Video Training Sucks (and what we can do to make it better)

I'm just going to put it out there - the state of video training for a lot of subjects suck. The number of times I've almost fallen asleep from a lousy video tutorial or had the excitement for a new topic wrenched from me over hours of wasted watching time is beyond me. I love learning, and I'm a big fan of video training. I think there's a benefit to the medium, and the endless hours on Vimeo, YouTube or training websites means there's a market. But I think we can do better. Like, a lot better.

I'm almost always learning something - a language, an art technique or a new aspect of Houdini. I use video training for most of these as my primary source of information because I think it offers a great way to connect the thinking with the doing. For this post, I'm going to focus on Houdini because it's my domain and I think I have something to offer. But these gripes and ideas could probably be applied to other areas of interest.

And in case you think this is just a rant I've included some links at the end for video training I find highly informative, well-produced and entertaining.

What is my experience?

I've had the pleasure of assisting several people in my team either learn the basics of Houdini or improve their skills in specific areas. Because I'm balancing that with other work responsibilities, I decided the best way for me to help is provide suggestions for video training specific to the person's needs at the time. I do that by either recommending videos I've found useful in the past or doing a quick search and review. I'll watch a bunch of videos at double speed (sometimes I wish there was a 3x option) and skip through to get the gist of the level the information is being presented at and the quality of the teaching. Based on my findings, I'll make a recommendation. After the person has had a chance to watch the video and put some of the ideas into action, we'll do a review to clarify points and confirm there's been a transfer of knowledge. I think this is the right balance of passive and active learning.

This is what I'm looking for in a training video:

  • The instructor has relevant production experience.
  • The information presented is a match for the level of the student.
  • The training provides some insight into the thinking behind the decision-making process, not just the numbers to plug in or the order of operations.

And you know what? 90% of the videos out there fail these essential criteria. I've been in CG for a while now, and I'm pretty good at weeding out the bad stuff before it takes up too much of my time. But what about a student who's just starting and eager to grow their skills? They don't know any better and will spend money on '5 hours of in-depth training' that could probably be reduced to half an hour focusing on core concepts and some practice.

I feel like a lot of content lacks focus or tries to cram too much info into a single video. I get that people want to share everything they know on a particular topic, but it's not helpful to a learner who has to process, practice and reproduce the knowledge. And just like a live class, there's the possibility of instructors taking tangents which distracts from the purpose of the video.

My biggest gripe is around the why. Why is someone using a certain technique? Why are they using a specific node? Why did they choose that specific number? This last one really gets me. An instructor will either type in an amount they worked out earlier or make a statement like, "just try different values until it looks right". What is right? We should define the concept and thought process that leads to finding a useful value because the purpose of the training is to empower the learner to use their new-found skills in their work.

These are my observations on where video training falls short and suggestions for improving it.

Limit your focus.

I've already mentioned that some video presenters try to cover too much. Pointing out every knob and button isn't training - it's a product demo. Product demos have their place but don't confuse them with training. When describing a new node, try and focus on the most commonly used parameters or even better the ones that you're going to use for your example. Going through every value creates an overload of information for someone trying to grasp what they're seeing. And if you're not going to follow it up with examples of how those values are important, you're just creating a distraction.

Show what you're talking about

I've noticed a trend where an instructor will spend 10 minutes describing an idea while the video is a static view of the software UI. There's no connection between what is said and what is displayed on the enscreen. We're assuming that our explanation is sufficient when a visual representation would enhance the experience. One of the benefits of video training is the ability to use the audio and video to tell and show at the same time. I get it. It's easier to give a quick explanation. It takes time and effort to edit the video or prepare an example to convey the message better. I think we're doing the learner a disservice if we don't find a way to communicate an idea effectively.

Underlying concepts

Put the tool aside for a second and spend some time explaining an idea in a way that works for the visual medium. A great example of this was The Guerrilla CG Project videos way back when. The explanation of the difference between euler and quaternion rotations and what causes gimbal lock will be embedded in my brain forever thanks to those videos. Strip away the tool, focus on the idea and present it in a compelling way.

Take a note from your favourite cooking show

If you know that there's a section of your process that is repetitive, then cut it out. Have a file waiting in the wings that you can open to skip forward. Edit the video down to remove those times when you're waiting for a sim or repeating the same task.

Let's say I want to wrap a bunch of nodes into a simple tool. I want to create some parameters on the digital asset, which will be used as references for various parameters inside the asset. I can show how to set up the first couple of parameters. After that, skip past the rest and provide a list for the learner to implement on their own. You could also provide a before and after file so they have something to reference if they get stuck.

Cover one idea at a time

I think sometimes we try and cover too much at once because we haven't taken the time to organise our thoughts or break down what it is we're trying to convey. When teaching a subject, there are multiple aspects to it that the learner is required to understand and internalise. Order of operations, underlying concepts, specific nodes and their usage, etc. It would be better to create individual building blocks that can be learned separately but work in concert with each other. If we try and show too much at the same time, it's difficult for the learner to parse the information. Think about it this way, if I do an hour-long video, could I cut it into multiple pieces and have each piece make sense on its own?

Entertainment value

Okay, so this isn't necessary, but man would it make a difference. A lot of us are working in the entertainment industry. So why aren't our training videos entertaining? This one is a stretch, but the videos I remember years later are the ones that had some entertainment value. And if I remember the video, then I probably remember the information it contained as well. Even a little production value can go a long way to improving the learning experience. So next time try injecting a bit more personality. Connect with the person watching your video.

Video Training I appreciate

This is a sampling of what I think makes for good video training. I'd love to list more Houdini options, but in my opinion and from what I've discovered, this is it. If you think there's video training out there that meets the criteria I've mentioned above let me know on twitter, @mike_lyndon.

Applied Houdini by Steven Knipping

I recently discovered Steven's series on volumes and rigid body dynamics and the guy is killing it. He does a great job of starting from the basics and ramping up to the more advanced stuff without leaving anyone behind. Each section is broken up in a way that allows for the topic to stand on it's own. I wish there were more training like this.

Learn how to draw with Stan Prokopenko

This isn't Houdini specific, but if you're looking to improve your traditional art skills, I highly recommend Stan Prokopenko's video series for portraits, the figure and anatomy. Each video is concise, informative and entertaining. There's no fluff. It's always well presented, and Stan has brought his personality to the videos.

Basics of Digital Painting by Matt Kohr

Not Houdini specific but digital art related, Matt's videos are well thought out. He breaks things down into manageable pieces. He's precise about what he's going to cover in each video. I think his videos are a great example that an idea can be presented in a couple of minutes at most and then let the learner fill the rest of the time practising.

I'm not immune to these ideas. I've committed the same mistakes I've mentioned above. I'm trying to find a better way to teach others. You can find some of my attempts here:

RBD Design - Fracture Size

RBD Design - Timing and Weight