How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

“Lensing In” to Find What Your Video is About

So, @SteveStockman I’m ready for a critique of one of my videos. I’m interested in ideas for improvement.

–Paul (Mr. Adventure) @bcoutdoor via twitter

Pretty video, Paul, and I can’t tell you how much I love being inside on a nice day writing about it instead of breathing fresh air and paddling across a lake.  Okay, not that much.

The entire basis for my critique of this video can be found in the description you posted on YouTube.  It’s very accurate, and as goes the description, so goes your video:

Two weeks ago we spent the weekend hiking and packrafting around Ross Lake and spending the nights in hammocks. It was a first time for the packrafts and the hammocks (on a backpacking trip) and it was a memorable experience.

What’s this video about?  Seems it could be about three different things:

–The Story of a Memorable Ross Lake Trip

–The Story of our first time spending the night in our new hammocks

–The Story of our first time using our new pack rafts on a backpacking trip

Your video touches on all these things without really quite constructing a story about any of them.  Consider that a video about three different things is, as a general rule, about two things too many.

One way to improve your video is to select one subject of the three and focus on it by “lensing in” to what you’re shooting.  Imagine you’re a zoom lens.  As you zoom closer and closer to your topic, details are revealed, and these details prompt questions.  Lensing in to the detail on one of these questions as part of your video, showing us the quest for answers and then revealing those answers gives us instant story.

For example, if it’s about “the memorable Ross Lake Trip” ask yourself why it was memorable.  You seem like a couple of nice guys going on a nice trip nicely.  Not memorable.  Now let’s zoom in to something you gloss over right at the start:  Your trip starts late in the day.  Now ask the questions:  Why?   Was it tough to get there from work?  Did you almost not make it?  Did you have lights or night-vision equipment at the ready?  Let’s see you setting up camp at night  What are some rules for doing that?  What are the hazards?  Did you have to eat razor clam and bacon chowder for breakfast (and, may I say, YUCH)  because in your hurry you forgot your granola?

That’s the first thing I felt like you kind of glossed over in your video.  But if that’s not the detail for you, pick another.

If you decide the most interesting thing to explore is one of your new toys, lens in to the product.  How heavy are those boats?  Why did you bring them?  Can we see you pack them?  How unsteady are they?  Were you worried?  What if you try to tip one over?  What do they cost?  How much equipment could they carry?  What if they leak?

Lensing in–  zooming to intensely question one topic– exposes  more specific areas of interest and challenge.  Which are the building blocks of a much more interesting story.

Back to School Video

At my house we have a back to school video tradition.  Every year on the first day of school, my wife makes the kids pose on the front porch for pictures.  They’ve complained and whined about it since they were 3, but they also like to look back and see how they’ve changed.

Now let’s take the tradition a little farther—how about a quick video interview on the first day of school every year?  You can not only see, but hear how they’ve changed.

The passage of time in video is its own story.  What other video traditions can you create for your family?

Limited Resources for Shooting Video

I am an absolute video newbie and am now filming my Church’s small service on Sundays.

I have a basic camcorder, but our resources are few.  There is lots of movement and many things/events happening unexpectedly that are important to capture. I can’t position my self centrally in front of the speaker due to the arrangement of the chairs, so I have been filming him from the side.

I want to do a good job of this.  Any advice?


Limited resources.  If I had a dollar for every time I heard a filmmaker whine about limited resources, I still wouldn’t have all the money I wanted for my next project.

Nobody does.  Resources are always limited.  There isn’t a filmmaker alive who doesn’t wish for more money, more equipment, or more time than they’ve been given.  A director on a $10 million film wishes she had another million.  A teacher in a video class wishes for an aide and two more cameras for the big student project.  James Cameron probably even has days when he wishes he had more money.  Okay, maybe not James Cameron.  But for everyone else, we can’t always get what we want.

In your case, there’s no money. There’s only one camera. Chairs are in the way. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. You can’t always be in the right place at the right time.

Start by prioritizing. Think about why you’re doing the video.  For example, if you’re shooting so that those physically unable to come to church can see the service, your priorities are different than if you’re trying to make short segments to promote the church on YouTube.

Next, do what filmmakers have done since time immemorial: produce resources out of thin air.  Sit with the speaker the day before to get a better sense of the schedule.  Ask a few big guys to help move the chairs so you can get as close to the speaker as possible. Beg a friend for a tripod. Put an article in the church newsletter about your work, and ask who in the congregation shoots video. Team up to shoot with two or more cameras, then find the congregation’s resident geeky editor and edit the result.

Great producers can always figure out a way.  It’s one of the jobs of filmmaking.  The more you practice asking for what you need, based on key priorities, the better your work will become.

Brew Dogs is Back!

Another 10 episodes of our hit show Brew Dogs starts this Wednesday, June 25 at 9pm on the Esquire Network.  If you like beer, travel, food or amusing Scottish people, this is your show.

Please tell all your friends immediately.  And if you’d like to show them how hip you truly are, you can watch the premiere episode early– right here, right now!

*******UPDATE:  There was a free preview here at the beginning of the season.  But it’s gone now.  You can still catch up on all things Brew Dogs here – including complete episodes for free if you have Esquire on your cable net.********

It’s a great show that I’m really proud of being a part of.  Hope you enjoy it!

Every Video Needs a Hero

When somebody asks you what a movie is about, you probably say something like this:  “It’s about a guy who decides to say ‘Yes’ to everything he’s asked to do” or “it’s about a girl who gets flown to another world in a tornado.”

Great movies are about someone.  So are great videos.  The person your video is about is your hero.  By hero I don’t mean that they have to kill bad guys or become a vampire—rather, they’re simply the focus of your video.  They’re the person who does something, or that something happens to.

Why are you shooting your daughter’s fifth birthday party?  To remember her at age 5.  She’s the hero.  Instead of random birthday party shots, make the video about your daughter and how she experiences her party.  Stay physically close to her.  Shoot from her eye-level instead of yours.  Shoot her greeting her guests, opening her gifts, talking on the phone to grandpa, spilling cake on her dress.  In a series of short, focused shots, you’ll have a lot to remember.

Instead of pointing the camera at the soccer field and rolling, make all your shots about your son’s experience of the game.  A music video should probably be about the lead singer.  A sales video might be about a particular customer’s experience, or it might be about the sales manager training the team.  A stunt video is about the stunt performer.

Whenever you pick up your camera, just before you roll, ask yourself:  Who is this shot about?  The focus of choosing a hero for your video will make it much stronger– almost by magic.