How Not to Make Videos

It takes a truly special talent to single handedly turn an idea into a video that people will want to watch. One needs to be a:

  1. Writer
  2. Actor
  3. Director
  4. Sound Crew
  5. Video Editing Guru
  6. Effects Specialist
  7. Promotional Expert

All at the same time. Being effective at all of those different tasks while juggling them concurrently is one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever come across. Mistakes are made, frustration builds, and eventually the concession is made to settle for what one has so far. We muddle through each section with the delusion that we’ll just fix all of the minor issues in a later step. A hand creeps into the area where a visual is supposed to appear as though drawn on the paper background? A green screen effect can fix that. The laugh of a co-worker ruins what is otherwise the best take? There’s got to be some way to edit it out later. All of these little traps add up to a noticeable impact on the final quality, and cost a fair amount of time and resources to fix.

When it comes to video, compromises are dangerous things. Like the foundation of a building, each preceding step in the video making process affects the integrity of what is built upon it. Crummy writing can’t be fixed by great acting or production, and bad production can’t truly be fixed in post production. Each stage needs to be executed well. The easiest way to deal with these problems is to simply not work alone.

Having someone around as part of your team, even if they are only there to provide feedback, helps immensely. That extra set of eyes to spot the mistakes and minor imperfections combined with occasional nudges away from compromise are hard to appreciate until the problems they could have prevented begin to pop up. Unfortunately it’s not always possible to have a partner in videography crime.

Writing:

The writing and conceptualization stages are where things get their first chance to go wrong. Even Al Pacino couldn’t fix Jack and Jill. As in the case of Jack and Jill, a fundamentally bad idea or story premise is a quick way to guarantee a lack of success, but the writing stage can also fail in more subtle ways. It’s common for holes and omissions to become apparent only when the video is almost finished. Towards finalization one will find themselves saying things like, if that line had been phrased differently, it would be clear how this leads to that and if we composed that scene like so, we’d have been able to include this effect! And now these writing issues have us shooting pickup scenes, and they drag us back into the issues of the filming and production stages.

CAM00158

Planning for the “How DC Motors Work” video. Stills and notes help to visualize the video thats’s going to be made.

Production:

So now we’ve made it to the production stage. We’ve set up our camera, practiced the lines, and want to get the best possible footage we can. In the interest of continuity, we want to get all the footage shot in the same day, and ideally the same part of the day so that differences in lighting and the sound of a voice don’t become apparent after we chop up the footage and reassemble it the way we want for the final video.

Phidgets isn’t a video production studio though, so we have a large contingent of engineers and developers sharing the office space and doing real work while we toy around with the idea of producing videos. Of course these other employees talk, exchange ideas back and forth, and as mentioned earlier, laugh – loudly and distinctively. And it’s not just office noise; we’re located centrally in an industrial area of Calgary, so there are also the sounds like diesel engines, the overhead flight path, and nonstop patrons of the neighbouring deli around lunch time. This means that not only does one have to contend with the limitations of their own acting talent, they also need to hope that the universe doesn’t conspire to spite the eventual good take with one of these external issues.

Eventually the frustration of environmental noise and poor sounding audio builds up, and so one looks for a means of mitigation. Surely someone far more clever and experienced has solved this problem for us already! And indeed they have, but the solution takes up a fair amount of space, and comes with a steep price tag. So in lieu of that, the compromise is to record the audio from home at 5am on a Saturday when everything is as quiet as it can be.   1941008_696972963692422_1313261478_n

Post Production:

With all of the footage we needed to record done, it’s now necessary to stitch it together into a coherent and polished video. So we get our favourite video editor program up and running, and go to import footage. It imports everything right up to the very last scene, at which point a bug occurs and the editing program refuses to import that clip. Desperate appeals for help are made to Google, but the overwhelmingly common solution of making sure the correct codecs are installed doesn’t help. Besides, other files of the same type and from the same source work. We even go so far as to contact the software vendor for direct support! Finally after a morning of struggle, the solution is discovered; we simply needed to make an entirely new project and re-import all of the footage to that new project file. Wonderful.

  1. Different Source Files: Different sources of video will often have different resolutions and aspect ratios, so the intended format for the final video needs to be decided upon and the footage that doesn’t match needs to be re-sized, cropped or made to fit in some other creative way.
  2. Animations: Sometimes you will want to add other content, like animations. Even short animations take a lot of effort, requiring one to plan the layout and storyboard, draw the base models, carefully configure the tweens, and finally ensure everything is perfect with natural motions and easing.
  3. Audio Overdubs: Perhaps in some scenes the audio track will be an overdubbed narration since it’s easier to get good audio that way. That will have to be added and synchronized.
  4. Sound Effects and Music: Other scenes may need complimentary sound effects, which turn out to be difficult to find and properly licence if you’re in a commercial setting and don’t have the budget to pay for stock material. Luckily we eventually found some good resources.
  5. Cuts and Edits: With all the necessary components collected, the base footage is complete. A few more cuts and snips to put it into scenes and have it arranged into something vaguely resembling the final product.

Now it’s time for the polish. These are the little details that people don’t really notice when done well, but sure notice when they’re not. These details include video and audio transitions, audio mastering, well adjusted brightness and contrast, video effects like speeding up a tedious portion or zooming in on some detail, and informative cues like title cards and other text overlays. Once those final touches are done, that pretty much takes care of everything, the video looks reasonably professional and we’re basically done, right? Nope. Of course, by now we’ve also spotted some issues with the original script and footage, so we decide to go back and correct those issues, and thus the whole cycle starts again!

Promoting and sharing:

Eventually the video gets to a place where it’s ready to be released to the big wild internet, also known as Youtube. It gets eight views, almost all of which originate from coworkers and family. There needs to be some way to extend the reach; It gets shared on social networking accounts like Twitter and Facebook. The views start climbing early, but quickly plateau out at a measly 100 or so. The truth is that social media can’t make a mediocre video go viral, heck it often forgets amazing videos and leaves them in obscurity.

We don’t have the formula figured out, but keep sharing what you do, perfecting your craft, getting feedback and improving what you do so that one day it might pay off.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Take time with each phase of the video creation process. You can’t fix every mistake in post production.
  2. A good recording environment and good equipment is a must. It’s worth the investment if you’ll be doing this regularly.
  3. Do your best to isolate aspects like sound and video where you can. When multiple things need to all go well at the same time, the likelihood they will diminishes.
  4. Have fun! When you have fun making your video, people will have fun watching it.

The simple truth is that video is a difficult medium. I no longer wonder why it costs so much and requires so many people to produce a Hollywood movie. Of course, people manage to produce some impressive videos independently, and you can too! It’s just going to be an uphill battle.


Take these lessons and do something amazing. There are countless independent film-makers doing videos with very little resources. Here’s an example of one who shot their short film, Frame, on iPhones. Please leave a comment with what you’ve been doing and feel free to share any tips you may have.

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Posted in How-Tos
One comment on “How Not to Make Videos
  1. SARI Team says:

    Thank you very much for considering our development for this spectacular video.

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