Tips for Shooting Better iPhone Video (and any smartphone video)

I watched this 10 Tips/Hacks for Better Smartphone Videos video by Kai W to see if there was anything useful I could learn.

I was a little underwhelmed, although I like that he has ideas for not spending money on lenses and gimbals.

Some of the ideas we have seen before, like sliding your camera along a smooth surface, using a book or a box to be more slidery. Then there’s the most common tip ever given in the history of film schooling: bad audio cannot be tolerated. So when it comes to audio, at least, Kai says ‘buy better kit’.

But the best tip is one he doesn’t mention.

Eh?

Yes, because it’s the way he shoots and edits his own video which, perhaps, turns out to be the best lesson. So here’s my limited number of tips:

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The video never really slows in pace. So, even though I didn’t find it particularly inspiring, it was easy to watch as it skipped through the points he wanted to make. But not so fast I couldn’t follow, either.

I’m all for lingering, moody shots. But make sure the slow pacing, composition, music, audio track and tone combine to make it compelling.

2. Shot Selection

While the shots he chooses are not exactly going to be challenging Roger Deakins for next year’s cinematography Oscar , they are neat and efficient. Sometimes it’s best to just keep it simple, rather than filling your film with one freaky angle after another.

I get it. You look at the shot and somehow it’s just not inspiring. Everything looks flat and “normal”. We feel uncomfortable because in our minds we have these sexy images from our favourite movies. But when it comes to replicating that in your back yard with a smartphone, the reality of what it looks like kicks in. Then there’s a temptation to indulge in those extreme angles, in a desperate attempt to make it look out of the ordinary somehow.

3. Subject

But here’s the thing you will discover after shooting a few films: what’s happening in the frame is what people will focus on. If it’s fiction you’re making, then the acting needs to be authentic and the dialogue interesting. For a documentary, the subject needs to be engaging and/or touching.

It’s called “drama” for a reason – if something dramatic is happening in the frame, it’s only human for us to be engaged. This is the basis of all theatre and film, since humans first started telling each other stories.

Imagine these 2 scenes: one is of a guy cleaning his car, the other is of a guy pleading for his life as he’s about to be murdered. Now, one of these scenes is going to be much harder to make engaging than the other. I don’t think you need me to point out which one.

You can use all the video-making tips and tricks ever thought of, but none of them will help you if what’s happening within the frame is not exciting or engaging in some way.

If nothing dramatic, touching or funny is happening, why are you filming it? And once you’ve got something interesting to point your camera at, you (and your audience) are going to be a lot less worried about the smoothness of your pan or the crispness of your audio.

4. Editing

It’s actually about how one shot moves to the following shot and then to the following, and so on. This is a key factor which keeps our attention and pushes things above “home movie” level.

Even though Kai’s video is pretty mundane, it bubbles along nicely. The shots are varied enough, from close to wide, so that he keeps our attention.

Rather than spend time watching videos for their tips, hacks and tricks, watch them for their editing skills, instead.

Notice how Kai cuts so many of his shots to a length just long enough to give you the information you need, before cutting to the next. This is obviously a key ingredient for making YouTube limited number of tips videos.

But it’s also something you can use for your other work, in fiction of docs.

What you might find is your video now rips along at an awesome pace but, because you’ve cut everything to the essential frames, your video ends too soon. You wanted a 5 minute video, but you’ve told your story effectively in 2 minutes.

So what should you do? Extend those shots to fill in the space and drag it out a bit?

Nope. What you’ve discovered is that you actually only had 2 minutes worth of story. So if you want it to be longer, you’ll need some more story and some more shots.

So to sum up, here’s my tips:

1, make sure something exciting is happening in front of the camera.

2, keep the shots simple, but varied enough to give you editing choices.

3, work on the pacing and timing in the edit, so it flows nicely and keeps ticking along.

Next: Getting Your Film into a Film Festival

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