Best practices in creating thrilling and engaging video content ON A DIME

We all know that video content is the current/next big thing. Its really part of the natural evolution from painting, to photography, to video as a way for people to connect, be entertained, sell products and build internet-celebrity-feifdoms.

The issue is: you could paint with a peice of paper, and take pictures with a camera — but making a good video involves lots of tech and moving parts. By the time you figure out how to hold a camera steady, edit footage, and overlay music, you could be hundreds of hours (or dollars) in the hole.

How do you make sure that your time, effort (and perhaps capital) are well spent? Lets meet my friend Josh Bernhard, the creator and producer of the hit independent show – Pioneer One. (if you have been under a rock and have not yet seen this award-winning peice, you are in for a treat.

We’re also going to meet my friend Nick Buzzell – the founder and head of NBTV Studios ( and a veteran producer of shows, music videos, web series, features, interactive content and more.

First, the design step. Who is going to watch this? How long should it be? What all should you think about before picking up the camera?

Josh is the consummate artist. Driven by passion to tell stories, move people, and to defy the establishment while he’s at it.

Josh says:

I’ve always wanted to make a TV show. Before packing up and moving to LA to work as a barista for 5 years, I decided to see if I could actually do the work I wanted to do independently. Internet distribution isn’t a new idea and everyone knows how much more accessible digital filmmaking tools are today. There’s such a thing as super-low-budget indie film, but there hasn’t really been a truly independent drama series, in the mold of a regular series for television. Having distributed my first feature The Lionshare through and their network of BitTorrent sites, and seeing how it caught on, I thought it would be the perfect way to put out a series.


The idea for the show itself probably came from a mix of Josh’s interest in Cold War tensions and the similarities it held with things as modern as the healthcare debate in the US. He found it interesting that when people have a strong ideological worldview, they could completely disregard facts when they don’t fit with it. If people will flip out about health insurance, how would they react when a Cold-war era cosmonaut appears from space (or Mars!) Spoiler alert: They flip out.

Nick Buzzell, has often been on the other side of the table – taking pitches from would-be storytellers to see if he wants to take the raw idea and create the kinds of videos that win award and acclaim all over the country.

The people involved with a project are just as important to him as the pitch itself. Open-minded, flexible, non-traditional people who are just willing to get it DONE. Sound familiar? Great content creators are entrepreneurs.

Then, you have to write. Yes, even if it is “reality” content.

Josh knew he was going to create an epic, six-part season for Pioneer One – which also means that he knew what was going to happen in each episode, how the characters would arc, where it ended, what was revealed, and a lot of what was said, before filming a minute. Partially because this helps keep all the story points in mind, but more realistically because once you start shooting (especially if trying to minimize costs) you will be pulled into editing and production, and will not have the time or energy to play with the words.

While you might always discover things over the course of production or conversations with sponsors/advertisers, remarkably little changed for Josh and Pioneer One.

As once put (paraphrased) by the writer J. Michael Straczynski (The ChangelingBabylon 5): Imagine a mountain range from afar. Imagine getting closer and closer to it. Certain details begin to appear that you didn’t see before. What appeared to be one giant peak from a distance is actually one peak behind another. It’s the same mountain range that you saw at the beginning but your perception of it changes as you go through it. You discover a short cut that wasn’t apparent at the beginning.

Nick Buzzell often finds people trying to fit their story to a format, rather than the other way around. Today, you don’t need TV to create viewership or advertising revenue — content is king. Why make TV content that has to be in fixed half hour blocks when the web has no rules? If you saw AMAZING content that was five minutes long, will you remember that it was hilarious and entertaining? Or will you be upset that it wasn’t in a 30 min format?

People often think that celebrity personalities are the answer when a show concept isnt taking off. While its true that they can bring some “mainstream” viewership, there’s only real value if their character works. For example, compare the difference in show quality between ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians‘ (real characters and drama have led to multiple seasons and spinoffs.) vs ‘The World According to Paris’ (poor viewership, and general lack of entertainment)

Josh adds that famous people generally don’t come for free. When working quickly and on a tiny budget like Pioneer One, they worked outside of the SAG and wouldn’t really have been able to afford the minimum day-rate. Its the difference between operating a union-run factory and an independent one.

Finally, you have to shoot/edit/produce it

Once you have your idea, your general story, and the people pulled together that are needed to make your content, you have to make it do.

Josh and his team were prepped to do all the production themselves, and got to it. They shot all the scenes, and dealt with all the moving parts. There’s people, locations and schedules, lots of money is spent to for food/travel/equipment/props, etc. It’s also the part of the process, for Josh, where you have to make the most compromises. Things that you wrote down or that you planned for can all of a sudden fall apart in a single day.

The weather can change, you can lose a venue, the cops can arrest your star. But you plan as much as you can and hope for the best.

The whole show really comes together in post-production. Editing can completely make or break the show, no matter how good the script was or how good the footage is. A single frame too long or too short can affect your perception of a moment. And we agonize over these details.

Once it’s edited together, every shot is manipulated. The color is corrected and graded (for shots to match one another, and then the overall look adjusted to create a mood or a look) and there are usually a good number of visual effects shots. But most of them are invisible—things like erasing an actor’s taped marks on the floor that were never meant to be in the shot, or digitally compositing what’s supposed to appear on a computer of television monitor. It’s a lot of work.

For Nick Buzzell, this is where heroes are made. There is a visceral and often ineffable difference between amateur-stacked-Youtube videos and the masterful works of art that create a sublime emotional response. For most people who are not already pro-level videographers like Josh, this means turning to an expert like Nick for production. While you could, ostensibly, assemble your own crew of camera, editing, effects, and more — the end-to-end perspective and alignment of working with a pro shop results in better results, and often a lower cost to the producer (that’s you).

Where is this going? What’s the future of video content?

Josh has started work on the second season of Pioneer One (again, if you haven’t seen it, you should. (

Nick and folks at NBTV are doing some interesting things are are likely to really change the way we as consumers will interact with the world around us. Much of it is too top secret to mention, but I’ll put it this way. If you had to guess what kinds of projects a major content creator was into, what would you guess? Full length feature films? Prime-time sitcoms? commercials?

Think about this: new distribution systems have gained real traction recently (Hulu, Netflix, Youtube, Vodo and more) and will lean less and less on the legacy for content. Exhibit 1: Justin Beiber. The old system is rife with kings and their rules, whereas the web is unregulated and ripe for some wild-west action. As more content creators see digital as plan A rather than plan B, lots of interesting things will happen. As brands discover that they don’t need to merely be advertisers in this brave new world, even more interesting things will happen.

New-school creatives like Josh can harness (rather than fear) the power of BitTorrent to reach an estimated audience of over 8.75 MM people. Not bad for a show that cost less than $100K, entirely raised from its audience. Much better on costs and viewership than the TV production The World According to Paris.

Closing thoughts:

Like many hit-driven industries publishing, music labels, and even venture capital – tv and movie studios tend to take lots of guesses on products that they then hope for the best on. In a given year, $5B is spent on producing TV pilots with a 1% success rate.

What would happen to the industry if it was full of people like Josh, with the entrepreneurial spirit to do the testing step with $100K and their own initiative. Would we change the game? Would we still need the industry?

Many thanks to these guys for sharing their time and insight to help me pull this together.

Josh Bernhard is the creator and writer of dramatic series ‘Pioneer One’.
Nick Buzzell is the President of NBTV Studios.

  • It’s easier than ever to make all sorts of video content. The video on the homepage of memoir place was completely done by me, a guy with no previous video experience, and is pretty decent. For those with actual training and experience, the possibilities are endless…