You know when it’s time to get a teleprompter for your production.
Students can’t keep eye contact with the camera, the amount of material becomes too much to memorize, and taping your production takes way too long. What might not be so clear is how best to incorporate teleprompters so they do what you’ve brought them in to do: raise the quality of your production while speeding up production turnaround.
Setting the Stage
Nothing is more important to raising the quality and speed of production than pre-production. When you’re well prepared, everything goes more smoothly and pre-production for teleprompting begins with the script. In many school productions, the students are writing and presenting their own scripts, which can be a huge advantage. When talent writes their own scripts they get the chance to write in a conversational style that suits the way they present. Writing in a natural, conversational voice makes reading the script in the teleprompter much easier and will come across to the audience as if talent has memorized the entire thing – just what you want!
If you have a larger team with separate writers and talent, there are a couple of guidelines you can give your writers to make sure the scripts can be read easily and naturally. The first is to use contractions, such as she’ll or let’s, whenever possible. This is the way most people naturally speak but isn’t always the first instinct of a writer when putting pen to paper. The exception is for any time a writer intends to convey emphasis. Separating contracted words in live speech will draw attention to the phrase by slowing the pace of the phrase over the modifiers. “Students can’t wait for summer and are making vacation plans already,” becomes “Students cannot wait for summer and are making vacations plans already.”
The second guideline for writers is to have them read their own work out loud. Nothing reveals awkward sentence structure, or problems with the larger context, faster. A sentence that stands well on its own can often be too long or too short when read aloud. Pacing the writing for natural speech will make reading the script on the teleprompter easy and consistent.
The last guideline to follow when writing scripts for the teleprompter is to format with lots of space. This means a double carriage return after every single sentence:
Principal Jorgenson lead the faculty basketball team to a win against the seniors at this year’s Student Faculty Games.
The game went into double overtime before Principal Jorgenson was able to put it away with a miracle shot from half court.
Josh McCrary, defensive guard for the seniors, said he couldn’t believe it when he saw Principal Jorgenson taking the shot:
When the script is imported into the prompter software, the larger format and restricted screen dimensions make it much harder for talent to see the wider context of the script, so adding space after each sentence will give them the cue they need for spacing out the sentences naturally. This also means that indentations should be omitted as they will use up very valuable real estate on the prompter’s video output.
Getting the Look
Along with the art of script writing, your prompter operators and script supervisors can up their game by formatting the text to optimize the reading experience for talent. This starts with the font. Many years of experience have shown that sans-serif fonts are the very best. They are cleaner and much easier to read in a prompter than what might be your default font in your word processing program: Times New Roman. The Times New Roman font has “feet”, or ”serifs”, that mark the bottom of the each letter. When filling a screen with these types of characters, the definition of each letter becomes less obvious and the reader will get tired much more quickly. This means more errors and more takes.
Using a sans-serif font does have a challenge – differentiating between a capital “I” and a lower case “L.” Facilities that don’t give talent the benefit of reviewing a script will write scripts in only capital letters to avoid possible confusion. This isn’t always a net plus, though, so take your cue from talent as to whether this helps or not.
Color should also be considered. Most prompter software packages will default to white text on black background – and for good reason. This provides the needed contrast to read the prompter text while also minimizing the amount of light being shone in the hood of the prompter. Using white background with black text can shine so much light into the prompter hood that it changes the white balance and iris settings of the camera and can even introduce unwanted reflections into the lens of the camera.
Blue does not show well on a black background, so using red, yellow and green are your best bets for marking a header in a distinctive manner. One should refrain from using full texts in any color, though, as this is also a source of fatigue for talent when reading scripts. A common distinction is to use the inverse rather than a color change to distinguish text that should not be read aloud. This might include labels, like the name of talent to speak the upcoming script, as well as production cues, like which camera is to be read from next or if there is a recorded segment to be played.
Keeping the Pace
Once set with a script that’s been approved for production and formatted for optimal readability, it’s time to go live! Thus begins the delicate dance of pace between the scrolling text and talent’s read rate. It will be quickly evident that the script can’t be set at a constant scroll speed if talent is to read in a natural cadence. There are lots of phrases and sentences that might not be quick to read. A list of names might sound very robotic at a constant rate, and talent may need to pause before difficult words to stop the pronunciation sounding rushed and muddy. On the other hand, a series of very short words can be spoken much faster.
The answer? A scroll controller. This allows an operator to increase and decrease the speed to match the natural reading cadence of talent. The most popular scroll controllers offer smooth acceleration and deceleration via a rotary wheel you turn with your hand. You’ll also find foot controllers along with wireless versions of both hand and foot controllers that give you maximum flexibility. These controller options can even allow talent to control the scroll speed themselves – which may be the only option if your production team is too small to afford you the luxury of a dedicated prompter operator. Either way, some practice will be required for both talent and operator to get a feel for how the controller responds and to learn the patterns of speech talent uses to communicate the script they’re reading.
Most prompter programs offer a target that give both the operator and talent a position to aim for. Often called a “cue marker,” this will usually be an icon on the left margin of the script with a constant position relative to the scrolling text. The mission for both operator and talent is to keep the text and the spoken word as close to the cue marker position as possible to best coordinate their pacing. The most experienced operators will have an intuition that your students will develop as they work with the system. Even talent that control the scroll themselves will need some time to get the feel for how to coordinate the script position with their speaking pace.
Taking it Live!
You’ve written your scripts. You’ve formatted your prompter text. You’ve practiced your reading. Now, let’s polish it up! There’s a reason people on camera are called “talent.” When on-camera, it’s not helpful to simply read as if you’re reading to yourself – there’s an art to inflection and presentation that communicates a message more than simply reading words ever can. There’s certainly a bit of talent that goes into looking natural and comfortable on camera, but there are a few tips that can help a beginner up their game significantly.
Use your peripheral vision. There’s a strong temptation for inexperienced presenters to focus their eyes on every word that scrolls past, but locking your vision onto words as they pass causes shifty eyes and give the viewership an uneasy feeling. In contrast, a small bit of effort to use peripheral vision will give the audience a steady gaze that will come across as confident and personable. Blinking is helpful, of course, not just to lubricate your eyes, but also to break up what might become an uncomfortable stare.
Use your voice. There is absolutely nothing worse than listening to someone read in a droll monotone. Make sure to allow the pitch of your voice to rise and fall with the phrase’s pacing. This not only gives the script some variation and depth, but also helps to form the phrases for the audience so they can better follow along with the sentence and paragraph structure. Don’t forget to pause and slow down at the parts of sentences that hold particular importance – a common error is to read through everything as fast as you can which causes names and actions to get lost in the rapid-fire barrage of words.
Use your body. While it’s not particularly helpful to be tossing your head back and throwing jazz hands like a muppet, it is helpful to subtly use your head, hands and shoulders to help communicate the tone of your message. Serious tones can be communicated with folded hands and slight nods when coming to the end of a sentence. Negative tones are communicated by turning your head from one side to the other, and directive tones can be communicated by lowering your hand at the point of emphasis. Urgency can be communicated by leaning forward and passiveness by leaning slightly backward. Nodding and even slow blinking can be used to communicate agreement or approval. Peppering your performance with these small movements can bring an otherwise flat read to life.
Bringing it Home
Teleprompters are a vital tool for productions that are looking to improve their look and shorten their production cycles. When using a prompter properly, you can make novices look experienced and you can get a production done in a single take. It all starts with the proper tools and preparation. As you gain more experience with teleprompters, you’ll have some of your own tips to share and Autocue would love to hear them! Be sure to email your tips to [email protected] so you can help others improve their productions by learning from your experiences. We’re also a great resource for those looking to get deeper into the details of prompter hardware and software, so drop us a note so we can help!