Everyone wants online travel video, but few know how to make it. Those in the film/TV crowd frequently tout there’s only one way, which can seem like building up 60-second online piece with the same costly, back-scenes architecture of a Hollywood epic. But this is dated thinking. While the DIY video world can ruffle the feathers of industry TV/film types — much like bloggers do with newspaper reporters — it’s clear the DIY world isn’t going away.
No doubt, it is much easier to make bad video than good video. Unlike taking photos on a digital camera, repeat practice won’t necessarily reward with any improvement. But with just a little training (and willingness to experiment and fail), one can make effective DIY travel videos that add to the Greater Travel Conversation.
I’m mostly a self-taught videographer. I’m not necessarily a “video expert,” but I’ve made over 100 DIY travel videos that have done a few good things (here are a few favorites). This article isn’t a substitute for formal training, but is a head start into making DIY video.
If you’ve not noticed, online ads are booming, breaking over $4 billion this year. And online ads are effective too; last year 183 million Americans watched online ads (up 56% in the past five years), and they remember them more than ones seen on TV. Now that YouTube loads six billion hours of video a month — double from a year ago — we’re sure to see more and more travel video. And most of that will be very very bad OR very very expensive.
But it doesn’t have to be either. That is, as long as your answer to the following question is “no.”
It’s 1981, and a cheap video camera is on the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger has made a regretful pants decision and is making stutter-step moves before a plain black background. Soon the rest of the band leans into frame. You see hairy armpits, and Keith Richards in a fantastic brown jacket break from guitar-synching to check his pick (see below). This is the video for “Start Me Up.” There is no “director.” It is thrown together, poorly acted, and probably cost $335 to make. But it also happens to be one of the great rock videos of all time.
Two years later, the Stones have another song to promote (“Undercover of the Night”), and hire the trendy British director Julian Temple to create a cinematic video in Mexico with elaborate sets of riot police, wrecked cars, executions and fake moustaches. It probably cost a million bucks, and while the video isn’t bad, it’s more than rock fans are really asking for.
It’s the same dilemma for online travel videos.
You could go “pro.” By hiring a company that might say you “need’ PAs, camera guys, scripts put together in remote bungalows by “producers” you never meet, time-lapse shots, laid-over electronica beats. These videos look great — and should at a cost of up to $10,000 each.
Or you could go barebone. Once a TV/film producer told me my hand-held footage “couldn’t be used.” I regularly have used such footage, and made the news (if not “a grown man cry”) with DIY videos like this, and this, and this.
As with writing, having something to say has always trumped “penmanship.”
I break down travel videos into three types:
- A story. A two-minute “story” video is akin to writing a 1000-word article (on a destination, an event, a person, or even a “news” story). This means some sort of “arc” to follow, with some sort of information to deliver to the viewer. This video on Lower Manhattan secrets is like a proxy article, giving local “insider” secrets to a busy corner of New York.
- An experience. Follows the host “doing” something in place, and showing what happens in a more personal way. (If it’s on the Travel Channel that would likely mean eating vast amounts of pulled pork, or bugs.) Often the host talks to the camera with extravagant gestures. My video “The Full Mountie” recounted my “travel” experience at Mountie boot camp in Saskatchewan.
- A thing. I’m making this one up, but bear with me. A “thing” is a living, breathing POI (“point of interest”) that you can have pop out from an article. For example, I played around with 15-second videos for Tout, such as this one about the famous Woody Allen/Diane Keaton bench scene from the film Manhattan. That could fit as an add-on of an article on famous movie scenes you can visit in New York City. I think “things” are an underutilized, easy-to-make genre of travel videos, and the easiest place to start.
I’ve dabbled with DIY video for years. Patching up chords between two old VCRs to dub skits or fake lacrosse league shows. But I had never taken a course or opened Final Cut Pro when Lonely Planet suggested I do “something viral” with video a few years ago. So I grabbed some crayons, some old video footage I had from Saigon, and experimented for about half an hour. The result was the first “episode” of the “76-Second Travel Show.”
I didn’t really know what the “show” was at first. But after doing a couple more, I found a form to follow as a “series,” which was very helpful for planning more and giving a sense of consistency across a range of videos.
I treated each episode as a “question of the week” that I’d ask myself (eg “Vikings versus pirates? Who’d win?,” “It’s sand that makes a great beach, but what is sand?“). Then I tried to approach an answer from a few directions: usually stats I researched (demonstrated by hand-drawn graphs; I loathe PowerPoint), a quote from an “expert” connected with the story (sometimes recorded by speaker phone, pitifully, like with this Daniel Boone reenactor), and some sort of travel-y “on the ground” footage to fill it out.
I’d deem “76” a big DIY success. Hilariously, the New York Times tried to crack the code of why the “76-Second Travel Show” wasn’t 76 seconds (I was flattered.) Later Lonely Planet and I collaborated with Canada Tourism on a video series based on what I did with 76.
I’ve made many mistakes in my DIY videos too, all of which became clearer a year after “76” started when I took a short video class with RosenblumTV. Here are some of the ones I hope you can avoid.
A. DURING PREP STAGE
The worst thing I’ve done is just aimlessly show up with a video camera and expect to get a bunch of stuff I could use later. I ended up with way too much period, and so scattered of footage I couldn’t really piece anything together in edit. Prep means plan.
As a writer, I treat a video with about as much research and time as I would a 1000-word article. Which is a lot. I research. I set up interviews. I plan some shots I might want. I sometimes draft notecards for reference on location (never a “script”!).
Also consider what type of video beforehand. I did some videos linked to news stories — one of the Royal Wedding for instance — but found that general, evergreen topics (an interview with Iron Maiden, or preference between aisle or window seats on a plane) do better in the short and long run.
And do have something to say. Make sure your video will ADD to the conversation of a place by researching beforehand.
B. WHILE SHOOTING
1) Shoot as little as you can.
Some “pros” will tell you aim for a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio: for every two or three minutes shot, you have a minute of video you can use. That’s totally unrealistic for me, though I try to get around 5:1 or 6:1. In some cases, I’ve had literally HOURS of footage to create a four-minute video. That wastes a lot of time in edit.
2) Don’t cut off people’s heads.
I love getting “locals” on camera. Too often I didn’t get the whole local though. It’s easy to accidentally cut off off critical parts of someone’s anatomy when you are a one-person crew and trying to look someone in the eye while holding a camera. So, tell them where to look beforehand (usually just off camera), consider using a tripod to keep the camera set, but don’t feel like it’s rude to keep watch of your viewfinder.
And yes, this horrible shot is actually in a video:
3) Frame shots photographically, and closely.
The video shot should be as compelling as a photo you take. Think before you hit record. If someone you’re talking to has a giant shadow across their face (as I did below) or backlit by sun, stop them and get them into a better position. And don’t be afraid to GET CLOSE. Many people consume online videos on mobile devices, so zero in on subjects — put cameras as close to objects/people as you can.
4) Hold camera still.
Unless you’re really good, your attempts at panning the camera will probably fail. You can generate movement by keeping the camera still and shooting moving things instead. If a person you’re videotaping points off the camera at a “sleeping bunny in a field,” don’t turn. Let them finish what they’re saying, then afterwards get that bunny on a separate shot. You can cut-away to it during editing.
I learned at the Rosenblum workshops the approach of simply getting 8- to 10-second still shots of things and people. Guy whittling a flute? Get four shots, 8 to 10 seconds each, camera kept still. Close-up of knife against wood. Close-up of guy’s face looking down at off-screen knife. Close-up over shoulder of action. Then shot of full scene from side.
5) Clean your lens.
Too often I’ve not cleaned my video camera lens, which is just dumb. If you’re going to the trouble to take hours to make a video, at least carry a wipe to clean the lens. This shot, from a cheap Flip camera and in the snow, has marks all over it:
B. DURING EDIT (aka “post-production”)
The scary part. I’m not going to be able to offer any step-by-step instruction on using iMovie or Final Cut Pro to edit your beast. But I will share lessons to consider once you’re back in your cubicle splicing it all together.
1) Put logo/website early or throughout.
My online videos have had a “viewing retention” percentage of about 30-35%, meaning a third of people who click “play” end up watching it all — and that grade of a flat “F” is actually good. So, yeah, most people who “watch” aren’t watching the whole thing. If your website is only shown at the end, most people won’t see it.
2) Start with your “hit single” shot.
In 1984, Billy Squier shocked Tulsa by starting his concert with his new, huge hit song “Everybody Loves You.” Many fans were left fidgety the rest of the way, knowing the biggie was past them. That’s often bad policy in rock’n’roll, but it is exactly what you must do to keep finicky online video viewers watching.
Don’t save the best shot. Start strong. Make your opening shot arresting, one of the most compelling images on its own, or a soundbyte, that gets people going “WHAT IS THAT?” or “WHO IS THAT?” or “WHY IS THAT?” If you can get them into the next segment, 10 seconds in, you might win the prize.
I’ve not always done this very well. I liked my video on how great the forts are around Niagara Falls, but I doubt I could have picked a less-enticing lead-in shot than this:
Probably would have been better to just show the following shot, pause, then say in voice-over, “THIS IS A TOURIST TRAP… but it can be saved.” Or “This is Niagara Falls, but it’s NOT the reason to go to, um, Niagara Falls.” Hopefully a viewer would at least hang on to find out why.
3) Audio > video
Someone who had worked for BBC-TV for years once told me that a glitch on broadcast sound got about 20 times the complaints than any visual problem. People forgive dodgy visuals long before they forgive dodgy audio. Many cheap video cameras accommodate external mics. Get one if you can.
The audio of some of my footage has been so hard to understand I’ve added subtitles. Here’s a gem of mine that gets two points for bad audio and bad framing.
4) Test your sound before recording.
Many people wear simple headphones to be sure sound’s getting picked up throughout an interview, but at least test sound first. (Record a bit, play back, make sure audio is OK.)
I once shot an hour of priceless footage of Rush’s Toronto, retracing the band sites including the lead actor in their classic video “Subdivisions.” But my mic was broken. And nearly all of it came out silent. So, yeah, you can see I got to hold Rush’s Hollywood star at the band office, but we’ll never get to hear the Rush office manager call Rush fans “nerds.”
5) Curb your interviews.
Unlike in writing, often it’s the simple quote, not a lengthy New Yorker-worthy passage, that makes the biggest impact. Check out the basic “this right here is the granddaddy of them all” in the video on Boley, Oklahoma’s rodeo (at the 0:43 mark). I talked with that guy for 20 minutes about the ins/outs (and fears) of rodeo, much of it fascinating, but recorded only a minute. It was all I needed.
6) But not always.
In some cases, when shooting an interview, I simply let it roll. In a video on New York’s African Burial Ground, for example, I interviewed three park rangers. Towards the end of my last interview, with an African American ranger who had moved from Arkansas specifically to work at the site, I looked up from the camera, and casually asked, “wow, what does all this mean to you?” Almost as if the interview were done.
Of the three interviews, and about 30 minutes of “tape” that came off pretty canned, her candid, emotional response was the lone soundbyte I included in the video.
7) Keep the video short.
People have short attention spans online. Two minutes tops, a minute is better.
8) Call it a “show.”
I learned with “76” that if you call something a “show” people actually believe it is one! I’m convinced I wouldn’t have been invited to speak on video at TBEX or the New York Times Travel Show without a “show” in my back pocket.
At first I only used my laptop cam and a $99 FlipVideo cam, then upgraded to a $300 Sanyo Xacti and a monopod to take video of myself (and not be limited to forehead shots). After awhile I got a tripod (still used sparingly), added an $80 external mic (which broke during the Rush’s Toronto shoot), then upgraded my camera to the compact $600 Sony HDR CX-580V (which I love) and a fancy Sony wireless mic. All videos were edited on iMovie. Crayons run about $5. I’m happy with this set up.
Oh, one more thing.
That resulted in the following video. I was the first American guy to get to stay at Mountie boot camp in over half a century. And it was shot by a friend in Regina who had never really used a video camera before. I gave her a handful of notecards (including the title card above) with some of the barebone instructions I’ve shared in this article. And let it go.
I thought it came out pretty good.