How Much Does it Cost to Produce E-Learning Video?

By Stephen Haskin

Video. Do you love it? Do you hate it? It doesn’t matter. As developers or designers of eLearning, video is an increasing part of the work we create. You already know that. Usually you get a budget, one that you know is too small to work with. You do what you have to do to make your budgets work.

Making video in the eLearning space might have the same parts as a Hollywood production, but it’s not the same on many levels. In eLearning, we have to work harder and smarter to make our productions make sense to our learning audience.

Truly, the hardest question to answer when we get an idea (or are told to get an idea) for a video is, “How much will it really cost to make?”

Will it be the video of your dreams or your nightmares? A storytelling video is a very different project than an actor or subject matter expert (SME) talking to a camera, whether it’s made with the camera in the lid of a laptop or in a studio. Even if it seems simple, there are a lot of moving parts to keep in mind when you’re trying to figure out how much to budget for your video production.

Here are ideas that can guide you so you can “Make it work!”

What’s Involved in Video Production

Creating video is a process. Your cost for video production will be different from my cost of video production. It comes down to where you are and what’s involved in your particular production; for example, how much equipment to rent or buy? How many actors?

The list of needs can be almost endless. Everything you do costs your department, company, or yourself money and time. When it comes to video production spending, you need to spend those hard-to-come-by production dollars wisely, with as much of the expense showing on the screen as possible. Since there are so many factors to consider when you’re calculating how to develop your video and cost it out, I’ll probably miss a few, but here’s my list.

DIY or Outsource?

When you get a script or idea, the first thing to consider is this: are you going to make it yourself or are you going to hire a company or individual to make the video? In the past, video production companies have mostly quoted the “price” of a video by the cost per finished minute. The production company would look at the script and figure out how much to charge including their markup. Changes are extra. If a script has several locations away from your office, there are transportation, set-up, and equipment charges along with other costs over and above your own costs.

If you’re lucky and you work at a corporate campus, it’s a little easier as there are lots of free locations to select. You still have to allow time to move the equipment to your location(s), unpack, set it up, light the set, and block your actors (establish where they are on the set and where they move). Even with a script, sometimes there’s still too much speculation in figuring the costs exactly. With some knowledge of how to think about production process and costs, you’ll be getting more and more accurate as you are involved in more video productions.

Pre-production

This is the most important part of any video production. Let me give you a few words about pre-production decisions before I lay out the actual steps. Most of the decisions you make in pre-production will show up in your finished product. Here are some of the questions to think about and decisions you will be making as you do your pre-production planning.

  • What is the first major decision after you have your script?
    • Did you get your script from an SME?
    • Is it already a video script?
    • Do you have to rewrite it to make the words make sense and transform it into a video script?
    • Is someone else going to write it?
  • Are you going to shoot “on-location”?
    • Is the location in the office or outside the office?
    • If it’s away from your office, do you have to pay for the venue?
    • If it’s in the office space, will you have to record after hours—or can you get it done during normal business hours?
  • Do you need actors?
    • Do you have on-camera actors (assuming that you need them at all)?
    • Are they internal actors in your own company or do you have to audition and hire them?
  • What equipment are you going to use? Do you need to purchase or rent anything? Will you need more than one camera (a multi-camera shoot)?
  • How many days will it take to shoot the project?

And perhaps the most important question of all: do you already have an approved budget, or do you have to submit a budget? If you’ve already got a budget approved, you still have to do the budget part below. The budget is more than numbers. It’s a roadmap to how you’ll spend your money so you make the most of it on the screen.

The steps in pre-production are:

  1. Figure out what you’re going to be doing. Stand-up talking head? Tell a story? Sounds simple, right? It’s not! (See the sidebar below, “4K Video?” in case you are thinking you need “hi-fi” state-of-the-art video.)
  2. Get a script. Get an SME to write it. Then study it and figure out what kind of video you really need to make. Get your ideas down on paper: at least make notes in the borders of the script pages as you study the script, or whatever works for you—notepad, sketchpad, Moleskine or other handy notebook, even the occasional back of an envelope. Or use your smartphone or tablet: Evernote, Noteshelf, GoodNotes, or any other cross-platform software that saves your notes in an easy-to-share format.
  3. Start your storyboard. No, not an instructional design storyboard! People who work in the moving picture business have been using visual storyboards since before 1900. It’s a representation of what scenes you want to make and what you want to see. It only has to speak to you, so it doesn’t have to be a work of art or a masterpiece of drawing.
  4. Start a spreadsheet. On the spreadsheet, make the first column your expense items; i.e. camera and lens rental, other equipment, actors, crew, etc. Everything that comes out of your “pocket.” The next column should be a cost per day, with a notation for items that have no separate cost per day. To the right, columns for each day of shooting and a final column of totals for each item. You must total the expenses totaled and foot them at the bottom of the spreadsheet.
  5. Figure out your costs—the spreadsheet you just started will also be your template for other productions. I can’t know what things cost in your market unless I’ve worked there, but you need to plan for everything that will have to be paid out of pocket, charged, or billed. This includes lunch for the crew, replacements for burned out lamps, and batteries for different equipment.
    Some of these things are or should be part of your production kit, but you’ve got to charge for them even if you call it miscellaneous or overhead. You have to make allowances for everything you can possibly think of and there will still be a surprise or two.
  6. Scope out your locations, hire your actors and other production crew. Make sure you’ve scheduled everything and give yourself and your crew enough production time to finish the job.

A lot of the production I do doesn’t involve actors. It certainly makes my life easier. As a director who has worked with many actors, both professional and “regular” people (as in non-actor), I usually prefer to make non-actors comfortable in front of the camera and let them be themselves. It can be way more fun and it’s far less expensive. Whether you’re using actors or not, you have to think about how you will set things up and that’s not just your physical set.

Production

This is the most important part of any video production. The day dawns bright and clear, or rainy or snowy as the case may be. The night before the shoot, you’ve checked all your gear:

  • Batteries are all charged. You have plenty of spare batteries for the non-rechargeable devices.
  • Plenty of fasteners—like clips, little bungee cords, duct tape—are all on hand.
  • Spare bulbs for all your lights (unless you’re using LEDs).
  • All equipment is ready to rock and roll.

You have all your equipment checked out and ready to go, so now all you have to do is go to the location. Maybe your office? Maybe somewhere else? Wherever, get there early. It always takes longer than you think to set up the first time in any location. But since this is about costs, let’s get into the costs of production and where they can bite you.

Production costs and potential budget-buster points:

  1. Camera equipment rental—if you don’t have the right camera(s) and lenses, then you will have to rent even more equipment. Worse would be if you own a camera and lenses (or a camera with a built in lens), and you don’t have the right equipment for your shoot … that would be bad pre-production … but just so you know, at the high end, a Red Epic-X “kit” is about $900 a day. That can add up fast. Did you get the right tripod, dolly or slider, fluid head, or other support for your camera? A whole tripod “kit” can cost you about $150 a day over and above your camera. Do you need a monitor to look at your work? That’s another $50 – $70 a day. You can see how this can add up. And if you don’t have the right equipment, then you have to wait for the right equipment and that means extra time and of course, time-equals-money. Always.
  2. Lights—same as the camera(s), but at least a bit less expensive. Different cameras take different light because their sensors react differently to the light that’s there. As an example, if you’re using a phone camera and you’re shooting outside and it’s a sunny day, you’ll need lots of lights balanced for daylight or tons of reflectors. Phone cameras can take beautiful pictures, but they need very “quiet” light, which simply means it needs to be flat without shadows. Or if you’re using a DSLR or a real video camera, you’ll still need at least five lights to set it up properly. Lights can cost about $10 – 20 a day to rent.
  3. Microphones—did you rent the best microphone? Do you have enough and the right kinds of mics? If you have a cast of more than one, do you need to put lavalieres on them? Or will it sound better with a shotgun mic? Or are they sitting at a table and need table mics? You need to answer these kinds of questions before you walk onto your set. Microphones can cost up to $50 a day to rent. And you still need cables and batteries. It’s all à la carte.
  4. Cast—do you have your cast all lined up? Are they expecting to be paid? Do you have all the roles filled? Do you need people to populate the office? These bodies are called extras and you might need to pay for them, especially if you didn’t line them up before your production.
  5. Crew—having enough people to operate the equipment is important. Are you going to use a boom mic? Then you need a boom operator. Do you have several microphones? Then you need a sound person to make sure the recordings sound correct. Lots of lights? Then you need a gaffer (the electrical person who attends to the lights, etc.). The list goes on. If you’re sure you can do all this yourself, more power to you.
  6. Cables—one of two items that’s out there as a big “hangin’ gotcha” because if you need a mic cable or an extension cord or whatever carries electrons, and you don’t have it, you’ll have to get it and that means time and money.
  7. Batteries—do you have enough “juice” to power your cameras, lights, mics, etc.? If you don’t, and your camera uses a proprietary battery, you’d better have at least one spare. If you run out of juice, you can’t just run to the drugstore any more. This can get very expensive if you have to run to Best Buy and get a few of those proprietary batteries for your camera.
  8. Fasteners—do you have enough clips, tape, and other things that keep objects out of the way of the camera and out of the frame. If you don’t have enough (and you never have enough!) then you’ll possibly have to stop the production and go out and get what you need.

If you’ve done your preproduction homework, then your production set will play out easily and smoothly—except there’s always something that will go wrong. Any and all of the costs you came up with in your pre-production scheduling and budgeting can go awry if you haven’t thought about them. Video rarely goes according to plan all the time and you do have a contingency plan, correct?

Post-production

This is the most important part of any video production. (Sorry to keep repeating myself.) Post-production (post) takes the most hours. You won’t even get to this point unless you’ve done the first two parts well. Post is tough to figure. There are a few rules of thumb, however. I generally plan about 10 hours of editing and working on things in After Effects, etc. for every hour I spend in production. Your results may vary.

However, if you’re shooting characters or talking heads and not scenes, you’ll probably be closer to three-to-five post-time hours per production hour. It all depends on how creative you’re going to be or can be because of time constraints in post. The minimum I recommend for budgeting post is a 6:1 ratio of post-production to production. If you know you’re going to do many things in post, then figure 10:1 and you’ll be safe.

If you’re going to hire a post house to edit your work, you might want to get them involved as early in the process as possible. If you’re shooting a production with actors over several days, deliver the video or the memory cards to them every day. What you see at the end of the day happens in post, no two ways about it.

Conclusion (and an apology)

You might have noticed that I wrote that each section is the most important part of a video production. And indeed, they all are. You plan your video in pre-production; you shoot it during production, and bring it to life in post-production. The only place you might be able to slide a bit is in pre-production. And then, only if you’re shooting in a studio with known talent and doing a talking head.

If you were thinking when you started this article that you’d be able to exactly cost out your video, I’m sorry to disabuse you of that thought. There is no secret formula. There are no such things as exact costs. Every market has different prevailing prices for outside talent and every company has different ways of costing internally.

With careful planning, using your unique costs, there is a way to get your production costs in line so the next time your boss asks you “How much?” you can give an educated estimate.

P.S.: It never hurts to pad 10 percent or so into your costs. That can give you a leg up on the unforeseen and you know there will be things that pop up all the time. It’s the nature of making video.

Sidebar: 4K Video?

I don’t know anyone in the eLearning space who needs to shoot or play back video at 4K resolutions. Right now, 4K or UHD (Ultra HD) is a marketing buzzword that TV set and camera manufacturers are using to sell new or upgraded products to a mostly stagnant market. While there are now many different cameras and TV screens that can record or view 4K, nobody is using 4K to stream or display video. Not the TV or Cable networks. Not the Internet companies. Nobody. (Well, a few claim they do, but try to find it!)

And do you really want to know what IT thinks about something they will see as yet another bandwidth hog, although H.265 neatly takes care of that issue? 4K doesn’t or shouldn’t enter the pricing equation for video-content creation. So let’s take 4K out of the mix. The hidden added costs are its really long render times even using today’s workstations. And face it, we really can’t afford a render farm. Even a tiny little two- or three-machine render farm.

Reprinted from Learning Solutions Magazine

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