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I know a lot about filmmaking on an indie, short-form, YouTube level and even a lot about more complicated, long-form, pro filmmaking that approaches a Hollywood level. You don’t need to know all that I know to make great YouTube videos, because all of it would fill many books. (In fact, I’ve written, edited, or contributed to several books.)
I’m going to take the more basic and YouTube-specific of that info and distill it down into the two chapters of information you’ll really need to be a contender on YouTube. A lot will be covered quickly, but not in a way that misses anything you need to know to make videos that look and sound better than most of the fare on YouTube.
The basics of writing, lighting, sound, camera placement, and editing are the same, whether you’re shooting with a webcam in your bedroom, making a $100,000,000 Hollywood blockbuster with a huge crew and movie stars, or shooting scrappy little documentaries that change the world with good mini-DV cameras, with a small volunteer crew mostly made up of film school students, and with a professional editor, like I did with my two feature films.
The Importance of Storytelling
Most people when they get a video camera just start shooting. I know I did. But you really should do some exploration into storytelling so you have something worthwhile to shoot.
I cannot overstress the importance of storytelling. Storytelling at its most basic is just one person talking to another person. It predates spoken language, probably originating with the Neanderthals 500,000 years ago, grunting and emoting with their hands around a fire in a cave to describe the day’s hunt.
Today, storytelling at its most basic is two people sitting on a couch talking — not much different from the cave stuff when you really think about it.
Storytelling at its most basic, but with some recording gear added. Photo of Michael W. Dean and Mike Kelley podcasting, taken by Debra Jean Dean.
On YouTube, as with any motion art, the “story” is the video. Your goal on YouTube is to have you sitting on the “virtual couch” of the Internet telling your story, whether it’s a story from your life or one from your imagination. The story is what grabs people. Sure, if you’re young and cute and female, people will probably be more likely to pay attention to you for a minute on YouTube. But that’s not the story. And it’s not really positive attention, and it isn’t something that lasts. And it’s not going to make you a lot of money. Storytelling is what grabs attention, keeps attention, and makes money (again, if that is your goal). Alan Lastufka is making money on YouTube, but he didn’t set out with profit as his goal. He set out to make good art and share it with lots of people. I don’t make money on YouTube; I only want to spread art and am satisfied with that. We’re speaking to both camps here. We’re making the assumption that you want to make good videos and have people pay attention to them. Storytelling is the most important thing. People remember a lot of things about any piece of motion art (the term I’m going to use for anything from webcam YouTube videos to Hollywood blockbusters). People remember the stars; they remember the great lines of dialogue, the look and feel, the music, and more. But the main thing they remember is the story.
Think about movies you love. You love them because the story spoke to something inside you in some important way. Think about YouTube videos you love. They have a great story, even if the film is only 30 seconds long. The story is what happens in a piece of motion art. It’s the thing that speaks to some common thread of the human condition.
The best way to learn a new skill is to read up, ask questions, do real-life experiments, take notes, review your notes, and then try some more experiments. If this sounds like school to you, it’s not. School tells you what to learn and when to learn it. This is combining action with thought and experience and doing it at your own pace. It’s learning what you need to learn and ignoring the rest. School would never put up with this. This is the most important thing I’ll contribute in this book, and this piece of advice is worth the price of the book by itself. And it comes from a guy who got in trouble for skipping school to go to the library to actually learn things. I’m now in demand in a bunch of cool worlds, and most of the kids I went to school with have nowhere jobs.
A guy who used to beat me up writes for the local paper, which is cool, but the last thing I read by him was a story about how evil rock music is and why Nirvana should be banned and all their records burned. Steve Albini, who engineered the Nirvana record In Utero, also uses this “selfteaching with study, experiments, and notes” idea. Check out my video interview with him where he talks about it
I’ve often said that a well-told story interests me even if I have no interest in the subject matter, because it speaks to something common in all people. Of all the documentaries I’ve ever seen, one that really stood out, Spellbound, was one about spelling bees, even though I have no interest in spelling bees. One of my favorite popcorn movies (big Hollywood movies that don’t change your life but are fun to kill two hours and eat some popcorn) is Happy Gilmore, even though I hate golf.
Storytelling is different from writing, though they are related. You can tell a story without even using any words, and words are what writing produces. Some of the most compelling pieces of motion art (especially commercials) have little or no dialogue.
But something always happens in motion art. Your first job as a video creator is to make things happen on the screen. This can be done by writing or otherwise visualizing a plan and then enacting that plan and filming and editing the result, or it can happen by filming things that happen without your intervention and presenting them in a compelling way with your editing. Both methods are types of storytelling.
Conflict Is the Essence of Drama
The first thing they teach you in “real” film school is that “Conflict is the essence of drama.” It’s true. Without conflict, movies and TV would fall out of the screen and drip lifelessly onto the floor, as this photo of my cat, Charlie (Figure 2-2), looks about to do. (The white blur is actually a second cat leaping by, but Charlie didn’t catch it. She’s too catatonic.)
Figure 2-2. Stories without conflict are boring. (Model: Charlie Squitten Jr.)
All movies and all TV shows incorporate story, with characters clashing with one another (see Figure 2-3), having various types of crises of conscience, and then resolving the conflict, tying it all up in a nice neat package near the end of the show. These types of crises of conscience might be called confrontation—in act one, the characters are introduced, the problem is defined, the story set up; in act two, it evolves, it gets worse, the conflict grows; and finally in act three, it gets resolved somehow. The same is true of most books, plays, and even songs, especially hip-hop and country music, the two most story-driven music genres in existence. The fans of the two genres may not get along, but they have more in common than any other genres (except country music probably has more guns and drugs and booze and sex).
Conflict is the essence of drama. (Models: Fuzzbucket “Fuzzy” McFluffernutter and Charlie Squitten Jr.)
This method of conflict/drama/resolution is called the three-act format. A common way this is expressed in Hollywood films is what is known as the hero’s journey. Almost all Hollywood movies follow this journey—to the point that it becomes cliché.
To the point that, if it’s not there, the audience feels cheated, even if they can’t describe what’s missing. To the point that, if certain types of events don’t happen at almost exactly 10 minutes, 18 minutes, 29 minutes, 46 minutes, 101 minutes..., people feel uneasy when they leave the theater. (My wife and I once had a very long discussion about whether this is because people are used to seeing it or because people need it because there’s something inherent in the human experience that makes people want to organize stories into this format. The conclusion we’ve both come to is “It’s a bit of both.”)
Most hero’s journeys are in three-act format, and in movies, most three-act When a hero’s journey is not in three-act format, it’s usually a cyclical story, with parallel stories that occasionally intersect and the beginning of the film being part of the same scene that ends the film. A good example of this is Pulp Fiction, which still contains a hero’s journey, where there is a battle in the innermost chamber and enemies become friends.
The evil baby, Stewie, on Family Guy (one of the only TV shows I’ll watch…most TV sucks) summed up three-act format perfectly, while sarcastically deriding Brian the dog for not working on his novel:
“How you, uh, how you comin’ on that novel you’re working on? Huh? Gotta a big, uh, big stack of papers there? Gotta, gotta nice little story you’re working on there? Your big novel you’ve been working on for three years? Huh? Gotta, gotta compelling protagonist? Yeah? Got a’ obstacle for him to overcome? Huh? Got a story brewing there? Working on, working on that for quite some time? Huh? Yea, talking about that three years ago. Been working on that the whole time? Nice little narrative? Beginning, middle, and end? Some friends become enemies; some enemies become friends? At the end, your main character is richer from the experience? Yeah? Yeah?”
So, yeah, the three-act format is a cliché but one worth understanding. And by the way, once I explain it to you, you’ll never look at Hollywood movies quite the same way. You’ll feel like you’re being lied to. Because you are. Life is not that neat, things are not always completely resolved, and every situation does not have a lesson or a silver lining. Many do, though. I have a pretty positive outlook on life, but I hate sugar coating. In any case, here you go...
The Hero’s Journey
A hero’s journey story has three acts. Three distinct feelings. The first act is 30 minutes, the second act is 60 minutes, and the final act is 30 minutes. If the movie is longer or shorter than two hours, adjust accordingly. But regardless, the second act is about twice the length of each of the other two.
The first act takes place in the “normal world,” the world the protagonist (hero) normally lives in. During this first act, we meet the hero, find out his (or her) problem, and see his call to action. This is him being called to act heroically, in a way that would lead to the rest of the story. The hero always refuses the call the first time. Then something changes, it becomes personal, and he has no choice but to answer the call to greatness and risk it all to become a hero. The hero is usually played by Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, or Wesley Snipes.
The hero meets a mentor, an older person who used to be at the top of the same game the hero wants to operate in, but the mentor is now retired or crippled in some way, so all he has to pass on is knowledge and wisdom. He also usually passes on some sort of talisman—an actual physical object—to the hero. The talisman seems useless at this point but will help the hero in some way in the third act. The mentor is usually played by a handsome, older black guy with a deep voice, and it’s usually Morgan Freeman.
The mentor helps the hero assemble a ragtag crew of misfits as his team to help him in his hero’s journey quest. There’s always one guy on the team who seems like he’s going to get everyone killed. This is the guy who makes you think, “Why is that guy on the team? He’s going to get everyone killed!” This character is always played by a short, squirrelly, funny-looking white guy, often Steve Buscemi.
Once the hero’s team has completed its training, the assembled team will always walk in semi-slow motion side by side toward the camera, wearing whatever outfits they will wear in their new world. This shows that they’re now a single unit, not four or five individuals. This badass walk is how you know act one has ended and act two is beginning.
If it’s a movie about hookers, they’re dressed in pumps and miniskirts. If it’s about astronauts, they’re wearing space suits. If it’s Reservoir Dogs, they’re wearing cheap suits and skinny ties.
The second act takes place in the “special world,” the world of wonder where most of the story actually happens. This can actually be a different physical location from the normal world, or it can take place in some marginal society that’s still geographically in the same town as the normal world. But it’s often a different physical location. And when it is, part of the “journey” will involve the hero and his team traveling to that physical location.
In this special world, the hero will battle many foes and almost die several times (figuratively or literally). He will become stronger, physically and spiritually, with each
battle, until he meets the ultimate evil (antagonist) in the third act in the battle inthe innermost chamber. This is the climax of the film, and it usually happens in the middle of act three. The most quotable lines from the movie come from this part. The quote on the movie poster often comes from this part.
If it’s a cowboy movie, the battle in the innermost chamber takes place in the corral as a shootout with the villain. If it’s a courtroom drama, it is closing arguments screamed by lawyers and defendants in front of a jury while the judge bangs his gavel and demands order. If it’s that dodgeball movie, the battle is the dodgeball championships in Las Vegas. During the battle in the innermost chamber, the hero will die (figuratively or literally), resurrect with wounds (this is probably a Jesus metaphor), and stand again to finally slay the beast, even though he’s bleeding (figuratively or literally).
Then there’s the denouement (pronounced “day nu ma”), the gentle anticlimax where the hero gets the girl, gets the gold, saves the farm, and returns to the normal world. But now he’s richer for the experience, changed for the better, and bearing gifts (literal or symbolic) to help his community. (This section often leaves one or two seemingly small questions unanswered, which sets the story up for a sequel, just in case the film makes a lot of money.) Roll credits.
Do you feel cheated? You should. Hollywood relies on this formula to make safe movies that are guaranteed to turn a profit. They even wrap this formula around true events that do not occur in three acts, in biopics and documentaries. Sometimes, especially in reality TV, the conflict is even manufactured, put together behind the scenes by the producers.
Figure 2-5. Sometimes there is conflict.
No cats were harmed or even mildly irritated in the making of these images. They illustrate the idea of contrived conflict, and it does look like the producer is strategizing behind the scenes to create conflict. It looks like Debra Jean is putting one cat near the other cat, but she’s actually gently removing the cat who was about to fight, thereby stopping a fight.
Scripts that don’t follow the hero’s journey recipe to a T are routinely turned down by producers, even if the story and writing are great. Hollywood has so much potential, and it’s almost always wasted. It’s sad. The hero’s journey does, however, have some good attributes. Study this formula, know it when you see it, and then rewrite the rules. Pick the parts you like, discard the rest, and make something brilliant. (Or do what South Park does and follow the formula to the letter, exaggerate all the bullet points, and make fun of it while you’re doing it.)
Most good videos have a discernable beginning, middle, and end; even unscripted vlogs (video blogs—confessional, one-person-looking-into-the-camera-and-baring-his-soul-type videos, which are very popular on YouTube) have these three parts. The best vlogs have a feel of introducing an issue, talking about the issue, and resolving the issue, and the best vloggers do this without even thinking about it.
A Likable Main Character
Every story, no matter how short or unconventional, needs at least one likable main character. This character doesn’t have to be perfect—he can actually be quite flawed—but there has to be someone for the viewer to “root for” and live vicariously through.
I figured this out recently. My first novel, Starving in the Company of Beautiful Women, did not have a likable main character. In fact, the main character dies on page 1, and then the book is all back story. While it’s hard to cheer for a guy who’s already dead on page 1, this might have worked if I’d made him a little more likable. The cult film Liquid Sky has no likable characters.
It’s a very interesting movie otherwise, especially visually and sonically, and probably would have had a wider audience if there had been someone to root for. But the characters don’t even care about themselves, so why should we care about them?
The need to have a likable character is even seen in nonfiction coverage of stories with characters you can only despise. In every news show that covers the brutal murder of a family in a home invasion, they always interview the crying surviving relative. That’s the person you root for in that story; they’re likable because you feel sad for them.
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YouTube: An Insider's Guide to Climbing the Charts By Alan Lastufka, Michael W. Dean ISBN: 9780596521141 Copyright Â© 2008 Alan Lastufka, Michael W. Dean. All rights reserved. Used with permission. pg. 11-19
YouTube: An Insider's Guide to Climbing the Charts By Alan Lastufka, Michael W. Dean
Copyright Â© 2008 Alan Lastufka, Michael W. Dean. All rights reserved. Used with permission.