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How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

Do I Need to Know the Act Breaks in a Movie?

I’m from Poland. Sorry, for my English. I read your article about Arrival after seeing the movie. I was wondering about three-act structure of this movie. Could you tell me in which minute – in your opinion – are the act breaks for act I, II and III? I’m have a trouble to do this. For me:

I act ends at 41 min – after Louise return from the spaceship – “kangaroo” scene

II act = 92 min – after they get in contact with aliens

III act is about stopping China from attack on aliens

What do you think? Is it good understanding?

Michał

Great job on the English, Michal, and a good question. I can’t answer it, I’m afraid, but explaining why not leads us to another great question: Why is “three act structure” still a thing at all?

Applying a three-act structure to screenplay analysis was popularized by Syd Field. His book Screenplay launched the “how to write a screenplay” book business over 40 years ago. It’s a perennial best-seller, and has plenty of fans. My sense is that most fledgeling screenwriters buy a copy, and that most pros haven’t looked at theirs since they were just starting out. There’s a reason for that.

Field’s observations about how classic Hollywood films are structured opened the eyes of many new writers about story, but it confused even more of them. Finish Screenplay and, for a time, you’ll be obsessed about which page act breaks are on, and where the “plot points” are and on what page the “inciting incident” happens. Which, per your question, can seriously confuse people. (screenwriters don’t love numbers, generally speaking).

The book also gave formula-loving film executives license to become “story experts” on the structure of your film. (Are we 20 minutes in? Must be the end of Act 1!) In the first decade or so after the book came out you could set your watch by the beats of big commercial films– if you were still awake enough to check it.

Field was right that screenplays are a unique art form. Screenplays are structure- though he also wasn’t the first to say that– (William Goldman was. More about him in a moment.)

But it’s not helpful to pretend that screenwriting is as rigid a form as, say, haiku. All stories need a beginning, middle and end, but you don’t have to write too many screenplays to realize that page numbers don’t magically tell you where to turn a plot. As the writer, you need to deeply understand what structure works for an individual story, and for your particular way of telling it.

Field confuses new writers because it’s a super-simple formula applied to something that’s really very complex. Screenplays always tell more than one story, and each story has its own beginning, middle and end that don’t align themselves to made-up page numbers. The more complicated those stories become, the harder and more pointless is it to try to hang your film on a mechanical formula.

Since I’ve written a lot here about Arrival, let’s use a different example and try to find the “act breaks” in The Princess Bride:

The Princess BrideWilliam Goldman’s script, expertly directed by Rob Reiner, is of course about a Grandfather who tries to win the love of his sick 10-year-old grandson. Oh– that’s not the story you remember from the film? Hmmm.

Okay. The Princess Bride is about a man who as a young boy saw his father killed by a six-fingered man and now seeks revenge. No? Try this: It’s about the Dread Pirate Roberts, coming ashore to find his successor and pass down the business. Or a woman so convinced she’ll never love again that she decides to kill herself. Or a corrupt Prince trying to start a war, or a Hero rescuing his former love from the clutches of said Prince.

Or maybe The Princess Bride tells the sweeping tale about a poor servant boy who falls in love with a rich girl, loses her when he’s kidnapped and she agrees to marry a prince, finds her again and rescues her, reveals himself to her and rescues her again, loses her again when he’s captured, almost dies, and then finds her and rescues her yet again. That, by the way, is seven acts, not three.

The Princess Bride is about all of these stories, all at the same time. As an exercise, I recommend tracing each story through the brilliant script and see how they work in the overall film. The beginnings of most of these stories happen somewhere in the first 30 pages, although the Six-Fingered Man doesn’t get a mention until page 34. The main love story starts on page 4, then lies dormant for 44 pages before the boy and girl reunite on page 48– and, as mentioned, has 7 acts. More surprises await you– check it out!

Then do the same thing with Arrival, which is even more complicated because it has at least 6 main stories centering just on Amy Adams’ character and which may or may not have something to do with one another. And they all jump around in time throughout the film. Which means you see things at the beginning of the film that tell the ends of some big stories– only you don’t realize that until the end of the film. We’re talking “bending the spacetime continuum” complex.

Where the “acts”  break in a film isn’t a fact, it’s a discussion. Your analysis of Arrival is fine, from one point of view. But I could argue 12 other POVs with you over beers. That’s a good thing, because (a) beer, and (b) we would deepen our understanding of how to construct a film and why Arrival works.

To make a film or video, you need to understand its story(s) well enough to see and feel the how it affects the audience. What is each character’s goal? How do they start, what do they do in the middle? Do they get what they want or not, and why is that the right thing to happen? How does this character’s story relate to this other character’s story? What happens when they meet?  That’s important. Which page is the “Inciting incident”? Not so much.

Story structure– beginning, middle, and end– is a critical tool in film and video. But only because it helps us with what we really care about: Does my story feel right? Will the audience enjoy the ride?

Beyond that, don’t look for rules in art. There aren’t any.

 

PS: Did you know you can buy the Polish translation of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck wherever fine Polish-language books are sold? Did you also know that I have no control over foreign-language covers? Now you do.

Polish Language version of "how to shot video that doesn't suck"

Adding a Story After the Shoot

I bought your book last Saturday and have already read most of it!  I have a question about creating a story for a book-signing that I shot on Saturday to promote my friend’s new book.

Using your story formula, I know my hero is the author. But what’s the story? Should the video tell the story of how she breaks into a new genre of writing?  Or should it focus on the story of her book?  I’m confused.

Can you help me get to step two with my video?

Babs Hogan
Arlington, TX

Thanks for reading the book, Babs. Great that you happened to be shooting at a bookstore!

The “formula” you’re talking about isn’t really mine.  It’s some guy named Aristotle. He said that every story has to have a hero, a beginning, middle and end.  And you can use his simple story structure no matter what story you want to tell.

Even though you’ve already shot your footage, it will still make a better video if you find a story. Story functions as an “organizing principle,” helping us arrange our thoughts in a way that makes them easier to share and easier for others to remember. You aren’t the first to have a pile of footage in front of you without a clear story– half the reality shows on television are built that way. And yes, it’s better to know your story up front because it will guide your planning, your shooting and your editing. But hey, stuff happens.

To help build story after the shoot, first load your footage into an editor and see what you have. Editing programs let you “bin” footage, or set it aside by topic, so in this first round, keep only the shots you like. No wrong answers- just do it by feel. Make three piles called (and this will shock you) “beginning”, “middle” and “end.”

Now go through each pile, cut out all the shots that you don’t like (again, just doing this by feel), and play down what’s left. As you watch, brainstorm a list of possible stories. Again, no wrong answers, just see what’s there. Are there any shots that feel great as a start? What is the footage in the middle about? What shots definitely grab you for an ending?   Brainstorm a list of story themes the footage suggests.

For example, is there a lot of footage about “an author signs books”? Maybe you shot her (beginning) arriving at the store, (middle) sitting behind the table, shaking hands and signing books, and (end) thanking the owner. Or maybe the footage shows the “author is nervous about the signing.” Did you cover her at home before the event? (beginning), hands trembling as she puts on makeup and describes her fear (middle), her arrival at the store and reluctance to even get out of the car (more middle), and (end) the smile that lights up when 50 people applaud as she’s introduced. If she gave a talk, is that a story? Can you build something around her three key points?

Once you have a theme– “Author’s Nerves” or “High School Boyfriend Shows at Book Signing” or “People Ask Authors Strange Questions”– and a few beats for beginning, middle, end, use the best of the rest of your footage to support it. If you discover multiple story options, you’ll enjoy the whole process more if you choose the one that’s most entertaining to you. You can’t go wrong– any story is better than no story.

Another tip for stories assembled in the edit: you can shoot more footage! There’s no rule preventing you from editing a story, seeing what footage you’re missing, and then going out to shoot it. TV and films do it all the time. Can you get “b-roll” by re-shooting the drive to the store, or hands taking her book out of the in-store display? Can you do a new interview with the author or the store manager? If so, focus those interviews to highlight the story your footage is now telling.

If all else fails, try this: Put the footage in chronological order. Cut out all the bad shots. Add a title. Be done. You’ll have will have a chronological beginning, middle and end for a story called “My friend’s book signing.” While it might not be Netflix-worthy, it will still be a good record of the event, fun to watch and worth posting.

Good luck!

 

Don’t Start Your Video Marketing Conversation with SEO

video marketing does not equal data managementGoogle “video marketing” and you’ll get—as of this writing—2.63 BILLION hits. That’s way more than Kim Kardashian (266 million), weed (382 million), Donald Trump (1.4 billion) and, surprisingly, porn (also 1.4 billion).

Books, articles and videos (and more videos) offer you “21 Video Marketing Tools” or “5 Super Secrets” or “8 super-successful tips” every video marketer should know, all of which revolve around data manipulation: jacking your view count, tracking prospects, a/b headline testing, the latest changes to the YouTube algorithm, and reams and reams on Search Engine Optimization schemes.

Scrolling through this mass of information, you could be forgiven for thinking that all you need to know about video marketing is how to force people to click on a video by whatever means necessary—buying views, SEO, banner ads, influencers, social media, click-bait headlines and more.

But something’s missing from this data-centric rush to get people to see your video. Our emphasis on getting clicks skips past a much more important question: What, exactly, are you asking people to watch?

80% of Americans carry tiny computers in their pockets, and they stare at them an average of 4 hours a day. Nobody watches bad video- ever- because they don’t have to. Fingers poised above the screens, smartphone users can instantly watch almost any piece of film or video ever created. People have become experts at judging, in seconds, what’s worth their attention.

You know this is true, because “people” is you. That’s your finger hovering over the screen of your phone, deciding if a video lives or dies. You’re the one clicking “skip this ad” ahead of your YouTube unboxing video, or wondering just how long this boring testimonial video about a real estate lawyer is and whether maybe instead you should watch the next episode of Stranger Things. Or this new song. Or comedy special. Or cat video.

You’re the one who takes about 3 seconds to decide if the video playing on your screen is attention-worthy. Because in today’s infinite entertainment universe, there’s always something better on.

Your video marketing content is constantly being evaluated by its audience. And it’s not being compared to content from your fellow lawyers, software companies or real estate agents. It’s being compared to stuff from Disney, NBC/Universal, Netflix, Amazon, CBS, AT&T, Fox, Discovery- and every other on and off-air network ever created. Like it or not, that’s who you compete with for attention.

If you’re starting your video marketing strategy meetings with SEO and data points, you’re doing it wrong. No matter how you trick your customers into clicking on your video, if they don’t love it they’re not going to watch it.

To get attention, you need to pay attention—to the entertainment and information needs of your audience. This is creative work, not data crunching. Start with your existing customers and on-line visitors. Work to translate into video what your brand means to them, and then give your customers something of value to watch (Hint: if you love it, you’re on the right track. And vice versa.)

There’s a right time to use data, SEO and influencers.  It’s last– after you figure out how to say something valuable to your customers. Great video marketing always starts with content.

Shooting Ratio: How Much is Enough Footage?

How do I know if I’ve shot enough footage? I hate to waste money and time, but I’m nervous I won’t get what I need for the edit.

PS: Absolutely love your book! I’ve read it cover-to-cover twice now and starting my third time through.

–Jamal

Directors always shoot more than they think they need. Which means some of it will always be wasted. That’s how it’s supposed to work. It’s so normal that there’s even a name for this waste. It’s called the “shooting ratio” and it simply means the ratio between how much footage goes on screen, and how much you throw away.

For example, if you shoot a webcam video for Youtube, you might do 5 takes of your rant and cut the best parts together. That’s a 5:1 shooting ratio– 5 in the trash for every 1 on the screen.

Different projects have different shooting ratios. On the other end of the spectrum, a massive effects-driven superhero movie, with tens or even hundreds of effects layers in every shot, multiple takes from multiple angles, and reshoots ratios waaaayyy higher than you do. Some of these films are rumored to have a shooting ratio as high as 400:1.*

If you don’t have Marvel’s budget, don’t worry. In between the solo rant and the blockbuster is everything else. We might shoot 2 hours of footage to get 30 finished seconds for a national commercial– a shooting ratio of 240:1. “Normal” big-budget feature films could shoot 30:1 or 300:1 depending on how big and how effects-filled they are.

Shooting more costs more time on the set, and also more to review the footage, color it, store it, and cut it. That’s why a higher shooting ratio means greater expense. A good producer spends a lot of time thinking about shooting ratio when they’re setting up a budget, and every project is different. There is no right or wrong shooting ratio as long as you get what you need.

For reference, here are some ballpark approxi-guesses for the shooting ratios of typical film and video proejects:

Shooting ratios are different for different productions.

The main point: It’s normal to grossly overshoot. And in the real world, it rarely pays to worry about shooting too much great footage.

If you go a little over budget and get brilliant shots, the clients or network will still love you most of the time. But if you don’t get what you need for the edit, nobody will thank you for coming in under budget.

Your career goal is to learn to be both great and respectful of the budget. To do that, know your material backward and forward. Create a shot list. If you’re shooting something complicated, storyboard your scenes. Doing your homework helps both your time management and that nagging feeling you’ve forgotten something.

It also frees you up to be creative. Once you’ve got the coverage down, it’s playtime. Improvise with your actors. Let the DP do that macro shot she’s been dying to set up. Wait for the light. Try ideas that come to you. Most of it won’t work (which is fine! Shooting ratio!) but you’ve seriously upgraded your finished piece with the stuff that does.

 

* At that ratio, it would take one person watching 7 days a week, 12 hours a day for 4 months to personally see all of the footage created for Avengers:Endgame. In real life, no one person does this. Teams of assistants will separate the wheat from the chaff in what’s been shot live-action, while animators and f/x houses will only send the most-likely-to-work material to the editorial team. Of course, that’s still a lot of man hours and a lot of people to pay.

Teaching Video: Summer Stars 2019

Summer Stars campers perform live August 2019 to Andy Grammer's "Don't Give Up"

Summer Stars Campers perform live to this year’s video

I do a lot of speaking and consulting on video, but by far the most rewarding is teaching I’ve done almost every year since 2000 at Summer Stars Camp for the Performing Arts. This is the camp’s 20th Anniversary and I’ve managed to attend 17 sessions, teaching music video classes to 12-17 year-old disadvantaged kids from New York and Boston who pay nothing to attend. Much of my book comes out of my work teaching those kids.

(I’m also on the camp board, so now must suggest that you donate at www.summerstars.org)

The first step in creating a music video: immersing yourself in the music. We started our first class meeting by listening to the song we were going to shoot– the pop masterpiece “Don’t Give Up” by Andy Grammer, from the angsty teen-romance movie Five Feet Apart.  Our goal was to have students create an original piece, re-interpreting the song in a way that had nothing to do with the movie or Grammer’s video. In class, campers listened, then talked about what the song felt like to them: “Yearning” “defiance” “I’m not going to stop” “I’m coming for you.”

Since you can’t film an emotion, we discussed how we might shoot images that we hope will make people feel emotions. We played the song again, and talked about what images came to mind.

A 14-year-old boy from New York raised his hand. “It made me think of my Grandfather, and how he was deported last month.” This is so far out of my personal experience that I would never have come up with it, but the class felt it, and that’s the image we started with to develop our video. The kids not only suggested the theme, they crewed the video and performed in it.

We shot and edited the video from Tuesday to Saturday– 4 1/2 days. In the real world, I would have quoted a job like this as a couple weeks of prep, 2 12-hour shoot days (we shot it in 7 hours) plus a 3 week edit (our edit: 3 days.) Dp/editor Wes Diaz, our only other professional crew member, delivered it to the projection booth for the Saturday show with 20 minutes to curtain.

During the show, the entire camp sings a choral arrangement of “Don’t Give Up” live (arr. by Rob Goldman, who’s a genius at this sort of thing.) The video plays above them, on-screen in perfect sync. The audio you hear was recorded live during that performance.

Once again I learned so much from teaching.

Technical note: The video was performed and edited (as most music videos are) to a click-track– a rough audio track laid down for timing. During the shoot, the kids sang to the click track so their sync would be perfect. The editor edited to it. In our live performance, the click track played in the ears of the conductor and the band’s rhythm section as a tempo reference while they played live. So the band synced to the track,  the kids sang in sync to the band, which kept them in sync to the video, which was also synced to the track. You might call this “the transitive property of performance sync.” Make sense?

This is a fairly simple live performance trick, but the effect of 125 kids singing live in perfect sync to the performers and action in the video on a screen above them is amazing to watch. You can see the live performance with the singers in the picture here at minute 33:40.

 

 

There are No Fish in “The Abyss”

Still from the Abyss
State-of-the-art 1989 digital effects, but no fish.

My writing partner and I were arguing about a scene in a new screenplay. It’s a time-travel piece, and he wanted to explain all the technical steps that lead a character to have a conversation with someone from his distant past. The reason? So the audience would believe their meeting could plausibly happen.

Makes sense. If we don’t show how the machinery works, and explain exactly how the two accidentally meet over miles and eons, who will believe it? Credibility comes from detail, right?

It makes sense, but it’s totally wrong. Extreme explanatory detail in a movie is death. We want the audience to believe the story, not write a dissertation on it. If we write a film correctly, the audience happily buys it despite having to leap across vast detail-less gaps. As proof, I offer you: The Abyss.

After Aliens and a few years before Titanic, James Cameron wrote and directed a story of petroleum workers living thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. When a nuclear sub goes missing, they’re recruited by the government to help rescue it– only to find that there’s an alien life-form doing mysterious things– in The Abyss. Dum dum dum…

My favorite thing about the Abyss: it takes place almost entirely on the ocean floor, but there’s not a single fish in the movie.

Technically that’s because Cameron shot most of the underwater scenes in a giant manmade tank. It was a difficult shoot, and trying to support living animals would have made it an impossible shoot. The digital technology of the day precluded layers of composite fish. Thus no fish in this underwater movie set in the ocean.

Does the script explain? Does a scientist in a lecture hall bemoan that humans wiped out all fish life? Or that an odd magnetic field repels them in this region, now known as “the fishless void?” Nope, because that would focus our attention on the missing fish. Instead the film ignores the obvious, tells a gripping action/romance with amazing digital aliens, and we never even think about the fish.

Beyond the normal audience suspension of disbelief (“For the next three hours, I will accept the existence of the Marvel Superheroes”), all films require a high tolerance for reality violations. Why is the villain explaining so much before killing the hero? Would this romance really break up over such a minor lie? Why would a creature advanced enough to visit from another galaxy not have a foolproof way to protect itself from humans? How did those soldiers get all the way across Westeros so damn fast?

As writers, we need to remember that sometimes the art is in hiding your biggest piece of nonsense in plain sight- keeping your audience engaged while gliding right past it.

Great filmmaking is magic, and for any magician, mis-direction is a key arrow in the quiver. Figure out how little information you can get away with and give them less than that. Resist explaining. Artfully treat odd things like they’re normal, and blow past them entertainingly enough to direct audience attention elsewhere.

And the next time you get stuck on a scene with tedious explanatory detail, remember: There are no fish in the Abyss.

And in a seemingly complete contradiction: Sometimes great storytelling is ALL detail- as outlined in this post about Better Call Saul.

Toy Story: Learning to Use Video Tools

Recently I picked up a multi-rotor drone to carry my HD camera.

I’m having fun flying my drone, but now my videos feel all the same: running along a straight line, go up and take a 360, fly really low almost touching the bushes. Pretty pictures, but not really good video.

Any ideas on how to script/arrange/film better videos for subjects as simple as “last weekend with friends”?

–Ed

Basic drones are mostly good for scene setting and beauty shots. Think fireworks from inside the blasts; an establishing montage of New York City between segments on a TV show; or a high shot of the OK Corral before the gunfight starts.

Drones can be breathtaking for video, but they can also be limiting if they’re used the same way all the time. There is only so much information the tops of people’s heads can communicate.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Okay, it might not have been Lincoln– maybe Socrates. But what he meant was this: you have a cool toy. It may not be the best tool for the job, but you’re so excited about it that you use it anyway. With boring results.

Worse, getting locked into the hammer/nail thing prevents you from seeing all that a hammer can do. It can flatten chicken breast, or pry out a screw. The handle could caress someone’s back or bat a ball. Twenty hammers, welded together, might make a great sculpture. It’s easy to get stuck in one use of a new video toy. Even if you have a hammer, there’s no reason to just pound things.

Which brings me to some general guidelines for using cool video tools the best way possible:

The tool serves the story. The story doesn’t serve the tool. What tale are you telling? You’re communicating in very different language about a christening when you shoot from high up in the ceiling of the church than if you’re on a tight close-up of an adorable baby. Is this an intimate, warm moment, or the climax of The Godfather?

Improve your tool-craft: If you’re feeling trapped by drone moves, it’s you, not the drone. In the hands of a trained pro, drones will blow your mind.

Try using your drone as a static crane, or a low angle dolly. Pick up a tracking unit to lock your drone a moving subject for exciting traveling shots. Choreograph a moving shot from street level to a 10th floor window as part of a scripted piece.  The old “fly and look” is just a small part of what it can do.

Practice my “50 Ways to Shoot One Thing” exercise with your drone and see if you can break out of your drone shot rut.

Do you need the tool at all? The Academy Award-winning doc Free Solo looks like it used drones, but it didn’t. Drones are illegal in national parks. If the filmmakers had had their hearts set on using drones, they might have given up on the film.

Resist the temptation to only use the tool: “Friends at a cookout” doesn’t scream drone to me. I want to be on the ground with your friends, or on macro lenses seeing super-closeups of delicious food (or barbecue disasters- I’ve had both.) Use the drone for what it’s good for, and shoot most of your story with a more human-friendly camera.

Ed asked a great question. Do you have a great question? Ask it here.