How to Create a Performing Arts Video Work Sample, Part 3: Crafting the Sample
Editing footage and presenting your video
Part Two in this series (“Plan, Then Shoot”) was about filming your performance. Now, let’s talk about how to package and polish that footage as a work sample.
“Curtain shots are death” — Ethany Uttech, Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC)
“An electric, pin-drop moment onstage might be completely devoid of magic on video.” — Morgan Gould, Theater Artist
Boredom and confusion can play important roles in an audience’s live experience, but the two have no place in a video work sample. Without the context of a full, live performance, a subtle moment from your work captured on video won’t have the same kind of impact. While you may wish to showcase your technical skills and most challenging work, keep the review panel’s viewing experience in mind. When they’ve been watching video clip after video clip for hours on end, your challenge is to compel their attention.
Selecting an excerpt
Unless a full-length video is requested, your first step is to choose a section of the footage for the work sample. While you may have an inkling about which bits you’ll want to share, watch the footage first. Watch it all the way through before selecting an excerpt. A moment that was thrilling onstage may be a snooze to watch on a TV screen. Try to watch the video with fresh eyes, because that’s probably what your review panelists will be doing. Another option: Ask someone who missed the live performance to watch your video and tell you which moments stand out.
One quick trick is to have a few people quickly scan the footage. As they scroll through the images onscreen, where do they pause and watch? Which sections held their attention? It’s an easy way to see which moments in your work catch a viewer’s eye.
Your selection should grab the panel from the first second it rolls. A slow start to your video work sample can be deadly. Prolonged scrolling title screens or shots of closed curtains or blackouts before the start of a performance don’t do anything to build anticipation in the marathon, short-form viewing context of a review panel — they’re just boring.
The general rule of thumb is to start in the midst of things. Drop your viewers into the action, and then focus their attention on sustained work. Plunging into a compelling moment is the simplest way to do this. I’ve also seen some successful samples set up a few quick cuts at the very start in order to establish context, but recommend keeping this to a minimum, and making sure to follow with ample continuous footage, so the viewers have a chance to sink into your work.
Sometimes, choosing footage from the beginning of a piece helps set up the context and draws in the audience, especially in the case of theater samples. But if the beginning takes a long time to build or is confusing, it’s best to skip it. Endings, too: when isolated in a short video clip, they may lack the energy channeled in the context of the full performance. This is why viewing footage with fresh eyes is the best thing you can do.
Also consider using sound to help you capture interest at the top of a video sample – catching the panel’s ears can be as important as catching their eyes. (Note: It also prevents them from wondering if your sound is working.)
Prachi Patankar at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) makes the distinction between editing the image and editing the time. It’s okay, for instance, to cut between different camera shots of the same continuous scene or movement. Done well, this kind of editing can mimic the way your eye moves around the stage when watching a live performance and will not be distracting. Cutting from one point in time of a performance to another point in time, however, should be kept at a minimum: otherwise, your work sample will start to feel like a movie trailer.
Cutting long-durational work for a video sample can be particularly challenging. In this instance, you may have more leeway to make jumps in time. I’ve seen this done successfully in samples that balanced an assortment of evocative close-up shots with sustained wide shots from different points in the piece.
Fancy editing tricks like manipulation of speed, picture-in-picture, split-screen, color adjustment, or transitions like dissolves or wipes all draw attention to the video medium. Unless you are determined to highlight the videographic aspect of your work sample in a carefully considered way, it’s better to keep your editing simple and clean, minimizing the layers between the video viewer and the live event. Also, be aware that some funders strictly demand that your footage be manipulated as little as possible.
The ideal audio feels live and sounds clear. If you recorded from multiple sources (microphones, digital recorders, soundboards), you can sync and mix their sounds in the editing stage. Even if music is featured in your footage — e.g., for a dance piece — don’t neglect the sounds of performers breathing or moving in the space. These details help to convey the live audience experience to a viewer of your video. Capturing the sound of the music, performers, and acoustics in the space is far superior to layering on a prerecorded track of the music during editing, which can make your footage feel like a music video. If your footage includes dialogue that is hard to hear, consider adding subtitles.
Be sure to follow the length guidelines for each application. Sending something much longer than requested does not mean that the panel will see more of your work. It just means that they will only watch the beginning, or fast-forward through parts (not uncommon). Don’t miss your opportunity to focus the panel’s attention on a particular moment in your work.
It’s also useful to have a variety of lengths and types of clips on hand. Presenters who have seen a clip may wish to see the whole thing. Have it edited and ready to go!
Since there is no universal reviewing system for performing-arts presenters and funders, each will have its own formatting requirements for your video work sample. You should give yourself time to create a unique sample for each application, researching exactly how it will be played by the people reviewing it. Carefully read any guidelines, and contact staff if you have further questions.
I’ve heard varying opinions on title cards. While they slow down the start of your work sample, they can sometimes provide essential information to viewers of the video. Certainly use them sparingly. Knowing how your video will be watched will help you make decisions about what to include: for instance, do panelists read your narrative before- or after watching your sample?
DVDs will likely go the way of the dodo, but for now they are still required for many applications. While you needn’t worry about fancy cases or menu screens for your DVD, confusing labeling or unclear chapter titles can make it difficult for the panel to even start watching your work. The extra time it takes to customize a work sample DVD’s formatting for a particular application is worth it, in order to introduce your work with its best foot forward. If you’ve burned and played your DVD in your computer, make sure it also works in a DVD player. Have a friend give your menu a test drive to make sure it’s easy to navigate.
If you are uploading your video to a website like Vimeo or Youtube, create your profile in advance. Poke around the site to familiarize yourself with its settings. Most video sites allow you to post your video privately — just make sure this is allowed in the application guidelines, and don’t forget to include any necessary passwords or links in the appropriate section of your application.
Give yourself ample time to upload your video. You may need to convert your video file. You may need to upload your video in multiple formats. It all takes a lot of time and tweaking.
Back it up
Always. Always. Always back up your work. In multiple places. Please. Over the course of writing this article, I lost digital footage on an external hard drive that died. I had additional footage from an old MiniDV camera that — while requiring the purchase of a tape head cleaner and multiple adaptor cables — still couldn’t be transferred. Don’t lose your hard work! It’s the worst.
When to include video
If you are proud of your work sample and find it compelling, then by all means send it along — if the application requests/allows video work samples. One grantmaker suggests that even a playwright, who is usually only required to send in a script, might consider including video to show how his or her words work in a staged production. For a collaborative project grant, a proposal might include a video sample from one artist in addition to still images and audio samples from her collaborators. Funders may see work samples as proof that you can execute the kind of work you are proposing to do.
The overall consensus seems to be that musicians are better off sending a high-quality audio sample in lieu of video, which will most likely have lower-quality audio and potentially distracting visuals. Exceptions arise for music with a particularly important visual component. It’s worth contacting the funder if you have a question, as this may vary depending on the specific focus of the application. (For instance, a composition fellowship vs. an application to present as part of a music festival.)
As for rehearsal footage and readings, opinions vary. Work-in-progress footage (especially when accompanied by strong performance footage) may help a panel see a new direction you are moving in your work. However, such footage may also be shot less clearly, and seem less engaging or polished, than work samples that include all the bells and whistles of a full performance.
In some cases, when including a video sample is optional, and you are concerned that your footage will undermine your proposal rather than support it, it may be wise not to include any footage. Of course, this may put your application at a disadvantage when compared with proposals that do include video — but if you build video documentation into your artistic practice, this won’t be a problem!
Takeaways from Part 3:
- Pick an excerpt that will grab a first-time viewer’s attention
- Clean edits and formatting bring the video viewer closer to the live audience experience
- Always back up your work!
Continuation: A Note from the Author
I don’t want to conclude this article, because I don’t believe it to be finished. The ways artists create and produce video work samples — and the ways their supporters watch them — are ever-shifting. Changes in technology, changes in performance practice, changes in support structures for the arts, and the influence of successful rule-breakers will all affect how the performing arts are documented and evaluated.
(Artist Becky Edmunds, who has made video documentation of live performance a central focus of her work, has some very interesting thoughts on the subject.)
I’m also interested in hearing more from artists and supporters of the arts who have additional advice to contribute regarding video work samples. Are you willing to share a work sample video that secured you funding or a presenting slot, and to tell us where? Can you recommend any other video work sample resources? Do you have any questions about video work samples that weren’t answered here? If so, please scroll to the top of the page and click on the question-mark symbol under the search bar to submit your questions and comments. We’ll be accepting feedback until April 23, 2014, after which we’ll share your submitted resources and answer your questions in an addendum to the article. Welcome to the conversation!
— Lisa Szolovits
Lisa Szolovits is NYFA’s Researcher, Artist Resources.
- Documenting Your Performance: DOs and DON’Ts
- A Page from Our Handbook: Best Practices for Artist Work Samples
- Tips & Tools: Choosing Work Samples for Your Applications
Lower Manhattan Cultural Council – Work Sample Fact Sheets
New England Foundation for the Arts – Documenting the Arts Handbook
Victoria & Albert Museum – Recording your own live performances
Some examples of well-shot footage
- New England Foundation for the Arts – National Dance Project 2013 Award Winners
- OntheBoards.TV Trailer
- Moira Brennan, Program Director, MAP Fund
- EllaRose Chary, Founding Member, Bastard Playground
- Monique Courcy, Manager, OntheBoards.tv
- Matthew Deleget, Professional Development Online Learning Consultant, Creative Capital
- Morgan Gould, Artistic Director, Morgan Gould & Friends
- Courtney Harge, Program Officer, Fiscal Sponsorship, New York Foundation for the Arts
- David Johnston, Executive Director, Exploring the Metropolis
- Andrew Kircher, Associate Producer, Devised Theater Initiative, Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater
- Moti Margolin, Videographer, Samovar Film Productions
- Richard Move, Artistic Director, MoveOpolis! and Move- It! Productions
- Eric Pargac, Marketing Director, Vineyard Theatre and Videographer, Arts Mini-Flicks
- Prachi Patankar, Program Manager, Capacity Building & Community Initiatives, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC)
- Katie Tuss, Grants Community Manager, Queens Council on the Arts (QCA)
- Ethany Uttech, Community Initiatives Specialist, Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC)