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How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck

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!

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. In fact, that’s exactly 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.

On the other end of the spectrum is a massive effects-driven superhero movie, with tens or even hundreds of effects layers in every shot, multiple takes from multiple angles, reshoots and more. 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.

Because it costs money not just to shoot, but to input, color, review and cut all that footage, usually a higher shooting ratio means greater expense. But it’s not a strict correlation: a network drama could cost more than a reality show because the talent and shooting style cost more, even if the reality show shoots more. The latter’s high ratio comes from using multiple cameras and letting them run long on (a cheap to operate) set.

There is no right or wrong shooting ratio- as long as you get what you need. The more you shoot, the more you’ll start to feel your particular style. Even though there are no rules, here are my ballpark approxi-guesses for much of what you typically will see on screen:

Shooting ratios are different for different productions.

The main point is this: Worry more about undershooting than overshooting. Assume you will trash MOST of what you shoot. If you are not grossly overshooting, you’re doing it wrong.

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.

To be both great and respectful of the budget, 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)

This year in our first class meeting, we listened to the song we were going to turn into a music video– 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. Campers talked about what the song felt like: “Yearning” “defiance” “I’m not going to stop” “I’m coming for you.”

Then we talked about the fact that since you can’t shoot emotions, our job was to 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, which is a rough track laid down for timing. The kids sang to the click track during shooting, and the editor edited to it. In live performance, the click track played in the ears of the conductor and the band’s rhythm section as a tempo reference. 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 while kids on screen sing in perfect sync is amazing to watch. You can see the live performance with the kids 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.

The Power of Story Booklet: Free Download!

Talking about “Story” scares people.  

That’s because screenwriting books are filled with stuff like “three act structure,” “inciting incidents,” “act 2 turns” and “petting the dog.” Let me save you some time: it’s all jargon you don’t need to know.  Story is simple: all you need is hero, beginning, middle and end.

Adding or strengthening story makes all film and video better– whether you’re shooting birthday parties  or scripted films with actors.

So I’ve put together this super-simple guide, The Power of Story, excerpted from the world’s best-selling cinematography book. And you can have it instantly!

Get The Power of Story below– free! Twelve pages, no jargon, and exercises you can try right away.  There’s no registration required. After you download, feel free to share the link with your story-challenged friend.

Cover of "The Power of Story" by Steve Stockman
Download this free excerpt just by clicking- no registration required!


Better Call Saul: The Devil is in the Details

There is no better show on television than AMC’s Better Call Saul, from Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, ex of Breaking Bad. All four seasons are spectacular, but if you haven’t watched (or even if you have) it’s worth considering what makes it great.  Great writing and acting, sure, but for me the best part of Better Call Saul is that every shot, every sequence, every episode is about intrigue- built by lensing in to the details.

Season 1, Episode 1 doesn’t start with anything as obvious as an establishing shot of a shopping mall, or a freeway sign saying “Welcome to Omaha.” Nor does it give us a clue as to who the main character is, or where we are. Instead, the black and white opening shot is a hand slathering something creamy on a surface.  We don’t know if it’s vertical or horizontal, what the substance is, or what it means that the picture is black and white.

It takes a full ten minutes of detail after detail to tell us that Saul Goodman, hero of the series, has renamed himself “Gene,” is now working at a Cinnabon in Omaha.  He’s hiding, in fear for his life, but desperately misses the man he used to be.  We learn all this with static, detail-focused shots, and not a single word of dialogue. It’s a thing of beauty.

Better Call Saul is a master class in intrigue. Every scene in the show uses carefully layered detail to  give us just a tiny bit of information– and promise even more. That forces us to think– to participate–as shot by shot the show sinks its hook further and further into our brains. It’s like watching a jigsaw puzzle, where a small section of sky or forest or face becomes suddenly visible every few minutes.

In last week’s episode, a brand new character arrives at the airport and has to follow instructions given by burner phone. He drives to a deserted country road, where he’s forced to put his luggage next to him, put a bag over his head and stand on the side of the road. Waiting.

When we finally piece together, five minutes later, that he’s an architect on a job interview for an illegal building project, the reveal feels immensely satisfying. It’s like we did all the work of figuring it out ourselves- like we experienced all the anxiety-drenched emotion of a man with a bag over his head being dragged around Albequerque by criminals.

Details, rather than dialogue, intrigue us into caring about tortured relationships and nerve-wracking suspense. We feel the characters in a way we don’t when we’re just told about them. When a sideways glance between characters feels like a huge reveal, you know you’re being played by masters.

The lesson? Details intrigue us. They let us come to our own conclusions, making the story reveal happen inside our heads. And that makes the experience much deeper and more affecting.

How can you use extreme detail in your next shoot?