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How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Perfect Holiday Video in 10 Easy Steps

Ah, the Holidays!

Chestnuts roasting, noses being nipped, and hours of incomprehensible video being shot of people you can’t see or hear all that well doing…I don’t know…something near a fireplace.

Each year web sites, magazines and newspapers publish millions of column-inches on cooking perfect holiday turkey, and virtually no column inches on shooting perfect holiday video.  Which seems wrong in that burned turkey lasts 4 days, but tedious holiday video is forever.

Fear not!  Your video doesn’t have to suck.  Here’s my checklist of the 10 steps you can follow to perfect Holiday Video.  (For even more detail, click on the embedded links):

1) Think about your story.  Stories have a beginning, middle and end.  “The night we got our Christmas Tree” starts with the family piling into the car, THEN shows us the kids walking through the tree lot checking out the Douglas firs, and FINALLY Mom finding that one perfect tree and everyone agreeing.  Beginning, middle and end.  Just thinking about how your story goes— before you shoot it– will make your video better.

2)  Shoot Action.  Every shot in your video should have a noun and a verb, just like those sentences Mrs. Cooper taught you about in 3rd grade. “Sarah whisks the gravy” is a shot. “Sarah” without action?  That’s a photograph.

3)  Shoot short shots.  You don’t need 30 seconds of Uncle Larry snoring in front of the TV after Thanksgiving dinner. Five seconds is enough to get the point.  Which is my point: when nothing else is going to happen, it’s time to end your shot.  Practice shooting 5 or 10 seconds (of action, remember?) at a time.

4)  Shoot for the face.  Home video is always about people.  Everyone you know will look totally different in 5 years.  Make sure you capture who they are now.  As a bonus, faces are where emotion lives.  If you want to really feel your video 5 years from now, show us your relatives’ faces– well lit and close up.

5)  Zoom with your feet.  Zooming in from far away makes your shots look shaky. Walk closer to your subjects and zoom out (stay wide).  The other advantages:  1) being closer to the action involves you and the viewer in the action, and 2) the sound on your camera mic is always better closer.

6)  Pay attention to that little video window on the back of the camera. If it looks bad when you shoot it, it will not magically look better when you watch it later.  If someone’s face is too dark, move until your camera finds the light.  If they’re out of focus, fix it.  If you don’t like the way the frame looks, re-frame. Now.

7)  Interview your relatives.  We often forget to interview people at family gatherings.  But kids say the darndest things– things you’ll want to remember (and play back to embarrass them at their wedding) when they’re adults.  Grandmas say the darndest things too. And so does anyone who’s been hitting the Holiday Cheer.  Frame your questions so they don’t yield one-word answers.  “Are you excited to get presents?” gets you a nod. “What do you think about Santa Claus?” gets you a story.

8)  Represent your kids. They may be too young to shoot their own video now, but in a few years they’ll watch yours to help fill in their memories.  They’ll want to know more about Grandpa, they’ll want to see what their little friends looked like then, they’ll want to see that long-lost doll unwrapped from its Christmas box.  Great video with lots of detail is one gift that costs nothing.

9) Don’t shoot the boring stuff.  If you’re bored shooting it, you and everyone else you inflict it on later will be bored watching it.

10)  Change your point of view.  Put your camera in front of the fireplace and shoot back at the living room.  Shoot on your knees at kid height.  Put a GoPro on top of the tree.  Or in the refrigerator.  Get creative.  Have fun!

Speaking of last minute Holiday Gifts: Of course you’re buying a dozen print copies of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck for the video people in your family– but did you know there’s an audio version too? 

 

Better Call Saul: The Devil is in the Details

There is no better show on television than AMC’s Better Call Saul, from Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, ex of Breaking Bad. All four seasons are spectacular, but if you haven’t watched (or even if you have) it’s worth considering what makes it great.  Great writing and acting, sure, but for me the best part of Better Call Saul is that every shot, every sequence, every episode is about intrigue- built by lensing in to the details.

Season 1, Episode 1 doesn’t start with anything as obvious as an establishing shot of a shopping mall, or a freeway sign saying “Welcome to Omaha.” Nor does it give us a clue as to who the main character is, or where we are. Instead, the black and white opening shot is a hand slathering something creamy on a surface.  We don’t know if it’s vertical or horizontal, what the substance is, or what it means that the picture is black and white.

It takes a full ten minutes of detail after detail to tell us that Saul Goodman, hero of the series, has renamed himself “Gene,” is now working at a Cinnabon in Omaha.  He’s hiding, in fear for his life, but desperately misses the man he used to be.  We learn all this with static, detail-focused shots, and not a single word of dialogue. It’s a thing of beauty.

Better Call Saul is a master class in intrigue. Every scene in the show uses carefully layered detail to  give us just a tiny bit of information– and promise even more. That forces us to think– to participate–as shot by shot the show sinks its hook further and further into our brains. It’s like watching a jigsaw puzzle, where a small section of sky or forest or face becomes suddenly visible every few minutes.

In last week’s episode, a brand new character arrives at the airport and has to follow instructions given by burner phone. He drives to a deserted country road, where he’s forced to put his luggage next to him, put a bag over his head and stand on the side of the road. Waiting.

When we finally piece together, five minutes later, that he’s an architect on a job interview for an illegal building project, the reveal feels immensely satisfying. It’s like we did all the work of figuring it out ourselves- like we experienced all the anxiety-drenched emotion of a man with a bag over his head being dragged around Albequerque by criminal.

Details, rather than dialogue, intrigue us into caring about tortured relationships and nerve-wracking suspense. We feel the characters in a way we don’t when we’re just told about them. When a sideways glance between characters feels like a huge reveal, you know you’re being played by masters.

The lesson? Details intrigue us. They let us come to our own conclusions, making the story reveal happen inside our heads. And that makes the experience much deeper and more affecting.

How can you use extreme detail in your next shoot?

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!

The Mythical Effectiveness of “Asking for the Order”

This week a post went by on my Linked-In feed suggesting that all good video must “ask for the order” and contain a clear “call to action.” This awful idea was, as far as I can tell, invented by someone in an ad agency. Maybe in the ’80s. The ideas is that your marketing video must “ask for the order”– it has to tell the customer exactly what you want them to do, and then request that they do it.

Thus a TV commercial that included the magic phrase “Buy a Toyota in our showroom tomorrow and save $200!” was presumed to be way more effective than the same commercial without.

While we can’t be sure exactly who started this line of magical thinking, I’d like you to join me in stopping it. Because now, as may also have been true in the ’80s, humans have brains. Starting roughly at age 0, they have their own needs, their own lives, their own goals. Just because you’ve told them to do something doesn’t mean they’ll do it.

If “asking for the order” motivated behavior, all children would sit quietly in restaurants, doctors would see patients lose 10 pounds automatically at age 40, and an award-winning Super Bowl commercial would be 30 seconds of the white letters “Buy Doritos. Now.” on a black screen. Sorry, I’m tearing up. It would be so…beautful!

Since this is not the world we live in, let me offer an alternative model for marketing videos of any kind: Work to entertain and to intrigue your audience. If you intrigue them- pique their interest into thinking more about your product- they will consider your ideas on their own. They’ll decide whether or not your ideas meet their needs.  If they do, they’ll take action on their own to find out more.

“Asking for the order” is like trying to beat the audience into submission. Intrigue is an invitation.If you do a great job of it, they’ll invite you into a dialogue inside their heads.

This idea of intriguing the audience has been around for a long time. An early and influential master of intrigue in marketing, Tony Schwartz, started work in the 1940s. Here’s a classic anti-smoking PSA he did in 1963 (He also created the classic “Daisy” ad for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign in 1964.)

Notice that this video does not ask for the order. It makes you ask yourself.

Fifty five years later, the spot still intrigues. You can see how it pulls you in, makes you want to know what happens next.

Schwartz’s book The Responsive Chord has been re-released in a new edition, and it’s a great read for anyone serious about video marketing. Everything Schwartz wrote in 1973 is still true today. Because even though a lot of our media is new, the brains we’re trying to affect are still the same.

As for magical thinking, “Asking for the order” survives as a concept because it’s easy to understand and self-evident when you’ve done it. As such, it’s perfect cover for bad video.

“I don’t know what happened– we asked them for the order. Look, right here: the announcer says ‘buy cookies today.'” says the marketing department after a failed campaign. Then they all shrug their shoulders, “Audiences, man…” and go about their business.

Intrigue is mysterious.  It takes more thought. It’s harder to see and harder to measure. But once you start watching for it, you know it’s real. And if look very carefully at the next best-selling novel or hit TV show you watch, you’ll realize that a mid-20th Century ad guy had it all right: intrigue is the entertainment currency of the 21st century.

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!

downloadable lessons

 

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

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.