Video & Filmmaking

Frames Per Second: Tips for Better Video Storytelling

December 4, 2017

In addition to directing, editing and writing for video, former National Geographic photographer Bob Sacha also teaches video to photographers who want to meet the demand of clients for motion content. “People say, ‘How do you shoot great video?’ That’s easy. The question is how do you tell a great video story.” Moving from still photography to video requires the photographer to shift from thinking about getting the one great shot to getting multiple shots that a video editor can later piece together into a narrative arc.

One goal, he says, is to provide enough variety of shots at sufficient duration and from different angles so the editor has plenty of shots to choose from. Another goal is to create a narrative and enough visual interest to hold viewers’ attention. When we look at a photo printed in a magazine or newspaper, Sacha notes, “I can spend as much time as I want looking at the picture: a second, a minute or five minutes.” When people watch a video on a phone or monitor, “The director is in control of the narrative, and tells you how long you’ll look at something. Given the world we live in today, that’s not very long before [viewers] get bored and go to Facebook.” Creating captivating video, Sacha claims, “has less to do with how you shoot it than it is about the way you think about the story.”

© Gurudarshan Khalsa

Bob Sacha. © Gurudarshan Khalsa

First, though, forget about “B roll.” “I call it bullshit roll: It’s just random shit you put over A roll.” Looking for B roll “can make you a lazy shooter,” he claims. And it’s not enough to focus solely on interesting visuals, which is the job of a cinematographer. Directors, Sacha says, have to be always thinking about story. That means looking for visual material to make interesting sequences that build compelling scenes, which in turn build the overall story. Sequences themselves have an arc, showing the beginning, middle and end of a particular action. Think of a simple story like Goldilocks. It is made up of scenes: The bears leave. Goldilocks comes in and makes herself at home. The bears return and confront Goldilocks. Each of those scenes are made up of action sequences: Goldilocks tasting a bowl of porridge; Goldilocks testing a bed; the bears walking towards the house, etc.

Sacha says learning to shoot scenes was his “a-ha moment” when he became a confident director. Like a stage director, who needs to find interesting ways to get the actors on and off stage, Sacha says a director considers, “What’s the opening of the scene, what’s the middle, and then how do we end it?”

When shooting an interior, he moves around the room to get at least three shots which make up each sequence. As an example, he says: Imagine a man sitting in a chair. A still photographer shoots the man in the chair. As a video director, Sacha says, “What you’re looking for is the completed action” in each sequence: the chair, the man walking toward the chair, and the man sitting. Each shot has to be at a different angle, and usually a different aspect (wide, medium, tight). “That series of shots becomes a sequence. And a series of sequences becomes a scene: What is he doing in the room? What happens there?”

To help his students remember to break down a single action into multiple shots at different angles, Sacha often quotes a teaching tool devised by Still Motion, a production studio that offers video workshops. The teachers at Still Motion refer to the 3-over-1 rule: Every time you think you have one shot (of a particular action), you have to shoot three. That means, he says, not only shooting close, medium and wide shots, “but different angles and points of view. Maybe it’s from the ground or from a different corner of the room.”

Another rule that can help guide the filmmaker is to start by shooting closeups on faces, hands and other details, then go for wider shots and then look for something creative or interesting. A common mistake of beginners is not shooting enough tight closeups. And as our screens get smaller, Sacha says, “Video for the web is now built on closeups and extreme closeups, with very few wide shots.”

In the editing, he notes, you may not use all the shots you gather. However, “You always want to have a lot more to have the possibility of making something interesting.” The shots also may not be used in chronological order, “and you don’t need to gather your shots in chronological order.”

As an example, he describes a video project he worked on with the production house Blue Chalk Media, creating a web video for The New York Times about bridges. An architectural historian and an artist were heading to view one of New York’s bridges. As they walked from their car, Sacha recalls, “I shot all my closeups first, of first her and then him. Then I go behind them and I get footage of his notepad and him drawing.” (See the slide show for examples of the footage he shot.)

He followed them, then shot them at the water’s edge in closeup and at a distance, and then filmed them turning to walk away.  Editor Rob Finch used some footage of their walk, but ended the scene with a bird flying to a buoy on the river. Alternatively, Sacha says, it could have begun or ended with his shot of the water.

Sacha says that when he started out, he didn’t hold his shots long enough. He advises, “When you commit to the shot, you roll and roll to ten or 12 seconds,” and always use a monopod or tripod. Editing, he says, taught him the value of longer takes. “If there’s a moment where someone says something profound, and you want to give people time to think about it, you would hold on that,” he says.

When he was editing another shooter’s project on the Everglades, he says, he wanted to set a visual rhythm with slow, lingering shots. “But I couldn’t because he didn’t shoot anything longer than a few seconds.” Shots of long duration can always be cut to quicken the pace of the edit, but there’s no way to extend a shot of short duration to slow down the pace.

Photographers are used to having cameras ready to capture something interesting, Sacha notes. When moving into video, he says, they’re moving around and shooting much more. “It’s a mental check box: You get faces and closeups and a killer wide,” he says. “And at the same time you’re listening,” to anticipate what your subjects might do next. And you’re counting, to make sure you hold each shot long enough.

Then too, you’re thinking about ambient sound recording—another essential element to a compelling story. If you do everything right, Sacha says, “It’s completely exhausting.” You’ll also have gathered enough material to produce the story you want to tell.

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