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Producing How-to Video

Some of the most visually compelling video on the Web is educational. How-to video is a fast-growing genre that ranges from professionally produced exercise videos like’s series on Pilates (FIGURE 4.16) to amateur efforts produced like home videos.

Figure 4.16

Figure 4.16 Pilates Class, one of a series on The text instructions allow the lesson to work even with the sound turned off. ( groups instruction into series. One on Pilates shows an instructor in a sunlit studio. Each video shows one exercise and how to do it. A running narration explains the benefits and gives tips, while a text overlay emphasizes important points and reinforces instruction. The quality of the voice-over sound is good, and a subtle music bed mixed under the voice creates a peaceful atmosphere.

At the other end of the spectrum, many how-to videos are user-generated (Webspeak for “produced by amateurs”). This genre was a lot more fun before advertisers perfected the trick of superimposing their messages over the earnest amateurs (and even worse, started creating fake user-generated videos to create the impression of populist support for their products), but it still works.

There’s a kind of voyeur quality to these homemade videos. Most consist of people standing in front of the camera and declaiming what they want to share, often using comical spokesmodel-style gestures to point out something visual. More sophisticated producers build sequences that tell the story, while making sure there’s enough light and that the sound is good. But it’s what we see in the background that makes these simple videos work. We get a sneak peek into their homes and workshops, and we get to see real people showing what they do and sharing their expertise. Often, the most interesting parts of these videos are accidental.

I was fascinated by a series from Expert Village ( that features Kevin Mouton, a carpenter from Austin, Texas. The videos intrigued me not because the production style was interesting (it wasn’t) but because he seemed to have real information to share. I assumed he’d shot them himself.

It turns out a videographer contacted him and shot the series. Mouton, a carpenter who crafts custom wood furniture, demonstrates carpentry techniques and how to use the power tools of his trade. It doesn’t hurt that he’s really attractive and seems, well, humble (he’s asked that I not publish his photo in the book). He shows, step-by-step, how to change the paper on a belt sander and other practical woodworking skills. The information is practical, and like a master craftsman training an apprentice, Mouton says he thought about how he learned when putting together the videos for Expert Village.

Mouton shows you what to do and how. He’s not a TV-show fix-it guy. He’s a real carpenter with real tools and the video is easy to find. Just search for floor refinishing or belt sander, so you can find it when you really need it.

Before you get started creating your own how-to video, let’s take a look at some of the techniques that are specific to how-to video production.

Planning a How-to Video

Because how-to videos need to make sense, they depend heavily on continuity. The best start with carefully written scripts and storyboards. Many amateur efforts rely on memory or figuring it out as they go along, resulting in a more difficult shoot and a shopping-list structure that’s guaranteed to bore the audience. The result is like listening to a story told with breathless repetition: he reached down, and then he opened the drawer, and then he removed the gun, and then he held up the gun, and then she saw it, and then she screamed. No drama, no buildup, no anticipation.

Even a simple script or shot list will help you keep track of all the shots you want to capture and their order in your finished video. The first step in creating a how-to video is breaking down the process you’re describing into steps. Keep each short, and don’t leave out important details. From these segments you can generate a storyboard for your video, or at least a simple shot list. Once you have your steps and their sequence, decide which ones need close-ups. Varying your shots creates a visual rhythm that gives your audience a chance to relax and take in what you’re saying in between the most important steps.

When you’re explaining how to do something, it’s important to show the steps in sequence to avoid confusing your audience, but it’s not always convenient to shoot them in sequence.

Using Voice-Overs and Narrations

Even if you’re not planning to edit your footage, think about what can be shown and what must be explained verbally. Don’t always show the host describing the process. Include voice-overs, while the footage onscreen shows something other than the host. You can record a narration after you finish shooting or while the camera focuses on the action. Record a little room tone—audio of the room with no one talking at the top of your shoot. It can come in handy if you need to mix sound recorded later with location sound. Just record 10 or 20 seconds of audio when nothing is happening that makes noise. Listen closely, and you’ll realize even quiet rooms have a background sound. Editors like to have that to include in pauses, just as they like a little video footage before and after each shot. Sometimes you’ll find it easier to strip the sound from a live-action sequence to use it as a narration during editing. Room tone helps editors mix sound that’s shot at different times or in different locations together.

If you’re producing for a site other than your own, think about that site’s target audience. If they are older or less experienced than your usual viewers, go slower, show more intermediary steps, and take time to explain why you’re doing things in case viewers need to make substitutions or changes.

Consider adding text and still photos to your Web page to support your video. Think about where the action is and use video to show it. Make sure you have lighting and camera angles that let viewers see details. You may also want to show your audience some common mistakes so they’ll see what happens when they don’t get it right and know how to fix it. If you’re creating a series, adopt a consistent style of introduction and memorable opening and closing title sequences with music.

Creating a Simple Storyboard

Storyboarding, or making sketches of what the shots in your how-to video will look like, will help you plan and save time when you’re shooting. Although off-the-shelf storyboarding software is available, unless you’re doing films or complex corporate videos, you don’t need it. You can map out your how-to videos just as well with two 8"x10" sheets of blank paper. Fold them once lengthwise and once along the width, and you’ll get four rectangular blocks on each page. For a more complicated plan, add more sheets.

Drawing a storyboard also forces you to think about your shots before you look through the camera so you’ll see your project in your mind’s eye before you shoot.

To understand how storyboards work, take a look at a comic book or graphic novel. You’ll see a story told in a series of images. The graphic novels in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series are among my favorites, and it’s no accident that Gaiman, with his strongly developed sense of telling visual stories, has written several movies.

Another way to practice storyboarding is to go out with a still camera and shoot a few individual still shots to practice telling a story in pictures, as Video Shooter author Barry Braverman (see the Braverman interview in Chapter 2, Shooting for the Web) does with his students (FIGURE 4.17).

Figure 4.17

Figure 4.17 These shots of a family visiting the cherry blossoms in Central Park suggest a story.

Doing exercises like these will help to train your eye and help you pay attention to the way people see things and process visual information. Once you understand how the eye works, you can mix up your images and create visual treats and surprises by deliberately breaking continuity.

Or you can do what many new to video do. Try something and see whether it works. If it makes sense to you, check with someone who’s not so close to the project. Then learn from your mistakes. Unfortunately, so many amateurs are now learning how to produce video in public, on the Web, that sifting through the dross of poorly crafted video can be daunting.

You can often figure out a way to do something with a combination of observation, deductive reasoning, and trial and error, but it takes longer, and it’s sometimes painful for viewers to watch. Bring your best work to viewers, or your audience may not come back when you have it all figured out.

Maintaining Visual Continuity

Continuity might seem like a sweet, old-fashioned notion now that MTV-style jump cuts have become the norm. But it’s important to shoot for continuity if your video includes sequences that must make sense to viewers. You can always disrupt continuity with jump cuts once you understand it. Altering time with flashbacks and flash forwards also requires continuity to make sense to viewers.

When you’re creating a video, it’s seldom shot in one long take. Master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock once tried to create a whole movie with just a few very long, very complicated shots. Shooting the movie “Rope” was a difficult challenge that required meticulous storyboarding and military precision during shooting, lots of camera movement, and many assistants pulling focus. You’ll more likely be stringing together several individual shots to create a sequence in the editing room.

To do that you’ll need to plan your shots to get the footage you’ll need to tell your story. Organizing your shots in a way that will make sense to your audience is called shooting for visual continuity. Understanding the basics will make your work easier to understand. It will also save you a lot of time and difficult fixes in the editing room—or worse, needing to reshoot or cobble together a video from footage that’s missing key elements of your story.

Keeping Track of Screen Direction

What makes sense to viewers on video depends in part on the direction things move in across a video screen. The audience gets confused if direction changes arbitrarily. When they stop to think “Wasn’t he just running to the left; now where’s he going?” they’ll stop paying attention to your story. To avoid this, video shooters use what they call the imaginary line to decide the direction they’ll shoot from and to keep things straight for viewers (see Chapter 2, Shooting for the Web, for more about the imaginary line). It keeps things from changing direction onscreen without warning.

It works like this. Say you’re shooting a parade coming down New York’s Central Park West. As the numbered streets reach the 90s, participants turn a corner, and the parade ends. If you stay on one side of the action, they’ll appear to keep moving naturally (FIGURE 4.18). Cross the street, and the direction goes haywire.

Figure 4.18

Figure 4.18 Stay on one side of the imaginary line to ensure visual continuity as shown in the shots of a parade.

The imaginary line helps you keep track of where you need to shoot from to show your viewers what you want them to see without confusing them.

Playing with Time

The imaginary line is just one part of visual continuity. The focal length of your shot, whether you shoot a wide shot, medium shot, or close-up, also helps tell the story.

Watching cooking and home-improvement TV shows is a good way to study visual continuity. But watch closely: all video plays with time, and often steps are left out of a sequence or represented for a disproportionately short time because they’re boring or because there’s little to say about them. Few how-to videos are presented in real time.

What you emphasize in your sequence and what you choose to show in detail shapes your production. For any how-to sequence, you’ll want to pick a starting point. Often you’ll start by showing viewers a finished product to clarify the goal of their efforts and inspire them.

Break down your process, and shoot the steps one at a time. Complicated subjects with many details require more steps. The number of steps and how fast you present them also depends on your audience. If they are experts or already know something about the subject, you can present the setups more quickly and with much less detail. If they’re older or likely to be distracted—say, by having several other windows open on their computer while watching—your video will need to take it slower. The best cooking show hosts make observations and share related information while they work. Encourage your talent to prepare tips and observations to fill in the gaps.

Showing a Process Step-by-Step

Showing a process effectively is the key to producing how-to videos. Sometimes you’ll shoot a project that begs for a sequential approach: a makeover, a construction project, or instructions on how to change the oil in your car. Breaking down a process into steps makes it manageable, as shown in this sequence of a card game (FIGURE 4.19).

Figure 4.19

Figure 4.19 It takes several shots taken at different angles to show a process that takes place over time.

When showing each step in the process, it’s helpful to ask yourself what each shot should communicate and whether it needs help from a graphic or an explanation in the soundtrack to make the point. Even if someone is narrating a process as it’s being shot, it’s helpful to record a clean version of the narration separately. This will allow you to play with time and make it easier to mix other visuals with the audio.

Many beginners doing how-to video on the Web focus the camera on themselves in a medium shot, losing much of the detail of what they’re doing or talking about. Avoid this mistake by making a plan for when you’ll use medium shots, close-ups, and wide shots and when you’ll cut to other types of shots or graphics. Shoot and reshoot from different angles and focal lengths to illustrate different parts of a process.

Some editing programs such as Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Final Cut Pro will let you zoom in on digital footage, but use this sparingly (especially if you plan to deliver in 640x480 or 720x480 from SD source footage, because it will cause pixelation); also, make sure the lighting is good enough to show the details your viewers will want to see (FIGURE 4.20).

Figure 4.20

Figure 4.20 Although it’s possible to zoom in on this clip in Premiere Pro, because it’s being edited in 720x480 SD, you can’t zoom very far without causing pixelation and degrading the image (zoomed version on the right).

If you’re compressing time while showing a process, decide how you will communicate this to your audience. Long dissolves traditionally indicate a lapse in time, but remember that they don’t compress well and will increase the size of your final video if you budget the necessary bits to deliver them effectively on the Web—or they’ll simply look bad.

It’s always important to keep editing in mind when you shoot video and particularly important for instructional or how-to video. When you’re producing a cooking or craft program you’ll want to show viewers a finished product to inspire them. Remember to show your audience a list or visual overview of supplies and equipment needed before you begin the step-by-step instructions. When you do get started, think “baby steps” so people can really follow along.

Don’t expect to shoot a sequence in real time or anything close to it. Reality TV is anything but. More often, it’s highly produced and in documentary style to look like reality, with segments edited (to include cliff-hangers, and red herrings) carefully to build drama. Don’t forget to anticipate any glitches or problems your viewer might encounter while trying to replicate the process. Include a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer if any step in the process is dangerous or poses health hazards.

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