How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

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. 

“Lensing In” to Find What Your Video is About

So, @SteveStockman I’m ready for a critique of one of my videos. I’m interested in ideas for improvement.

–Paul (Mr. Adventure) @bcoutdoor via twitter

Pretty video, Paul, and I can’t tell you how much I love being inside on a nice day writing about it instead of breathing fresh air and paddling across a lake.  Okay, not that much.

The entire basis for my critique of this video can be found in the description you posted on YouTube.  It’s very accurate, and as goes the description, so goes your video:

Two weeks ago we spent the weekend hiking and packrafting around Ross Lake and spending the nights in hammocks. It was a first time for the packrafts and the hammocks (on a backpacking trip) and it was a memorable experience.

What’s this video about?  Seems it could be about three different things:

–The Story of a Memorable Ross Lake Trip

–The Story of our first time spending the night in our new hammocks

–The Story of our first time using our new pack rafts on a backpacking trip

Your video touches on all these things without really quite constructing a story about any of them.  Consider that a video about three different things is, as a general rule, about two things too many.

One way to improve your video is to select one subject of the three and focus on it by “lensing in” to what you’re shooting.  Imagine you’re a zoom lens.  As you zoom closer and closer to your topic, details are revealed, and these details prompt questions.  Lensing in to the detail on one of these questions as part of your video, showing us the quest for answers and then revealing those answers gives us instant story.

For example, if it’s about “the memorable Ross Lake Trip” ask yourself why it was memorable.  You seem like a couple of nice guys going on a nice trip nicely.  Not memorable.  Now let’s zoom in to something you gloss over right at the start:  Your trip starts late in the day.  Now ask the questions:  Why?   Was it tough to get there from work?  Did you almost not make it?  Did you have lights or night-vision equipment at the ready?  Let’s see you setting up camp at night  What are some rules for doing that?  What are the hazards?  Did you have to eat razor clam and bacon chowder for breakfast (and, may I say, YUCH)  because in your hurry you forgot your granola?

That’s the first thing I felt like you kind of glossed over in your video.  But if that’s not the detail for you, pick another.

If you decide the most interesting thing to explore is one of your new toys, lens in to the product.  How heavy are those boats?  Why did you bring them?  Can we see you pack them?  How unsteady are they?  Were you worried?  What if you try to tip one over?  What do they cost?  How much equipment could they carry?  What if they leak?

Lensing in–  zooming to intensely question one topic– exposes  more specific areas of interest and challenge.  Which are the building blocks of a much more interesting story.

Back to School Video

At my house we have a back to school video tradition.  Every year on the first day of school, my wife makes the kids pose on the front porch for pictures.  They’ve complained and whined about it since they were 3, but they also like to look back and see how they’ve changed.

Now let’s take the tradition a little farther—how about a quick video interview on the first day of school every year?  You can not only see, but hear how they’ve changed.

The passage of time in video is its own story.  What other video traditions can you create for your family?

Limited Resources for Shooting Video

I am an absolute video newbie and am now filming my Church’s small service on Sundays.

I have a basic camcorder, but our resources are few.  There is lots of movement and many things/events happening unexpectedly that are important to capture. I can’t position my self centrally in front of the speaker due to the arrangement of the chairs, so I have been filming him from the side.

I want to do a good job of this.  Any advice?


Limited resources.  If I had a dollar for every time I heard a filmmaker whine about limited resources, I still wouldn’t have all the money I wanted for my next project.

Nobody does.  Resources are always limited.  There isn’t a filmmaker alive who doesn’t wish for more money, more equipment, or more time than they’ve been given.  A director on a $10 million film wishes she had another million.  A teacher in a video class wishes for an aide and two more cameras for the big student project.  James Cameron probably even has days when he wishes he had more money.  Okay, maybe not James Cameron.  But for everyone else, we can’t always get what we want.

In your case, there’s no money. There’s only one camera. Chairs are in the way. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. You can’t always be in the right place at the right time.

Start by prioritizing. Think about why you’re doing the video.  For example, if you’re shooting so that those physically unable to come to church can see the service, your priorities are different than if you’re trying to make short segments to promote the church on YouTube.

Next, do what filmmakers have done since time immemorial: produce resources out of thin air.  Sit with the speaker the day before to get a better sense of the schedule.  Ask a few big guys to help move the chairs so you can get as close to the speaker as possible. Beg a friend for a tripod. Put an article in the church newsletter about your work, and ask who in the congregation shoots video. Team up to shoot with two or more cameras, then find the congregation’s resident geeky editor and edit the result.

Great producers can always figure out a way.  It’s one of the jobs of filmmaking.  The more you practice asking for what you need, based on key priorities, the better your work will become.

Brew Dogs is Back!

Another 10 episodes of our hit show Brew Dogs starts this Wednesday, June 25 at 9pm on the Esquire Network.  If you like beer, travel, food or amusing Scottish people, this is your show.

Please tell all your friends immediately.  And if you’d like to show them how hip you truly are, you can watch the premiere episode early– right here, right now!

*******UPDATE:  There was a free preview here at the beginning of the season.  But it’s gone now.  You can still catch up on all things Brew Dogs here — including complete episodes for free if you have Esquire on your cable net.********

It’s a great show that I’m really proud of being a part of.  Hope you enjoy it!