How to create compelling online video

This interactive music video shows what the future of video could be, allowing you to control what is happening on screen

Online video has come a long way. Distant memories of postage stamp-sized, juddering videos seem comical in an age of broadband and YouTube, where video has become just another component of myriad websites.

Plummeting software and hardware costs have also largely democratised the process of creating video – today's online star can be an individual with a camera, an experienced television veteran developing new ideas or striking out on their own in a relatively lowrisk manner, or a global corporation whose middle-management has been informed that video is the 'next big thing'.

As a web designer, it's easy to be seduced by video. Everything about YouTube excites: masses of content, great usability and oodles of interactivity. And this rubs off, with some designers trying to convince themselves that video is always the best way forward.

But, warns Fi's New York business director Jason Borbet: "Like any other element of web design, video should only be used where it's the most appropriate medium. Videos should entertain, engage, and explain concepts and stories that are too complex to be expressed through words and static pictures. If someone watches your online video and then wonders what happened to the last 49 seconds of their life, you've failed."

A tall order for success then, but that's why we're here to help. The remainder of this feature will take you through the process of creating online video, concluding with a look at what the future may bring.

Planning your video

Like any area of design, planning is essential when creating video, especially considering the potentially high costs involved when using pro level kit and a crew. "Planning is the cheapest way to make mistakes – you can try out ideas on paper and work out how to get your message across," suggests SugarSnap's Simon Burgess.

Depending on the project, such planning may involve sketches, a quality script or a detailed storyboard. "The level of preparation also depends on who's involved," adds Burgess. "Finding the right approach is vital for conveying the story to a client or your crew and production team."

Regardless of planning techniques, story is crucial: you must identify what needs to be told and what you want the audience to think. Burgess notes that it often helps if you simplify everything to a few headlines that can be placed at the heart of the communication.

The specifics of what you tell will depend on the production, but Nine Four's Nathan Pitman recommends streamlining content when working on ad-oriented video: "Think of a long video clip as a lengthy passage of text and consider its placement – you wouldn't dump 3,000 words of copy on your homepage, so don't put a video 'epic' there either. Instead consider breaking your video down into bite-sized chunks."

For those working in a more character-driven area, Hayden Black of Evil Global Corporation – the company behind online comedies Goodnight Burbank and Abigail's Teen Diary – has a couple of key tips.

Along with stressing the paramount importance of compelling characters, he suggests that, unless you're planning on releasing your video pretty much immediately, you should stay away from topicality: "There's little worse than a show already past its sell-by date before it premieres."

It's also worth noting that, although online video is on its way to becoming mainstream, it's not there yet. Therefore, as Adam Alexandroni of Outside Line says: "The internet is still seen as the frontier where you can push things further than in more traditional media, and clients are more open to new ideas." Take advantage of this while there's still time.

Lights! Camera! Action!

The shoot is often where things go wrong in video, and if raw footage isn't good enough, no pile of shockingly expensive software will put things right. Beginners make critical mistakes, messing up lighting, forgetting tripods for steady shots, confusing roles and goals and not using the best shots.

Ryan Vance, vice president, programming and production at Revision3, says you must always ensure you establish everything: "For example, show the outside of a building before the inside and start with a wide shot before you go in for close-ups – give the big picture before you go in tight."

Black agrees, but cautions that wide shots shouldn't be too lengthy: "The scope for wide shots is lost on the web and iPhone. In time, when it's popular for the general public to watch internet content on TVs, there'll no doubt be a move back to wider shots." It's also important to decide prior to shooting and sourcing equipment what kind of video you're planning on producing.

There's currently a certain cachet to 'guerrilla' video, which Vance argues is down to "people wanting to be taken where they can't otherwise go, to experience things through other people's eyes", citing the explosion in reality television.

Some argue that the proliferation of low-quality video and its gradual acceptance in mainstream media (such as mobile phone and YouTube clips being played on television news broadcasts) means image quality isn't as important as content. "You'll notice companies intentionally create viral content at a lower quality, to convey a homemade feel," says Borbet.

However, while downsampling is relatively simple to achieve using software, upsampling is not. In other words, shoot low-end video and you can't later make it look professional if that's what's required. Some also believe that the days of low-quality online video are numbered anyway. "It's easy for someone to create a video with a mobile phone, but with a website being a shop window, professionally made creative video will yield more positive results," argues Elemental account director Rachel Hawkes.

Burgess agrees: "As the quality of online video gets better and its size increases, the quality of production will become more of a differentiator." In other words, just because you're targeting the internet, that doesn't mean you should drop your standards regarding lighting, sound recording and other aspects of a shoot.