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Tips for making your own movies

Most movies are made just for the fun of watching them. Professional filmmakers will make a script before they start filming. Then they go ahead and start shooting scenes that they want or need. Most of us, amateur filmmaker, don't make such a plan. We just go on a holiday trip and take our video camera with us to record just what we stumble upon. Or we see the kids doing something interesting at home, grab the camera and start recording. Nevertheless, even with this attitude, it is possible to make movies that are entertaining enough to watch, even for those not directly involved.

Based on my own experience making movies I have learned some important lessons that determine the quality of the final movie. Below you will find some tips about how to achieve an entertaining movie without really planning ahead.

  1. During filming
  2. During editing

1. During filming

Don't try to save money on tape.
Remember that the footage that you shoot is the base material for your final movie and that you are going to edit later on anyway. It is better to shoot a lot of scenes that you eventually are not going to use then coming short of material to choose from. Most of the time you can't go back and shoot the scene again.

Show the environment
Often it is nice to give the viewer an idea about the environment in which the action takes place. A single scene with your friends walking in a city street often does not mean much if you don't also have a shot of the city or street as a whole.

Stop moving and zooming
Unless your subject is moving and you want to keep it within your view, there is usually not much need to move your camera a great deal while filming. The viewer does not have the same situation awareness that you have while you are filming. Excessive movement makes it difficult for the viewer to concentrate on subjects. The same can also be said about zooming in and out. The fact that video camera's have a zooming function does not mean that you have to use it all the time! Just don't use it too much.

Change positions
Other then moving around with your camera while filming, you should try to change position in between scenes. Looking at the same subject from different perspectives greatly increases the overall picture of the viewer.

Also use your ears while filming
During filming you should always keep in mind that not only the picture is recorded but also the sound. Your camera does not only record the sound generated by your subject but also the sound in the background. If there is a car passing while filming you better wait until the sound of that car has died down before stopping to record. Sometimes this forces you to make the scene a little bit longer than you want, but this is better than a cut in the middle of a sound. Also, before filming in your home, turn off that radio or TV playing in the background!

Plan a nice beginning and ending
The most difficult part of making an interesting movie is creating a beginning and an ending. Although we usually don't plan much ahead before filming, you should think about a nice beginning and ending. If you go on a holiday for example, take some scenes when you are packing or when you are at the airport of departure. Also make some closing shots when you arrive back home.

2. During Editing

Don't be afraid of throwing away
If you followed rule number one above, you will end up having a lot of material. Many people have their attic or garage filled with stuff that they will never use again because they are afraid that they throw something away. You should not have that attitude when editing a movie. My personal experience is that I hardly use more than 20% of the footage that I took.

Limit the length of your scenes
Many times I have seen home made movies containing scenes lasting minutes. Unless there is something very exciting happening, a lengthy scene will become boring very quickly. As a rule of thumb you should make scenes somewhere between 2 and 20 seconds and have a nice variation of short and longer scenes after each other. If you have shot a long scene with interesting and less interesting parts, don't be afraid to cut it into pieces and only use the interesting parts.

Limit the length of your movie
Don't try to make a full 90 minutes feature film. Many people have already difficulties to sit and watch a professional Hollywood movie that long let alone your amateur video of that size. I usually don't make my movies longer than about 20 minutes. If you want to use more footage in your edited movies, consider the option of splitting the movie in separate viewable parts or making short an long versions.

You can change order
Many people don't think of the option, but remember that you don't always have to use the scenes in the order in which you shot them. With this option in mind you will have a much higher flexibility in creating an interesting series of scenes. This also prevents that you end up with a series of scenes with one subject followed by a series of scenes about another subject.

Use effects and transitions with care
Your movie is not meant to show the capability of your editing program to generate transitions and special effects! Some people seem to like to cross fade every scene to another or use all kinds of wipes and dissolves. Transitions are artificial and not the natural way people look at the world. In more than 90% of the cases a 'sharp cut' from one scene to the next is far the best transition to use. A good example where you can use a fade in and fade out is when you have a scene that takes place at night followed by a scene that takes place the next morning.

Add some music
Music can greatly enhance the experience of watching the movie. Put it in places where there is hardly any or only non relevant sound in the footage itself. If there are only short instances of sound on the footage that you want to stand out, you can lower the volume of added music temporarily. Of course the use of music should not be exaggerated and should be appropriate to the scenes.

Play around
Last but not least: you should play around while editing a movie. Once you have put a number of scenes after each other test it by playing back the timeline and make changes if you feel that scenes are too long.

A very good idea is also to watch movies made by professionals. And I don´t mean just consume them as an average viewer does, but really pay attention to what techniques are being used. You will be surprised how easy it is to greatly improve your productions by just keeping some of the above tips in mind and recognize them being applied in professional movies.


Author: Ton (November 1, 2001 - Version 1)


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