Run, don’t walk, to your favorite bookstore and buy First Cameraman: Documenting the Obama Presidency in Real Time. Or, if there aren’t any bookstores left within running distance, then bike over to your local library and check out this new hardcover book by Arun Chaudhary. Or, if you haven’t been on a bicycle since 1983, then just go to Amazon.com, buy First Cameraman, and start reading it on your Kindle in under a minute.
Get it? Got it? Good.
Arun Chaudhary was the Official White House videographer. He traveled extensively with the President capturing public events and behind-the-scenes moments.
Arun was the New Media Road Director of Obama for America (OFA) during the 2008 presidential campaign. He oversaw the team responsible for capturing the day-to-day life of the future president in video and stills. He and his team set a new standard in documenting history, delivering crucial images to the public from the road in real time. His work as part of the Obama team has been featured in the New York Times, National Journal, Politico, Fortune Magazine, and as part of the Frog Design Mind Series.
Before joining the Obama team, Arun worked in fiction film in New York as a writer, director, location sound recordist, post-production sound designer, and film critic. For five years, he was part of the NYU Graduate Film Department faculty. He got his MFA in Filmmaking from NYU and his BA in Film Theory from Cornell University.
I interviewed Arun via email for my book, YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day. Here are some excerpts:
Documenting Obama on Camera – Tips & Best Practices Learned
Jarboe: Who was your target audience? Was it opinion leaders in the YouTube community or political activists who also watched online video?
Chaudhary: Our target audience was voters, all kinds of voters. While YouTube community folks and political activists were probably vocal commenters on our work, I don’t think it would make sense to think of them as a target audience. We wanted to appeal to a wide variety of folks. When you have a candidate as exciting and dynamic as Barack Obama was, the most important thing you can do is get him in front of as many people as possible. We used to say the YouTube or live stream hits of his speeches were like adding thousands of extra seats in the room. Especially in the early states, the sort of people you want to watch an event are folks who couldn’t physically make it for some reason. Rather than fishing for viral success, you’d rather have real prospective voters see your candidate make his or her case.
Jarboe: Did you optimize your videos for YouTube? Were there search terms that you put in your title, description, and tags of your videos on YouTube?
Chaudhary:We tried to be very specific. Location and date of the speech was very important because you really hope that folks who weren’t physically able to make the rally are able to find the footage. Topic is very important as well, because a lot of folks looking for political content online are hoping to find answers to their specific questions (what is the candidate’s position on health care?) in that way; the candidate’s websites are very much a modern update of campaign literature, or maybe even a bit like the voting guides various groups used to publish close to election times. You really can’t be too specific with your titling, though of course there are only so many words you can actually have in the title itself. I also think it’s important to include information in the piece itself.
With emerging technologies and when posting videos on many different platforms, you never quite know what will happen. One of the format rules for BarackObama.com that was designed and enforced by Kate Albright-Hanna was that the opening card for every video would be the date and location. I remember thinking that it was maybe a little too austere, but she was absolutely right. If you lived in Keokuk, Iowa, and a friend forwarded you a video link, the first thing you would see when you clicked on it would be November 20th, 2007, Keokuk, Iowa, and you would immediately know why it was relevant to you.
Chaudhary: I think I better leave the awarding of superlatives to folks who were the audiences of these movies, but between the two you mentioned, I would have to go with “A More Perfect Union.” The Will.i.am piece (which was not produced by the campaign; it was made by the artists themselves) was really great, and I think a lot of people found it very inspiring and accessible, but we had consistent calls from the public to put up speeches in their entirety. As time went on, we found that some of the effort of finding specific clips and producing them with cut shots was better spent trying to get entire speeches and town halls online. Folks really seemed to respond to being allowed to see the candidate unedited. In a sense they wanted to see the candidates in the raw and make their own decision, not to feel like they were being fed media. With a candidate as compelling as Barack Obama was, it made a lot of sense to let them see him in this manner. The more people actually saw him speak and hear his views, the more likely they were to vote for him. With a different candidate one might need to take a different strategy, but for us, Barack Obama was always the star; we were just the backup singers.
Jarboe: In addition to creating compelling video content, did you engage in any outreach effort with the YouTube community or bloggers? Was there any effort to give opinion leaders a “heads-up” when a new video was uploaded?
Chaudhary: There was some effort put into blog outreach, mostly from the HQ side; I can’t really speak to it, because I wasn’t involved with it, nor was it something we thought about much on the road.
Jarboe: What production challenges did you face and overcome? Are there any tips or tools that you used to get videos uploaded on a daily basis?
Chaudhary: The production challenges were immense. We would often arrive at events with about 10 minutes to go before a speech would start and need to set up our cameras and live-streaming computer as fast as we could. If everything went right, it was just about possible. Editing was just as challenging. The Road Team edited in the field on laptops and uploaded with aircards. On an airplane you can only upload to about 30,000 feet before losing all signal, so time was always of the essence. The watchword on our team was “workflow.” Because we were doing so many events and traveling so constantly, we had a lot of opportunity to improve the workflow; see what order things should be done in, what tasks the computer could handle doing at the same time, figure out how to fill what little time we had to its fullest. Redundancy also helped. Every Road Team member had a camera, a laptop, and an aircard. That way we weren’t reliant on any one person to get the job done; we were all able to do what we needed to do. It was definitely a process. By the end of the campaign, it was taking us minutes to upload what was taking hours at the beginning. There was no magic formula, it was just experience. The thing about doing a process over and over and over is that eventually you get better. A tip I would definitely offer others is to always worry about the audio first; once you have that everything else is fixable. Bad video can seem like a choice while bad audio is always a mistake.
Jarboe: Did you take advantage of any video advertising opportunities?
Chaudhary: This isn’t really anything I can speak to directly; Joe Rospars and our online ad guys Michael Organ and Andrew Bleeker did a lot of amazing things, even putting up Obama posters in video games, but it wasn’t something the Road Team got involved with other than providing footage—something we did for the television folks as well.
Jarboe: How did you measure your video campaign? Did you use YouTube Insight, TubeMogul, or web analytics BarackObama.com? What feedback did these tools give you that led you to change what you were doing?
Chaudhary: We did pay attention to the analytics. In fact, there was an entire section of the New Media Department devoted to analyzing all the data.
On a personal level, I was never quite sure how accurate the metrics of YouTube Insight or TubeMogul were, but I think it can show you some general trends and that can be quite useful. Seeing that folks would actually watch entire speeches and not just clips was very useful, especially as it is slightly counterintuitive. Also finding out that our core audience was much older than the 18–25 demographic was very interesting. According to the YouTube Insight tool, our main audience was 40 to 50, which is what you would expect from normal political media but not necessarily online. It has certainly reinforced my notion that online political video was essentially the modern replacement for the printed campaign guides of the past. I think a lot of folks went to all the websites to compare and contrast the candidates’ views and make an informed decision.
Now, the first official White House videographer chronicles his time capturing behind-the-scenes moments of the president and his administration. “I’m sort of like President Obama’s wedding videographer,” Arun explains, “if every day was a wedding with the same groom but a constantly rotating set of hysterical guests.”
Some of the moments Chaudhary captures are small, like the president throwing warm-up pitches deep inside Busch Stadium in St. Louis before the All-Star game. Some are intensely emotional, as when Obama comforts a grieving teenager whose father had died in a devastating tornado. And some are just plain bizarre—like getting thrown out of the Indian parliament by his belt, or being trapped in a White House bathroom while Obama conducts a YouTube town hall on the other side of the door.
Arun’s entertaining and eye-opening book – which includes stories and images of key players such as Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton, among others – will give online video marketers lots of expert advice and plenty of best practices to share with either executives in their company or clients of their agency.
In other words, get your hands on a copy of First Cameraman. And don’t wait until after Nov. 6, 2012, to start reading it.