How to create effective custom thumbnails for your Youtube videos

Custom thumbnails from a top 200 youtube star, Bethany Mota
Custom thumbnails from a top 200 YouTube star, Bethany Mota

Man, I am dumb.  I’ve been uploading my video contest entries to Youtube for 8 or 9 years now and it just hit me that maybe I should be giving my entries custom thumbnail images.  Ok sure, that feature has only existed for a few years but still, I should have started doing it long ago.  Eye-catching thumbnails probably won’t help me score any points with contest judges but they might help me get extra views.  And I’ve always suspected that a decent view counts will improve your chances a bit.  Think about it; if judges see one entry that has 12 views and another that has 450 views, they’ll probably assume that there’s something special about the 450-view video.  They may even conclude that entry #2 has viral potential.  And a video contest entry going viral is pretty much the dream scenario for any sponsor that runs one of these contests.

So from here on out on I’ll be giving my videos custom thumbnails.  I’ve never done one before so I had to do a little research before I started.  (I couldn’t see the option anywhere in my video manager!)  Turns out that you need to verify your account before you can create your own thumbnails.  The next step is to cook up a thumbnail that’s 1280×720 pxs and has a resolution of at least 72 px per inch  (The thumbnail’s gonna be pretty small so the resolution doesn’t need to be super high.)  Here’s a template I created.  Feel free to download it and use it for your own projects:


And that’s about all there is to it.  But if you’d like more info plus some tips about creating attractive, click-worthy images, you should go ahead and watch these official YouTube tutorials:

How to speed up FCPX

I’m a fan of FCPX but the program has always run a little slow on my 2011 iMac.  Right now is my busy season and the occasional lags are getting more and more annoying.  In my darkest moments of frustration I’ll head to the online Apple store and day dream about buying a brand new computer that I don’t really need.  But instead of dropping $1,799.00 on a lovely 27 inch iMac with Retina 5K display, I figured I should see if I could just tweak my FCPX settings to make it run a little faster.  After doing some research I found a great video from that includes some basic (but very smart) tips.

I was already following most of the advice in this video but a few of the tips actually helped speed up FCPX a little bit.  Specifically I closed my inspector and changed my library to list view.  This video has also inspired me to do something I should have done a long time ago; I’m going to physically upgrade my RAM.  I’ve always assumed that an upgrade would be complicated but it turns out that it’s a pretty easy process.  Instructions for any type of Mac can be found here:

By the way, I was only half serious about browsing the Apple store. If you want to buy a new mac, Craigslist is the place to do it.  If you live near a major city you’ll be able to find tons of cheap, lightly used macs.  Just be sure to try before you buy.  If you meet for a quick hand-off in a parking lot you might wind up paying $800 for a box of bricks.

How to set up a perfect Green Screen shot in less than 30 seconds

My pal Dave rocks out in his driveway

Setting up a green screen can be a real hassle.  It used to take an me at least 45 minutes to hang and light my old 10×16 green drape.  But I was never really happy with the final result.  My lighting would usually be a little off and there was always a stray shadow or wrinkle that I couldn’t get rid off.  So I’d have to spend even more time in post-production playing with masks and the keyer effect’s settings.  But no matter what I did, I could never get the effect to look absolutely, 100% perfect.

And then one day an idea hit me: What if I put away all my LED panels and work lights and just set up my Green Screen outside in the shade?  I did a quick test shoot and I was amazed by the results.  The lighting on the subject and the screen were beautifully smooth and even.  It turns out that when everything is in a shadow, nothing is in a shadow.  I think the process is pretty self-explanatory but I went ahead and made a how-to video that shows off the final effect:

So long story short, if you want to try this trick you need to:

  1.  Use a portable green screen
  2.  Set up outside in a shaded area
  3.  Film while there’s still a lot of ambient sunlight
  4.  Adjust your exposure and white balance for shade-shooting

Trust me, once you try filming this way you’ll never want to waste time lighting a green screen again.

How to shoot your friend’s stupid wedding

If you’re a fan of VCN you’re probably a filmmaker.  And if you’re a filmmaker you probably own at least one nice camera.  And if you own at least one nice camera, eventually one of your friends (or relatives) will ask you to shoot their stupid wedding. Wedding shoots are long and hard and boring.  But filmmakers do them because at least the pay is good.  But when a friend asks you to shoot their wedding they’re obviously hoping you’ll do it for cheap.  (And relatives are probably hoping you’ll just do it for free.)  So it’s really a lose-lose situation for you.  The shoot won’t be any fun AND you’re not going to make much money.

But sometimes ya’ gotta do what ya’ gotta do.  Yes, you can turn down Cousin’s Steve’s request but his side of the family will probably resent you for years.  So if you absolutely, positively HAVE TO shoot a wedding for a friend or family member this summer, these 8 tips will make the experience a little less crappy

1. Determine EXACTLY what you’re expected to do:  So one day you log into facebook to find a message from a friend that says: “Hey man! As you know, I’m getting married in two weeks.  I wasn’t going to hire a videographer but now I’m thinking that I should.  By any chance would you be able to do it?  We don’t really have much of a budget for this so we’re not looking for anything fancy; we just want a simple video.”

When your friend says he wants a “simple” video what he means is that he wants a CHEAP video.  Most non-filmmakers have no idea how much time and effort will go into a project like this.  So you need to tell them.  Start off by asking them EXACTLY what they want.  Do they just want want one-camera coverage of the ceremony?  Or do they want two cameras plus coverage of the reception?  And what about the cocktail hour?  I mean, if you’re filming the reception it would be easy for you to get some shots of the cocktail hour too, right?  And how about all the prep stuff?  Doesn’t the bride want footage of her getting in her dress?

After a few messages the “simple” shoot will probably turn into a 10-hour gig.  And what’s going to happen to the footage after the big day?  Will you be expected to edit the video?  Will they want you to make them a wedding “trailer”?  And what about the DVDs?  Are you supposed to author and produce those too?

2. Negotiate your fee:  Once you and your friend figure out what your duties will be, your friend will sheepishly ask “so what would you charge for something like that?”  Before you give him your price, give him the “market” price for a wedding video.  Go to google and look up some local (or national) production companies that do weddings.  Then, send your friend a link to their rates.  Here’s a sample quote that I found online:
$2,295 is pretty ridiculous but that’s just how much these types of videos cost. Casually tell your friend “So this is what these packages usually cost. But obviously I could never charge you that much.  How about I give you a 70% discount from the market price?”

Now you’ll discover what your friend’s actual intentions are.  If you’re friend is a decent human being they’ll be thrilled to get a $2,295 video package for $700.  But if their real goal was to try and get a bunch of free work from you, they’ll probably start whining about how the discounted price is still too high for them.

If that happens, here’s what you do; tell your friend that video production is your job and you can’t really do it for free.  But let your friend know that you are willing to barter.  You will give your friend 10 hours of labor if they repay you with 10 hours of labor.  (You can even knock a few hours off as a wedding present.)  For instance, maybe your friend can help you move someday.  Or maybe they can cut your grass once a week for the rest of the summer. Or how about they give you 10 rides to or from the airport?

There’s pretty much zero chance that your friend will accept this offer.  And if they pass, you’re off the hook.  You tried to give them a $2,295 wedding video package for $0 and they rejected it.  What more can you do for them?

3. Prepare in advance:  I’ve shot maybe four large-scale, all-day weddings in the last 5 years.  They’re actually really tough gigs because you’re basically shooting a feature-length documentary all by yourself and if you screw up one little thing, you’ll be ruining someone’s precious wedding video.  You should get all your gear ready to go a week before the day of the shoot. Those 7 days will give you time to replace missing or malfunctioning items.  At the very least you should have your gear all tested, packed and ready to go the night before the wedding.  You’re going to have a long day; you don’t need to make it longer by waking up at 7AM to get your equipment ready.

4. Bring the right gear:  A few quick notes about equipment:  The groom should wear a lav mic so that you can hear the vows clearly.  You’ll want to bring tripods for all your cameras but you should also have a shoulder mount for your main camera.  But don’t use the shoulder mount rig for the ceremony.  Put your main camera on a monopod with feet.  The reception will be dark so you absolutely need an on-board camera light.  Bring a million batteries and memory cards.  In fact, bring all the batteries and memory cards that you have.

5. Set all of your equipment to “manual”:  This is a good tip for any shoot but it’s especially important for wedding videos.  Lighting conditions during a wedding can be very challenging.  If your cameras are set to “auto” they will compensate by cranking up the gain.  The picture on your monitor will probably look ok but when you review the footage later it might be filled with nasty-looking grain.  Actually, you should check and double check all of your record settings before you even get to the location.  Editing is going to be a hassle of one of your cameras is set to 60i and the other is set to 24p.

6. Bring your own comfort supplies: Don’t rely on the bride or groom to keep you comfortable and well fed.  Keep some aspirin or aleve in your pocket; after 8 hours on your feet something is bound to be sore.  In fact, you may want to stop at Walgreens and invest $17 in a set of super-cushiony shoe inserts.

You should also keep a cooler full of snacks and water in your car.  STAY HYDRATED and EAT PROTEIN!  High protein snacks like nuts, cheese and meat will make a huge difference.  Some turkey and cheese wraps would be a good choice but some jerky or Slim Jims will do in a pinch.

7. Pack some long rubber bands: You’ll want to get some nice, smooth, cinematic pans of locations, outfits, rings, place settings, flowers etc.  You might be a pro but you’re no robot (I assume).  Even if you use a tripod your pans and tilts won’t be 100% smooth.  And that’s where the rubber bands come in.  When you doing a slow pan or tilt, attach the rubber band to the handle of your tripod and pull the handle using the rubber band.  The band acts like a shock absorber and the movement will be incredibly smooth.  Here’s a video that demonstrates the technique.

8.  Try and exceed everyone’s expectations:  Just because you’re doing the gig for next to nothing it doesn’t mean you can get away with doing a crap job.  Wedding shoots suck but if you HAVE TO do one, try and knock it out of the fuggin’ park.  Your friend’s wedding might be stupid but when it’s over he or she will still be your pal.  They’ll love you forever if you do an incredible job for them.  And really, can you put a price tag on love?*

*Yes:  $2,295.

5 unwritten rules of the Crash the Super Bowl contest

It seems like the vast majority of people who enter the Crash the Super Bowl contest never bother to read the rules.  Over the past 6 years I’ve watched thousands of homemade Doritos ads and I’m constantly amazed by the flagrant rule violations I see.

But the official rules aren’t the only criteria you need to worry about.  You also need to comply with the un-written rules of the contest.  For instance, “sexy” Super Bowl ads have really fallen out of fashion.  The CTSB rules don’t explicitly say that your entry should be PG-rated but it’s been 6 years since Doritos picked a finalist that included a scantily clad character.  Technically you CAN feature a little sexual content or innuendo in your video but history shows us that an entry like this will have almost zero chance of making it to the finals:

That wasn’t the slickest or wittiest CTSB ad I’ve ever seen but I gotta admit, it make me laugh.  But entries need to be funny AND good for all ages.  Here now are 4 more common Crash the Super Bowl mistakes that you should avoid this year:

Cultural Insensitivity:  The rules state that entries “must not contain defamatory statements or messages (including but not limited to words, images, or symbols) that are widely considered offensive to individuals of a certain race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic or other group.”   So entries that are straight-up racist will be disqualified.  But you also need to worry about creating something that might offend people in more subtle ways.  Everyone knows that blackface is wrong but it’s always a bad idea to cast actors of one race or culture to play characters from a different race or culture.  This entry will demonstrate what I’m talking about:

The director of this ad cast a group of blonde white kids to play a tribe of spear-wielding savages.  The kids’ costumes resemble the clothing and facepaint that some tribes of the Amazon use.  (The aerial shot of the jungle even looks like the Amazon.)  The people who created this entry would probably argue that this story takes place in a fantasy world and that the kids do not represent any real life people.  But the winner of this contest doesn’t get an extra 60 seconds of air time to explain his concept.  So before you shoot an idea you need to ask yourself “could this commercial offended anyone, anywhere in the entire world?”  I know that might sound extreme but you’re not making a short film here; you’re making a TV commercial.  If you want to get edgy or push boundaries you should entry SXSW, not the CTSB contest.

BLOOD!!  BLOOD EVERYWHERE!!:  I would estimate that Doritos will receive at least 200 zombie-themed commercials this year.  But entries like this one will quietly be disqualified because they’re too gory to air…

That wasn’t exactly a masterpiece but I wanted to feature this ad for a reason.  Teenager filmmakers usually try and come up with an idea that will be cheap to make and that can feature all of their friends.  And that’s why Doritos gets dozens and dozens of zombie videos every year.  But most teenagers aren’t highly-skilled make up artists so when they want to dress up like zombies they just put on some old clothes and slather themselves in halloween make up and fake blood.

But here’s the problem, you can’t really show blood in TV commercials anymore.  Even movie trailers have to desaturate blood so that it looks like brown gravy.  So even though the rules don’t mention blood, the judges know that the network can’t air a bloody commercial during the Super Bowl.

Overloading your ad: Writing a tight, funny, exciting, interesting story that’s only 30 seconds long is really freakin’ hard.  A lot of CTSB filmmakers try and jam way too much stuff into their entries; and by “stuff” I mean story, characters, jokes and action.  These overloaded ads zip by way too fast and leave the viewer dizzy and confused.  Here’s an entry with a funny premise but it’s so busy and overwhelming that it should come with a seizure warning.

A professional editor probably would have cut out the first 6 seconds of this ad so that the later shots could have some time to breath.  If you feel like your entry might be too busy, show it to some friends and ask if it went by too fast.  If it’s too fast for your friends, it’s too fast for TV.

Dipping Doritos:  Ok, this final mistake is a little more obscure but I do see it a few times a year.  Apparently there are actually people out there who don’t understand how to eat Doritos because some Crash the Super Bowl ads include jokes about dip…..

For the love of God people, you don’t dip Doritos!  Doritos are already delicious on their own!  The rules don’t say that you can’t dip  these chips but Frito-Lay would never air a commercial that advocated this type of snack abuse.