The Written Word

Defining The Creative Me

There is a semi-unspoken rule in the YouTube and Blogging Communities that one looks to other creators for inspiration, but never to copy-cat. That one should always define themselves and their channels. Well, I’m trying.

Some of the latter paragraphs in this post are going to get technical, dry, and boring. And I’ll probably be the only person to ever read them. So let’s take these top sections and give a little background. What exactly is a YouTube Channel? Why does it need to be defined? And how hard can it freaking be?

Well, if you don’t know what YouTube is yet, perhaps this isn’t the blog for you. LOL! So let’s assume you know the basics: film yourself, upload the video, and reap the worship of millions as they watch. Only the reality is that no one is going to watch. Not at first. And maybe not ever. The amount of footage that is uploaded every minute to the platform is staggering. How does one compete with all of that? And that’s what makes this thing so difficult. How do you find your niche and make your mark in it when there is so much else to choose from?

The common wisdom is to pick something you love and/or are knowledgable about. Make a couple of hundred videos, constantly improving your production quality and watch-ability. Work on all aspects of standing out (great titles, better thumbnail images, SEO, descriptions, tags, yadda yadda yadda). There is actually a lot that goes into these damn things. And nothing drives that little fact home more than making some videos and watching yourself.

This is where I current reside. I watch the “big guys” and see how enjoyable their videos are. How I want to watch more and more of what they’re offering. And then I watch my own, and don’t even want to finish. In comparison, mine are amateurish at best. And yes I know, as I mentioned just eight sentences ago, one must make hundreds of shitty videos before they start to make decent ones. And my upload count right now is 40. So only a few hundred to go. I’m sure my deep patient self can handle that. (insert eye roll here).

I’m actually at a scary point in every YouTuber’s life right now. I know what I’m doing wrong. I know what I need to do to take the next step up. But converting knowledge into action is difficult. Hollywood makes it look so easy, but I’m a one-man show. I have to do the story creation, script writing, filming, acting, blocking, direction, production, editing, marketing, and release. I even have to run my own catering table. So many jobs, all of which I am utterly a noob at performing. And I’m in that semi-sweet spot where I sadly know my current limitations.

So … as I watched my last video, I decided to do something different. I watched it not with negative eyes, but with learning ones. Much like I would watch a Casey Neistat offering. What do I see? What works well and what would I keep? What would I do to change/improve it? Then I went back to the Stars of YouTube again. I watched them not for the story, but for the production. And in my head, I started to formulate what I wanted my channel to really look like. What my style needed to be. Which caused the realization that unless I put it on (electronic) paper, I might not have it fully formed. Which brings us to the here and now. And this post.

I believe my “Channel” is pretty tight, meaning the container. I’m happy with my cover art, descriptions, and all that jazz. I’m on a good path when it comes to the business side (marketing, promotion, analytics, etc). But it’s my actual product that I want to really focus on. What should a “Rick Higgins Video” look like? And here’s where I lose many of you. Time for the technical and dry. 🙂

Sequence

Some channels (like Wolter’s World) just jump right into things. No intros, no extra anything. Just start talking, and keep talking until the story is told. But that’s not what I want The Pirate Wanderer to resemble. There are actually three different types of videos I want to do (standard, vlog, and educational), but all three have the same basic sequence. One that is pretty standard for YouTube: Hook, Intro, Story, Outro.

The “hook” is basically a 10-20 second grab for someone’s attention. never more than a minute, tops. Most viewers will bail within seconds if their attention is not grabbed and solidified. So I want to start every video with a great hook. Something witty. Something humorous. But something that links in with the main story. It’s annoying to get sucked into something, only to discover a bait-n-switch. And I never want to do that. So my hooks are intended to (a) entertain, (b) set a clear picture of the video, and (c) get folks to keep their fingers away from their keyboards and screens until I can get a little deeper into the presentation.

The ‘intro” is actually two fold, and not everyone uses one of them. I have created a five-second, standard video sequence that sets my brand. Every video is tied by this. It’s short, because it’s not the offering. It shows three videos clips in sequence, setting the mood for the channel and letting viewers know that this is another presentation from the same source. This part I feel is necessary. And five seconds is just right (in my humble opinion).

I also want to use this part of the intro sequence to elaborate on the hook. Dive a little deeper into what the video is about. Still being entertaining. Still being concise. But also realizing that the story is what the viewer is here for.

The tried-and-true format for story telling is Setup-Conflict-Resolution. Or some variant thereof. You need to establish what the story is, right up front. But the introduction isn’t the bulk of the story. And viewers are still vary of your offering at this point. The hook got them here. Now I need to keep them, hopefully for the duration.

What I currently like about my videos, and what I like about others, is when the intro is entertaining but low on details. When the person on screen is animated and excited. When they are speaking directly to me. So I want to make sure every one of my videos is just that. Maybe 1-2 minutes of laying the groundwork for the video, all the while being as entertaining as possible. I want to create a feeling that the viewer wants to stay and play. And that they understand what the video is going to give to them.

The story is the story. Fairly quick paced. No pauses and “umms”. Entertaining, informative, whatever. But for me, the pace needs to keep moving. Slowness and pauses just invite the viewer’s brains to wander, and I want to keep them in my moment.

The outro (or ending) is controversial. YouTube has these analytics about watch time and click through rates. You’re supposed to put links to other videos at the end, but if the viewer doesn’t get to the end then they aren’t going to see them. And when the person on screen says things like “that’s it, please subscribe, etc”, then the viewer is going away to do something else. I know I do it. So what I’ve been trying to do, and what I like so far, is to just end the story. Cut from the resolution right to something short, like a time lapse or something. Not giving the view a chance to click away. That’s followed by a funny anecdote or blooper while the end screen is doing its marketing thing. And this seems to be working me.

Overall, this is what I’m already doing. I feel I need to polish it somewhat, especially when it comes to pace, excitement, and the animation of the actor (me). But generally speaking, I’m OK with what I’m doing as far as sequance.

Music/Sound

A talking head without music (or other accompaniment) is boring. But I’m struggling with how to integrate music. Some creators only use it to highlight b-roll sequences. Others just leave something running underneath the whole video. To date, I haven’t had good execution. But here’s what I’m thinking:

  • Do serious research on what music fits the video. Both for the basic storyline, and any sub-plots. Plus whatever fill is going into the story.
  • Cut away to silence to highlight parts of the video where I want the viewer to suddenly pay attention.
  • As I flip from speech to b-roll (or other sequences), change the pace of the music. This isn’t Musak. I need to make sure the selection and introduction of the songs really fit and enhance what’s happening on screen.
  • All music should be loud enough to notice, but not to overwhelm the viewer’s ability to listen to what’s happening.

Some creators strive for a real cinema-like experience, using sound design to bring a whole new level to their story. I’m not really in that camp. I like the idea of using sound effects not as as a deep-yet-not-in-your-face addition to the overall experience, rather as a sudden highlight to something specific on screen. If a TV static screen is shown, play static kind of thing.

B-Roll

Definition first … A-Roll is me acting. B-Roll is supporting shots/pans/etc that prop up the story. You need both. The question is, in what percentages?

My first few “MasterClass” videos were almost 100% B-Roll. Me narrating and a continuous stretch of footage playing underneath to highlight the story. It works, kinda. But mostly because I’m still struggling with the “acting” portion, and my voice is more pleasing than my face.

I’ve done vlogs where there is almost no B-Roll. Just me. Boring as hell.

This is something that really is determined by the story. What I need (I think) is not just B-Roll overtop of me speaking (which I do, as long as it continues the story and keeps the attention span flowing). I need cut-away B-Roll sequences between story blobs. If I’m talking about walking in the park, then stop speaking and show me walking in the park. Towards the camera and then suddenly pass and walking away kind of thing. Then go back to talking. I think I need to break up my talking head shots with enough of these to keep attention and to provide entertainment. To date, I have not yet done this correctly. And from what I’ve seen, this is one of the biggest things that separate pro from amateur videos.

So I need to learn how to film better B-Roll. And to select pre-recorded videos as well. and to integrate them into the story.

Story/Sub-Plots

When I watch a “real video”, as defined by what the masses seem to want, there never is a single story. There are always one or two sub-stories, and they don’t necessarily have to match the main one. The intro seems to setup the primary story and then quickly digress somewhere else, popping the main tale up throughout. They seem to make that process look easy, like the main story is seamless, and while you’re entertained by the sub-plots, they didn’t take anything away.

This is another area in which I struggle. Say I create a title/story called “I Like Butterflies” and then talk endlessly about them. Show B-Roll of the insects fluttering about, and call it production. What I need to do is have a sub-story about getting to the meadow. And perhaps another one about the car repairs that were needed to get there in the first place. And somehow learn how to weave them together. Right now, I have no idea how to do that. But I do know that it’s one of the next biggest hurdles that I must jump over to take my videos up a level. Weaving stories and keeping the narrative alive and well.

Acting/Pace/Animation

I both love and hate watching myself on screen. Mostly because Im so critical. And because the camera (and edit) very much change what’s being presented. There is a reason actors “act” and don’t just read lines. I need to do the same. Not to be fake, but rather to ensure that what is coming across is exactly what the video (and the viewer) needs.

  • I need to be far more animated, and to exaggerate everything. Facial expressions, movements, vocalizations, everything. The viewer needs to see the emotions I’m feeling, and they need to be amped up just a bit to get that point across.
  • I need to speed up my vocalizations as well. I’m not slow by any means, but Im not quite fast enough to keep attention. Pauses need to be for a reason, not just because I’m trying to think of something to say. And I’m not quite able to edit this away.
  • And very importantly, I need makeup and wardrobe. Figuratively. Right now, I just walk out of the house and start filming. Wrinkled shirt that is a drab color? Whatever. Hair messed up? Run a hand through it. These are bad things. I need to plan what I’m wearing and what I look like as much as I plan the story, location, and sound. It’s as much as part of the video’s success as everything else. And since the only real thing binding all videos together is me, I need to work on my “personal brand” as well. Which is tough, because I’m not a GQ kind of guy. I just don’t think of it. But I must.

Edit/Flow/Length

I think my video lengths are pretty good. They seem to average between 5-15 minutes, depending on the subject. Long enough to warrant a click into it, but not so long a viewer is scared of the time-investment.

I also like the way my editing is coming along. It’s a learning process and I’m mostly happy with the progression of my skills. I do need to still watch other’s videos with an editor’s eye, so I can catch small ideas for improvement. But this should be an “evergreen” thing that I never stop doing.

Like I mentioned above, flow needs to be improved. The way stories and sub-stories are cut together. How music can make a transition as much as a screen fade. This is a never-ending quest, and I’m not unhappy with my current level of skills. But I’m also impatient. I would offer myself this one piece of advice right now — stay in the moment and take your time. No rushing. Look at the edit as a creative process and enjoy the ride.

Calls To Action

What is a CTA, you ask? Anything that pops up on the screen and tries to get the viewer to do something. An invitation to subscribe. Something to read quickly to support the verbal story. Some kind of text. It needs to be subtle and not intrusive, and it needs to fit into the flow. I personally am not a fan of forcefully asking the view to subscribe, click “like”, “ring the bell” and all that jazz. Even if it’s “YouTube Dogma”. If a viewer likes what I have, they’ll respond. Begging takes away from the story, IMHO.

What I’ve been doing lately is using two types of CTAs: Major and Minor.

The major displays are two-line animated titles that set a stage. One or two at the beginning to state my name, the channel, the title, etc. They are meant to be noticed and if they take away a little from the narrative, so be it.

Minor ones come in two flavors. One is a boxed caption at the bottom of the screen. Smaller font, they are meant to offer additional info. To give the viewer something to do while listening, but not to take away from what they’re listening to. I also use “breakaway” titles, a sudden black box with white lettering when a combination of text and spoken word is needed. These are like cutting away the music to capture attention, and oftentimes are exactly the words coming from my mouth. They are highlights, or exclamation points.

Overall, CTAs (to me at least) are like music. They add to the melded flavor of the video, are informative, and their absence makes the video feel raw and missing something. They need to happen during long sequences of sameness, if only to break up that sameness and keep the viewer fully mentally occupied.

Equipment/Settings

I’m not looking for cinematic productions. But I’m also not happy with the visual quality of what I’ve done thus far. I too often don’t think about lighting. Or sound bounce. Again, I’m not looking for perfectly color-corrected shots, but I do want them to look better. Sound is coming along, I think I have the right equipment for that. But lighting is something I really need to work harder on. Indoors and out.

I also need to experiment more with framing. Long shots. Establishing shots. Cutaways and everything else that would keep the visuals interesting. Again, I don’t know what I don’t know. So I need to explore and learn. Watch other’s videos with a director’s eye. See what feels nice to me and try them out. Which is why they say to make a few hundred videos before you start thinking of yourself as a creator. It’s that practice and experimentation that make one grow.

The Final Product

Season 0 was everything on my channel from “before”. Just junk.

Season I was my first attempts at The Pirate Wanderer. And they suck on all levels. Every single thing one could do wrong, I did. Literally, every single thing. I’m keeping them on the channel because if you don’t remember history, you are doomed to repeat it. And because I want to show viewers my progression.

Season II is where I am as of this writing. I have little in the way of story opportunities and I’m learning. And trying to apply that learning. I would consider every video in this playlist to be a “work in progress” that might warrant a C- on it from a decent professor. I keep telling myself that this is OK. I’m allowed C-minus work because I’m still in the YouTube 101 classroom. In the back, where it’s hard to hear. I hate being here, but no one is born with the ability to play guitar like Joe Bonamasa, right?

Season III is after we get to Barcelona. Where I will have many more story opportunities. And locations. And hopefully enough skills to start showing them all well. I have no idea how long this season will last. At some point I’ll create a ‘IV’, but only because I feel like my videos have reached the level of “Home Chef”. Maybe not quite 5-star-restaurant worthy, not quite home-cook, but good enough to be proud of and to give my audience a great experience. And that date depends completely on my patience and growth. Which means at some point I’ll write another one of these, still critical, but less so. And I’ll be proud to talk about my accomplishments.

One day. Perhaps sooner than I expect. I hope.

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Captain Rick
Our dear Cap’n has been sailing the seas of life for 50-some years. Somewhere between impulsive and a stick-in-the-mud, he finds himself embarking on journeys that will either solidify his wandering ways, or give him a nervous breakdown. Come join him on his new adventures in moving pictures on YouTube at https://youtube.com/ThePirateWanderer.

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