How to Create a Great Video - a Simple Guide on How to Shoot Home Movies with a Camcorder

So you have bought a camcorder and have shot some footage, but truthfully you don't much like the results. Maybe I can help. My advice is based on ten years of looking over people's shoulders at my business, the Video Kitchen in Louisville Kentucky, where people transfer old home movies, duplicate video tapes they've shot, and edit their raw footage. My staff and I see a lot of mistakes being made. Other times we see exciting footage shot by an amateur who claims to have no education in the art of videography. What makes the difference? Lots of things. I'll cover a few of the biggest issues here.

Let's start with a test: What's the easiest thing to teach a kid to do? Is it to feed itself, to go to the bathroom in the toilet, to walk, to talk? . . . No, none of those answers are the one I am looking for. Here's a clue: What do most kids do for more than 20-hours each week? Sleeping doesn't count. OK, here's the answer I'm looking for: The easiest thing to teach a kid to do is watch TV. As the kid grows up, how much time to we spend teaching him or her to create TV? How much time was spent teaching you how to create TV? Not much.

Many years ago, when I first started taking home movies, the firms, such as Kodak, that sold film came with instructions how to make good movies. Then, when you got your film back from the processing lab, you might find the dreaded "It's not my fault" note telling you how you screwed up with advice how to do better next time. Not so with today's video equipment -- you're on your own. Maybe a family member will suggest your video is lacking, but most likely everyone will watch in stunned silence and politely thank you for the experience as they excuse themselves to get some fresh air or go get a drink.

The learning curve for shooting video is similar to learning how to cook -- rarely does a beginner produce a gourmet meal, but we all know what tastes dreadful and what is truly gourmet. This makes learning how to "cook up" great videos intellectually exciting. What looks trivial -- just push the red button -- really isn't. There is much more to it than that, just as getting a great meal out without burning half of it and serving the other half cold and undercooked can be a huge challenge for the beginner (and even some of us who have been doing it for years).

Fortunately for the rebellious souls among us, the rules for shooting great videos are not cast in stone -- you can do rude things and your audience may love it, just as a great chef may burn and over-pepper a fish and sell it as "blackened" to an appreciative audience. But you really should know the rules of the game before you start breaking them -- you need to know how to use your tools and what happens when you push things to the limit.

Put a video camera in the hands of a teenage boy and one of the first things he will do is shoot a bunch of footage in near darkness. Put the same camera in the hands of his teenage sister and one of the first things she will do is turn the camera sideways and upside down. Such fun -- just let me out of the room when we have to view this junk -- it's roughly equivalent to a child baking his or her first cake with it's soggy middle and chocolate all over the kitchen.

Most of us struggled through 12 or more years of school where we were required to create essays for evaluation by our teachers. Back the papers would come with red marks all over them correcting grammar, spelling and suggesting that we didn't really get our point across. A lot of years and a lot of essays later we might feel comfortable putting words on paper.

This isn't the case for creating video. Some schools offer a course or two but rarely have the poor teachers been taught anything about the subject, so how are they supposed to pass much knowledge on to their students? At best the system turns out budding newscasters, great for TV stations who can pick the prettiest face from a huge oversupply of kids who want to chase policemen, but not really useful for all the other commercial and artistic opportunities that are showing up as video moves to hundreds of cable channels, shows up on PC's and soon will be everywhere on the Internet. For examples, visit our web page at http://www.videokitchen.com

This booklet is not for those who want to shoot video commercially. Most people (by a huge factor) simply want to create good videos for fun and family just as many of us who aspire to be great chefs have absolutely no intention of ever darkening to door of the kitchen in a commercial restaurant. Unlike great or bad meals, however, a video will likely be around for many years and in some cases will be viewed by generations of unborn grandchildren who may judge you unfairly if your video-making skills are inferior.

So now I've scared you a little, I don't want you to run from your video camera. Instead I hope you feel challenged to jump in and start to master the subject. Like any subject, your skills improve with practice, practice, practice. You are in control. You can (and should) throw away your junk footage. Plan on letting the world see maybe as little as one-sixth of what you shoot and you'll have much more fun.

If you were making a Hollywood movie, you would need a script, professional actors, and a support team of dozens or hundreds of people to manage everything from lighting and staging to snacks and insurance for the crew. If you were shooting a documentary, you'd need a story line, a point of view, an argument that you'd want to show and prove. Much the same can be said for videos that sell, train or record for posterity a defined event or staged production. But here you are, you have a camera, want to shoot video, but don't have any of this working for you. What are you to do, leave it in the closet? No, but you do need to go about your task with some "do's and don'ts" in mind.

When your job is to watch days and days of old home movies and family videos, you understand the comment of one of my staff after a really busy period: "I think if I see one more Christmas tree, shots of kids at the beach, or a family eating a large Thanksgiving meal, I'll throw up!" In the middle of this rush, a large order came in of 1940's footage shot in and around a family summer home that was a total show stopper for my staff. My guys all said, "Wow, look at this!" and we did. For me, it was a time warp -- return to a childhood era I knew, but for my young staff born 30 years after the footage was shot, it was completely fascinating too. What had this long forgotten uncle done right that so caught our eye, so interested us? Simple things, really, things that you and I can do with no great effort or planning.

Here you stand, camera in hand, with no story in mind. You don't know how the day is going to unfold, nor do you expect anything unusual to occur. You don't even know who your audience might be if you roll the camera, but you want to capture the moment, you want to play with your new toy. Where do you start? Here are some things to think about that may help.

Be selfish: assume that you will be the ultimate audience -- that you are trapped in a nursing home with hard floors and hard walls surrounded by strangers, lonely, and no longer interested in a world that is spinning away without you. What would you want to relive and enjoy?

Create an imaginary pen-pal on the other side of the world: imagine you are exchanging "this is my world" videos with that person -- someone you want to impress but whom you feel has no idea what everyday life in your world is like. Perhaps instead of a pen-pal on the other side of the world, you need to imagine that grandchildren 50 years from now will be watching and enjoying your footage -- they need to see more than this year's Christmas tree or a collage of unidentified faces all wedged together at the end of a table.

If traveling and touring about, consider being rebellious -- don't shoot a video that the travel industry would want to buy, don't try to outdo the shots on the picture postcards, don't come back with hours of footage of old churches and great overlooks. Instead, shoot the little things that are different: the tacky, the elegant, the ugly, the glamorous. Get kids at play, beggars on the sidewalk, strange trucks, painted front doors, signs that tell you that you are "going to hell . . ."

In other words, take great care in capturing what the trade calls "establishing shots" of a time and place. Get a picture of the neighborhood, the house, the rooms you know and live in. Capture shots of things that wear out and become obsolete: cars, telephones, stoves, TVs, clothes, shopping areas, airplanes, you name it.

Break away from your friends and family and get shots that put them in a time and place. I remember one morning looking at a home movie shot in the hills of Kentucky at a family funeral, probably 60 years ago. There were white frame houses, the family all dressed in black, old square cars, a white frame church and spectacular shots of a cemetery on the side of a hill on a green and golden fall day. I didn't know are care about the family faces but the cameraman had so captured a time and place that I couldn't take my eyes off of it. It was a glimpse into an era that no longer exists, and it was caught very simply by a novice family member with movie camera in hand.

However, you and most of your audience will care about the family faces in your video, and this is where you really have to go to work. Some of the best shots occur when you behave like a fly on the wall -- the actors in your video no longer care or know that you are there. It's actually a lot of work. You need to shoot, or look like you are shooting so much that everyone starts to ignore you. You aren't asking them to smile or say cheese. You aren't interviewing them. You are simply making a fool of yourself standing on a chair in the corner, crawling on the floor chasing the cat, pushing in on the stove while someone tries to stir a pot, eavesdropping in on every conversation. You tell everyone to not worry, that you'll probably throw 90% of what you shoot away, and you well might.

With the fly-on-the-wall technique you are hoping to capture real people in action. Twenty or thirty years from now you'll want to know what grandma sounded like as a young mother, your kids will laugh that their uncle still walks just like he did when he was a kid, they'll be amazed at how playful all the old goats were back then. These reactions don't come if every shot is posed. A few interviews and testimonials may be good, but if they're bad, what do you do with them -- throw them on the floor and hurt someone's feelings?

The fly-on-the-wall technique assumes you will follow up and edit out the junk and the boring but you don't just want to leave the camera running endlessly. You want to get shots from different angles. You want to grab snippets and move. You need to hit the red button and stop the camera before you hunt for the next shot. Sentences have periods. Don't be guilty of taking run-on videos.

If your subjects get busy and decide to do something interesting, grab the camera. Maybe the guys will tear into a car or motorcycle, maybe everyone will play a rousing game of Monopoly, perhaps the women will go shopping, how about a pickup football or basketball game, and certainly get shots in the kitchen. Get dad in his tool room, get mom picking flowers, film washing a favorite pet, capture a stroll through the park.

Let's look at taking such videos from another angle. Suppose you find yourself with camera in hand at a deadly event you'd rather missed filled with boorish in-laws you really don't like. Just for the fun of it you decided to record the event in the most hateful manner possible. Here are a few ideas. Start by shoving the camera in peoples' faces while they are chewing on food and make them say something. Then move everyone to a cramped area and make them repeatedly say cheese. If possible, put a bright light in their eyes or put them outside in the sunniest place you can find. Make the parents feel guilty for their kids that won't stand still and film their anger and frustration.

After that, hope everyone slouches down in a couch with a beer or too much dinner to watch a football game on TV. Stand over them like a regal king and shoot down on them making them look as slovenly as possible. If you block their view of the TV, maybe one of them will stick his tongue out, curse you or give you the finger, all of which you can happily record for future generations. One of my favorite shots occurs when you burst into a bathroom while someone is sitting on the pot. Wake someone up who is taking a nap. With luck you can so invade someone's territory while they are having a serious discussion that they will stick the palm of their hand out to block your lens just like a good communist policeman might have as he was beating up on a kid.

Find the fat people and film them to show off their large stomachs. Find the old and shriveled people and go in tight on their bad skin. If one of the kids is a bully, film him persecuting his younger siblings. Capture whining and temper tantrums if possible. Pray for a big family argument that you can film surreptitiously.

That's just a few suggestions how to make people look awful -- it's very easy to do, and most subjects will rise to the occasion without much prompting. In fact, if you are not careful, you will accidentally capture lots of such footage without really trying. We see it all the time at our shop.

If you have any other questions, please visit our web page at: http://www.videokitchen.com/

Mail us at:
1917 Blankenbaker Parkway
Louisville KY 40299
Call us at:
(502) 266-0905

That's all for now. This is a work in progress and I've put the rough version up on the web hoping for some feedback. If there's interest, maybe that will spur me on to finish it up.

Video Kitchen was founded in 1992 as a place to "cook up a great video!" Over the years over 25,000 customers have come through our doors to do everything from duplicating a tape for their family to production of sophisticated broadcast-quality videos for businesses, organizations and charities. We have grown from one to two closely integrated operations in Louisville Kentucky. The original operation is at 2323 Bardstown Road, Louisville KY, 40205, a mile and a half north of I-264 in the middle of the bustling Bardstown Road corridor. If you look at a map of the Louisville metropolitan area, we are very near the center of the map. In April 2004 Video Kitchen opened a second location to better serve you at 1917 Blankenbaker Parkway, Louisville KY, 40299. This is in Louisville's east end, two traffic lights south of I-64 in the Blankenbaker Place Center.

Not only do you gain access to professional equipment, you'll find a professional staff ready to help you create a superb video. If you need copies, one or thousands, we are the place to do that for you, six days a week.

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Photography Success Without School

What I learned from a mentor that enabled me to... Read More

Basics of Photography

Understanding light is one of the very basic principles of... Read More