How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Should You Be a Film Major?

I am an aspiring film director from the UK. I have always been passionate about storytelling, and was part of countless productions in school. Although I decided that performance wasn’t for me, two years ago I began to develop an interest in filmmaking. There is no better feeling than when you come away from a film with an emotion, feeling or thought playing on your mind. I read your book over summer and it has given me so many new perspectives on filmmaking and creativity as a whole.

Next year I go to University and I am currently deciding on a major for my degree. I’m torn between going with a film studies, film and literature, and a film production degree– or perhaps a degree in something else entirely. Do you have any recommendations?


In the grand tradition of adults giving advice to young people, Tom, let me answer your question with a platitude: “Aspiration is nothing compared to Inspiration.”  I made that one up, but feel free to print it on a tee shirt, or save it for when you have kids. Kids love platitudes.  Oh, they don’t?  Fine, I’ll try to explain with less pomposity:

Aspiration might lead you a prestigious film school, with an academically rigorous program. Which is awesome, as who wouldn’t want to study the greats, guided by inspirational professors?  There is no questioning the benefit of an intellectual understanding of the mechanics of filmmaking.

But there’s another important part of your film and video education:  Film is a portfolio business.  You’ll be hired by others based what you make and who you’ve worked with. If you do good work with good people, other good people will hire you for more good work. A little circular, perhaps, but all it means is that you have to do actual film work to succeed.  Whether it’s making your own stuff on an iPhone or interning for a big production company, building a portfolio of work means you’re learning by doing and growing your film career.

Which means you need to focus on Inspiration.  How well does the program inspire you and help you make stuff? Does the curriculum encourage student production? Are the professors strong in experiential learning, helping students grow by doing? Encouraging them to meet each other?  Are there clubs and groups you can join to network with other students and do extra work on your own?  Is there an active film community in the college area, so you can intern or do freelance work? Does the college help find placement?  Do they have equipment and people who know how to use it?

Its great to have both kinds of programs, but if you have to choose, choose the one that inspires you to do the work. What you study in college– film or not– isn’t nearly as important to your filmmaking education as what opportunities you’ll take advantage of when you’re there.

More on careers in film here and here!

Webcast: Why Bad Video Happens to Good Causes

Do you run a non-profit?  How’s your video storytelling?  Want to make it better?

If you answered “yes” and “meh” to the first two questions, the answer to that last one should be “Duh.” (Students of this blog will recognize here what we in the media business call a “rhetorical” question. Though I’m told there are some outside the media business who also call it that.)

I’m co-leading a webcast later this month with my friend Andy Goodman to help good causes in need of video improvement. We’ll talk about ten reasons why bad video keeps happening to good causes.  We’ll show you how to produce video your audience will want to watch and build a stronger video culture in your organization on a nonprofit’s budget.

“Why Bad Video Happens to Good Causes,” September 22nd from 11a-12n Pacific (2-3p Eastern). Tuition is just $49.50 per person, group discounts are available, and you can reserve your space here.

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!

Just Don’t: 6 Ways NOT to Shoot Video Interviews

I’ve written a lot about how to shoot video interviews (here, here and here, for example) but not a lot about how NOT to shoot video interviews. Here are some advanced “don’t do this” tips for you to go out and not do immediately:

1.  Don’t tell them what to say.  In commercial focus groups a few years back, we showed two different sets of “testimonial” type spots.  One set featured absolutely real people, who said real things about the product.  The other featured people saying more positive things about the product, but they were actors, and the lines were written.  Focus group participants told the moderator that both sets of testimonials were fake, and they thought everyone got paid, or were actors reading lines.  Nonetheless, they rated the spots with real people saying real things as more likable and more believable.

My theory is that cameras are lie detectors of a sort.  They magnify the facial detail that gives us clues about the speaker’s thoughts. Even if we’re not aware of it, we can tell what’s real and true, and we react to it differently. Ask real questions, get real answers, and your interviews will have real impact. (Some metaphorical support for this point of view: watch Richard Linklater’s should-have-won-best-picture Boyhood. See how different it feels to watch actors really age vs. putting on makeup.)

2.  Don’t do that “repeat the question back” thing.  You often hear interviewers tell their subjects to repeat back the question in their answer.  Something like: “When I ask you what your favorite food is, say ‘My favorite food is cheesecake.'”  The result: material that’s sometimes easier to edit, but often looks stilted.  Here’s a better idea: don’t ask a question that can be answered with one single word.  Instead, have a conversation with your subject.  If you get a one word answer, follow up with, “Tell me about the perfect cheesecake.” or “When was the first time you tasted cheesecake?”  Both open up the conversation.  Keep track in your head or on paper of whether you’re getting what you need. Remember that you can edit to massage the final interview.

3.  Don’t settle for masturbatory comments.  Chevrolet ran a series of ads this Spring in which “real people” looked at Chevy trucks and said things like “It’s great.” and “I’m surprised.”  It was about as interesting as it sounds.  You may think your job is to get them to say nice things about the product, but your real job is to get them to express relatable truths about the product that will intrigue viewers.  And trust me, “it’s great!” doesn’t qualify.  Blow past the superficial chaff and get to the wheat by asking “Why?”  Why was the truck great? Why were they surprised?  “Why?” forces people to explain themselves. You begin to see their point of view and hear their stories.  In an interview, that’s gold.

4. Don’t rush. When I do testimonial spots I spend a minimum of 20 minutes with subjects. For character interviews for an unscripted tv series, maybe 40 minutes.  This lets me develop a rapport with the subject and follow my curiosity when something fun comes up.  Give yourself time to take a flyer.

5.  Don’t be rigid.  Flexibility makes your subjects more comfortable.  You can both relax into a nice back and forth. If you stick strictly to your question list, you’ll miss surprises that are more interesting than you could ever imagine.

6.  Don’t abdicate responsibility.  It’s your job to pull information out of your subjects by guiding a great interview.  It’s not their job to know what you need, or try to please you. Practice, be open, and remember who’s driving the bus.

There are no bad interviewers, just bad directors.  Okay, that’s not true.  Some people don’t interview well.  But in my experience we’re talking at most 2% of the population.  If you’re having trouble with your video interviews more often, you might try not doing a few new things from this list.

Do you know more things not to do in interviews?  This is an excellent time to comment, below.

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 video 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.”

Now that you’re ready for great Father’s Day Video, how about a great Father’s Day gift? Like the audio version of 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