Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I'd better not give up the day job!

A few weeks ago I blogged about a Single Camera Documentary Film Making Course I went on for a bit of fun, and wrote how I felt the whole thing was a poorly given rip-off. I think there's a lot of these sorts of rip-offs aimed at 'wannabe' film-makers and producers, often aimed at gullible newbies who think it might give them some sort of magic pass into the film-making industry.

After that experience I'm kind of relieved to be able to give a much more positive account (or, given the name of the company behind the course, I should say Pozitiv account) of the one day TV Presenter's Course that I went on as a way to 'celebrate' my 51st birthday on Tuesday.

No, I don't have any aspirations to go and work as a TV presenter (which is just as well, as I'm rubbish at it), but I did want to try and improve my 'on camera' apparances for my weekly video podcast over at

I should say upfront that the course isn't cheap, but then quality rarely is, and the glowing references from a ton of reliable sources (like The BBC and The Guardian) together with a long list of former clients whose names I recognised 'from the telly' meant I thought this was probably the best course to go for. The fact that the next available course coincided with my birthday and had one space available (out of just six available places per course) acted as a beacon that said 'You're destined to do this'.

And I'm really glad I did, even though, as I'd initially suspected, the course didn't transform me into the great presenter I'd like to think is hidden inside me. The main thing is it was a LOT of fun, and I was really impressed with the attention to detail from the company behind it, which extended to delivering me a birthday cake with candles on half way through the afternoon viewing session :)

My experience all through the pre-booking and final course assessment with this company was never less than professional and customer-focussed. Which is a pretty rare thing these days, in my experience. Frankly it's a relief to be able to post something good about a company, after all my experiences of late!

The schedule for the course was really scary, particularly when you realise that most of us attending had no prior experience of being in front of a camera or in a TV studio. The company send out an information pack a week or two ahead of time and you have to choose (or write and send in) an autocue script for one exercise, and make sure you have learnt another piece ready for a 'live broadcast' exercise on the day of the course itself.

What impressed me about the course was that I felt it was very 'real world', where another company would probably have made the exercises much easier and more 'mickey mouse', if only to make the students feel good about themselves. They warned us ahead of time that there might be some 'surprises' (ie spanners in the works!) instead of just simple exercises we'd been initially prepped for, and so it proved to be, which I think is much more typical of what happens in the real world.

For example the first exercise - apparently the one most students have trouble with - was a rather scary 'talk about yourself to camera' piece which you had two cracks at, with tuition between the two attempts after some initial training about what to do, and the various floor manager signals you would get. The 'surprise' on this exercise was that you didn't know how long you were going to have to talk for until just before the recording started.

Next up was a scripted autocue piece against green screen, with the idea again being to have two takes. What really impressed me here, given that this was the piece most relevant to what I was looking to do in video podcasting, was that the instructor took the time to give me advice and then do as many takes as were needed. I think I ended up with something like six takes when all was done, with new advice between each, and although it meant we started running a bit late (and the other students were propably really annoyed with me) it was typical of the personal attention I think we all got at different points throughout the day. A lazy instructor would have just left things as they were after the second take.

The course instructors had pre-prepped things to the extent that whatever subject a student chose they had a choice of three different 'green screen replacement' backdrops for each of us to choose from that were all specifically relevant to the subject we'd chosen. For most of the people on the course these exercises were going to be part of a 'show reel' they used to try and get work, and it was good to see them trying to personalise things very specifically to the student's choice.

Next up was the 'outside broadcast', conveniently filmed on the green outside The Houses of Parliament, just opposit the studios where the course is held (and also used by the BBC and ITV). Here we each had to deliver a prepared script, but without autocue (although clipboards were allowed). The other students all said they were most looking forward to this, but I was dreading it the most because I'm hopeless at learning stuff by rote. I find that appearing 'natural' whilst struggling to remember whole sentences with key facts is incredibly difficult! I ended up needing four takes to get it just about right, but the funny thing was that it turned out everyone else had problems too, and the initial confidence of the other students soon evaporated as some of the 'live broadcasts' descended into four letter word expletives or people just freezing up as they experience the sort of 'brain fart' I am all too familiar with.

Again, the director and crew gave nearly all of us three or four takes rather than the promised two to get us to continually improve and learn new techniques for coping. The 'surprise' on this exercise was that we had to deliver the broadcast not standing still, but while walking with a very wide-angle camera seemingly just inches from our faces. Apparently I was chasing the cameraman rather than just walking naturally allowing him to follow me! Even worse, my idea of walking in a straight line while delivering a piece to camera from memory is to apparently zig-zag all over the place, which can be particularly 'challenging' for the cameraman given the number of other professional crews gathered in that very small park who tend to be there interviewing MPs pretty much all day long!

The final exercise of the day - the big one - was two takes of a 'magazine' programme, with each take recorded back to back almost immediately after each other. This exercise had all kinds of distractions: multiple camera's, autocue scripts we'd not really seen before, constant director instructions through an earpiece, and an unscripted but rigorously timed interview. The fear in the air was palpable!

The first take was to involve just a 90 second guest interview slotted into the middle of the programme, the second take was with a different guest for that section, but with the interview expanded out to 3 minutes.

I was constantly surprised at how people could contradict your assumptions about what they'd be like when in front of a camera. Carl, an ex-radio DJ from Manchester station Galaxy FM, who I chose to interview for my magazine section, had looked really terrified just before his first take of the magazine program (he was first on, and I was his first guest) but as the opening music cued it was like a switch went on and he transformed himself brilliantly.

Another chap, who was a real extrovert and 'character' when with the group, was someone we all thought would be great 'on camera', but when the camera started rolling he became rather dull and static (just like me).

The only disasterous take of the day (on previous courses some people have apparently frozen completely or ended up in tears as the pressure has built up) was my first take of the magazine programme! In the morning the autocue had been close enough for me to read without having to wear glasses (which I usually avoid for anything other than driving). As we started recording the magazine section I realised (too late) that the camera was further away and all I could see of my autocue script were some very fuzzy words which I often mistook, somewhat hilariously, for completely different words! It was an incoherent rambling mess, and the whole thing was not improved by the fact I thought I'd heard the director give me a '10 second - wrap it up' warning when he hadn't, so that I finished up having to fill 10 seconds of dead time before the end credits. Nobody - but nobody! - is ever going to get to see that footage I can tell you!

Fortunately a hastily grabbed pair of glasses (thanks Jo!) meant my second attempt wasn't quite so bad. You can see for yourself how it turned out in the video below. It was only when watching the DVD/VHS tape that the organisers give you at the end of the course, that I realised I had got the guest's surname wrong in my introduction! Oh, the horror! Admittedly, it's not very good, but I include the segment here so you can get more of a feel for what the exercises on the course were like (and watch me squirm!)

By the way, if you think the studio looks familiar that's because it's the one used for The Frost Report and, like most TV studios, looks so much better on camera than it does 'in the flesh' where the couch seemed really grubby and worn! Apparently Sarah Jessica Parker had sat where I was sitting just the day before - a fact which seemed to excite some of my fellow students!

All-in-all, I thought the course was excellent and made for a really fun, if totally exhausting, day. Although I'm clearly never going to be very good at this sort of stuff, I thought I was given some excellent advice and tips throughout the day - I just didn't seem able to personally deliver on too many of them.

Anyway, if you have any aspiration in this direction yourself, or just want a fun day doing something completely different, I highly recommend this course (apparently a big favourite with Big Brother contestants when they leave the house!). You can check out all the details at

The course certainly made for a birthday I'm going to remember more than most - and all in a good way :)!


Jaded and Cynical said...

That's pretty good after just a day's training.

Ian said...

Well if that's true (and I'm not convinced to be honest) it's totally down to the patience and perseverance of the course instructors. I watch the clip and all I see is my complete inability to point out in the intro that Carl had been a 'victim' of the networking of radio, having been given his P45.

That being said, I just watched my autocue piece done earlier in the day and it's actually rather scary how much better take 6 is than take 1, whereas on the day I'd thought they were pretty much of a muchness.

I'd say that everyone else on the course did a much better job on the magazine piece. Any of them could go on national TV and be great. Carl (the chap who was my 'guest') did a couple of pieces that I thought were a bit weak, and then pulled a really good magazine programme out of the hat. Thought he did a great job as my guest as well.

I think my 'best' performance was actually as a guest, but of course I didn't get a copy of that.

Brian Sibley said...

It's never easy watching yourself on film but don't undersell yourself. I've read autocues and interviewed while someone is nattering through an earpiece and a floor manager is giving you a count-down --- it is NOT easy!

You make it look pretty effortless - especially for a first attempt (forget about the one without specs!) and YOU look far more comfortable than you probably felt: importantly you engaged well with your guest and, absolutely vitally, with the viewer.

Well done!!

And only 51? So young... ;-)