A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884Guest post by Erin Greenfield

Four months ago I splurged on a $350 Panasonic camcorder.

I wish I could explain why I thought it was a good idea at the time, but it entered and left my brain as quickly as you can say “Why didn’t you get a Flip?!”

That expensive shopping impulse soon turned into a forgotten, dust-covered box that sat in my room unused.

Until three weeks ago.

In my Internet & Mobile Strategy Lab class at Johns Hopkins University, my final group project for the semester was to create a “viral video” about the JHU M.A. in Communication program.

We read about viral videos from Steve Garfield’s how-to  guide, Get Seen, and knew these had to be engaging, compelling, relevant to the audience, and of course, have good quality.

Well, that last part was easy – I had a $350 video camera lying about just waiting to be used by a group of clueless eager-to-learn grad students.

Once my group checked off that box in our initial meeting, we moved on to concept.

We wanted to highlight JHU’s DC-centric location, its array of academic concentrations, and its emphasis on digital communications,

so we came up with a storyboard: at various D.C. landmarks, show JHU students holding an iPad displaying a single word describing a key attribute of the JHU program.

Each person would say aloud the word on the iPad screen, and just in case it was inaudible, we recorded our voices on iPhone’s voice memo app to be dubbed later in editing.

The only problem

was figuring out how to show the words on the iPad without a glare.

We decided to put a green piece of paper on the iPad to mimic a green screen, and would later add the words in iMovie. We shot it one day over 7 hours, delighted in our efforts, and went home for Thanksgiving.

Our delight soon turned to panic as soon as we came back from break.

My prized video camera produced such grainy footage, Seurat would be proud. We couldn’t hear anything over the ambient noise of D.C., and our high-tech idea of a green screen failed miserably.

Our faith (naiveté?) in our digital tools had us reaching for the stars and we ended up getting a black hole.

Slightly de-spirited and very humbled

we decided to re-shoot, except this time with a Flip HD camera, black-and-white copies of the words scotch-taped to the iPad, and no audio.

Instead of taking 7 hours, it took 3 hours to shoot because we had remembered every locale and shot.

And of course, it worked. The footage was better, the words clearer, the editing easier, and overall, we were happier with the final product.

Does our video have the makings of a viral video?

Probably not.

But the point of the assignment, and of grad school in general, is to get our hands dirty, make mistakes and hopefully learn from them.

This is what I took away from my first video experience, which may seem obvious to some:

1. Keep it as simple as possible.

Aim high in creativity, but keep in mind the limitations of your tools and skills throughout the process.

2. Invest in an HD video camera.

A good video camera is definitely important, but don’t break the bank for one. My fancy camera, I learned too late, was not HD.

3. A dry run is better than none.

Our initial shoot and footage was a blessing in disguise,

and we were more efficient and made better decisions the second time around.

4. Be flexible.

You may end up changing some key elements from your storyboard along the way. Keep an open mind, and know that you may need to pull a little MacGyver while shooting.

5. Stay positive and have fun during every part of the process.

My group’s enthusiasm and energy was contagious, and kept us going throughout all the bumps.

Erin Greenfield is pursuing a master’s degree in communications with a concentration in digital communications at Johns Hopkins University. She is a former student of Shonali’s Communication.org: Not-for-profits in the Digital Age class. In Erin’s spare time, when not working full-time at Threespot as a user experience associate, and going to school at night, she sleeps. You can talk to her on Twitter.