Have you ever taken a trip, shot a lot of video, and not know what to do with it when you got home? I have, and it’s not fun. One solution is to make a video montage set to music. It’s a fun way to put things together when there isn’t a script or obvious story. In March of 2019 I led a photo tour to Japan and enjoyed shooting video every time I saw something interesting. When I got home, I had the daunting task of turning hours of unscripted footage into something short, coherent, and entertaining.
In this post I’ll share the step-by-step process I followed to go from chaos to the video above. To keep things focused, I won’t delve into technical details about cameras or editing software. The software side is just as crucial and daunting, but today I’m just going to cover the creative side of movie making. Hopefully, this post will give you some tricks you can use to make something fun the next time you have travel footage.
I shot a lot. I knew I wanted to make a lively video, so I took a lot of short shots. I had my eye out for colorful, active situations that quickly conveyed a sense of the culture, color, and beauty of Japan. I tried to catch many of the same qualities I look for in my street photography: gesture, mood, composition, authenticity, a clear subject, and good lighting.
Beyond wanting the video to be lively, I purposely kept an open mind about what I shot. I wasn’t coming to Japan with preconceptions and was open to whatever I discovered. I just shot everything that interested me and tried to shoot it beautifully.
To make the shots from looking static I kept the camera moving by panning, zooming, walking, raising, or lowering the camera while taking shots. See my post on Shooting Travel Video for more ideas.
Sound: I knew I was going to set the video to pre-recorded music, so I didn’t bother trying to capture good sound in my shots. I was just going to delete all the recored sound when I got home. But I did sometimes use the Voice Memos app on my iPhone to record sounds to add to the background later; crowds, trains, animals, cooking sounds, cafe ambiance, etc.
Find the best shots
When I got home I had over three hours of video. It was daunting, trying to turn an overwhelming hodgepodge into something coherent.
The first thing I did was watch all of it. That was time consuming but essential for getting a feel for what I had and to get rough ideas about how to put it together.
Next, I made a collection of the best shots. I still didn’t have a layout in mind, but I knew whatever I was going to make, I was only going use the most successful shots. I wouldn’t include any shot that wasn’t awesome.
To pick the best, I looked for interesting gestures, mood, culture, camera motion, and of course good composition and lighting. Sometimes, there was just one second of great stuff in a shot, but it was worth keeping for that one second.
I wanted the final video to be between three and five minutes. I had to dump most of the three hours I shot, so I was very picky about what I put in the ‘best’ pile.
Gather shots into chapters
Making a video from random shots is a lot different from shooting with a script or story in mind. I don’t want a video that pointlessly jumps between random shots, I want something meaningful, so I have to discover the themes or stories in what I have.
This is a fun stage. I enjoy trying to identify how a trip affected me, what meaning might be speaking to me through the footage, and what patterns or ideas repeat in the footage. I looked through my collection of best shots to see whether I could identify themes. Were there stories hidden in my footage? What do the shots mean? What was my experience? What did I learn? How did it change me?
From what I had, I recognized several themes: the energy and craziness I felt in the night clubs and high-tech museums, the feeling of being lost and overwhelmed in a huge crowded city, an admiration of the ancient temples, the Japanese love and respect for nature, my fascination with Japan’s pop culture, and finally the sublime experience of cherry blossom season. I ended up sorting my best shots into these six groups. I’ll refer to these groups as ‘chapters’ from now on.
Develop the chapters
These chapters make up the major divisions of the final video. I worked on one chapter at a time, night clubs for example, and rearranged the shots to try to find an order that conveyed what I felt.
I experimented a lot here, trying out many different orders for the shots, getting excited when I found patterns, things that felt like they belonged next to each other, or the hint of a story. I started to turn the chapter into something that flowed by putting shots in the best order I could think of. As a structure evolved it became more obvious what didn’t fit in and could be removed.
I started thinking about what music I would use. Knowing the feel of the music helped me select shots. I planned to use lively music, so I excluded shots that were too slow or long.
Here are some things I considered when creating an order for the shots in a chapter.
Start and end strong
It’s important to hook the viewers in quickly, excite them, and let them know a story is starting. I started and ended with my strongest shots. After that, I worked from the front, or back, and added a shot that went well next to what was already there.
In my opening ‘night clubs’ chapter, I placed contrasting shots next to each other to make it feel crazy and jarring, switching quickly between blue and red and between light and dark.
In the ‘cherry blossom’ chapter I strung shots together that had similar lighting and color. I avoided mixing bright and dark shots. This made for a smooth flow from one shot to the next.
Motion from shot to shot can also be smooth or jarring, depending on what I want to accomplish.
For the tulips in the ‘nature’ chapter, the camera was usually moving from right to left, helping it feel like the shots were connected.
In the ‘cherry blossom’ chapter I created consistency by stringing together shots where the camera was moving forward down a path.
Shape and subject
To make shots feel connected I often paired them so the point of focus of one shot was in the same location as the next, like the girl and Godzilla above. This made the video easier to follow since everything was in the same location on the screen.
Cuts between clips feel more smooth and harmonious when they are between shots of similar scale. For example, grouping closeups with closeups, and not mixing distant landscapes in the middle of those closeups. In the images above, besides the similar scale, there is also the benefit of similar shapes and gestures.
There are many other ways to join patterns and create meanings by pairing shots. Shots take on different meanings depending on what’s next to them, that is part of the magic of editing. See what you can discover while editing.
Tighten each chapter
My next goal was to remove everything that didn’t work from each chapter.
I watched a chapter over and over and rearranged shots to make it smoother. I asked myself whether it flowed well. Should the order be changed? What could I delete? Were there unwanted contrasts of brightness, motion, or meaning? Am I conveying what I want to say?
I cut off beginnings or endings to trim shots and to get them down to just the best part. I trimmed off shaky sections, cut out moments with distractions such as bright lights or stray people. I tried to reduce each shot to one cool gesture or moment.
Besides cutting out bits of junk, I used another tricks to make the footage more useful: I increased the speed of some shots to make them more interesting or better match the feeling of the chapter. I zoomed shots, like this hedgehog, to crop out uninteresting parts from the frame, and I repositioned the hedgehog on the screen to help it better match the rabbit from the previous shot.
Several times I watched my edit with the sound turned off. This gave me a better understanding if everything was working visually. Sound can sometimes fool you in to thinking things are working when they’re actually not.
After this latest round of cutting out weak parts, and tweaking the order, I had good rough cuts for each chapter.
Order the chapters
With rough cuts of each chapter ready, my next step was to put them in order.
Sequencing chapters is a lot like sequencing shots. I started strong to grab the viewer’s attention, finished strong, and created variety along the way. I tried out many different orders for the chapters to see what worked best.
To hook the viewers, I kicked off the video with the energetic, crowded, colorful night clubs chapter. Then to provide contrast, I followed that with the gray, open, city spaces chapter.
I put the slowest chapter, the cherry blossoms, just before the end, then contrasted it with the fastest section of the whole video to create a burst at the end.
At this point I also settled on the music. I studied the music I picked to identify transitions and sections so I could put the chapters in an order that went well with the music. For example, I paired the slow nature chapter with a slow section of music and the long cherry blossom chapter with a long section.
The final video was starting to emerge. All the chapters were in order and talking to each other.
Cut, cut, cut
With all the chapters in place, I tightened it up again. This was similar to tightening up each chapter, but I needed to do it again now that the video was speaking as a whole.
I watched the video over and over, end to end, to get a feel for what was working. Now that I was telling the whole story, certain shots started to stand out as weak, too long, too short, in the wrong order, or not helping the mood. There’s no simple rule for telling whether something works. I just needed to watch and see what felt wrong. I fixed all that, then watched it over and over, and fixed things until nothing stood out.
At this point I ended up with about twice as much footage left as music. I needed that because I planned to cut a lot out when I worked to match the music.
Match the music
It was finally time to align the images perfectly to the music. This took a long time.
I like it when every shot starts on a beat of music. It makes it feel like the images and music belong together and the video has tempo and drive. When things don’t line up it can feel sloppy and confusing.
I started with the very first shot of the project, trimmed it to end on a beat, then trimmed the next shot to end on a beat, then built up this way on down the line. Sometimes, instead of trimming, I slightly sped up or slowed down a shot to make it fit the beat.
To provide variety in the pacing I varied the lengths of shots, making some last several beats, and mixing groups of short shots with long shots. In some chapters, every shot lasts just a couple beats, in other chapters, to slow the pace down, the shots last for several beats.
It makes the video a lot more entertaining if gestures line up with flourishes in the music. To do this I first lined up this girl’s finger with a jump in the music, then cut the shot to end on a beat.
I had to make sure my chapters ended at the same spot as their corresponding section of music. This usually meant deleting some shots so the chapter was short enough to end when the music changed. If I didn’t have enough shots to reach the end of the music, I added shots or made shots longer.
After lining up one shot at a time to beats, and making sure chapters end with changes in the music, I was at a stage where the video matched the music perfectly and ended when the music ended.
I used video effects to transition between shots. This helped tie things together or create visual separation.
I used transitions sparingly, since they are easily overdone and can look amateurish and distracting. I like transitions that feel natural and don’t draw attention to themselves.
Within most of the chapters I didn’t use any transitions, just straight cuts, because I wanted the video to be fast and crazy. In the flower chapter, I faded each shot of tulips in to the next to create a smooth flowing feeling.
To mark the beginning of each chapter, and let the viewer know that something new was about to happen, I used strong obvious transitions. For example, to kick off the temples chapter I turned everything to white between the food and the woman in white makeup, and to kick off the nature chapter I exploded into tulips from a flowered kimono.
Adjust the color
At this point I fine-tuned the color of the shots, i.e., I developed the look of each shot so it popped. A shot at a time, I adjusted the look by changing the exposure, white balance, contrast, shadows, highlights, and saturation.
Doing it at this late stage saved me from spending time tweaking shots that I didn’t end up using. It also allowed me to tweak the color and brightness to create similarities, or contrasts, between adjacent shots. For example, I made some shots similar in color and brightness, so they flowed together more smoothly.
For the chapter full of crowds, I desaturated nearly all of it, to tie the shots together and enhance the feeling of being part of a large nameless mob.
Add sound effects
I added a couple sound effects. I like how they made shots feel related, and added surprise and variety. The random sounds I recorded in Japan, with my iPhone, came in handy.
I added a subtle crowd noise behind all the shots in the crowd chapter to help everything feel part of a whole. I also added a sizzle sound for some cooking shots, and of course the Godzilla roar.
To polish it off I added text at the start and end, so people know what the video is about and who made it.
There are many ways to make a travel video. The strength of this music montage technique is that it lets you go on your trip with an open mind and come out with something fun. The weakness is that the sense of story arc can be weak. If you’re making a video, why not try something new, like adding a voice over, or writing a story first and fitting the video over that instead of music? There are many possibilities, which is why I enjoy video so much.
I hope you can watch my video now with new eyes and start to see the techniques I used. I recommend watching movies and travel shows to study what they are doing and come up with your own way of telling a story or sharing your footage.
If you’re looking to go deeper, I found these books and articles especially useful.
- The Visual Story – Bruce Block
- The Art of the Cut – Keast, Greg
- In the Blink of an Eye – Walter Murch
- Soviet Montage Theory
- Documentary Editing: Principles & Practice – Jacob Bricca, ACE