15 lessons learned from a video newbie

The author discovers that filming a YouTube video is more complicated than it looks. The number one lesson? Turn on the mic.

I thought I’d planned everything. I wrote a script and borrowed a camera from work.

But I accidentally muted the mic while filming my first YouTube video, leaving me with lots of silent footage.

My goal was the same as a lot of corporate videos: promotion. My agent is repping my novel about an 18-year-old Russian who encounters his father’s killer at a Chicago deli. I hoped to demonstrate reader interest to publishers.

I tried to apply lessons I learned covering Coca-Cola’s Happiness Project and other video communications. But I discovered that it’s harder than it looks, even if you dragoon your family into playing roles.

Using today’s user friendly, affordable technology just about any business can do video, says Brian D. Olson of Conversation Starters Public Relations. “The only limit is creativity,” he says.

(He also advised me to shorten my video to less than two minutes.)

Here are some more tips:

1. Have fun.

If your video isn’t entertaining, it won’t be shared. As Coca-Cola senior global brand manager A.J. Brustein said, videos must be unexpected, relatable, emotional, and must-see.

In my case, I filmed “interviews” with my characters, who dispute the novel’s accuracy. I play a Russian mobster—although I wouldn’t dignify my efforts with the term “acting.”

Still, why not ham it up on occasion? If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can put out zombie survival guide, maybe you could film a Halloween spoof this year.

2. Simplify.

My video took weeks to finish because of ambitious locations, and because I had to teach myself everything about filming and editing. Believe me, you’ll be glad you started out with a simple one-minute interview.

3. Think visually.

Talking heads bore viewers. If you’re a writer, think verbs, and turn them into footage, or b-roll. “Characters sit and talk” is dull.

I shot boxers punching, boats chugging on the Chicago River, the el train grinding around a corner. If, for instance, your doctor expert is discussing stroke awareness, cut to doctors at work or a patient in an MRI machine.

4. Practice.

If you’re like me, you never read directions. You grab that power drill and start poking holes in walls or misassembling the furniture.

Use that urge to your advantage. Before you create a video for work, put one together at home. Practice by interviewing grandpa about his war experience, weave in old photos, and create a family video history.

5. Make a checklist.

Camera on? Check. Mic plugged in? Check. Mute button off? Check. I wish I’d done all this.

6. Learn about lighting.

Don’t sit your subject in front of a window or you’re likely to have a silhouette.

“Our eyes see different than how the camera sees,” says Paolo Tosolini, who created an internal YouTube-like platform for Microsoft.

That said, it’s possible to have a window backdrop if you add lighting, but you risk ruining your shot if it’s not done right.

7. Check your results at the scene of the shoot.

Play back your video before you leave and check the sound on a headset. If you blew it, you can reshoot.

8. Use a tripod.

People are accustomed to waving that smartphone around and uploading beery pranks to YouTube. But hand-held camerawork by amateurs looks unprofessional. A tripod eliminates the problem.

9. Clear out your camera before the shoot.

Particularly if you’re filming in high-resolution, have enough space on your card. You don’t want to stall during a shoot.

10. Check in advance for background noise.

The shouting in the background in my boxing gym scenes added to the atmosphere. But the buzzing refrigerators at the deli were annoying. In a Ragan webinar, my former colleague Kyle Forney recommends filming while nobody is talking and playing it back to see which sounds you may have caught.

11. Use a microphone.

And hold it still. My cheap mic picked up every scrape of the cameraperson’s fingers. I eventually bought a clip-on, but my inexperience led to low volume.

12. Get a professional editing platform.

I used Windows Live Movie Maker, which is a free download designed for home videos. But it is limited, and my video-producing colleagues at Ragan recommend Adobe Premier Elements, a professional program. Tosolini also suggests Sony Vegas Pro.

13. Edit in widescreen.

Under the “project” tab, Movie Maker offers a choice between widescreen and standard formats. “Standard it is!” I thought.

Wrong. This would have framed my work in black when I posted it on YouTube. My colleague Brian Malone returned it to widescreen, or 16:9 format. This should be used for any video you edit for YouTube.

14. Know your limitations.

Do-it-yourself is great for home movies, not for business, says Dave Sniadak, project manager for Axiom Marketing Communications.

“If you’re trying to produce a company overview that incorporates lots of b-roll, sound bites from employees, and even testimonial snippets from customers, consider hiring a pro who can weave everything together,” he says. “If all you’re doing is a 30-second vlog about a trade show you were at, DIY might work.”

15. Find workarounds.

Something will go wrong. Forgive yourself, and either reshoot or find a creative workaround in the edit.

I couldn’t demand that my eldest kid take more time off to reshoot after I goofed up the sound. Luckily, the video was fine. So I filmed him reading the lines as narration. I found a website that strips the audio from the video, and used his lines as voiceover. I think it turned out even better.

“Everybody will make mistakes,” Tosolini says, “so it’s important to learn from them.”

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