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Top 5 Things I've Learned about Real Estate Cinematography

Published: 28/11/2019

Years before I picked up a DSLR, I was working with video. I worked in a commercial studio in 1998/99 where I first learned how to edit, and in the early 2000’s I was making short films with my friends, along with the occasional wedding and event video. I produced a super low-budget documentary about midwest graffiti culture with my camcorder around that time as well.

I stopped doing video until the 5D Mark II came out and it re-ignited my love for it, so I began creating promotional videos and mini-documentaries which really helped me learn the art of film-making.

In 2013, I made my first real estate video and since then I have made hundreds… but this year, I finally realized that my videos have not really improved much since I first started. While my equipment is better and my skill set has improved, there was just something missing from my work that I couldn’t pinpoint.

People have been posting amazing videos. A lot of them are flashy and dynamic and have a lot of effects and look great overall, but I wasn’t finding myself inspired by them. Then I started noticing the work of Nick Swartzendruber from Drone Cowboys. There was something about them that sucked me in every time I watched it. They weren’t flashy or full of effects. They were slow-paced. They had a theme and they had a color to them that felt real. They told a story. In short, they were cinematic.

While I knew technically how he pulled this off, I wanted to learn how he actually made them. I wanted to learn what his thought process was and pretty much anything I could. I was becoming tired of the video work I was doing and wasn’t really serving my clients by making work that I wasn’t proud of, so I wanted to reach out to him and start asking some questions. But I knew from experience that I couldn’t just learn things by asking a few questions here and there; I needed to immerse myself in it if I wanted to really change my approach to video. I knew others felt the same, so I thought that maybe making a course would be the best approach.

I wrote down every question that I could possibly think of and spent a lot of time digging through the Facebook groups to see what questions everyone else was asking and started to put together a curriculum. On September 18th I reached out to Nick about the idea and less than 1 month later, I was in California for 4 days filming and learning everything that I could.

Here are the top 5 things that I learned during those 4 days as it relates to Real Estate Cinematography:

  1. Every home has a story, no matter the size. You have to ask yourself how a person would navigate and utilize a space. When they walk inside, where would their eyes first go? What decor would stand out? I have always just documented the space and never really paid attention to these types of details.
  2. Your pacing should match the lifestyle of the home. If I am shooting a cabin in the woods, I will probably opt out of party music. If I am shooting a condo in New York City, I will likely avoid country music. I have always just picked the music that I like regardless of the property; usually an ambient / modern soundtrack.
  3. Use people to motivate camera movements. Often times, higher-end real estate videos have models or actors in them to give a perception of the type of lifestyle a buyer could have. Instead, use people to help navigate the viewer throughout the scene. For example, we shot a difficult front exterior that was blocked by landscaping and shrubbery so we couldn’t get a good shot of the front of the house. Instead, Nick used multiple shots of smaller details of the front of the house and used people to navigate through the front of the home which painted a much better picture of what the front of the home actually looked like without showing it.
  4. Keep the viewer engaged by interrupting patterns. Strategically using different angles, focal lengths, and even different scenes to keep a viewer engaged will give you longer view times because the video is simply more interesting. My go-to flow for a property video is to start with aerial shots, ground view of the front of the home, walk through the house showing every room, end up in the backyard from the ground, finish with aerials, done. This is informative and does give a thorough walk-through of the home, but everyone kind of knows what to expect with these and there is no reason to watch more once they have seen the exterior because people definitely judge a book by its cover. There are other videos where it is just incredibly hard to understand the flow of the home because the clips are just scattered everywhere. The challenge with these is that while they look cool, our brains have a hard time making sense of them. For example, start with a detail shot inside the home teasing the viewer of what is to come if they stick around, then go to an aerial shot, followed by a tighter aerial shot, followed by a reveal from the ground, followed by another aerial shot, etc.
  5. Show the room as someone SEES it, not how they walk through it. You can still do a walk-through video, but instead, try to make a video that focuses on how people's eyes will move throughout a property depending on the room they are in versus how they would walk through it. For example, when you walk into a home, do you notice the room first or the floor to ceiling windows overlooking a canyon first? Or, when a person walks into a particular kitchen, do they look at the room first, or do they notice the red knobs on the Wolf range first? What do they notice next? Think about these things as you are filming and editing a room and assemble the video with that in mind.

There are so many more things that I have learned while creating this course, The Art of Real Estate Cinematography, and I look forward to sharing more with you soon. You can sign up to be notified of its release at Pre-launch is coming soon with a special discount attached for the early birds!

17 comments on “Top 5 Things I've Learned about Real Estate Cinematography”

  1. HI PFRE,

    Do you have a link to the video with the tight front shot you mentioned in point #3? I found drone cowboys website and youtube but couldn't find that video there, it looks like he doesn't post a lot of his videos there, I wonder if they are hosted somewhere else

    Here are links I could find
    Drone Cowboy Youtube
    Drone Cowboy Website

    James Campbell

  2. The post starts out with the right approach: "Every home has a story ..." Why not tell that story with an intelligent voice-over that tells buyers what they're looking at and describes the home's comparative advantages?

    You can't select music that won't annoy at least some of your audience, and are likely to select music that will irritate most of it. Why would you include music?

    Real estate video won't become widely adopted until it takes advantage of video's strength as a show-and-tell medium.

  3. @Joe - fair point. I probably should have also included my distinction between cinematography and video. I think you make choices about everything, including music, based on the story you are trying to tell, not based on a stylistic preference alone. The thing is, I don’t equate cinematography to creating informative videos. Making informative videos with no music could certainly be a decision that is made based on a certain property. When it comes to cinematography, I don’t know that there should be a definitive principal about whether or not to make those specific decisions since each property is unique and may require a different approach.

  4. @Jordan - My take is that you make choices based on the preferences of the intended audience, i.e. home buyers. Technique doesn't engage an audience; informative content does.

    I see very little attention, if any, paid to audience preferences on this site.

  5. @Joe - Fair enough. I don't think that you are wrong - I think we are talking about two different things. You are talking about making informative real estate videos to help sell a home. I am talking about making cinematic films using homes regardless of whether or not someone buys them. Don't get me wrong, 95% of my videos are simply walkthroughs and informative in nature. This article was prompted because I wanted to be more creative with my work, and these are some of the things that I took away that I could apply to get me there.

  6. @Jordan Powers, thanks for the reply. To Joe - the video should be more entertaining than educational. If you don't catch viewers attention in the first 30 seconds they will never watch the rest of the video.

  7. @James, I've made no effort to be entertaining in any of my more than 4,000 real estate videos at YouTube. They've drawn over 13,000 subscribers (gains and losses all the time), more than 10.5 million views - and an audience that watches them well beyond 30 seconds.

    Buyers and renters watch real estate video for information, not for entertainment. They don't care about the production values and "artistic" considerations that PFRE commenters are obsessed with. If anything, they're irritated by what's touted for best practices here.

    Bonus: it's a lot easier to inform people than it is to entertain them.

  8. @Joe - You should, and obviously will, continue do what works best for you. This is all about a personal preference. I prefer to make a better product that is more fulfilling to me and aligns with my brand. My goal is to film LESS videos at a higher price point all across the country and I want it to be something that I offer for my architectural clients. If the agent just wants an informative video - fine. They can take my couple hundred dollars and I'll be on my way. However, I, and many others, are trying to make something better that will ultimately allow me to sell at a better price point. Your YouTube video stats are impressive, but I am not really all that concerned with quantity and have zero desire to produce that kind of volume. Also, the "artistic" considerations that we PFRE commenters are "obsessed" with are a clear indicator that there is at least some segment of this community that is concerned with making a more creative product versus just pumping out a standard informative walkthrough video. Again - I don't think that you are wrong in your approach. It is a business and you are doing well, obviously. I am simply stating that for me, that isn't good enough anymore. I want to make something better than what I have been making - not by adding speed ramps, transition zooms, or any other trendy gimmicks.

  9. @James - by the way, also checked out your website. If you ever need someone to come out and make a video for you in the Hollywood Hills, let me know! lol.

  10. Great post, Jordan! It's important to distinguish basic video that some have noted vs. the creative cinematography that you're proposing. I think your video is going to be a big hit!

  11. Great post Jordan. I really like your last point "Show the room as someone SEES it, not how they walk through it". This requires slowing down a bit, observing the space, or sort of "taking it in". A good reminder and common theme from the PFRE conference.

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