How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Story as a Magical Organizing Force

I have a brain that likes things logical, nicely ordered and in line. You follow the rules, you get the result. I can’t get my head around the order of shots, stories and putting it all together.

Once a week we go to the grandparents house for dinner. We have a niece and nephew, 4 and 1 respectively, that come over as well. It is a good time had by all and I want to capture the moments as they learn and grow. I just can’t figure out what the story is. I get that I should take short shots of what’s happening but when you put them all together, will it make sense?

I’m pretty sure I am just overthinking it, and should maybe just try it.


Yes, you are and you should. But to help you, let me give you a feather to hold in your trunk– oops, I mean a rule you can follow to improve your videos.

Story is a magical organizing force that pulls your video together and makes it more watchable.  And you don’t have to do any writing or heavy thinking in advance to make it work.  Because magical.  Here’s your rule: next dinner, pick the first idea that comes to you and focus on that.

What’s interesting about, say, your nephew? For example, suppose you notice that, being 1, he’s learning his first words. “Baby talks.” Noun/verb. Bang! First thing! That’s your story.

Now shoot short shots of baby playing with language.  At some point, as people interact with baby, something interesting will happen.  Suppose you see Grandpa showing him how to say “fork” and handing him a kids fork. Baby puts it in his ear.  Grandpa repeats the word.  Baby tries to say it, instead uttering a familiar Anglo-Saxon epithet. Everyone laughs.  Baby repeats epithet over and over, then throws food on floor.  Grandpa makes a bad “Meet the Forkers” joke.  End of story.

The magical rule has given you an observational focus.  Grandpa trying to teach baby to talk. By becoming intensely interested in shooting everything about it, you magically find a story.  When this story is done (and it’s done when it feels done or starts to bore you) repeat the observation step and pick another story.  Now shoot that one.

At the end of the dinner you will have a camera full of little stories.  If you like to edit, cut the ones that don’t work so well.  You can package the best ones into standalone bites from vine-length up, depending on how long they stay interesting.  Or edit all of them into a video called (okay, this is not my most inventive title ever) “Dinner at the Grandparents’ House.” When you do, you will be surprised to find that these short and interesting stories fit together in some bigger and very watchable way.

To review the Rule* for Story as an Organizing Force:

  1. If you’re having trouble finding story, go with the first thing that you notice
  2. Become intensely interested in it and
  3. Shoot it until it feels over or you get bored
  4. Repeat
  5. Cut the bad stuff.


*Please don’t email about “rules” in video. Been there, done that.  Remember this is just a feather for Bryan.  For you, when it says “rule” please read “exercise.”

If you think the only thing that would make this blog better would be me reading it to you out loud, check out the audio version of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck.

Can a Teaching Video tell a Story?

How can I better use storytelling techniques for teaching science? Does numerical data contribute to the story, or is having a data table in a video a sure recipe for having viewers click away?

By the way: your book is awesome. In the video I’m working on now, I keep counting to make sure I’m not violating the 10 second shot rule!

–Glenn Wolkenfeld

Nice job, Glenn. This is a fast-moving, clear, well-produced teaching video covering a bunch of cool stuff about surface area. For those of you to whom it did not occur that there was a bunch of cool stuff about surface area, I feel you.  Me either.  But I watched, learned, and did not want to rip my eyes out and run screaming from the room. Which has happened while watching teaching videos in the past.

I think storytelling can help make your teaching video better. Some of it’s a bit of a stretch to apply, as you’ll see, but let’s try:

In a teaching video, “understanding the concept” is always the intent. Your concept, if I may grossly oversimplify, is that more surface area in a cell = more permeable cell membranes = elephants.  Or to put it another way, if cells had too much interior relative to their exterior, they wouldn’t be able to do all the cool chemical reactions that give life to larger animals.

Now the stretch part:  Stories need a hero, and for a teaching video let’s pretend that the concept is the hero.  In this case “More cellular surface area” is our protagonist.  In the beginning, we explain what more cellular surface area means.  In the middle, we show what happens if we don’t have it.  At the end we show how it’s responsible for all animal life.  This story structure helps re-organize and focus your video.  You could then:

  1. Re-edit for story.  Everything that clarifies what “surface area” is, and your thesis about how it’s necessary for life, goes first.  Everything that makes your case about permeability problems goes next.  The elephants come last.
  2. Lose everything that doesn’t move your story forward.  Restatements and reiterations should go.  How many animal examples do you need?  I don’t know if it helps me to know about whales or flatworms in any real detail. If you decide to keep them, make sure they’re adding new information, not re-saying old information.
  3. Add intrigue to pull us into the video.  Raising questions creates interest, answering them reduces it.  For example, how can you hook us with a big question from second 1 of the video, before you even introduce yourself?  Something like “Without the right surface-to-volume ratio, elephants wouldn’t exist.  And neither would we.”  Throughout the video, raise more questions and promise the answers later.  Intrigue us, and we will follow you.
  4. Lose the charts. Quick, super-simple animated thing, yes. Tables of equations, no.  Those belong in handouts, or accompanying web material.  The agar cubes are their own brilliant demo of your point.  A graph of same is redundant.  An exciting video will drive a lot of web traffic.


I’m hoping that if you do this, the end result keeps all the things you did very well and makes them stand out even more.  The video will be shorter and more memorable when you’re done.  If you do go back and re-edit, send a link and we’ll post it in the comments below!

Are you following me on twitter? Were you waiting for an invitation? If so, you’ll find it here: @stevestockman

Video as a Collaborative Art

I just shot my first video ever, and had some trouble getting the actors to do what I wanted.

When you’re directing, how much of the performance is up to you, and how much do you let the actor come up with?


How much do I let the actor come up with?  All of it.  As much as I’d sometimes (fortunately rarely) like to climb inside an actor’s head and push all the buttons myself, I can’t.  Nobody can.  The actor has to do all the work.  I may try to help guide or manage, but you really can’t make actors do things they can’t– or don’t want to.

Usually directors who find it necessary to read every line, personally demonstrate every move and walk through the blocking get a lot less out of their actors than they’d like. After about 10 minutes of this, any decent actor is going to mentally retreat and phone in the rest of her performance.

But if you hire great talent, give them a clear picture of what you intend to happen and some space to contribute their own ideas, they’ll jump in and make it work.  The more space you give them, the more they throw themselves into the job.

Since nobody likes to be micro-managed, the “give people space” thing turns out to be true for everyone on the set, not just actors.  Which is good, because video is a collaborative art– you can’t do it by yourself.

Not only will you get great work when you invite great people to do their jobs creatively, you get surprising work– performances better than you expect, miraculous looking footage and terrific ideas from even the lowliest production assistant.  Great performances– from everyone– are what make great film.

Getting Started in a Video Career

Hi Steve,

My Dad gave me a copy of your book to help my roommates (all of whom are filmmakers at NYU) make great films in their classes.  It’s been a really helpful guide for them! I was just wondering, since I’m majoring in acting, if you have any tips for actors trying to get into these “videos that don’t suck”.

Do you have any advice on how to find projects to work on without being one of those desperate wannabe actor people who annoy every agent and production company in the city trying to get some kind of work?


While this is not an acting blog, yours is a pretty common question from everyone who wants to get into a film or video career.  If you’re not an actor, just insert your career goal wherever the word appears:

Entertainment is a portfolio business. The first thing an agent or casting director will want to know is “what have you done?” So the secret to an acting (or writing or directing or producing) career is to do stuff.  There’s no magic other than that.

Better still, do stuff with people whose work you love.  They don’t have to be established– just on your wavelength. If you know good student directors and writers at NYU, get to know them and get in their videos.  If you write, produce or direct (or want to)– make your OWN videos and star in them.  Look for talented people around you, and do your best to seem incredibly helpful and talented too so that they invite you into their projects, and vice-versa.  Do stuff.

Same is true when you hit NY or LA to start a career.  Do that experimental theater with friends in front of 10 people in a loft in Soho. Shoot your own movies on your iPhone. Do a student film at UCLA.  Write your own one-woman show.  Take classes with teachers whose approach you love.  Hone your craft. Get experience, meet people.

Remember it’s not “production companies” that hire you to work as an actor.  It’s not agents either.  It’s a particular casting director who shows your latest work to a particular director.  It’s another actor who likes and recommends you.  It’s the guy who sees you off-off-off broadway and tells his sister the producer about your performance.  If you’re not doing stuff, you’re never going to meet them.

Good luck!

Hey!  Are you following me on Twitter?  I’m thinking perhaps you should.  @SteveStockman

Get Serious to Attract Actors

I have an idea for a short film.  I have a camera, I have a story, and I have a job, so filming and money aren’t a problem.  My problem is that I have no idea where to find a cast that can make the film what I want it to be.

Any advice on where to find actual actors/actresses who will take my project seriously and listen to what I tell them?


The way to get actors to take your project seriously is to present them with a serious project.  That may seem simplistic, but it really isn’t.

One of the truths about the film business is that there are way more projects out there than will ever be made.  That’s true whether you’re in an undergraduate film club or a major studio– there’ll be 50 ideas on your desk for every one worth making.  The way we choose projects is by judging for ourselves how likely they are to succeed.  That is, how “serious” are they?  The more serious the project, the more talent you will attract.

Nobody likes to waste time, and this is especially true for actors, who waste more time than most working with lame casting directors, desperately trying to land 3-line parts in uninteresting projects.  Get them excited about your film and you’ll need to hire a full-time bodyguard to keep them from camping on your lawn.

For an actor “serious” means:

  • You have a great script or shooting plan.  The first place most actors look to determine the seriousness of a project is the script. Well written stories that are unusual, emotional, appealing, and smart attract actors.  If you are going unscripted (improvisation, perhaps, or some kind of stunt) you’ll need to be able to pitch it so that they get it and love it.
  • You’re a director they can trust.  Actors put themselves in your hands.  They want their performance to be good, but they don’t build the sets, or shoot, or edit.  They have to trust you, and you need to be worthy of that trust.  If you’re new at directing, say so.  You don’t have to know everything– everyone is new once.  But you do have to be smart about how you’re handling your inexperience: asking questions and listening well go a long way toward making actors comfortable.
  • You have a great team attached. Great team members attract other great team members.  Can you get people with more experience to help you out?
  • You have enough money to get made. You may not need much money, but if you’re proposing a film with car crashes, actors want to know you have the bucks to pull it off.
  • It looks like your project can hit its goals.  If it’s a Superbowl spec ad, is it a good one? Is there a plan to enter it in contests? If it’s a funny short video, do you have a plan for promoting it? If it’s an indie film, what’s the marketing plan?


Once you’ve got a serious project, finding actors to audition is easy. Big productions usually use casting directors and list casting calls in Backstage or other casting website. Small productions might post audition notices wherever actors are found– local college theater departments, community theaters, or coffee shops next door to theaters.  For your first production, you might audition friends and family.

As a bonus, making your project more serious to attract better actors also helps attract crew, money, and favors.  Everyone likes to work with someone who does great work.

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!

Who Needs a Hero, Anyway?

I’m a pure novice at making movies, so your book was exactly what I was looking for!  I made one diving video from a point & shoot underwater camera and tried to use your tips, but I struggled with “the hero” – the fish maybe? the turtle?  Help!

–Kaidra M.

The “hero” thing can be tricky, but it still works underwater.

The idea of choosing a hero is to make your video about someone. To keep you from randomly pointing and shooting. The key concept: it doesn’t matter WHO the hero is.

Without a hero, your video is about whatever catches your eye: Here’s a fish. CUT. Some coral. CUT. Oh, look– bubbles! CUT. I’m even bored typing this.

But let’s see what happens with a hero:  Suppose your video follows some specific, cool-looking fish. Your shots would be something like this:  Fish swims into cave.  CUT.  Fish sticks head out and looks at camera.  CUT.  Fish darts out to take food from your hand.   It’s only three shots– maybe 30 seconds long, but you’re telling the story of a fish in a very watchable, focused way.

If you chose to tell the story “I go on a dive,” the focus of the video becomes you.  Shots like “I put on my wetsuit” and “My dive buddy gives the thumbs up as we descend”–but it could also be the same fish story as above from your point of view:  “I spot a fish.”  “I swim after the fish until it runs into a cave.”  “I take food from my pocket and offer it to the fish.”

Would a turtle make an equally fine hero? Sure! The point here is that ANY focus helps your video.  Don’t spend a lot of time figuring out who the hero is– just pick one.  Making the choice helps you tell a better story, making your video much more interesting to watch.

Who needs hero?  You do.

More on Heroes and story.

photo by Jan Messersmith

Five Easy Ways to Shoot Better Thanksgiving Video

Bad Thanksgiving video can be hell to sit through.  Mom hiding her face to keep from being seen when she’s messy after cooking all day.  Ten minute shots of the steaming turkey, as if this one looks different from last year’s.  Loud dinner cross-conversations that are impossible to hear, let alone follow.

Why not make this the year you shoot GREAT Thanksgiving video with these 5 easy tips:

1. Shoot Short Shots: Dad’s carving the turkey for the 30th year in a row.  Do we need to capture all 8 minutes of the dissection process?  Is this a rhetorical question?  Try this:  Start when he stands up, catch that first slice of breast meat and move on.  Think of your shots as still photos you hold for a little longer– point, roll video, stop.  Find something else interesting and do it all over again.  The big payoff:  If you keep your shots to 10 seconds or less they’ll all be interesting– and your entire video will end up a watchable 5 minutes long.

2.  Faces make memories: That big wide shot down the table of all 20 people at your holiday table is worth shooting– for about 5 seconds.  But once we know where we are, get close to your family.  If the goal of home video is to preserve memories of people we care about, faces are key.  Nobody– not you, not your parents, not your kids– will have the same face 5 years from now.  Capture people the way they really are– let us see them close up.

3.  Zoom with your feet. Don’t shoot from across the room.  Zoom lenses make your picture shaky, and distance you from what’s going on. Instead, turn off the zoom and move yourself closer to the action.  You’ll get better sound, too—the camera’s microphone doesn’t zoom.  Bonus tip:  when you’re closer to people, try asking them questions and see what happens.

4.  Try for Details: While faces are the biggest draw in a Thanksgiving video, there’s a lot to be learned from details.  Quick shots of two people talking intimately.  Someone spooning yams onto a plate.  A closeup of Aunt Elaine’s hands rolling dough or Uncle Larry passed out in front of the TV.  These aren’t long shots– think of them, again, as stills– but they bring richness to the video that will take you back when you watch it later.  Shoot them as you see them, and don’t worry how they connect.  You’ll be surprised how well they work.

5.  Don’t try to hide the camera: Kids (and many adults) may be camera-shy, but they’ll be much worse if they think you’re trying to trick them into being filmed.  Be obvious about shooting and they’ll get bored with you and start acting natural.

Finally, don’t forget to put the camera down occasionally!  Sometimes actually being present at a family event is more important than documenting for the future.