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GUEST POST: How to Create a Kick-Ass Music Video: Part Two

Dan’s Note:  Wednesday has arrived and so as promised, here’s the second half of director John Scalleta’s guide to creating a kick-ass music video.  Here’s Part One in case you missed it.  Let’s start things off with a music video that John’s company Motion Source produced for The Last Vegas track, Evil Eyes.  Part Two begins below.

I’m back again and ready to take you through a whole new slew of details that you are going to need to consider when seeking to shoot a kickass music video. If you haven’t already read the first post in this series, I would urge you to do so now, as what you are about to read builds off of a foundation set there.

So what’s next? People, places, and things.


Before you have anything else, you are going to need a crew. If it’s a concept that is fairly simple to execute, you may only need an assistant of some sort; if your sights are set a little higher, there is a good chance that you are going to need a solid team to bring your vision to fruition. And, when no one is getting paid, it can be quite difficult to assemble said team; however, here are some suggestions:

• Work on other people’s projects. Scour Craigslist, talk to your friends in film school, and generally do whatever you need to do to locate a filmmaker in need of help. Indie filmmakers subscribe heavily to the philosophy that one hand washes the other; and if you help out a fellow brother in arms, there is a very, very good chance that they will help you out when the time comes.

• Use your friends. Your friends may not know anything about filmmaking, but they can sure as hell hold a reflector or lug gear around. Just make sure that you are fair to them, and don’t act like a ridiculous dictator. Additionally, you need to make sure that they understand you have a mission to accomplish, and that this isn’t just an extension of hanging-out. With this in mind, you’ll know the right friends to ask.

• Offer a cut of the take. If you are creating this video for a contest and there is money at stake, consider dividing up the pie. Offering major crew members a percentage of the winnings is often all that is needed to convince talented indie filmmakers to sign on. And, a lot of times the people that you invite to take part might have their own equipment that they would be willing to bring out for the video, as they now have a stake in the game.

And, one final note about crews. You may not have to pay them, but you sure as hell have to feed them. Pushing your crew to the limit and not tending to their basic animal needs does nothing but prove to them they are no more than a tool to you. Plus, hungry people are weak and grumpy–both bad things.

A word to the wise here: please avoid serving pizza or Jimmy John’s! These are too often the staple foods on set, and every filmmaker I have ever met is sick to death of them.


Actors are a dime a dozen; good actors are like needles in a haystack; great actors are about as easy to locate as a unicorn. This being said, you are in luck! Your actors don’t need to memorize, and convincingly deliver, lines of dialogue; they simply need to emote. We all emote constantly, and most of us can be guided to emote in a particular style with a little bit of time and patience. The main criteria that I have when seeking talent for a music video is look: who can I find that has the appropriate look for the character that I envision? Remember, they don’t need to deliver dialogue like De Niro, they simply need to have the right look, and look the right way at the right moment.

Just as you dream of one day getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce music videos, actors fantasize about the day they will be cruising down the French Riviera in an electric yacht on the phone with Steven Spielberg. What I am trying to communicate here is that we all need to start somewhere–we all need to build a springboard to take us where we want to go. Actors, especially those starting out, will oftentimes agree to be a part of your project, because they understand the importance of building a portfolio. This being said, it is totally unacceptable to offer an actor a part in a project if you yourself are not 110% invested in it. If you are, in fact, 110% invested, actors will feel that and easily catch your passion.

So where can you find talent to fit the roles of your story?

• Craigslist. This is often the obvious first choice; however, I have to tell you that I have interacted with so many flakes via Craigslist that I have completely sworn it off at this point. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful with it, it simply means that you need to be careful. Before you commit to bring a Craigslister onto your project, ask to see some of their other work to validate that they are invested in their craft. Additionally, it helps to get on the phone with them and get a feel for whether they are a total weirdo flake or not.

• Model Mayhem. Having sworn off Craiglist, I tend to use Model Mayhem. If you have never visited Model Mayhem before, it is a site that seeks to facilitate collaborations between models, photographers, hair stylists and the like. The thing I’ve found is that most models are also aspiring actors; additionally, the users of Model Mayhem depend upon positive experiences and effective networking to build their career, and are therefore much more likely not to flake out on you.

• Anyone is game. Seriously, anyone. More often than not the talent in the videos that we produce is composed of friends, family, acquaintances, etc. Again, most people can be guided to emote, so you just need to make sure that you build enough time into your shoot day to successfully work with a non-professional. One word of warning here, as you probably already know, filmmaking saps massive amounts of time and energy, so it doesn’t pay to
bring out your high-maintenance sister who needs to be home by 8 to watch the Real Housewives. Find people that will not only be willing to go the distance, but will be excited to be running alongside you.


Alright, I know that I told you to go wild with the concepts you create–to get crazy artistic. But, if your vision dictates a location that is impossible for you to find, much less access, then your entire project is dead in the water. It is due to this that I oftentimes construct concepts around locations that I know I will be capable of accessing, or that I am fairly confident I can find and convince the owner to work with me on. I strongly, strongly, strongly suggest that you do the same. Sorry to come up a little hypocritical here, but location drives a video in my opinion.

Perhaps you find the perfect diner for your story, and convince the owner to let you shoot there after hours. Then, you show up the day of with equipment, crew, talent, and props, and the location owner gets cold feet. Well, that sucks! A situation like this isn’t isolated, it is the stuff of indie filmmaking nightmares. Therefore, if your initial interaction with a location owner feels a bit like pulling teeth, move on. You do not want to work with location owners who are anything but accepting or excited about your project. This may sound a bit improbable, but truth be told, there are a lot of wonderful people out there who would be extremely excited about their space being featured in a video.

Just remember to be respectful to, and upfront with, a location owner. If you are going to be shooting an orgy sequence, you need to let them know this, because sooner or later they are going to find out anyway. Plus, being less than transparent just makes you a jerk. You are asking for a major favor here, and owe it to the grantee of that favor to do whatever is in your power to make the process as easy and non-threatening as possible.

Another tactic that you can use to inspire excitement and acceptance in a location owner is to barter your services. You know how to shoot video right? Well, what about putting that skill into service for them in exchange for access? If you need to shoot a scene in a salon, perhaps the owner of said salon would be extremely interested in having a profile video for their website made in trade. This is, of course, quite a big commitment in terms of time and energy, but who ever said art came without suffering? Remember, one hand washes the other.

And, a final point about locations: make certain that they meet the technical requirements of your shoot. You may find the perfect motel for your horror themed video, but does this rickety old building have the power to accommodate the lights you will be using, or will you be blowing fuses left and right? These are the kinds of questions you need to answer before you ever consider a location a reality.


So you’ve got your people and places, now you need your things.

Props work hand in hand with your location to conjure the world that your story takes place in. If said story takes place in a fairly mundane world, you may have every prop you will need scattered throughout your house. One the other hand, if you are telling a tale of Medieval intrigue, you are definitely going to need to go on a quest for props.

Recently, we completed a music video for the band The Last Vegas, which was predominantly a period piece. This meant that we needed to drum up a number of specific props, many of which weren’t readily available to us. Therefore, we had to get creative, and here is how we did that:

• Witchdoctor Hat: Where do you find one of these suckers? We called upon a particularly crafty friend of ours to take a party-store top hat and turn it into precisely what we needed. Not only did the prop turn our fantastic, but our friend had a great time creating it, and was super excited to see it featured in the video. We all have artsy friends, this is the time to call on their craft.

• Antique Slot Machines: In a desperate bid to find these ancient items we slapped a post up on Facebook looking for any friends that might be able to help us pull this off. Low and behold, the very creator of this site, Dan, has a close friend who collects these fossils. Not only were we able to score 2 period specific slot machines, but we also got 2 period specific extras in Dan and his friend Rod, who came out with the machines and gladly stepped in as
gambling den patrons.

• Showgirl Headdresses: Good old ebay for this one. Remember, you can find anything on ebay, and then you can find a cheaper knock-off that generally serves the purpose just as well.

• Voodoo Tabletop: This is a weird one, I know. All we did here was to ask around; not online, but in person. We asked friends and acquaintances if they had any idea of someone who might have an item like this. To our surprise, a friend of a friend of a friend threw an annual haunted house, and was more than happy to show-off the one-of-a-kind voodoo tabletop he had made as a prop.

This brings me to a very important tactic: one of the absolute best places to locate props are antique stores. Many of these places might as well have a sign hung out front that says “Prop House” rather than “Antique Market”, as they can be that valuable to the indie filmmaker. If you are polite and enthusiastic with the owners of one of these stores, they will often agree to rent or loan you pieces of their stock. However, this often takes developing a relationship. Let them know who you are, and why it is you do what you do. Show them some of your previous work, so that they can feel secure that you are legit. And, if need be employ the same trade suggested in the location section: produce a video for them.

People are often very excited about their things, especially when those things are unique. This means that they can be extremely protective of their possessions, but it also means that they can be surprisingly eager to have them showcased in a video. For instance, we have developed a number of contacts with collectors of antique and vintage cars, all for use within an upcoming project. These auto-lovers are totally into the idea that we are as excited about their darlings as they are. Show that excitement, and win over a potential donor.

That concludes our tour of what it takes to produce a kickass music video. There are so many other details that could be covered here, but if you adhere to the points covered in this post, and the previous, you will have a rock solid foundation to begin building off of. Beyond anything else, remember to use this as an opportunity to be fully creative; and have a flippin ball! Making music videos is a blast–now get out there and start shooting.

Good luck!


GUEST POST: How to Create a Kick-Ass Music Video: Part One

DAN’S NOTE:  I’ve got a really great guest post for you guys today.  Oh actually, I have half of a great guest post.  This is Part One of director John Scaletta’s guide to creating a kick ass music video.  John runs the production company Motion Source in the Chicago burbs and he’s created some really excellent video contest entries in the last two years.  This Chevy ad that he shot for a Mofilm contest actually aired during the 2010 MLB AllStar game.  John has also produced/directed a good number of music videos and his company’s latest creation is this video for the band The Last Vegas.  I helped out as an extra for that shoot so watch for my cameo!  (I’m drinking at the bar…as usual)  A lot of bands are running music video contests these days so you should definitely read this tutorial before you try and enter one of those contests.  Enjoy Part One and check back on Wednesday for Part Two.

There is no other form of video that I love making quite as much as music videos.  There are two very simple reasons for this:

A.) Music videos are a short-term commitment.  Yes, quite a bit of work goes into them; however, they are not the long-term, oftentimes grueling, marriage of a short film, documentary, or client project.  Music videos are relatively quick to shoot, edit, and ship out into the world.

B.) There is no other form of video production that is as creatively freeing as music videos.  Think about it, music videos are the most commercial of experimental art forms.  People expect them to be innovative, avant-garde, and weird. Get excited, this is the one time that you are allowed to be pretentious!

Due to this love for music videos, my company, Motion Source, has produced quite a few over the last couple of years.  It’s been a fun/stressful ride, and I want to share with you, brave VCN readers, the fruits of that journey.

So, without further ado, here are the ingredients for a kickass music video!


The first thing that you will need to do is listen to song many, many, many times.  Get a feeling for the emotions behind the music.  Additionally, make sure that you have a copy of the lyrics on hand.  If possible, try and discover what it was that motivated the songwriter to write this particular tune: not just what the lyrics are about, but what life forces shaped the track.  All of this is your inspiration.

Now, with this inspiration coursing through your brain, it’s time to come up with a concept.  There is no single method for concept generation, and everyone’s creative process tends to be slightly different; that being said, here are a few of the processes that I rely on:

• Dig into history.  Retell a tale from the past, whether it be strange, uplifting, tragic, or beautiful.  An example of this is the most recent video that we produced here at Motion Source, “She’s My Confusion”, which was based upon one of Chicago’s most famous ghost stories, that of Resurrection Mary.

• Create an homage.  Turn to a film, book, or television series that you find intriguing or inspiring.  You can make it a parody, or you can make it a tribute.  I am still waiting to find a song and a budget to tap into for a Battle Royale concept that I’ve had for ages.  My one suggestion here would be to not reference something particularly current, as it tends to feel a bit lazy.  Shakespeare and Say Anything are good; the Walking Dead and Inception, not so good.

• Invert an existing concept.  This is a tactic that constantly intrigues me.  For instance, take something cliche and overdone, like vampires, and find a way to make it fresh through some sort of creative reversal: what about vampire’s that have to give their blood to survive, rather than drink it–maybe not the best example, but you get the idea. A better example would be an Asian film that I vaguely recall wherein the protagonist, rather than being able to read the thoughts of others, could have his thoughts read by anyone within a certain proximity to him. Remember, inversion is interesting.

• Go to extremes.  Music videos are one of the last bastions of anything-goes filmmaking, which means you have a license to get pretty damn crazy.  If you are creating a video for an aggressive song, and want to tap into that aggression, why not take it to the nth degree?  Need an example, check out Biting Elbows’ uber creative .

There are so many different ways to generate concepts; however, the above list should get the ideas rolling.

Now, there is one point I want to make here that is so incredibly important: avoid over-visualization of the lyrics at all costs.  This is the easy way out, and it doesn’t do justice to your contribution to this collaboration of music and filmmaking.  Plus, it generally makes for a fairly boring, run-of-the-mill video.  Let’s face it, how many more videos do we need to see of a guy getting broken up with?  Remember, what you are doing here is trying to capture the essence of the song; and, it is your duty as a filmmaker to filter that essence through your unique vision.  You may have some references to select lyrics, or to the general concept of the song (as we did for The Last Vegas’ “Evil Eyes”), however, don’t show them every word. Got it?

On the set of “She’s My Confusion”


Once you have a concept, you will need to decide on a style.

There’s an excellent chance that your concept already strongly suggests a particular style.  For instance, if you have dreamt up a post-apocalyptic tale, the style you opt for might involve harsh contrast, muted colors, and a general grittiness.  I say “might”, as this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

We addressed inversion above, and this can be an excellent tactic to apply to the stylistic approach to your video as well.  Instead of selecting a muted grunginess for your post-apocalyptic concept, you could shoot for a totally unexpected, vivid, candy-coated treatment.  This plays heavily on the fact that the human brain craves novelty.  A video whose concept and style stand in harsh opposition can have an excellent chance of standing out from the pack.  Additionally, this conflict can suggest deeper levels of meaning within your piece, if you so choose to venture down that path.

Another benefit of this opposition is that it challenges the audience, and, contrary to what Hollywood would try and convince you of, audiences can find this challenge quite fulfilling.  One of my favorite filmmakers is the Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who always had a habit of choosing to keep music out of pivotal scenes, or to utilize a track that seemed diametrically opposed to the mood of the scene.  Why? Well, he wasn’t interesting in telling audiences how they should feel; he either wanted them to figure that out for themselves, or to challenge the feelings that they were expected to have in certain situations.  In short, don’t be afraid to channel some of that Kurosawa genius into your next music video project.


“What! I need a script!”

Yes, you definitely need a script.

“But, this is a music video, won’t an outline cut it?”

Absolutely not.

In some sense it is even more important to have a tightly planned out script for a music video, than it is for a narrative project.  This is because you have a very finite duration that you are working within: the song is as long as however the song is.  You may come up with an incredible concept, say “screw the script”, shoot it, and then rudely awaken to the fact that you cannot possibly fit the entire story into the confines of the song.  From personal experience I can assure you that this sucks, and is guaranteed to take your finished production from a 10 to a 7, or lower.

My personal technique for writing music video scripts is to create a spreadsheet of two columns.  One column is reserved for song timings (e.g. :33 – :45), while the other is dedicated to the segments of the story.  Painstakingly play the song over and over again, fill out and rewrite your spreadsheet until everything has it’s place.  If you take the time to do this, you will end up with what you set out to accomplish.

Remember, there is nothing that will sink a project quite like a lack of pre-production, which leads me to the next topic…

Hey, there’s Dan standing behind the poker table!


If I am to be honest here, I really don’t have a strong passion for directing.  My true passion is found in the role of the Director of Photography (the crew member responsible for making the vision of the project a reality, through lighting design, camera movement, etc.).  Perhaps it is because of this that I am so intimately married to the idea of the shotlist.  Either way, I would stress that a shotlist is just as important, if not more so, than the script.

Your shotlist should include a detailed breakdown of every single shot you hope to land in the course of filming your music video.  Per shot, it should detail the shot type (wide, medium, close-up, etc.), the lens choice, any movement of the camera, and any other notes that would be helpful in facilitating that specific shot.  This is the shotlist template that I use, as it is the best I have yet to come across.  There is more detail here than is probably necessary, but never forget: too much is better than too little.  And, if you aren’t willing to put in the proper time and energy to make a music video, then go back to sitting on the couch–no one said art was going to be easy.

Not only will the shotlist assist you in conjuring the initial vision within the heat and craziness of the shoot itself, but it will also communicate to your crew specifically what you are looking to accomplish.  The line, “he runs out the door in a burst of fury” can be visualized countless ways; however, if you translate this into the language of a shotlist–protagonist moves through door, track him from behind with a dolly as he exits, use a 21mm lense to increase apparent speed and distance–the number of interpretations slim down exponentially.

A shotlist will also prove invaluable in keeping you on your shooting schedule.  If you are halfway through your day, and have only completed ¼ of your shots, it is time to start doing something differently.  Without fail, there is never enough time on a shoot.  Without fail you will unequivocally need to cut shots.  Without fail, a shotlist will ensure that you cut the right shots, and not the ones that are necessary in telling your story.

I really truly hope that the information above will contribute to you making a kickass music video.  But, not so fast.  We haven’t even begun to cover some of the most critical elements, like locations, crew, and cast.  Stay tuned, as the second, and final post in this series will be up shortly.

And, please feel free to leave comments.  I’d love to hear about any tactics, techniques, and little secrets that you have when it comes to producing music videos.


GUEST POST: How to run a successful video contest

Dan’s Note:  Today we’re featuring a guest post from a reader named Mike Gabel.  Mike started entering video contests recently and he’s already got some nice wins under his belt.  I don’t want to spoil his post with a big preamble so without further ado, here’s Mike….

This is my first guest post for VCN so Dan asked me to give you a bit of my background.  It all started when I and won big in the first video contest I ever entered: Buitoni’s “Girls Love Guys Who Can Cook” competition.  I’ve been HOOKED ever since. I’m a one-man operation (forgive my horrible acting) and I rely heavily on my wife and five (yes, five) young daughters to be my actresses, crew and film critics.  I can just imagine that some of my daughters’ earliest memories will be holding a fill light as their to shoot a video.  I’m not looking for a breakout film career- I’m just happy to have a creative outlet and win a contest every now and then.  You can see a bit more of my work .  Overall, I love the whole video contest realm but, like many of you,have been frustrated by contests that were mismanaged or badly run.  I’ve found a lot of online articles which address the marketing angle of video contest (return on investment, driving word of mouth, etc) but none really explain the basics of holding one.  So I decided to explain what an average contestant wants to see in a video contest.  Hopefully some future contest organizer may see this and be inspired to run a better, fairer promotion.

First, define why you want to hold a video contest.  This can roughly be split into three reasons:

1. Desire a Quality Video.  Your company may want to hold a video contest because you want filmmakers to generate videos that you will eventually use on your for some end use (Facebook/YouTube/website  content, TV commercial, etc.).  Crowdsourcing is a great alternative to traditional ad agencies since it save moneys and generate new ideas.  There are a slew of great companies to host your contest (Tongal, Mofilm, Poptent to name a few) that generate extremely professional work.  Poke around their websites and  see what you like.  Their services aren’t necessarily cheap (think tens of thousands) but they have great resources, loyal contributors and will hold your hand through the whole process.  A cheaper alternative is to host your own.  It can be as simple as to asking your fans to upload their entries on YouTube and then you embed their videos on your contest webpage.

2. Create Buzz.  Here you hold a contest so that the contest itself gets people excited about your product or service. You want a large number of people to enter, post, share, forward, tweet, retweet and just plain talk about your contest.  These contests are often linked to social media sites and more often than not have a public vote as part of the contest.  If you want to outsource the work, companies like Votigo can run these types of promotions for you.

3. Merit contest.  Your purpose here is to find the most talented, biggest fan, greatest idea, most deserving and any other superlative you can name.  (Example: whoever can get the most people to dance to our commercial’s theme song wins a year supply of our product!)  These contests tend to be less video-centric (although a good quality produced video always helps) and more people/ idea- centric.

Next you’ll want to define your contest parameters.  These include:


This generally falls into three categories:

Judged.  A judge or judging panel selects the winner(s).  This is the preferred method for most regular entrants as they want to exhibit their ideas and skills and ultimately have their work declared to be “the best.”   This also give you, the sponsor, the ability to choose what video you want.

Public Vote.  Public Vote contest are the equivalent to choosing the homecoming queen in high school.  It’s not about the best candidate but who has the most friends.  Unless you publicize your contest like crazy (think American Idol scale) you will never truly have the general public choosing the winner.  The quality of the videos are usually pretty awful because the entrant’s odds of winning don’t increase by producing a quality video.  So, plain and simple they’re a bad idea.  I could rant for a while but the UK site Super Lucky has already done a nice job summing up why public voting contests are a bad idea.

Mixed Judging.  This comes in three forms: 1. Judges narrow down the finalists and public vote decides the winners.  2. A public vote narrows down the field then judges choose the winners.  3. A public vote and judging contribute to the selection of the winner. You can guess the pluses and minuses of each of these forms. Let me point out that I put the three options in increasing order of bringing traffic to your site.  So option 3 (my personal preference of mixed judging) keeps all entrants engaged and promoting their entry for the whole competition.  I’ll refer back to Super Lucky blog who make some excellent points in their post, making public vote contest better.


You need to tell your entrants what type of videos you want.  For example, maybe you want a high quality video that’s sentimental, appeals to 30-somethings and showcases your product.  Well tell them exactly that and which of those points are most important to you by assigning percentage values to each point.  Define a clear judging criteria and stick with it.  If you’re asking for humorous entries and you end up choosing emotional ones that’s not good or fair.  To determine the winner the simplest (and fairest) method may be to create a ballot indicating your judging criteria (for example 35% humor, 30% adhesion to concept, 20% production quality, 15% use of unicorns) and then rate each of these 1 to 10 by as many relevant people in your organization as possible.  If you just have people in your organization choose the video they like the most then there is no reason to define a judging criteria.


The number of entries you will receive is proportional to the prize amount.  Bigger prize = more entries.   So what’s the magic number?  Generally speaking prizes from $5K to 15K get in the ballpark of 40 -100 entries.  $1,000- $2,500 normally get 20-30 entries.  Less than that and your results vary.  I’ve been one of only two entrants for a contest of $250.  Do these numbers seem low to you?  Unfortunately, this is reality and I think many sponsors realize this too late.

What should your prize be?  Cash is king.  But Apple products also fair well.  Filmmakers LOVE video equipment, trips are good too.  Just be aware of specialized prize packages as they are not always popular.  Also, offering multiples prizes, like cash prizes for 1st thru 10th place, increase the contest appeal .  For example, a contest offering only one $10K prize may deter entrants with its 1 in say 60 chance.  But if there are 10 prizes the odds instantly go to 1 in 5.

Also keep in mind that the number of entries is also highly dependent on how well you promote your contest.  There was a recent contest that offered a measly $300 prize but was promoted in conjunction with a widely popular TV show.  It managed to get 30+ entries (although, none of them were all that great).  So what they lacked in prize amount they had to compensate with advertising dollars.

It’s almost too obvious to use Doritos Crash the Bowl contest as a model contest but you can’t scoff at the ~3,000 entries they receive.  With potentially millions in prizes and loads of promotion it is the holy grail of video contests.  But that kind of success comes at a high price.  Doritos spends millions of dollars promoting The Crash so those low-budget commercials actually cost the company a lot of money.


How long should you have you contest open for entries?  My personal take is that you treat it like a wedding invite.  Too little notice (less than a month) and people already have commitments and not enough time to put together all the pieces.  Too far out (6 months to a year) and it loses its hype. M y recommendation is 2-3 months.  Actual filming for many entrants may not start until a few weeks out from the deadline but a lot of notice gives entrants time to gets all their ducks in a row.  I recommend that you have the contest end on a Sunday at midnight Pacific time- this gives people the weekend to polish their videos.  Should you extend the deadline?   You’re usually contemplating this because of the pitiful number of entries you’ve received (which is likely a result of low prize amount, not enough promotion, or having too niche of a concept).  If you’ve done your due diligence in these areas then hold tight- a majority (up to 80% I would wager) of the entries are submitted in the last two days of the contest. Additionally, you will only add a meager number of new entries if you extend your deadline shortly before or even after (super annoying) your original deadline.  So, if you extend, do it early.


I won’t get into the nitty gritty about how to write your official rules but my recommendations are to look at other contests’ rules and modify theirs according to your needs.  If you have a legal department make sure they sign off on them.  Another downside of public vote contests in that you need to cover more of what is or is not allowed, likevote farming.

Last step, promote your contest:

Step one, make a contest webpage and make it look polished and official- if your website looks sketchy I’m not entering and I’m guessing others aren’t either.  Step two: send the info to OnlineVideoContest.com so they can post it.  Final step: do you social media magic, reach out through email, make a flyer if you have a retail outlet, tell your friends and neighbors to enter (unless it’s prohibited in your rules) and have your coworkers tell their friends and neighbors, reach out to filmmakers- get creative.


Have a contact email:  A dedicated email or forum is critical because questions will arise.  If entrants have no way to contact you they will feel isolated and frustrated and they might produce videos that are not what you are looking for.

Make the video time limit reasonable:  This is more for your sanity because you’ll be pulling out your hair if you have to review a slew of 5 minute videos.  Only put longer time limits (say 3 min plus) if it is an absolute necessity.  The challenge that you pose to the entrants is to tell a story in a brief period.  1-2 min is my personal sweet spot.

Keep the contest page updated:  If something changes (rules, deadline extension, general update) change it on the contest page and make it apparent.  Don’t just posts it on Facebook because entrants are not always looking there.

Make good on your word:  So your contest was a flop and you only received a handful of entries.  Now you’re contemplating whether to pay out the prizes.  Just do it!  Be as loyal to the entrants as they were loyal to your contest.

Announce the winner:  Some contests never actually post the video that won their contest.  Think of how crummy it would be if they cut out the second half of the Miss America Pageant or the season finale of American Idol.  It’s always nice to know who won so even if the winning video isn’t great (if it’s not, that probably means you let voters pick the winner) you need to post it.


How to reduce camera shake in Final Cut Pro

I’m always in a big ass hurry when I’m out shooting and consequently a lot of my footage winds up looking sorta shaky.  I know there are some pretty effective methods for smoothing out footage in After Effects but I don’t have After Effects and neither do you.  (If you do have After Effects, you probably already know how to get rid of camera shake. Also, you’re probably a software pirate.)  So if Final Cut’s all you’ve got, your best option for removing camera shake is a video filter named SmoothCam.  This tutorial offers a nice step by step explanation of how to use the filter:

Fair warning; SmoothCam won’t work miracles and if your footage is jumping all over the place the filter isn’t going to save it.  Sure, it will render a smoother version but you’ll probably get a lot of digital blur.  It seems like SmoothCam works best on simple pans, tilts and slides.  Let me show you an example: Last December I filmed this clip of a couple sitting next to a Christmas tree.  The shot had a couple minor shakes but SmoothCam made it look totally slick.  This clip will show you what the shot looked like before and after the filter was applied.  Only the pan was done on set.  The little zoom out at the end was added digitally in post.

The effect is subtle but it makes a huge difference.  One final tip; if you’re planning to use SmoothCam you should frame your shots a little wider than normal.  SmoothCam has to zoom in a bit and it will have to crop the frame some.  To get rid of the little bumps in that Christmas video SmoothCam had to enlarge that clip to 110% of its original size.  So if you leave your frame a little wide, and if your camera movement is slow and already mostly steady, SmoothCam can make your crappy footage look nice and smooooth.


How to get iStockPhoto images for FREE

I used to love the iStockphoto.com.  If you needed a stock image you could look through their massive catalog, find just the right photo or illustration and then pay a few bucks to license it.  I used to use istockphoto images all the time in my video contest entries (they make great green screen backgrounds) but last year I noticed they had jacked up their prices to ridiculous levels.  Let me give you an example; say you’re working on a video for a contest about alternative energy sources and you need to include shot of a nuclear power plant.  You check iStockPhoto and find the perfect shot; but oh man, look at those prices!


The Extra-Small version is $19.00!  I don’t want to sound like an old fogey but back in my day (2009) I could buy an image license on iStockPhoto for just a few bucks.  $53 is a great price for a photo if your project is guaranteed make a profit.  But what if you’re doing a job on spec or working on a video contest entry?  Wouldn’t it be great if you could download a clean, watermark-free version of an IstockPhoto image to use in your spec projects?  If you win or make a sale, you can just go back and pay the licensing fee.  But if you don’t make any money then hey, no harm, no foul.

Well….there is a way to do that.  Actually this trick works on images from any photo licensing site.  First, find the image you want to use and right-click on it to download a copy.  It will have a watermark on it but that doesn’t matter.  Next, head to Google and click the Images option.  You’ll notice that the search bar now has a little camera in it:


Click on the camera.  Two options will come up.  Chose “Upload an Image.”  When you’re prompted, upload the copy of the iStockPhoto you just stole downloaded from the site and hit the search button.  Google will take the image and scan the entire freaking Internet looking for similar images.  The results will look like this:


Google will list every website that used the image you searched for.  But the search isn’t 100% precise so it also includes copies of the photo that do not have the istockphoto watermark.  So if someone, somewhere has paid the licensing fee and posted the image online, you can see it…and download a copy for yourself.  (News sites seem to be the best source of stock images)  This trick won’t work for every photo or illustration and you may not be able to find a High Quality version of the image you want.  As you can see from those search results, I was able to find this 600 x 399px copy of the Nuclear Plant photo.  An image of that size would look good but not great in an HD video.


So it may not be perfect but at least it’s free.  This trick may seem pretty handy but there is a problem with it; the process I just described is sort of AGAINST THE LAW.  You’re violating an author’s copyrights and using their work to try and make money.  That’s not only illegal, it’s sort of a dick move.  If you put an iStockPhoto in one of your video contest entries and you lose, no one is going to come after you.  But even if you don’t win, you are screwing the person who created that image a little bit.  The guy who took that photo of the Nuclear Plant is a professional photographer and he went out of his way to stage and take this shot.  He was totally ok with you using his work however you wanted as long as you kicked him a couple bucks for his effort.  So try not to abuse this little trick, ok you cheap bastard?  And if your project makes money, pay the damn licensing fee!  In fact, if you want to err on the side of caution, just pay the fee upfront so you don’t have to worry about it.  There are some video contest sites that (falsely) claim that you transfer all copyrights to your videos as soon as you submit them.  That’s complete B.S. and not at all legal but those contest sites are going to want you to play by their rules.  So if you submit a video that includes unlicensed elements you might wind up blowing your chance to make a sale.

And now an ironic disclaimer:  Under section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976, an allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, education and research.  So if you use an iStockPhoto in a video, that’s copyright infringement.  But if I use iStockPhotos in an article about the site I’m protected by the first amendment. 

How to spot fake youtube views

15,000 views for $5??  What a deal!

If you poke around the microjob website Fiverr.com you’ll discover that you can have thousands and thousands of views” delivered to the youtube video of your choosing for just a few bucks.  But don’t get excited; you can’t just buy youtube super stardom.  When you order one of these gigs you’re actually buying hits that are disguised to look like views.  So 15,000 real people will NOT be watching your video.  Your view count is simply going to get inflated by 15,000.  Some of these bogus views are generated by bots but in many cases hackers will secretly embed a video on a popular web page.  Every time someone accesses that page the video automatically plays….albeit silently and invisibly.

Fake views are really starting to have a big impact on the way youtube works.  Google’s adsense program is getting scammed out of lots of money and lame, wannabe Internet stars are wrecking the site’s integrity by purchasing phoney viral success.  It seems like the folks at youtube are finally fed up and they’re now cracking down on users who buy fake views.  A few weeks ago youtube actually removed more than 2 billion fake views from lots of big name companies and they even shut down the channels of some of the more egregious offenders.

It’s easy for youtube’s engineers to spot fake views since they can see data that the general public doesn’t have access to.  But what about the rest of us?  A lot of video contests use youtube views as part of an entry’s score.  How can you tell if a contestant is cheating by ordering fake views?

Unfortunately you can’t….at least not for sure.  But these scammers leave a lot of clues so it’s easy to spot views that are probably fake.  Let’s take a look at a youtube video from a channel that hosts close to 300 self-help/get rich quick videos.  It’s is run by some dude who wants to teach you how to apply martial arts lessons to the world of real estate….or something like that.  Yes I’m being serious.

Note: I edited this screenshot so that the comment count would be visible.

WOWEE!  2.1 million youtube views!  That guy is gonna be the next PSY!  Or maybe not.  Maybe he’s a con artist who bought millions of fake youtube views because he wants to make it look like he’s popular so that suckers buy his book or send him donations.  I’m not saying that’s the case….I’m just saying MAYBE that’s what’s happening here.  Why do I think that some of those 2.1 million views might be fake?  Here’s a quick run down of all the red flags I see in this screenshot:

1.  The view count is suspiciously high:  You should always be suspicious when you come across a video that has an inexplicably high view count.  Regular youtube users understand what types of videos get a lot of views and this particular video just doesn’t feel like it should be popular.  Would 2.1 million people really watch a 9 minute long get-rich-quick video?

2.  The channel has a relatively low number of subscribers:  10,994 subscribers might sound like a lot but that’s a ridiculously small number for anyone who is getting hundreds of thousands or even millions of views on most of their videos.  Here, check out the stats for a GOOD youtube channel; .  The FCK (heh) gets about a million views for each of his videos.  But unlike the real estate guy he has more than 220,000 subscribers.  Those are numbers that actually make sense.

3.  The video only has 2,254 likes:  Guess what?  You can buy likes and comments on fiverr too.  But those are way more expensive than views.  So people who buy fake views sometimes don’t even bother ordering fake likes and comments.  Consequently the stats for those videos are totally lopsided.  It’s just not realistic that only 1/10th of 1% of the people who watch a youtube video will click the thumbs up or thumbs down button.

4.  The video only has 20 dislikes:  Few scammers are going to be smart enough to order DISLIKES.  Two million views and only 20 dislikes just scream fraud to me.  If millions of people had actually watched this video a few thousand of them would have clicked the thumbs-down button.  That’s just how things work on youtube.

4.  The video only has 489 comments:  This number also doesn’t jive with the view count.  Once again, let’s use the Final Cut King as an example.  Here’s that has received 2.5 million views.  It has close to 6,000 comments (and over 30,000 likes/dislikes.)  Comments are REALLY hard to fake since each comment needs to come from a different account and the comments need to be spread out over days and weeks to look realistic.

So the basic stats here seem pretty fishy.  Let’s drill down a little deeper into this video’s data to see what else we can discover.  If you look under a video’s view count you’ll see some symbols.  If you click that symbol that looks like a bar graph a bunch extra stats will pop up.

Click that thingy to see more statistics

If you click on the stats button for the get-rich-quick real estate video, this is what you’ll see.  The arrow indicates the one gigantic red flag I spotted.


Now we’re getting into the really good stuff.  This data shows us where all of those 2.1 million views actually came from.  It used to be that if someone ordered fake views you could tell right away because the referrer sites would all be pages like buycheapviews.com or whatever.  But the view-sellers have gotten smarter and they’ve figured out ways to mask the origin of their bogus views.  And the number one way they do that is by tricking youtube into thinking the views came from a “mobile device.”  Does it really seem possible that 70% of the 2.1 million people who watched this video watched it on their their iPhone??  That’s just ridiculous.  And the facebook and Twitter numbers are almost certainly fake too.  View sellers like to embed their videos on those sites because it seems natural that a lot of views would come from popular social media sites.  If this video does have fake views, the video was probably also secretly embedded on all the other sites listed.  After all, how the hell can you get thousands of views from a youtube video that’s been posted on iTunes or LastFM!?  The data that you don’t see here is also suspicious.  If this video really had gone viral you’d see referrals from specific blog posts or news stories that featured the video.  And if the channel has any real subscribers, you would also see lots of views listed under “referral from a subscriber module.”

Let’s take a look at the traffic stats for a different video.  In 2011 I was in a video contest where the finalists were determined by youtube view counts.  This contest turned into a total clusterf*ck and people cheated like crazy.  I didn’t know what was going on but after doing some research I quickly discovered that anyone could simply order youtube likes, comments, subscribers and views.  These are the stats from one of the cheaters who made the finals.


Check out the item that’s 2nd to last in that list.  2/3rds of this video’s views came from the website Viralzoo.com.  What the heck is viralzoo.com??  If you ever see a weird website listed in the stats, check it out.  In this case, Viralzoo.com is just a bogus page that’s used as a front for view-fakers.

There’s another piece of very important data in this image.  Look closely at that blue graph….


This graph shows how quickly the video got its views.  You can see that the view count suddenly skyrocketed after the video was posted to those referral sites.  All those referral happened BEFORE the video became popular and zero new referrals happened after it got all those views.  That means that nobody liked the video enough to share it ANYWHERE on the entire Internet.  And that big plateau means that the view count has basically remained the same for a year and a half.  So from this data we can tell that the video was posted to a few different websites all at once.  Then the video gained almost all of it’s 49,000 views over a few days but then suddenly the video somehow went un-viral and pretty much nobody every watched it again.

So….you can find out some pretty amazing stuff if you check the public stats data of a youtube video.  Unfortunately youtube lets userrs turn that option off and most people who buy fake views are smart enough to hide their referrals.  But turning off the public stats is a pretty big red flag in and of itself.  This is what you’ll see if a user wants to hide their referral data:

50,000 views + 27 likes + no public referral stats = a bogus view count

If you’re ever in a video contest where youtube views matter you should tell the judges that they should ask all the contestants to leave their Public Statistics data ON.  There is no legitimate reason for a contestant to hide the source of their views.

Here are a few other tips for spotting fake youtube views:

1.  Check the youtube channel of the person who posted the video.  Many youtube users will post links to their facebook pages, blogs or twitter accounts on their youtube channel.  You can check these sites to see if the person is genuinely popular.  If a video’s stats say that 50,000 views came from twitter then the creator of that video should conceivably have a pretty massive twitter following.

2.  Keep an eye on the number of likes and comments.  If a video gains 30,000 views in one day but receives zero new comments or just a few likes you know something shady is going on.  Popular videos always get a steady stream of likes and comments.  If a “popular” video isn’t getting any comments it means that real humans aren’t actually watching it.

3.  Read through the comments and look for anything hinky.  A lot of the people who sell views, likes and comments live in foreign countries like India.  So fake comments sometimes don’t make sense or are done in broken english.

4.  Check out the channels of some of the people who have left comments.  If you look at their activity feed you might notice that they have been doing tons and tons of really spammy stuff like commenting on dozens of get-rich-quick videos or liking every music video created by one random aspiring hip hop artist.

And finally, I’ve saved my best tip for last:  Just stay away from video contests where youtube view counts or likes help determine who the winners are.  Like I said, there is no way anyone outside of youtube can be 100% sure that a video has fake views so cheaters will always win view count races.  Sure, you could try and contact the judges and tell them how easy it is to buy youtube views but they probably won’t give a damn.  If they actually cared about running a fair video contest they wouldn’t have run the thing on youtube in the first place.


How to create Stop Motion videos with a DSLR

This year Tongal has been running a ton of stop motion-themed video contests.  But I’ve never entered any of them because I had absolutely no idea how to create a stop motion animation.  So earlier this summer I decided to finally buckle down and figure out how to do it.  Turns out the right gear and the right program make the whole processes hilariously simple.  Here now is my first attempt at making a stop motion video since I was about 14.  A friend of mine did a cute little song for a Dole contest and I wanted to add some quirky visuals.  (Check out my previous post to see the great song/video she did for Butterfinger’s Last Spokesman on Earth Contest.) I think it turned out a lot better than my last stop motion project which was a 10 second video of a toy Rancor chasing a stormtrooper across my desk.  Like I said, I was 14.

The animation wasn’t very smooth but I actually like that jumpy look; it kind of fit the mood of the song.  But if I had taken more frames it could have been a lot smoother.  I also screwed up and had my camera set to take 2 quick shots each time I took a a picture.  Each frame was exposed differently and that’s why you can see kind of a flicker effect when the fruit cups are moving around in the freezer.  So don’t do that unless you want your video to look like a silent film!

Now, let’s go over how you can make something as amazing and brilliant as my (non-winning) Dole video.  I’m going to assume you know a thing or two about film and that you already understand how to SHOOT a stop motion scene.  So here’s what you do after you take all your photos.

STEP 1:  Once you’re done taking your photos, import them from your DSLR into your computer.   Put them into their own folder and take a few minutes to look them over.  If you notice any messed up images you’ll want to delete them.  A sudden change in lighting or your big fat hand in the shot will ruin the optical illusion of your animation.

STEP 2:  If you don’t already own QUICKTIME 7 PRO you’re going to need to buy it!  It’s $29 and well worth the money.  Head to buy it.

STEP 3:  Open up your new copy of Quicktime 7 Pro and go to FILE and select OPEN IMAGE SEQUENCE:

Select Open Image Sequence

STEP 4:  Find your photos on your computer.  Click on just the first photo in the sequence.  Quicktime will automatically snag all the photos in the folder.

STEP 5:  Chose how many Frames Per Second you want.  Normal video might feature 24 frames per second but you’ll only be able to choose that option if you took a ton of shots.  I’ve found that 12 frames per second works just fine.

Super obvious point: A lot of frames per second means a shorter video and a smoother look

STEP 6:  It’s magic time!  Quicktime will string all your photos together into a video sequence.  If you like the way it looks, go to FILE and select EXPORT to turn the sequence into an MOV file.

Export your sequence to an MOV file

And that’s it!  Now you can drop the file in your timeline and start editing.  Of course, you might have to crop your new sequence some since the size of your photos won’t fill up a wide screen frame.  So when you take your photos, leave yourself some room to crop the finished video.

Ok so you’ve seen my goofy attempt at stop motion, now I want to see yours.  If you enter one of Tongal’s stop motion contests, send me a link to your video so I can see how awesome you are!


How to shoot decent video with an iPhone

The people who set up video contests always want to get as many entries as possible.  Even if most of the entries aren’t very good, a ton of submissions just makes the contest look more successful.  So sponsors usually go out of their way to encourage people of all skill levels to submit videos.  And that’s why you’ll see a lot of contest announcements that include lines like this:

“You don’t need a big fancy camera to shoot an entry.  Just grab your flip cam or iphone and have fun!”

What the sponsors fail to mention is that if “production quality” is part of the judging criteria, the little video you shot with your cell phone probably won’t stand much chance against the slick entries that were shot with DSLRs or HD video cameras.  But as I learned from the video I’m about to post, you actually can get pretty decent footage out of an iphone if you follow a few simple steps.  This tutorial was shot for the youtube channel which is filled with lots of helpful how-to videos.  If you have an iPhone, this video is definitely worth checking out.  But take note: It does start with a lot of yelling and some cheesy but realistic gun play.  So you probably shouldn’t watch this one while at work or while babysitting.


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