Why mobile videos suck

2012 should have been the year mobile videography finally took off.Camcorders as a product category is pretty much dead. The iPhone 4S, capable of recording 1080p HD video, became the world’s best-selling smartphone in the first half of 2012. By mid-2012, mobile social video sites Viddy and Socialcam had amassed well over 100M users in aggregate. In September, Apple released iOS 6, which brought gyro-assisted motion stabilization and rolling shutter correction to the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5, further improving the quality of the videos these devices are able to capture. You’d think that by now, everybody would be shooting and sharing videos on every social network out there. But they are not.

So why is that?

Here’s a hypothesis: despite all this whizzbang technology, our mobile videos still suck.

Now this is no idle conjecture. According to a small survey we ran a few weeks ago, nearly 3 out of 4 respondents said their #1 reason for not taking more videos on their iPhone was that they felt their videos “didn’t turn out very good” (i.e. they sucked). A recent op-ed piece on TechCrunch summarizes the current state of video apps perfectly: the vast majority of video apps don’t actually help users take better videos. They come in well after the user has already shot their video, and focus primarily on helping them share it. But by then it’s too late. If I’m not happy with the video I made, I’m not going to share it, however frictionless the process.

Happily, teaching users to shoot good videos, while no easy task, is far from intractable. User education plays a big role here. Bad habits can be unlearned and basic filmmaking techniques easily picked up, the same way we learned to compose a shot when taking a photo. At the same time, technology needs to get out of the way. In the past, you had to deal with moving large video files from your camcorder to your PC and navigating complex editing software like iMovie or Final Cut Pro. Today, with your iPhone and the right app, these obstacles have all but vanished.

Party like it’s the 1890s

No discussion on filmmaking techniques is complete without touching briefly on the history of film.

The earliest forms of motion pictures dating back to the late 1890s emphasized reproducing motion. These were shows of water going over the Niagara Falls, waves crashing on the beach, a train pulling into a station. Back in the day, audiences found these primitive films extremely realistic and exciting.

It wasn’t until around 1900 that filmmakers began using this nascent medium to tell a story. The Great Train Robbery (1903), widely considered the first commercially successful narrative film, consisted of 14 shots lasting a total of 12 minutes. With each shot averaging 50 seconds, the film would have a hard time holding the attention of today’s multitasking, easily distracted audience. (By contrast, The Amazing Spiderman maintains an average shot length of just 2.9 seconds to engage the viewer for well over two hours.)

This decades-long trend toward increasingly shorter average shot lengths has certain implications on amateur videos. Unlike the modern day filmmaker who works with a very large number of very short scenes to tell a story, those of us who shoot videos on our iPhones tend to do the exact opposite: we shoot a very small number of really long videos, often with no intention other than to capture what’s happening. This disparity in shot length and intent is often sufficient to clearly set apart amateur home videos from professionally produced content. Despite all the technological advances in filmmaking in the last century, the average consumer armed with the latest 1080p HD-capable smartphone approaches the moving image the same way filmmakers did more than a hundred years ago.

The right “filter” to make your videos look great

Filters have completely transformed the way we take photos on our phones. Most of us are able to choose an interesting subject and compose our shot just fine, but lighting and color is often hard to get right. Filters essentially enable us to re-light and re-color the shot after the fact, giving us the control a professional photographer might have in a studio environment.

Why then does applying a filter to a video not make it substantially better?

The reason is that, while lighting and color is important to a video, it’s nowhere as important as timing. Timing is all about the way we juxtapose scenes, pacing them so as to advance a story. Just as filters enable us to control the lighting of a scene, so editing lets us control the flow of time, to tell our story at the pace we define, as opposed to in real time.

iMovie for the iPhone broke new ground by making conventional video editing (non-linear editing in industry speak) possible for the first time on the very same device used to shoot the raw footage. It’s without a doubt a very well-designed piece of software but one with a considerable learning curve. Moreover, it treats shooting and editing as two discrete steps, which means not everyone who starts shooting follows through with editing, which we know is crucial to the storytelling process. To bridge this gap, we propose bringing shooting and editing together into a simple, unified experience, something that’s achievable with the computational muscle in today’s multi-core smartphones.

The notion of combining shooting with editing is not new. For years, higher-end camcorders have enabled users to add transitions and trim clips as they shoot, a feature referred to as “in-camera editing.” However the interfaces are often clunky, and the limited editing operations, once applied, cannot be changed. Today, on a device like the iPhone, it is possible to write software that provides a simple yet powerful in-camera editing experience that preserves the flexibility to make changes later on. Our app Lumify is one example of this. Lumify automatically trims each clip based on its content and aligns the cuts to the downbeats in the soundtrack, essentially managing and correcting timing on the user’s behalf.

Telling a story

Now that we’ve covered how we should be shooting, the next step is figuring out what we should be shooting.

The first order of business is to decide on the story and define its objective. This really isn’t as hard as it sounds — we aren’t talking about writing fiction here. Most of the time, the story is simply the event we are trying to capture on video, and the objective is to enable us and our friends to reminisce about the event long after it’s over. With this framework in mind, coming up with what to shoot next will come quite naturally. For instance, you’d often want to start by drawing your viewers into the action by showing them where you are. This is often referred to as the “establishing shot.” While a common approach is to do a simple pan to capture as much of the surroundings as possible, there are many ways to get creative here. For example, if you are in a restaurant, an interesting establishing shot could be a close-up of the menu that shows the restaurant’s name.

Once the scene is set, you’d then move on to introduce the “cast” and then follow up with a series of vignettes that capture the experiences of each cast member. Filmmaking distinguishes among 4 common shot types, intuitively named wide, medium, close-up and extreme close-up. The establishing shot is often a wide shot, but thereafter, especially for a movie with 5 scenes or so, the shots are typically medium or close-up shots intended to focus the viewer on one specific action each. This may feel unnatural in situations where there’s many things happening all at once, and the temptation is to try to capture everything in a single shot. Don’t. Instead, shoot each subject separately, keeping the camera relatively still for each shot but changing the camera angle and position from shot to shot. This technique is known to filmmakers as a “cutaway.” For example, you might start with a shot of the main subject, the family pooch performing an oh-so-cute trick, and then “cutaway” to a “reaction shot” of the rest of your family laughing and clapping.

Finally, don’t forget to conclude your story. Give your movie a simple but satisfying finish to reward the viewer for remaining engaged up until the last frame. A shot of people walking away, the closing of a door, a gentle pan away from the action to a wide shot of the surroundings are all really easy ways to add a bit of closure to your digital short.

Enjoying the creative process

We often hear that consumers will always prefer creating photos to videos because the former is much faster and easier. Yet paradoxically users are finding ways to make the photo creation process more involved and time-consuming. It used to be that you would take a photo, slap on a filter and share it right away. These days, it’s not uncommon to find Instagrammers running every photo through 2 or 3 photo editing apps before uploading it. To them it doesn’t matter if it takes one second or ten to snap a photo. It’s the creative process of massaging the raw photo to get to that perfect end result that they find most rewarding.

Perhaps we might soon see a similar development in mobile video. The time it takes to shoot raw video becomes inconsequential when the person behind the camera is immersed in the creative process. Then it becomes a challenge of figuring out the best way to segue from one shot to the next, just as Instagrammers sweat over the precise combination of lighting and color. With hardware like the iPhone 4S and software like Lumify, it is now possible for technology to abstract away the mechanics and tedium of creating and editing video, allowing the user to focus on the fun part — telling a story. If you have never shot a movie in your life, there’s probably no better time than now to rediscover this exciting, century-old medium.

Ex iOS dev

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