By Christopher Zacher

Most people won’t admit that they find home movies terribly boring. In reality, though, who actually wants to watch a 4-hour recording of a youth soccer game even if it is your own child on the screen? For many people, videos are a way to preserve memories and forge connections between different generations of family. It is unfortunate, therefore, when you have to fast-forward through hours of footage just to get to the part where your daughter kicks the game-winning goal.

Film director Steve Stockman is well aware of this problem. “If you shoot a video that’s disorganized and poorly put together, no one will watch it,” he says laughingly. “Even your mother will say she watched it, but what she really did was watch the first 15 seconds and turned it off to watch Wheel of Fortune.”

In an attempt to help amateur videographers produce better home movies, Steve wrote How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck. The book provides practical tips for families who want to document their life events in an inspiring and memorable way.

Finding and Documenting Your Story

Steve reasons that you don’t have to be Francis Ford Coppola to put together a watchable movie. You don’t even need a high-end camera. “You can shoot a great family video on your iPhone,” Steve says. “I wrote How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck in a way that doesn’t focus on equipment but how to think about video.”

One of the keys to thinking about home video, according to Steve, is narrative structure. “The core commonality to all video creation is that it has a story—a hero, a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Steve says. “Knowing the story you want to tell is the key to all good video, and I think that’s applicable to family video as well.”

As Steve points out, a hero doesn’t always have to be a superhero. A hero could simply be a member of the family who is trying to accomplish something. “A hero is just someone with a goal,” Steve explains. “At the beginning of the story, we learn what that goal is and why they have it. In the second part, we see how they try to achieve their goal. In the final part, we see whether or not they achieve it.”

Although it may not always be clear who the hero is in a home movie, Steve believes there is a narrative hiding in most situations. “If you’re doing a piece about your California family vacation,” he says, “you could focus on your 5-year-old daughter. If she’s the hero, maybe the story is her quest to meet Mickey Mouse.”

Steve illustrates how the home movie could feature shots of her talking about how excited she is to meet Mickey and helping to pack the car at the beginning of the film. Then it could feature shots of the family driving down the freeway singing songs together. Toward the end of the movie, it would document the girl arriving at Disneyland, seeing Mickey Mouse across the town square, and running to meet him. At that point, as Steve puts it, “You’ve taken what could have been a messy, disorganized series of shots and shaped them into a story about your daughter and her dream vacation.”

Enjoying the Moment

Steve describes how important it is to approach home videos with brevity and organization in mind. Much of what we do is ritual, which means we know something about what’s likely to happen. That makes things easier to shoot well. “If you’re the videographer for Thanksgiving dinner, think about what’s going to happen at dinner,” he says. “People are going to arrive, we’re all going to sit down, someone’s going to bring out the turkey, and we’re all going to say what we’re thankful for. You can be in the perfect position for all those shots.”

Once you get the shots you need, the narrative will start to develop by itself. “You can take a couple shots here, a couple there, and when you spit them all into the editing program you’ve got 3 minutes that cover different pieces of Thanksgiving in order,” Steve says.

Steve points out that a little bit of pre-production will allow you to plan your videos properly, spend less time shooting, and, ultimately, give you more time to enjoy the actual moment. Hiding behind the camera, after all, can distract you from experiencing the event in real-time. “If you actually record everything you do, you’ll need an entire lifetime to play it back,” he says. “I think that’s missing the point a little bit. You don’t need to be behind the camera for 4 hours.”

A Legacy on Tape

Steve has applied these techniques to his own home videos. After his mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years ago, he spent some time shooting video interviews with her. He recorded their conversations about life, the things that she valued, and some memories that were important to her. The experience became the inspiration for Steve’s first feature film, Two Weeks, starring Sally Field and Ben Chaplin.

For Steve’s mother, however, the videos provided a way for her to continue to connect with family after she was gone. “It helped her feel good about leaving a way for her grandchildren to get to know her, and it helped us remember things about our own family legacy,” he says. “If you have a chance to do something like that, I would really recommend it.”

Steve Stockman is a writer, director, and producer at Custom Productions, Inc. in Los Angeles. He wrote and directed the award winning feature film Two Weeks for MGM, starring Sally Field and Ben Chaplin; created and Executive Produced TV series like Brew Dogs for NBC/U, Dogs of War for A&E, Devils Ride for Discovery Channel, and $24 in 24 for Food Network; plus music videos, web series, and over 200 commercials. His book How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck is the world’s best-selling cinematography title. It’s available in 7 languages and was just released in a revised and updated edition for 2017 from Workman Publishing. It’s about how to shoot video that’s entertaining, effective, and that actually gets watched—whether you’re shooting with a high-end camera or your iPhone.

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