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How To Create Great Looking Videos On A Budget Interview With Kenneth Kebow

Ken Kebow at news desk
Interview with Emmy award winning documentary producer Kenneth Kebow. Ken shares his secrets about how to create great looking videos on a budget. You can listen to the interview here:

Creating great looking videos on a budget can feel like an insurmountable challenge.

You've tried to create professional looking videos and you aren't happy with the results and you're not sure why.

Sometimes you wish you could just hire someone to take care of it for you.

But you don't have the budget for professionally produced videos.

If there were only somewhere you could go to learn a few tips to get you on your way.

I hear you, in my early days of producing, budgets were always lean and I didn't have all the technical skills to create a great looking video.

That meant getting creative, and surrounding myself with talented people I could learn from.

I think I may have an answer for you.

Today's blog is part one of my interview with Emmy award winning documentary producer, and director Kenneth Kebow about How To Create Great Looking Videos On A Budget.

Transcript Episode 25 - Camera Ready With Val Brown

On today's podcast, my guest is Emmy Award winning documentary producer and director, Kenneth Kebow. Ken is going to share his production secrets for creating amazing looking videos on a budget and he has a lots of production secrets that I don't even know, so I'm really looking forward to this.

Next week he's going to take us behind the scenes and talk about his process for creating award winning stories that connect.

Let me tell t you a little bit about Ken. Ken is a friend, colleague, and mentor and has been in the television industry for more than 30 years. Some of his clients include Google, American Airlines, CBS and the United States Marines. He's been honored with a number of awards for his corporate work as well as his documentaries, which include one of the original Disney imagineers, Rolly Crump, and another one with Academy award winner, Richard Dreyfuss in a documentary he did about Lincoln's second inaugural address.

Both are amazing pieces of work. At the end of today's podcast, there'll be a link where you can find out how to watch both of them. So let's go ahead and get started. Welcome Ken.

Ken: Thanks for having me. I'm really excited about being here. Thank you.

Val: Well, thank you. You know, can I want to go ahead and just jump right in, we have so much to share with listeners today. The first thing I want a do is let them learn a little bit about you and how you got started doing documentaries.

Ken: Boy, that takes me back a few years. I was one of those funny little kids when I was probably 8 years old, running around with a movie camera, they were Super 8 movie cameras back in the day, and documenting family trips, and I even made a couple really bad horror movies.

One of my uncles, Uncle Jack McKinsey, was in the film business. He is a lighting guy and I really got excited about making movies from him. He used to tell me about all the stories and times in Hollywood. So I think a seed was planted early. I worked in a couple of TV stations, and continued to do corporate work, but I've always had a real interest in documentaries and telling people's story. And there's just something about the genre, documentary, that Errol Morris who's a really well known, documentary filmmaker once said, you know, the great thing about documentary is you could pretty much do anything. You can. A lot of other genres and film types have pretty set rules that you don't want to waiver from much. When you make a documentary, you can really put the pieces together however you want. And there's no one to wag their finger at you and say, “Oh, you can't do it that way.” And I think it's really one of the genres that allow you to do that. So it's a really fun genre to work in.

Val: Absolutely. And you make it look fun. I love watching your work and I love the fact that you come from a family that actually has been involved in making documentaries. One of the things I always like to talk about is you need to know the rules, to break the rules. That's what I love about documentaries is that you have the freedom to know the rules, as far as good lighting and composition but how you tell the story is your own.

Ken: It's true. And again, it's almost almost like being a writer Val, as a writer, you know, if you look at good writers and writers, period, everyone has a different way of explaining, describing detailing, and there really is no wrong or right way. And I think the genre allows you to experiment. And I've experimented and some experiments, work out and a lot of them don't, but you never know till you try them.

When you make something and you watch an audience and you listen to an audience and share it with friends and family before anybody. And it's really interesting to see what people respond to. I think what I've learned through that process more than anything else, and we're all a little guilty of this, but you get inside your little bubble when you're doing these things and just because you think something works or tells the story the best way possible doesn't mean that that's the direction you should go.

I, I try to make a point now in something's in a decent stage to review that. I get it out to a lot of people for that feedback and that critique, because ultimately when it’s in front of an audience, you want it to work as well as it can. And it's kind of the beauty of it though, is then you can go back and maybe change it to make it resonate more with an audience and be more emotional and powerful.

Val: Yeah, and it's like testing your audience. Actually, you are hitting the mark with this and I really applaud that because you really do need to understand who it is that's in your audience and what matters to them.

Well, you know, Ken, you are absolutely one of the busiest people I know in this business and you are. You're a hard guy to get ahold of and as a producer, writer and director, and you've seen it all. I know you've been out there in the trenches. What is your secret sauce to creating successful projects?

Ken: A couple things, and I'll concentrate not only on documentary, but this goes across the board. You want everyone, and I don't just mean those in front of the camera, but those behind the cameras as well, to be very comfortable, feel at ease and just be glad to be there. So I think there's a lot of value in spending time with the people you're going to have on camera beforehand. Pre-interviewing and explaining very clearly what you're going to do. Perhaps even meeting where you're going to interview them, because especially in corporate people aren't really used to being in front of the camera, so I make a big point of trying to do pre-production. A lot of that is spending time with the people on, on the documentary side. A pre interview I've got to say is invaluable. I have found out some of the most interesting things that ultimately ended up in a program I did through a pre-interview. Someone I'm talking to about something else will say something I had no idea about and it's fascinating and so you just kind of let them go and explain it. Then of course you include that, that in the program. So I think pre-production is key just for everyone's comfort level and knowing what's going on.

And I think the second ingredient and you and I have worked together, and agree on this is, surrounding yourself with really good people as far as crew and I'm not talking skill, there is as a lot of skill out there, but about people with good attitude, right? Passion. Who enjoy what they do, because boy, when you get a good crew that is passionate about what you're doing and of course have the skillset, it leads to the best work possible and I think I can probably say we both have done shoots where maybe that wasn't the case and uh, unfortunately it diminishes the quality of the product.

Val: Great Advice. I agree with you on all parts and one of the things that I encourage people to, is always make sure you're really clear about the purpose of your video and create a plan. And part of that planning is if you're going to interview someone, make sure that you get questions out to them ahead of time. What that does is make you think through, where am I going with this video? Am I asking the questions to get the type of result that I want?

Since today's podcast is all about doing things on a budget, these are things that don't cost a lot of money. These are things that do it on paper before you go out. And if you are working with a crew, it's expensive. And if you're working on your own, it's still expensive because that's your time and energy that you've gone out, spent the day and you are making an investment of your time. B doing this pre production on paper, the payoff is going to be a lot higher.

Ken: I couldn't agree more about. It's invaluable. Like you said, it's not only getting to know the people and give them comfort level, but let's say you're doing a corporate interview with a CEO. You usually go see them on their turf and that's the best way to do because that's where the most comfortable and probably you'll end up shooting in their office. So they're relaxed, but it also you could look around, and listen, how's the sound? Is it going to be a problem? Are there are good places to put the lights? Is there enough power in the room for your lights? So you know it is time and time is valuable. But I tell people all the don't skimp on the pre-production because for the long run and it is your time, it's the best time you could possibly spend. And it really does lead to a much smoother, more efficient shoot.

Val: Absolutely. Well, I want to move forward then and talk about something that I see happen a lot these days. When we first started in television, the barriers to entry were pretty high and the cost of equipment was staggering and the amount of knowledge that you had to have to operate that equipment was substantial. Today, technology has made it easier than ever to create videos. We can do it with our phones and it doesn't require a lot of training the way you and I actually went to school to learn how to do this. Given all of those factors, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see people making today when they're creating videos?

Ken: I think there's two areas are but they are part of the same equation. One is technical. There are basically test tools that give you feedback on your image and the quality and where it needs to fall and they're very important if you're going to broadcast something. If it's just on the internet or you're sharing it with friends, that's one thing, but I found that a lot of people that have just gotten into the business don't necessarily understand these tools and understand that there's a certain range that your image needs to fall within to be broadcast quality and that's really important because people are doing such great work. There's no reason it can’t ultimately be on TV as well as on the Internet and I think there's a little bit of a lack of training regarding some of the technical specs which for you and I back in the day were very important.

You've been in broadcast for years. I've done it enough, and I think the more you understand that, the better pictures you can make, so that's important.

The second thing is, and this will never change, is that the storytelling is there. There's an old quote from a friend of mine that said, “just because you have, you have an edit system doesn't make you an editor.” The equipment has gotten so affordable that anyone really can use their phone or use an online editing program, but you still have to tell a story. You got to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and it really doesn't matter what type of program you're making.

It can be a corporate video, but you still need to tell a story because that's what keeps viewers interested and I think if you have snazzy music and fast cutting and all that kind of stuff, that's fun to watch for a while, but if someone goes away from that and doesn't feel like they've been told an interesting story, it's just kind of an empty experience. So I think first and foremost, you've got to tell a story, and you can tell a story about anything. It may be a widget from China that you're highlighting for a client, but if you dig deep enough, you'll find a story there. And that makes all the difference. That's what's gonna get you a reaction from your audience.

Val: Both outstanding points. Following up to the first one, even though we may not have or need to because we're putting things on the internet so quickly to run things through a scope. That doesn't mean that we can't pay attention to good light or making sure that people can see our face or that we don't have so much light in a shot. That it makes it difficult for people to watch where an image is blown out because there's too much light either on you or your background.

And the second piece about storytelling, I want to relate this to some of the principles that we've talked about on this podcast, is purpose, plan and presence. When we talk about having a purpose, it's what do you want to achieve as a result of doing this video? And then part of the plan is creating your message and we've also talked about in story, not in great depth, but there’s actually research out there from Stanford that says people are 22 percent more likely to remember something if they hear it in a story than if you use facts and data alone. And the thing that storytelling does is it creates an emotional connection. And so when you were talking about stringing a bunch of pictures together with music, and unless that emotional connection is created with your viewer, they're going to walk away with that feeling like, well that was nice, but what was it that you wanted me to take away from it?

Ken: You're exactly right Val. And I think we're kind of in a world of shorter attention spans and quick cutting and you know, people do consistently say, well, you know, people just won't watch something longer than three minutes. I completely disagree. Because number one, if you go to a two hour movie and it's good, you're mesmerized, that's two hours, that's not three minutes and you just have to be able even in that three minutes to find that story. Because I don't agree with the attention span thing. I think if you have something and there's good content, good storytelling, and as you mentioned, which is very important, technically it's pretty clean, I don't think you need to have a time limit. There obviously is a good time for programs and and you know, you want to respect that, but if it's a good story, good people telling the story and technically it's sound that I think that drives your final program length more than anything else is how dynamic is your storytelling.

So I, I think we need to get away from the shorter is better and really just I think the quality of what you're doing is really much more important than how long the program runs.

Val: So, did you deliver the message? you set out to deliver?

Ken: Exactly.

Val: And sometimes it does take a little bit longer, especially if there's detail or visuals that you need to add to it. Well, we've touched on this a little bit and I want to take it a little bit deeper and this goes to how, how your video looks and once again, this doesn't have to cost a lot of money, but lighting and staging and backgrounds can be really intimidating to someone who's just getting started. And with personal brands being so important today, having a backdrop that supports your brand, and one of the examples I like to give is if your brand is really positive and upbeat, to stand in front of a brick wall that's not well lit, doesn't convey that sense of energy that your brand brings. What advice would you give about staging and backgrounds and lighting so they can get great results?

Ken: You know, the first thing I would recommend, Val, is going to your location ahead of time, and the reason you do that, is not only to meet the people you're going to be working with, but listen to the sound there. If you're in a factory, it's going to be pretty noisy. Look at the lighting. Is there a good place where you can put your lights, run your power, or even more important and creatively can you use some existing lights? I think that's really a big deal too. I also learned from a guy who spent a lot of time in Hollywood and then moved down here. When it comes to lighting, less is definitely more. We had, I don't know, a dozen lights going on a project. He came in and lit it with three lights and it looked better. So that was a really good lesson.

The other really important thing, I should have said this before, is I think sound always takes a back seat, don't ever compromised on the sound quality of a project. You may have a beautiful picture, a great person on camera, but if your sound isn't spot on, it's like you said earlier, it's going to be a distraction for the audience and it doesn't matter what the rest of the piece looks like. Sounds kind of becomes an afterthought. And as we both know, there's not a lot of things you can do in post production to fix bad sound. So that's key.

You said at the head of the program that I might share a little secret. I would encourage, especially people who have a little bit of experience better getting going. Think about green screen. We've used that so many times in the software and a green screen. If someone doesn't understand, basically the background can disappear and become anything. It's used all the time in films and such, but we will get a green screen and let's say we're interviewing six executives. We can sit in one room with that green screen and have the people come to us and do those interviews and you could probably do two to three times the work in the same amount of time because you're not breaking down lights. You're not moving to a new office. You're not resetting everything. Each time you interview a new person. Technology for keying or putting a neat image behind a person on green screen has gotten incredible where even the lighting on the green screen, doesn't have to be perfect as it used to be, you know, 10, 15 years ago. Then what you can do is go to people's offices or spend about two hours at the end of the day in that person's building and get backgrounds. Because two things happen is you could put those behind the person on the green screen and it does look like they're really there. And also you're not dealing with the real sound in those areas. You've shot the person being interviewed, nice clean sound. You maybe want to record a little ambient sound when you do those backgrounds for the person to make it seem real, but you've got controlled sound, controlled lighting, and then you just add background after the fact, so it's a beautiful way to do it for efficiency, but also creatively, you can do a lot more this way than if you were to actually go to these spots to set up and shoot. So I'm a huge fan of green screen and again, with the technology now, putting a good image behind someone on a green screen is pretty straightforward. It's a really good trick.

Val: I’m going to tell you what that tip right there was worth the price of admission today. Yeah, I didn't think about that. And using green screen has become so much easier. I know that by using a green screen you can batch your videos because we're talking about doing things on a budget. Anytime you can batch videos - you've set up the lights, you've set up your camera one time and the audio and you're able to cut a lot of video and put that in the bank. Getting out videos consistently is a really important part of staying connected with your audience. The other point that I wanted to make in listening to that tip is by using those offices, you're keeping that person on brand because typically an environment like that, everything is going to support a corporate brand or an individual brand. Great tip can. Okay, that's a writer downer.

Ken: Here’s a real quick example. When we did Rolly, who was the Imagineer who worked with Walt, we shot for about seven hours in front of a green screen and Val, I know you've seen the final product, but when Rolly talks about Small World, guess what's behind them? Small World, same for Haunted House. So what would have taken us days, and the logistics would probably have been a little bit prohibitive, to go to Disneyland and shoot him in front of those things. So as you said, one setup shot, Rolly saying everything he needed to say and just insert those backgrounds behind gives you creative license and liberty with a green screen is tremendous. And you made the best point you can brand things and brand that background however you want and you also have the flexibility to change that down the road if you need.

Val: I'm a big fan of green screen and that goes for if you're shooting video of yourself, put yourself in front of the green screen and you can change out those backgrounds and it makes you look like you have a much bigger operation than you actually do. And it's a very simple trick. Very good. Well, I have one more question for you, actually I have two. What advice do you have for people who are creating their own videos for their own businesses? A lot of our listeners have their own businesses and they're getting video out there on a regular basis, what would be that one key piece of advice that you would leave with them with?

Ken: It’s a little self serving, but I think it's worthwhile to hire a video professional. I think video you put on your website, on your corporate page, anything that has to do with your business. I believe the quality of that video reflects very strongly on who you are. A lot of people will go to a website and they'll just watch the video. If you have a really well put together video, well done, well lit, the sound is great, the music works. That's a reflection on your business and I don't think you really want to cut corners on that. On the flip side, I've seen a lot of people, you know, shoot with phones or you know, someone in the accounting department has a video camera and I understand that that may be more of a budget consideration than anything, but I would caution people that have their own business and want to put a video up talking about their business is find the money or at least you know enough to really have a professional come in and do it.

As we talked about earlier, there's a lot more to putting together a good program or segment or promo than just pretty pictures, you really want to tell a story. If you can't afford a professional, I would just say spend a lot of time pre-producing, watch a lot of other stuff on the Internet, see what you like and maybe say, well, let's try and do something along those lines. If you can have a visual representation of what you'd like to achieve before you do it, it’s going to make your journey to get it done much, much easier.

But I’d really try and find someone. Students are great assets. They're new, they're less expensive and they're really good. Go to your local community college or even high school and find the person who's in charge of teaching video and see if they know someone that's part of their classes that'll do it. You can get them very inexpensively and they're really good. But I'd always bring a professional into the picture. I just think that's really important and having that quality be there for your final product.

Val:One of the analogies I like to use about that is it's like building a wardrobe. You invest in a few good pieces and then you can accessorize with other things that aren't as expensive. So those key videos that live on your website that are there all the time, make the investment in them and then the everyday videos that you send out your emails and your Facebook Live and things that you do to communicate on a regular basis, you bring those polished elements into it, but it's not a huge production like doing those key videos. Is there anything else I should've asked you but I didn’t?

Ken: I would just say I think there's a lot to be gained by watching stuff that's already been produced. I have a lot of clients now when we start talking, new clients, they'll kind of give me an idea of what their vision is and I'll say, hey, if there's anything you've seen that you'd like, send that my way. If I find anything that I think might work for you or is kind of relative to your vision, I'll go ahead and send that your way. I think there's so much value in having a common ground before you start actually shooting more than just sitting down and taking notes. It kind of limits the surprises and I know there's a lot out there that's very expensive and really high production value you can't do, but if you're clever and you think about it and spend that preproduction time again, you could probably do something pretty similar and make it work.

So I think there's tons of value in sharing digital assets with each other before you get going. I think you really get on a common page and that makes it easier.

A quick story. I’m working with a gentleman up in Los Angeles who's, who's done a lot of high end photography work and he's worked with a director that everyone knows and I asked him, “how do you work with this person?” He goes, “the first thing he did was brought me into the theater on the lot and we sat down and watched movies and he said I liked the lighting there. I like the framing there,” so this isn't something that just corporate folks do. This is done in the big leagues and I think it's a great way to get everyone kind of on the same page.

Val: I love that. Thank you so much Ken. Some of the key things I took away from this is by taking that little time to do some pre-planning and take a look at what other people are doing and saying, “hey, I like this and I'd like to recreate that.” Making sure that you have good audio and using the green screen is a really good way to save money as well too, and then just keeping that energy high. We’re so fortunate today that it's as easy to do this as it is. Keeping that positive energy comes through on camera and for the crew that you're working with. Thank you so much Ken.

Ken: My pleasure. It's nice to sit down and do something like this because it kind of reminds you of these things that sometimes you take for granted or don't think about anymore. So thanks for getting the brain going again on my end.

Val: Absolutely. And I'm wondering if people would like to see more of your work, where can they go?

Ken: Well, Val, this is kudos to you. A couple of years ago we had lunch and you gave me this great advice to kind of pull everything into one place and tell my story. So I had all my projects kind of scattered around, but you were really the stimulus for me to create a new website which is So if people are interested, they could just go there. So thank you for your advice, that was some of the best advice.

Val: Thank you so much, Ken. Okay, that's all for today. Please join me next week when Ken and I continue our conversation about his process for creating award winning videos that connect.

Until then, remember with a little planning, imagination and attention to detail, you can create videos look great, on a budget, every time.

Val Brown is an Emmy Award winning television producer, story, visual and personal brand consultant, coach, and speaker. She consults and coaches high performing business professionals and entrepreneurs looking to up their game and increase their confidence and credibility on camera. Val teaches you how to use your story to support your brand in video and photos. 

p.s. I’d love to connect on social media and hear your questions and concerns about being in front of the camera.


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