It’s an inevitable frustration when a film you’ve spent days, weeks or months working on hits the internet only to come off looking amateurish. It’s accepted the cat flushing the toilet will always get more views, but it sucks doubly when toilet-cat actually is better.
The storytelling and journalism aside, it’s often down to mistakes that could be corrected in an instant. I do a lot of video training and lecturing and I’ve noticed that these mistakes are often technical ones: video is a complicated medium and the language of codecs, bit rates and colour correction put people off.
No more! Here are ten things you can do right away that will have a near instant improvement on your videos.
A quick caveat: implementing all of these won’t rescue poor storytelling – that always rules supreme. If you want to get good at storytelling, make sure you know about this new book project.
.01 Use a tripod
A really common mistake for beginner filmmakers make is to ignore the tripod. Seriously, there is no quicker way to turn an amateur shot into a professional one than putting the camera on some sticks. As VJ expert Michael Rosenblum says: DNMTFC! Handheld has its place of course, either for effect or out of necessity, but as cameras get smaller & lighter they get more prone to shake. In my experience, anything from a DSLR down to an iPhone needs proper stabilisation.
Right away: Buy a cheap tripod (don’t worry about fluid head ones if you’re a beginner) and take it everywhere.
.02 Shoot closer
The other big mistake committed during the shooting process is to shoot too wide. Shots meander from a wide shot to a mid shot and then back out to a wide shot. Yawn.
The real interest for viewers is in the detail, so get close to your subjects and shoot lots of closeups.
Closeups have an added advantage of getting you out of continuity errors in the edit. But the real reason for more closeups than anything is this: online, most of your audience will be watching on Youtube or Vimeo – through a window about 640 pixels wide. At this size even a medium-close-up (the standard framing for interviews) is too wide for us to see the details we need to see.
Right away: whenever you’re filming from now on look for closeups and get at least 5 from each scene.
.03 Start strong
I’ve written before about the importance of the first 10 seconds of your video. Audiences will leave if you haven’t hooked them by then. So put a lot of effort into a strong opening for your film when you’re editing.
If you’re stuck for inspiration, use your best shot – the shot that tells the story – and your strongest piece of audio.
Right away: Consciously look for the telling shot, the image that sums up the whole story, or the most explosive or intriguing image to start the piece, and use that at the start.
.04 Control the thumbnail
This one is so simple, it makes me sad to see it overlooked. The thumbnail is the still frame that displays when your video is first loaded (and before you click play). Sometimes it’s referred to as a poster frame and it is effectively an advertisement for your video: so make it good. I see so many videos where the author has just left the default picture up. If it’s on Youtube, that’ll be the frame right in the middle of the video.
As well as potentially being boring, blurry or out of focus, the thumbnail often catches people mid-blink, or with their mouth gawping open. Vimeo also gives you the option to upload your own image, so there’s great potential to create a distinctive and enticing poster-frame for your video.
Right away: if you’re using Youtube, go to the Video Manager, click ‘edit’ on the video you’re changing, and scroll down to ‘Video Thumbnail’ to select the best one. If you’re on Vimeo, you’ll have a wider selection in the ‘Settings’ tab, and the opportunity to upload your own.
.05 Get Vimeo Plus
Speaking of Vimeo, if you use the service regularly, and take your video seriously, then I think upgrading to a Vimeo Plus account is a worthwhile investment. It’s roughly $70 plus a bit of tax depending on where you live for an annual membership. The benefits are impressive: you 3x more uploading space a week, and all of them can be in HD (as opposed to just one). You also get more detailed analytics, and you can control how your video appears on other websites.
I don’t know a serious online video creator who doesn’t have one.
Right away: (only if you can afford it, and create high definition video on a regular basis) Log into Vimeo and upgrade to the Plus account.
.06 Meta data
Another silly mistake made all over the web – often by companies, newspapers or magazines – is to forget the meta data. The laziest uploaders barely bother to change the title from ‘Final_version.mov’ and ignore description, categories and tags.
Why does this matter? You’ve probably heard video described as a ‘black hole’ on the web. This is because Google’s spiders can’t crawl video files to work out what’s in them. Until HTML5 and cool projects like Popcorn.js becomes more widespread, a video file is virtually invisible in search engine results. So the description, tags and categories matter – they’re the only thing that identifies your video.
Right away: make sure all your videos have really detailed descriptions (transcripts if necessary), lots of tags, and are categorised in someway. Make sure your tags are semantic and properly identify who, what and where is featured in the video itself.
.07 Get your audio straight
A common problem on videos when they’re uploaded is drifting audio. It might be in sync when you filmed and edited it, but that disappears when you watch it online. I’m not 100% sure of the cause of this myself (if you know for certain, please enlighten me in the comments) but through experience and some research I think it’s to do with the sample rate of the audio itself. Audio commonly is played at either 44.1kHz or 48kHz, and the drift happens when you switch from one to the other.
Vimeo & Youtube can only support 44.1kHz, so if your camera or audio device records at 48kHz that might be the cause of the problem.
Right away: if you’re having trouble with audio, then investigate what sample rate you record & edit in.
.08 Basic colour correction
Another quick hit is to do some very basic colour correction to your footage. Cameras have different colour temperatures, and often pictures come out over saturated, too red, or too flat.
I would recommend two changes that improve almost every shot. Firstly, adjust the contrast of your image, to make the dark parts darker and the bright parts a little brighter. Play it by eye, and make sure nothing is blown out when you do it. Secondly, pull back on the saturation of the image – not much, just a little to give it a cooler, washed out look. I used both of these regularly when I started out, even though I wasn’t using industry standard software.
Right away: if you’re using a popular edit software (Final Cut, Adobe Premiere, Sony Vegas etc) find out how to adjust these settings. If your edit platform doesn’t allow these changes, then you can now edit them after uploading them, using Youtube’s Video Manager (see below).
.09 Compress for the web
One of the biggest problems video uploaders struggle with are the technical details of video. I often see videos that were shot in HD that look pixellated once online. This is usually because they’ve been compressed in the wrong way.
There are lots of different file formats and codecs for video and I’ll spare you the class. However, for publishing on the web, the variations are quite simple. Firstly, for most videos, in my opinion, it’s worth exporting at 1280×720 (72op), even though it’s not the largest size. This is because Vimeo & Youtube convert videos to this size anyway, so you might as well upload it that way, to save on file size.
For the web there are a variety of file types: .mp4, .mov, .avi, and .flv to name a few. The first three are good because they all use the h.264 codec – this is the one that takes big HD files and has an almost loss-less compression (high quality but a low file size).
Right away: if you’re shooting in HD, stick to 720p and be sure to compress your video into either a .mp4, .mov or .avi file using h.264 before uploading.
.10 Get the right bit-rate
Finally, there’s one other thing that affects how good video looks when it’s uploaded, and that is the data rate or bit-rate of the compression. I’m no expert, but pretty much the rule is the more bits, the high quality the video will be (again, if you can offer more clarity in the comments, please do!)
That said, Youtube & Vimeo put limits on the bitrate for their videos – to around 5000kbps for HD video. So if you’re using compression software like MpegStreamclip, Apple Compressor or Handbrake, you can make your file size smaller by limiting data rates to this level too.
Right away: learn how to use Compressor or MediaEncoder if you have it. If not, download MpegStreamclip or Handbrake (they’re free) and learn how to use them.
As always, I’d love to hear more ideas for your own quick hits that make video better. Like I say, it won’t repair poor storytelling, but at the same time, it’s a shame to see a good story lose out because of things that can be fixed so easily.