Whether eLearning includes a single video featuring a simulation of a workplace scenario or a dozen short instructional videos, all eLearning videos share three stages of development: preproduction, production, and post-production. This article focuses on the first—and most often neglected—stage of planning eLearning videos: preproduction.

Video preproduction, though far from an exact science, has been honed to an art form in the entertainment business. L&D professionals can learn a lot from techniques and practices gleaned from the Hollywood pros. The eLearning Guild’s upcoming Using Video for Learning Spotlight, on December 6, will include an entire session on the topic: “Preproduction Practices for Better Workplace Video,” presented by Thomas Spiglanin, a senior project leader for The Aerospace Corporation. Spiglanin shared some insights with Learning Solutions on why preproduction matters and how eLearning developers can use this stage to plan innovative eLearning videos.

Planning eLearning videos includes some or all of the same steps that any video preproduction process entails: budgeting, determining equipment and location needs, scripting the video, lining up actors, and more. See “Essential Video Preproduction Guide for eLearning” for detailed descriptions of each step. But eLearning videos require extra attention to content.

“I’d say the single most important preproduction task for an eLearning developer is to start by identifying the purpose of his or her video. In learning and development terms, that translates to establishing learning objectives, and for the short videos I advocate for a single objective for each video,” Spiglanin said in an email interview. “When I do this, I often end up creating multiple objectives because accomplishing my main objective often means assuming baseline knowledge. To avoid the assumptions, I write additional objectives to address that, and each becomes a short video of its own.”

Spiglanin sees video planning as an opportunity for L&D professionals to get creative. “Let’s say I need a video to train employees to follow a new process that involves interacting with an online tool. I might accomplish this with a screen recording of how to use the tool with a voice-over describing the steps,” he said. “That’s not the kind of video I typically make. Instead, I might open with a shot of someone, like a recognized executive, highlighting the importance of following the new process—rather than starting with the tool. They in turn might introduce someone else who then introduces the tool. My video might then transition between the person using the tool and the screen recording of the tool in action, which I find a little more interesting.” Spiglanin said there could be many other ways to design a video that accomplishes the same goal. “I rarely come up with a concept for a video alone. Bouncing ideas off other creative people inevitably generates ideas I wouldn’t have come up with alone,” he said.

Screenplays? Hollywood has that all figured out!

An area where eLearning developers often fall short is scripting or creating a screenplay for their eLearning videos. The most common error, Spiglanin said, is focusing too heavily on the words that the actors will say—and neglecting everything else. What else is there? The answer to that is the difference between a script and a screenplay. Spiglanin recommends creating a screenplay using the same format used in the movie industry.

“The format was developed specifically for film and then video, which is essentially film’s digital equivalent. It’s highly visual, when done well. The script should describe clearly what the viewer is seeing in the form of action lines, as well as what they’re hearing, formatted as dialogue,” he said. “It conjures an image in your mind as you read it, describing what the viewer is seeing and hearing in a linear fashion, beginning to end. A script, on the other hand, could be a voice-over script without action lines.”

The screenplay format displays action and spoken text differently, so a quick glance at a page shows which is which. A benefit of this format, Spiglanin said, is that “it becomes very easy to see the dialogue among the action lines. If you have mostly dialogue and little action, it’s easy to spot and an indicator of a potentially boring video.”

Planning pays off

The amount of time required for preproduction is as varied as the complexity and length of eLearning videos. “I’ve gone from concept to completion of three short videos on selected uses of SharePoint in less than one day. I have a series of video scripts in multiple stages of completion that have been in the works for several months,” Spiglanin said.

L&D professionals who are using employee volunteers or SMEs, rather than professional actors, need to account for that when planning eLearning videos. The production and post-production could take longer than anticipated because the video might need to be recorded multiple times or edited heavily. In fact, the stages of video development—preproduction, production, and post-production—might overlap, Spiglanin said. And they definitely interconnect. Take the example of a short video of an SME explaining how to use a piece of software while the video shows the screens. Any innovations, such as adding head shots of the SME or “action” shots of people using the software, bring up new planning and production needs: identifying, scheduling, and recording those actors.

Even the simplest videos, using only animation or screencasts, require significant planning. The SME providing the voice-over has to get it right. Timing the audio and visuals can also be challenging. “Animation and screencast are similar the way I see them,” Spiglanin said. “Both are time-based visual assets from a production standpoint. The narration that goes along with them to explain the why and how points is also time-based, but there is often no direct relationship between the two. What takes 20 seconds to describe might take only 10 seconds or less to demonstrate. For that reason, I almost always record the voice track first and adjust the speed of the video or add freeze frames to match. That’s technically a post-production activity, but it needs to be planned for in preproduction.”

Another simple, inexpensive approach to creating eLearning video is recording with a smartphone. This can be user-generated video or simple videos created by the eLearning developers, resulting in what Spiglanin described as “guerrilla video production.”

“If I’m shooting video with a smartphone, it’s important to realize that the three phases of production have really become one. I’m doing the planning, production, and editing myself. My planning needs to be done in advance of needing it on a particular day,” Spiglanin said. “There’s a minimum set of equipment I would recommend for anyone who thinks they want to make videos like this. The camera decision was made in the choice of smartphone, so my recommendations address lighting, stability, and sound—what I call the ‘big three’ challenges of workplace video production.” His recommendations include a smartphone tripod, a microphone, and a portable lighting kit—purchases that must be made during the video preproduction phase.

Get more recommendations, tips, and strategies for planning eLearning videos at the Using Video for Learning Spotlight on December 6, 2017.