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8 Easy Ways to Ace your Video Essay

Updated: Feb 1



8 Cheap (or Free) Techniques to Record an Amazing Video Essay on Your Smartphone


Video essays are becoming more and more popular. MIT Sloan, Rice Jones, and Chicago Booth all require some form of video essay before interviews, and this practice is only likely to become more popular as our lives move more and more online.


First things first, we all now have a very capable camera in our pockets. Yes, your smartphone is absolutely good enough to create a sufficient video to impress the admissions committee. You might be able to increase the video quality a little bit by borrowing a DSLR from a friend, but the learning curve probably isn’t worth it unless you already know how to operate the camera.


Here are a few basic things that you can do to stand out from the ocean of totally inept videos that the Adcom will be wading through.


1. Invest in a Tripod


This might be the one piece of equipment that you have to buy, but it is well worth the money. First principles: your video needs to be steady, and it needs to be straight. The way that both of these are achieved is with a tripod. Make sure it has an attachment that will hold a smartphone.


If this is the only time you ever plan to use a tripod, then buy a cheap one on Amazon; many of the cheap-and-nasty ones are good for a few uses but will break in short order. If you plan ever to record a video again, don’t buy the cheapest you can find: the quality upgrade you’ll get by picking even the second-cheapest is immense.


2. Dress to Impress (Even the Trousers)


Sure, the Adcom probably won’t be seeing below your shoulders, but there’s a qualitative difference to your performance in a video if you’re not dressed fully. Wearing a suit jacket and tracksuit pants might work in principle, but think about this: whether or not they consciously realize it, the Adcom is going to receive a video made by some clown in a suit coat and tracksuit pants.


Do yourself a favor and dress like you’re going to an interview. Because you are. Even shoes and socks!



3. Get Yourself in the Mood


Delete everything but “Eye of the Tiger” on your phone and then set the tune to repeat. Headphones in. Hit PLAY. After two hours, you’ll be ready.


Seriously, though, get yourself in the mood. Stretch. Do some exercise. Get the muscles loose. Nothing picks up anxiety and tension like a video camera. Focus on a time or place that makes you calm or confident and spend 30 seconds to a minute really indulging in the memory, treating it as a sensory experience: see it, feel it, smell it. Find a piece of music that pumps you up or makes you calm, whichever is more important for the interview.


What you need, in that case, is a way to channel and focus. Music really can help. Think about what you like to play when you work out and try that. No sob story music, please. Yes, that definitely means no Radiohead.


4. Multiple Takes Over Multiple Days


It won’t come out right the first time. This is normal. The way to find the best take is to think of it as a curve. You’ll start off looking and sounding terrible, but keep going. It’s easy to think you’ll never improve, but that’s not necessarily the case.


Most people do improve over further takes, but there will always be a limit. If you reach a point where you’re frustrated, take a deep breath, maybe a 10-minute break, then try again. However, if you’re certain that it’s just getting worse and worse over time, try again tomorrow.


What you’re looking for is the peak of the curve: the first few takes usually suck, the middle are quite solid, and if you keep pushing past a good one, the later takes might also start to suck. So keep trying, keeping an eye on the outcome without getting worked up over it.


You will get better over time. Being on camera is a skill, not a gift. You just need to put some work into it. Make sure to factor in the time to put that work in.


5. Keep Your Notes Handy


Look: it’s around 125 words, so ideally you wouldn’t need written notes. You know what you’re going to say, so the script should, in principle, be immaterial.


There are a couple of options if you get nervous and need to work from more of a full script. First, you can print the entire script off and read from it. Don’t do this. It looks and sounds like someone reading, which is entirely unnatural and will not impress the Adcom.


Second, you can keep bullet points, like cue cards, printed in large font near the camera. Try to position these bullet points so that you can access them without moving your vision too far away from the eyeline of the camera.


Consider these a form of backup. If you really need to check them, you know that they are there. Ideally, this means that you won’t need to check them as much as you might think right now.


Again: do not read word-for-word.


6. Make Your Performance Natural


It requires a bit of practice to make your pitch sound natural, but that all goes into the preparation. You may not get the video done on the first day, but all the practice that you put into it will be useful. It might help to take a few acting classes, or go to a few Toastmasters meetings just to develop confidence in public speaking. This will translate, although perhaps not directly, to the camera.


The trick is to keep repeating, watching, repeating your performance on the camera until it seems normal. It is especially helpful to have someone operating the camera who can be trusted to make you feel comfortable, yet who will not let you get away with a sub-par performance. A top-notch video performance takes an ease and confidence that may not come naturally, but is learnable. It makes you realize that actors do in fact work for their money.


The key is to get to the point where you understand where the camera is, yet you’re not intimidated by it. Even when you’re used to speaking to large groups, facing the machine can seem overwhelming.


With a bit of practice and guidance, however, you’ll be able to keep a good pace and address the camera calmly.





7. Look Above the Lens


This isn’t such a problem if you’re using a mobile phone, because you can just look at the image on the phone. However, if you’re borrowing someone’s SLR it is important not to stare down the barrel of the lens. This produces a really disconcerting effect for the viewer.


Look just slightly above the center of the camera lens, because staring directly into the lens makes you look like a serial killer. Try it and you’ll see what I mean.


The trick is to focus where the brand of the camera is written, just above the lens. This makes your eye contact seem natural without going all Jeffrey Dahmer on the people reviewing the video.


8. Sound Matters


Given that many of us don’t have access to professional sound people or videographers, you need to consider noise. If you’re outside, wind is your enemy. If someone is doing building works next door, you’ll need to wait until they stop or move location. Most standard microphones are omnidirectional, which means they’ll pick up whatever they possibly can. For what you’re trying to do, this is terrible.


Filmmakers learn quickly that a beautiful shot with terrible sound is far harder for the viewer to stomach than a dodgy-quality visual with excellent sound. Err on the side of good sound and it will pay dividends with regard to the palatability of your video.


If you want to stick to the smartphone’s on-board microphone, you’re probably safest recording indoors. These mics are omnidirectional and pick up everything they can (because they are designed to!). They’re great for conversations on speakerphone. They are not great for videos. For the most part, however, unless there is rampant noise on the other side of a wall or door, a smartphone mic will sound tinny but be functional.


The best option is often to use a lapel mic (lavalier), which can be found cheaply online and may even plug directly into a smartphone. Otherwise, consider using AirPods or another wireless device to avoid wind noise. Make sure that if the microphone is close (within two feet, like a lavalier) that it has, at minimum, a foam pop filter. If you’re outside you may need a windjammer (often called a “dead cat”), even on a lapel mic.


Another excellent option is a smartphone-based shotgun mic, like the Rode VideoMic-Me.

Some of these are better than others, but Rode is a no-fuss brand where it’s hard to go wrong. The VideoMic-Me costs $70-80 and produces audio that punches well above its weight.


There are other, more expensive options, of course—you could really spend as much as you want perfecting sound—but these should suffice.


If your neighbor is vacuuming or renovating when you want to shoot, I’m afraid you’ll have to postpone. Even the best studio environment is unable to cut out dull, low, and percussive noises. Studios actually avoid such problems by setting up shop in locations where those noises happen as infrequently as possible. Finding such a place may not be an option for you, so wait for relative silence.


Please, please test your sound as you go along. Make sure that you’re getting a good quality sound by recording yourself speaking for a few moments before recording the actual video. There’s nothing as heartbreaking as having an excellent take of the video with sound that destroys it.


Conclusion


The difference between a passable and a terrible video is often minimal, and it often has little to do with the equipment you use. We all have immediate access to equipment that would have cost thousands of dollars even ten years ago.


With good planning and a little bit of effort, you can make an excellent smartphone video that costs next to nothing. If you follow the above tips, you’ll be well on your way.

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