Class Act: On Production Values and Flipping Burgers

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At this year’s Streaming Media East, I moderated a panel on making effective video for education. I called on a woman who said that she lives with a college student who expresses no care about the production values of the videos she watches. Given that, the woman asked, why should we?

I’ve taken up the question of production values in this column before (October/November 2007, "The Blair Witch Podcast?"), and my fundamental argument hasn’t changed. I contend there are minimum production values required to make videos that do not detract from the content. Producers making video for education should ensure that speakers can be heard clearly, that on-screen subjects are not obscured in darkness, and that they are framed largely enough so that they’re not just blurry dots. This doesn’t require sophisticated lighting, pricey microphones, or professional, full-size cameras. You just need a little planning and a reasonable command of your gear.

This idea is so basic to me that I get befuddled by the fact that the question still keeps coming up. My cynical side tends to conclude that it does so because folks are looking for excuses to keep producing poor videos, whether because of laziness, efforts to save money, or a mistaken belief that you need expensive equipment to make better video. But I think this response is both too harsh and too simplistic.

Instead, I think there’s a tangle of ideas embedded in the concept of production values. When educators talk about production values, we’re often not referring to the same qualities. While I might refer to the basics of lighting and sound, another person might think about visual effects. Furthermore, students of the Millennial generation who were raised with the internet, camera phones, and remix culture bring a different interpretation of production values that is arguably more sophisticated.

An enduringly entertaining genre of videos is the unintentionally hilarious corporate video. Typically produced for a private audience of employees or corporate clients, the best examples adopt a style or trend that is popular in youth culture to awkward and cringe-inducing results. One infamous example is a training video produced for a major fast-food chain in the late 1980s, taking the form of a rap music video that demonstrates how to properly cook the company’s hot and juicy burger patties.

In it, a rapping burger flipper transports a new employee through a broken television into a futuristic fast-food kitchen in order to school him on proper grilling technique. On the surface, it has fine production values; there’s a well-lit set, a bumping soundtrack, and even some animated burger patties. In most respects, the quality matches most music videos of the era, if not surpassing them. Yet I can imagine my teenaged self being forced to watch this video in order to get a job flipping burgers and thinking, "What is this crap?" It misses the mark because it’s cheesy and reeks of inauthenticity.

You can force new employees to watch any training video and hope they’ll take in its lessons. But who’ll be sorry when rookie burger flippers don’t know when the meat is fully cooked because they didn’t pay attention to the condescending video? If a viewer is immediately turned off by the approach of a video, production values aren’t going to bring him or her back. If the question is, "Do production values matter when the video is mind-bogglingly stupid?" then the answer is a resounding "No."

The conversation has to move away from "Do production values matter?" to "When and how do production values matter?" Production values can enhance or detract from the core content of a video. We instantly recognize the look and feel of a late-night infomercial as compared to a prime time drama or an afternoon soap opera. A particular production style tells us we’re about to see Ron Popeil before the product appears. But if the newest Veg-O-Matic infomercial adopts the aesthetics of an episode of Law & Order, we’d probably be fooled for a moment. However, fooling the audience in this way might not be the best way to sell Veg-O-Matics, even if the hope is to rope in viewers normally repelled by infomercials.

Students of any age are not expecting their educational videos to look like a Hollywood film or a half-hour sitcom. Nor do I think that simply embracing high production values is going to draw audiences or keep students engaged. The production values need to match the goals of the content. Don’t feed students algebra and try to tell them it’s MTV. Just give them video that’s produced well enough that they can hear and see what they’re supposed to be learning without getting a headache or dozing off. Moreover, spending time perfecting your production skills is better than flipping burgers, whether or not you can rap.

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