Video Storytelling Fundamentals

This chapter includes information about:

  • Basic tips for shooting video
  • Strategies for gathering footage for sequences
  • How to develop a shot list and storyboard

Video storytelling combines the techniques of visuals and audio to create a rich, vivid experience for the audience. In video shooting and editing, a series of shots add up to a sequence. Each sequence is like a sentence or paragraph in a written story, building toward the full narrative.

The following resources provide a brief overview of video shooting strategies and some useful tips producing quality digital media.

Basic Shooting Principles

No vertical video. Always shoot video horizontally.

Shoot video horizontally. Never shoot video vertically, even though this can be tempting when shooting video on a mobile device. Although vertical video is gaining some traction for mobile, most professional video is edited and displayed horizontally. Watch this humorous PSA about why you should never shoot vertical video.

Shoot more footage than you need. More footage will give you more flexibility in editing, and don’t assume you’ll be able to go back and shoot more footage if you need it later on. Extra footage can be used as B-roll, the supplemental footage used for cutaway shots and visual variety. Make a shot list ahead of time to make sure you don’t forget important shots while you’re busy filming.

Stabilize your camera. If possible, use a tripod. But if that’s not practical, think about how you can stabilize your shots by leaning against tables or walls. Keep your elbows tucked in and hold your camera device close to your body rather than waving it wildly.

Remember visual composition. Review course materials from Units 1 and 2 about how to improve your visual composition by using the Rule of Thirds, balance, framing and other principles.

Don’t forget audio. Poor audio quality can ruin good-looking video footage. Use your audio skills from Unit 3 to plan ahead for strong audio. If you’re shooting with a smartphone, try this credit card trick to pick up better audio through your phone’s microphone.

Strategies for Shooting Video

Professional videographers always enter a situation with a plan. Here are several established ways to make sure you get the raw video footage you need to tell an effective story.

10-Second Rule

When shooting video, it can be tempting to follow the action and veer quickly from one subject to another. Professional video shooters think like photographers, composing shots and filming each shot (or angle) for at least 10 seconds so there is plenty of footage to use during the editing process.

If you are shooting by yourself in a fast-paced environment, this is not always practical for every shot. But count to yourself as you hold the shot, and keep in mind that shots less than 5 seconds are often too brief to use in editing.

3×3 Method

All successful sequences require a diverse selection of shots, which are often categorized by how much of the subject is in the frame:

  • Wide shots
  • Medium shots
  • Close-ups or detail shots

For any given subject or focus in your video, shoot those three shots (wide, medium, CU) from at least three angles. This 3×3 method is easy to remember and will provide sufficient flexibility for editing later on.

The 5-shot Method

The 5-shot method of digital video production is an efficient way to capture usable video footage in many situations. This method of production was developed by producer Michael Rosenblum in the 1990s as a way to capitalize on the opportunities presented by portable digital media cameras. Today, evidence of Rosenblum’s 5-shot method can be seen in countless news media and online video productions.

The 5-shot method requires that the subject, action and setting of a story be captured from five distinct and purposeful angles or points-of-view:

  1. Close up on hands: This close-up shot establishes WHAT is being done in the story and is often used as the first shot in a story sequence.
  2. Close up on face: This shot shows WHO is the subject of the story sequence and identifies who is performing the primary action.
  3. Wide shot: This shot establishes the setting for the story – WHERE the action takes place. It is taken from vantage point that shows the main subjects and environment they are in.
  4. Over the shoulder shot: This shot is taken from behind the main subject and again shows what they are doing, but the purpose of this shot is to provide more information about HOW an action is being done.
  5. Unusual or side shot: This shot provides variety to the story to keep the viewer’s attention and gives them more information about the main subject and action in the story or sequence.

Shot List and Storyboard

Before you shoot your video footage, it’s helpful to create a shot list with the elements you’ll need to effectively tell your story. This is almost like a to-do list or shopping list — your editing process will be more efficient if you get everything you need, but not too much more. For example, your shot list may include a shot of the exterior of a building where you’re going to interview someone. This shot will be useful to visually establish where the person works, but it would be easy to forget while you’re out shooting.

Once you have your raw footage, develop a storyboard to outline how the visual and audio elements will be ordered to tell your story. Creating a storyboard makes the editing process far more efficient, even if you end up deviating from your original plan. Before you do this, you may want to log and label your raw footage so you know what material you have to work with. If your story involves voiceover narration, you should also develop your script.

A documentary-style storyboard typically includes information about the time, visuals and audio. Some storyboards use a sketch or still image to show the visuals, but should also include a description to represent all elements. A simple way to organize this information is in three columns:

Timestamp Visuals Audio
When the shot or scene begins, starting with 0:00. This column includes a description of what shot or sequence is being shown. Describe the type of shot (wide, medium, close-up) and any significant action. Also include all other visual elements, such as titles, text or photos. Describe any visual movements, including transitions. This column includes a description of all audio elements, such as narration, interviews and background music. Also describe any changes, such as music fading in or out. Although you may not include the entire script, you should include a portion of what is being said.

Bringing It All Together

This video produced by Mindy McAdams, a professor at the University of Florida, uses the 5-Shot Method. You can view the raw video footage she shot here: Clip 1, Clip 2, Clip 3, Clip 4, Clip 5, Clip 6, Clip 7. Note how the clips vary in length, but all are at least 10 seconds.

View the finished video below:

Because this is a simple example video, it does not include complex audio or transitions. A storyboard for this video may look something like this:

Timestamp Visuals Audio
0:00 Medium shot of drying racks. After 1 second, title appears: “Rice Paper Crepes” Background music slowly fades in
0:08 Medium shot of woman scooping batter onto flat sheet and covering it Music continues
0:16 Wider shot of woman (first time we see her fully) peeling crepe up, then pouring batter again Music continues
0:26 Close-up on woman’s hands and face from below as she continues the process Music continues
0:37 Close-up of bamboo apparatus showing how the helper is taking crepes away for drying Music continues, now with singing.
0:52 Medium shot of the helper laying crepes on a rattan drying screen Music continues
0:59 Wider shot from a low angle of woman making crepes and placing them on the bamboo wheel Music continues
1:09 Medium over-the-shoulder shot of woman making crepes Music continues
1:23 Close-up shot of finished crepes in a basket. Text layered on top for credits: “Shot in Cambodia/Copyright (c) 2008/Mindy McAdams” Music fades out beginning at 1:30

Additional Reading and Resources

Four Steps to a Video Story (Columbia Visuals)

The Script and Storyboard Process (ABC Open)

How to improve your video with sequences (Poynter Institute)