Quick and Easy Video Projects

Would you like to shoot more video than you do? Could you use a bunch of ideas for satisfying programs that require very little time and effort? Then you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to lay out some fail-safe projects so simple that you can prep them in ten minutes, shoot them in 60 and finish up in time to make Happy Hour.

What’s more, we’ll jump-start a project for you by providing the storyboard of a mini-movie that’s guaranteed to amaze your friends and make you a success at parties. (It may even grow hair, but that we can’t promise.) Intrigued? Then step right up!

First, let’s explain why we’re doing this. Many camcorder owners dust off their expensive hardware for birthdays, holidays, and… well, that’s about it. If they’ve bought a thousand-dollar outfit, then shooting two birthdays and two Christmases in a couple of years works out to a cost of 250 bucks per event. Ouch!

Why don’t they shoot more often? Because video production seems to demand a lot of time and effort. And good ideas for programs don’t just fall out of trees and hit you on the head.

To address these problems, we’re going to lay out more than a dozen different projects that you can start and finish in one afternoon or less, with one crew member: yourself. These videos demand little or no pre-production effort; you can shoot every one in maybe an hour with little more equipment than your camcorder, and if you don’t have time for post-production, you can even edit them in the camera, as you shoot.

To help organize this grab bag of video topics, we’ll divide them into five basic types and then cover them one at a time. The categories are Explorations, Portraits, Documents, Letters and Creations.

Explorations are videos you make by simply experiencing a place and taping whatever catches your attention there.

For example, how about a home tour? Because my sister lives thousands of miles away, she hasn’t seen my house since 1977. To show her all the improvements I’ve sweated over since then, I can fire up my camcorder, start at the street to show the whole house, walk up to the front door, open it, and stroll right inside.

Then, still rolling, I can walk from room to room, turning the camera on one feature of my castle after another. Since my on-camera microphone will easily pick up my voice, I can narrate as I go: "…to add this doorway to the master bath, we had to tear out the stall shower and put in a tub/shower combination…" By the time you’ve completed your tour, you’ll have a brief and snappy video portrait of your home.

If someone in your tribe’s an accomplished gardener, you could make the same kind of survey of the property’s beds and bowers. I know a woman who’s created over two dozen bonsai plants. A quick tour of her miniature forest would make a charming video.

Or, moving farther afield, you can apply the exploration concept to your neighborhood, or to the sights along a favorite jogging or hiking trail.

Exploration videos also succeed well with children’s school classrooms–especially at the elementary grade levels. Though they might pooh-pooh the idea today, in a few years your kids will treasure a video tour of Ms. Munchkin’s fourth grade classroom.

The classroom tour is one of several projects in our survey that children can complete themselves, with some help from you as producer and technical director. Choose a child with an outgoing personality and make her or him the on-camera tour guide, while your own child (or grandchild) tapes the tour. (For obvious reasons, it’s a good idea to get the teacher’s permission and cooperation in advance.)

But whatever place you pick to explore, the idea is to move through it with an alert eye and a curious mind, recording and commenting as you go.

Where Exploration videos focus on places, Portraits concentrate on people. You can make a video portrait of a child, a spouse, a parent, a friend–or even the family pet.

There are two basic approaches to video portraits: interview and documentary. The best programs combine both methods (though interviews do tend to be less successful with pets unless, of course, they’re parrots).

In conducting an interview, it does help to have just one extra piece of hardware: a tripod. By setting the camcorder on it and framing your subject in a medium (waist) shot, you can move off to one side to conduct the interview. This helps relax the subject by diverting attention from the camcorder. (A tip: put a piece of tape over the red record indicator light, so the subject can’t tell when the camera’s rolling.)

To get a good interview, be sure to choose a subject. Asking "Hi, what’s your name?" won’t get you far; but if you start with something like, "Hi, tell us what you’re doing [or what’s going on] here" is a natural conversation starter.

Of course, this works best when something is indeed going on, so try to conduct your interview in a situation like a family picnic or a trip to the zoo. With an adult, it helps if they’re doing something: preparing a pot roast, removing a transmission, cutting a dress pattern, cleaning the gutters. (Well, maybe not cleaning gutters. It might not be safe, and the subject’s probably in a testy mood anyway.)

One last tip about interviews: always use open-ended questions. If you just ask, "Having a good time?" you may get, "Great." End of answer. But if you try, "What do you like best about this auto show?" (or something like that), the subject will usually tell you.

Interviews should be kept very short, which is fine because you want to combine them with documentary footage. Though the word is fancy, the idea is simple: just record what your subject is doing. Show the preparation of the pot roast. Follow your subject around the auto show. Document the process of corralling the dog, getting it into the tub, shampooing and rinsing it, drying it off and finally watching helplessly as it rolls ecstatically around in the back yard dirt.

To avoid the usual reaction to a camcorder ("Get that thing out of here!" "Stop; I look terrible!") emphasize that you’re focused on the activities, not the person. (Okay, so you’re fibbing; it’s all in the good cause of art.)

This documentary aspect of portraiture leads naturally to the next type of quick and simple video: the Document.

A document video is simply a visual record of something. It’s different from an Exploration or a Portrait, because those are informal, ad-lib treatments of places or people. A document, by contrast, provides a more systematic record.

A great quick and simple project is to document your personal and household valuables for insurance purposes. This does involve a little pre-production planning, since you need to list and assemble the items you plan to shoot. Once you’ve done that, follow these tips for success:

For hardware such as stereo and computer components, read the model and serial numbers aloud as you shoot, adding any other relevant information ("This is a 486DX 66 VESA computer with 8 meg of ram, a 540 meg hard drive and a Diamond Stealth video card.").

To shoot small items like jewelry and silver, set up a table outdoors in open shade (no direct sunlight, please). This will provide low-contrast lighting bright enough to help focusing on small subjects. Spread a plain-colored cloth or towel to create a simple background. Use a tripod for stability. As above, describe each item verbally while you shoot.

For large items such as a restored classic car, plan to devote an entire video to this complex piece of documentation.

Another fast and simple documentary consists of pictures. Most camcorders will focus close enough to fill the frame with drugstore photo prints (especially the larger format). For example, you might take the two rolls you shot on your last vacation, edit them to the best 20 shots, put them in logical order, and then record them on tape. To do this:

Work outside on a table as described above. Prop up a picture support at an angle, so it’s easier to point the camera squarely at the pictures.

Record the pictures against a dark cloth background (a dining table place mat works great). This is extra important with vertical format photos, which will show blank space on each side of the horizontal TV screen.

If your camera will focus on the photos in the full telephoto lens position, do so. The farther you are from your pictures, the easier they are to shoot.

For stability, work on a tripod. Because photos themselves don’t move, they call extra attention to any camera wobbles.

To edit in the camera, roll about ten seconds of tape for each picture. That’s long enough, trust me.

If you use a VHS or VHS-C camcorder, add commentary or music to your show later by copying the tape from your VCR to your camcorder, utilizing the Audio Dub feature that replaces sound while leaving picture untouched.

Of course, you can also make a documentary of something that moves–of a process like fly tying or pottery making. My sister’s husband makes bagpipes from scratch, including the chanters and drones. I’d love to see a video showing how he turns these finicky pieces on his special lathe and then reams them out with custom-made tapered boring bits.

To ensure success, choose a process that’s suitably short and simple. "Baking Chocolate Chip Cookies" is an excellent subject; "Building a Garage" is probably not.

Take a Letter
Video letters make great one-afternoon projects. Instead of writing to Grandma Mabel in Duluth, you can actually show her how the kids are growing, how the rec room remodel worked out, what the rains did to the back yard.

A video letter is similar to an exploration, but with one vital difference: since a letter contains a variety of topics involving different people, places and things, it’s a good idea to plan it in advance. No big deal–just jot down a list of topics and make a note of anything you need to round up in order to photograph it.

It’s easy to provide an on-camera narration for a video letter, and why not let Grandma Mabel hear the other voices, too: spouse, children and the funny "arooo-roo-roo" that Spot reliably delivers to remind you that its kibble time.

One last note: if it’s Abuelita Mabel in Madrid, be sure to get the tape translated into the PAL video format (for Grandmamam Mabel in Paris, the format’s SECAM). You can find video conversion services in the local Yellow Pages.

Another type of video epistle is a letter to City Hall (or any other public authority or body.) Suppose, for example, your street has a blind intersection with a cross street. Instead of merely telling the traffic commission about the hazard, you can show it and even dramatize it.

For this project, you’ll need two helpers: a driver and a pedestrian (preferably a child). From the front passenger seat, tape the driver’s obstructed view as the car approaches the dangerous corner. Then show the child on the corner, unable to see the oncoming car.

The big finale is the child stepping out into the path of the car. You need to tape this safely, of course, so here’s one way to do it:

Shift the action up the street past the obstructed intersection. (On screen, the move will be undetectable.) Place the child on the curb about eight feet from the camera and the approaching car about 50 yards up the street.

Frame the car in an extreme telephoto shot. This will both exclude the child from the frame and make the car look much closer than it is.

Roll tape and cue the car. When the car has traveled about 50 feet toward the camera (a slow speed is okay), cue the child to step off the curb and into the frame.

Set the camera at the car’s point of view and tape a quick zoom in to the child’s frightened face.

And if you really want to get fancy, tape a side view of the car as it rolls into the shot, then screeches to a panic stop. Frame the action so the audience can’t see that the child is safely back on the sidewalk and nowhere near the car.

Take the resulting tape downtown and you may or may not get a stop sign, but I guarantee you’ll get more attention.

Finally, how about a letter to the future? Many older people are now making video testaments, greetings, farewells. But why wait? Even if you’re, say, 40 years old, you’ll be quite a different person 20 years hence (just as you were different 20 years ago).

Admittedly, this may be the most demanding of all our suggested projects, because, of course, you’ll want to think of something to tell your future self and family. By simply winging it you risk gems such as, "Bill! Yo, buddy. Still losin’ your hair? Well, um, I’m fine, Bill, but then, you know that, don’t you…"


It’s much better to jot down a simple list of things you want to say to the future. To do this, imagine what you might like to hear from your self of 20 years in the past. Chance are that two decades from now, you’ll want to know similar things.

A note of caution: whether your letter to the future is for yourself, your spouse, your children or posterity in general, posterity may never receive it, because analog video tape (which you use) is not an archival medium, and in 20 years it may be nearly (or entirely) unwatchable.

So if your letter is really important, consider having it transferred to digital video. Nowadays, this service is available even in smaller cities and towns. You won’t be able to view the result at home, but you can preserve the content until consumer digital video arrives, some time in the next few years.

We call our last groups of video projects Creations. These are imaginative videos like stories, funny commercials and music videos.

Music videos are great fun, but they typically demand more than an afternoon to make. By contrast, you can shoot a funny commercial in an hour. (This is another sure-fire project to make with kids.)

One of my video students made a hilarious commercial about a brick. That’s right, a brick. He demonstrated how to use it to crack nuts, weight down papers in a breeze, prop up books, squash spiders, raise a child to drinking fountain height (he played the child himself, on his knees in medium shot).

The payoff was a sign with a price, an address, an 800 number, and the usual "allow six weeks for delivery." Matched to his pompous Mr. Announcer pitch on the audio track, the result was a 60-second hoot.

But of all short video forms, story programs can be the most creative. The trick is to develop an idea you can shoot comfortably in one session. Story creation is easier to show than describe, so we’ll wrap up this session by presenting a complete, two-minute demonstration program that you and one helper can shoot in an hour.

But first, here’s a tip for building micro-stories: watch commercials. Notice how many of them tell an actual story in 30 seconds–an action complete with beginning, middle, and end. Study the way they choose an action short enough to fit their tiny scope and then the economy with which they present it.

In other words, a short-short story is simply a commercial without a product. Think of it that way and you won’t go wrong.

On with the Show
And now, without further ado, our chiller-diller action thriller, Bait!

As you can see, we chose this silly story to appeal to children as well as adults; and kids can produce this show with great success. (I’ve done it with ten year olds.) So if you have short citizens in your family, this is a dandy project to make together.

If do want to produce this video, the adjacent storyboard contains everything you need. Just a few minutes planning and you’re ready to shoot.

First, get your props together:

A trash paper spear. To make one, cut the handle off an old broom and then drive a finishing (headless) nail part way into one end. Simple.

A trash collection sack. A plastic leaf bag works just fine.

A pad of paper and a wide felt marker, to make the actual "bait."

Next, choose a location. Any city park or school playground will do, or even a large back yard. The only requirement is a bush or shrub big enough to conceal someone (or something!) behind it. Try to find a place free of distractions in the background: cars, people, etc.

Finally, take just a moment to notice how the storyboard is organized. In an uninsistent way, it exemplifies some important principles that apply to all videomaking:

The title is part of the action. In any video, you can simplify production by finding a real object (a sign, a birthday card, a magazine ad, etc.) to shoot as a program title.

The storyboard uses many different kinds of shots, from long shots to big closeups. By varying your camera angles as suggested here, you’ll get a more dynamic and interesting video.

It preserves screen direction. Notice that all movement is generally screen-left toward screen-right (until our victim curves toward the bush). You can omit this curve if you choose, or reverse the screen direction. But whatever you do, keep the motion consistent with respect to the screen.

All shots begin and end with the action (character or trash spear) off-camera. By doing this, you make it unnecessary to match movement precisely from shot to shot– a technique that can be difficult and tedious with consumer video equipment.

It can also be shot out of order, to save time. To go into this last point a bit more deeply, look at the way in which the storyboard frames are numbered. Notice that there are 27 pictures, but only 14 camera setups. (A "setup" is a single camera position.) Note that you can make more than one shot from a single setup. For example, you can set up a bird’s-eye view of a single patch of grass and then shoot one piece of paper after another on it, for later insertion at the appropriate place in the story.

So when you see, for example, frames 5, 5b, and 5c, shoot these three frames as one continues action. When you edit your epic, you can insert closeups 1c and 1d as indicated. (For more on editing options, see the accompanying sidebar.)

So there you have it. Whether you want to make this little video, another project in this piece, or an idea of your own, you now have lots of programs that you can complete in two hours.

So get out that camcorder and start using it for the reason you bought it: to have fun making videos!


Editing: In Camera or Post Production?

As noted in the accompanying article, the sample video storyboard has been optimized for post-production editing. To save production time, shots are made out of showing order, and then placed in their proper sequence later by copying them to a separate assembly tape.

If you don’t want to include editing in your two-hour project, you can edit the video right in your camera, as you shoot. This takes more time during production, but reduces post-production time to nothing.

In choosing either editing method, be aware that each one has its own rather different requirements. So here’s a guide to help you use each one.

Shooting to Edit Later
You’ll produce better footage for post-production editing if you:

  • Shoot every shot long. Roll tape five seconds before the action begins and five more seconds after it ends. This will give you extra footage to play with in determining exact cut points between shots.

  • Shoot all continuous action continuously–that is, don’t break it up with cutaways. Shoot those separately instead.

  • Shoot more angles than you might need (time permitting). By covering a piece of action from several viewpoints, you can later decide which angle(s) to include in the finished show.

Editing in the Camera
When you edit in the camera, you’re making your finished video as you go, so the rules are quite different:

  • Roll tape just a second before the action begins and stop it exactly where you want the shot to end. With practice, youll learn exactly how long your camcorder takes to start and stop recording.

  • Shoot every shot in order, beginning with the title and working your way through the program.

  • Rehearse your actors before taping. Remember that you can’t leave multiple takes of the same shot on the tape. Why not rewind to the original cut point and start over? Because of the final rule:

  • Avoid reviewing your footage in the viewfinder to check the action or locate a cut point. Consumer cameras are notoriously imprecise and you can easily record over parts of shots that you wanted to keep if youre not extremely careful.


The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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