How To Make A Video – A Crash Course

Indie Filmmaking Basics | By: indie

Ok, so you have an old camera from a parent or friend, or you’ve just purchased a new or used one. Now you want to learn how to create your own video – a funny skit, a short film, a school project, or a documentary on a subject you care about. But after your big purchase, that savings account might be a little on the slim side – or maybe you just don’t have the budget to afford all the big-ticket items you think you need.

Never fear. There’s lots you can do, even if an old camcorder is your only piece of equipment! For the purposes of this quick overview, I’m going to assume that you have no money, no experience, and no knowledge whatsoever about how to handle a camera properly. I’ve written plenty of tips, advice, and information about more advanced techniques and procedures throughout the rest of this site, so be sure to take a look at the other pages that interest you once you’ve got the basics down.

Your Camera

It probably won’t be super difficult for you to find a consumer-grade camcorder, judging by how popular and common they are. The trick is knowing how to use it.

Take a second to make sure you understand the basic functions it can perform and how to activate them. If you have experience with this stuff already and have used your camera and figured out how to make a video before with success, you can skip to the next section. If not, there are a few things we need to go over first.

The Media – How It Records

Every camcorder has to grab the visual and auditory information it captures and store it somewhere. What recording medium does yours use? Does it record onto tapes, an internal hard drive, mini-DVDs, or something else? In any situation but the internal hard drive camera, make sure you have the proper blank media to store your footage on.

It sucks to run out of tape or hard disk space just as you’re about to capture that perfect cinematic moment. So clear some space on the internal hard drive, buy some tapes, or pick up some blank video discs. Just make sure you have more than enough space to record what you need to.

Starting Up

Call me Captain Obvious, but do you know where the power button is and how to operate it so that you can turn it on and find out how to make a video in the first place? There may be several power modes or settings to choose from – these might include record mode, playback mode, picture/photography mode, and of course, off.

How about the record button? I can’t believe how many times I’ve let someone use my camera and they inadvertently left the thing on and recording and didn’t even realize it. Know when you are live and when you’re on standby and you’ll avoid ending up with twelve minutes of epic footage of your right leg.

Often there is an indicator on the viewfinder or LCD screen. A red dot, REC, or RECORD symbol means you’re live, while a green dot, PAUSE, or STANDBY indicates that the camera is on but not taping.

Is This Thing On?

Some cameras have auto shut-off or power saving modes that will cause them to automatically power down after a certain period of inactivity, usually around five to ten minutes. If your camera was on before and it isn’t now, and you haven’t pressed anything, check the battery first and then check whether the device has a power save function.

Why Can’t I See Anything?

For as long as mortal man has used image recording devices, the lens cap has been the cause of many missed shots and lost opportunities. For cryin’ out loud, look through your viewfinder or pull out your LCD screen and take a glance at your framing before you start recording.

Point and Shoot

I’m going to move forward and hope that if you needed to, you actually read and followed the guidelines in the previous section to familiarize yourself with how your most important tool works. If you aren’t already familiar with cerebral concepts like how to turn a camera on, remove the lens cap and press record, I’d highly recommend reading through the text above.

So what now, just point and shoot? Well, sort of.

A film is composed of a series of shots that, when placed one after the other, create a cohesive scene. A shot can be described as one segment of uninterrupted video that shows a particular subject from a certain angle. During some shots the camera moves, and therefore the angle can change within one shot. But a shot is still a single segment of continuous footage.

Think of it as if you were to stand still in a room. Imagine that your eyes are the camera, and even if you start to walk around and maintain your gaze, you could even leave the room while continuing that gaze. Now if there were a table in the center of the room and you circled around it while looking at it the whole time, the table would look different from any given point at which you stood. As long as you never blink, you are creating a continuous “shot” with your eyes.

If you were to close your eyes, move to a different point, and then open them, you’d be starting a new shot. Maybe you start at the front of the table and walk toward it. You shut your eyes and take three steps to the side. Your second shot begins the instant you open your eyes again, and continues until you close them. Taking shots with a camera from multiple angles not only provides your audience with a greater understanding of the spatial relationships between objects in your scene; it’s also more interesting to watch!

Shooting Styles

Let’s get into some specifics and look at a couple of shooting styles that should help to illustrate how to make a video, and their characteristics. First think about the filming you’d see on a reality television show; the typical footage on these programs is taken from hand or shoulder-mounted TV cameras. Shots tend to be slightly longer than average and make use of quick pans between subjects: two people are talking in a room and the camera moves back and forth between them to capture their conversation.

Now think about an epic cinematic masterpiece like Lord of the Rings. You might see an extreme wide ‘helicopter’ shot from a distance that shows the Fellowship traveling over a long distance, followed by a close-up of Gandalf’s face that shows the old wizard looking out across the horizon with some expression of relief, horror, or bewilderment at the next obstacle the party will be faced with.

When you combine and organize two or more shots together like this to depict a particular moment or sequence in time, you’ve got a scene. Several scenes together (or sometimes just one long scene) will compose your entire piece – your finished video or movie.

How you go about putting these segments in order depends on the resources you have available to you. Typically you’d tape or film your shots and then bring them to an editing or post-production station. But since this page is about making videos on the cheap, I’m going off the assumption that you may not have a digital workstation on which to edit your footage. If not, you may wish to read about In-Camera Editing.

Basic Shot Framing 101

I have an entire page dedicated to framing your shots, but for now I’ll go over the most basic of basics.

The three basic distance shots are called the close-up, the medium shot, and the wide shot. There are variations of each; the extreme close-up, for example. As a general rule, closer shots are used to show emotion.

In other words, don’t film close-ups of random passersby and wide shots of your main character. You want to make your audience feel close to the main character by showing facial expressions, so use close-ups to convey the thoughts and facial expressions of your principal characters.

Amateur Alert: if you’re framing a shot of a single person, don’t put your subject dead-center. This is a surefire tactic for how to make a video look home-movie-tacular. I like to use the Lord of the Rings movies as examples quite often, because the cinematography in these films is top-notch; watch them if you haven’t seen them, and watch them again if you have.

No one is ever framed in the middle in any of the LOTR films, unless it’s something like the moment when Aragorn bursts through the doors to the halls of Rohan, where the shot is used for effect. These films closely follow the rule of thirds, which is a basic tenet of photography and film composition.

Frame your subject slightly off-center, and at an angle, giving them some look room, which means if they’re on the left, provide more room to the right because it’s the direction in which they’re looking.

Use Light To Your Advantage

I also have a page on how to light a scene, but again – the page you’re reading right now is just a quick overview, so you can take a look at the lighting page for more detailed tips and techniques on lighting.

Natural light can be a great source for making sure your shots are illuminated well, but if you don’t have the suns rays you can bounce light from a small lamp off of a white or light-colored wall or panel to create a soft glow in your shot.

If you don’t have room for light bouncing, aim your light directly at your subject and use some kind of filter to diffuse it, softening the beam and spreading it out over a larger area. Some household filters you could use include white bedsheets or plastic semi-transparent shower curtains.

Common Sense Tip: Don’t rest your diffuser material on your hot lamps (or even too close) unless you really enjoy breathing toxic fumes and/or starting fires inside your house. Try building a basic frame out of some scrap lumber or a craft hoop and clamp it into place in front of your light instead.

Diffusers are very important; you should always try to avoid aiming unfiltered light toward your subject’s face unless it is your goal to cause temporary blindness and/or eye damage. That will make them angry and they may punch you in the throat and not want to be in your film anymore.

Also, unfiltered or unsoftened light from a short distance away creates sharp lines and shadows – the shorter the distance, the sharper the shadows – so again, use bouncing, filters, and indirect light whenever you can to cause your lighting to appear more like a glow than a direct beam.

The Earthquake Effect

The final point I’ll bring up in this overview is that above anything else, the single thing you can do to make your videos and films look like they were made by a complete novice is to shoot them as if you were a dad cracking open his first camcorder on Christmas morning. Nothing screams “I’ve never done this before!” like filming with an unsteady hand.

Tripods are your friend. If you don’t have a tripod, a flat surface where you can rest the camera is a good fair-weather friend too, but get a cheap tripod if you can manage it.

Making your still shots still and your action shots action-packed takes practice, but it’s such a key exercise that it’s worth doing over and over while you learn, until you get it right. The pacing, framing, and motion of your shots will set the tone for your videos and films, and will become your most important tool for creating the atmosphere you’ve always imagined letting your audiences experience.


Comment from Basdeo Panday
Time: March 25, 2011, 2:21 pm

This has been most helpful. I like the simplicity with which you explain things.

Pingback from DIY video: how to create a good one for your blog or website | HowToWriteBetter
Time: October 17, 2011, 12:58 pm

[…] …and there are some really good pieces of advice from Indie Filmaking. […]

Comment from Tom
Time: November 13, 2011, 10:32 am

Thank you for this really helpful information. I am only just getting into the whole idea of making my own little films. The whole film industry really excites me and I intend on furthering my research and developtment at university. I am a very keen movie buff and it is only in the last couple of years I have become passionate about film. I am also very keen on a large variety of music. I feel to combine the two art forms, possibly in a future career would be amazing. Are there any good tips you could offer to “break though” into the industry?

Comment from Sergeant Slander
Time: November 18, 2011, 1:29 am

Thanks for taking the time to put this site together. I’m an audio engineer who is considering dabbling in the video world as well, so I have practially no idea where to begin. The rule of thirds is something I have never heard of (nor will I ever forget), and the tips on lighting were valuable as well. I’m looking into purchasing a Canon HV40, so Hopefully I will be able to create some professional short films/commercials with the not-so-obvious tips to those of us who are completly new to filmmaking. Thanks for the help!

Comment from Vicente Rojas
Time: January 5, 2012, 6:15 pm

This is that I need, Thank you very much for you big help

Comment from Camil
Time: January 12, 2012, 9:24 am

Hi Indie, and thanks a lot for all d info.
Could you kindly upload or mail me a pictures or videos illustrating d practical aspects of film making like the equipment and their set up/operation, lighting, shooting with some effects, using supports like dolly etc, etc. Thanks.

Comment from robert wilson
Time: February 7, 2012, 8:42 pm

Thisz good stuff bt all I hav is a question,I have a camera that uses tapes it dsnt hav a usb chord or anytnng but it has s-video slots,how do I upload the video into my laptop and how does a firewire work? Does it detect camera devices or what??

Pingback from APin3 Film Challenge Tip#1 » The ShowRoom
Time: September 16, 2014, 4:20 pm

[…] So, the first one is from Indie Filmmaking entitled: How to Make a Video – A Crash Course. […]

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