How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

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- whether or not they get them is what your story is about.

A mute woman rescuing a monster, a lawyer facing down the bigotry of his 1930s community, a woman of color who just wants to do math for NASA– all great heroes. who take risks and take action.  They are the reason we care: we sit on the edge of our seats, waiting to see what they’ll do next, and how it goes for them. 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. And vice versa.

Superheroes are larger than life by definition, facing huge odds for tremendous stakes. They’re perfect for telling great stories. Thus the success of the Marvel Universe. 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 hero can’t carry a story if you block them from owning it.

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 video or film is about your hero. Make the hero’s desires and choices kick off the beginning of the story, let the hero’s 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 focuses 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.



The True Story of How Tattoos Got Us a Digital Series on Comedy Central

Comedy Central Tattoo Gnarnia

Did Izak’s tattoo get us a show on Comedy Central? It didn’t hurt (much)!

Our new digital series for Comedy Central, Gnarnia went up on Youtube last week.  It’s about 4 guys in a heavy metal band who live together behind a used record store in Los Angeles, who’ll do just about anything to avoid growing up.

We took it to several networks last year. The pitch included a very funny sizzle reel (a 4 minute demo of the project) and an explanation of our plans for the show.The quick pitch was “stoner Monkees”, which caused everyone in the room under 45 to go “Like, actual chimps?” (If you don’t know the Monkees, you can enjoy them here.) Once we explained it as “a lot like Workaholics, except they’re stoned and in a band” everyone nodded.

The series looks kind of like a reality show, but it’s actually an improvised comedy– think Curb Your Enthusiasm, with stoner 28 year-olds. (Once you start pitching “It’s like…” other shows, you can do it all day.) The show has a loose, Dazed and Confused documentary feel (another one!) And not all the networks quite got it.

Our dream network was Comedy Central, but we knew that while the show is really funny (good) it’s also pretty loose. Most Comedy Central shows are super tight, with a lot of rapid fire laughs. After our pitch meeting with the network it was clear that they liked it– but not clear they were ready to buy.

On the way out of the meeting we called the Gnar guys and asked them to think of something they could do fast that would make an even bigger impression.  They over-delivered. Not only did they wrote an incredibly catchy song, Comedy Central, Please Buy our TV Show, that they edited into a video, they also tattooed the Network logo on their arms on screen. For real. As icing on the commitment cake, they silkscreened a couple of customized t-shirts and sent them over to the network execs.

Did the tattoos put the show over the top? It’s hard to say. Commitment works to help launch any entertainment project. Your passion– for the project, the talent, and the outlet– is a huge motivator in getting someone else to believe in what you’re doing. Tattoos may not always be the way to show that commitment, of course. But in the case of this show, as you’ll see, they’re perfect. And luckily Izak and Rikky will have a great story for their grandchildren about their wrinkly Comedy Central tattoos.

Check the series out!  If you’re a fan of dumb humor, bad language and nudity (and who isn’t?), you’ll enjoy all three episodes. And if you could watch each one, say, 250,000 times, that would be a huge help.

WARNING: The theme song is an insane ear worm. I’ve been humming it for months. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

The Youtube version is censored. For the less sensitive, here’s a Facebook Watch uncensored look at the show:

Day 3: White Fang’s Big Gig – Gnarnia – Uncensored

The Gnar Tapes crew tries to raise money with a gig at a bar mitzvah.

Posted by Comedy Central Central on Friday, July 13, 2018

10 Tips for Doing Better Marketing Video

You write a lot about movies, home video, story, etc. It’s all great, and I use it when I shoot stuff. But I need to convince my company to do better marketing videos and I’m not shooting those.

Any advice?

-Jackson D., Denver

The only thing worse than shooting awful marketing video is paying someone else to shoot awful marketing video for you.

Critical in this age of video overpopulation: A crash course in video literacy for companies. The more you know about how video really works, the less likely you are to waste money and time on something nobody is going to watch.

Here are 10 tips to run through before your company’s next foray into video marketing, whether it’s on YouTube or network TV. Good luck!

  1. Entertain or Die: Whether it’s on the web or TV, nobody watches bad video. There are too many instantly available alternatives.


  1. Never confuse what you want with what the audience wants. You may have sales goals, but they have their own needs. Their needs determine how they behave, not yours.


  1. The Entertainment Transaction: The audience pays (with time or money) the entertainment must deliver (with an experience). More on entertaining videos here.


  1. “Should it Entertain or Sell?” is a fool’s argument. It has to do both. If it doesn’t entertain, it CAN’T sell. And if it doesn’t sell at all, why bother?


  1. A Viral Video is a “hit”—and it’s as tough to make as a hit record, hit TV show, or hit movie. A strategy that depends on a single hit is no strategy at all.


  1. Video done right works. It can increase the size of your loyal audience, or increase the participation/affiliation of your existing audience. Or both.  Video that’s done wrong vanishes, taking your time and money with it.


  1. Make sure what you have to say is really a video. Video does motion and emotion well. Charts and facts are not a video, they are Powerpoint. Bad Powerpoint.


  1. “See Something, Say Something” They use it in airports to remind people to report things that are suspicious to keep us all safe. Same in marketing meetings. If your campaign strikes you as a little, um, “suckish”– speak up. It’s not going to get better by itself. And the cost of production may be high, but it’s NOTHING compared with the cost of media. Or embarrassment.


  1. Keep your video short. That trailer for a new movie—the one you hate because it shows the whole story? It’s 2 minutes and 30 seconds long. You don’t need a ten minute sales video. Two minutes will be just fine—and even then, it better be good.


  1. Welcome to the Entertainment Industry. Like it or not, your marketing video is competing with all videos for attention. Make sure your videos are worth watching.


Thanks for the question, Jackson. Do you have a question? I bet you do.  Click here to ask it!

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!

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.


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!