Shooting for the Small Screen: Do the Old Rules Apply?

When mobile video was in its infancy (a couple years back), several rules of thumb developed for getting the best results on a compact screen. With mobile video now taking off, thanks to better phones and higher-bandwidth connections, do the old rules still apply?

To find out, we turned to Tom Ellsworth, CEO of GoTV. Based in Los Angeles, GoTV is an end-to-end mobile agency that brings brands and media to mobile devices. Ellsworth has worked with a variety of top-shelf companies, helping them form a mobile strategy and integrate video with their overall campaigns.

Rule 1: Emphasize medium and close-up shots.
Does it hold? No
This was a necessary choice before smartphones, when “feature phones” were the only option, says Ellsworth. They offered screens one-quarter the size of today’s phones, and shooting and editing for that small a screen was challenging. Today’s large format phones, however, can display 16:9 widescreen video and offer perfect clarity. Shoot for them the same as you would for a television.

Rule 2: Avoid heavy pans or movements, since they’ll end up looking blurry.
Does it hold: Yes
If your viewers are using a 3G connection, quick movements can still become blurry or pixilated. Ellsworth saw this recently while watching World Cup coverage. Only 4G or Wi-Fi connections have the reliable bandwidth to support quick movements. He expects this to limitation to fade away in two years, however, with improved handsets and higher bandwidth.

Rule 3: Stick to standard definition video, since there’s no point in shooting HD.
Does it hold: Yes
If your video will be shown exclusively on mobile devices, there’s no reason to shoot in high-definition, Ellsworth says. In fact, GoTV only shoots in SD. Delivering HD video would require a much bigger stream than many of today’s phones can handle. You can’t count on your viewer having a steady 3G or Wi-Fi connection. While HD video will come to mobile devices in time, it’s not there yet. If you’re planning on reusing your footage on other devices, however, go ahead and shoot in HD so you’ll have a higher-resolution original to work with.

Rule 4: Audio quality is crucial; viewers won’t put up with poor sound.
Does it hold: 100 percent.
Audio is still incredibly important, says Ellsworth. You need AC3 audio or a stream approaching 128Kbps. With today’s high-end earbuds and the high production value content people are watching, viewers expect perfect clarity. If audio is clippy, drops out, or sounds robotic, people will shut it off. Viewers are more likely to tolerate poor video than audio.

Rule 5: Keep your work under four minutes.
Does it hold: Yes, with a caveat
Viewers will often choose longer content, but it depends what they’re doing. If they’re sampling or exploring videos online, those videos have to be short. Viewers will never sample long-form content. If they’re sitting down to watch a network sitcom, however, or if they’re renting a movie, they understand the longer length. If you’re creating videos to promote a product, keep them under four minutes.

New rule: Quality is king!
Before we left Ellsworth, we asked if he’d like to propose one new rule for mobile video creation, and that’s what he said. When you post video for mobile nowadays, you’re competing with huge libraries of well-produced professional content. That wasn’t true a few years ago, since major media companies were trying to protect their content and were cautious about what they allowed on mobile devices. Quality can take two forms. If you’re working on a well-financed project, it means using professional sets and locations so your creation doesn’t look like it was set in a garage. If your project is low-budget, it means using excellent storytelling and editing, to really make your work stand out.


Comments are disallowed for this post.

  1. Great post. I agree with everything you’re saying here. Thanks!

    Posted by Doug Flather | July 27, 2010, 8:21 pm
  2. Interesting to hear the argument about HD video – even with YouTube and Vimeo supporting HD content. Seems inevitable that the SD workflow will have the change.

    Glad to hear the argument about shot variety on mobile phones. Couldn’t agree more.

    Posted by McKenna Ewen | July 28, 2010, 10:34 pm
    • I agree with 99 percent of what was said. I would still advocate shooting in HD *IF* you archive videos or shots for later use.

      The tv stations that had a better time of it during HD startup were the ones that started shooting HD earlier, giving them a library to pull from.

      When you pull a shot two years from now, it might be nice to have it in HD.

      Shoot and save in HD, but downconvert what you share-for now.

      Posted by Jim | July 29, 2010, 5:36 pm
      • I believe quality shouldn’t be overlooked here and completely agree with you Jim.

        Image and quality are definitely key to making your web video (regardless of content) stand out.

        Like Ewen says, utilise the fact that Vimeo and YouTube are above all FREE (Vimeo with uploading size restrictions) and use them for their HD services.

        Posted by Sam Gale | August 3, 2010, 4:45 am
Subscribe to our Newsletter
email address
Online Video Playlist
Online Video Bulletin
Streaming Media Xtra
SM Europe Xtra