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Tips for making movie magic

Film Camera

Ken Burns knows a little something about making movies. His famous documentaries, including “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” have won many awards over the years.

ken1BL sat down with Burns, a former Scout, and asked for his best advice on making movies.

“Filmmaking is difficult but unbelievably rewarding,” he says. “It involves a lot of details that require a lot of patience. If you remember some of these basic tips, you can’t go wrong.”

TELL A STORY. The most important thing is to know what you want to do in your video. What’s the story you want to tell? You’re going to be leaving something that is going to last a long time. Take advantage of this opportunity. Say you have a grandfather who was in World War II. Talk to him and get his story. You can record any great experiences like this. Long after the subjects are gone, you have a record — and this becomes our new family albums.

ken3LIGHTING. Today’s video cameras respond in very low lighting situations, which is good, but this can lull a filmmaker to “sleep.” And quite often it’s important to have better lighting on your subject.

Shoot practice footage first and see what it looks like. You might be shooting somebody in a living room and it’s a little murky, but it looks O.K. in the viewfinder. Then when you review the video, it doesn’t look good. Consider positioning your subject next to a window where there’s more light, turn on a light in the room or in a particularly dark situation, add your own light to make it more beautiful.

THE LOOK. Do you want a handheld or steady look to your video? The handheld approach gives you some intimacy, but it also has problems: The audience can get a little dizzy. If you choose to go this way, concentrate on being as steady as possible.

ken5For a steadier look, put the camera on a tripod and don’t move it around too much or too quickly. Constantly moving the tripod doesn’t work very well unless you have a fluid head — an expensive piece of equipment that attaches to the top of the tripod and lets the camera move in a fluid motion while panning or tilting.

You can always change the shot and move to a different angle. Follow the action but don’t do wild, unnecessary movements. That’s what makes a video look like just home-movie stuff.

SOUND. Always be aware of the sound around you. Our ears tend to filter out that noisy refrigerator, the traffic outside, the TV or radio in the next room, other chatter. With film, these sounds get in the way. Remember that the microphone on the camera doesn’t filter out sound as our ears do.

ken2FRAMING. Figure out how to frame things well in each shot so that they’re pleasing to the eye and also help tell your story. Once again, take advantage of the instantaneous feedback of video to see if your techniques are working.

EDIT. Whether you use a PC or Mac, there is a lot of easy-to-understand home video-editing software to help you shape your film into a coherent story. You don’t have to assume that whatever you shot is whatever you get. You have the ability to edit.

ken4NO RULES. There really are no rules in filmmaking. Even the jerkiest, murkiest, loud and noisy films can sometimes be unbelievably effective. But that’s because the filmmaker wanted them that way. If you don’t want them that way, do everything you can to prevent it.

It’s important in any art form for people to experiment. There’s going to be that one person who figures out how to break all the rules and make a masterpiece. At the same time, you have to know what you want to do and how you’re going to do it. And if you can get there by breaking some of the rules, that’s great.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and good luck.

66 Comments on Tips for making movie magic

  1. ActuallyAFilmmaker // May 23, 2022 at 6:52 pm // Reply

    Great tips!

  2. Tips on how to do these would be nice.

  3. Louis Ronan 1138 // January 4, 2019 at 7:56 pm // Reply

    I Have Tons of great new ideas for the Sci-fi , Horror , Disaster, Superhero ,B- Movies including remakes of
    The Cabinet Of Dr. Cali-Gari , Metropolis, Akira, other B-Movie Classics , I am Interested in Megalopolis,Shadow On
    The Sun,Ronnie Rocket,The Tourist they are never made. I am a Born Again Christian.

  4. pumukinbutter // February 12, 2018 at 11:56 am // Reply

    I Wanted To Make Sci-Fi Remakes

  5. #1StarWarsFan // October 16, 2016 at 12:58 am // Reply

    I love making homemade videos on my computer! Thanks for the tips! I like making videos where I do the unimaginable, like turn into a dragon and burn down my house! :p

  6. How can I get clear voicing when I video on a long-shot?

  7. EG Cub Scout // June 19, 2015 at 2:11 pm // Reply

    Cool I love history I can make a film on history

  8. I knew this all but good article

  9. Minnesnowtan // June 18, 2015 at 11:20 pm // Reply

    A tripod is a great camera stabilizing device, and it is generally pretty cheap. If you want to still have the look of handheld but still want the stability of a tripod and you have a little more money to spend, there are plenty of great camera stabilizers and mounts available ranging from shoulder mounts, fig rigs and the steadicam/glidecam. I use all of them but still prefer the glidecam, but it is personal preference.

  10. The most cheap and simple mini-movie special effects: Play,PAUSE,and play.
    Use this trick to make things disappear or turn your sister into a dog! :b

  11. thats really helpful

  12. superanonymous // December 13, 2013 at 3:03 pm // Reply

    COOL even though this is from when I was a wolf scout

  13. I’ve been receiving BL as a scout since before this was published, but I just saw this. Thanks for the tips!

  14. I want to make a film about LBJ

  15. IAMsuperCool // December 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm // Reply

    Hey, this is AWESOME! I LOVE making movies. Thanks for the tips!

  16. AWSOME!

  17. I always wondered about this stuff, thank you!!

  18. I love making documentaries. My latest one is called the pets and I’m making a new one called miss piggy about my new pig I’m gonna eat at Christmas. I like making them about animals

  19. I like making movies, I have a tape camra that works realy well, I also like stop action!

  20. Ken Burns ROCKS!!!!!

  21. how do you break the rules because i’m still confused on that part


  23. AWSOME

  24. glass onion // April 10, 2011 at 9:29 am // Reply

    good ideas

  25. i like taking vidoes with my ipod. I somtimes take vidoes of my brother’s monster truks doing jumps!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  26. Cool!

  27. awesome advice.

  28. i am just starting to get into the art of moviemaking and am using these tips to learn to take good video

  29. PERSON SAYS // July 4, 2010 at 8:13 am // Reply

    I am in for it

  30. i love to

  31. Dr. Marones // March 9, 2010 at 2:46 pm // Reply

    I like making Lego movies with my friends but I am really bad at it, I need some advice.

  32. i like magic.

  33. how do you make it smokey in a movie?

  34. annoyedby2sisters // January 16, 2010 at 7:21 pm // Reply

    The movie making tips sounds kind of complicated. I do have a digital camera that takes pictures and records video. Could someone tell how to get better sound on my camera? But I have another problem: when I install the software for the camera on my computer, there is a pop-up saying I need to get administration signed onto my computer. Could somebody tell me what to do?

    • a digital camera will work fore moviemaking, but I recommend using a camcorder, I no this will work better because I have made many movies bofore.

      • Minnesnowtan // June 18, 2015 at 11:15 pm //

        I remember reading this article years ago and have since really gotten into video. My main camera that I don’t borrow (I occasionally get to use $10000 cameras) is a Canon T5i with a decent lens. For audio, it has a 3.5 mm jack that will take anything for input and I mount a Rode Videomic on top with the cold shoe mount and It works really well.

    • You can use an iPad or iPhone instead of a camera, and they tend to pick up sound pretty well.

  35. I don’t know anything about making a movie, and i’m thinking about going to a monument and filming. I’ve been to the grand canyon and filmed on my camera, so I have experence.So can people with more experence than me help me please?

    • if you wish to make a story based movie it is best to get people together and create a story for your film (along with scripts for your actors). once done filming, edit your film on your computer using editing software (I recommend pinnacle studio 9 or adobe editing softwares).

      • Oh, and if you wish to make your film a documentary, then do stuff similar to what you have already done,like filming the grand canyon, and just narrate over it. Glad I could help.

  36. I have nver made a video before ,but I’m sure my first one will be the best.

  37. I like making lego videos,too!!!! =D (turn your head sideways to see a smiley face!!!!!)

  38. Joe From Pack 75 // December 1, 2009 at 2:44 pm // Reply

    I love making lego movies and other crazy home movies

  39. I love makeing movies

  40. that-kid-over-there // November 27, 2009 at 8:21 pm // Reply

    really great advice. loved it

  41. Saw it and liked it

  42. I think that is good advise.

  43. It was the most super spectacular awsomest creative show ever to be seen on earth! P.S. everything on Boyslife magazines and website is awesome. Espesialy the shows!

  44. GeneralLemon // October 28, 2009 at 2:03 pm // Reply

    I enjoy making movies with my friends and this helped. Mabye you could make some more articles like this.

  45. I am intersted in video production and this will really help

  46. Peterjames12 // October 16, 2009 at 9:11 pm // Reply

    I saw it on TV and i liked it

  47. I have a flip video camara, and this stuff really helps me to make better clips.

    • i have a Flip HD i love it and the magic movie function but there is a problem. The try again function doesn’t seem to work. Mine makes an identical magic movie every time i hit try again. Any suggestions?

    • Chace, my Flip id great but there is a problem with magic movie in that the try again function doesn’t seem to work. I get the same movie each time I hit try again. Have you seen this?

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