How to make a video

It’s really easy to talk about cameras and color grading when we think of cinematography, but I think there are other elements that are far more important. So let’s start by briefly looking at photography so we can really focus on the visuals. So when I first got this camera about three and a half years ago, these were the first pictures I took. Back then I really didn’t think about what I was taking a picture of – as long as it had a blurry background, then I considered it to be a great image. But over time i’ve raised my standards. Rather than taking 30 pictures in five minutes, I’ve now learned to spend much more time looking around, only taking a picture if I really think it’ll be worth it. So, for example I must have walked past this bathroom a thousand times, and have never felt the need to take a picture. But then one time, the sun was so bright and perfectly placed in the sky that it just came straight through that window and just lit up the whole room in a way that i’d never really seen before.

So that time, I did take a picture. But then I remembered that they key to strong visuals is not being satisfied so easily. So I quickly ran downstairs and asked my brother to look in that mirror. Now I was satisfied with the image. Of course after that, I did go on to do some quick color grading, but only really supporting the color and contrast that the sunlight had created. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the best results come when we spend a lot of time looking around and thinking, “you know what we can do better than this.” I’ve actually downgraded my camera to a phone for all my photos these days, and I think they look much better than those high quality RAW images I used to take with a DSLR. Learning to have high standards will improve the visuals way more than just buying a new camera. So that’s the approach I try and have with filmmaking too. Looking back at this freelance project from 2013 I remember saying “yeah, right here is fine” while setting up this interview, even though the shot has a boring plain background, no depth and very flat lighting.

If I’d spent just 10 minutes looking around for a better location, it would have made a huge difference. And that’s often all that separates mediocre visuals from great visuals: the time spent location scouting, blocking some light, or planning out the frames before hand. Storyboarding. Let’s talk about that for a second. If you want to convince yourself of the power of storyboarding, then try converting one of your favourite scenes into storyboards. With nothing more than general face expressions, camera placement and basic locations, I can’t help but notice how effective these frames are.

They’ve been squashed down to a simple drawing, and yet they still look cinematic, they still look dynamic, they still have an emotional impact. If we compare that to how a lot of my storyboards start out – they all look flat and samey. Now that’s partially because it’s difficult to draw perspective and depth, but let’s be honest, it also has something to do with a lack of imagination. Like for instance these storyboards are mostly just people standing next to each other talking, and then a bunch where they’re sitting down.

If we followed these storyboards, would we really be taking full advantage of this vast visual language we have access to? Well, what if we took some of those scenes and set them on a canal boat. Suddenly now our characters aren’t just sitting or standing still, they are moving with the boat, and one of them steering, maybe the other is sitting on the top of the boat. All of that could tell us much more about the characters while immersing us in a world that feels real and dynamic.

Those are the kind of decisions that can really take a film’s visuals to the next level. It could be including other characters in the shot, using costumes that tell a story, or lighting that supports the mood. And we can make all of those kind of decisions before we pick up our camera. But somehow, storyboarding is one of those things that seems like such a great idea until it comes round to actually doing it. Most people’s excuse is that they can’t draw, I personally like to pretend that I’ve got so well planned out that there’s no need for storyboarding. Well, I’ve learned from experience that if I turn up on set without a clear idea of what we’re gonna be filming, then not only to we waste a lot of time, but the end results really really suffer. But that’s just me, some people prefer not to plan so much to keep things spontaneous and open ended, so it’s really whatever works for you.

Now we spoke before about simplifying our favourite shots into drawings – not only does this help us to practice drawing with depth, but it also shows us what kind of images we like. Over the last few years I’ve been collecting screenshots from films that I’m drawn to, some old photos, and of course pictures I’ve liked on instagram. Then I printed a bunch and made a wall of inspiration, which is just full of material that I can mix and match in my own work. Whether it’s a face expression that communicates so much, or a color combination I really like. More and more i’m realising that it’s the costume, the actor or the location, that really makes these images special. It has almost nothing to do with what kind of camera they used. But I honestly have to remind myself that all the time, when I start thinking that a piece of electronics is going to solve my problems as a filmmaker.

And so, I got some posters made to remind us that what’s in front of the camera is more important than the camera itself. I’ll leave a link in the description so you can pre-order one if you want to, it’s honestly the best way to support me and these videos. So, to summarize: we can improve the look of our films simply by having higher standards. Searching for the right idea before we start shooting.