Friday, July 6, 2012

Tricks for Producing Your Own Food Videos

Interview with Karen Heyson

Interview by Jessie Riley and Kathryn Gordon

Kathryn:  You directed, edited and produced the video to promote our book, Les Petits Macarons.  Everyone loves it! Within a month of its release, the video was featured in Texas at the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) conference as an example of how to promote your own cookbook with a food video.  

How did you start in video production?

Karen:  I attribute my interest in all of this to when I was about 10 and my parents bought me a small reel-to-reel tape recorder. My friends and I used to spend hours making up characters, playing with our voices, and conducting mock interviews. It blew me away that you could have an instant recording like that.  I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, but I didn’t do anything about it for a long time.

After college I had a job I hated and was desperate to find another career. I decided to take a night class in video editing.  I was immediately reminded of how much fun recording was. It took a while, but after a variety of transitional jobs I became an assistant editor at a post-production house called Post Perfect.  In 1989, Post Perfect was one of the top post houses in town.  They had all the latest bells and whistles and specialized in what’s referred to as “online” editing.  Online editing is the final phase of editing where you rebuild the original edit in full resolution, and then add all the finishing touches, like transitions and graphics.  In those days it was very technical and involved a lot of button pushing.

Of course, the business has changed dramatically since then.  With the advance of more affordable equipment and software, those big fat post houses were replaced by much smaller editing “boutiques,” and a lot of that purely technical work disappeared.  When I saw the writing on the wall, I started learning how to offline edit using an Avid system.  It turned out to be blessing in disguise, because offline editing – the actual story telling - is much more creative and fun.
Karen with some of her camera equipment

Jessie:  In addition to editing, you are now doing more of your own video production as well, from the planning phase through directing and shooting.

Karen: Yes.  Maybe I’ve come full circle back to my recording roots and I’m still somewhat in awe of the fact that you can go out, record something, and then zip on home and start editing that same afternoon.

My pet project right now is something I call “PulseAP,” based right here in Asbury Park, NJ. I’m working with local teenagers and teaching them how to be broadcast journalists.  It seemed like a natural fit, because Asbury Park is chock full of activity, the kids have a blast, and I get to run around, meet lots of people, and have fun making short videos.

Jessie:  What do you think about when you go out to shoot?

Karen:  I’ve always felt that a really good camera person should have at least some editing experience.  It’s a tremendous advantage. When I go out into the field I already know what I need to get.  The whole time I’m shooting I’m thinking about editing.

Each situation, in terms of a live video shoot, is different.  For instance, if you’re shooting someone cooking in real time, you can’t ask them to repeat every step 5 times so it helps to have at least one additional camera. In that situation, I always have one camera shooting a medium shot of the head, with the person talking, and the second camera shooting all the close ups of the process. It’s common sense really.  The trickier and more creative aspect of shooting is to shoot things in an interesting way (whether it be angles, lighting or camera moves) so the footage brings life to the final product.
Making pizzas at Porta for a PulseAP shoot
Kathryn:  When we made the video for Les Petits Macaron we didn’t do a whole lot of pre-production.  Would you say a script helps the director plan out the shots and be able to think ahead to the final, edited version?

Karen:  Absolutely.  If you can, plan EVERYTHING in advance.  Think about what you want to accomplish. Who is your target audience?  Think about how you’re opening, how you’re closing, and how you’re going to flow from one scene to the next.  If you’re well prepared, the shooting and editing can be done much more efficiently and you will end up with a better product that is cheaper overall to produce.

Jessie:  What are the best types of shots to try to capture? 

Karen:  Well, you generally need some kind of establishing shot for each scene, so you know where you are.  There’s one basic rule I have with shooting:  close ups, close-ups and more close-ups.  A lot of the videos we make today are delivered via computer, on a tiny screen – it’s not going to be shown in a large theater. The image needs to fill the screen. If you’re shooting food, get right in there and shoot the actual product, because that’s what people want to see.  At the same time, you can’t be totally divorced from the person doing the food preparation. As I said before, you should really have at least 2 cameras, so one can focus on the person’s face when they’re talking, and one can get close up’s of the food.  Even in low budget situations it’s good to bring along the basics, like tripods and lights.  Descent sound is also critical.  I prefer small digital recorders that I sync up with the footage during the edit.  But there are a variety of choices, depending on the type of camera you’re using. 
Example of medium and close up food shots
Kathryn:  I know from my experience working on our video that voiceovers can help with the transitions when you edit the finished tape. 

Karen:  If you’re shooting some kind of process that ultimately needs to be sped up, voiceovers will help.  A sentence or two, along with a sequenced collage can work really well, especially if you add in some decent music.

Kathryn:  You have the coolest software on your computer to edit with.  I’ve just sat there and watched you zip through it.
Video editing software
Karen:  Most decent editing programs allow for multiple layers of video and audio tracks. After you lay in the initial video and natural sound into a timeline, you can add all kinds of things to spice it up - animation, titles, visual effects, sound effects, music, etc. I especially like to play with music, so I subscribe to an online stock music library.  There are lots of stock houses out there.  You just have to find one you like, and can afford.  In addition to the editing system, I also use a variety of external programs to create graphics and animations.

Jessie:  Can someone get away with using a smartphone?

Karen:  If you’re even remotely serious, I would not recommend using your phone.
Decent HD camcorders come in all price ranges and lots of people are also using the video feature on SLR’s (single lens reflex cameras) and getting some amazing results.

The thing to take into consideration is whether the camera output will be compatible with your editing system.  These days most cameras use hard drives as opposed to tape, so you need to make sure that the video file being created by the camera will be compatible with your editing system. 

Kathryn:  If someone can afford a professional, how would they find one like you to help with their project? 

Karen:  Pretty much everyone can be found on the internet, these days.  It’s probably best to select someone who has previous experience with the type of video you’re planning to make.  Definitely ask to see samples of their work and if possible, get some references.   There’s a very wide range of price and ability.  You don’t want to spend a lot of money and end up with a really bad video.

Kathryn:  When you’re shooting food, in particular, what hints would you give to someone trying to organize their own project?

Karen:  1. You need to realize that the camera is not the star of the video.

Kathryn tilting the macaron batter bowl for a close-up shot 
A common mistake is not realizing that the food has to be the star of a food video.  You don’t need to do a lot of fancy moves and fly all over the place.  Focus on the food.  Show the person talking when they’re talking, and show the person demonstrating when they’re demonstrating but keep returning to the food.

2. Make the shots long enough.

Amateurs tend to be all over the place and their shots aren’t long enough.  Try to relax and pay attention to what you’re doing. Look at your framing and what’s in the shot. Stay in one place. I know this sounds obvious, but make sure you are recording BEFORE the action starts.  It’s really important to get both cameras rolling for 10 to 15 seconds before you start shooting. Make sure both cameras start and stop around the same time.  Otherwise syncing the 2 cameras later will be a nightmare.  Keep the cameras focused and rolling for 5 - 10 seconds AFTER the action stops and have your talent stay more or less in place. 

                                                                     3. Lighting is key.

Portable and inexpensive light box
will help you light your food videos
Video needs evenly distributed light.  The darker the image, the more pixilated (grainy) it will be.  As much as possible I try to work with natural light.  For an inexpensive, multipurpose lighting solution I always bring along two soft boxes with diffusion screens. They do a pretty decent job of providing general lighting with minimal shadows.

Remember that if you’re shooting in natural light, the light will shift during the day and you may need to compensate for changing hot spots and shadows. Most editing programs have color and lighting correction filters, but you still need to get the best initial image possible.

The Macaron Video

If you want to learn how to make French-style macarons, Karen produced 2 versions, the short version on our website, and a slightly longer version which you can view on

If you want to see some of Karen’s work with Asbury Park, NJ teenagers go to:

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