By Jerry Monkman
As a photographer who spent 15 years exclusively shooting still imagery, the transition to video was a relatively easy one with regards to the visual aspects of the process. However, in the three years I’ve been producing short advocacy film projects, l have found it to be a much bigger challenge to learn the art of the interview and using the spoken word to turn some pretty pictures into a compelling story. I’m finding that there are merits to shooting both scripted projects, and unscripted interviews, but both approaches have their plusses and minuses.
Last year, I worked on a pair of projects: one was primarily scripted, and one was primarily unscripted, but both resulted in successful projects for the their respective clients. The scripted project involved creating a pair of two-minute videos for The Connecticut River Watershed Council whose goal was to convince voters in the Hartford, Connecticut, area to approve a bond referendum funding The Clean Water project, a multi-billion dollar sewer system improvement project that would reduce the amount of raw sewage entering the Connecticut River (the referendum passed by a 3-1 margin in November.) Our turn-around time was very short - 2 weeks to prepare, shoot, and edit the project - and the time span the videos would be used was also short - about two months. A scripted approach benefited the short time frames for reasons I’ll get to below.
The unscripted project involved a series of 3- to 7-minute long videos for the Society for the Protection for New Hampshire Forests campaign to stop a proposed electricity transmission line project in the state. The purpose of these videos was to build awareness over the long term, culminating in a fundraising video that has so far raised over $2 million. In this case, unscripted interviews with people directly impacted by the transmission line project resulted in stories that could be used for several years and remain relevant during that time.
Here are some of the pros and cons of going scripted vs. unscripted:
5 Things to Consider: Scripted Videos
1) A scripted project makes it easy to create well-honed, finely tuned message that you can get across quickly. I find it preferable to unscripted interviews for videos that are two-minutes or shorter.
2) Scripted projects reduce the time spent in post-production, as you don't have to find that 10 second sound byte buried in 30 minutes of footage.
3) A scripted message can also reduce production time because you can provide your "talent" with the script ahead of time, often reducing the amount of takes required to get the shot. This gives you more time to shoot b-roll as well.
4) On the flip-side, scripting an on-target message can increase pre-production time. Writing that perfect sentence that explains your story succinctly is difficult, takes time, and requires a copywriting skill that you and your team might not possess. A scripted piece will feel more like an ad than a documentary, so it's a real challenge to write a script that comes across as authentic.
5) It's easy to plan a scripted shoot to include really short sound bytes that can be repurposed into shorter teaser clips. For my Connecticut River videos, we were able to take our existing footage and create 2:30 second and 2:15 second PSAs that ran on local media websites.
5 things to Consider: Unscripted Interviews
1) Authenticity. An unscripted interview will almost always come across as more authentic, especially if you take the time to find someone who is deeply connected to the issue you are describing.
2) An unscripted interview requires less pre-production time than a scripted piece (since there is no script!), but to succeed you’ll need to prepare a good set of questions that will tease your message out of the interviewee. It helps to send some of the questions to your subject ahead of time, but save some for the interview, which will aid in point number 5 below.
3) You will most likely face more post-production effort with un unscripted interview vs. a scripted project. Some people can talk for 20 or 30 minutes to make a good point, but you need to hear all 30 minutes to understand what they’re saying (that makes for one, boring video.) So it can take a lot of time to find those nuggets to fit into your shorter piece. I find transcribing the interview helps me to identify those nuggets (try transcriptionhub.com for an affordable transcription service.)
4) I feel that it really helps to have someone other than the photographer asking the questions, preferably the client or someone else very familiar with the issue. When you are manning the camera, and possibly the sound and lights as well, it can be a challenge to give your full attention to the subject. Alternatively, if you can have an assistant handle the gear, you can ask the questions and listen to the subject, assuring that you’re getting a message that will work in your film.
5) Ask questions over and over until you get a relaxed, authentic response. Some interviewees can be so passionate about the issue that they'll have their talking points memorized - while this can be good for getting some great sound bites, it can also sound like the person is spouting their own agenda and/or reciting a script -exactly what you're trying to avoid if you've chosen the unscripted approach.
For longer documentary films, the unscripted approach is the norm, both because of the authenticity factor I mentioned above, but also because it usually results in dialogue that takes the filmmaker in directions they may never have envisioned. For the filmmaker, that’s when things can get fun and interesting. For the viewer, it often results in a more compelling story.
Jerry Monkman is a conservation photographer and advocacy filmmaker living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This is his first time writing for The Digital Naturalist.
EDITOR'S NOTE: I would add one more point to Jerry's challenges of scripting a film: Finding someone who can deliver that script naturally. Not only does your subject need to be relaxed and engaging on camera-- he or she has to be somewhat of a good actor, too; viewers are less likely to buy your story if the delivery doesn't feel authentic. There aren't many folks out there who can pull this off, so if you're going to script a film, choose your characters wisely. Here are some shining examples:
- Charity:water has always done this beautifully, thanks to their charismatic spokesperson and CEO, Scott Harrison. Check out one of their newer videos here.
- The KONY 2012 film isn't just a brilliantly scripted video-- it's the most successful advocacy video ever, having gained 100 million views in just 6 days (read more about TDN's analysis of this here).
- Gnarly Bay Productions made a beautiful film driven by a beautiful script, which one could argue advocates for living a cool life, if that counts as a "cause."
- If I Ride by People for Bikes and "Growing is Forever" by filmmaker Jesse Rosten and writer Kallie Markle remain two of my all-time favorite advocacy video scripts ever written.
Have other favorites or interesting examples? Share your links below!