How to Create Videos That Don’t Suck

Evening on the lake

Heads up that Chelsea and I are heading south to San Diego this week for a wedding. Afterward, we’ll drive up the California coast in December. If you’re in the area and want to hang out, shoot us an email!

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We all know good video when we see it. The creator’s process and methods are less obvious. Luckily, there are techniques we can all apply. 

Enter the excellent book How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck by Steve Stockman. (His blog is great too.) It’s Amazon’s top-rated book on cinematography and is written in a clear, engaging and fun style. This isn’t for people who went to film school – it’s for engineers like me who studied differential equations in college instead of filming raucous Mardi Gras parties “for class.”

From filming your kid’s birthday party to creating paid work, I think we can all benefit from thinking about how to structure our videos. I read the book and took notes about key points to help crystallize the concepts, which then morphed into this blog post.

As the author says, the opposite of a good video isn’t bad. It’s off. As in turned off, the viewer’s attention gone. I hope the below tips help you avoid someone clicking on the latest cat video instead of watching your hard-wrought efforts.

How to Make Your Video Instantly Better

    1. Think in shots – Treat a segment of video like a writer would a sentence. Subject + Action = Interesting. Instead of “dog,” try “dog chases tail.” Tell a story in each shot and think about why the shot matters and what it contributes to the overall theme.
    2. Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes. The Coen brothers can shoot sweeping landscapes for the big screen. Aiming for the same with a Youtube video turns mountains into pimples and beautiful lakes into puddles. People make stories interesting; shooting close-up catches their emotions.
    3. Keep your shots under 10 seconds long The human brain is wired to look around. “This view is nice…but watch for saber tooth tigers!” screams our subconscious. If you put your camera on a tripod and pan back and forth across a scene 1,726 times, don’t expect people to do anything except grab a sharp pencil to gouge out their eyes. Mix shots up. Keep them interesting with different angles.

      Even peeling paint can be interesting with the right perspective. (Ghost town of Bannack.)

      Even peeling paint can be interesting with the right perspective. (Ghost town of Bannack.)

    4. Zoom with your feet – Don’t use the zoom on your lens. It’s going to be shaky, shitty and stuttered. Instead, walk up to what you want to film (grizzly bears in Yellowstone excluded) and shoot it wide-frame and steady.
    5. Stand still, stop fidgeting, and no zooming during shots – Sounds easy, but I find it to be exactly the opposite. This requires setting intent for shots and feeling confident enough to let the shot unfold without excess camera manipulation.
    6. Keep the light behind you – Cameras can’t handle multiple exposures (i.e. bright light outside and dim inside), so they default to the brightest light. Interviewing your sweet, gentle grandma in front of a back lit window makes her look like a shadowy serial killer. Keep the light behind you!
    7. Turn off the camera’s digital effects – Shoot clean and natural video. You can always add effects later if it makes sense.
    8. Focus on what really interests you – If you’re shooting something that bores you, it’s going to show the same way writing “stamp collecting” just made me yawn. Pick a topic that intrigues you and dive in.
    9. Use an external microphone – The mike built into cameras picks up and amplifies all ambient noise, be it your interviewee’s voice, wind or the sound of trucks downshifting. A $25 clip-on microphone will do wonders for the audio quality.
    10. Don’t use amateurish titles – If titles are needed, keep them short. No fancy motion. Just words that stay on the screen slightly longer than it takes to read them out loud. Then get back to making a video.
    11. Keep your video short – Think about the way feature films can distill an entire lifetime into two hours. The author’s advice: Estimate how long you want the movie to last, then cut two-thirds of it. Then review again and remove your least favorite shots. Like good writing, good video conveys information and emotion clearly and concisely.

My biggest takeaway from Stockman’s book? Shoot with intent. Don’t just point the camera and wait for magic results. Plan ahead and make a shot list of scenes you want to capture. Whether it’s for a wedding, sports event, or interview, the final result will be better.

Here’s to upping the game and creating some inspiring, moving, fun, informational and badass videos!

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