How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

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.

Checklist: 20 Questions to Make Your Video Great

Since everyone alive today has been watching film and video from birth, we all have some idea of what bad film and video look like.  It’s that stuff you click out of instantly on your browser or your remote, often within 15 seconds of starting it.

“I know bad video when I see it” works great when you’re the consumer, but not so well when you’re the creator. Creators not only need to know bad video when they see it, they need to know bad video before they see it.  Ideally even before they start shooting it.

How do you see the bad stuff coming ahead of time and fix it before it happens? Pilots, doctors and other mission-critical actors have been using checklists for years to prevent mistakes.  Now you can too!  Welcome to the “How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck Checklist”– 20 questions to make your video great.

These 20 questions will help you cull the good from the bad in your own work before you show it to an audience.  An ounce of prevention, if you will.

Read through the list as you’re thinking about your next video.  The more questions you can answer “yes” to, the stronger your video probably is.  Got a “no”?  How can you fix it now, before you spend time and/or money doing it wrong?

The How To Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck Checklist


1.  Is my idea best expressed as a video?

2.  Does it tell a clear story?

3.  Do I know who the story is about?

4.  Is there a clear beginning to the story?

5.  Is there a clear middle to my story?

6.  Is there a clear end to my story?


7.  Do all my shots contain a clear subject and action?

8.  Does every location help bring the story alive?

9.  Do all my backgrounds help tell the story?

10. Do my stars always look great?

11.  Do I see a lot of their faces?

12. Are all my scenes lit well, so viewers can see what they’re supposed to see?

13. Are all my scenes miked well, so viewers can hear what they’re supposed to hear?


14. Is each shot cut to it’s best and shortest version?

15. Have I deleted all shots that look/sound awful or are otherwise technically flawed?

16. Have I used only cuts to transition between shots?

17. Are my graphics simple and elegant?

18. If for the web, is my video shorter than 3 minutes?

19. If it’s longer than 3 minutes, is there a damn good reason?

20. Do I like this video more every time I watch it?

Shoot Better Labor Day Video

As you cruise to the beach or barbecue this weekend, take your video camera.  And think about these tips to shoot better Labor Day video:

1)  Memories are about faces. Faces are where emotion lives. The eyes are the window to the soul and all that.  And faces are how we chart time– when you want to remember who you were 5 years ago, a long shot of a crowd drinking beer won’t do the job. When you watch video of small children or elderly grandparents later, you’ll never wish you were farther away.

Thinking of shooting distant closeups of vague human figures in front of a smoking grill?  You’re doing it wrong.  Get close.

2)  Ask real questions and you’ll get real answers. “How’s the beer, dude?” may get you a high-five from your buddy, but asking him what he did this summer will be a lot more interesting. Ask people to describe the guests, ask kids to tell you what they did today– anything that requires just a little thought reveals more of the real people in your life on video.

3)  Shoot action. “Dad” is not a shot.  “Dad putting too much lighter fluid on the grill” is.  Subject plus action = interesting. “Grill blowing up.” or “Mom sprays Dad with fire extinguisher” should also be good.

4) Shoot what interests you, and it will be interesting. Just because you’re going to Ocean City for the weekend doesn’t mean you have to shoot a video showing the family lying on the beach. Make your video about something instead.

Anything will work.  Your video can be about your quest for the perfect oyster, your two brothers taking their first vacation together in 20 years, or how much you hate tourists.  It’s up to you.  But the trick is to go one step past “point and shoot” in your head.  Have a point of view.  If you shoot something you’re interested in, we’ll be interested too!



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!

Respect the Process Podcast

I just discovered commercial director Jordan Brady’s podcast, Respect the Process.  I discovered it when he invited me to be on it, but it turns out I’m late to the party– he has a ton of subscribers and some really great guests.

The podcast is now up.  Jordan’s beat is creativity and (surprise!) process in film, video and entertainment, which I’m always happy to talk about and learn more about. We covered a lot of information– about shooting video, how to get started in unscripted television, and how he once shot a spot in my garage.

You can see that commercial, admire my garage and hear the podcast here or check it out on iTunes.

Mr. Brady also runs a commercial directing bootcamp in September.  Worth checking out.

Shooting like the Pros

Watch any film or TV show and you’ll see a series of very short shots (read why here). I argue that most people should get out of the habit of running the camera non-stop when shooting. And every so often I get a letter like this:

I am a professional videographer, and your advice to “shoot short shots” is totally misguided. Pros shoot more than they need so they can make their video perfect in the editing room. Turning the camera on and off is an amateur move.  How have you made a living in this business?

–Chris F., New York

Chris isn’t wrong.  My advice to try in-camera editing isn’t based on professional videographers, who do shoot differently. But the underlying principle is true– for pros and everyone else. To understand, let’s break it into two cases, the editors and the non-editors :

If you don’t edit later: Dads at soccer games. Employees at the company picnic. Grandparents at graduations.  For anyone documenting a live event and not likely to edit later: don’t run the camera non-stop. Not only will that 45 minute ballet recital be horribly boring to watch, but if you shoot everything in real time, you’ll need an extra lifetime to view it. For these people, shooting short shots instead means their video will fall out of the camera looking professionally edited— and way more interesting to watch.

If you do edit later: Pros still plan their shoot because pros know that shooting and editing aren’t free. The more you shoot, the more time it takes and the more money you pay your crew.  The more footage you shoot, the more time you need to edit later. Yes, pros shoot differently than someone going with friends to a rock concert.  They budget extra time and money to try multiple takes, repeat moves, and take more flyers on things that might not work (but would be awesome if they do!) But even pros can’t run the camera non-stop.

Your movie has to be shot in 45 days and edited in 10 weeks.  Or your commercial has to be shot in 12 hours, and delivered in 2 weeks. To make those deadlines (and the budgets that come with them) you need to carefully plan your shooting and know when to stop.

To summarize:  If you’re not editing later, edit “in camera” by doing short, thoughtful shots and your video will be way more watchable. If you are editing later, keep an eye on your time and money. In both cases, the more you plan and think about your shots in advance, the better.

Running the camera non-stop just means you have no idea what you’re doing.