YouTube Debate Questions and Video Production

Guest article! David Newland — screenwriter, producer and former National Geographic web video guy — watched last night’s debate with the eyes of a man who’s seen (and created) more online video than he’d probably like to remember. He has both debate analysis and practical advice for future questioners.

YouTube Debate Questions and Video Production

The debate is done and I am happy. Now, a few caveats up front. I am of mixed opinion about whether this was a one-time stunt, or if user-submitted videos will become a fixture in politics, and yes, the YouTube submissions were filtered through CNN, so we may have seen only the best produced videos (a brief glance at some of the non-chosen videos on YouTube seem to bear this out).

But still, people actually produced quality amateur videos.

I had expected to see question after question in the “video confessional” mode ala Lonelygirl15 and a million other YouTube videos — a person sitting in front of their computer, in a face-warping close up, with a junk background. Videos that burn my eyes and strain my ears. And yes, about half of those videos were like that.

But the other half showed production values. They showed effort and thought, and as amateur video submissions, that’s what I’m looking for. A 50% success rate? That’s pretty good. We are not only a media-savvy culture, we are apparently a media-producing-savvy culture, too.

To make a video with good technical quality, audio needs to be heard, and video needs to be seen. For audio, that means clear, full sound. No distracting noise in the background, no audio hits from people talking too close to the microphone, no music drowning out the dialogue. For video, that means enough light and a fixed camera (I’m not a fan of handheld camerawork, unless you really know what you’re doing).

Most people did that. According to my nifty Tabulator-3000, out of the 41 questions asked, only seven had some audio problems, and only five had glaring lighting problems. Here’s some basic advice. For the audio problems, really, adjust your mic levels, or do another take. As for lighting, I’m not expecting people to set up a light kit in their house. But point the light at your subject, not at the camera.

But once technical considerations have been taken care of, you’re left with the problem of good content. And to make a video interesting and enjoyable and memorable, that’s much more difficult. Did they succeed?

By and large, yes. We had humor (actors playing stereotypical rednecks), music, graphics, props (light bulbs, flags, coins), personal pleas, (lesbian couples, Darfur kids, Alzheimer’s patients), and symbolic backgrounds (churches, flags).

My favorite video of the evening was the gentleman who wondered if the candidates would enforce the gun laws to protect his baby — his baby assault rifle, that is. Not only do we have a prop, we had some misdirection, too. It had its desired effect — the candidates, notably Senator Biden, reacted off-script and on-gut.

In fact, with most of the well-produced videos, there was both an informational component and an emotional component. It wasn’t just some dry text on a page. There were real people with real concerns in the videos, and I think the candidates were forced to react differently to the questions than if they had been posed on a piece of paper.

That’s where video has its strength. Nine times out of ten, text will be better at providing information and context. But video has an innate emotional, visceral appeal. Add an interesting approach, and you suddenly have a video that’s memorable.

And if you remember the question, hopefully, you remember the candidates’ answers. Which is what the debates are supposed to be about.

Excellent work! Thanks, man. Now, let’s see what turns up at the Republican version of this little YouTube/CNN shindig in September.


Written by
Colin Delany
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