A Compelling Story

We here a lot these days about ‘stories’, and how they are key to gaining folks empathy and trust. Smart advertisers don’t so much tell you how great their product or service is, they tell you about how your life will change for the better if you buy their product or service. They tell you a story (irony?).

And film or video needs a compelling story unless the ‘story ‘is just a flashy montage for a music vid. Even then, the music and vid will be better served if there’s at least some sort of a storyline that goes with the imagery and sound. Beyonce’s Formation music video has attributes of just being a montage, but contained within some of the scenes is a powerful indictment of  the New Orleans police after Hurricane Katrina.

As we learned in Writing 101, a good story has a beginning, a conflict, a resolution, and ideally a grand finish.

We gave only a few seconds to capture the viewer’s attention or they’re already gone. Especially in today’s world of youtube, vimeo, facebook and a host of other online distractions. But fear not, with a stirring moving imagery and powerful sounds, we can capture their attention.

We also need to quickly establish ‘personalities’- even if they’re not human. Hence there’s a cracker company that has us identifying with a big orange cheese wheel. We have to give the viewer someone or something to relate to or they will have no interest in the emerging ‘conflict’. This usually involves quirky or endearing behavior that encourages some form of identification.

Then developing the conflict. Something’s not quite right. There’s a discomfort in the air, if not a huge problem arising. Tension is key. It builds, the music intensifies, the scenes become more frenetic. Gasp! And then everything somehow resolves and ideally the good guys live happily ever after.

Even in the corporate world of buying and selling, telling stories is critical to the marketing effort. When someone on the TV says ‘you need a new car!’ the natural reaction is ‘sure, but I don’t want to pay for a new car.’ But the story about why you need a new car is the story.

It’s not really so much about better gas mileage or new leather interiors as it is about how this car is going to make you feel. And all the facts don’t matter nearly as much as the emotional response the video creates. Indeed, psychologists appreciate that why we like the facts to confirm our buying decision, it’s mostly based on emotion.

So go on, call or click right now. You’ll be smokin’ in that new ride and the payments don’t start for months. Go on. Do it. You know you want to. Just buy the damn car…tips-for-buying-a-new-car-2014




The Script

The video production process follows the classic design/build motif. First we figure out what we want to convey, and then we figure out how to best convey this visual content. So, the script is critical as a map for what one wishes to accomplish with his or her film.

As one might expect, the complexity a script requires varies greatly pending the nature of the production and the budget available. If we’re putting together a local commercial or short video with a simple message, say an on camera spokesperson and little else for the visual content, your script can simply be the words to be narrated, ideally on a teleprompter so your talent can easily impart the message.

On the other hand, if you’re looking at a dramatic film, corporate identity program or a high-end music video, every shot must be mapped out and considered in relationship to all the other scenes. This requires the meticulous process of establishing the look, feel, foreground and background elements, how the talent will play the scene, lighting, special effects (SFX), audio capture, and so forth. Meticulous indeed.

But consider how much more efficient and effective it is to have a detailed script as opposed to ‘shooting on the fly’ and in the edit ramming together your ‘coolest’ shots to create your piece. Again, there are situations where this will work. A music video for a local band that is more montage than story might be just fine with that sort of a production. But there aren’t many types of productions where one can get away with that type of production methodology.

Even a short dramatic film that you’ve been dreaming of producing so long you feel you know every scene in your head will benefit from a script/storyboard. (The words script and storyboard are not quite interchangeable, as the storyboard offers visual representations of what you intend, while a script is usually considered as just words. Still, both are design tools.) It’s too easy to forget nuance, quick pickup shots or other elements that will enhance your final product.godfather.sample_script_page

And if you’re producing the next Star Wars film, just imagine what those script/boards must look like.

Of course just having a script is no guarantee of a successful project, but the chances go way up since we have a much better sense of what we’re about. There are plenty of terrible ideas that can find their way into scripts. Often times it’s not the scene itself, but the way it’s interpreted that can be disastrous.

Which brings me to the last point. Imagination. Even with a tidy script and meticulous storyboards, the project director has to ‘see’ (and hear) the film in their head to create the compelling stories and visuals we’re after. But talking about directors and direction is another topic!

<a href=“http://panopticmedia.com”>Cincinnati video production</a>

Shooting With Your Phone

In these remarkable times, our Smart Phones have become complex digital extensions of our lives. It’s wild enough that we can text, check email and just plain talk to another, pretty much anywhere in the U.S. and most of the world. Wilder still, it doesn’t stop there.

A host of apps are available – games, directions, lights, compasses and calculators – and they come standard. No wonder so many folks seem addicted to them.

That’s still not all. Your smart phone these days likely has a pretty good camera, usable for video or stills, and an adequate, if not splendid, mic built right in.

Even though now common-place, an appropriate response might be ‘Holy Shit’, since it is truly remarkable. And works in real-time, with apps like skype and facetime for one on one visual communications.

iphone shooter

Ah, good questions. Yes it is possible. No it is not stupid. And yes, some understanding of the tool and process is highly beneficial to creating ‘visual assets’ that you’ll be happy with. So let’s hit on some dos and don’ts…

‘Steady as she goes’. The old sailor’s term is an apt one. Unless we’re going for some mad shaky-cam footage like used in Blair Witch Project, keep the camera steady. Yes, it has some software inside to help stabilize the shot, but your hands or whatever’s holding the phone/cam is the bigger deal.

Buy a mic. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, if not amazed, at the better quality audio you get if you spend some money on a decent mic. This is a classic area where ‘you get what you pay for’, so don’t think that $15 puppy will sound as good as one that costs $150.

Because your phone doesn’t have a ‘zoom lens’ or even a focusable lens, you have to first, understand the limitations of your phone’s ‘glass’, and second you have to be use broad motions to go from a wide shot to a close up. And don’t imagine you’re going to get the lovely ‘long lens’ look that’s so rich with a short depth of field. Again, understand the limitations.

shallow depth of field

Beware of bright backgrounds. If you shoot someone, particularly if they’re dark complected, they turn into a silhouette in your shot. That’s because phone cams have an ‘auto-iris’ which measures the light coming into the lens, and adjusts the camera’s exposure based on that light level. So, bright sun outside a window means the person in the room in front of the window will look dark, maybe even unusably so.

Okay, you understand a few basics and dammit, you want to make a short film with your phone!

Go for it. What we humans find most compelling in videos and film are pretty simple to achieve. We love movement, going back to Neolithic times and hunting for food or danger, our brains engage in a more focused way with a bit of movement. Lazy, slow camera movements are usually best, unless you’re trying to depict danger, death, hyper-stress, etc.

We humans also find human emotion compelling, which is why really good actors get paid the way they do. Few visuals feel more flat than someone trying to act. We’ve all seen it, and we know it’s painful. Your talent, to create emotion in the viewer, must have a genuine emotional experience for the camera/phone to capture. Otherwise, well, it’s a bad film.

And finally, your video/film needs a good story. Hollywood movies are meticulous in mapping out every single edit and special effect that shows up on screen. There are hundreds of folks making a living just producing the storyboards, animatronics and other pre-production techniques to help imagine a scene/film.

We don’t need to be about all that, but you better have your story, with all it’s twists and turns, and your visual content in pretty good order before starting production.

All in all, there are obviously better tools for making videos and films than with your phone. The world of DLSR cameras is a good place to step up to. But for a little ‘immersion therapy’ for a budding film maker, that smart phone will work just fine.

Video Production: The Camera

All cameras [still and motion] share three critical attributes that combined allow us shoot and record visual data. They are the lens, the sensor and the data recorder. Even from the earliest times of photography this has been true, though in the old days of film, a chemical process was used to so that the ‘sensor’ was light sensitive film, and the ‘data recorder’ was a dip into chemicals that revealed the images captured on the film.

Let’s consider the role each of these three elements in creating an image, or a motion picture. The idea of revealing a scene through a piece of glass is ancient, with the roots of camera obscura going back at least a thousand years. camera-obscura-grangerThere was no recording of images until 1816 when by a French inventor Joseph Niepce. He discovered a crude way to record an image using paper with a silver oxide coating. The modern camera was born!

Some 70 years later,The very first patented film camera was designed in England by Frenchman Louis Le Prince in 1888. Thomas Edison invented the first practical motion picture camera in 1889 ‘to do for the eyes what his phonograph did for the ears’. It featured a focusable lens and celluloid film that moved across the lens using sprockets. This film was then processed using chemicals, the standard for nearly 100 years until the video camera was developed.

Over that time one element did change dramatically – the lens. Focusing on ‘the glass’ was to be expected, as lenses are such a huge part of the image capturing process. Fixed or prime lens were first, with a focal length that would create a very wide or narrow focus to be presented to the film. Then came zoom lenses, which added some bit of distortion, but allowed for great flexibility through the ability to change focal length on the fly.

Overall, that meant that by the 1930s, we had a stable and sophisticated methodology for motion picture creation. Technicolor was the magical processing that generated very saturated, gorgeous film.

Such film processing was standard until video cameras emerged in the 1970s. Early imaging was done with light sensitive tubes, just as most all early electronics, like radios and tvs, were tube driven. With the advent of semi-conductors – transistors – the game changed again.

Light sensitive diodes replaced the ungainly ‘vidicon’ and other analog tubes to become the sensor of choice while other transistors were used to process that signal and assist getting the data onto magnetic tape. Magnetic tape was the standard recording format from the late 1970s (VHS) until the early part of this century when the process of capturing and storing imagery became digital.

Which is basically where we find ourselves today. Everyone with a smart phone is a camera operator. Most everyone can use imovie, moviemaker or similar platforms to edit video. Yet through all these iterations, we still find the same makeup to the camera – a lens, an image capturing sensor, and a storage mechanism. What a long strange trip it’s been…early vid camera

Video Production: What Works

So for this posting I’d like to talk about what works, and contrarily what does not work well in videos. This topic is complicated by one small fact – there are about 7 billion opinions on what is good and what isn’t when it comes to watching motion on screens.

That said, we can look just a little at target audiences to get a better sense of what kinds of images, style and pacing. Most of this is just good common sense [which I don’t find that common these days].

If you’re creating a wedding video, for example, you want to ‘read’ the type of client you’re working for to get a sense of how tame or wild they might want the viewing experience to be. If the idea is to build an ‘elegant’ video, steady camera work, slow dissolves and some slow motion shots, a pace that doesn’t mind sitting on the same shot for a while, etc. are good things.

In contrast, if your wedding client likes extreme sports [and their parents just want what the younger folks want], you’ll want quicker cuts, antics, funny faces, extreme camera angles and similar touches which create a lot of energy, but in terms of elegance, not so much.

And that’s just with wedding content. For corporate sales and marketing, there needs to be a similar sensibility about what your client thinks is best, and what your client’s customers are going to find compelling. This is especially true if there’s a call to action at the end [hurry, these items are going fast!].

MTV ushered in [or leveraged] a trend where quick edits and discontinuous visuals became the norm, often showing us imagery that wasn’t designed to feel cohesive. Of course their audience is/was young, and their management knew that wild shots and quick edits would hold these young eyes. Eventually that prominent trend joined a host of other techniques, but some of you will recall how ‘Video killed the Radio Star’ back in the early 1980s.

A key point to recognize is that we humans love movement – it’s in our DNA from a very long evolution of scouting for food and keeping watch for safety. So, this simple visual stimulation is important. But of course it’s not the only kind of stimulation that’s important to understand.

Folks are also stimulated by thoughts, emotions and those ‘aha’ ideas that change one’s perspective. Which is why we find so many movies and TV shows today that work to provide lots of visual movement, scenes that challenge your thinking and especially tap into your emotions.

Any good sales type will explain how we love to think we make decisions based on our thinking, and yet in truth it’s the emotional content of what we’re experiencing that truly indicates how our decisions will be made. And so it is emotional content, perhaps more than anything else, that drives ‘What Works’.

Understanding how we humans relate to each other and our environment helps us understand how we consume video as well, which is why so much research is done with new movies anymore to see how audiences react to this or that. And while you likely can’t afford a focus group for your next project, you can certainly afford to think about how your audience will react to your efforts – and your video will be all the stronger for it!

Jim Prues

Video Production: Basics of the Good

In these times of smart phones, nearly everyone is a videographer [or at least one waiting to blossom]. As we humans so love to track movement with our eyes, video is a fabulous communication and entertainment tool. Folks like Rachel Maddow have even commented that if there’s a TV in the room she’s in, she can’t take her eyes off of it. The human body has evolved to track motion.

With this backdrop, there are some simple considerations for you to shoot better video. We’ll divide this into three main categories – composition, lighting and audio.

Composition simply describes what a particular scene consists of.  If someone talking is primarily what we see, the scene can be described as a ‘talking head’. If it’s a wedding there are probably lots of crowd footage. Nature footage will usually have a featured element – a tree, mountain, flower or stream. Composition is the framing  you choose to capture the content you desire.

It can be surprising to see how a few steps forward or back can  effect a scene, or changing the angle so you have a more pleasing background. Another huge consideration, that leaks into the lighting category, is to consider the amount of light the background has, especially indoors [below].

One other thing about composition – that shaky cam thing. Directors will use this technique to add drama to a scene or imply instability. In general, however, folks are far too casual in how they hold their cameras and pay too little attention to keeping the shot somewhat steady. At least be conscious of how you’re ‘playing it’.

And one last thing on composition for those using smart phones. Use the camera horizontally, not vertically. TVs, phones, computer monitors are all horizontally oriented. Make the most of the real estate available. If you shoot vertically and want to use the footage horizontally, you must stretch the footage to fit reducing its visual crispness.

Lighting is an art, with all sort of options to create all sorts of looks. For folks who have been in the biz a while, we often talk about whether the lighting should be more for video or more for film. What we called lighting for video meant things were nice and bright, like a news set. For film we create much more nuanced lighting, with pockets of darkness and contoured faces.

Of course the casual videographer doesn’t have the advantage of professional lighting and years of experience, but they can still look at the lighting situation. As mentioned above, don’t shoot folks in front of windows unless you want that dark look. You can also move a subject a few feet this way or that to enhance the shot within the existing lighting. Move the subject a few feet so they’re not directly under a fluorescent light, for example, or closer or farther from a window. Removing a lampshade can add quite a bit what that source puts out.

If you’re outdoors and your subject is against dark green vegetation, and you have a lot of blue sky in the background, your subject will darken as the camera compensates for the bright sky. Similarly, if your subject is indoors in front of a window or patio doors, the subject will be too dark. You must either add light to the foreground or lose light in the background to make your shot effective. Often you can mitigate this by changing your composition [less sky in the shot, no windows or lamps behind].

Watching TV/video/film with an eye towards how it was lit can be a fun learning experience as well. Such attention will no doubt enhance your ability to create scenes that are more enjoyable to watch.

Audio can make or break your shooting event. Garbled audio will ruin your shot, even if it looks beautiful. Short of using professional audio technicians and gear, here are a couple of things to bear in mind. First, if there’s loud ‘ambient’ noise around, like motors or fans or traffic or crowds, try to find a quieter place. If that isn’t an option, at least face the subject away from the noise so that their body blocks the offending sound somewhat. This may compromise your ‘look’, but bad audio hurts more than bad backgrounds.

Another tip – get as close to your subject as possible when not using a separate mic. The closer you get with your camera/phone/recording device, the less ambient noise you’ll have, and the stronger the audio signal of what you want will be. It may be mildly uncomfortable to have a phone two feet from your subject’s face, but they will sound tremendously better than if you’re 8 feet away.

These pointers are just that – pointers. Creating videos/films/motion pictures is a tremendously creative process. There are no absolute rights and wrongs. As we continue down the road with this blog, we’ll get more detailed into many aspects of video production. Still, such details need to come from a firm foundation, which is why we’re hitting the fundamentals here.


Jim Prues


Video Production: The Changing Face

Video Production: A Changing Face

The first motion picture was created in 1878 – a racehorse running, by shooting a series of fast still photos. This chemical process initiated the motion picture industry, which held until the1930s when video cameras came online. These cameras were analog, meaning the image and sound were recorded similar to how old phonographs played music. It was no longer chemical, but it was still ‘mechanical’, being an analog process.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that digital sensors led us to digital cameras, and soon tape formats were left behind as we now find a world where the process of capture and manipulation is all digital.

So that’s the history lesson. We now live in a digital video world, with cameras capable of incredible detail and frame rates. And with every smartphone, there’s another video camera online. Remarkable.

The production and post production tool set today was almost unimaginable 20 years ago. Not just the phones, but GoPro, RED, DSLRs, video drones and ubiquitous cameras for monitoring and security have transformed our ideas about video. Video r us. For those of us who have been video professionals in these times, it has been some ride.

The bad news is that everyone is a videographer. The smartphones have nice cameras, and there are plenty of simple tools for editing footage. We ‘pros’ suddenly have far more competition. The good news is that the same characteristics that were true in the early days of film – composition, lighting, acting, etc.- are still true today. Styles have changed dramatically, the pace of a typical production is much faster, but creating beautiful pictures still requires an eye and practiced skill.

As dramatic as these changes have been on the production side, post production has seen even more dramatic change. Editing went from ‘flatbed editors’ that mechanically cut film strips and spliced them, to early video editors which would snyc two video playing machines and then record to a third. First there was 2” tape, followed by 1”, the ¾” cassettes and more recently to ½ cassettes, the most popular being Sony’s Betacam.

It was not until the mid 1990s when ‘non-linear’ editing systems, that actually used digitized footage on a computer, created the editorial revolution. [And you thought the history was over.]

The editorial tool set today is vast, with money being the only limitation to creating any look imaginable. Along with robust editing software options, there are powerful compositing programs available today, the best known being Adobe’s After Effects.

The power of these tools is evident today in everything from Hollywood motion pictures to Skype avatars, that replace your face with some cartoon character during a video call.

Next time we’ll take a look at some of the more astounding possibilities for production and post production that are available to ‘filmmakers’ today. And yes, we’ll touch on tools for actually changing faces…:)

Jim Prues
Director, Panoptic Media
Cincinnati, OH, USA