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!

The secret to story is laid out for you 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?

How to Shoot Vacation Video that Won’t Bore People to Death

Vacation video

This palm symbolizes “vacation.” It’s a long article, so I figured it needed a photo.

When I was a kid, the Armbrusters had a slide projector.  Which meant that after every vacation they took, we’d troop dutifully to their house for endless carousels of badly-shot Kodachrome slides, narrated  live.  The slide show always seemed longer than the vacation itself.  Washed-out, badly composed views of Disneyland or Paris—dotted here and there with the back of the head of someone we knew.

Today technology has changed everything.  People can record hours and hours of vacation video on a single chip.  But they don’t trap you in their living rooms anymore.  Instead they email links to their hour-long video and quiz you about how you liked it.

Who would do such a thing?  Anyone with a smartphone.  We have met the Armbrusters and they are us.

Luckily for the bore-ees, technology is also a good defense.  Today if the video’s bad, we watch 10 seconds and click off to “Family Guy.”  Then we lie to each other’s faces about how good the video was.

Oh, wait– you actually WANT people to watch your vacation video?  No problem.  Start by shooting vacation video that’s entertaining.  It’s not hard.  All you need is a little bit of thought ahead of time and the awareness that– whether it’s you, your kids or your friends– your video just may have an audience.

Here’s how to shoot vacation video that won’t bore people to death:

1)  Shoot Short Shots: A shot is like a sentence—it has a noun and a verb.  Together the noun and verb are what keep the “move” in “movies.”

On your backpacking trip a random video clip of “Bob” is not a shot.  “Bob picks up his pack” is a shot.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is a shot.  To keep your shots short, stop shooting when the action is complete.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is interesting for about 5 seconds unless Bob falls off a cliff.  So once you’ve got the action covered, be done.  We don’t need to see Bob’s back for another 30 seconds as he heads off into the distance. [more on short shots]

2)  Shoot People, Not Scenery: Think about why you’re shooting vacation video in the first place—to remember.

The Empire State Building will probably look exactly the same 10 years from now,  In case it doesn’t, thousands of great photographers have already shot it better than you can.  What makes your vacation video special is that your kids went up the Empire State Building—and your kids are going to look completely different in 10 years.

“But the scenery’s so beautiful” you say.  It is–  in person.  Video of the Grand Canyon looks great in Imax, pretty good on your 60” flat screen, and like tiny blurry garbage on your iPhone.  Unless you’re shooting Imax, best not to dwell.

Frame a great shot of the kids looking over the railing and that stunning canyon vista will look great too—in the background, where it belongs.

3)  Find the Story: Instead of random shots of the family posing on a boat, find the story of everyone getting together and taking your parents on a cruise. Have your camera ready when you surprise them with the tickets.  Interview your brother, who hates cruises but is coming anyway, armed with Dramamine and wrist-bands because he loves his parents.  Shoot your dad tearing up as he gives a speech to the group at your first big dinner on board

What’s different about your vacation?  Is it the family’s first time out of the country?  Your daughter’s first plane flight?  The Disney vacation you’ve been saving up for for 5 years?  Think before you shoot.  Tell that story.

4) Interview the Family:  Video captures not just what we look like, but how we think.  Which is perfect for that embarrassing wedding video 20 years from now.   Don’t just interview the kids. Interview your spouse, your parents, strangers you meet on the trip.  It’s a great way to capture the emotion of a moment in time.

Your five-year-old will never be 5 again. Ask her open-ended questions about what’s going on.  Let her show you, explain to you, sing to you.

5)  Shoot sparingly. If you shoot just 2 ten-second shots  in each of 8 touring hours a day, that’s almost 3 minutes of footage a day.  A week-long vacation is pushing an Armbrusturian 20 minutes—longer than anyone, including you, will actually watch.  Practice being selective.  Sure you can edit later, but will you?  And even if you do, the shorter and better your footage when you start, the less work it is.

 

Do you have questions about shooting video?  Of course you do.  Click here and ask them!

Making Your Video “Ask for the Order” Doesn’t Work

This week a post on my Linked-In feed reminded me that all good video must “ask for the order” and contain a clear “call to action.” This concept was, as far as I can tell, invented by someone in an ad agency, maybe in the ’80s, and repeated enough that many people take it as gospel. The idea is that your marketing video must tell the customer exactly what you want them to do, and then request that they do it.

Thus a TV commercial that includes the magic phrase “Buy a Toyota tomorrow and save $200!” is presumed to be way more effective than the same commercial without. If you want them to do something, you have to ask. Simple right?

Simple, except that if direct requests worked in marketing this year’s award-winning Super Bowl commercial would be 30 seconds of white letters on a black screen: “GO BUY DORITOS. NOW.” (excuse me, I’m tearing up at the thought of how perfect that would be. SNIFF. So…beautiful!)

“Asking for the order” doesn’t work because brains. Starting roughly at age 0, we each have our own. Plus our own needs, own lives, and our own goals. Just because you’ve told us to do something doesn’t mean we’ll do it. The whole concept is completely contrary to the way humans actually get things done. Here I note that nobody writes articles suggesting “asking for the order” to motivate kids or spouses.

Yet the concept still lives, mostly because it’s a great business ass-coverer. It’s easy to understand and we can point to it when we’ve done it. Which helps us keep our jobs when it doesn’t work: “We asked for the order. Look, right here: the announcer says ‘Come to our Sale.’ Audiences, man…”

For those more interested in effective video than butt-shielding, I invite you to replace “ask for the order” with a concept that’s harder to execute and less obvious: Intriguing your audience. While “Asking for the order” tries to beat the audience into action, intriguing your audience invites them to participate in your video. Intriguing videos pull you in and excite your brain. They make you wonder what’s going on, what things mean, and what will happen next. Best, they allow you space to come to your own conclusions and when you do, take action on your own.

It can be tough to explain, but intrigue at work is easy to see. An early and influential master of intrigue, Tony Schwartz, started doing ads in the 1940s. Here’s a still-brilliant anti-smoking PSA he did in 1963. Over half a century later, the spot still intrigues. You can see how it pulls you in, makes you want to know what happens next. It doesn’t ask for the order. It makes you ask yourself.

Schwartz’s book The Responsive Chord has been re-released in a new edition, and it’s a great read for anyone serious about video marketing. (Extra Intrigue Credit: check out Schwartz’s classic “Daisy” ad for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign in 1964.) Everything Schwartz wrote in 1973 is still true today. Because even though our media is new, the brains we’re trying to affect are largely the same old model.

“Asking for the order” may help you keep your job in the short term, but intrigue will actually change consumer behavior and help your company’s bottom line. It’s a little mysterious. It takes more thought. It’s harder to see and harder to measure.

But once you start watching for it, you’ll realize the best marketing videos and TV commercials (and films! and TV shows!) pull you in, engage your brain, and make you a participant.

 

Do you have a question? Is it about video? Would you like to see it answered here? Please note that these are all rhetorical, and that you should ask your questions here.

Video in the Classroom: Free Downloadable Lessons

Are you a teacher?  Do you know a teacher?  Have you ever had a teacher?  If so, read on:

It’s the beginning of a new school year.  Which means one more year of school projects shot on video, and hours of misery for the teachers who have to watch them. Shouldn’t classroom videos be fun?  For everyone?

If only there was a way to improve your students’ video literacy, and make student video more watchable.  Like, say, a set of downloadable lessons that could turn students into little Steven Spielbergs in a few short hours.  And wouldn’t it be great if those downloadable lessons were absolutely free?

Well, they are.  We’ve put together 5 free, totally self-contained one-hour lessons to take the misery out of classroom video projects. Teach one or teach them all.  If you teach all five, your students’ videos will be 100% better.  Or at least shorter.  Which is also usually better (see lesson 5).

Click this link to download the Video Bootcamp PDF.  100% Free.  Nothing to buy, no email address to leave, no hoops to jump through.

Please tweet or email the link to your favorite teacher!

downloadable lessons

 

 Teachers:  Questions on how to use video in the classroom?  Ask them here!

Tricks to Storify Your Travel Video

I shoot videos and landscapes when I travel overseas. Obviously, I cannot shoot to a script or have much of a plan, since this is an unplanned vacation.

How would I construct a story from random scenes in Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna, Budapest, etc?  Usually I end up with a string of shots without any story. This is not what you recommend in your book.

My friend Wendy will be travelling with me, but how could I include her in the video? Shots of her looking at the Danube from Buda and from Pest don’t seem to have much interest. Shooting her eating sauerkraut, etc. wouldn’t cut it either.

Any ideas?

–John

What’s great about your question is that you know there should be a story to your video, you just don’t know how to get to it. Which leads us to this: how do we “storify” video when we can’t plan?

To come up with ideas, let me suggest variations on the idea of brainstorming. Examine your shooting situation by asking questions of yourself in different ways. Then make quick lists of ideas (in your head or on paper), choose the best one(s), and shoot.  Here are a few methods to help you storify fast:

Lens in:  There’s a whole post elsewhere about the idea of looking closer at the details of what you’re shooting to find story. If you become extremely interested in what you see, “zooming in” like a lens does (only, you know, metaphorically), your audience will be fascinated by your interest.

What if you become intensely interested in Wendy eating sauerkraut? What utensil does she eat it with? What food goes with it? What is the restaurant like? Is the sauerkraut different at different restaurants? What does she love about sauerkraut? What’s her earliest memory of eating it? What does her face look like when she likes it? When she doesn’t?

If you dive in to explore one of these detailed observations- say, her earliest sauerkraut memories- you can discover a story she can tell as she samples the local cuisine.  And you wind up with a great 2 minute documentary about Wendy.

Look for the Obstacle: Every day of travel has a challenge- a place you can’t find, a new food you aren’t sure you like, strangers you meet. If you’re lucky there are physical challenges- a journey by canoe, a hike or a hang-gliding session. Try building stories around these challenges. Figure out who the hero is and think beginning/middle/end of that specific challenge.

Create a Journey: Think about each separate piece of your trip as a journey. For example, setting up your trip is a journey, from “I have an idea” to “The plane takes off.” Surprise Wendy with an unexpected gift, and track the story of getting it. Or tell the story of a single day in Pest, from wake-up to bedtime, and let chronology guide your tale.

Interview strangers: Open your circle beyond just you and Wendy. Become very interested in someone you meet. Everyone has a story- what can you learn about their lives, or the way they see the world? Seek out street food recommendations in Budapest by asking humans and shoot it. See if you can get yourself invited to a bar or party. Or just ask their view on local culture, their lives, or how they see America.

More on Travel Video here.

 

Yeah, But is it Any Good? Learning from Mediocre Video

People hate going to the movies with me. It’s not because I talk or text during films, because I religiously don’t do either. It’s what happens after the lights come up.  “That was good” says my wife. “I enjoyed it” says my daughter. “The dialogue in the battle scene in act three sounded like it was cribbed from ‘Alien'” I say. And that’s when the conversation usually slows way down.

As you get better at the film and video thing, what has happened to me may also happen to you: Your tolerance for mediocre work plummets.

Terrible is terrible. Most people can agree on that. And that rare brilliant show or film? Lots of consensus there too, at least in my family. But the mediocre middle? That’s where it’s tough.

Mediocre films and videos are full of things that obviously could have been done better. Worse, you can see exactly how– and how much better the finished product could have been. Instead of getting lost in the story, I’m getting pissed off about the art direction. The more you know about making video, the tougher it gets to watch.

That said, mediocre video is good for two things. First, you learn by critiquing. And second, it’s a hothouse of great ideas.  You can steal everything they didn’t do right and do it right in YOUR next video.

With that in mind, let’s consider how to critique what you watch. This will be fun if you go to the movies with a bunch of directors, less fun with relatives. I’ll leave it to you how much to discuss over drinks:

OVERALL: Big picture–was watching it better than doing something else, or did I want my hour back? Was I lost in the experience, or did I check the time a lot? This is a big one, because no matter how we might nit-pick, if it worked, it worked. And that has to be appreciated. But if you did zone out- when, exactly? Can you figure out why?

STORY: What was the hero’s journey? Did things happen because of choices the hero made, or because a screenwriter was manipulating their way to a conclusion? What about the hero felt (emotionally) real? What did I not buy?

INTRIGUE: Was I actively wondering what would happen next? Was I worried about the hero? Did I figure things out before they happened, so that I felt like I was ahead of the movie? Did the filmmakers drop clues that kept me interested along the way?

AFTER: Did the film leave me with something? After “the end” was I still processing? If it’s a TV show or video, was I ready to dive into the next episode, or did I click to the another show in my queue?

FUTURE IMPROVEMENT: Critiquing film and video shouldn’t (just) be a blood sport- let’s give credit where credit is due and learn from other peoples’ perspectives. What did the filmmaker do that I would never have thought of? What did they do that was way better than the way I would have done it? What can I steal that will improve my work?

There’s no Official Board of Film to rule on whether or not your opinions are right. Think what you like and learn what you can to make your next project better. Owning and defending your opinion (if your family can stand it) is a great learning exercise in and of itself.