Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Make Digital Videos Worth Watching

Digital video cameras are inexpensive, simple to operate, and deliver astounding quality. Video-editing software is also readily available and easy to use. We reviewed the major packages in After Hours (June 30, page 156), but there's one obstacle that no software program can overcome: Nobody wants to watch boring home movies.

The answer lies not in the tools, but in the techniques. Here are 12 tips to make your videos truly worth watching.

1. Understand what's watchable. For better or worse, what's on television today defines the video style that viewers enjoy. Next time you're watching television, pay attention to the elements.

Take note of the relative lack of camera motion in most shows. Although the perspective shifts from camera to camera, you'll see very little panning (moving the camera from side to side) or fast zooming toward or away from the actors. You'll almost never see the shaking that is indicative of a handheld camera.

Also pay attention to the way transitions are used as the director shifts from camera to camera. Transitions are visual effects that help smooth the change from shot to shot. Within a scene or a series of shots from one location during a single time period, most directors simply cut among the various shots. One camera angle is immediately replaced with another.

The transitions that television shows use are almost always simple dissolves (effects that merge two clips briefly, and then displays the second) or fades to black. Both effects are used to alert the viewer that the time or location is about to change. On kids' shows and "zany" sitcoms, you may see more elaborate transitions, but they're not random. The effect usually relates to the subject of the show, like a crocodile dragging the second clip over the first on The Crocodile Hunter.

Finally, note the pace of scene changes. Few if any TV shows (or movies) display a static screen for longer than 10 to 15 seconds. News and sports shows use multiple text streams to keep our eyes occupied, along with frequent background updates and cuts to reporters in the field. And sitcoms, dramas, and other shows change camera angles frequently.

To sum up: Videos worth watching use good, stable pictures from multiple angles. And good videos don't introduce random special effects but still manage to introduce some element of change every 5 to 15 seconds.

2. Tell a story. Even sitcoms have a story line. Next time you break out the camcorder to shoot Sally's gymnastics exhibition, think beginning, middle, and end. Shoot Sally talking about the event beforehand, greeting her teammates. Also shoot the coach's pep talk and then the event itself. Shoot the awards ceremony, Sally emerging from the locker room in her street clothes, and the ride home.

3. Shoot to please. You need high-quality, appealing shots to create the required pace in the final project. Rather than simply recording Sally's events, imagine that your goal is to illustrate why the gymnastics exhibition (or your vacation) is such a special event. Imagine you are producing footage for a time capsule; your goal isn't just to preserve the personal memories but to show the big picture as well.

To do this, shoot the coach's patient instruction, a participant's elation, a parent's pride, and the cheering crowd. Shoot Sally's team applauding their compatriots's efforts and hugging each other in support. Shoot wide-angle shots of the entire gym to place early in the video, so the viewer understands the milieu.

Find different angles from which to shoot. Climb to the top of the grandstands. Use over-the-shoulder shots of the parents watching their children, and shots of the crowd's reactions. As we discuss below, shots like these provide tremendous flexibility during editing. You don't have multiple cameras, but all consumer video-editing software can cut and paste scenes freely, so the end result can emulate multicamera productions.

4. Minimize motion. Even as you move around, make sure each shot is as stable as possible. When shooting, sit or lean against a wall. Practice camera motions beforehand, so you'll be smooth during the real thing.

Make sure that the coach or that tall guy in front of you won't obscure your shot. Practice the zooming you'll need to keep Sally roughly the same size in the frame as she runs closer to you. Or practice panning from the waist if she's moving from left to right in front of you, which makes for a smoother shot than moving the camera with your hands. In either case, move slowly to avoid jerky footage.

5. Be realistic. If ESPN can boil the Olympics down to 5 minutes of highlights, you should be able to do the same. It's tough to balance the motivations of archiving your child's youth and producing a video worth watching. Assuming you have enough hard drive space, why not do both? Most professional videographers present their customers with footage of an entire event (say, a wedding) and a highlights reel. When your goal is to create an enjoyable video, plan to shave off at least half to three-quarters of your original footage.

6. Shoot with scene detection on. If you're using DV, make sure that scene detection is enabled during capture. Scene detection uses time codes on the DV media to create individual, editable clips each time you stop and start recording ( Figure 1 ). If you use an analog camera, try content-based scene detection if it's available. It's not as efficient, but it's still better than cutting up your video manually.

7. Trim relentlessly. Try to trim each scene to less than 20 seconds. Eliminate all shots with excessive camera motion, no action, long zooms, and pans. Remember, if something doesn't change every 10 to 15 seconds, your viewers will get bored.

8. Think nonlinear. Here's the fun part: You have several pieces of footage, including the coach giving instructions, parents cheering, gymnasts hugging, and so on. No one will know when each event actually occurred. Use the software to cut and paste snippets from here and there to build drama into your final production.

Figure 2

Look again at the Olympics coverage. You'll see a quick shot to the nervous parents, a glance at the coach, then the event, and the cheering parents, coach, and teammates. The segment ends with a close-up of the beaming athlete. You don't have the multiple cameras to get these shots in real time, but you can shoot them out of sequence and string them together ( Figure 2 ).

9. Audio is your friend. All consumer editors let you add background music tracks, either overriding the original audio or mixing with it. Weaving appropriate songs into the project adds a touch of professionalism and introduces another dynamic element. You can also record a voice-over after the fact, providing a commentary on the events.

10. Make a music video. Let's say you have 15 minutes total of Sally's marching, stretching, and individual events. You can use one of several tools to analyze your raw footage, intelligently cut it into bite-size pieces, and synchronize it to your audio track—like instant MTV.

If you're using Windows XP, the included Microsoft Windows Movie Maker 2 has a feature called AutoMovie. You select the video files, the background music, and one of five editing styles (which include Music Video and Sports Highlights) and Movie Maker 2 outputs a finished movie. Our favorite, however, is muvee Technologies' autoProducer DVD Edition ($59.95 direct, www.muvee.com), which gives you more styles and options.11. Use titles to move the story along. Your video will have several discrete segments that move with the story line. Help the viewer understand the progress with titles like "Getting Ready," "Coach's Pep Talk," "Processional," and so on. But don't forget how irritated you get when people present PowerPoint slides that zoom in from all directions and use wild fonts and effects. Your text should enhance, not steal attention from, your video ( Figure 3 ).

11. Use titles to move the story along. Your video will have several discrete segments that move with the story line. Help the viewer understand the progress with titles like "Getting Ready," "Coach's Pep Talk," "Processional," and so on. But don't forget how irritated you get when people present PowerPoint slides that zoom in from all directions and use wild fonts and effects. Your text should enhance, not steal attention from, your video ( Figure 3 ).

12. Go easy on the special effects. Don't use transitions and special effects just because they're available. For clips that make up the same scene, use simple cuts. If there's a slight change in time or location, use a dissolve. Use fade to black to signify a major change.

Several programs, like Pinnacle Systems' Pinnacle Studio 8 ($99.99 direct, www.pinnaclesys.com) and ArcSoft's ShowBiz ($47.99, www.arcsoft.com), offer event-specific transitions and effects, which can be wonderfully appropriate.

Follow the rules above and you'll have much more fun while shooting and editing. And most important, your productions will be much more watchable
Figure 3

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