Organization can mean the difference between a confusing series of clips and a compelling, satisfying
video. All it takes is a little forethought and a little planning.
Most newbies join the video club to boogie–to grab a camcorder when the spirit moves, lay down some
ad-lib footage, and unspool spontaneous epics to their lucky friends and family. Planning? Nah, sounds too
much like work. Program development? That’s for network Suits. Hey, I trust creative inspiration!
Well, trust on, dude, while your audience (AKA the Sitting Dead) suffers your effusions with the
patience of Job. Or maybe not. (Where’d everybody go so fast?)
If you think I’m launching a treatise on professional pre-production here, fear not. Getting started
in video should mean making programs with a minimum of dog work and a maximum of fun. But at the
same time it’s pointless to make programs at all if they’re punishing to watch–especially since you can
avoid that disaster with just 10 minutes of creative planning.
In this 10 minutes you don’t have to write a script or draw a storyboard or even scribble a content
outline. You just have to do three things:
- Determine the subject of your program.
- Develop a concept for presenting that subject.
- Design a structure to communicate that concept.
As a certain Texas billionaire insists, it’s just that simple.
Determining a subject is such a basic process that we can cover it quickly. To nail down your
central topic, simply give your project a descriptive title like A Day at the Zoo or Grandma
Goes Snowboarding or Zen Gardens of Nutley, NJ. Later on you may devise a snappier
handle, but for now this descriptive phrase will focus you on the core content of your show.
Why is this important? Because too many beginning videos are marred by irrelevant footage that
was included because it was intriguing or maybe just nice-looking. You’ll keep viewer interest better if you
stick to the point–the point announced in your working title.
Clear on the Concept
Although a working title is an essential beginning, it’s too broad to focus your topic properly. For that
you need a concept. A concept is any kind of idea, attitude, point of view, or other organizer that adds
individuality and character to your subject. Beyond saying that, concept is easier to explain by example, so
here’s a specimen at the world-class level:
Subject: Long-separated twins unite in a search for their mother. (Well, okay, whatever…)
Concept: The twins are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. (Wow!!)
But concepts aren’t just for Hollywood. Almost any personal video project can benefit from this
Subject: A Day at the Zoo.
Concept: Humans can look funnier than animals.
Subject: Grandma Goes Snowboarding.
Concept: Suicidal madness erupts at all ages.
Subject: Zen Gardens of Nutley, NJ.
Concept: Tranquility is welcome anywhere.
Subject: A trip to the Beach
Concept: Relaxing is hard work.
Note that these concepts are just samples. Many subjects suggest two or even several possible concepts.
Here, for instance, are alternate slants on A Trip to the Beach:
- People come for the sun and then spend all day avoiding it.
- At the beach, people put themselves on display, whether they want to or not.
- People overwhelm the natural beach environment that they came for by importing their own.
In each case, the program concept suggests things to capture on video. Here are some samples.
If your concept is avoiding the sun, you could get many shots of people slavering lotion on
themselves and one another, plus footage of imaginative hats, neck towels, and nose protectors. You could
do a montage (an assemblage of many brief shots) of peculiar sunglasses or of strategies for shading
babies. You could make an entire micro-documentary on beach umbrellas, tents, pavilions, and other
If your organizer is people on display, you could create a picture poem on bodies old and young,
male and female, attractive and not, with side remarks on weird tastes in bathing suits and that strange
minority of citizens who wear street clothes on the beach, except for bare, pale feet.
If imported environments is your theme, you could ring extensive changes on constructions built
of chairs, lounges, mattresses, coolers, towels, toys, radios, hampers, books, and, yes, 12-volt TVs because
Oprah declines to take days off when her fans do.
You could use the tents and ‘brollies riff here too, because topics will often fit more than one
concept. Alternately, you could implement more than one of these concepts in a single program, giving
each a separate section in your beach epic. (That, however is pushing beyond the getting-started level.)
We could multiply examples but the point is clear: applying a concept to any video subject helps
you organize it and select scenes for taping.
And how will you use those scenes to build your show? That’s where structuring comes in–not
heavy engineering, but at least in providing a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Audiences like to feel a structure–to unconsciously recognize a design in video programs. That’s
because structure imposes order on material, so that viewers know where they’ve been, where they are, and
where they’re going. (In life as in video, doesn’t that make you feel more comfortable?) Also, moving
through a structured program delivers a sense of progress and, at the conclusion, the satisfaction of
completing a journey.
All this may sound a bit abstract, but in practical terms it is structure that transforms a mere grab
bag of video snapshots into a coherent program.
Fortunately, many subjects bring an implicit structure with them, a structure based on some
combination of time, space, and process:
- Time. To adapt a phrase from Alice in Wonderland, many things “begin at the
beginning, go on until they come to the end, then stop.” Often, simply recording events as they happen
(say, at a little league game) provides enough structure to organize your program.
- Space. Other subjects are better organized by space–especially when space is a key part of
them to begin with. In a tour of a country home or a great cathedral, there is nothing essentially sequential
to impose a sense of time. Instead, space is the key organizer as you show the geographical parts and show
how they fit together.
- Process. In many videos, the key organizer is a sense of process, delivered by the depiction of a logical, orderly sequence of actions. The demands of process are evident, not only in a training video such as how to assemble a mountain bike, but in how to ride that two-wheeler as well.
As an organizer, how does “process” differ from “time?” Think of it this way: At a birthday party,
for instance, the activities can happen in any old sequence. So if the opening of presents, early in the party,
proves more exciting than the cake and games that happen later, there is nothing to prevent you from
moving the presents to end of your show. In other words, the party does unfold over time, but not in any
rigid sequence. Assembling the bike, by contrast, depends absolutely on a fixed sequence of events. Just try
to mount the derailleur before the wheels and see what happens.
Beginning, Middle End
Good videos are like good chess matches: they begin with opening gambits, progress through the
main body of play, and then wind up with endgame strategies.
The beginning of your program should reveal at least the gist of your concept–enough to help
viewers organize the footage they are watching. Titles are a simple way to do this. If your concept is that
people seek the sun only to avoid it, a simple main title like Sun Worshipers might do the trick.
You could announce the concept of overpowering the seashore environment in an ironic main title like
Getting Away From It All.
Sometimes a line or two of dialogue can reveal your concept. Imagine that Grandma Goes
Snowboarding opens with Grandma confessing to the camera, “They said I was crazy to give up my
Jane Fonda tapes, but I wanted to go where the action was.” Cut to Grandma swooping down a ski
Note that this opening “plants the hook”–the hook being something that intrigues viewers enough
to make them sit up and take notice. Narration offers a simple way to cast a hook before the audience. For
instance, imagine a series of quiet shots of a mother preparing the cake and decorations for a birthday
party. As we watch her calmly working, we hear her on the sound track: “Darryl warned me about kids and
birthday parties, but did I listen? ‘Come on,’ I said, ‘what could possibly go wrong?'”
Incidentally, this example shows how it’s possible to cheat by developing a concept as you shoot,
instead of beforehand. In this case, a perfectly ordinary party suffered one chance disaster after another. As
the video maker documented them, he realized that events were handing him a concept on a platter. To
exploit the situation he began featuring each setback as he shot.
Then in editing, he chose a main title like The Party from Heck (It was a G-rated show,
after all) and got his wife to record the voice-over opening narration. The result: a ho-hum family video
turned into a droll celebration of Murphy’s Law that even a stranger would enjoy watching.
As you move from the opening to the middle section of your program, remember that less is more.
Trained by the machine-gun pace of commercial TV, today’s viewers get the idea very quickly, so
repeating actions bores and finally irritates them. If you want to show how Grandma can use a snowbank
against a shrub as a launch ramp, fine: give us a fast montage of three or four takeoffs. But no matter how
spectacular the footage, don’t keep adding more examples. Once we get the idea, we don’t care about your
nifty videography; we just want to move on.
In fact, the middle of your program may well be the toughest part to
make interesting. If the subject is an athletic contest, you can profit from the built-in suspense of
wondering who will win. But if the topic is a vacation or a trip to the zoo, the video’s mid section tends to
be just one thing after another.
If you’re willing to edit after the fact (rather than in the camcorder as you shoot) you can
sometimes achieve a sense of movement by changing the order in which incidents appear so that they
progress from least to most interesting. For example, the gorillas and the elephants may be the first subjects
you tape on your zoo trip, while those shots of a distant cave opening in which an invisible polar bear may
or may not be sleeping come late in the day.
But who decreed that they must appear in that same order in your show? Why not start with the
polar bear (and the flamingos and prairie dog city) and build toward the more spectacular exhibits?
And what do you do for a finish? Audiences need the feeling of completeness, of closure that
creates a satisfying ending. That is, they want a show that decisively concludes rather than lamely quits.
Saving the best for last (as at the zoo) is a good way to create a big finale. Another way (again, if you edit
your raw footage) is to repeat a few seconds of highlights from each tape segment as a sort of review and
If that fails you can always resort to voice-over narration. As the camcorder pans around the
disaster area of the post-party living room, the mother who has to clean it up may muse, “Next time, maybe
I’ll try something easier–like washing six cats in a bucket!”
On the way home from the zoo, perhaps you taped your four year old, utterly zonked in her car
seat. Over the shot of the snoozing child you might narrate, “And so, as the sun sinks slowly over the
Serengeti, we say farewell to one very tired safari leader.”
As you can see, it doesn’t take much to deliver the satisfying feeling that your program is properly
Techniques Pros Depend On
With control of subject, concept, and structure, you have the basics you need to create a compelling
program. But before we wrap our seminar, here are two simple techniques that professionals rely on: the
three T’s and the obligatory scene.
Briefly, the “Three T’s” stands for “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what
you just told ’em.” In less cryptic form this means:
- Start with a quick list of the topics that will appear in your show, so that viewers will know
what to expect, like this: “After a brief review of fly tying materials, we’ll show you how to tie three classic
dry flies, and then see how they perform in the field.”
- Present the details of each topic in the order previously listed.
- Summarize with a quick topic review: “Now that you’ve seen the basic fly tying tools, watched as we built three fundamental fly types, and witnessed a demonstration of each one, you’re ready to try flying tying yourself.”
(Better revise that ending a bit though. “try fly tying” is a killer phrase for even professional
The three T’s organization works best on how-to and other informational programs. For story-
telling programs, however, the strongest tool is the “obligatory scene.” This is the scene that the audience
absolutely must see in order to be satisfied. Omit the obligatory scene and you risk disappointment (or, at
worst, a hailstorm of elderly vegetables).
To illustrate, imagine that Grandma Goes Snowboarding is all about the arduous training
that our senior heroine undergoes before confronting an actual ski slope. If you ended your documentary
with a shot of her suiting up while the narrator intoned, “A week later, Granny Esther would finally get her
first shot at a real mountain,” you’d be guaranteed to irritate your audience.
Why? Because you’ve omitted the obligatory scene. You are honor-bound to show them Grandma
howling down a killer slope at near-escape velocity. That’s what you promised your viewers (however
implicitly) and now that’s what they demand to see.