How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

How to Make a How-To Video that Works: Part I

How do I create a series of online class videos that are How-to’s, but creative and interesting, while also teaching?

My upholstery course videos are pretty wide shot/closeup. I know I can do better.  I’ve asked every video and film maker I know if they can think of a clever technique for doing these classes. They’re all going to get back to me on that. (ha!)

–Shelly Leer

Before we get to the “creative” how-to video, let’s look at the basics- the marks a how-to video must hit.

How-to videos helped me save $200 replacing my own sump pump, figure out how my smoke alarm worked, and remove a tumor with a pencil.  Okay, not that last one.  But they’re invaluable when you need them.  “Need” being a key word.

We come to a “how-to” video in extreme need of information. And we are very grateful when our need is satisfied. This makes “how-to” videos great brand image builders for “the helpful plumbing supply company,” “The easy-to-use-smoke-alarm source” or “The ultimate surgical pencil company.”  Help your customers, “Shelly, the furniture-building teacher” and they’ll remember you.

The trick to making how-to videos work better is in the balance between these two goals:  get the information to the customer fast, and add just enough of your own personality and world-view to make it memorable and entertaining.

Your video, posted below, is a good basic how-to. You inspired this list of how-to make how-to videos better:

  1. Plan your information into bite-sized videos. Re-building a helicopter engine takes days.  But nobody will sit through a sixteen hour video of the whole process. I only want to see the stuff I’m not sure how to do.  If I want “how to replace the coolant,” I shouldn’t have to sit through 10 minutes on “how to machine pistons” to get to it. Your video should last as long as it takes to get this one piece across. If I need another piece, I will look for it in another video.
  2.  Get to the point. If we’re learning a crochet stitch, get right to the stitching. Please don’t bore me with a three minute introduction to a process that only takes 2 minutes to do. If I need special needles, or a certain kind of yarn, let me know. Otherwise, the words “Here is step 1” should be in the first 10 seconds.
  3. Stick with a Structure:  For example:
    (a) Here’s the first step to doing the thing.
    (b) You might notice these points as you’re doing this step so as not to break a part, gouge out an eye, or blow up the house.
    (c) Here is a VERY SHORT observation or joke that adds information the viewer can use.
    (d) Here is the next step.
    Delete (b) or (c) if you have nothing to say.  Keep everything tight.
  4. Show us closeups of the important stuff.  How-to videos need to show me how to, not just tell me. Get right in on the operation. Make sure it’s lit well and easy to see.
  5. Resist redundancy. During week one at my first professional radio job, my boss went over a tape of my show.  His first piece of advice: “Anything you say after the word ‘so…’ is redundant.”  So just stop talking whenever you get the urge to say it (see what I did there?)
  6. Edit. Cut the bad stuff. Cut the mediocre stuff. Cut the stuff that’s good, but feels kinda long to you now that you’re looking at it again.


In Part II we deal with Shelly’s question “Can how-to videos be creative?”

Perfect Holiday Video in 10 Easy Steps

Ah, the Holidays!

Chestnuts roasting, noses being nipped, and hours of incomprehensible video being shot of people you can’t see or hear all that well doing…I don’t know…something near a fireplace.

Each year web sites, magazines and newspapers publish millions of column-inches on cooking perfect holiday turkey, and virtually no column inches on shooting perfect holiday video.  Which seems wrong in that burned turkey lasts 4 days, but tedious holiday video is forever.

Fear not!  Your video doesn’t have to suck.  Here’s my checklist of the 10 steps you can follow to perfect Holiday Video.  (For even more detail, click on the embedded links):

1) Think about your story.  Stories have a beginning, middle and end.  “The night we got our Christmas Tree” starts with the family piling into the car, THEN shows us the kids walking through the tree lot checking out the Douglas firs, and FINALLY Mom finding that one perfect tree and everyone agreeing.  Beginning, middle and end.  Just thinking about how your story goes— before you shoot it– will make your video better.

2)  Shoot Action.  Every shot in your video should have a noun and a verb, just like those sentences Mrs. Cooper taught you about in 3rd grade. “Sarah whisks the gravy” is a shot. “Sarah” without action?  That’s a photograph.

3)  Shoot short shots.  You don’t need 30 seconds of Uncle Larry snoring in front of the TV after Thanksgiving dinner. Five seconds is enough to get the point.  Which is my point: when nothing else is going to happen, it’s time to end your shot.  Practice shooting 5 or 10 seconds (of action, remember?) at a time.

4)  Shoot for the face.  Home video is always about people.  Everyone you know will look totally different in 5 years.  Make sure you capture who they are now.  As a bonus, faces are where emotion lives.  If you want to really feel your video 5 years from now, show us your relatives’ faces– well lit and close up.

5)  Zoom with your feet.  Zooming in from far away makes your shots look shaky. Walk closer to your subjects and zoom out (stay wide).  The other advantages:  1) being closer to the action involves you and the viewer in the action, and 2) the sound on your camera mic is always better closer.

6)  Pay attention to that little video window on the back of the camera. If it looks bad when you shoot it, it will not magically look better when you watch it later.  If someone’s face is too dark, move until your camera finds the light.  If they’re out of focus, fix it.  If you don’t like the way the frame looks, re-frame. Now.

7)  Interview your relatives.  We often forget to interview people at family gatherings.  But kids say the darndest things– things you’ll want to remember (and play back to embarrass them at their wedding) when they’re adults.  Grandmas say the darndest things too. And so does anyone who’s been hitting the Holiday Cheer.  Frame your questions so they don’t yield one-word answers.  “Are you excited to get presents?” gets you a nod. “What do you think about Santa Claus?” gets you a story.

8)  Represent your kids. They may be too young to shoot their own video now, but in a few years they’ll watch yours to help fill in their memories.  They’ll want to know more about Grandpa, they’ll want to see what their little friends looked like then, they’ll want to see that long-gone doll when they opened their Christmas presents.  Great video with lots of detail is one gift that costs nothing.

9) Don’t shoot the boring stuff.  If you’re bored shooting it, you and everyone else you inflict it on later will be bored watching it.

10)  Change your point of view.  Put your camera on the ground in front of the fireplace and shoot back at the living room.  Shoot on your knees at kid height.  Put a GoPro on top of the tree.  Or in the refrigerator.  Get creative.  Have fun!

Of course you’re buying a print copy of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck for the video person in your family– but did you know the audio version is out now


Story Structure and “Arrival”

The Story Structure of "Arrival" (2016)

William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Princess Bride) wrote in his classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade that “screenplays are structure.” Because Goldman is a writing god, people listened.

They listened, but they may not have heard well. Goldman was saying that structure was necessary to a screenplay, but he wasn’t saying it was sufficient.  Yet many took Goldman’s point, misunderstood, and ran with it, pitching structure-first as the key to writing film.  Luckily, it mostly worked anyway, because most film beginners– and many professionals– fail to focus on a hero and a clear beginning, middle and end.

But here’s what Goldman never meant: He did not mean that simple, formulaic adherence to story structure rules was the ultimate endpoint to the art of film. He did not mean that movies should be about their structure.

But that’s where we’ve come to with most American franchise films.  A story structure you can set your watch to.  Reluctant, flawed hero is forced in act 1 to– at the 20 minute mark– take up arms; for the next 60 minutes to fight the villain and fail at the end of act 2; and in act 3 spend 30 minutes blowing up a boatload of buildings and saving the world. These films don’t just round the story bases, they stop on each one and have a picnic.

Making a movie about its own story structure has some advantages. You can tell where you are if you tune in in the middle. You can see the plot “twists” coming for minutes, so you feel smart.  It’s safer financially too, since simple stories sell better in other languages. It’s a win/win for everyone.  Kind of.  Because it’s also insanely boring.

The most artfully made superhero movies, like Marvel’s enjoyable Dr. Strange, combat boredom by hiding their rote story beats under millions of dollars in great acting, great joke-writing and beautifully crafted special effects. Yes, they blow up the world in act 3, but the “how” is smart and fun to watch (and in this case, backwards). But underneath the exciting ride, Dr. Strange is still traditionally structure-forward. Every question is nailed down, resolved and put away until the sequel. There’s not much of it still in your brain when you leave the theater.

This brings us to the lesson of Arrival, a brilliant new sci-fi film starring Amy Adams, directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on a Ted Chiang short story.  Arrival isn’t about its structure. Instead, the structure serves the filmmaker’s inquiry, holding up what it’s really about: ideas. The film lightly touches the bases as it heads toward home instead of stomping on them. It even screws with its own structure, re-ordering it and playing on your franchise-film expectations to create tension and surprise.

Story structure 101 would say that Arrival is about a professor of linguistics (the hero) who is called in to translate for visiting aliens (beginning).  Traitors at the top-secret military base and a potential mis-translation of the alien’s language (middle) threaten to cause the humans on earth to attack the aliens, and each other (end.)  Each of those beats shows up on screen, and in a normal studio movie, that’s all that would.  Big battles, ratcheted up tension. But Arrival isn’t about its structure.

Overlaid on this basic structure is the story of a woman who raises a daughter with a fatal disease.

Overlaid on that is the story of a woman learning a new language even though its screwing with her brain.

Overlaid on that is the story of a woman confronting the military.

Overlaid on that is the story of a relationship between a man and a woman who meet, have a child, and then split up.

Overlaid on that is the story of aliens teaching humans that time doesn’t really work the way they think it does.

Story on story on story, beautifully interwoven in a screenplay by Eric Heisserer. The stories connect and cross, each with its own clear structure. Some take place in flashes from another time and place, so they’re not in order. In some, the director blows by the story beat so subtly you wonder if you missed it.  But you didn’t: he takes a tired “ticking time bomb” beat and, to great effect, practically ignores it. In a normal studio film it would be a 15 minute setpiece with accelerating editing and tense military music. You won’t find any of that here.  But the result of all this sure-footed interweaving of story is that we feel secure.  The film takes us on a journey.  Supported, we willingly go along, even if we don’t understand all of it.  The not-knowing is called intrigue. It pulls us in, and makes us wonder.

What it makes us wonder about are three important questions: First, scientists tell us that when you learn another language, your brain restructures itself to think differently.  What happens if you learn a non-human language?  Two: What if physicists are right, and time doesn’t flow the way we think it does?  And three: Is a life worth living if you know how its going to end?

These are important questions.  We care during the film, and we care afterward. The questions hold us in our seats, and give us something to think and talk about after the film.  Making a movie about it’s own structure is reductive, boring, and closes the door on a deeper interaction with the film. A movie that asks questions about our world is magic.

In an era where intrigue is the currency of modern entertainment, which should you do with your videos?  The answer depends on how ambitious you are.  First, be good at basic structure. Please. But once you are, use it to raise important questions.  And remember there’s nothing more intriguing than an inquiry into what it really means to be human.

As you might suspect, I think you should go out and see Arrival. Like, now. Then comment below, or tweet your thoughts @stevestockman.

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 major — 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 to a film major at 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 major or not– isn’t nearly as important to your filmmaking career 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 they have time to relax and be themselves.  Truth always plays better on TV.

5.  Don’t be rigid.  Flexibility makes your subjects more comfortable and more attentive.  You can both relax into a nice back and forth, following the conversational angles of interest.  This brings out your interviewees’ unique ways of looking at the world. 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 interview subjects, just bad directors.  Okay, that’s not entirely 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.