Recent discussions have challenged me to put my money where my mouth is. I've complained a lot lately about bad video to the point where I really should just dump all my thoughts into one thread right now. So here is my experience as a digital video director on how you can improve your magic/manipulation videos right now. 1. Check Your Equipment The truth is that for your purposes, any recording device better than a cell phone will do. Take a stroll down to Best Buy sometime. Digital video technology is cheaper than ever but unless you get seriously ambitious HD is a luxury that you really don't need. I suspect within a couple of years, HD cameras will be even more affordable than they are now, but don't stress out over it. Just check some Amazon reviews on the camera you're looking at and try to get a good deal. If you do cheap out and just use your buddy's cell phone, go ahead and use the microphone too and instead of recording magic record a black metal music video. If it sounds a bit like the Iron Giant trying to eat a combine harvester, chances are the Norwegians will love it. That said, do you have a microphone? If you want to record sound and not just sync everything to music, you should probably invest in a cheap but serviceable mic. Bad picture quality is one thing, but bad sound is something viewers will never forgive you for. I'm not naming any names, but I recall a young man whose videos all had audio that was an extinction level event for ear canals. The word to look for when shopping for a new mic is "cardioid." What this means is that the mic's field of sound it picks up is in a heart shape with the tip straight in front. Most cameras have a built in omnidirectional mic. As the name suggests, omnidirectional means that it picks up everything within a certain radius. Why is that a problem? So glad I asked. Turn off any audio you're playing now and just take a moment to listen to all the ambient sounds in the room. The hum of your computer and the cooling fans. Birds outside. Your victim in the crawl space. Your brain has something called the reticular activating system that allows you to tune all that out. The microphone doesn't. Yes, that means exactly what you think it does. All of those noises and more are going to come through in the video loud... and... clear. Another thing to look for is a windscreen for your microphone. This is the black foam thing you see on mics that looks a bit like a condom made by Nerf. You can't unsee that, can you? As the name implies, this device is designed specifically to keep wind from interfering with the sound. You can always tell a video that didn't have a windscreen when you hear a noise like WWWHHHOOORRRRKKKGGGHHH. See my earlier reference to black metal. When you get your new camera, take some time to read the instructions. Figure out how to adjust aperture, shutter speed and white balance. Aperture is how big the iris behind the lens is when recording and shutter speed is how long the shutters forming the iris stay open. A wider aperture and slower shutter speed let in more light, but often make the picture blurrier. Personally I think slow shutter speed photography is pretty awesome, but it's probably not the effect you're looking for in your video. White balance will adjust your camera to the color tone of the ambient light. Fluorescent bulbs for example are closer to white than incandescent bulbs, which are more yellow, so you need to adjust accordingly to make the colors in the video look proper. Don't worry, it's much easier than it sounds as the camera will do the work for you once you pick the appropriate setting. Used to be you had to do that with chemicals, and not the kind that give you superpowers either. Finally, if you're using a handheld camera, there is one essential piece of equipment most people overlook: a tripod. A halfway decent tripod really isn't that expensive. Most of them are designed for amateur photographers and are easy to come by. Trust me, you don't need anything fancy. Does it have three legs and a place to screw in the camera? Does it not fall over when used? Good, you're done. Can't get a tripod? Next best thing: pay a living statue performer 5 bucks. If you absolutely have to use a webcam, just make sure your face is in the shot. And if you use handheld, have your buddy hold it near the bottom of his ribs instead of his head. It gives you a better looking shot. 2. Check Your Software So you've got a flash drive or SD card full of magic or spinning pens or your acoustic cover of Wonderwall. Now what do you do with it? Now you have to edit. The good news is that free editing software is plentiful and some of it is actually decent. The bad news is that the temptation to misuse it will be awful. More on that later. Rather than busting the bank on the Adobe Production Suite or Final Cut Pro, try something off this list of free video editing programs. Nothing that's going to set the world on fire, mind. But for your purposes it will do unless you decide to enroll in film school. In which case, might I recommend temping to pay the bills? You should probably also look into downloading Audacity for sound editing. For a freeware program, it does a decent amount of stuff. Familiarize yourself wit the essential tools for cleaning up audio and removing things like hisses, pops, rumble, etc and you're good to go. If you're feeling saucy, go ahead and record a backwards message like Electric Light Orchestra. Being more like ELO is being more awesome. When exporting the finished product, make sure to check that the file isn't going to be too big and is a lossless format. The MPEG formats are generally acceptable for this. Keep a master copy in the editing software's unique extension if you can afford the space. Just in case. A lossy file format loses data every time it's saved. This is why some of those jpegs in your NSFW folder look like they were made of Lego. So now you've got the hardware, you've got the software, but people still say your video looks like ass. What next? 3. Cinematography 101 You've heard of photography, I assume? Cinematography is basically that with moving pictures. Big name, simple idea. Cinematography is a long and complicated subject that filmmakers will spend a whole career studying and mastering. But I only have a couple paragraphs and am still working on my thesis. So let's just cover the pure basics. First, let's figure out how to frame a short. Let's not discuss high angle vs low angle vs Dutch angle (that's not a joke, that's seriously a thing) as those are unlikely to be important. The best type of shot for this subject matter is the medium shot. The framing is pretty simple: bottom of the frame cuts off at about the knees or thighs and there's a few inches of room over the top of the person's head. If you're performing for someone, and you really should, put them on the left side of the shot and yourself on the right. That's the direction the eyes want to go in. You want to see a cool subversion of this principle? There are shots in Halloween where Michael Meyers enters from the right and exits from the left. It feels visually wrong and dissonant, making him appear even more menacing. Cool, huh? Don't do this unless you're John Carpenter, by the way. If you are John Carpenter, I want to tell you that The Thing was awesome. Also, I had no idea you were into magic, so I guess that's cool too. Most magic videos are shot in closeup or extreme closeup of the hands. Senor Wences is dead, guys. Let it go. The problem with closeups is they put far more scrutiny on your hands at the cost of everything else. Remember, audiences want to watch you because of you. You are not your hands, you're a person.