How to learn techniques from video, Part 3

One of the most common misconceptions of our day is the assumption that the camera tells the truth. We see so much television and movies that we become conditioned to believe what we see is all there is to it. Because “seeing is believing”, right?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

What you see in a video is never 100% what the instructor/demonstrator/performer/participant meant to show. Sometimes, he makes it so on purpose but in most cases, this happens because of the limitations of video as an information carrying medium. I’ll use my video, the one that started this whole series,  as an example

Camera angle/depth perception.

A good camera man makes or breaks what you put on the screen. There are a multitude of camera angles and all of them have a different effect on how you perceive the action:

  • Imagine we placed the camera behind my back. How well would you have been able to see the techniques?
  • Imagine we only used an overhead camera.  It’d be great to see the angle my arms move in but hard to know at what height they’re moving.

Depth perception helps you interpret the action you see:

  • How far is my fist from the pad when I start each punch?
  • What distance does it travel before it lands?

Here’s the thing: if the camera angle is not good, you’ll think my punch is either very fast or very slow. It’ll look better or worse than what you think a good punch should be. But in reality, my punch went at the speed it did, not the speed you perceived from viewing the clip.

This video explains the same thing form a different point of view but with the same conclusion: what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. Depth perception and a specific camera angle can be used to make you think a punch lands when in actuality, it doesn’t even come close.

Truth be told, you already know this. Every time you see an action movie that doesn’t get it right, the fights look “fake”. By that I mean the look of things, not the techniques used. So please no comments on how “The Matrix” kung fu wouldn’t work in real life. I already know that… ;-)

When you put a technique on video, this information applies in two different ways:

  • The camera angles you need to give good instruction are not necessarily the same as those that make the action look flashy and impressive.  Basically, it might look like crap on the screen but still be a great technique in real life.
  • If the camera angle is not optimal, you’ll miss out on some of the information and not see everything you need to form a good assessment.

Next time you view a martial arts video, try to think about these technical issues and check if they aren’t the cause of your criticism.

Assumptions

In every video, the presenter assumes you know certain things. Simply because he can’t mention the entire context of the information he’s showing. Doing so would mean he’d spend hours and hours talking about it to explain exactly what he means. That just doesn’t work in video format. It’s great for books and audio, but boring as hell on video.

So the presenter assumes you know what his goals for the video are or he’ll give a brief introduction. But he can never give you all the information you need to make a 100% accurate assessment of his performance. In other words: you have to do some work to learn something from a video.

The presenter’s job is to help you as much as he can but you don’t get a free pass. Granted, some people are terrible on screen but even then, you can still learn something if you want to. You just have to start thinking with an analytical mind and follow this rule:

For every point of criticism, find a point of praise.

Look and look again until you find something good whenever you see something you don’t like. Here’s how you can do this:

  • You’re not Ares, God of War. Start by reminding yourself you don’t know everything. You haven’t fought every fight, trained in every style, know all about all things in the universe. In fact, given the hundreds of martial arts and styles out there, you only know very, very little. This applies to me, you and everybody else. In other words, get over yourself.
  • Re-read the previous point. Put your ego aside, let go of preconceived notions and actually try your absolute best to find positive aspects to this video. Empty your cup, young grasshopper.  If your ego protests, tell it you can always say the video is total bullcrap after you give it an honest viewing and go back to your regular way of thinking. Doesn’t cost you a thing.
  • Imagine the context. Look for a situation where the technique could work: in the ring or cage, on the street, against a drunk or junkie, against a stronger or slower opponent? Think outside the box and find a place for the technique.
  • Who would benefit? Try to figure out who would be able to pull off the technique, even if you think it’s too complicated or too basic. In other words, who did the instructor have in mind when he showed the technique on video?
  • Look for similarities and differences. If you see a technique you already know, catalog the differences between your version and the one in the video. These are often much more interesting than the similarities.
  • Check the parameters. Look at the footwork, distancing, timing, body mechanics, etc. Analyze the video a separate time for each of these concepts. By viewing through a different filter every single time, you can learn more than when you just look at the whole.
  • Fix it. If all else fails and you can’t find anything positive, figure out how you would fix the technique. What would you change to make it work? To make this mental exercise even more useful, try to fix it with the least amount of changes to what is shown in the clip.

With some good will and a bit of an effort, you’ll find loads of interesting ideas and worthwhile information in videos you would otherwise discard out of hand.

Ares, God of War

Ares, aka God of War aka Not You

Feeling is believing

The one thing video can never bring across is how a technique feels and right there is another reason people spit out such negativity in their comments on Youtube. Simply because of the way something looks, similar to or different from what you do, you’ll assume it feels a certain way. That assumption can be on the mark, a bit wrong or way of base. You’ll never know 100% sure how a technique feels until the presenter in the video does it to you.

Your own experience can actually work against you and serve you some humble pie when you misinterpret how something will feel. Here are some of the slices I had to eat over the years:

  • Thinking an old school boxer’s jab would not pack the same punch as my right cross. Ouch…
  • Figuring muay Thai kicks were easy to block after watching a few sloppy fights. (Re-ouch)
  • Looking at silat entries and thinking they couldn’t work against heavy punches. (Only half a slice there, but it was a bitter one.)
  • Seeing a 140Lbs guy doing push hands and thinking I could easily break his balance. (Hehehehe. Joke’s on me.)

If you’ve trained for a while, you probably ate some of that pie too and know exactly what I mean. :-)

That said, it doesn’t have to be a different style for you to fall into this trap. Practitioners always have a wide variety of skill levels within any given style. Some will look like hell on wheels and then be easy to handle. Other guys practice and it looks like they’re not doing much. But when they make contact, it feels like a ton of bricks lands on you. And everything between these two extremes can mess you up too.

When you look at a video, remember that feeling and not seeing is believing.

Missing elements

Remember the Bob Orlando quote about training being simulation? One of the drawbacks of simulations is that you can never get all the elements of the live situation in it. There will always be missing elements, for instance:

  • You can’t simulate a real knife attack when your partner attacks you with a rubber knife. No matter how much you pretend, you know it’s not “real”.  Whatever adrenaline dump you get is likely to be only a fraction of what you’d get in the real thing.
  • You can’t practice joint breaks 100% on a partner. If you would, you’d be snapping elbows and popping shoulders constantly and nobody would want to play with you anymore. So whenever you’re working on those breaks, you’re missing out on some really important elements.
  • You can’t simulate a good punch or kick. If you’re training a “punch-block-counter attack” technique, you can’t blast your partner’s nose through the back of his skull. So how can you know what a real attackers reaction to your technique would be?

And so on, ad nauseam. This isn’t a big deal really. It’s just one of the limitations of training that you have to leave certain elements out of the equation to allow for safe and constructive practice.  We all do this when we go to class or practice on a heavy bag. You know you’re not doing “the real thing”, no matter how close you try to get to it.

This is also a limitation of videos as a medium, similar to the “Assumptions” I mentioned above: In an instructional video, you can be relatively thorough in explaining which elements are missing and why. But in a demonstration video, that’s not possible because you’re not there to explain anything, only to show it and make it look good.

A final aspect to these missing elements is this: Just because the presenter shows a technique a certain way, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to do it in other ways. It only means he chose to show that specific one and nothing else. If he would show every variation he knows, the video would be too long for it’s purpose.

So when you see that youtube video, look for the missing  elements and wonder if they were left out on purpose before you comment.

Case in point 1

In this clip, I’ll show the same technique from the original one but try to clarify it with the content from this How To ” guide.  It’s called “Grasping the bird’s tail” and comes from tai chi chuan.

Some points:

  • You can clearly see which section is instructional and which is demonstration.
  • The instructional portion is done step-by-step and I pause at every important point so you can see it well. I also exaggerate the components so the camera can pick them up better.
  • The demonstration part adds an element: speed.  As you can see, my partner has precious little time to throw a second punch because I go for his lead elbow as soon as I finish checking his rear hand.
  • If you look closely, you’ll notice I pause slightly when I do that.  The reason is my partner’s safety. I can do the technique without the pause but then I risk injuring him. Another missing element.
  • You’ll also see I sometimes hook his elbow with my fingers and other times, go for an elbow break first. That’s a personal preference, nothing else.
  • Had we placed the camera more to the side, the arm drag would have looked more spectacular. But you would not have had a good view of how I did it.

Question: I left out another element to make this technique even more effective. What do you think it is?

Case in point 2

Same thing as above, the technique from the original video with some additions. It’s also from tai chi chuan and called “Single whip”

More commentary:

  • Once again, I do the instructional vs. demonstration thing. See the previous case above.
  • For even better instruction, I should have switched sides with my partner but you already saw that part in the original clip. So I left that element out.
  • I add a missing element: impact. By striking the pad, you can see how the impact straightens out the attacker’s arm and makes the arm bar easier to do.
  • I’m still not even close to how it would work in real life though. I’m not hitting the pad full power because otherwise, it would slam into my partner’s face. His ear was already ringing after this short clip, so full power would feel even worse to him.
  • But it does show that if I can land that palm strike, he won’t have the opportunity to launch a second punch.
  • In the last armbar, I start putting pressure on him as I slide from his shoulder all the way to the elbow. In the previous ones, I only had light contact with his arm and only applied pressure when I got to his elbow. The camera cannot pick this up. The only visual cue you have is how he lands slightly more forward than before. But to my partner, it feels very, very different.

Conclusion:

I haven’t even scratched the surface with the explanations for these two short clips but that wasn’t my goal. The techniques aren’t important, the way you view them, how you analyze them and ultimately, the conclusions you come to, that’s what counts.

I hope this guide gave you some more insight on how videos work and how you can find useful information if you know what to look for. That was my goal in writing it. My other goal was this: explain once and for all why certain things just don’t work well on video and how what you see is not what you get. Now that I’m done, I can link to this article whenever I get another dumb, spiteful or misinformed comment on my Youtube channel.

There’s bound to be loads more of those. :-)

.

Comments

  1. It strikes me that someone who needs to search for a point of praise in a video, isn’t qualified to learn from that video. They are essentially attempting to teach themselves at that point, and you know what they say about the self-taught man… ;)

    Learning is a different goal and method than “fairly” evaluating the instructor and their presentation.

    Don’t get me wrong, you make some great points above. But I think they apply most directly to the frustrated student, who has given up and decided to become a critic instead.

    • Chris:
      It certainly applies to the frustrated student, but I think it isn’t limited to that. Practitioners can be critical not out of malice but, as I said before, lack of experience and training. That doesn’t disqualify them from learning from a video. It only means they lack some time and work in the arts, which isn’t necessarily their fault.

      I also don’t think it’s all about self teaching. I see it more as trying to learn something of value, however much or little it may be. It could be a small detail that adds to their existing knowledge. Or it could be a paradigm shift. E.g.: I remember seeing Rob Kaman lift Ernesto Hoost off the ground with his leg kick some 20 years ago. I learned many important lessons from watching that video and it triggered a search for knowledge of that technique, self-taught and under the guidance of instructors. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. IMO, solo training is all about self-teaching. If it isn’t, you’re just going through the motions.

      Learning and fairly evaluating the instructor’s techniques are different, I agree. But if the latter keeps getting in the way, none of the former will happen, which is my whole point.

      Great feedback, thanks!

  2. It strikes me that someone who needs to search for a point of praise in a video, isn’t qualified to learn from that video. They are essentially attempting to teach themselves at that point, and you know what they say about the self-taught man… ;)

    Learning is a different goal and method than “fairly” evaluating the instructor and their presentation.

    Don’t get me wrong, you make some great points above. But I think they apply most directly to the frustrated student, who has given up and decided to become a critic instead.

    • Chris:
      It certainly applies to the frustrated student, but I think it isn’t limited to that. Practitioners can be critical not out of malice but, as I said before, lack of experience and training. That doesn’t disqualify them from learning from a video. It only means they lack some time and work in the arts, which isn’t necessarily their fault.

      I also don’t think it’s all about self teaching. I see it more as trying to learn something of value, however much or little it may be. It could be a small detail that adds to their existing knowledge. Or it could be a paradigm shift. E.g.: I remember seeing Rob Kaman lift Ernesto Hoost off the ground with his leg kick some 20 years ago. I learned many important lessons from watching that video and it triggered a search for knowledge of that technique, self-taught and under the guidance of instructors. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. IMO, solo training is all about self-teaching. If it isn’t, you’re just going through the motions.

      Learning and fairly evaluating the instructor’s techniques are different, I agree. But if the latter keeps getting in the way, none of the former will happen, which is my whole point.

      Great feedback, thanks!

  3. http://Shane%20MacLaughlin says

    Nice videos, Wim. The last two are a huge improvement on the first, probably because the higher resolution squarer format allows the feet to be included in the frame without losing much of what is going on in the upper body. The rectangular mats on the floor also provide a perspective grid which helps to a large degree with depth perception issues you raise. Having static reference points in frame at all times makes the video easier to follow, particularly if you are using more than one camera angle. I tried revising a sword form a couple of years back from a picture book where the teacher was set against a white background and the camera angle occasionally changed between poses. Total brain melt material.

    I’ve used videos and reference books occasionally but only reinforce techniques or forms I’d already been taught. The problem I’ve found is you need a spectator telling you what you are doing different to the guys on-screen, so for techniques you actually need three people. You’re watching the video in the third person, but doing the technique in the first person, so in the absense of an instructor you need someone else to make the comparison and correction. If you don’t have a grounding in a similar technique, it’s damn difficult. Good fun though, in a jigsaw puzzle kind of way. Spoken audio cues covering what is difficult to pick up from the visuals simplify the puzzle somewhat.

    • Thanks Shane. The original video was part of a documentary series and never really meant to be instructional. So the angles and editing are meant to be visually pleasing instead of showing the techniques to best effect. And that was really my whole point, how these factors influence what you see and ultimately think about a video.

      Another thing you can try is filming yourself as you practice along with a video. Even if only on a cellphone camera, you don’t need HD quality. Then ,you compare the footage with the original video and look for the differences. Lots of fun. Lots of Homer Simpson “Doh!” moments too. :-)

  4. http://Shane%20MacLaughlin says

    Nice videos, Wim. The last two are a huge improvement on the first, probably because the higher resolution squarer format allows the feet to be included in the frame without losing much of what is going on in the upper body. The rectangular mats on the floor also provide a perspective grid which helps to a large degree with depth perception issues you raise. Having static reference points in frame at all times makes the video easier to follow, particularly if you are using more than one camera angle. I tried revising a sword form a couple of years back from a picture book where the teacher was set against a white background and the camera angle occasionally changed between poses. Total brain melt material.

    I’ve used videos and reference books occasionally but only reinforce techniques or forms I’d already been taught. The problem I’ve found is you need a spectator telling you what you are doing different to the guys on-screen, so for techniques you actually need three people. You’re watching the video in the third person, but doing the technique in the first person, so in the absense of an instructor you need someone else to make the comparison and correction. If you don’t have a grounding in a similar technique, it’s damn difficult. Good fun though, in a jigsaw puzzle kind of way. Spoken audio cues covering what is difficult to pick up from the visuals simplify the puzzle somewhat.

    • Thanks Shane. The original video was part of a documentary series and never really meant to be instructional. So the angles and editing are meant to be visually pleasing instead of showing the techniques to best effect. And that was really my whole point, how these factors influence what you see and ultimately think about a video.

      Another thing you can try is filming yourself as you practice along with a video. Even if only on a cellphone camera, you don’t need HD quality. Then ,you compare the footage with the original video and look for the differences. Lots of fun. Lots of Homer Simpson “Doh!” moments too. :-)

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