How To MacGyver Your Sketchnote Video Setup

This is a guest post from Austin Louis, co-host of our series Visual Conversations

Verbal to Visual has two meanings.

The first refers to a translation of information from verbal to visual.

The second meaning, however, refers to a spectrum from verbal to visual where you get to decide how verbal and how visual you’d like your work to be.

The two meanings of Verbal to Visual, pulled from our course An Introduction to Visual Note-Taking.

Usually, I fall somewhere closer to the verbal side of this spectrum when creating my visual notes.

This week, I decided to play around with this spectrum and challenged myself to venture out of my usual sketchnote comfort zone.

I wanted to know:

  • What could happen if I travel all the way over to the visual side of the spectrum?
  • Could I smash together two skills I’ve been developing to make something new?

And so I began.

The Idea

Two skills that I’ve been working to develop lately are 1) creating sketchnote videos; and 2) illustration. I figured these would be two that I could smash together quite nicely without too much frustration…

I was wrong – frustration certainly ensued.

My plan was to make a timelapse art video of an illustration set to music.

“Great,” I thought. “Let’s get started.”

First step was finding a place to film. I had no quiet studio to shoot in, no tripods, no lighting, no camera, nothing. But instead of seeing this as a burden, I saw it as an opportunity to try out my MacGyver survival skills. Could I throw together a makeshift studio to get this video done?

I scrapped together all the materials I could find – a couple desks, a chair, some duct tape, a pile of books, some string, my iPhone, some hanging lights, a sketchpad, and a sharpie. Stumbling into a nearby classroom, I began a long process of trial and error, attempting to answer some critical questions.

How would I film my drawing from above?

I decided my iPhone would provide me with all the filming power I would need. But I needed some height. I stacked up books like I was playing a game of Jenga!, deciding after the 4th or 5th topple that books alone would not be enough to suffice.

I took two adjustable desks and cranked one up to its limit while lowering the other far below it. I learned that if I overlapped them just right I could position the phone right above the paper. More books were placed on top of the upper desk to get the height right.


Height and position were now solved, but the phone needed to be stable. I cut a hole in a tissue box in an attempt to make a sort of holding case. This fell through. I tried a slab of cardboard taped to the top book. This flopped as well. I decided to arch the books a bit, carefully displacing the weight towards the bottom, while sandwiching my phone between two heavy textbooks. This worked!

Where would I get proper lighting?

Lighting has been my kryptonite so far with sketchnote videos.

It’s a tough problem to solve, especially when you’ve got your equipment casting a shadow over the thing you’re filming. Last time I made a sketchnote video, I used one light – an iPhone flashlight – set very close to the thing I was filming. This time, I wanted to use at least two lights.

I took two paper lanterns that were already in the classroom and dangled them from the ceiling near my sketchpad. Fine-tuning their position required a bit of duct tape to shorten the cord length and some string to drape them in place just so. This would work, for now.

What would I draw?

I had only ever made one sketchnote video before, but that one was not a time-lapse video. Instead, I used hand-sketched note card slides that I had drawn off camera and slid them in and out while recording.

This time, however, it would all have to be recorded live.

That was surprisingly intimidating. When I do illustration, I usually draw shapes and lines and curves and points and whatever I feel like drawing in the moment – it’s very improvisational. However, as soon as I saw the camera pointing down at my paper, there was a feeling of perfectionism and a worry that everything had to look great. I had to remind myself to let go and enjoy the drawing process.

So, I began to draw – and those thoughts of perfection raced back into my head. I reminded myself that this was my first attempt ever – I could be a beginner and own it.

I could let this be imperfect.

How would I edit this?

When I finished my illustration, the video was over an hour long. I wanted the video to be short enough to post on Instagram, so it had to be a minute or less.

What I thought would be a nightmare to edit turned out to be quite simple. I chopped off some unneeded bits at the beginning and end of the video and then used a time stretch function to shrink the video to a minute long. To add music to the video, I used a site called Free Music Archive.

And that was it. My video was complete!

What did I learn?

Next time, I would do some things differently:

  • As fun (and frustrating) as it was to throw together a makeshift studio, I don’t want to go through that process every time I shoot a sketchnote video. A few friends have let me borrow some tripods which should make setting up a whole lot easier next time.
  • When I recorded the video with my iPhone, the orientation was not set to landscape mode. This meant that when I brought the video into the editing software, the video was on its side. It seems like it would be an easy fix to just rotate the video and fix the issue – but it’s not. Trust me, it’s a whole lot more trouble than it seems. Next time, I’ll tilt my phone up to double check it’s right side up.
  • Lighting is still something that I’m learning. Every time my hand moved on the page, the phone adjusted the brightness for the difference in lighting. Next time, I would lock my phone’s light settings to avoid the automatic adjustments in brightness.

Your Turn

So, you’ve seen how my challenge went. Now, I’ve got a few questions for you:

  • What does your sketchnote comfort zone look like?
  • What’s one thing you could do this week to step outside of this comfort zone?
  • What skills besides sketchnoting are you developing?
  • How might you smash together these skills to make something new?

Spend some time thinking about those questions, and then act on your responses!

While you tackle that, I’ll be preparing for another sketchnote video project in collaboration with TEDxMtHood.

Stay tuned,



Want To Dig Deeper?

If you’re new to the idea of sketchnoting and excited to develop more visual thinking tools, I think you’d enjoy our foundational course An Introduction To Visual Note-Taking.

If you’d like to make sketchnoted videos like the one you saw here, we’ve got a course for that too! Check out How To Make Sketchnote Videos.

If you’re an educator interested in bringing visual note-taking into your classroom, check out Sketchnoting In The Classroom.

And if you want to create new personal and professional opportunities by sharing the authentic journey of your skill development online, check out Learn In Public.