vlog (n.)- a chronicle of a person’s experiences, activities, and thoughts as conveyed through the medium of video.
To date, I’ve made two eighteen-minute vlogs on my trips to Israel and Peru. Although I practically grew up with a camera in my hand, filming my adventures in Israel was the first time I was simultaneously in front of and behind the camera.
Therein lies the magic of vlogging: there is no longer a grey eminence operating behind the scenes, capriciously calling all of the shots. Any illusion of there being a fourth wall is shattered immediately. A vlog produces the sensation of being alongside the filmmaker, experiencing her every move and being taken along for the ride.
This blog post will cover what I’ve learned from vlogging in foreign countries, the type of equipment I use, and how vlogging can positively impact others.
My seminal work, 20 Pounds: A Memoir, started as an attempt to showcase my two week Birthright trip to Israel, a country often shrouded in misperceptions and well-intentioned, albeit inaccurate, beliefs, to friends and family back in the States.
At first, I only planned to take shots of the scenery, notable landmarks, and other interesting sights, but then decided to turn the camera on myself. After all, the direct interaction of the filmmaker with other subjects is what differentiates a vlog from other videos. The person filming refuses to remain off-scene and intimately becomes a part of the story.
Although a few students who accompanied me on the trip shied away from the camera, almost everyone jumped at the chance to be filmed. Even the soldiers who joined our group during the end of our first week were amiable to being on the vlog. Older, native Israelis– known as “sabras”– weren’t so immediately keen and often shouted at me in Hebrew once they saw a flashing red light.
In making both 20 Pounds and A Gringo’s Tale, I was careful not to encroach upon on social taboos or do anything that might be deemed disrespectful. Not only would I be offending others (generally not a nice thing to do), it only takes one enraged national to destroy your camera and your chances for making a crafty vlog.
Another piece of advice– don’t do anything stupid or dangerous just for a cool shot. I made that mistake while in Peru, filming a scene in which I climbed down a tiny cliff that led to a stream. I ended up slipping and falling, earning a few nasty scraps on my fingers and palm that may or may not have become infected. While the well-prepared adventurer has already purchased travel insurance, the goal is to never actually have to use it.
When it came time to upload my footage from Peru, I found that I had accrued some 30 hours of film. Although I live an incredibly fascinating life that will one day serve as the basis for a veritable blockbuster, there was no way anyone would sit through even an hour of me walking around the Andes looking for alpaca. (Spoiler: I didn’t find any.)
The magic of the vlog lies in the edit. You can have truly breath-taking shots along with crystal-clear film quality, but if you don’t end up telling a story, you have nothing. Any viewer can and will forgive a few shaky scenes and the subpar editing you learned from the Windows Movie Maker user guide if the story told is lucid and uninhibited.
While no blog post can adequately describe how to properly film and edit a vlog (such a hands-on skill is only perfected while actually doing the task), there are a few guidelines I follow,
- Have a stock of ‘filler’ shots, which can make transitions from one scene to another easier. For instance, a large portion of my time in Israel was spent traveling. I would often capture images of the landscapes we passed or whatever crazy antics my fellow Birthrighters were up to. Inserting those sequences in between scenes filmed in different cities made the overall vlog flow seamlessly.
- Music selection must be appropriate for the content of the video. Both of my vlogs have been joyous events in my life (traveling to Israel was my first time out of the US) and the music contained therein conveyed that sentiment. When the mood darkened, such as when I spoke about the Holocaust, the music I chose to accompany the video mirrored that shift.
- As a side note, using local music or music native to the country/state/region you visited is always something to be desired as it more cogently places viewers in that location with you.
- Don’t worry about the length of vlog— clearly I haven’t. Unless you’re making these videos to supplement your income (i.e. you have a monetized account with YouTube and are trying to get as many views as possible), the people who will actually end up watching your vlog won’t care about how long it is.
- That being said, if there are 30 or 45 second pans across a forest or the like, you might want to rethink your editing. Let me qualify this point by saying, Don’t worry about the length if every shot adds to the story. If you’re just trying to make a video longer, don’t bother with the filler shots. Remember, the story comes first.
- Despite what Emerson said ( “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that… imitation is suicide.”), emulating the works of experienced vloggers is often a good starting point. A great deal of my stylistic efforts are based off of the work of Casey Neistat, a 30-something vlogger from NYC. His daily vlogs are often watched by upwards of 300,000 viewers.
- I’ve had to wean myself off of watching Casey’s vlogs, most of which last upwards of eight minutes. They’re entertaining to be sure, but so damn distracting.
While en route to Israel, my trusty Canon point-and-shoot was seriously damaged and henceforth needed to be shaken in a certain way to film video without a red filter. As you can imagine, I made the soldiers attached to our group quite nervous when I started shaking a small metal object, cursing under my breath in English and, at one point, hopping up and down trying to make the camera work.
Before departing for Peru, I wanted to ensure that I wouldn’t have to experience that much trouble again.
So, I purchased the base model of the GoPro Hero camera, which came with a 32 gigabyte MicroSD card as well as a head strap. While the video was pristine, filming 30 frames-per-second in 1080p resolution, there was no screen to preview what was being filmed, something often considered central to vloging. In other words, I was shooting blind without any idea of exactly what I was capturing.
I ultimately selected the GoPro because of its price: it was by far the cheapest HD camera on the market and packed a great punch for its relatively miniscule size. The Hero got rave reviews from soccer moms and skydivers alike, leading me to think it would be best not only for Peru, but also for future marathons if I choose to create vlogs for those races. (Foreshadowing warning!)
Overall, the GoPro held up well in Peru, where the majority of my filming was outdoors. (It is marketed, after all, as a camera for extreme activities, which usually aren’t confined to indoor settings.) In low light situations it didn’t hold up so well. What’s more, I often discovered that fact only after I’d uploaded the video, leading me to scrap what amounted to a few hours worth of footage. Perhaps that preview screen is indeed crucial.
For a base price of $130, however, the GoPro simply can’t be beat and despite what it’s lacking, the camera helped to accentuate my time in Peru.
A Vlog’s Impact
A video, whether of an 8th grade piano recital or a BASE jump from a Singaporean skyscraper, has the ability to inspire and impact viewers in untold ways. As mentioned, I was largely motivated to step in front of the camera in Israel because of Neistat’s work. His purported nonchalant style of filmmaking enabled me to imagine the possibilities of the tool I held in my hand.
A vlog is unique in that audience members are enveloped in the point of view of the filmmaker. They can be whisked away to the summit of Everest or to the finish line of the Western States 100, all without leaving the comfort of their office chair. While the potential for spectatorship— i.e. watching others do instead of being the one doing— certainly exists, I like to think such videos are more likely to serve as a stimulus for others to create, explore, and leave their comfort zone.
We shan’t forget that life is a series of struggles and suffering, interspersed at times with triumph and victory. That which takes us away from our primordial state, climate controlled environments or the consumption of fat-laden simple carbohydrates, only makes for an unfulfilling life in which true happiness is never attained. Anything one can do to be a modern-day Gadfly of Athens (a moniker oft-cherished by Socrates) and spur others into action helps to change the world. Vlogs can serve such purpose.
More to come.