How To Improve Your Videos Overnight

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Steerpike, Mar 28, 2013.

  1. #1 Steerpike, Mar 28, 2013
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 28, 2013
    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.
  2. #2 Steerpike, Mar 28, 2013
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 28, 2013
    When getting shots of you or a spectator, remember this number: 45. The 45 degree angle is great for bringing out the depth of the objects and people on screen. It gives faces more definition and makes you look more alive. As you get better at making videos, you can eventually work on different angles, but get used to this first. I was going to make a joke about how this is the only appropriate time to talk about "shooting a 45," but that's a little bad taste even for me.

    If you're cutting together multiple shots, always cut on movement. Whenever possible, try to cut on someone exiting the frame. There are times when it's okay to break these rules, but the sense of when to do that comes largely with experience. The advantage this has over other skills is that it's easy to correct mistakes. The same cannot always be said of, for example, cooking, as my local volunteer fire department will attest.

    One last pitfall to avoid is to never point the camera at a window when you're shooting indoors and the sun's coming in. Your camera will try to balance the light out with the unfortunate result every time being that the room will be almost invisibly black while it looks like the sun is going super nova. And while I'm thinking of it, turn off autofocus. Leaving autofocus on is a passive-aggressive way of saying you really hate other people's eyes.

    If you find yourself enjoying the process of creative camerawork, look for a copy of this book at the library or local bookstore.

    At this point do I really need to remind everyone that your junk should not be at the center of the shot? Are we all on the same page on that one? Because as a straight, adult male I really don't want to see your giggle basket.

    4. Don't Try To Get Fancy in Post

    I cannot overstate this one. Too many videos these days are loaded with filters, showy transitions, text effects, slow motion and various and sundry other distractions. Trust me, without experience in editing your videos are not going to look like Watchmen, Avatar, or Sucker Punch. They end up coming across more like this:


    Get a Post-It note right now, write on it, "LESS IS MORE" and stick it on your monitor or somewhere else really visible in your desk space. The majority of effects filters that come with your editing software are things you'll never use. Ever.

    This is especially a problem for videos with a routine set to music. When using a song, take the beat and tempo to mind. Match your pacing with the songs. When you feel the tension building in the music, so should your magic. If you're of a mind, learning to play an instrument would actually be a huge help with this. Being able to identify and articulate how a song was put together makes it way easier to set action to it. You don't need to know how to tell if the musicians are playing this guitar solo in E Mixolydian and this riff in A# major with a I-V-ii-IV progression (again, all real terminology by the way), but just knowing a little will go a long way.

    If you have to use music, pick something because you want it, not because you feel like it's expected. Is there a song that you love the meaning of? Try to illustrate that with your performance. Do you like the energy? Get that across in your moves. Believe me, a video that shows a slow elegant card manipulation performance using half a black deck and half a white deck set to Ebony and Ivory by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney is way better than "dubstep Sybil variations #347." In fact, someone make that video right now. I didn't even realize I wanted to see that until I wrote it down!

    5. Rehearse

    Here it is. My pet cause. Here's where I get totally honest with you guys. My technical skills could only be described as "adequate," because I can't use my right hand to do anything more complicated than a double lift. I can't even move the third and fourth fingers of my right hand independently, nor can I make a proper fist. That's how left-handed I am. A lot of you guys out there have way better technical chops than I ever will... But it doesn't matter, because you don't rehearse.

    Take the time to figure out what you're going to say. Practice saying it. Say it different ways. Say it as you do your moves and imagine how you'll arrange the audience. Be aware of where they'll be and where the camera will be. Last thing you want is your buddy perching the camera on your shoulder like a really obnoxious parrot and catching every sleight because you didn't tell him where to stand.

    You also rehearse to work on your timing. For you manipulation artists, this is a big deal. Flow and rhythm are really important to you guys because your routines are so tightly structured and choreographed. Your hands and cards are like the Blue Angels: gracefully flying through impressive formations, but one wrong move and it all comes crashing down in flames.

    I've had guys tell me that they're worried that rehearsal will take the spontaneity out of their performance and make it look obviously scripted. But good acting isn't supposed to look like acting. Do it right, and no one will ever know.

    So there you have it. Five ways you can start improving your videos immediately. I will now open the floor to questions.
    JohnC11458 and mattstephens12 like this.
  3. I can attest from the other end of the spectrum, that as a gay adult male, I don't want to see it either.

    Talking about cameras: I had a discussion with a friend of mine just a few weeks ago about this very subject, saying I wanted to borrow a camera of his to film a skit, and him volunteering his phone. When I protested, he told me, "Most phone cameras nowadays are actually really good for video, surprisingly." He sent me to this link for proof:

    That was apparently made entirely on some new fancypants Samsung Galaxy phone. Now, I don't own that phone, nor an actual camera, so I can't make any meaningful comparisons between the two - but apparently shooting in 1080 is common for newer phones, and may work in a pinch.
  4. That's impressive, but it's clear that these guys knew what they were doing. They have experience with digital video and wanted to experiment with a new device. For someone who doesn't have experience, I would not recommend using a cell phone as keeping them study can be a phenomenal pain.

    Most mobile cameras in a professional movie keep the camera steady either by using a dolly, a crane, a steady-cam rig, or if they don't mind a bit of shake, a simple rig for the shoulders that allows the weight of the camera and gravity to smooth it out naturally as the cinematographer moves around.
  5. I agree with all of the above except for what you said about cameras, if you own a 21'st century smart phone or a newer smart particularly something like an iPhone 4s, 5, Samsung note 2 or even a Galaxy are equipped with nice camera's (8 megapixel on all listed.) it mostly depends on the way you render it if you want raw footage unless you have a 720P, 1080p camera it will look some-what nice.. To give your footage the best quality possible you should find a way to sharpen the video and the render it in high quality.
  6. See above about why I recommend people with no experience should still use an actual camera instead of a phone. Also, the Sharpen feature on most editing programs isn't very good. It's a tool that has its applications, but when you're just starting out in digital video... don't use it. It's not going to make a shaky, blurry frame magically look better. It'll turn it into a shaky, slightly-less-blurry, choppy, awkward looking frame.

    If you have to say to yourself, "We'll fix it in post," just re-shoot it.
  7. Fantastic advice! Of course, don't let any of this become a "well, I don't have X, so I can't make any videos..." type of situation. Fortunately, this advice is very fundamental and should be easy for most people to apply (especially points #3, #4 and #5). Take what you can from this advice and apply it as best as you can. As you move forward, continue to grow and produce content that is more and more professional as you're able to (with better cameras, better software, more experience and technical know-how, etc).

    Ultimately, lots of people producing content is great, and even a few of these very easy tips will make a big difference. Then, it's just about fine-tuning and getting those highly professional videos out as you are able to!

    Thanks again, Steerpike. Killer thread!

  8. Great post, Steerpike. Thanks for the insight.
  9. Yes thank you Steerpike very excellent advice.
  10. Your optimism is what convinced me to stop complaining and do something productive to help. Seeing this get stickied actually gives me some hope.

    If there's enough interest, I can actually go into more detail about any production techniques or fundamentals that you guys want to know about to improve the quality of your videos. Sometimes the best way to learn is to take little principles and learn them one piece at a time.

    "Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs."
    -Henry Ford
  11. I'd very much like that. Your post was entertaining and very informative, thanks for putting in the time to write it!
  12. #12 Vinnie C., Mar 29, 2013
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 29, 2013
    Cheers, mate! I'm always happy to help. :) You've certainly done something great with this, it's been needed for a long time, and any more advice you can offer is for sure appreciated! I don't have any specific questions, myself, but feel free to post up anything you've got.

    Thanks again,

    P.S. Great quote!

    P.P.S. You have wonderful forum mod RickEverhart to thank for the sticky!
  13. #13 Steerpike, Mar 31, 2013
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 11, 2013
    Something I want to add.

    When using title cards and text effects in your videos, simple fonts are the best fonts. Copperplate, Verdana, Helvetica, Georgia, Univers, Calibri, that sort of thing. To most people, a lot of these fonts are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Part of the reason is that these are sans serif fonts. Sans serif, to put it plainly, means, "without a lot of extra stuff." Fonts like Jokerman, Frankenstein, Bleeding Cowboys, Curlz MT, Giddyup STD, and Algerian are serif fonts. They also all look terrible.

    When in doubt, just use Calibri. It's rather common these days, and very few people outside of graphic designers are going to recognize it as being separate from most of the other sans serif fonts I described above.

    Also, basic rule of thumb: never mix serif and sans serif fonts in the same screen or even the same video. It is possible to pull off, but you have to really know what you're doing. And if you're reading this thread, chances are you're not a graphic designer and thus you don't. If you actually are a graphic designer, then you already know all of this. Good job.
  14. Sometimes in T11 and DVD and other videos, people go overboard with endless explanations about multiple handlings for each step.
    Don't get me wrong - the more information the better, particularly on alternative handlings. However, there are some people out there that just do an information dump and they then lose the "feel" of the trick.

    Therefore, may I humbly suggest the following basic outline for a video of a complex trick or a trick with multiple handlings:
    (1) Performance (this need only needs to be quick, not a full re-do of your promo)
    (2) Performance with exposed view
    (3) Performance with in-depth explanation
    (4) Variations
  15. It's not a bad outline, though I would say that in some cases it's also worth it to go into the blocking, angles, what moments are best to be talking so that you can pull off the moves, that sort of thing. Use your judgment.
  16. I agree, I would put those in (3) the in-depth explanation (including angles, blocking, etc)
  17. Thanks a lot. This helped me a lot.
  18. hats off to you for such suggestions here.. i absolutely like them a lot they would definitly help us in future
  19. AND If you are unable to do all or any of the above: Get DANA HOCKING to make music for you. his music can make ANYTHING look good ;D ;D
  20. #20 Steerpike, May 29, 2013
    Last edited by a moderator: May 29, 2013
    As long as music has been brought up, I thought I'd touch on a couple points.

    Think of some really good music videos. Naturally, my favorites are almost all Peter Gabriel, though I also really like the videos for I Stay Away by Alice in Chains, Float On by Modest Mouse, and most of Tool's videos. There are directors who specialize in this. Setting action to music is almost a skill set unto itself. Writing music to fit action is not uncommon and in fact that's how most film scores come about, but when you have a song that's already written it's generally a bad idea to just slap it into a video of some stuff going on in front of a camera and call it a day. Music video directors learn to match the pace of the action on screen with the cadence of the music, the rhythms, the complexity, etc.

    At the core of everything is rhythm and melody. Rhythm determines the flow. Melody is what sticks in your head. So I'm going to talk about those for a second so I can tell you how they're relevant.

    Recent scientific experiments have shown that humans are actually in the minority of species that are capable of perceiving rhythm. Seriously. Parrots can perceive and mimic a rhythm but dogs can't for example. Our brains possess sufficient capacity for pattern recognition that we can actually determine it in sound. We are so capable of that perception, that rhythm is actually a part of our nonverbal communication. We find it comical when someone slurs speech to the point where there is no discernible rhythm. Sometimes we even find it unnerving. When someone talks fast that communicates different types of messages than when they speak slowly.

    Consider also different languages. Spanish tends to place to accent of a word on the penultimate syllable. BUENos DIas. Me compaNERo es un borrACHo. On the other hand, English, Slovak and other Germanic languages tend to place the accent on the first syllable. This means that to our ears, Spanish and other Romantic languages have a slightly more lyrical quality. Mandarin Chinese tends to structure words into syllable packets, typically in parts of two. To Western ears this creates an unusual rhythm that almost sounds like stuttering. And Japanese is also difficult for Westerners to hear or speak because it doesn't place the accent on any particular syllable. Unless you've taken the time to learn a second language, this is probably not something you've thought a lot about.

    Now what about melody? Melodies tend to stick out in our mind, but particularly simple ones. Most likely because the human voice can only create one tone at a time. Think of Beethoven's Fifth. Think of Viva Las Vegas by Elvis Presley. Think of Greensleeves. All easily accessible hummable melodies. They stick out in our minds. Because we can easily and readily duplicate them with our own voices, we remember them more. Interestingly, biologists have recently discovered that whales do the same thing. Pods that cross one another's paths have been observed trading songs.

    For a particularly modern example, consider video game chip tunes. Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, et al. In the early console generations and the dawn of PC gaming, processors were pretty weak. At best most of them could only produce 3 tones at a time. That's enough for a chord triad and not much else. The chip tune composers had to focus entirely on the melody, which is what made them so memorable. Even the symphonic adaptations of those old iconic tunes have stuck true to those melodies, simply fleshing them out with emotional harmonies and rich sonic texturing.

    So where in the hell am I going with this? You're in a position where unless you yourself are a musician with recording software you're not going to be able to write your own music to fit the actions that you recorded with a video camera. Let's make that really clear. So you have to instead do what the directors of music videos do and find a way to make the action work with the existing music you want to use.

    Let's pick a song just for the sake of argument. Combing through my iTunes, let's pick... I Love the Night by Blue Oyster Cult. Mid-tempo song, very plaintive and airy melodies, rhythm section is fairly subdued. There's a lot going on in this song, but it's all relatively restrained. This is not a song you'd use to show off speed. You'd want to keep your movements slow and smooth. Big, sweeping gestures wouldn't be out of place but they would have to be timed with the swelling harmonies of the chorus. Considering the lyrics, it's a different take on the vampire romance genre with a plaintive sadness rather than the stereotypical Gothic gloom. This also influences your choice of effects/flourishes. Given the amount of restraint in the music and subtlety in the lyrics, you'd need material that can be easily understated and relatively uncomplicated. Things like a complex two-handed cut would be used sparingly and would need to be punctuated by something visually appealing that can stand still for a moment and let the viewer take it in and appreciate it. The overall point here is to get visuals that match the music.

    By taking just a few minutes to think about how your routine interacts with the music you've selected you've automatically set yourself ahead of the legions of dubstep card spinners.

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