Video Recording with a Webcam: How to Use a Script and Keep Your Eyes on the Camera

In the last post, I talked about the issue of keeping your eyes on the camera (or appearing to do so) while recording a video, especially if you have a lot of points to make. The best option that allows you to constantly look at the camera while delivering your lines is a teleprompter. However, most people don’t have a teleprompter or know how to use one (I’m working on a new tutorial to show how to use a teleprompter).

So, I decided to investigate a simpler approach, which is to sit in front of a computer and record myself speaking to the camera–with a script. There are a few tricks to making this work, which I’ve summarized in the video provided below:

How to Improve Your On-Camera Delivery in Science Videos

Picture this scenario:

A middle-aged scientist in a white lab coat is speaking on film about his research on cancer. He’s sitting in a well-equiped laboratory and looks very authoritative. The camera gradually pans from a broad view of the room to focus in on the scientist. He begins by saying, “I’m really passionate about my work and want to share my findings with you in this video.” The only problem is that this cancer researcher does not look or sound passionate! Far from it. Instead, he sounds like a robot. He speaks in a monotone, does not smile or show any other facial expression, uses no hand gestures, sits stiffly and does not make eye contact with the viewer (his eyes are looking down or off camera). Things don’t get any better as he continues to explain the details of his research. 

Now, I can sympathize with this guy because this is how my early attempts at making videos about my research looked and sounded. I’ve improved since then, but still find it really difficult not to come across on camera like Mr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy in the original Star Trek series). Spock had difficulty showing emotion due to his Vulcan ancestry.

So what’s our excuse?

I think there are three basic reasons why some scientists come across on camera as being stiff and robotic: personality, training, and fear of the camera. People who are naturally gregarious or funny come across well on camera, but someone who is introverted may seem stiff or robotic. It’s possible to go against your natural demeanor, but you will likely find it difficult. I’m a naturally reserved, quiet person and feel terribly awkward when I try to be more extroverted. Also, I have to fight the years of training and experience talking to an audience of scientists, during which I cultivated a demeanor of calm confidence and authority. My talks at conferences and in seminars have been successful because those audiences expected a serious, academic delivery. But what works for an audience of scientists can be a detriment on camera. My serious, authoritative demeanor could be misinterpreted as arrogance or just a nerdy attitude. In addition, the camera not only adds ten pounds to your apparent body weight, it drains your energy. Consequently, it’s necessary to be more personable and to raise your energy level when being filmed above that normally used with a live audience. If you are like me and have a more reserved demeanor, you will have to work much harder than your colleague who is naturally gregarious and likeable.

Also, many people—even experienced speakers—freeze up when the camera is turned on them. They get that “rabbit in the headlights” look on their faces, and their bodies seem to turn to stone. Whenever a camera was turned on, I found it difficult to gather my thoughts and speak coherently. This reaction is a bit like stage fright and can make you look like someone with “Stuck in Their Heads” syndrome. Extreme self-consciousness is the culprit here.

After watching many, many videos made by science professionals (or videos in which a scientist appears), I realized that there were quite a few people out there with the “Stuck in Their Heads” problem. I’ve wanted to make a video tutorial about how to improve on-camera delivery, but put it off because I did not think I was the best person to tackle this topic. I thought it was better to hear tips about on-camera delivery from someone who does it well. However, it finally occurred to me that people might want to hear how a scientist with this problem has faced the problem and eventually improved.

In the video below, I briefly explain what I think are the main problems someone faces when trying to speak on camera and a few ideas of how to overcome them (direct link to video).

As you saw, there are several ways to improve your on-camera delivery if you are having problems. I focused on the most common issues and how to overcome them. My take-home message to you is not to give up if your delivery is poor at first. Keep practicing and you will improve. Even though I’m not as engaging or likable or convincing as, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and never will be, I have improved. More importantly, I feel less self conscious and thus more comfortable speaking on camera.

One bonus to learning to speak with more energy and confidence on camera is that it can help you in other stressful, speaking situations such as a job interview seminar or a TED talk. If you have an upcoming presentation, film yourself practicing your talk and try to apply some of the tips I cover in the video. I think you’ll find it’s well worth the effort.

Using a GoPro Hero Camera to Film Underwater

The GoPro is a great camera to shoot action footage of surfing, skiing, and mountain biking. However, there are lots of other ways to use this versatile, little camera. If you are a student or scientist studying the marine environment, you will find this camera useful in capturing underwater footage in tide pools or tidal creeks.

I just finished a new tutorial to show how to set up the GoPro to film underwater in a tide pool or other shallow water setting. I also cover three ways to approach filming in a tide pool as well as some safety suggestions to avoid damaging your camera.

Here it is (direct link to video in case the player window is not visible)–be sure to select 1080p quality setting and full screen for best viewing:

How to Improve the Audio of Your Videos Without Breaking the Bank

The success of your video will depend in part on good audio, which will require a decent microphone. You will need a good microphone during filming with a video camera as well as for doing voiceovers during editing. Which microphone you need and can afford will, of course, vary with your situation. Although there are many microphones that provide excellent audio quality, these are often quite expensive and may be out of reach for students and scientists with limited budgets. If so, there are some inexpensive options that will improve your audio, which I will emphasize here. In this video report, I demonstrate a few ways to improve the quality of your audio without breaking the bank.

Most camcorders and other cameras that shoot video have built-in microphones that will work fairly well–as long as the speaker is close enough to the camera, and there is not a lot of background noise. Many of my videos were filmed using the built-in microphone on the camcorder or digital camera. This approach works fine when the speaker is stationary and speaking directly to the camera from no more than a few feet away. If the speaker is moving around or standing a distance from the camera, however, then it’s best to use some type of external microphone to boost the quality of the audio. The lavalier or lapel microphone is likely to be what the scientist videographer will find most useful. These are tiny microphones that clip onto the lapel of the person speaking and are connected via cable or wirelessly to the camera or a separate recording device.

Unfortunately, not all video cameras come with receptacles for microphone jacks. One of my favorite point-and-shoot cameras, which shoots outstanding HD video, has no option for attaching an external microphone. My solution is to use my iPhone as an audio recording device and an external microphone with a jack designed to work with the headphone receptacle.

The other situation requiring a good microphone is when doing voiceovers for your video. If you rely on the microphone on your computer or an inexpensive external microphone, your voice will likely sound “tinny”, and the overall quality of the audio will be noticeably poorer. I invested in a studio-quality microphone with a USB cable to connect to my computer. The better microphone has made a huge difference in the quality of my videos.