Getting Started: Writing Video Letters

If you have trouble using written words to relate a story or to describe an experience to someone who’s far away, try using your camcorder.

“Dear Gramma how are you? Thank you for the handkerchiefs I will sure have fun with them I guess. Well I will say goodbye now Love from your grandson Jimmy.”





Behold the fall and rise of correspondence: the medium of the telephone nearly killed it; then the medium of the Internet revived it. Whatever Jimmy’s literary skills, the e-mail process has somehow liberated his personal voice.

Why? Because different people communicate best in different media–and maybe your best tool for letter writing isn’t a pen or a even a PC. Maybe your personal voice will sound most clearly in the medium of video. So let’s see how to create a video letter for a distant friend or family member while honoring the official Getting Started members’ pledge: low tech, low cost, low sweat.

First Things First

Before you begin, you need to answer two basic questions: who is the letter for? And will you edit your footage?

In face-to-face conversation, you vary both the content and style of your discourse to fit your listener. And the same is true in letter writing (or, in this case, shooting). For instance, a letter to your car-crazy cousin Willard might devote a lot of space to restoring your 1948 Hudson, while an epistle to Grandma might omit that old wreck completely (the car, not Grandma). To determine what you include in your tape and how you treat it, the first step is to visualize the recipient.

With your audience firmly in mind, step two is to decide whether to edit your missive in the camcorder as you shoot it or to transfer selected scenes to an edited dub. Each approach has plusses and minuses. With in-camera editing, your letter is done as soon as you’ve finished shooting. Additionally, the results have a spontaneous warts-and-all personality that would be dampened by editing.

But be aware that an off-the-cuff letter has two big drawbacks:

You can’t change your mind about the shots: about their length and placement in the video, or even whether or not they’re included. You’re forced to decide all your program content on the fly and then live with the results.

You have to shoot the whole letter at once because you can’t edit in interesting footage from previously documented birthdays, vacations, school performances, and other video treasures.

In contrast, a compilation of other footage is far more time-consuming to assemble, unless you just copy portions of previously edited programs, suffering noticeable quality loss in the process. But if your system allows audio dubbing, you can edit your show and then add a narrated commentary that can greatly enrich the visuals.

As usual, the better approach for you comes down to a matter of personal preference. To help you decide, let’s follow the two different processes of editing while you shoot and then editing in post production.

Shooting a Letter on the Fly

Since editing in the camera will lock down your content, the first big step is pre-planning. Make a list of each topic, in order, preferably with notes about what you want to include.

As you structure your letter, remember that the video medium is far better at showing than at telling. So, if Jimmy’s news is that he plastered his room with rock posters and lit the results with ultraviolet lamps, don’t stand him in front of your lens to report this aesthetic triumph. Instead, follow with the camcorder as he conducts a tour (with on-camera commentary) of his achievement.

For obvious reasons, the same principle applies to your bonsai collection or the 1948 Hudson: instead of yakking about something, document it visually, with commentary.

Of course, if the achievement you’re reporting is an essay on Spinoza, you may be in trouble, visually. In some cases, the best approach is to let your subjects “talk” to the viewer directly. To set this up, choose a location with good lighting and low background noise for better sound recording. Near (but not in front of) a sunny window in your home is a good possibility.

Then quiz your subjects on what they want to talk about, to prime their pumps. Why? To prevent disasters like this:

YOU (whispering): Okay, go ahead.

JIMMY: Uh, hi, Gramma.

YOU: Go on!


YOU: (urgently) Go on!

JIMMY: Whatta I say?

YOU: Whatever you feel like telling Gramma.

JIMMY: Uh, hi, Gramma. Uh…

Well, I’ll spare you further agony. At the very least, you should discuss what Jimmy’s going to say before rolling tape.

And maybe you should videotape an actual interview. This is often the best way to structure comments even as you’re stimulating them. On-camera interview techniques could have a whole column of their own, but here are a few quick hints for success:

  • Plan and discuss the questions beforehand so your subject is ready with answers.
  • As off-camera interviewer, stand as close beside the camcorder as you can (not difficult because you’re looking at the viewfinder as you shoot.) This will direct your subject’s look (and voice) toward the camera. It will also allow the on-camera mike to pick up your questions “loud and clear.”
  • Ask open-ended questions. “Did you write a school paper, Jimmy?” “Yes.” End of answer. Compare: “What was your recent school paper about?” “I wrote it on Spinoza.”
  • Even better, give directions instead of asking questions: “Tell us about your Spinoza paper, Jimmy.”
  • Ask follow-up questions, where appropriate: “What was the most interesting thing about Spinoza?”

Whether interviewing a subject or documenting a garden, a car, or a room full of posters, remember to edit as you go. Keep your shots brief, but not too short for the viewer to take in. Vary shooting positions and image sizes constantly, to ensure visual variety. Avoid talking yourself (except in interviews) because the mike will pick up your every whispered word.

As always, eschew the seven deadly camera sins, especially firehosing (vague but constant camera movement), snapshooting (making shots too brief to see properly), headhunting (placing your subject’s eyes below the top third of the frame), and backlighting (throwing your subject into silhouette by shooting toward a much brighter background).

And above all, keep it short. A 10-minute video letter will be eagerly viewed. Fifteen minutes is pushing it, and a half-hour epic will be a chore to watch (if it’s watched at all).

Assembling an Edited Letter

Reading between these lines, it’s easy to discover that I prefer the alternative of building a letter from previously shot footage.

You can do this with very little extra time and effort by following just a few easy procedures:

  1. Edit from your VCR to your camcorder, if you can, since the latter is more likely to have flying erase heads (for clean edits), and probably simple effects such as fades in and out. (With 8mm and VHS-C format cameras, this will mean copying your edit master to regular VHS so that Grandma can play it.)
  2. Choose only the highlights of even your most interesting tapes. Your audience may welcome 15 minutes documenting your survival of the great floods (or fires or twisters or blizzards–’96 was an dilly of a year, wasn’t it?) but as for Jimmy’s birthday party, well, a five-minute anthology will satisfy even Grandma.
  3. Mark sections with simple titles, maybe composed on your bubblejet printer or simply inked onto cards. Alternatively, shoot an evocative image (like a closeup of a birthday present) while you announce the section title aloud for the microphone. See the December ’96 issue of Videomaker for more titling ideas.

Speaking of narration, a video system that allows audio dubbing will let you watch your edited footage while laying down a running commentary. If you can’t do this, try shooting bookends–brief introductions and conclusions in which you or another family member speak on camera to the viewer. In effect, this trick moves the commentary from the middle of each section to the beginning and end.

And finally, a word about structure. Since you’re assembling your program after the fact, you can organize its component parts in any order you choose. So don’t be a slave to chronological order, summarizing events in their original sequence. Instead, arrange your vignettes in ascending order of interest, saving the most fascinating stuff for your big finish.

And within that hierarchical structure, shuffle sections to achieve variety–that is, place a family interview between the trip to the zoo and the trip to the theme park.

Finally, consider bookending the entire program by introducing the tape yourself, on camera, and then wrapping up the show with a few last comments and an affectionate farewell.

Speaking of which, (affectionately), farewell.

Good shooting!

Contributing Editor Jim Stinson makes industrial videos, teaches courses in professional video production, and writes video textbooks.

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

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