Oh, no! Not the vacation videos! It’s time to teach your family and friends how to make an interesting, entertaining and watchable video journal of their summer vacation.
Uncle Larry’s vacation videos were a lot like Andy Warhol movies. His worst was London: 1999, which was about nine hours of footage of buildings. You could watch the hands of Big Ben twirl around for twenty minutes before the camera cut to the gate of some cemetery they couldn’t get into, and then you could hear Aunt Martha exclaim: “Quickly, Larry! It’s one of those double-decker buses!” and the camera would twirl around and zoom in and out a couple of times before focusing on the back end of a bus lurching around a corner, wherein Aunt Martha would cut in: “Rewind it, Larry. They hardly got to see the bus!”
The art of creating videos that other people can watch is largely the art of realizing your audience. If you’re making the video for relatives, you can include more shots of the kids being cute than if you’re planning to show it to your office mates or enter it in contests.
Start with a Plan
Plan your shots like you plan your vacation. Having a list ahead of time will help you make sure that you don’t miss important things along the way. Here are some things you might want to consider:
- An introduction – Have someone tell where you are, when you went, why you went.
- Where you stayed – You might not think of it at the time, but ten years later you’re going to wish you had some video of the houseboat you stayed in while in Amsterdam and the neighborhood around it.
- A conclusion – Have someone tell what they saw, what they liked, what they didn’t like.
- A storyline – Is this the story of your family going on vacation? Or is it the story of the kids making a discovery about themselves? Start with your vacation expectations, go to your experiences and then conclude with how you’ve changed.
Do your research before you leave home. Don’t go on vacation blind – knowing something about the place you’re visiting and its history will make the trip easier. Figuring out where you want to go beforehand will save precious time on the ground. You’ll also want to check to see if the places you’ll be visiting allow videotaping; some museums and nightclubs don’t. It’s always wise to check.
Cut Out the Dross – Avoid Rambling
When Shane Carruth made his celebrated 2004 indie feature Primer, he shot it at a ratio of almost 1:1 – using all but six minutes of the total footage he shot. This caused a lot of jaws to drop.
“A typical ratio for student films and very-low-budget productions is about 10:1,” says Michael Chaskes, a Hollywood film editor whose credits include Crisis in the Kremlin and God’s Army. “Hollywood films typically run 20:1 or more.” But he wouldn’t expect you to have anything like that to produce a nice, quality vacation video.
For a polished and “ambitious” vacation video, Chaskes says, “a minimum of 2:1 is called for, with probably a maximum of 4 or 5:1. If you’re going for a truly professional look, between 5 and 10:1. In either of these cases, though, one would need to be shooting a wide variety of angles and coverage; 5 minutes of random, unplanned or repetitive footage will not necessarily yield one good minute of edited video.”
Tape is cheap, so capture a lot, but cut out most of it. Of course, never throw out your raw footage – you’ll enjoy watching it yourself years later.
What to Shoot?
Sometimes we’re just overwhelmed by the situation and at a loss as to what even to begin photographing. As an editor, Michael Chaskes knows what he looks for when going through a director’s footage, and he has some recommendations for shots that will come in handy:
“Signage,” he says. “Anywhere that’s being filmed, find at least one identifying sign and get a good 5-10 steady seconds of footage of it.” This will help you to remember where all the shots are from and can be useful to show the viewer as well.
From there, he recommends getting images that show your locations in multiple ways. “If you’re in a scenic location (say, a cathedral),” he goes on, “don’t just take wide shots or the same pan back and forth. Get as many close-up detail shots as possible and as great a variety of angles as possible. Particularly if one is planning to add voiceover describing aspects of the location, it’s important to actually get usable shots of that aspect. Also, be sure to get exterior shots of any location, even if you’re primarily interested in (and shooting) the interior.”
Finally, Chaskes continues, “Get footage of your cars/trains/planes/boats (and train stations, airports, docks) – that could be useful as transitional footage to move the video from one location to another.”
Keep It Exciting
As viewers, we’re taught that some things are interesting – motion is one of them. Try shots that involve pans and zooms. Start, for example, with a closeup of a person who explains: “Here we are at the Parthenon!” Zoom out and pan to reveal the structure. You can also start wide and pan and zoom to a tight object, perhaps an architectural detail or your hotel room window. Use creative angles: try shooting from ground level or from a high vantage point, such as your hotel balcony. Use zooms sparingly; nobody wants to watch a shot that zooms in and out over and over, but a single zoom, especially as an element of a more complex shot that includes smooth tilts or pans, can be a very effective way of drawing your viewers in or discovering scale.
The Eiffel Tower is in Paris. We all know this. It’s been there for years, and it’ll probably be there for many years to come. What hasn’t been there for years and what will only be there for fleeting minutes are you and your family. It’s great to see the Eiffel Tower, but what your viewers really want to see is your reaction to it. Don’t videotape a sign telling the history of the tower, and don’t videotape the tour guide talking about it (except to use as reference later) – videotape your daughter telling us about the tower. What does she remember from the tour? What does she think of when she sees it? What was her impression of the elevator ride? Videotape your husband talking about how much it cost to eat at the restaurant at the top. Videotape your attempts at speaking French.
Over the years your memories will fade. That’s why it’s important to capture your reactions on the spot – try videotaping a nightly wrap-up of the day’s events, where you talk with one another about what you did and what you liked best. If you’re by yourself, put the camera on a tripod or set it on a piece of furniture and videotape your own summary.
Show Us Things We Haven’t Seen Before
We’ve seen the Eiffel Tower. What we haven’t seen is the souvenir shop at the base of it. We’ve seen the Colosseum, but we haven’t seen the parking lot next to it. Show us what we haven’t seen, the things that make your trip unique. Did you buy something from a street vendor? Meet an interesting person at a hostel? Get lost? Your viewers back home are going to find these little things more interesting than a 45-second shot of the Mona Lisa in a crowded room. What was Junior’s reaction to the Mona Lisa? Interview him outside the Louvre. Did your tour guide ever drive any celebrities through town? Ask her.
Capture the Moment
Your vacation videos aren’t about where you are, they’re about who you are. What you come home with are memories – videotape is a memory that you can share and a memory that you can relive. Capture the experiences, be creative and edit, edit, edit. Through careful editing, pre-planning and good shot choices, you can make a vacation video that not only you will enjoy, but family, friends and relatives will all find captivating and engaging as well.
Contributing editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology and rarely produces a video his friends arent excited to watch.