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Visual Storytelling With the 5-Shot Method for Video Sequences

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:ShortLanguages:

In a film, the visual narrative is a thought process that you construct for the viewer to take them on a journey. In this tutorial you'll learn how to create a small story using five shots and how a small story is always the building block for telling a bigger one.

It doesn’t matter if this is your first time making a short sequence or if it’s your hundredth time: the five-shot method is great because it helps you construct a visual narrative in vignettes, manageable little segments of story you can piece together. You want to captivate your audience with the footage you use and tell a story while you do it. 

The five-shot sequence gives you a plan that is flexible enough to let you roll with the punches but with enough structure to keep you on track. Not every project will lead to exactly the final result you are expecting. Creating any kind of film has a process, but during that process you could come up with a different idea, resulting in something completely different than what you expected—and that’s totally fine!

1. Brainstorm

Brainstorming is as simple as the step suggests. When you were in school and were asked to brainstorm for essay ideas what did you do? The process is exactly the same. Just jot down thoughts about the film you want to make, perhaps make bubbles, or a list.

Let’s say you’re going to make a film about eating ice cream. What are the types of shots you would want to take? What would you want to film? Would there be people in your film? Write down all your ideas, the more ideas the better. Don’t get overwhelmed, these are just ideas. You don't have to film them all!

Thinking about icecream

2. Build a storyboard

This step is similar to brainstorming, but now you’re going to narrow down your ideas and put them in order.

Storyboard

A storyboard is a rough visual representation of your story. It helps to visualize what you’re going to do in each scene. Some people like to draw out their scenes so they have a better idea, especially when there are a lot of complex shots to do. If you're working solo the storyboard can be pretty rough. If you're working with other people, a more developed storyboard is a helpful way to share your vision.

A rough story board

Creating a storyboard helps you focus on each scene so that you don’t get distracted when you go to film your videos. It gives structure to your thought process. But don’t forget that even when you go to film you have leeway to film random shots that you think of at that moment.

I personally don’t like to do sketches because I’m not a great drawer, so I make a shot list instead. I just write down my scenes and how I plan to film them, what I plan to put in each scene and the shots I want to get during each scene.

A shot list

This is the time to think about where these shots are going to take place: will they be in a bedroom? Will they be outside? Will they be inside? I also like to think about costumes and props I need for each scene at this stage.

3. Schedule and Film

This is the fun part! I love going to film my shots. And life is a lot easier and more fun when you know what kind of shots you want to get.

Continuity

Keep a note on the weather and any type of costume changes. You want to keep everything consistent looking throughout your film, especially if you're shooting on more than one day.

I also recommend that you bulk your filming: try and film all the shots you need outside in one go, then all the shots you need inside in one go. You don’t want to take the trouble of going inside and outside multiple times. Also, you want to make sure that if you are outside  to get all the scenes you want, you wouldn’t want to film one day, and forget to get a shot of something and have to go back. The light could look completely different the next day!

Visual Variety

How you actually construct the shots is a topic for another tutorial, but briefly:  the idea is to get enough difference between each of your shots to provide visual variety in the finished film. This is mainly accomplished by changing your perspective, your distance to the subject, the focal length of your lenses, and how you choose to move through the scene.

4. B-ROLL

Even though you’ve got a good filming schedule, you’ve got your storyboard sheet, and you’ve got all your brainstorming ideas, it’s important to get B-Roll.

B-roll is essentially “extra” footage. It’s always good to get extra footage of close-ups, wide-shots, of anything. This way when you sit down to edit you have enough transitional clips to use to create an edit that flows neatly.

An Example

Let’s say we want to film a five-shot vignette about someone coming home and reading a book.The essential action is:

  1. Person enters apartment
  2. Person reads book

Footage without B-roll it might look something like this:

Unlocking apartment door
Reading a book in bed

The scene begins with someone opening the door and directly going to them sitting on a bed reading. There is no transition shot, there are no close-ups, there is not smooth flow to the film.

This is how it might look like if you did get B-Roll footage:

Coming through door
walking in room
Reading book

There’s a good flow in the footage because there’s a natural sequence: unlocking the door, walking through the door, into the bedroom and then sitting on the bed to read a book.

5. Edit the Footage

Finally! It’s time to sit down, upload all your footage onto your editing software and start editing. As soon as you import your footage label it so that you know what you filmed. It makes it a lot easier for you to start putting things together when you do this.

This process shouldn’t be too hard now because, if you have a good story board, you’ll already know what you want to put in each scene and which clips you plan to use! Review your clips and mark in and out on the good parts. Put your on marked clips on the timeline and voila! You should have something that hangs together pretty nicely, even if it's rough to start. If your shots are good and you've chosen good in and out points the transition from one shot to the next should feel natural and pleasing.

Conclusion

Let's quickly look back at the steps for doing a sequence:

  • Brainstorm: write down all your thoughts and what you want to film.
  • Create a story board: pictures or text doesn’t matter, so long as you know what each scene is going to have, write it down.
  • Filming schedule and film: make sure you keep things consistent and make time to film your scenes, if you’re filming outside make sure you grab all the shots you need before going back inside.
  • B-ROLL: remember, it’s important to get extra footage! This is to have enough footage for transition scenes and close ups.
  • Edit: now that you have everything editing is going to be a breeze! Remember that storyboard you had? That’s going to come in handy when you start editing because you’ll already know where you want everything to go! And don’t forget to label your videos so you know what shots you created and it will be easier to find.

Once you'd mastered the five-shot story making a longer story is simply a process of putting together a series of related vignettes. The amazing thing is that, if you do it well, your viewers will do most of the work for you! Get the visuals right their and minds will stitch together a narrative, one tiny visual story after another.


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