10 rules of filmmaking for design students

How I make videos for my design projects using The CPH Way

Filmmaking is an important tool in my toolbox to prototype and explain design concepts to peers, clients, and the public. Most design students make videos for their projects. However, the style and execution vary greatly. Compared to cinematic movies, there are no clear guidelines or best practices on how to make a video for student projects.

As a part of the storytelling and film making course at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design with Taylor Hamilton and Derek Jennings, I learned 10 rules to guide me as I continue to make videos for the future. We call these rules the The CPH (Copenhagen) Way. These 10 rules are a set of best practices to keep in mind when you are making your video.

Let’s get started!


I. Build on the bedrock

Everything is built up from the bedrock

During every video making process, you need to start by asking yourself the question, what is the most basic human truth that I am trying to communicate? Ask yourself what is my story about? And then go one layer deeper and ask yourself what is my story really about?

Bots project video from Kevin Gaunt

Let’s take a look at the project video on artificially intelligent bots by interaction designer Kevin Gaunt. On the surface level, it’s about an elderly lady living with a group of smart bots that orders her a skateboard. The story is really about how the artificial and collaborative intelligences of the bots can delight us. The bedrock is the human desire for change. Go deep into the meaning of your project, and anchor your video around that central human truth.

In addition, you need to consider the audience and context of your video. Will you show it to a small group of people in a presentation? Is it a banner video that will be a part of your portfolio? Your video is only one piece of media. You’ll have other mediums such as photos, words, and illustration to tell the rest of the story.

II. The ultimate test is the bar 
How would you tell the story of your product or service at a bar?
If you being your bar story by spewing a list of features, you will lose the attention of whoever you are with. You need to succinctly get to the core of your product or service. Sell your idea like the first generation iPod.

First generation iPod

The first generation iPod is a device that puts 1,000 songs in your pocket. Not a Mac compatible device with a 5 GB hard drive.

Compared to diagrams and infographics, films have the quality to trigger emotional reactions more than diagrams and infographics. Don’t waste value screen time to explain all of the technical aspects of your concept.

III. Sticky the script
Use post-it when creating the script. The filmmaking process is iterative. You can freely move and rearrange different parts of the story with stickies.

One of my stickies scripts

IV. 80% Visual 20% Audio 
It’s easy to create videos where the emotive qualities come from the background music and not the story. Similarly, it’s easy to turn to narration when it’s difficult to show your idea visually. Put a restraint on how much audio to you use. Only 20% should be narration. Avoid overly emotive music. With these constraints, you will be forced to focus on telling the story visually.

Wall-E has very limited dialogue but uses visuals to tell the story

V. There can only be one
Your video needs to be simple. It needs to have one central element. Distill everything into one main character, one central video, or one product. In a span of 60 to 90 seconds, you have limited screen time to get your point across.

VI.Trial by improv
Before you start to shot your video, try to improv potential scenes. If you are making a video about a product, then try acting out the entire customer journey. If the improv does not make sense, then the film would not make sense.

Practicing our improv skills by pretending to be kittens

VII. Golden Ratio Structure

The structure of a 120 second film

The Golden Ratio Structure is one way that you can structure your video. Start with “poetry”. This is something that could be visually stunning. Something that immediately grabs the audience’s attention. Thesis is where you lay down the basics of your product or service. The storyline is where you develop the body of your story. The wallop is a strong and punchy ending. Think high impact and emotional. Wow your audience with the ingenuity of your solution and the potential positive impacts.

VIII. 100% Organic, in camera shots 
If you say: “I’ll take care of this in post processing.”, then you are already in trouble. Most of the time, post-processing is time consuming and the result is subpar. Making sure that you have the correct exposure, lighting, white balance, and shutter speed, will save you headaches later on. Aim to get the best possible shot and do not rely on post processing software like After Effects.

VIIII. Fear Dr.Dre 
What will Dr. Dre say about your audio track? Clear and well captured audio elevates the professionalism of videos by ten folds. Use an external microphone, such as your smartphone, to record the audio. Most microphones on videocameras and DSLR camera are low quality. Consider investing in a boom microphone or a zoom recorder. You can clean up the audio track in post-processing using open source software such as Audacity.

Here is a simple tutorial from Vimeo on recording high quality sound when using a DSLR camera.

X. Initialize Kubrick Eye 
One way to compose your shot is by copying the masters. Stalin Kubrick is known for his one point focus technique. If you follow his one point perspective composition technique, you don’t need to be skilled to shoot beautiful footage. When in doubt, compose your shot using the Kubrick one point perspective.

This video exemplifies the Kubrick one point perspective

These are the 10 rules that we follow at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. If you are a design student and you would like to share your beautiful project videos, then please post them in the comment section! I would love to see them. If you want to talk more about film making technique, you can reach me at www.jamesxzhou.com.


The CPH Way

  1. Build on the bedrock
  2. The ultimate test is the bar
  3. Sticky the script
  4. 80% Visual 20% Audio
  5. There can only be one
  6. Trial by improve
  7. Golden ratio structure
  8. 100% organic, in camera shots
  9. Fear Dr. Dre
  10. Initialize Kubrick eye
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