by Matthew Price

Explainer videos (sometimes called promo videos) are key to growing your customer base. While your logo and branding is the first impression visitors have of you, an explainer video is where you get to sell who you are and what your mission is. You couldaccomplish the same thing with paragraphs of marketing copy, but an explainer video does so in a much more engaging, streamlined and shareable fashion.

shooting a video in a kitchen
via Unsplash

As valuable as explainer videos are, they can take a lot of resources to produce professionally—resources you might not have. Not to worry! We’re about to show you how to make an awesome explainer video yourself.

What is an explainer video?

Mascot design showing a character in a lab coat presenting an idea
By h2.da

Explainer videos are informative videos, usually less than 5 minutes long, that describe what a company does or how a product works.

They are not tutorials but rather persuasive pitches that address a viewer’s pain points and make the case for how the product/process is the solution.

They can be animated or as simple as a person talking directly to the camera.

Usually, they are hosted on a business’ homepage, but they are also handy for social media ads or crowdfunding campaigns.

What makes a good explainer video?

A good explainer video is:

  • Concise
  • Easy to understand and remember
  • Personal and uplifting
  • Brand appropriate
  • An answer to why your business exists
  • Tailored to your target audience
  • As high in quality as you can manage

What it comes down to is this: a good explainer video tells a good story. It is an explanation, but it should take the viewer on a journey—your journey. It should make them care.

Now that we’ve covered what it is, let’s dive in to how to create an explainer video.

Step 1: Choose a type of explainer video

You might think that producing even a short explainer video for your business will be prohibitively costly. That’s not necessarily true. You just need to know your options.

There are many different types of explainer videos—some of which can be made with low cost equipment and software. Even with live action scenes, you can find a local production company to work with or hire a filmmaker through a platform like 99designs and get a high-quality video production for under a thousand dollars.

But before you do any of that, you’ll need to decide on what type of explainer video will work for you. We’ll walk through each option now and explain how they work and how much they cost. For the purposes of this article, we’ll lump them into three main categories, but keep in mind that each can be broken down into many subcategories and crossovers.

Animated explainer video

An animated explainer video for a roadside assistance app
By SB.D

What is it?

This broad category of explainer video includes 2D and 3D, motion graphics, whiteboard, kinetic typography and stop motion animation styles. Essentially, these videos involve moving graphic imagery, music, typography and voiceover.

Who is it for?

Animated explainer videos are great for giving businesses a friendly, colorful face. They can lighten the mood of serious topics like roadside assistance or make something dry like finance seem fun. Whiteboard and typography animations are also useful for breaking down complex topics with an engaging walkthrough.

How much does it cost?

Though your animation does not have to be overly complex, this type of explainer video typically involves the highest production value. There is easy-to-use, drag-and-drop software available for the do-it-yourselfer’s (more on that in Step 4). Just make sure you are realistic about the kind of quality you will get with this method—professional animation can be costly for a reason.

If you’re considering professional help, you’ll want to contract designer(s), possibly an art director, video producers and possibly a voice actor. Some freelancers can perform many of these roles at once, and you can use a platform like 99designs to access a pool of freelance animators. Besides all that, don’t forget to budget for incidentals like stock imagery and music licenses.

Live action explainer video

What is it?

A live action explainer video involves filming real people. The most common incarnation of this type of explainer video is a single person (usually the business owner) explaining the product/service directly to the camera.

Who is it for?

These videos show the human face behind the business, and this is great for first impressions—that is, if your company is completely unknown or nonexistent (say, if you’re pitching it on kickstarter). They are also useful for businesses that have a personal story or mission behind them. Tell that story face-to-face, and your audience will connect with you.

How much does it cost?

The budget for these videos depends on your goals. If you want something that looks like a TV commercial, know that it will require a ton of equipment, crew and money (many commercial budgets run in the millions).

But don’t underestimate the powerful effect that a business owner speaking earnestly to the viewer can have—and at a much cheaper cost. In this scenario, a lower production value can actually give your video a feeling of authenticity and personality. Just don’t go overboard—your video should still look like you put effort into it.

Screencast explainer video

What is it?

A screencast is the most straightforward type of explainer video. It typically involves a screen recording and voiceover that walks the viewer through how a product works, though it might include minimal animation in place of voiceover to support muted viewing.

An animated screencast explainer video
By Adam Bagus

Who is it for?

A screencast only works for software products. It might not be the most visually engaging way to explain a product, but it can be useful for selling a streamlined process or workflow. Other explainer videos make promises about how a product will improve your life, but a screencast gives a literal demonstration. If your product’s best selling point is its exceptional functionality, consider this type of explainer video.

How much does it cost?

It doesn’t get much cheaper than this. Your computer should have a built-in screen recorder. Besides that, you’ll need a microphone and editing software for video/audio (see the software section in Step 4). You can hire a voice actor if you want, but its not necessary as long as your own voice isn’t distracting.

Step 2: Script and storyboard your explainer video

Once you’ve decided on a type of explainer video, you can get to work writing the script and planning the visuals with a storyboard. Even if the script is only one paragraph long and the storyboard contains only one scene, getting these onto paper ahead of time will help to solidify your vision, clear up what you do and don’t need for your production, and make sure that your message is persuasive. Check out our complete guide on how to write an engaging video script.

Step 3: Pick your location

If you’re making a live action explainer video, you’ll want to find a location that is emblematic of your company. This could be your office, your factory floor, your exam room or somewhere else entirely.

No matter where you shoot, it’s helpful to employ the iconography of your profession. A lawyer should have a shelf of law books, a musician should have instruments, and a doctor should have very different instruments.

A video production of a person being interviewed in a library
via Unsplash

Just make sure the background isn’t too busy. Remember, you are the focus of your video. We’ll cover this in more detail in step 6, but for now, know that if there’s a lot going on in the background, it needs to be far away, so you can throw it out of focus.

Marketers have long known that the most interesting thing to a human being is another human. I highly recommend beginning your promo video with a close up shot of yourself. If you’re speaking, we want to be able to hear you.

So, choose a location that is as quiet as possible. And I mean quiet. Stand in the space, close your eyes and really listen. Do you hear traffic through the window? Is there a refrigerator running? Is the air conditioner humming?

All of these are issues you don’t want to deal with in the post-production phase (that is, editing). Figure out how to turn off or cut out as much of this as possible when filming.

Lastly, check the lighting. Does your space have natural light? Is it coming from above? That’s bad. Is it coming from the side? That’s better. Is it lit by fluorescent tubes? That’s the worst. Turn those off.

Now look around the room through the lens of the camera you plan on using. Is it dark? You’re going to need some lights. Is it bright? You’ll probably still need some lights. We’ll discuss lighting in more detail in Step 5.

Step 4: Gather your video equipment

digital camera
via Unsplash

Camera

You don’t need the fanciest camera in the world, since your video will most likely wind up on Vimeo or YouTube. Most still cameras nowadays shoot in high definition, which is good enough for online viewing.

There are a few key features you should have, though. First, aperture control. Simply put, the aperture is the hole through which light passes from the lens to the camera. On simpler cameras, this may be referred to as “brightness.”

You definitely want to be able to adjust the brightness setting on the camera so you can see everything clearly. More importantly, you want to be able to turn off automatic brightness. The main thing is, you don’t want the brightness of the scene to shift as you’re shooting. This will make it impossible to edit later.

The other feature is a lens that can zoom in and out. This is not a “digital zoom.” I’m saying you need actual pieces of glass that move closer or farther apart to enlarge or shrink the image. A digital zoom is the same thing as cropping the image and blowing it up. It looks awful. (And despite what CSI tells us, there’s no such thing as an “enhance” function to make blown-up images clear.)

If you’re not sure whether you’re using a digital or real zoom, check if there is an actual moving part when you zoom in or out. If not, don’t use it.

Microphone

The one item you probably don’t own but definitely need to rent (or buy) is a lavalier microphone. The built-in microphone in your camera will simply not cut it. Have you ever seen a photo of a film set, where a crew member is dangling a fuzzy, Muppet-looking thing a few inches above the actors? That’s a microphone, and that is exactly how close a microphone needs to be to hear your dialogue clearly.

A photo of a lavalier mic
via Wikimedia Commons

Check a local film rental house (most big cities have at least one), and look for a lav mic with a cord. These are tiny microphones that clip to your collar. Confirm that your camera has a mic input, and confirm the lav has the same kind of plug.

When you go to pick it up, bring your camera with you. Plug it in, and make sure it works. If it doesn’t, ask the rental agent if you’re using it correctly.

Lights

The most flattering kind of lighting is soft lighting (meaning the shadows they cast have blurry edges, rather than sharp, defined lines). Fluorescent lights are usually soft, but unless you have specialty film, fluorescents will cause all kinds of problems with your skin color, as well as flicker out of sync with your camera.

A simple, convenient way to create soft light is with a china ball. It’s basically a paper ball wrapped around an incandescent bulb. A clamp light or work light will provide a lot of light, but will also be harsh. You can solve this by hanging a thin, white sheet in front of it.

If you are shooting in a place with windows, this can serve as a light, too. Just make sure you’re filming at a time of day when the sun is not directly shining in the windows while you film. Suncalc.net will help you figure that out.

Software

For custom video production, check out Apple’s Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere and After Effects. These are usually purchased on a subscription model, but you can also find free open source editing software as well.

If custom video is beyond your capabilities, there are plenty of options for cheap or free templates. Your explainer video may not end up especially original, but software like this gets the job done in a pinch. PowToon is helpful for easy and fast animation, and it includes a stock library and a simple drag and drop interface. Vyondhas more options than Powtoon, but may require you to learn more. RawShorts has options for whiteboard animations. And finally, Adobe Spark has templates specifically designed for explainer videos.

Beyond all of these, there are many more options online, and it is up to you to do your homework. Keep in mind that hiring a video producer often negates the cost of software since they will have their own.

Step 5: Light the scene

You’ve found the location, decorated it appropriately and figured out what you’re going to say. Now it’s time to light the scene.

three point lighting
via Wikimedia

The most versatile and useful form of lighting (for a single subject who’s not moving) is Three Point Lighting. There are three basic elements, as you might have guessed—the key light, the fill light and the back light.

The key light is your main light source. The most flattering angle, typically, is pointing straight at the subject’s face, slightly elevated and a little off-center. This will, of course, create shadows on the other side of the subject’s face.

If you’re using the window as a light source, this will almost certainly be your key light.

That’s where the fill light comes in. It should be set up on the opposite side of the subject’s face, a little bit lower than the key light. It’s generally more aesthetically pleasing if the light is a bit dimmer, too; if you don’t have control of the power of the light, simply back it up a bit.

three point lighting with background light
via Wikimedia

Then, add the backlight, sometimes called a hair light. Place this behind the subject, directly across from the key light, and likewise elevated. This creates a kind of halo around the subject, separating them from the background.

Speaking of the background, once all the light is centered on the subject, it will probably appear dark. That’s okay, because you want the audience to focus on the person speaking, not the background. But if it’s too dark, like the person is just floating in a black void, you may want to add another light to the background. I recommend putting it low and at a canted angle; this will create some visual interest without just brightening the whole scene.

lighting guide
How to get the lighting look you want. Full resolution image available via digitalcameraworld.com

Step 6: Set up the shot

The center of the shot is almost always the area where viewers will focus their attention. They also tend to look at the brightest part of the frame, which is why we light the subject in a way to separate the subject from the background. And, of course, we’re drawn to human faces.

So, I recommend, when speaking directly to the camera, centering the speaker horizontally in your shot. If you choose to shoot a close-up (which should include the person’s shoulders to the top of their head), their eyes will be roughly in the middle.

Mr. Robot screenshot
Mr. Robot is about a crazy person living in a world of lies and deception. Probably not the impression you want to give of your company. Via USA Network.

A medium shot (from the waist or torso to the top of the head), will put the speaker’s head slightly above center. That’s okay—too much space between the person’s head and the top of the frame is weird. Watch any episode of Mr Robot for an example.

I don’t recommend shooting a full-body shot, unless you intend to use your full body. If you’re a yoga instructor demonstrating some techniques, great. If you’re a malpractice attorney, standing stock still from the waist down is very dull.

If you have two cameras, a common way of shooting is called “Wide and Tight.” You zoom one camera into a close-up. You place the other camera as close as physically possible, either right next to or on top of, the other camera. Zoom that one out to the medium shot. If the subject addresses the close-up camera, it won’t look too off on the medium. But check the frame to be sure.

If you want to have a little variety in your cutting by separating the cameras, remember the 30/30 rule: to cut from one shot to another without appearing strange, the angle must change by 30 degrees, or the size must change by 30%.

Unless, of course, you’re going for MTV-style jump cuts, in which case, put the cameras wherever you like. Go nuts!

If you don’t want that crazy music video aesthetic, put the cameras on tripods and don’t move them. Your hands aren’t as steady as you think they are.

Step 7: Film your explainer video

Before the subject begins, perform what we call in Hollywood “last looks.” This means, checking that the make-up looks right, the hair is in place, things like that. Look at each corner of the frame. Do you see something distracting? Remove it.

Deliver your pitch at least five times. You won’t get it right the first or second time, I promise. If you flub a line, don’t just pick it up again—it will be useless in the editing room. Instead, pause, take a breath, then back up two sentences. That should give you enough room to merge the takes together later.

Once you think you’ve given at least two solid performances all the way through, do one more, silly this time. Be goofy, ham it up, have fun. You might not use any of it, but then again, who knows?

Finally, shoot some stuff that isn’t you talking to the camera. If you’re a dance instructor, record an entire dance lesson. If you’re a graphic designer, set up a camera in your work area and film yourself designing something cool.

For example, look at the number of shots that aren’t just someone talking to the camera in this explainer video:

This gives you something to cut away to during the video. Someone delivering a three minute monologue straight to camera will get dull after 45 seconds. But if you can visually demonstrate whatever you’re talking about, all the better.

Once you’re done filming, you might be wondering what to do with all this footage you just shot. Now’s the time to edit it. Check out our post on how to edit your explainer video.

Enough explanations! Get started your own explainer video

It is possible to shoot your own explainer video and look professional doing it. It doesn’t cost a lot of money—just patience and attentiveness. It won’t look like a Spielberg movie, but it’ll be better than a selfie on your iPhone. Give it a shot and with the advice above you’ll be able to create something great.

If you want to learn more about the video production process, check out our guide on how to create a video.

And remember: if you end up deciding that you want the high-end, professional look, you can always team up with a filmmaker who knows all the ins and outs of shooting an explainer video.