Sequencing: The foundation of video storytelling

After judging several regional multimedia contests recently, I’m mildly discouraged by what I saw being entered in the video categories. I believe the people who shot these videos tried their best. Yet, entry after entry suffered one fatal flaw– They lacked the basic sequencing of video clips.

The sequence is the foundation of all video storytelling. Sequences compress time in a video story. Without this compression, what you’re left with are long video clips that visually bore viewers to death.

Proper sequencing gives the video editor a better way to pace a story by using a variety of wide, medium and tight shots. This helps move the viewer through a story efficiently. Unfortunately, it seems, the sequencing lesson did not stick with people after whatever training (if any) they might have had.

You can’t be great basketball player like Michael Jordan if you don’t master the fundamentals of ball handling. The same goes for video storytelling. You have to drill the fundamentals of sequencing into your head or you won’t be able to tell an effective video story.

So let’s review the basics.

Sequencing helps compress time in a video. If you videotape someone leaving their house, walking down a path, getting on their motorcycle and driving off, it might take a minute or more to show all the action in real-time. We don’t have that amount of time for our video, so we shoot a shot of the subject coming out of the house, a tight shot of his feet walking into and out of frame. A shot from behind the subject walking up the bike. Then a shot of the subject sitting on the bike, cut to a tight shot of his foot kick-starting the engine. Then another tight shot of his hand revving the throttle. Finally, we get a shot of the subject riding off in the sunrise. Whew. That was hard work. But you know what? Edited together, you can compress that one-minute real-time clip into 20 seconds or less. The cool thing is the viewer understands this sequence and buys into your compression of time. Why? Because they see time compression everyday when they watch TV or a movie.

When shooting a sequence you have to anticipate the action. Still photojournalists are skilled at this. But if you are a word person, it might be a bit foreign to you. When I’m shooting, I’m always running scenarios through my mind. I’m asking myself: Where’s the action headed? Where do I need to position myself to be in the right spot? What shots do I need to get me from point A to point B?

Try to remember to shoot a variety shots. Shoot the action and then the reaction. It’s most important to hold your shots for about 10 seconds each. Don’t pan or zoom; just let the action enter or leave the frame. I had a video editor once tell me that if a cameraperson shoots a wide, medium and tight shot of every composition, then he could edit anything.

As I have incorporated more sequencing into my video, I’ve found that I have cut down my editing time considerably. The other thing you should remember is to weight your shots to the tight and super tight end of the shooting spectrum. Tight shots make great transitions between two wide shots or two medium shots. They prevent the infamous jump cut (two shots that look the same) that annoy and confuse people viewing your video.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals of sequencing, you can begin to tell a more effective video story. The master video sequencers are our brothers in TV news. Time is tight for their stories. They compress time until it squeals.

Now for your homework assignment. Check out some of the sequencing done over at TV. Dissect the sequences. Look for the wide, medium and tight shots and how they move you through the story.

23 thoughts on “Sequencing: The foundation of video storytelling

  1. Thanks for the plug for TV.

    I hope the site can be of service.

    Now, more than ever, we TV folks can learn a lot from our print brethren, and vice-versa.

    Keep up the good work…


  2. If you retain the same ethics as you do with a still camera you quickly begin to realize how hard it can be at times to shoot for the edit. Especially when a situation only occurs once.

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  6. @Tim G: That’s where anticipating the action (what Colin said!) comes in. You have to train yourself to think five steps ahead of the subject you are shooting. If you know the short-order cook will end up over at the grill with his back turned to you, you need to get yourself over there on the other side of the grill before he starts to move!

    I’m not saying I’m good at doing that, but practice makes perfect.

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  9. can you give some illustrative pictures and also touch some other topics like like camera movements

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