One of the most rewarding things I found myself doing during lockdown in the UK was joining in with the #EurovisionAgain team to make quick videos explaining the historical contexts of past Eurovision contests that fans were gathering to rewatch online every weekend – with thanks to Rob Holley for coming up with the idea when originally I’d only been planning to livetweet.
It turns out making one-minute videos about Dana International, Conchita Wurst and that time a Eurovision song was meant to have been the signal for the Portuguese revolution was the perfect practice for recording online lectures this autumn (as someone who’s had relatively little opportunities to develop my online pedagogy until Covid-19 forced it on the whole sector). Who knew?
It’s surprising what you can script in a minute
As a spontaneous speaker, I’m prone to so much hedging that my words get tangled up as I think about how to get it right in real time – a problem that’s got worse the older I get, the more academic fields I step into, and the more theoretical perspectives I become aware of.
In the space of a minute (or sometimes more like 1 minute 30 seconds – sorry, Rob) I’ve still been able to explain the essentials of topics as complex as the politics of remembering the Atlantic slave trade in Portugal and the rest of Europe or why the 1991 Yugoslav national final gave the impression of being rigged in the same way that Slobodan Milošević had rigged the Yugoslav constitutional system.
Scripting shorter sentences makes me less likely to stumble over my words (as I found out in the many takes for my first video) – which obviously I should have known, but the difference wasn’t so dramatic until having to do it.
Bodies in motion
Recording online videos is a very different embodied experience from giving them in person – where I pace around the front of the room and use hands for emphasis (so much so that colleagues trying to photograph me speak on more than one occasion have just ended up capturing blurs at the end of my arms).
For online videos I’m sitting in one place, with my eyes fixed on the camera rather than needing to make eye contact with listeners sitting at all the different points of a large room – more like an intimate ‘fireside chat’ with one person at a time. (Which of course is how YouTubers and anyone else communicating with an audience through online video create a ‘parasocial’ sense of closeness with the people they’re speaking to.) To make the best of the light in my usual workspace, I’ve ended up sitting with one leg crossed over the other and my hands resting on top – more like the stance I’d have during a video call than giving a ‘lecture’ as such.
When students are going to be having less face-to-face contact with lecturers than any of us used to take for granted (and there’s a strong case at the time of writing that to stop universities becoming superspreader incubators we ought to be holding all our classes online unless they’re directly practice-based or need to be in a laboratory), this is an extra opportunity to let them see and hear how I sound, as well as the live online sessions we’ll be having and the face-to-face seminars where (assuming they have them) I’ll have to be wearing a mask.
The importance of intimacy, closeness and connection when students are learning largely online during a pandemic was something Aimée Morrison was tweeting about as well yesterday:
Ironically for someone who spends much of their time arguing that scholars of international politics need to pay more attention to the emotions behind how watching things audiovisually works, I’d spent very little time until this year communicating publicly through video myself – partly because having to watch myself on screen (why is my head that shape?! why do I always do that with my eyes?!) gives me such a disconcerting feeling that it’s been hard to feel invested in my digital presence there, much as I’ve wanted to do more with blended and asychronous learning than our degree programmes have offered until now. Having what turned out to be thousands of people watch my #EurovisionAgain videos (and even look forward to them) has helped made video communication feel part of my actual persona for the first time.
Light up the dark
The first major improvement in my recording kit was a desktop ring light – which I bought after seeing people talk about them in the comments of one of James Sumner’s Twitter threads about lecture recording tech and wondering if I needed one. (My usual workspace has overhead lighting with a window behind me and so, spoiler: I did.)
After a backorder delay because everyone else had had the same idea, it turned up in between my videos for Copenhagen 2014 and Jerusalem 1999 and made an immediate difference. (I’m reliably informed I’d have known this earlier if I watched more YouTube beauty vloggers’ videos.)
Here’s what two test videos I recorded with and without it on the same morning on Panopto (the app my institution needs us to use for online teaching videos, and yes it’s called that) look like:
For calls and recordings when the room I usually work from is otherwise occupied, I also ended up buying a second-hand portable green screen (since my PC isn’t high spec enough to be able to create virtual backgrounds on apps like Zoom without one) – though with a background this full of house plants I need to be extra careful to switch it off again once I move back in.
(One afternoon I noticed lines of strange brown and yellow blobs in the background of a Zoom call on either side of me – I assumed it was a Deep Dream-style glitch in how Zoom was rendering the image until I realised I’d had a virtual background of David Tennant’s TARDIS control room on a call that morning and Zoom was now trying to green-screen it on to the palm fronds…)
Besides improving how my videos look, the single biggest improvement to my actual workflow was working out how to automate my script using a teleprompter – so that I didn’t have to rely on memory (most of the blooper reels from my first few videos would be unbroadcastable given how often the moments where I lost my place and cursed about it involved a place name or other sensitive phrase) or notes on a tablet by the side of the laptop screen. (I read the first few videos’ scripts from a tablet propped up on a laptop stand, resulting in having to delete several sonically perfect takes because my eyeballs kept drifting over to the side of the screen; at least one video after that was read from a tablet propped up on an experimentally-adjusted pile of volumes of Richard J Evans’s Third Reich trilogy.)
My laptop’s webcam is built in above the screen, so where I need to be looking is just above that (conveniently towards a bookshelf where we happen to have put an anniversary card known as Rainbow Cat).
After the umpteenth incident of accidentally insulting a poor unsuspecting European capital and having to start again, I speculatively googled ‘teleprompter app’ (originally to use it on the tablet – but where it really needs to be is in a window taking up half my laptop screen, with the camera window on the other half).
This is the most helpful thing that I have done all year.
The teleprompter app I use now is ZaCue (there are others), which runs for free in a web browser and has adjustable scroll speed, font size, and colour settings. The defaults work well and stop me squinting at the screen, an improvement on every lecture with paper notes I’ve ever given.
To match my speech patterns and minimise the number of times I need to stop and start, I need to prepare my scripts with line breaks whenever there’d be a pause in my speech patterns – something I started doing for the one-minute #EurovisionAgain videos but that worked just as well for the ten-minute lectures I’ve been recording for our new first-year module on freedom, or the twenty-minute talk I pre-recorded for the Wonder Women and Rebel Girls workshop a few weeks ago.
I move the teleprompter app tab into a new browser window, set the camera and teleprompter windows alongside each other, start recording in the camera, make the teleprompter window active, start talking, and trim off the dead start time at the end (or with the Eurovision videos let James from #EurovisionAgain kindly do it for me).
Most talks I’ve recorded since I started using the teleprompter app have just needed one take, at least once I got hold of the last piece of kit I needed to stop myself flailing for the keyboard every time the teleprompter got ahead of me – a mini remote keyboard for the laptop (or air mouse – available from your chosen hegemonic panoptical tech retailer for less than £15).
The ZaCue teleprompter window has built-in keyboard and mouse controls, so as soon as I notice myself speaking faster than the autocue, I can use the remote to press the button linked to ‘pause’ to stop the scrolling until I catch up, then press the ‘forward’ button to keep going. This ought to be imperceptible – at least as long as my hands are just below the camera’s field of vision.
Why universities across the sector haven’t equipped staff who are going to be recording from home with this kit as a baseline is another question, of course…