Growing up, I always enjoyed filming. It was fun to grab my parents camcorder and fill those small VHS cassettes with home movies of my friends and I skateboarding or cursing or whatever. Boy stuff. We weren’t concerned about making a professional video; we just wanted something we could show our friends and hide from our parents. We let our imagination do most of the hard work.
I’ve come to the realization that the passions I had as a child have become the same passions I have as an adult. I’m still in love with video, but now it is a much deeper, more complicated relationship. To me, it’s more than a message on a screen. It is a medium that changes the way we relate to the world. It reflects culture, and also influences it.
As a marketer, I understand the power of video in the sales process. Video helps gain attention and attract prospects. It clarifies whether a customer is right for your company. It addresses customer touch points and calls the customer to action. It is even the medium your happy customers are more likely to share with their friends. Unfortunately, most of the videos I see generally suck. I mean, it’s the same thing every time. Sterile scenes. Plastic people. Corporate ukulele music. This video captures my sentiment exactly.
Chances are, your video marketing efforts suck. I don’t blame you. I get it. Video is an abused asset in marketing. Its value is undermined because of its accessibility. If there is any art to it, it’s stolen. But, an iPhone on a tripod doesn’t compare to a well-produced scene, complete with a solid story and beautiful aesthetics. We need to understand cinematography to tell our story better. That’s what inspired this blog.
Here are the ways to keep your video from sucking:
Write something worth watching.
As a communications major in college, I enrolled in a mandatory videography class taught by a documentary filmmaker named Dr. Jean Bodon. I didn’t realize it then, but Dr. Bodon would shape the way I saw and understood film. He’d ruin me forever.
Although he had spent more than a decade in the states, Dr. Bodon’s thick french accent was often indistinguishable. His teaching style was unorthodox, unique and often very insensitive. On one occasion, he asked each student to tell him a story. While the student spoke, the rest of the class was instructed to raise their hand whenever the story became boring. Without fail, Bodon always raised his hand first. Usually, it was within the first 10 seconds.
His point? Stories need to be great. And when it comes to video, the story has to shine brightest. For Dr. Bodon, it wasn’t enough to have an ok story filmed well. If the story failed, the video failed. I couldn’t agree more.
Video makes a story larger than life. It exaggerates reality in a way that makes sense to us. When a man is apologizing to his old lady, he can’t just give a couple roses. We resonate better with a room full of roses or a single rose purchased with the man’s last penny. Not because that’s who we are, but because that is more interesting to watch. Whether narrative or commercial, video lives or dies on the quality of the story.
What makes a story great? House of Cards writer Beau Williman said it most simple: “The most important element in a good story is conflict. It’s seeing two opposing forces collide with one another.” Marketers often begin their video strategy by presenting the benefits of their product or service. But, that’s not strategy. It’s sales-y and it puts the cart before the horse. A right strategy begins by saying, “what is the problem our users have?” and it begins with conflict. A video that doesn’t suck focuses on how users can use a product or service to maximize its benefits. It’s user-centric.
A few years ago, I remember seeing an iPhone commercial that didn’t even show the product. Instead, it showed the view from the phones camera – and the story it told was magnetic. It wasn’t an ad for an iPhone; it was an ad for the experience and capabilities you can have with an iPhone. That’s strategy.
When it comes to the structure of a story, it makes little difference whether you’re writing for B2B or B2C audiences. The focus should always be less on the product and more on the needs of people. As Marketers, we’re responsible for our messaging. We are the bridge between data and those who need to learn something from it. By rethinking how we present our data, we can create more meaningful stories that engage our viewers on an emotional and logical level. In the end, even the most sterile product has the capability to touch someone emotionally.
Film something beautiful
The look, feel and sound of a video are all crucial elements that should work together in harmony. When something is out of place, it’s noticed. And it’s distracting. When a video’s aesthetics are done well, however, the message comes to life in unexpected ways. In this section, we’ll examine three aspects of a video’s aesthetics that contribute to the overall quality.
Lighting and Dynamic Range
Light tells a story. It adds dimensions to our environment. If harnessed correctly, it can even change our mood.
Do me a favor. Point your cell phone camera at a window. You’re going to tell immediately that it looks like one of two things. Either it is going to darken what’s inside and reveal the outside world, or it is going to reveal the inside of the window and blow out everything else. This is an important aspect of video called dynamic range, and cell phones have very little of it.
Dynamic range is a term we use to describe how a camera reads shadows in relation to highlights. Cameras try and replicate what our eyes already see in the real world, and our eyes have amazing dynamic range. Filmmakers almost always try and create the largest amount of dynamic range for their cameras using light.
Are you still pointing your cell phone at the window? Good. Now, bring an additional light and point it at the window sill. If you were able to match the brightness of the inside of the room with the outside world, then you should be able to see both clearly. This is how we can trick our cameras into having a wider dynamic range. By seeing more, we can often create more pleasing and professional-looking shots.
The quality of a video can be drastically improved by proper lighting. Understanding it is an evolving skill that comes with years of experience and technical expertise. However, even basic lighting principles can substantially increase a videos quality. Vimeo created a series of lessons on the subject. Check out their video school here.
I’ve heard it said before that there is only one correct position for a shot. That’s not true, but what is true is that an understanding of different camera angles and positions can help bring a story together, better. The composition of a shot may be the most important element in the aesthetics of a video. It is the way a scene is framed, positioned and seen by the viewer. And, before you press the little red button on your camcorder (if you’re still using your mom’s VHS camcorder), there are several questions you should ask yourself.
What in this scene is important to show?
Every frame needs to guide the viewer’s attention. Sometimes, filmmakers will use lines or geometry to emphasize different characteristics in a scene. This is usually done subliminally, but it is intentional nonetheless.
Is the shot balanced?
It is important to think about a scene in terms of balancing weight, size, light and color. A scene that is not balanced feels unresolved, and it affects how we watch it. On the other side of that, obvious balance, like dividing a photo in half symbiotically, can be boring. But, balance of placement, size or visual weight (focal points) can help make a scene feel more complete and enjoyable without feeling forced. The same principles used in photography apply in video, and there are many methods of creating balance in a scene. Here are a few.
Is the shot telling the story?
Imagine each frame is a picture on a wall. It should be able to stand alone and still provoke thought from the viewer. A quality video has a reason for every frame. For example, if you watch Raiders of the Lost Ark on mute, you can still track along with the story. Close-ups, angles and the length of each frame all clue the viewer in on what to believe.
After all this is said and done, there is still a technical side to composition. From shutter speed to exposure, resolution and motion blur, all of the technical aspects should be soundly executed. Simply put, a camera operator should be able to give 100% of his brain to influence the video creatively while operating like a technician subliminally.
George Lucas once said, “I feel that sound is half the experience.” Too often, filmmakers focus all of their attention on video and ignore the quality of their audio. But, you can always tell the difference between an amateur and professional video by simply closing your eyes and listening to the story. Whether narration, human voice or music, audio is an essential part of making a video not suck.
Interesting enough, we seem to be more annoyed by poor sound quality than bad cinematography. And, although film is essentially a visual experience, sound is the best tool we have when bringing a story to life.
Like any part of the aesthetics of a video, you can use sound to emphasize a feeling. The absence of audio can also move the mood in the opposite direction. Like the calm before the storm, a moment of silence can drum up anticipation and pull the audience in. Sound, or the lack of it, guides the viewer. When done correctly, sound is just as important as the composition of a scene.
Technology has advanced incredibly in the last few years and it is much easier to produce quality sound in post-production. But, the recording of audio uses the same principles that have existed for over a century. Want to learn how to capture better audio in video? Here’s a primer.
At Brandcave, we obsess over video. We’re not afraid to say it’s our strongest capability. But, we’re also not afraid to show others how to make videos not suck. In the coming weeks, we plan on releasing a series of how-to videos on making better video.