A very large number of us in the Flow Arts world interact and communicate with each other in visual form, specifically through videos. I think quite a lot of us dream of a really professional setup with a top of the line camcorder or DSLR, a well-lit studio, and extensive production facilities.
But you don’t need any of that to make great videos. Frankly, most of us are on a budget and it’s pretty difficult to acquire many of the pieces we’d love to work with. That’s okay, though, because we can still create great and professional-looking content if we just know how to go about getting the most out of the technology that we have. So let’s take a look at how you can make some great Flow Arts videos without a great deal of money to burn.
The first and biggest tip I’ll give you is to think content first. What does that mean? It means that even a video with great content that is up against the worst combination of equipment and facilities will totally trump a really well-produced video with little to no good content in it.
One of my favorite tutorials is one produced by Jesse Bowen a couple years ago on tangles. The lighting is terrible and the audio occasionally difficult to make out, but this is the single most helpful tutorial on tangles I’ve ever seen. It beats the pants off of some of the better-produced tangle videos I’ve seen because at the core of it is a really intuitive description of what makes tangles work and how you can do them yourself.
If you look back on many of the video blogs I’ve produced over the years, many of them had absolutely terrible production values. Poor lighting, bad frame rates, garbled audio, yet at the core of many of them were great lessons and tips for spinning. By the time I was able to get access to better cameras, production facilities, and editing resources I already had a grasp on how to produce good content so that all of these various pieces supported that content rather than glossing over a lack of it.
The bulk of your work should be accomplished before you ever shoot a single second of video. Practice your tricks in front of mirrors and take scratch videos to see how clean they are. Filming a tutorial? Write out a script or at the very least an outline for yourself and check to see that each step makes intuitive sense to you. What issues might your audience run into as they’re trying to learn this trick? How are you going to help them get past these snags?
I can sum up the difference between a video that looks well produced and one that looks amateurish in a single word: “lighting.”
We work in a visual medium, so being able to clearly see whatever tricks you’re working on is absolutely essential to properly communicating your intention. Terrible lighting on a great camera still looks terrible. Great lighting on a cheap camera can still look great!
If you’re outdoors, make sure that the sun is either in front of you or slightly off to the side. If the sun is directly in front of you, it’ll light your entire body evenly, so it’ll look flat and lifeless. If it’s off to your side, you’ll get more of a sense of dimension and depth. The latter is crucial for making a shot look interesting. If you record with the sun behind you, it’ll cast a shadow over your body that will make a lot of what you’re trying to do difficult to make out. If you try shooting this way near sunset, it’s entirely possible your body will become a silhouette or become so overwhelmingly backlit that the details of it will disappear. This can also be a great effect if you’re going for something artistic, but bear in mind it will make your work harder to see.
If you’re shooting inside, pay very close attention to the lighting sources inside the room you happen to be in. As a very general rule, you want 3 light sources when shooting indoors. You’ll want your most intense light off at a 45-degree angle from your camera and subject. This is called your key light and it creates intense shadows and gives your subject depth. Next, you want another light off at the other 45-degree angle from the subject and camera to fill in some of the deep shadows. This is called a fill light. Finally, you want a light that illuminates your background to get rid of the subject’s shadow as well as add a layer of interest to the shot. This is called your back light.
I can actually make this setup work using three desk lights and still achieve a great overall picture. It can be tricky to achieve this kind of lighting if all you’ve got to work with is standard overhead lighting or natural light coming in through your windows, but trust me it’s totally worth the effort.
If I had to name the single biggest stumbling block most people encounter when filming their videos, it would definitely be their camera. It seems like everyone has a favorite DSLR or HD camcorder that has all the bells and whistles that will make your video quality stunning.
What if I told you that every video I’ve recorded in the past four months has been done on my iPad or iPhone? That’s right! Every single video of my Flow Arts 101 series was recorded on one of these devices. Most of those videos were done on my iPad’s Facetime camera, in fact!
Now, in all honesty I did clean up the picture using a lot of effects in post, but it doesn’t change the fact that all those videos were done using equipment that was far from top of the line. The fact is, most smartphones now have impressively high quality cameras that will produce a picture that isn’t so far off from higher end DSLRs for many applications. To give you an example, I recorded here are two videos I’ve recorded in the past year. One was recorded on a DSLR and one was recorded on my iPad. Which one is which? If you can’t tell the difference, why should I?
This isn’t to say there aren’t significant advantages to recording with higher end cameras. For one, you get better access to ISO and white balance settings and for another the picture remains of high quality even when you zoom in. I usually have to run my iPad footage through a sharpening filter to make it work past a certain point. But nonetheless, for most flow videos your smartphone is a totally legit option for shooting.
One final tip when it comes to cameras: always use a tripod! A stable picture is crucial for making a more professional looking video. My favorite option for this is my handy Gorilla Pod. I’ve got clips that attach both smartphones as well as tablets to it and it’s flexible enough that it can be set up on the ground, the back of a park bench, in a window sill, you name it!
Good audio is something that quite a lot of people miss when they record tutorials, which is quite a shame. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of telling your audience how to do a move, you should make sure that your speech is intelligible and easy to hear. When recording my own audio, I actually use a small lavalier mic plugged into an old iPhone. I record all my audio to voice memos and download them to my computer after.
The real key to great audio is compression. Normally when we talk our voices change in volume considerably even in the course of a single sentence. Compression evens out these differences in volume and makes audio more consistent. It’s hard to believe it, but well-compressed audio is one of the most important factors in creating a professional-sounding product.
You can use open source software like Audacity to compress your work. You’ll have to experiment to find the best settings for yourself, but for me personally I use Audacity’s default compression settings but set my threshold to -9 db and my ratio to 3:1. This is so subtle but it will make a world of difference in the end result, trust me!
So, I’m not going to lie: top-end video editing programs such as Final Cut and Adobe Premiere are incredibly useful tools. They give you access to a whole host of effects, powerful filters, and easy interfaces to allow you to do amazing work without the software getting in your way.
Switching from iMovie to Final Cut was a game-changer for me and really made my more ambitious videos of the past two years possible in addition to saving me countless hours on the video formats I was already familiar with.
All that said, free software like iMovie or the trial version of Sony Vegas can still do an incredible job and give you access to great color correction, title overlays, and more! Tim Goddard is one of my favorite flow video producers and he did all his early videos on the free version of Sony Vegas. The most important factor here is not the software you’re using but an understanding of what you want your final video to look like.
Believe it or not, there isn’t a single piece of equipment in my arsenal that cost me more than a couple hundred dollars...well, with the exception of my laptop. Granted, given the opportunity I’d love to upgrade my camera for something a little higher end, but the fact of the matter is that I have been and will continue to produce good quality videos using equipment that’s within most peoples’ budgets.
Don’t let having the “right” equipment stand between you and being a part of the wonderful conversation among flow artists online. The only “right” equipment is your own imagination and solid content. What are some of your tips for making the most of your equipment? Let me know down in the comments.