How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Checklist: 20 Questions to Make Your Video Great

Since everyone alive today has been watching film and video from birth, we all have some idea of what bad film and video look like.  It’s that stuff you click out of instantly on your browser or your remote, often within 15 seconds of starting it.

“I know bad video when I see it” works great when you’re the consumer, but not so well when you’re the creator. Creators not only need to know bad video when they see it, they need to know bad video before they see it.  Ideally even before they start shooting it.

How do you see the bad stuff coming ahead of time and fix it before it happens? Pilots, doctors and other mission-critical actors have been using checklists for years to prevent mistakes.  Now you can too!  Welcome to the “How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck Checklist”– 20 questions to make your video great.

These 20 questions will help you cull the good from the bad in your own work before you show it to an audience.  An ounce of prevention, if you will.

Read through the list as you’re thinking about your next video.  The more questions you can answer “yes” to, the stronger your video probably is.  Got a “no”?  How can you fix it now, before you spend time and/or money doing it wrong?

The How To Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck Checklist


1.  Is my idea best expressed as a video?

2.  Does it tell a clear story?

3.  Do I know who the story is about?

4.  Is there a clear beginning to the story?

5.  Is there a clear middle to my story?

6.  Is there a clear end to my story?


7.  Do all my shots contain a clear subject and action?

8.  Does every location help bring the story alive?

9.  Do all my backgrounds help tell the story?

10. Do my stars always look great?

11.  Do I see a lot of their faces?

12. Are all my scenes lit well, so viewers can see what they’re supposed to see?

13. Are all my scenes miked well, so viewers can hear what they’re supposed to hear?


14. Is each shot cut to it’s best and shortest version?

15. Have I deleted all shots that look/sound awful or are otherwise technically flawed?

16. Have I used only cuts to transition between shots?

17. Are my graphics simple and elegant?

18. If for the web, is my video shorter than 3 minutes?

19. If it’s longer than 3 minutes, is there a damn good reason?

20. Do I like this video more every time I watch it?

Shoot Better Labor Day Video

As you cruise to the beach or barbecue this weekend, take your video camera.  And think about these tips to shoot better Labor Day video:

1)  Memories are about faces. Faces are where emotion lives. The eyes are the window to the soul and all that.  And faces are how we chart time– when you want to remember who you were 5 years ago, a long shot of a crowd drinking beer won’t do the job. When you watch video of small children or elderly grandparents later, you’ll never wish you were farther away.

Thinking of shooting distant closeups of vague human figures in front of a smoking grill?  You’re doing it wrong.  Get close.

2)  Ask real questions and you’ll get real answers. “How’s the beer, dude?” may get you a high-five from your buddy, but asking him what he did this summer will be a lot more interesting. Ask people to describe the guests, ask kids to tell you what they did today– anything that requires just a little thought reveals more of the real people in your life on video.

3)  Shoot action. “Dad” is not a shot.  “Dad putting too much lighter fluid on the grill” is.  Subject plus action = interesting. “Grill blowing up.” or “Mom sprays Dad with fire extinguisher” should also be good.

4) Shoot what interests you, and it will be interesting. Just because you’re going to Ocean City for the weekend doesn’t mean you have to shoot a video showing the family lying on the beach. Make your video about something instead.

Anything will work.  Your video can be about your quest for the perfect oyster, your two brothers taking their first vacation together in 20 years, or how much you hate tourists.  It’s up to you.  But the trick is to go one step past “point and shoot” in your head.  Have a point of view.  If you shoot something you’re interested in, we’ll be interested too!



Video Boot Camp Lesson Guide– Free Download!

Video Boot Camp Lesson Guide

Video Boot Camp Guide for Teachers and Trainers. Download Free!

It’s the start of the school year.  Coming up: a year of student video projects.  And hours of misery for viewers.  If only there was a way to make student video better.  Hmmmmm….

Wait– I’ve got it!  How about this free 5 hour lesson plan to help your students do better video?  Teachers and trainers have been downloading it in droves, and why not?  It’s free!  Nothing to buy, no email address to leave.

If you’re a teacher or trainer, or know one, check it out.  And if you HAVE used the Video Boot Camp lesson guide in your classroom how’d you do?

Click this link to download the Video Bootcamp PDF.

And please feel free to share the link– or download and email directly to your favorite teacher!

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

Respect the Process Podcast

I just discovered commercial director Jordan Brady’s podcast, Respect the Process.  I discovered it when he invited me to be on it, but it turns out I’m late to the party– he has a ton of subscribers and some really great guests.

The podcast is now up.  Jordan’s beat is creativity and (surprise!) process in film, video and entertainment, which I’m always happy to talk about and learn more about. We covered a lot of information– about shooting video, how to get started in unscripted television, and how he once shot a spot in my garage.

You can see that commercial, admire my garage and hear the podcast here or check it out on iTunes.

Mr. Brady also runs a commercial directing bootcamp in September.  Worth checking out.

Shooting like the Pros

Watch any film or TV show and you’ll see a series of very short shots (read why here). I argue that most people should get out of the habit of running the camera non-stop when shooting. And every so often I get a letter like this:

I am a professional videographer, and your advice to “shoot short shots” is totally misguided. Pros shoot more than they need so they can make their video perfect in the editing room. Turning the camera on and off is an amateur move.  How have you made a living in this business?

–Chris F., New York

Chris isn’t wrong.  My advice to try in-camera editing isn’t based on professional videographers, who do shoot differently. But the underlying principle is true– for pros and everyone else. To understand, let’s break it into two cases, the editors and the non-editors :

If you don’t edit later: Dads at soccer games. Employees at the company picnic. Grandparents at graduations.  For anyone documenting a live event and not likely to edit later: don’t run the camera non-stop. Not only will that 45 minute ballet recital be horribly boring to watch, but if you shoot everything in real time, you’ll need an extra lifetime to view it. For these people, shooting short shots instead means their video will fall out of the camera looking professionally edited— and way more interesting to watch.

If you do edit later: Pros still plan their shoot because pros know that shooting and editing aren’t free. The more you shoot, the more time it takes and the more money you pay your crew.  The more footage you shoot, the more time you need to edit later. Yes, pros shoot differently than someone going with friends to a rock concert.  They budget extra time and money to try multiple takes, repeat moves, and take more flyers on things that might not work (but would be awesome if they do!) But even pros can’t run the camera non-stop.

Your movie has to be shot in 45 days and edited in 10 weeks.  Or your commercial has to be shot in 12 hours, and delivered in 2 weeks. To make those deadlines (and the budgets that come with them) you need to carefully plan your shooting and know when to stop.

To summarize:  If you’re not editing later, edit “in camera” by doing short, thoughtful shots and your video will be way more watchable. If you are editing later, keep an eye on your time and money. In both cases, the more you plan and think about your shots in advance, the better.

Running the camera non-stop just means you have no idea what you’re doing.


5 Tips for Father’s Day Video that Doesn’t Suck

Father’s Day Video.  Memorable–or as undercooked as the runny eggs and cold toast the kids bring Dad in bed?  Here are a five tips to improve the video you shoot this Father’s Day.

1. Find the Hero: Focus your attention on someone– anyone!  Having a hero invites us to think about our videos as stories about someone, which makes them more intriguing.

Choosing a hero changes the video.  For example, if Dad is the hero, your story might be “Dad gets woken up for breakfast in bed– at 4:30am.”  Told from Dad’s point of view, the story might alternate shots of the kids sneaking toward the bed, dripping coffee everywhere, with shots of sleeping Dad.  The grand presentation would focus on Dad as he gamely chokes down breakfast.

If your daughter is the hero of the same video, it might be called “Sarah surprises Dad.” That video might spend time with 7 year-old Sarah in the kitchen making eggs in the microwave (and a colossal mess) because she’s not allowed to turn on the stove.

There’s no wrong answer here– just focusing on someone will make your video better.

2.  Interview your kids:  We see interviews on TV all the time for a reason:  They work.  They work especially well at capturing the precious moments of childhood. You’re only 6 once.  Start before the big day and ask them to show you what they’re preparing, tell you how Daddy’s going to like they thought of it…if it’s a surprise or not. Interrupt as little as possible.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get plenty of material for the inevitable embarrassing wedding video in 15 or 20 years.

3.  Interview Dad:  Dad’s less likely to say something cute, but your kids will want to remember what he looked like way back…um…now.  And future birthdays may also call for embarrassing video.

4.  Change your perspective:  We tend to stand and hold our video camera at chest height so we can see the monitor.  But where you hold the camera changes the look and feel of your video. Shoot kid shots at kid level for more intimacy.  Try shooting Dad shots from slightly to the side, or over his shoulder as the kids visit, or super close-up.  A different point of view reveals a different world (see also 50 Ways to Shoot My Daughter Doing Homework.)

5.  Stay Close. Zooming in may look great for a few shots, but as a shooting member of the family it also puts you far from the action.  This can make your video feel less intimate.  Father’s Day is full of subtle emotion.  Stay close to the action and your family’s faces to catch it.  Added benefit: you’ll actually be able to hear what they say.  There’s no such thing as a “zoom microphone.”

Free Download: The Power Of Story

Have you had this experience? You grudgingly agree to watch a friend’s video. You click on the link. The first few shots are good. Cute kids. But about 10 seconds in you start to get a sinking feeling. This video isn’t about anything. It’s a bunch of shots that aren’t leading anywhere. And you’re stuck having to watch enough to lie to your friend about how much you loved it.

You are watching a video without a story. Your friend took out a camera or phone, pointed without thinking, and shot for a while, also without thinking. The result is a series of unrelated images that become more boring the longer they continue. Your brain is trying its best to make sense of the images cascading before your eyes, but failing. That failure induces boredom, distraction and tension.

This happens in pro video too- it’s the difference between a satisfying ending (and a rush to be the first to share with friends) and something that’s cute but just peters out.

If you know story, your videos will be better– whether they’re birthday parties for the kids or short films with actors. But talking about “Story” scares people.  Screenwriting books are filled with stuff like “three act structure,” “inciting incidents,” “act 2 turns” and “petting the dog.” Here’s a secret: it’s all jargon you don’t need to know.  Story is simple.

The real secret to story is right here– 12 pages of it.  Jargon-free, with exercises you can try right away.  No registration required, so feel free to share the link with your story-challenged friend.

Click the cover for the free PDF. No registration required!