly it’s career advice for people just getting out of film school, but without meaning to do so Mestman touches on a profound question:

Small businesses have no idea how to market themselves through video, they all have small budgets for marketing that they waste on hideous content that doesn’t work, and there’s a big market in just about every town for someone who makes great, affordable web and social media video for businesses. [Emphasis mine]

If the demand for “great, affordable web and social media video” is so high, then why is that demand going unmet? Could it be that the difficulty of creating great video is orders of magnitude more than what’s affordable for small businesses.

Let’s consider three different methods of nonfiction storytelling: writing, podcasting, and documentary. When you consider the amount of time, effort, and skill required to make a great article, versus a great podcast, versus a great documentary; the difference is probably logarithmic.

Think about the standard sit down interview common to all forms of nonfiction storytelling. When a reporter talks to his subject, from the moment the interview starts until it ends, the reporter is able to use whatever they’ve observed.

When a podcaster conducts an interview they have to consider the overall sound quality and the temporal nature of audio recording itself. If the subject says something brilliant, but the recording wasn’t running in that moment, then it might as well not have happened. Ditto if the sound quality is poor. The podcaster has multiple dimensions of difficulty that the reporter can blissfully ignore.

The documentarian has all of the reporter’s and podcaster’s problems, in addition to all of the problems that come with adding image (camera equipment, lighting, composing, etc). Because there are so many considerations, the documentary often requires a crew of specialists, adding personnel management and financial components to the challenges.

We can consider each medium’s difficulties with the following table:

Getting the Interview– the Interview
– Sound Quality
– Temporal Recording
– Interview
– Sound Quality
– Temporal Recording
– Image Quality
– Image Composition
– Crew Coordination

To be clear: I’m not saying that someone like the documentarian Alex Gibney is more skilled than the writer Susan Orlean. What I am saying is that creating a documentary for HBO is cumulatively probably more difficult than writing an article for the New Yorker.

This isn’t meant to be scientific, but over the next few posts, let’s keep this idea in mind as we explore what makes video production unique.


Post Production is a Zombie-class situation

Yes, a Zombie-class situation:

You can’t fight the ocean. In a zombie-class situation, heroes ultimately won’t get far trying to defeat their opponents, who have the advantage of both numbers and replaceability. Rather, your hero must set an achievable goal such as escape, survival, or retrieval of a key asset.

Sounds a lot like unscripted post, right?

Solid state digital recording has made it so easy for productions to create outstandingly high shooting ratios. From my experience, it is now common to hear editors and producers talk about a hundred hours of raw material for a one hour show. Shooting ratios of 200:1, once fables you heard about on films like Apocalypse Now, are everyday occurrences in the realm of reality TV.

No matter which tools we use, despite the help of loggers, assistants, and story producers, it always seems like we are one step behind. Because deep inside we all know this is a fool’s errand. Time and money make it impossible for the editorial to watch every raw minute.

In an interview with the New York Times, Andrew Jarecki, talks the Robert Durst’s “confession” that was discovered after it was recorded:

That was at the tail end of a piece of an interview. I don’t know if you’ve ever edited anything — things get loaded into the editing machine but not everything gets loaded. The sound recorder isn’t listening after a guy gets up and says he wants a sandwich. It often doesn’t get marked and get loaded. That didn’t get loaded for quite a while. We hired some new assistants and they were going through some old material. That was quite a bit later. Let me look at my list. It was June 12, 2014.

Like John August’s heroes, today’s unscripted producers and editors can’t wrestle down ratios of 200:1, instead they have to set an achievable goal and just accept that some really good material will go undiscovered, buried in the sub-sub-folder of an unlabeled hard drive organized by a logger you never hired.