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How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Tricks to Storify Your Travel Video

I shoot videos and landscapes when I travel overseas. Obviously, I cannot shoot to a script or have much of a plan, since this is an unplanned vacation.

How would I construct a story from random scenes in Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna, Budapest, etc?  Usually I end up with a string of shots without any story. This is not what you recommend in your book.

My friend Wendy will be travelling with me, but how could I include her in the video? Shots of her looking at the Danube from Buda and from Pest don’t seem to have much interest. Shooting her eating sauerkraut, etc. wouldn’t cut it either.

Any ideas?

–John

What’s great about your question is that you know there should be a story to your video, you just don’t know how to get to it. Which leads us to this: how do we “storify” video when we can’t plan?

To come up with ideas, let me suggest variations on the idea of brainstorming. Examine your shooting situation by asking questions of yourself in different ways. Then make quick lists of ideas (in your head or on paper), choose the best one(s), and shoot.  Here are a few methods to help you storify fast:

Lens in:  There’s a whole post elsewhere about the idea of looking closer at the details of what you’re shooting to find story. If you become extremely interested in what you see, “zooming in” like a lens does (only, you know, metaphorically), your audience will be fascinated by your interest.

What if you become intensely interested in Wendy eating sauerkraut? What utensil does she eat it with? What food goes with it? What is the restaurant like? Is the sauerkraut different at different restaurants? What does she love about sauerkraut? What’s her earliest memory of eating it? What does her face look like when she likes it? When she doesn’t?

If you dive in to explore one of these detailed observations- say, her earliest sauerkraut memories- you can discover a story she can tell as she samples the local cuisine.  And you wind up with a great 2 minute documentary about Wendy.

Look for the Obstacle: Every day of travel has a challenge- a place you can’t find, a new food you aren’t sure you like, strangers you meet. If you’re lucky there are physical challenges- a journey by canoe, a hike or a hang-gliding session. Try building stories around these challenges. Figure out who the hero is and think beginning/middle/end of that specific challenge.

Create a Journey: Think about each separate piece of your trip as a journey. For example, setting up your trip is a journey, from “I have an idea” to “The plane takes off.” Surprise Wendy with an unexpected gift, and track the story of getting it. Or tell the story of a single day in Pest, from wake-up to bedtime, and let chronology guide your tale.

Interview strangers: Open your circle beyond just you and Wendy. Become very interested in someone you meet. Everyone has a story- what can you learn about their lives, or the way they see the world? Seek out street food recommendations in Budapest by asking humans and shoot it. See if you can get yourself invited to a bar or party. Or just ask their view on local culture, their lives, or how they see America.

More on Travel Video here.

 

Yeah, But is it Any Good? Learning from Mediocre Video

People hate going to the movies with me. It’s not because I talk or text during films, because I religiously don’t do either. It’s what happens after the lights come up.  “That was good” says my wife. “I enjoyed it” says my daughter. “The dialogue in the battle scene in act three sounded like it was cribbed from ‘Alien'” I say. And that’s when the conversation usually slows way down.

As you get better at the film and video thing, what has happened to me may also happen to you: Your tolerance for mediocre work plummets.

Terrible is terrible. Most people can agree on that. And that rare brilliant show or film? Lots of consensus there too, at least in my family. But the mediocre middle? That’s where it’s tough.

Mediocre films and videos are full of things that obviously could have been done better. Worse, you can see exactly how– and how much better the finished product could have been. Instead of getting lost in the story, I’m getting pissed off about the art direction. The more you know about making video, the tougher it gets to watch.

That said, mediocre video is good for two things. First, you learn by critiquing. And second, it’s a hothouse of great ideas.  You can steal everything they didn’t do right and do it right in YOUR next video.

With that in mind, let’s consider how to critique what you watch. This will be fun if you go to the movies with a bunch of directors, less fun with relatives. I’ll leave it to you how much to discuss over drinks:

OVERALL: Big picture–was watching it better than doing something else, or did I want my hour back? Was I lost in the experience, or did I check the time a lot? This is a big one, because no matter how we might nit-pick, if it worked, it worked. And that has to be appreciated. But if you did zone out- when, exactly? Can you figure out why?

STORY: What was the hero’s journey? Did things happen because of choices the hero made, or because a screenwriter was manipulating their way to a conclusion? What about the hero felt (emotionally) real? What did I not buy?

INTRIGUE: Was I actively wondering what would happen next? Was I worried about the hero? Did I figure things out before they happened, so that I felt like I was ahead of the movie? Did the filmmakers drop clues that kept me interested along the way?

AFTER: Did the film leave me with something? After “the end” was I still processing? If it’s a TV show or video, was I ready to dive into the next episode, or did I click to the another show in my queue?

FUTURE IMPROVEMENT: Critiquing film and video shouldn’t (just) be a blood sport- let’s give credit where credit is due and learn from other peoples’ perspectives. What did the filmmaker do that I would never have thought of? What did they do that was way better than the way I would have done it? What can I steal that will improve my work?

There’s no Official Board of Film to rule on whether or not your opinions are right. Think what you like and learn what you can to make your next project better. Owning and defending your opinion (if your family can stand it) is a great learning exercise in and of itself.

What is a Hero? Lessons from “Ant-Man and the Wasp”

ant-man and the wasp

Okay, who’s the hero again?

What is a hero? It’s who your story is about. Strong heroes make choices and take action. They have strong desires and goals. Watching them pursue those goals pulls us through the stor

A mute woman rescuing a monster she’s in love with, a lawyer facing down the bigotry of his 1930s community to save a man’s life, a woman of color who wants to do math for NASA to save a mission– all great heroes. They each take big risks and strong actions.  When they win, we feel their triumph. When they lose, we feel their tragedy.

Generally speaking, the stronger the hero, the tougher the odds they face, the better the story. Superheroes are larger than life by definition, facing huge odds for tremendous stakes. Which makes them perfect for telling great stories. But Ant-Man and the Wasp, the sequel to 2015’s charming and imaginative Ant-Man, shows us what happens if you don’t let your hero make choices and take action. Even the strongest super-hero gets boring fast if you keep them from making choices and taking action.

In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is about to be released from house arrest and live happily ever after with his adorable daughter. But after a mysterious flashback vision, he’s kidnapped by Michael Douglas and love interest Evangeline Lilly, who ostensibly hate him for something that happened in a Marvel Movie I missed.

Instead of Ant-Man taking action and seeking them out, the filmmakers have Douglas and Lilly drug and kidnap him. He’s literally asleep when he’s taken. And in a metaphor for this film’s central problem, when he wakes up in the car, a chase is already in progress around him. The filmmakers (mostly literally) don’t let the hero drive his own plot.

For the rest of the film, Paul Rudd is literally along for the ride. Douglas and Lilly have to tell him what his goals are. He gets shown around their lab, rides in their cool shrinking cars, uses their tech, meets with their old frenemies and at one point is used as a passive vessel by Michael Douglas’ wife, Michelle Pfeiffer. He even watches the Wasp confront two powerful villains while he sits in the car worrying and watching on TV.

It’s not Ant-Man’s desires that drive the film, it’s Michael Douglas’s. Ant-Man should be worried about violating house arrest, frantic to get back home. But he’s not, because the Wasp team has it all handled. He should be uncomfortable in a car with a woman he still loves who hates him. The relationship with the Wasp should be fraught with anger and sexual tension. Instead it’s  just sort of— not a big deal. The filmmakers even gave the climactic Quantum Universe rescue scene to Douglas instead of Rudd. While Douglas gets the girl, Ant-Man battles a villain that he’s barely interacted with before and who doesn’t even hate him.

The result is a nice-enough movie. But once you realize how passive the lead character is you can’t stop noticing it. And you can’t stop wishing that Paul Rudd, a super-charming guy, was really the hero of his movie.

The lesson for the rest of us: Make sure your hero owns their own story. Make the hero’s desires and choices kick off the beginning of the story, let their difficulties motivate the middle, and let your hero’s strengths or weaknesses lead them to the story’s end.

Heroes don’t need to wear costumes or have a secret identities. Your 5-year-old can be the hero of your home video. A customer could be the hero of your TV spot. A rat can be the hero of your animated movie about French food. Focusing on your hero makes us wonder- and care- where the story is going next.

Just picture Paul Rudd asleep in the passenger seat of a van and remember: Always let your hero drive. The car and the movie.

 

 

The True Story of How Tattoos Got Us a Digital Series on Comedy Central

Comedy Central Tattoo Gnarnia

Did Izak’s tattoo get us a show on Comedy Central? It didn’t hurt (much)!

Our new digital series for Comedy Central, Gnarnia went up on Youtube last week.  It’s about 4 guys in a heavy metal band who live together behind a used record store in Los Angeles, who’ll do just about anything to avoid growing up.

We took it to several networks last year. The pitch included a very funny sizzle reel (a 4 minute demo of the project) and an explanation of our plans for the show.The quick pitch was “stoner Monkees”, which caused everyone in the room under 45 to go “Like, actual chimps?” (If you don’t know the Monkees, you can enjoy them here.) Once we explained it as “a lot like Workaholics, except they’re stoned and in a band” everyone nodded.

The series looks kind of like a reality show, but it’s actually an improvised comedy– think Curb Your Enthusiasm, with stoner 28 year-olds. (Once you start pitching “It’s like…” other shows, you can do it all day.) The show has a loose, Dazed and Confused documentary feel (another one!) And not all the networks quite got it.

Our dream network was Comedy Central, but we knew that while the show is really funny (good) it’s also pretty loose. Most Comedy Central shows are super tight, with a lot of rapid fire laughs. After our pitch meeting with the network it was clear that they liked it– but not clear they were ready to buy.

On the way out of the meeting we called the Gnar guys and asked them to think of something they could do fast that would make an even bigger impression.  They over-delivered. Not only did they wrote an incredibly catchy song, Comedy Central, Please Buy our TV Show, that they edited into a video, they also tattooed the Network logo on their arms on screen. For real. As icing on the commitment cake, they silkscreened a couple of customized t-shirts and sent them over to the network execs.

Did the tattoos put the show over the top? It’s hard to say. Commitment works to help launch any entertainment project. Your passion– for the project, the talent, and the outlet– is a huge motivator in getting someone else to believe in what you’re doing. Tattoos may not always be the way to show that commitment, of course. But in the case of this show, as you’ll see, they’re perfect. And luckily Izak and Rikky will have a great story for their grandchildren about their wrinkly Comedy Central tattoos.

Check the series out!  If you’re a fan of dumb humor, bad language and nudity (and who isn’t?), you’ll enjoy all three episodes. And if you could watch each one, say, 250,000 times, that would be a huge help.

WARNING: The theme song is an insane ear worm. I’ve been humming it for months. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

The Youtube version is censored. For the less sensitive, here’s a Facebook Watch uncensored look at the show:

Day 3: White Fang’s Big Gig – Gnarnia – Uncensored

The Gnar Tapes crew tries to raise money with a gig at a bar mitzvah.

Posted by Comedy Central Central on Friday, July 13, 2018

10 Tips for Doing Better Marketing Video

You write a lot about movies, home video, story, etc. It’s all great, and I use it when I shoot stuff. But I need to convince my company to do better marketing videos and I’m not shooting those.

Any advice?

-Jackson D., Denver

The only thing worse than shooting awful marketing video is paying someone else to shoot awful marketing video for you.

Critical in this age of video overpopulation: A crash course in video literacy for companies. The more you know about how video really works, the less likely you are to waste money and time on something nobody is going to watch.

Here are 10 tips to run through before your company’s next foray into video marketing, whether it’s on YouTube or network TV. Good luck!

  1. Entertain or Die: Whether it’s on the web or TV, nobody watches bad video. There are too many instantly available alternatives.

 

  1. Never confuse what you want with what the audience wants. You may have sales goals, but they have their own needs. Their needs determine how they behave, not yours.

 

  1. The Entertainment Transaction: The audience pays (with time or money) the entertainment must deliver (with an experience). More on entertaining videos here.

 

  1. “Should it Entertain or Sell?” is a fool’s argument. It has to do both. If it doesn’t entertain, it CAN’T sell. And if it doesn’t sell at all, why bother?

 

  1. A Viral Video is a “hit”—and it’s as tough to make as a hit record, hit TV show, or hit movie. A strategy that depends on a single hit is no strategy at all.

 

  1. Video done right works. It can increase the size of your loyal audience, or increase the participation/affiliation of your existing audience. Or both.  Video that’s done wrong vanishes, taking your time and money with it.

 

  1. Make sure what you have to say is really a video. Video does motion and emotion well. Charts and facts are not a video, they are Powerpoint. Bad Powerpoint.

 

  1. “See Something, Say Something” They use it in airports to remind people to report things that are suspicious to keep us all safe. Same in marketing meetings. If your campaign strikes you as a little, um, “suckish”– speak up. It’s not going to get better by itself. And the cost of production may be high, but it’s NOTHING compared with the cost of media. Or embarrassment.

 

  1. Keep your video short. That trailer for a new movie—the one you hate because it shows the whole story? It’s 2 minutes and 30 seconds long. You don’t need a ten minute sales video. Two minutes will be just fine—and even then, it better be good.

 

  1. Welcome to the Entertainment Industry. Like it or not, your marketing video is competing with all videos for attention. Make sure your videos are worth watching.

 

Thanks for the question, Jackson. Do you have a question? I bet you do.  Click here to ask it!

How to Shoot Vacation Video that Won’t Bore People to Death

Vacation video

This palm symbolizes “vacation.” It’s a long article, so I figured it needed a photo.

When I was a kid, the Armbrusters had a slide projector.  Which meant that after every vacation they took, we’d troop dutifully to their house for endless carousels of badly-shot Kodachrome slides, narrated  live.  The slide show always seemed longer than the vacation itself.  Washed-out, badly composed views of Disneyland or Paris—dotted here and there with the back of the head of someone we knew.

Today technology has changed everything.  People can record hours and hours of vacation video on a single chip.  But they don’t trap you in their living rooms anymore.  Instead they email links to their hour-long video and quiz you about how you liked it.

Who would do such a thing?  Anyone with a smartphone.  We have met the Armbrusters and they are us.

Luckily for the bore-ees, technology is also a good defense.  Today if the video’s bad, we watch 10 seconds and click off to “Family Guy.”  Then we lie to each other’s faces about how good the video was.

Oh, wait– you actually WANT people to watch your vacation video?  No problem.  Start by shooting vacation video that’s entertaining.  It’s not hard.  All you need is a little bit of thought ahead of time and the awareness that– whether it’s you, your kids or your friends– your video just may have an audience.

Here’s how to shoot vacation video that won’t bore people to death:

1)  Shoot Short Shots: A shot is like a sentence—it has a noun and a verb.  Together the noun and verb are what keep the “move” in “movies.”

On your backpacking trip a random video clip of “Bob” is not a shot.  “Bob picks up his pack” is a shot.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is a shot.  To keep your shots short, stop shooting when the action is complete.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is interesting for about 5 seconds unless Bob falls off a cliff.  So once you’ve got the action covered, be done.  We don’t need to see Bob’s back for another 30 seconds as he heads off into the distance. [more on short shots]

2)  Shoot People, Not Scenery: Think about why you’re shooting vacation video in the first place—to remember.

The Empire State Building will probably look exactly the same 10 years from now,  In case it doesn’t, thousands of great photographers have already shot it better than you can.  What makes your vacation video special is that your kids went up the Empire State Building—and your kids are going to look completely different in 10 years.

“But the scenery’s so beautiful” you say.  It is–  in person.  Video of the Grand Canyon looks great in Imax, pretty good on your 60” flat screen, and like tiny blurry garbage on your iPhone.  Unless you’re shooting Imax, best not to dwell.

Frame a great shot of the kids looking over the railing and that stunning canyon vista will look great too—in the background, where it belongs.

3)  Find the Story: Instead of random shots of the family posing on a boat, find the story of everyone getting together and taking your parents on a cruise. Have your camera ready when you surprise them with the tickets.  Interview your brother, who hates cruises but is coming anyway, armed with Dramamine and wrist-bands because he loves his parents.  Shoot your dad tearing up as he gives a speech to the group at your first big dinner on board

What’s different about your vacation?  Is it the family’s first time out of the country?  Your daughter’s first plane flight?  The Disney vacation you’ve been saving up for for 5 years?  Think before you shoot.  Tell that story.

4) Interview the Family:  Video captures not just what we look like, but how we think.  Which is perfect for that embarrassing wedding video 20 years from now.   Don’t just interview the kids. Interview your spouse, your parents, strangers you meet on the trip.  It’s a great way to capture the emotion of a moment in time.

Your five-year-old will never be 5 again. Ask her open-ended questions about what’s going on.  Let her show you, explain to you, sing to you.

5)  Shoot sparingly. If you shoot just 2 ten-second shots  in each of 8 touring hours a day, that’s almost 3 minutes of footage a day.  A week-long vacation is pushing an Armbrusturian 20 minutes—longer than anyone, including you, will actually watch.  Practice being selective.  Sure you can edit later, but will you?  And even if you do, the shorter and better your footage when you start, the less work it is.

 

Do you have questions about shooting video?  Of course you do.  Click here and ask them!

Shoot Just Enough and No More

Throughout your book you talk about cutting, trimming, deleting, editing until you’ve removed all of the bad, redundant, boring parts of your project.

What happens when you cut out all of the bad stuff and then you realize that you don’t have enough good material to complete the project? Are there strategies to make sure you shoot enough great material to edit?

It’s too late to fix my first project (a music video), but I’d sure like to make sure it doesn’t happen on my next one.

–Fred

Knowing how much to shoot may be the second biggest issue a director faces on the set (the first: hiring the right actors.) Clients, studios and networks all frown on delivering your movie (or video) with  a huge hole in it because you didn’t get enough good footage. But they also frown on blowing your budget.

Unfortunately the decision point on when to stop shooting is, by definition, at the end of a long day– just when you’re tired and having trouble remembering what you shot this morning. As a result, directors often shoot until a producer pries our cold dead fingers from around the trigger of the camera. Many people think that’s the way it should be. They’re right to an extent: You’re certainly more likely to be forgiven for a budget overrun than for not finishing the job.

But the best directors work smarter than that. They know their job is to always shoot more than they really need, but not a stupid amount more. Dragging your crew and budget into massive overshooting because you can’t decide when you’ve got the shot won’t win you friends- or more jobs.

Want to learn to shoot just enough and no more? Here are the steps to remember: (1) do your prep, (2) be ready to triage and (3) trust yourself.

Prepping your shooting day means thinking in advance about what you need to finish your video if everything on set goes to hell. What shots are the must-gets? I shot a music video last week, and I knew that if I covered a complete performance of the song in 3 different locations– in this case on stage, in a boardroom and in a car– I would have an editable performance that covered the length of the entire video.

Because they were my priorities, I had my producer schedule those shots early in the day. We blocked out how long we thought they should take, and laid out a day-long schedule.

Next we scheduled in the second-tier shots. For me, these were shots that told the video’s secondary story, with and without lip-sync from the band.

Finally, I made a list of all the stuff that was quick, semi-improvised, and would make the video come to life.  Shots without a lot of lighting, maybe that could be assigned to one of my 2 camera people to pick up while I did something else. We scheduled those too, weaving them in and around our locations.  Just after we were in the car, for example, we added some “exiting the car” stuff that was less important but easy to grab.

We shared the day-long schedule with the crew. The shots were arranged as much as possible in order of priority. If the schedule worked there would be time to improvise and be creative in each location. And if we had a great improvisational idea on set, we could easily see what happened to the schedule if we made time for it.

A printed version of the schedule became my checklist. I crossed it off each shot as we finished and moved on. That way I could reassure myself if I suddenly felt like I forgot something, or spot when I really did (which may have happened once or twice.)

Now for the triage: At lunch, I went over what we had shot with the producer and re-prioritized. Some shots I now knew I didn’t need– I’d shot something better already. And some we’d invented that had eaten time. We rearranged the schedule and went back to work.

Trusting yourself and your process may be the hardest part. When you’re tired, you’ll want to second-guess everything. Don’t. If you did your prep and liked what you shot when you were shooting it, you’re done. You’ve done a professional job to the best of your abilities. Let the past be the past (even if it was 40 minutes ago!)

As the day wound down, I re-triaged one last time, trying to picture the edit in my mind. I dumped stuff I could live without and made sure I got coverage on the stuff that I couldn’t. The day ended about 30 minutes late, which was fine because my producer lied to me about how much time I had so I would go faster. (Note: you want a producer who lies a little about schedule, especially if it’s your money she’s saving.)

It’s that simple.  Of course, prep can get more complicated- you can storyboard your shots or do a shot board out of cell phone stills shot on set. On big effects shows they’ll “pre-visualize” the many digital layers as a full-motion animation so you can see how what you’re shooting fits in live on set. Prep can also be simpler- just a list of shots in priority order.

But the bottom line is the same: Prep, triage and, if you’ve done that, trust yourself..

Shooting Crew-Free

I make educational videos for computer enthusiasts on YouTube, but I have to do everything myself. Lighting, sound, script, talent, editing, posting, video description, video thumbnail, marketing…  Problem is, without a crew, shots have to stay static. I can use digital zoom, but it gets ‘blocky.’

I had a friend help me with this video (one static camera, one my friend is holding). What I can do to make a better video?

Thank you!

–Carey Holzman

Nice video, Carey. I rushed right out to buy some old parts and built a cool gaming computer for my guest bathroom. Okay, I didn’t, but after watching I totally wanted someone else to build one and give it to me. And thank you for not using your digital zoom. Ever.

Your situation is not at all unique– most film, narrative television and commercials are shot with a single camera. Static camera isn’t the problem- most of the shots in the Psycho Shower scene are static! You just need to let your imagination flow a little as you get into the world of multiple takes and detail close-ups.

In film, everything is done in multiple “takes,” meaning we do the same material over and over. The director uses various camera angles, movements and lenses so that each take has a different point of view. One might be wide, including all the action, another might be very close on an actor’s face, a third in between. The editor combines the footage in a way that feels natural while deleting mistakes, bad performances and whole sections of scenes that turn out more boring than you thought they would be.

You can do the same, repeating your talk to your single camera from different perspectives. For starters, try a few takes as a wide shot, then one of you waist-up. Do multiple takes of each, then cut between them to find your best performance.

You can also try different angles- as many as you can think of! How about a medium-wide of you fixing a motherboard, then the same scene with the camera where the motherboard was, looking at you from it’s point of view– then a third view of your hands in close-up doing the work? For more motion you could shoot yourself in “selfie” mode as you walk, or wear a camera on your head. You’re limited only by your imagination and what feels right when you cut it.

For your “how to” project, be sure to include tight, detail-focused close-ups of your work. Some would call this “b-roll.” I wouldn’t- this is “a” material, and important to your viewer. Let’s see your hands building a part, or the computer screen when you hit a command, or smoke wafting up from a soldering iron. Editing in these detail close-ups gives you another way to cut, condense and polish your material.

Editing is, of course, a lot of work. Keep it simple at first– maybe just add another angle and a few close-ups. But once you get a sense of how this cutting works for you, I’d encourage you to try getting wild with it. Eventually you’ll find the work/reward sweet spot for your videos.

Let me know how it goes!

More on How-To Videos

Do you have a question? Why not? Please think of one, and ask it here.