How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Best Way To Learn Video: Play With Your Toys

When I was seven, my new Kodak camera came with a thick instruction manual.  My dad solemnly sat me down and told me how important it was to read the manual before I played with the camera.  After all, I could break something.

I love my dad, but what was good advice then isn’t as good today.  The major working parts of your new smartphone, DSLR, pocket camera or editing software are microchips.  Short of running over your new toy with the car, they’re hard to break.  Instead of expensive film you’re recording data.  Store the original movie in a separate folder on your hard drive and you can’t break that either.

Forget what Dad told you.  If you got something technical in your stocking and you’re still looking at the outside of its box, it’s time to dive in.  The best way to learn video production is to practice.

Go shoot something.  Start on the simplest “auto” setting and fire away.  As you play more and get more comfortable with your new toy, then it’s time to try the bells and whistles (but never the digital zoom!)

Got editing software?  Duplicate your footage, load up a copy and screw around.  You can always hit “undo.”

Much of what you start with will look awful.  Which is fine.  You expect to eat a little snow your first time on a snowboard.  You don’t get to level 3 on Call of Duty on your first day.  Why should you be a video pro from minute one?

Learn video the best way possible– Dive in!


PS:  You can, of course, also get instruction from a book.  Say, this one.

Holiday Video Thoughts 2014

Last Minute Holiday video thoughts:

1)  This is the time of year for me to humbly remind you that How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck makes an excellent stocking stuffer.  It’s not too late to pick up a dozen copies.  There’s an audio version too!

2)  Take a moment to read my post about The True Meaning Of Holiday Video. Or this post on 10 Great Tips on Shooting Better Holiday Video, or  this one with more tips.

3)  And finally, a repost of a Christmas video I directed a while back.  So long a while back that one of the kids in the video is a director himself now, and the other a standup comic.  But if you’re a fan of either Black Sabbath or dumb humor, you’ll love it:

Have a great Holiday!

10 Tips for Great Holiday Video

Ah, Holiday memories.

Like the time you think your dad told a hilarious story– but you can’t hear him on the video.  Or the time young Sarah– or was it Matthew?– kept talking about “Santa Paws”.  Hard to tell which, because whoever’s face is too dark to see. And let’s not even talk about the video you shot of the lights and place settings and decorations and presents and…um…hardly any people at all.

Shouldn’t your Holiday video bring back memories… of the Holiday?   Of course it should.  And from now on it will.  Just follow these 10 tips for great holiday video:

1. Spare us the scenery: Holidays are about memories, and memories are about people. In ten years, nobody’s going to beg you to haul out “that great video—you know, the one with the fireplace and logs and stuff!”  But the one where Eric got Gretchen that sexy underwear and she poured eggnog over his head?  You’ll play that one a lot.  By all means shoot the lovely place settings, the tree, the outside of the house decked with menorahs—but remember that unless they’re really unusual this year, they’re each good for a maximum of 5 seconds of screen time.

2.  Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes: If our memories are about people, people are about their faces.  We don’t just talk with our faces, we show our complete personalities with what goes on in our eyes, our foreheads, those creases around our mouths. Remember the face, and you’ll remember the time. Another reason to focus on faces– your 4-year old daughter’s face will be completely different next year. And, sadly, so will yours.

3.  Zoom with your feet. Don’t shoot from across the room . Zoom lenses make your picture shaky, and the more zoomed your lens is the less light it sees. Instead, turn off the zoom and walk closer.  You’ll also get better sound—there’s no such thing as a zoom microphone.

4.  Change your angle: We tend to hold the camera at chest height all the time so we can see the monitor screen.  But that’s not always the best way to tell the story. Might you get a better view of the table full of relatives if you raise the camera over your head?  What if you get on the floor with the kids when they open presents?  Different angles make more interesting video.

5.  Ask questions:  And make them open-ended questions.  Not “Do you like the tree?” (answer: “Yes, Mom” then silence) but “Susie– tell me about where the tree came from” or “Grandpa, what was Hanukah like when you were little?” Don’t forget the interviews!

6.  Shoot first, yell later:  Which story are you more likely to tell—the time you had a perfect Christmas and everyone was very nice and polite, or the time your son “helped” the cat climb the tree and the whole thing fell over?  Misbehavior makes great video.  Unless someone needs first aid, make sure your camera doesn’t stop rolling until it’s over.

7.  Represent your kids: Your three-year old can’t tell you what to shoot.  But you’re a big part of his life—don’t forget to include yourself and your spouse in the video.  Then every once in a while think about what you wish you had video of from your childhood, and shoot that.  In 20 years your kids will be grateful for the memories you’ve preserved.

8.  Careful of tricky holiday lighting. Candlelight, strings of colored lights, crackling flames—all very lovely, but frequently insufficient for shooting. It’s fine to try the romantic firelight shot, but if it looks dark in the monitor it won’t get magically less dark later. Turn on the overheads, pull over a floor lamp or open a window shade—whatever it takes for you to see a sharp, clear picture on your viewfinder

9.  Use Ritual to your advantage:  What are the things your family always does?  Shoot at least a little of the annual trip to the tree farm, the out-of-control-latke party or family ice-skating debacle every year to make it easy to see how your family changes and grows over time.

10.  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.  Soon they’ll get bored with you and start acting natural.

Last minute gift ideas:  Who couldn’t use a dozen copies of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck?  Now available in audio version too!

New Show: DOGS OF WAR debuts Veterans Day on A&E

Another new show that I’m very proud of, and another show with “dogs” in the title.  But “Dogs of War” actually has dogs in it.

Congrats to showrunner/EP Peter LoGreco and his team for a really great job.  This is a smart, emotional journey through the world of veterans with PTSD, and the service dogs who save their lives.

Here’s the Hollywood Reporter review of the premiere.

And here’s the ENTIRE FIRST EPISODE from A&E.

Hope you enjoy it!

Making Interview Videos That Hold Their Attention

I made a recent job shift from corporate training to  being the “video guy”.  I am responsible for capturing “Success Stories” of customers who have installed and use our products.

The biggest thing that I’m struggling with now is telling a story that intrigues people and keeps them watching.  I just finished your book, and as I think back through some recent edits I completed, I now know the intrigue wasn’t there.

How do I find the the most intriguing way to present customer stories in interview videos?


I am going to give you the secrets of intrigue, Ken, and your videos are going to be impossible to stop watching.  But first, let’s talk about what “intrigue” really means:

In the first minute of Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane dies after uttering his last word, “rosebud.” A reporter’s quest to find out what “rosebud” means drives the entire movie. The reporter never finds out what it means, but we do, in the very last shot of the film.  And when we do we’re satisfied.  “Rosebud” drives Citizen Kane forward with the force of curiosity.  Intrigue.  Which is one of the reasons it’s universally considered one of the greatest films of all time. Because we don’t know, we wonder with the reporter:  What was “rosebud” anyway?  In fact, I bet you’re wondering now.  Stay tuned.

Intrigue is the art of the tease.   It’s about leaving the audience salivating to find out what happens next.  It’s about not giving away information until you have to.  Because once the audience has the answers, they’re done.  Curiosity satisfied.  Case closed. Film over.  The big question is, can you use intrigue to hold viewers in interview videos?

Unquestionably yes.  Smart people like to know the answers, and they like others to know they know the answers.  But smart filmmakers keep the answers to themselves until the very last second.  To do that, try these tips:

Add questions, not answers.  Nothing intrigues like a question.  Look at Stephen King’s books.  The chapters end on questions almost every time.  And you will turn the page, anxious to know the answers.  Same with video.  End your scenes by raising questions.  What was Kane’s “Rosebud” anyway?  Are you wondering why I haven’t told you yet?

Start your video in the middle: If the first shot in your video is a close-up of a woman saying, “The basement wall crashed in on my husband–  I had to wade through gallons of rushing water to pull him to safety.” I’m going to keep watching to find out what happened.  I don’t need her name, age, how many kids she has, or any of the other boring stuff interviews usually start with.  If eventually this dynamic video gets around to how your company’s sump pumps saved this couple’s house, I’ll be there to hear it.

Cut the boring stuff.  Ruthlessly.  If you cut the boring stuff, by definition what’s left is good.  And good will keep them watching.  How do you interview to get good, intriguing material? These tips will help:

Nothing is off-limits in an interview.  Your customer hates your company?  No worries, let her say it. That would be an incredibly intriguing way to start a company video.  If you decide not to use it, that’s fine too.  But edit later- not during the interview.

Follow your true curiosity.  I was doing a video about type 2 diabetes, and the woman I was interviewing mentioned that drinking exacerbated her condition.  I was curious, so I asked how much she drank.  “About 6 or 10 beers a day,” came the reply.  Suddenly I had a whole lot more to ask her, and it was all interesting.

Follow your true boredom.  If you’re bored, the audience will be bored.  Take a moment, change directions.  Don’t be afraid to gently interrupt and re-direct.  There’s something interesting about everyone.  Your job is to find it.

Ask for stories and you’ll get stories.  “Then what happened?” is one of the great story questions of all time.  “How did that go?”  “What happened after Jennifer closed the sale?” “How did your coworkers react to the product?” “Tell me about a day with our printer.” Good stories are always intriguing.

What’s most interesting about aiming for intrigue is that the structure you’ll build to make your your interview videos more intriguing makes them work even if the audience knows the answer. The Sixth Sense is still a great movie the 5th time, even if you know the surprise ending.  And knowing Kane’s boyhood sled was named “Rosebud” won’t keep you from following the journey.

More tips on interview videos



Getting from Idea to Film: Collaboration

I’m a post production artist in Chicago. I mostly stick to editing, motion graphics and VFX’s, But recently I’ve done something different. I’ve written a short film! Most of the paper work is done– Storyboards, Shot list, Prop List, even a Budget.

Now I’m stuck and I’m not sure what the next step is. Any advice?

–Charles J. Williams

You have all the successful elements for a great short film, Charles. Now all you need are the people.

Video is an art that demands collaboration.  Unless you’re shooting scenery or possibly your cat, you’re going to need other humans to help you shoot.

In the simplest film collaborations, the other people are your subjects.  But if you’re doing anything more ambitious than shooting a couple of people talking, you’ll also need collaborators to find locations, help with the lighting, record sound, find the props, cast the background actors, handle the money, shoot an extra camera and more.  It takes a village to shoot a movie.

Obviously these people will help do a lot of work when the time comes to shoot. Less obviously, just the act of getting them signed on to the job will help unstick you. You’ll have to explain what you’re planning, step by step, to everyone you talk to.  The ensuing discussion will force you to re-think and clarify your video.  They, in turn, will poke holes in your plan, question your creative and, if they’re the right people, provide ideas and answers you would never have come up with on your own.

I used to resent having to explain everything over and over to crew, clients, financiers or networks.  I mean, it took so much time.  But now I understand it as a key part of the process.  It gives me an opportunity to consider my work from other points of view, make it better through the input of others, and meet great collaborators I enjoy working with time and again.

And more than once the mere act of asking for help has gotten me unstuck.


Hey, are you following me on Twitter?  You probably should.  In addition to video, I tweet about beer a lot.  And beer is good.

Three Never-Fail Secrets to a Career In Entertainment

I wanted to be in Entertainment, but somehow, in the last several years, I wound up working in Financial Services.

Determined to get back on the right path while at my last horrible job–working for a banking corporation–I decided to update my skills by buying new equipment and software. I also have been taking opportunities in my chosen industry. I’ve been an actor in a feature film and currently am a Production Assistant.

Do you have any suggestions about what more I can do to make this career change from the utterly uncreative world of financial services to the place I’ve always wanted to be?

–John Thiel

It took me a while to get to this question, John. Hopefully you are not yet head of a studio.  But if not, have no fear!  Because I have exactly the answers you’re looking for.  Here– at long last– are the three ultimate secrets to a Career in Entertainment.

The secrets are basic, simple, and if followed, will always lead to success.  But like “diet and exercise” to lose weight, they take a lot of focus and hard work.  As you know, people will do anything to get out of focus and hard work– which is why there are so many books written about how to eat bacon to get thin and meditate on “The Secret” to get careers in entertainment.

Ready to save hundreds of dollars on books?  Here you go:

1) Commit
2) Do the work
3) Build a network

Easy, right?  Or at least, straightforward.  Now to the difficult details:

1)  Commit: Consider this:  The entertainment industry will be worth over $2 TRILLION dollars by 2016.  It’s a real industry, with hundreds of thousands of jobs worldwide.  Somebody has to do it– why not you?  But it can be tough sledding sometimes. If you want a career in entertainment, you have to believe, deep down, that you can do it no matter what.  Because if you think you need an accounting degree as a fallback to becoming a director, you will end up an accountant.

2) Do the work:  Entertainment is a portfolio business.  This means you will be judged by what you have made.  So make things.  Shoot films and post them on Vimeo.  Join others who are shooting film to learn on set and accrue credits– for free if you must. Write that short or long film burning in your brain and hustle it into existence.  Take a job as a production assistant and learn the craft.

3)  Build a network:  As you do the work, notice the people who enjoy working with you, and with whom you enjoy working.  The people who get you.  The people with whom you do your best work.  Get to know them.  Try to work with them more.  Stay in touch with them.  This is how you build your personal network. As you get better, they get better. As you inspire them, they inspire you.  You grow together.

Note that this is not the same as “networking,” which people seem to believe involves industry cocktail parties wherein you spot and suck up to successful people and through some magic cause them to do business with you.  It is not the same in that my kind of “building a network” actually works.

From your description, John, you’ve made great progress on starting to do the work.  Make sure you’re committed and building a network.  You have to do all three to win a career in entertainment.

If you have a question you’re willing to share with the world, please ask it here.