How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Shooting High School Video that Doesn’t Suck

One of my daughter’s high school teachers handed out this video assignment option: a 10 page paper or a 40 minute video.

A forty minute video?  That’s almost as long as a network hour (less commercials.)  Yes, it’s possible for a high-schooler to fill the time, but very unlikely they’ll fill it with anything anyone would want to watch.  It takes a network 12 weeks, $3 million, and a full-time team of hundreds– and half the time their shows aren’t watchable.

A paper takes research and writing.  Video, done right, involves research and writing AND translation to images and action, shooting skills, team management, and editing.  Each skill is every bit as hard to master as research and writing, and we don’t teach them in schools.

Teachers:  If you’re going to assign video (and you should) give kids a chance to succeed. Give them a strict 3-minute time limit. Help them develop concepts.  Teach them something about storytelling first.

They’ll do better work, and you won’t rip your hair out watching a bunch of bad 40 minute videos.

Now the plug part:  If you want to do a good job teaching them video, how about this: 5 free hours of classroom lessons. You can teach an hour, or all five lessons.  You’ll thank me when you see the videos.

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

Why not tweet or email the link to your favorite teacher?

Bootcamp Cover


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

Entertain or Die

Like it or not, videos that don’t entertain don’t get watched.  Videos that don’t get watched might as well not exist at all.

To make sure you’re entertaining, think about your audience when you shoot. If you’re bored, so are they.  Another way to think about it is using this carefully calibrated audience behavior formula for Entertain or die:  Not entertaining=boring =“find something else to watch fast.”

Does this mean that you should turn your daughter’s birthday party into a screaming, hair-pulling reality-show? Your video would get watched, of course, but it might make relatives less likely to come to your next party.  I leave it to you to decide if this is a good idea.

But it does mean that you need to think about different ways to shoot your video.  How might you tell your story in a way that’s entertaining?

You can hear an extended riff on the concept below Hopefully, you will be entertained.


What Video Editing Software Should I Buy?

I heard you on Lex and Terry and thought I’d check out your site. I just bought an HD camcorder and will be editing a 5 minute, short film. What editing software do you suggest?

–Anthony Abbate

There are two kinds of people in the world, Anthony.  The ones who LOVE to sit at their computer and edit video, and the ones who don’t.

Me?  I haven’t edited my wedding video from 20 years ago.  Relatives still ask about it, and I still tell them I’ll be getting to it soon.  (Yes, editing IS part of a director’s job, but fortunately for me it’s the part where you tell someone else they’re doing great and would they mind trimming that clip by three frames? And not the part where you actually do the work.)

For most people, the best editing software is the one that you can download free or comes with your computer. Remember that editing video is functionally the same as editing a document.  The basics are cut, copy and paste. You’re going to:

  1. Output your video from your camera to your hard drive
  2. Cut the technically bad and boring parts out
  3. Maybe copy or paste a couple of things into a different part of the video, maybe not.
  4. Output as a digital movie for the web (or where ever.)


Any free video editing software can do that.

If you use your free software enough so that you either a) get good at it or b) start to realize it’s limitations –then you’re ready to step up. At that point my advice is the same as it is for cameras– you’re going to have to try them and see what suits your style and interests.

As with cameras, ignore the marketing bells and whistles when you buy video editing software– the silly wipes and swirling dissolves, the sepia color and mirror-mode are all there to attract buyers.  There’s a reason you’ve never seen a CSI episode in sepia.  It’s stupid.  Just focus on an easy to use, intuitive interface that you can afford.

Have you heard the new audio version of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck You can sample it, buy it, or get it free here.

Two Videos, Same Business. But Only One Intrigues

It’s not often we get a chance to compare two videos purporting to do the same thing for the same business, but thanks to my friend Andy Goodman, we can.  Andy publishes a great bloggy-kind-of-newsletter for non-profits, and has kindly given me permission to steal some of this month’s cover story.

Lifelines for Youth is a non-profit that helps formerly-incarcerated youth. Naturally they are interested, as are all non-profits, in raising money.  They commissioned a video to help.  When it didn’t help enough, they commissioned another one.

Take a look at the videos below– you only need about 30 seconds of each.  Here’s the game:  Figure out which video worked better, and why:

Same kids, same need. Yet one pulls you right in, one makes your eyes glaze right over.  As I hope you’ve guessed, video 2 worked better.  It helped Lifelines for Youth meet its annual fundraising goal in just four months.  (Note to marketers:  Show these videos to the next person in your company who says that video is a commodity, and anyone can do it.)

The secret to video 2′s success?  Intrigue.

The first video lays out a simple problem in a linear fashion.  These kids are in trouble.  It starts delivering facts from the very first second, with all the emotional heft of a do-it-yourself tutorial.

In the second video we have no idea what’s going on for the first 3o seconds.  It’s all questions: Whose voice are we hearing?  What does the reading mean? Why are these people smiling?  What about those tattoos?  Rather than being confused, we’re intrigued.  We’re propelled forward through the video by the spoken word and we pay rapt attention– because we want the answers.

There are other reasons this video works, of course.  Andy has more background on the hows and whys of developing it here.  But if you remember only one lesson from this great piece, let it be this:  To get people involved in your video, don’t give answers.  Raise questions.

Intrigue us.

Video 2 was produced by The Department of Expansion.  Judging from their website, the quality of this video was not an accident.


Dealing with Lousy Actors

I got your book for Christmas and I LOVE it !! :)  I’m 15 years old and this coming summer I am gonna be shooting my first HUGE movie!! (I have made many movies before but never one so planned and big)

So I made a huge mistake: I told my best friend that all her cousins could be in the movie as actors!! Problem is some I have never even met and the ones I have met I have no clue if they can act!! So my question is what to do now? What if they can’t act?? I cant just force them out, but I don’t want my movie to suck because no one can act!!

Thanks for the advice. And I will not make that mistake ever again!! I am a girl and I have always wanted to be a director! :) btw!! lol


You say “I can’t just force them out”, but if that’s what the film requires, you can.  In fact, you have to.  If the film sucks because you picked bad actors, nobody is going to watch it.  Including your lousy actors, who will be so embarrassed by their performances that they will hate you more than they would have if you had cut them.

Pros know this, which is why the metaphorical cutting room floor is littered with the bodies of actors completely cut from films.  I deleted a character from Two Weeks in the edit room.  Eric Stoltz was famously fired after shooting on Back to the Future began, and was replaced by Michael J. Fox (wikipedia the story, then see the film if you haven’t).  And in news from your actual lifetime, Spike Jonze canned Samantha Morton as the lead voice in his new movie Her (go see it!), and gave the gig to Scarlett Johansson.  All hard choices to make for their directors.  All of whom did the right thing for the film.

But I think you know this, or you wouldn’t have asked for help. And here it is:  Your help is called an audition.

Let your friend know that you can give everyone a role in the film but you have to find the right role for them.  After all, you want them to look great, right? People who are miscast look awkward, even pros.

Invite them to audition — to read a scene with you. In person is best, but skype works.  Some won’t want to bother.  That makes the decision easy– they’re out.  Some will suck, in which case the right place will be a silent role in the back, filling a seat in a restaurant while you shoot your leads in the foreground.  The good ones get the parts you choose for them.

One final thing, Brooke.  You want to direct.  That’s a good thing.  When you put “LOL” after that statement, you seem to be belittling yourself and your choice.  If you want to be a director, own it. Be definite.  The Director’s job is to make choices, and the first choice is to have the balls to be a director.  You do, so stand behind that choice without apology.

Good luck!


Did you know the audio version of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck is out now?  Here’s how to get a listen for free!