15 Top Tips & Professional Secrets For How To Make Better Videos


As someone who’s spent many years working in television, I usually get requests for advice on how to make videos look better at this time of the year.  A lot of people received new video cameras over the holidays, they’ve tried them out, and don’t understand why their movies look pretty… Ed Wood-ish. I probably should have posted this BEFORE Christmas, but better late than never…

So here is a list of my personal best practices and tips:

  1. Think about your end product before you start shooting. Is this going to be a 2 minute video?  Is it going to be a 2 hour opus?  Is it just for your family to watch or is it going up on YouTube for the whole world to check out?   Is it a montage of your kids opening Christmas presents or is it a documentary about holiday traditions?  Is it supposed to be funny, informative, sweet, sad, or dramatic?  How much context does your audience need to understand it?  Is your audience younger or older? 
    If you know the answers to these questions, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort. You’ll also have taken your first step to a focused video shoot, which is a must-have ingredient in a great final product.
  2. Create a shot list. One step further than thinking about your end product is making yourself a shot list BEFORE you shoot – think about and write down the scenes and specific shots you want to get before you ever turn the camera on.  There will always be a lot of great moments you get that aren’t on your list, but having a strong game plan always leads to a better end product. 
    It’s like doing research before an interview, or writing an outline of an article before beginning the actual script.
  3. Find a stable body position to shoot from. Brace your elbows against your body and keep your feet shoulder width apart.  Essentially, try to make your body into a human tripod – balanced, stable, and solid. Or, better yet, use a REAL tripod.
  4. Don’t use the zoom button.   There are some occasions when a zoom in or a zoom out makes sense.  BUT, for the most part, once you’re recording, DON’T TOUCH IT.  When it’s not done well (ie: by a professional), it’s distracting and annoying and can even make people feel nauseous.  So before you hit the record button, zoom in or out to frame the shot the way you want and then LEAVE IT ALONE once tape is rolling.
  5. Record pre-roll and post-roll. Hit the record button and let it roll for a few seconds before capturing any significant moment, and then let it roll 3-4 seconds past where you want to stop before stopping recording.  This will make editing your video MUCH easier and ensure that your magic moment is in fact captured and usable.  Often, if you just hit record and the action starts right away, your video editing system can have problems importing it.  (it has to do with difficulty loading in footage too close to a break in the timecode)
  6. Hold your shots for at least 3 seconds. This mostly applies to cutaway shots, but it’s a very important tip – during a shoot, it’s easy and tempting to want to keep the camera moving and find your next shot.  When you’re shooting video, it’s almost like everything moves in slow motion – what SEEMS like a long time to you actually isn’t very long at all. 
    So even when you think you’ve ‘got the shot’, keep still for another 2-3 seconds to make sure before you move on to something else.
  7. Frame everything tighter than you think by about double. People new to video like to get everything in the shot, so they leave the camera on the widest shot possible.  And while it’s important to have an establishing shot (a big wide shot to show everyone where you are and what your location looks like), LEAVING it wide the whole time is an awful viewing experience.  Big and wide means that there’s no detail, no facial expressions, no subtlety.  Get in tight.  Fill the the frame with faces and actions.
  8. Shoot from multiple angles and depths. If you want to be able to edit your video and make it nice and short (and watchable), you need to shoot from more than one angle.  Get a wide establishing shot of the building, room or location where you’re shooting (your big wide shot!).  Then get some medium shots.  Move on to get some tight shots. Shoot from several angles.  And always get more than you think you’ll need.  Because you will need these shots and the more the merrier. 
    In other words, give yourself some editing options.  The ability to cut back and forth between different angles will truly save your video once you start editing and make it look much more professional.
  9. Don’t shoot EVERYTHING. Shoot scenes.   Shoot sequences. Start and stop the camera.  Capture moments – not the entire event. You’ll thank me later when you have to import less video into your computer for editing.  Honestly, there’s nothing worse than scanning through hours of footage when you’re looking to make a 2 minute video.
    Strive for a shooting time to final edit ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 at worst.
  10. Get close-ups of what people are talking about or doing. Listen to what people are saying . If they’re talking about something specific that could benefit from your viewers actually seeing it, get a close-up shot of it. 
    If you’re shooting the making of the Christmas turkey, get some shots of the turkey!  Get a close up shot of the oven being turned on, a shot of the stuffing getting jammed into the turkey, a shot of the baster in action, a shot of the turkey getting slid into the oven.  Even if it seems awkward, ask them to do it a couple of times until you’ve got the right shot.  It’s worth it!
    Having these shots will let you create great looking sequences AND give you loads of cutaway shot options to cover edits where you’ve shortened up what people are saying or doing.
  11. Get your video a narrator. If you can, always to do a short interview with someone – ask them very basic questions and get them to respond in complete sentences.  For example, if you’re making a video about your kids opening their gifts, ask them:
    • -What day is it? (It’s Christmas Day)
    • -What are you doing?  (We’re opening our gifts)
    • -What are you excited about? (I’m excited to see what Santa brought…)

    You can ask the questions before you start, but it’s generally better to do it after you’ve finished the event  – that way you can ask specifically about things that happened:

    • -Tell me about the presents you opened this morning.  (I opened a doll from Granddad…)
    • -Tell me how you were feeling when you opened the remote controlled car…  (When I opened the remote controlled car, I felt…)

    Basically, you want to have someone (or several people) become the narrator(s) for the event.  You can use this as the skeleton for your story in the editing software.

    I’ll often start the edit with laying down the interview clips in the order that I want – set the stage in the beginning, explain the story, and wrap up with a nice soundbite, and then go back and flesh it out with other scenes and cutaway shots.

  12. Cut, cut, cut! Once you get to editing, be relentless.  Again, cut, cut, cut! Leave the gold in the final edit, but cut the rest out.  It’s ALWAYS better to leave your audience wanting more instead of leaving them bored.  This is especially true if the audience isn’t your family and it’s up on YouTube.
  13. Don’t use the transitions in your editing program. Wipes, explosions, page turns, slides, and any other tacky transition effect is the surest sign of an amateur video maker.  Try to make the video work with straight cuts or basic edits.  If you must, use dissolves to cover your tracks.  But unless you’re George Lucas, please don’t use clock wipe or any other ‘cool’ transition.
  14. Think beginning, middle, end in the shoot and the edit suite. Grab people’s attention off the top, give them the meat in the middle, and end with a strong, memorable moment.  This is the essence of story structure and regardless of what your video is about, you need to tell a story.  Think about it before you start and make sure it’s all there when you’re editing.
  15. Once you’ve finished your first pass at an edit, go back and cut the running by 1/3 to 1/2. This is basically a restatement of ‘cut, cut, cut’ but it bears repeating.  Please say no to your own Citizen Kane magnum opus instincts. Trust me – you’re the only one who wants to see something more than 3 minutes long.  Every ‘director’ falls in love with their own footage.  You shot it and you’re heavily invested in it. 
    But you’re ultimately making your video for an audience, and you must keep them in mind at all times – you need to keep the story moving and keep the running time down as low as possible.  Be brutal.  Make the video as tight as you can possibly make it.  They will thank you.

    ***AND ONE BONUS TIP  for the anal-retentive and high achievers.***

  16. The Paper Edit. If you’re REALLY, REALLY invested in making a great video, what most serious TV producers do is prepare a paper edit before they get into the editing room.  That means sitting down and going through ALL of your footage and transcribing it.  Yes, transcribing it. 
    It’s the ugly secret of TV production.  Everyone HATES to do it, but they do it because it works.  Describe each and every shot along with the associated timecode.  Write down exactly what everyone says and the timecode where they say it. 
    And then cut and paste and rearrange all of those elements into a script.  Move pieces around, edit out parts of sentences that seems too long or redundant.  Look for cutaway shots to cover the places that you’re making ugly edits, etc. 
    Once you’ve got a solid paper edit done, doing the actual edit is a breeze.

That’s it for my short list of video production tips.  I know there’s a TON that I’m missing and I also know that some excellent TV producers and directors visit this blog.  So let’s hear some more ideas!

What are your best tips for making great videos?

What the other big video mistakes that you, your friends, or your family make?

Posted Monday, December 29th, 2008 under Creativity, Featured, Traditional Media.