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How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

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.

5 Killer Halloween Video Tips

Halloween PrincessGoing out to shoot memorable video of your kids?  Here are five Halloween Video tips that will help:

1) It’s dark out at night.  I know you knew that, so let me be more specific:  outside at night away from any light, it will be too dark to see the kids.  The obvious solutions: use your phone’s built-in light, position the kids under streetlights or shoot at the pre-show party indoors.  Less obviously- have another parent light the kids with their cellphones from off to the side. You’ll get much prettier looking footage. Above all, remember– if you can’t see them in the viewfinder now, you won’t be able to see them later either.

2)  Get down on kid level. Shooting at their height instead of yours pulls you into their world, which is where all the scary action is.

3) Plan Your Shots. You know the drill: Kids run up ahead and ring the bell, parents stand on the sidewalk and shout helpful things like “Say Thank You!”.  Normal parent video position on Halloween is following them up the walk to the next house. Unless you want an all-butt video, use what you know to plan your shots.  Jog up the walk ahead of your kids, then shoot them coming past to ring the doorbell.  Or jump past them on the porch and shoot them as they interact with whoever answers.  Bonus:  The porch light will shine on their faces and you’ll be able to see them.

4) Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.  What will you want to remember in 20 years– vague shapes ahead of you in the dark, or your daughter’s face as she bravely rings the bell for the first time?  Fill the frame with their little faces at least half the time, and you’ll have video you’ll cherish for years.

5)  Don’t forget the prep:  Getting ready for Halloween is part of the story, and makes great video.  Carving pumpkins, getting the costume on, eating the candy you’re supposed to be giving out.  All great memories.

Bonus tip:  The post-game interview amidst piles of candy is great too!

More tips for great Holiday shooting here!

Video in the Classroom: Free Downloadable Lessons

Are you a teacher?  Do you know a teacher?  Have you ever had a teacher?  If so, read on:

It’s the beginning of a new school year.  Which means one more year of school projects shot on video, and hours of misery for the teachers who have to watch them. Shouldn’t classroom videos be fun?  For everyone?

If only there was a way to improve your students’ video literacy, and make student video more watchable.  Like, say, a set of downloadable lessons that could turn students into little Steven Spielbergs in a few short hours.  And wouldn’t it be great if those downloadable lessons were absolutely free?

Well, they are.  We’ve put together 5 free, totally self-contained one-hour lessons to take the misery out of classroom video projects. Teach one or teach them all.  If you teach all five, your students’ videos will be 100% better.  Or at least shorter.  Which is also usually better (see lesson 5).

Click this link to download the Video Bootcamp PDF.  100% Free.  Nothing to buy, no email address to leave, no hoops to jump through.

Please tweet or email the link to your favorite teacher!

dowloadable lessons

 

 Teachers:  Questions on how to use video in the classroom?  Ask them here!

New Edition of the Book in Stores Now!

How to Shoot Video that Doesn't SuckWorkman Publishing has just released an updated and revised new edition of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck!

It’s available now wherever you buy your paper or pixel books. Look to your right for handy links!

This new edition is mostly a touch-up.  It turns out that even if you try not to use terms that might become dated, they sneak in somehow.  And for fans of my Do It Yourself Film Graduate School list of movies that you really must see, there are new additions.

New Edition FAQs:

Do I need to run out and get this edition if I already own the book?

Yes! Please buy a dozen. I still have kids in college.

Really?

No, not really.  I mean I really do have kids in college, but the changes in the book are minor.

Like what?

I made an offhand comment in one chapter about shooting video with an iPod Nano. Someone argued on Amazon that you couldn’t shoot video with an iPod Nano. He was totally wrong (the early Nanos were like early iPhones without cell connections and dammit, they had a camera) but I took out the mention anyway because the iPod Nano in any form is ancient history.

I deleted a few other anachronisms (it turns out 6 years is a long time in any tech-related field, even if you’re trying not to write much about video equipment), and rewrote a few paragraphs that begged to be polished. Authors just can’t help themselves sometimes– see pointless Nano argument, above.

Anything else?

Yes. I originally forgot to thank my sister and sister-in-law in the end notes. They read early drafts and had good comments for which I am very grateful. I am hoping they will now allow me back into Thanksgiving dinner. Turns out even a warm turkey leg is cold comfort when you’re sitting on a porch alone in Washington DC, shivering.

So this edition isn’t groundbreaking. Who should buy it?

If you don’t own the book yet, this is a totally up-t0-date, recently-reviewed-and-touched-up edition. You’ll love it. But if you own the book and want another edition for your bookshelf, you’ll probably want to buy the Russian version. Or maybe the audio book, which technically doesn’t go on your bookshelf unless you download it to your ancient iPod Nano and put it there. Did I mention that it had a camera?

Wedding Video Blues: 5 Tips for Better Wedding Videos

I’ve never used a video camera, however my daughter will be getting married this October and I will be filming for the VERY first time. I’m scared stiff ! ! !

Can you please advise me on the best way to capture this special moment.? I would be so very grateful to you.
Thank You,
Lucy Wilson

Wait, you’re shooting video at your daughter’s wedding?

First piece of advice:  please re-consider.

Weddings are an emotional ride for any parent-of-the-bride, and whether you wind up blubbering like a 2-year old, dancing on tables or falling-down drunk, holding a video camera will surely be a burden. It’s also not fair to your daughter.  She’ll want to remember what you were like at her wedding.  If you’re shooting, you won’t be in the video.

May I suggest passing this to a cousin? Cousins are likely to be bored enough to welcome the distraction, and it’s a great way to meet photogenic members of the opposite sex.  But I digress…

You asked for help.  Here are 5 tips for someone– anyone– shooting a wedding video:

1)  There’s a reason they call it a ritual:  Weddings follow a familiar format.  Walking guests down the aisle, the bride entering, the “I do” moment, Aunt Sally hitting the Pink Squirrels a little too hard at the reception– you’ve been there, you remember.  Many of them even hand out a shot list–er, program– to help you plan!  Rituals are, well, ritual. And that’s great for you, because it means you can…

2)  Scout Your Locations:  Since you always have some idea of what’s going to happen next, you can get there first.  If you want to shoot Grandma being helped down the aisle, pick a spot in the chapel with a great aisle view and get there when you see the organist warming up– before the ushers start ushing VIP guests to the front row.

3)  Think about Backgrounds: In the reception hall do you want to shoot facing the plain cinderblock wall or the festively decorated buffet table?  Wherever you’re standing to shoot, turn to look around.  You’ve got 360 degrees of backgrounds to choose from without moving from that spot. Choose well.

4)  Use Interviews: In 10 years you’ll want to remember the people at the wedding.  What were they thinking? How did they look way back then?  Short interviews will bring the guests to life.  No “yes or no” questions.  “How do you feel about Jenna and Sally getting married?” is great.  “Are you having fun?” is a dead end.

5) Edit Before you Post: Editing in this case just means cutting out the boring and/or horrible parts. Rambling interviews get cut to one or two great sentences.  You don’t need the WHOLE father/daughter dance.  You may want to cut anything embarrassing that has no redeeming entertainment value.  People loose enough to sing for the camera?  Perfect.  People so loose they have to be propped up to keep from falling into their entree? Not so much.

Shooting a Wedding need not be a monstrous experience (Did he really just write that? Apparently so.)

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

Vacation

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!