We’ve made a number of videos for our business website, and one of the biggest challenges has always been finding ways to help Carol with remembering the script. She would typically hang notes all over the camera and tripod, but this could quickly become unwieldy, especially for the longer videos.
We recently had the need to shoot 11 short videos in one afternoon, so it was obvious that we needed to find a more workable solution. Carol told me that the answer was simple, I just needed to build her a teleprompter. Initially I didn’t give it serious consideration because… well… who has a teleprompter in their house? It wasn’t until I started doing a bit of research that it dawned on me that teleprompters are extremely simple devices: it’s nothing more than a piece of glass held at 45° with text displayed from beneath. From one direction the text is visible and easy to read; from the other direction is it invisible and provides a clear shot for the camera.
The text is clearly visible to the host, while the main camera is positioned behind the teleprompter and looks through the glass.
With that revelation I ventured into the basement and started pulling things together; within a couple hours I had a completely functional teleprompter that did not cost me one dime! Here’s a good spot for the first disclaimer: I was fortunate to already have everything I needed, if you’re missing any of these pieces your teleprompter may not exactly be free.
- Scrap lumber. I uses some pieces of 1×2, 2×4 and 1/4″ plywood.
- Large piece of clean glass.
- Small piece of aluminum conduit.
- Photo light stand.
- Old flat-panel computer monitor. Mine was an old Viewsonic 19″.
- Laptop or PC to run the software.
- Freeware teleprompter application.
And, here’s another disclaimer: I am not going to give detailed directions how to build this thing. Why? Because yours is going to be different depending on what spare parts you pull together. If I listed specific dimensions they would only be relevant if you happened to have the same old flat-panel monitor laying around. Instead, I’m just going to describe it in general terms so you can see how simple this thing is and hopefully create your own.
The goal is to make a simple structure that can do three things:
- Hold the monitor flat on its back.
- Hold the glass at a 45° angle.
- Be mounted on a stand.
Accomplishing those first two items is pretty damned easy. I started by building a frame out of scrap 1×2 the same size as the monitor. Since the back of the monitor is not perfectly flat, I just made a rectangle that could support the monitor around its edges.
Next I cut the two angled side pieces that would support the glass. The 1/4″ plywood was sturdy enough that I did not need to use any additional bracing; simply nailing it to the main part was sufficient. I then added a strip along the front that the bottom edge of the glass rests against.
I probably spent the most time figuring out how to securely mount this contraption on one of my light stands. The ideal solution would have been to have a metal frame with a clamp just the right size to fit the stub on the top of the stand, but that was beyond what I could do with the scraps I had at hand. So, it was time to improvise.
Using some scrap 2×4 I made a sturdy cross brace that the rest of the structure sits upon. Scrounging around I found a piece of aluminum conduit that was exact size I needed to fit on the stub of the light stand. I’ll admit that this was an amazing stroke of luck, because I was about to admit defeat and head out to buy some parts. Having this little scrap of conduit allowed me to continue on still working in the realm of free!
Using a Forstner bit drilled a hole into the bottom of the 2×4 that was as close to the size of the conduit as I could get. As it turned out the hole was just a bit too large, so I wrapped a couple layers of duct tape around the conduit piece and gently tapped it into place with a hammer. At this point, the hardware portion of the teleprompter is essentially done!
Bring It All Together
With the wood structure in place on the top of the light stand, I set the monitor into position and added the glass. That’s it! Now, if I were to go back and make an improved version of this I’d find some way to actually attach the glass; as it is it’s a bit susceptible to being knocked off should someone bump into it.
For my setup, the monitor is driven by a laptop that runs teleprompter software. Because I’m using an old laptop with limited video output, I have to run it in Presentation mode where both the laptop screen and the external monitor are active. If you’re using a slightly better setup you can probably configure it in dual-screen.
OK, so how do you get actually get the text on the screen? You might think this is just a simple matter of putting your script in a Word document and slowly scrolling it while shooting the video. There’s just one problem: the glass reverses the text. What you want to do is install a specialized teleprompter application and let it do all the hard work.
It turns out there are a lot of different applications out there for this, ranging in price from free to several hundred dollars. I have no doubt that the pro applications are well worth it if this is something you do for a living and you need rock-solid, dependable tools. But if you’re operating on a shoestring budget, you’ll probably want to look at some of the lower-priced (or even free) options. If you do a search for “teleprompter software” you’ll be rewarded with a lot of choices to look through. I did NOT do an exhaustive evaluation of everything available, but I did end up liking one that I came across: Proverb Teleprompter. It’s freeware and it does everything I need it to do, and it runs just fine on my old Windows XP laptop.
When you set everything up, you’ll want to raise the teleprompter until the camera is shooting through the center of the glass. Then, drape a piece of black fabric over the back of the teleprompter and cover as much of the camera as you can (without blocking the lens, of course). The purpose of this is two-fold: it will increase the contrast of the text and make it much easier to read, and it will reduce any glare on the glass that the camera might pick up.
That’s all there is to it! As I mentioned, this is a very easy thing to put together, especially if you have the parts already sitting around gathering dust. But even if you have to buy some of these pieces you can pull this together very quickly and for not a lot of money. And whatever you do have to put into it, it’s well worth it. Remember at the beginning when I said we had 11 videos to shoot in one day? Carol did the majority of those in a single take, thanks to having the script right in front of her where she needed it.