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Building a Story from Video Pieces

Izzy holds a video camera

Izzy holds a video camera

Do you ever struggle to piece together a video from a bunch of barely-related video pieces?

For example, maybe you shoot video clips throughout the month, and then at the end of the month you try to edit them together into a video about things that happened that month — but the resulting video feels like it jumps all over the place.

Or maybe you took a vacation and captured video clips throughout your travels. Then when you got back, you edited a video from your footage — but you’re not happy with it because it doesn’t feel cohesive.

This is a common thing that happens.

In my experience, many people solve this problem by editing the clips together into a video montage, setting it to music, and moving on.

There’s nothing wrong with a montage necessarily (especially for video beginners), but there are things you can do to make a more satisfying video, for you as well as for your viewers.

Here I’m going to give you four classic techniques that can help you add some story to all these disparate video clips.

Even though there are things that you can do in advance to help prevent this problem (such as thinking like an editor, getting the shots you need, capturing lots of interviews, etc.), let’s say you didn’t do those things.

And now you’re looking at a virtual pile of video clips and wondering how you can string them together into more than just a montage.

1. Make the video hyper-focused

If you have a month’s worth of video clips, instead of making a video about the month as a whole, consider making a video about just one event from the month.

Focus on just one event or subject. This could result in a brief, but highly-focused video.

Here are the steps you might take:

  1. Start by watching all the footage from the month.
  2. Group clips together based on their subjects.
  3. Ask yourself whether you have enough clips on a topic to tell a story. If not, what clips are missing, and can you solve that problem now? (see upcoming techniques for this)
  4. If you have what you need, make a short hyper-focused video.

If you don’t have what you need, you might be able to take steps toward solving that problem. For example…

2. Record interviews after-the-fact

Interviews are one of the most useful (and sometimes glaringly absent) storytelling items for videos.

Ideally we would capture the interview clips when we’re originally shooting. The events are fresh. The thoughts and emotions are fresh. Chances are good that the interview clips will be authentic and useful.

But if we neglected to capture interview footage, then it’s possibly not too late.

We can still record some interview clips now.

Here’s an example: Let’s say that I’m making a video about my 13 year-old son’s gymnastics test where he moved up to the silver level in his tumbling class. As I review the footage, I realize that I have clips of him taking the test, doing the different maneuvers and tricks he needs to do. Maybe I have a clip of him getting his award.

But it’s obvious I’m missing what could have been some great interview footage.

I failed to turn the camera toward him and ask “How do you feel as you head into your test?” Or afterwards, “How do you feel getting the award? What was the hardest part? Describe to me what happened…”

Those would have been super-useful clips to have, but I didn’t get them at the time.

Well, good news. I can still record some interview clips. They won’t be fresh, but they’ll be better than nothing.

Here’s what I could do… I could pull my 13 year-old aside, show him the original clips I captured of him doing the test (to help refresh his memory and freshen up those emotions), and then record his answers to some questions, such as:

“How did you feel before the test? What thoughts were going through your head?”

One of my favorites: “Can you describe what happened?”

And “How did you feel when it was done? What was the hardest part?”

There are plenty of great interview questions I could ask.

Again, it’s better to get the clips when the emotions are fresh and honest, but I’d rather have delayed interview footage than none.

3. Add voice-overs

If there’s information that the viewer needs to have, someone needs to say it.

That information could be in the interview clips, but if it’s not in there, then voice-overs might be a good solution.

Voice-overs can be versatile and useful.

You can record a voice-over that narrates the complete story while related shots show on the screen. That’s one option. People do that, but it’s not my favorite.

My personal preference is to sprinkle voice-overs throughout the video and mix them with interview clips and B-Roll.

I might use the voice-over to set up a shot. For example, let’s say I have a clip where I asked my 13 year-old son, Aiden, how he felt about the upcoming tumbling test. And this was his answer:

“I was a little nervous, but mostly I was excited.”

That’s a nice little sound bite, but if it just played on its own, it would seem incomplete and a bit out of nowhere.

Ideally, my son would have given me a fully complete answer such as: “I’m 13 year-old Aiden, and I’m heading into my tumbling test. How do I feel about it? Well, I’m a little nervous, but mostly I’m excited.”

Not realistic. So instead I get a tiny piece of information from the interview, but it’s not complete.

A voice-over to the rescue! Let’s say that I recorded a voice-over that I included right before I played his answer, and it went like this:

My voice: “Aiden was about to take his tumbling test to see if he could move to the next level. I asked him how he felt, and this is what he said…”

Aiden’s sound bite: “I was a little nervous, but mostly I was excited.”

Much better.

Adding voice-overs boils down to a two step process.

  1. Write the script.
  2. Record the voice-over.

And if you want to make yourself a character in the video, instead of using a voice-over, you could opt to include yourself by recording…

4. Standups

A standup is similar to a voice-over in that you use it to provide information to the viewer, but it’s different in that you’re actually appearing in the video (usually standing up, hence the name, but in my opinion you could be sitting, crawling, bicycling, etc. – I’d still call it a “standup” if you’re talking to the camera).

This is especially useful if you don’t have a lot of B-roll clips, so you don’t have something visual to show as your voice-over talks to us.

Besides, as viewers, we love looking at faces. So consider showing us yours.

News journalists do this all the time. A 90 second news story frequently opens and closes with standup shots of the journalist talking to us, giving us the information we need.

Maybe it’s not a news story I’m making about my son’s tumbling test, but there’s no reason I can’t use a journalist’s technique for relaying information to the viewer.

Again, it would have been nice to record these standups along with the original footage, but it’s okay to record them later once you realize you need them.

Conclusion

It’s difficult to tell a good documentary-style story in a video without interviews, voice-overs, or standups. It’s probably technically possible, but it’s rare to string together a series of B-roll-style video clips and end up with a complete story.

Some people resort to displaying lots of text on the screen to tell the story, but I see that as far less effective than these other techniques. After all, when we watch a video, we typically don’t want to do a lot of reading.

Anyway, yes you can often rescue mildly-related video clips and turn them into a story. Start by focusing the story, and then use classic tools such as voice-overs, stand-ups, and interviews to bridge the gaps.

I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

7 thoughts on “Building a Story from Video Pieces

  1. You are the BEST! Thank you!

    1. Sure thing. Glad this stuff helps. :)

    2. I have all your tutorials, I’ve downloaded the music, watched your hints, so you know I love you Izzy, but this one was way off your usual standards.

      It’s like saying I have a whole bunch of words selected randomly and I want to write a letter – or a book.

      Video is communication – and like every other form of communication it MUST start with a purpose first – then discard anything that does not advance the purpose before you publish.

      I guess “social media” has fooled people into thinking anyone cares what you ate for breakfast.

      1. Hi Bob, great comment. And I totally agree with starting with a purpose. This article is an answer to all the questions I receive about “I have all these video clips already shot. What can I do with them to somehow turn them into something watchable?”

        It’s a super common question, so I wanted to address it. I tried to emphasize in the article that it’s best to do the preparation in advance (and I’ll continue talking about that in the future), but maybe I didn’t emphasize it enough.

        Thanks for the comment, and of course, thanks for being a customer! :)

  2. Dear Izzy
    Bob Keeping is spot on. There is an assumption that film making is just a question of knowing how to switch on and point a camera and how operate a piece of editing software. It is not. Planning , research and creative story telling helps.
    As far as Standups (pieces to camera as we say in the UK) are fine if that is the style you’ve chosen. But voice-overs are a sign of the weakness of the rushes. Last year I made a film with a 92 year old survivor of The Holocaust. No voice-over. Purpose and planning and interview technique. While I admire your aims, I am certain you should encourage your followers of whom I am one to develop proper film-making skills and not let any one Labour under the misapprehension that some really good can come from poor rushes. Of course if you have got a bunch of old clips from your Mum and Dad decent film-making techniques will always help. Please encourage your loyal fans to espouse excellence and effort not the mediocre an quick fixes. .

    1. Hi David, thanks for the comment. Yes I agree with everything you’re saying here. As I mentioned in response to Bob’s comment, this article is specifically addressing the situation where someone already has a collection of various video clips and they’re trying to piece them together into something that makes sense. In other words, the damage has already been done. So what can they do now? That’s what I was trying to do with the article.

      Also, I’m really not trying to say you can make a complete film from these disparate clips — more like a brief video that tells a tiny story. Like a miniature documentary (such as the Small Story concept I frequently talk about).

      Based on yours and Bob’s comments, I see now that I should have emphasized in the article that it’s much better to get what you need in advance. I mentioned it once or twice, but I think anyone who reads the comment section here will get the idea now. :)

      Again, thanks for the comment, and congrats on the film.

  3. Great idea about after interviews. Many stories are better after the “stars” have had time to think about it!

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