Creator's Guide to Video
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Yesterday a new project by Robin Sloan called Robin writes a book went live, and something about his project jumped out at us immediately: Robin’s video was really, really good. It’s crisp, it’s well edited, and the structure is very strong.
Robin’s bio mentioned that he’s worked with Current, so on a lark I sent him an email asking if he would be willing to pen a little video guide for the community touching on what kind of camera to use, how to edit, how to best capture sound, etc. Robin readily agreed, and his excellent recommendations are below. We thank him for his generous advice, and encourage everyone to check out his project.
I’m no video expert, but — good news! — you don’t have to be a video expert to make a good video for your Kickstarter project. And besides, a lot of the advice you’ll find for general-purpose video production doesn’t apply to this kind of video. So here are some of my Kickstarter-specific tips.
SUPER OCCULT VIDEO CHECKLIST
LIGHT. Your most crucial task is to get lots of light for your camera to work with. This doesn’t mean the picture is going to be brighter; it means it’s going to be sharper. So don’t record your video at night, even indoors. And know that you’re going to have to move lights around; this might make you feel dorky and presumptuous, but that’s how you’ll know you’re doing it right. Get some light coming in from the front of you and some from the side. Any light source works: lamps, windows, even mirrors.
LIGHT, PART 2. This is gonna seem like a silly detail, but try to get a dot of light reflected in your eyes. It makes you look more alive. Seriously! Lights on the other side of the room can supply this. So can a desk lamp, if you cover it with a piece of paper and then punch a small hole through the paper.
SOUND. This is actually even more important than the image. If you have a microphone you can plug into your computer, use it. Otherwise, just make sure you’re in a room that’s quiet and echo-free. Listen for the low, rumbly noisemakers we tend to tune out — refrigerators, air-conditioning units, etc. — and either get some distance or turn them off while you’re recording.
COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. Don’t use music, images, video, or other content that you don’t have the rights to. Using copyrighted material is almost always against the law and can lead to expensive lawsuits down the road. The easiest way to avoid copyright troubles? Either create all the content yourself or use content that is free for public use. For example, you may be able to use some Creative Commons-licensed music — per the terms of their licenses — that's available on Soundcloud.
GEAR. If you’ve got a Mac laptop, the built-in camera works fine. Otherwise, consider using a digital still camera in video mode. They’re a cinch to handle, and it’s easy to get the video onto your computer when you’re finished.
GEAR, PART 2. If you have a friend with one of the newest Nikon or Canon digital SLRs, ask them for help. These cameras can shoot HD video through fancy SLR lenses, and it looks beautiful — better than anything you can get with even a high-end video camera. (I used a Nikon D90 for my video.)
PLANNING. This is just my personal theory, and others might disagree: I think the purpose of a Kickstarter video is to show your face and bring some emotion to the page. Period. So don’t worry about recapitulating all the details. Instead, tell us who you are, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and how you feel about the whole thing.
RECORDING. Here’s what you do: Write a quick outline with three or four bullet points, max. Start recording. Give your spiel. As soon as you’re done, decide what you liked about what you just said. Then, do it again immediately. Repeat this process five times. You’ll notice yourself getting more comfortable and conversational in front of the camera with every take. (Prediction: the best bits will come from your first take and your last.)
RECORDING, PART 2. If you get tongue-tied or flub a line, don’t give up on the take. Just take a breath, look at the camera, and start from where you messed up. You can edit it together later.
EDITING. Focus on isolating the good parts: the really crisp, clear lines, as well as the fun moments where we see something happening on your face — a slow smile, an arched eyebrow, a pregnant pause as you’re searching for the right words. Edit those together in big chunks. Windows Movie Maker and iMovie both work fine for this. Don’t overdo it. You want to showcase the good stuff you recorded, not obscure it with fancy editing.
EDITING, PART 2. Be ruthless. When you think you’re done, take a break, then come back and cut out 25% of the video. YOU MUST. People are going to visit your Kickstarter page, press “play” on your video, and… then what? This is the crucial moment. Put yourself in the seat of a potential backer and make sure your video, especially the first 20 seconds, is pure punch. (Fact: My first cut was 2X as long as the one I ended up using, and began with a wonky exposition on the economies of scale of book publishing. Zzzzz.)
ENCODING. On Windows, use WMV format. On Mac, use H.264. In both cases, the key variable is the “bit rate,” so look for that box. If it’s measured in kilobits per second (kbps), try 1500 to start. If it’s measured in megabits per second (Mbps), try 1.5. If the file is too big: Make that number smaller. If the quality seems bad: Make it bigger.
If anyone has any other tips to add to this discussion, please leave them in the comments.