A year ago, TDN contributor Scott Kirkwood and I set out to watch dozens of advocacy videos in an effort to learn about a new form of storytelling that we were eager to embrace on National Parks magazine. This is what we learned:
Have a point. Many pieces seem to be done because someone had a camera and someone had a general topic. Many lack any central point, any central narrative, any call to action. If it’s a polished product with visuals, good writing, good audio/music, then it’s still pleasant to watch—but if the point isn’t clear, why do it? If it’s a broad piece, consider breaking into 3 short videos, each of which answers one question.
Words and story should guide images. Determine the story, then do the reporting, then decide if this is a piece that would benefit from video, then find some key items to present in the video. Too many of these were driven backwards from “Let’s do a video” to “Oh crap, what do we shoot”… and it’s OBVIOUS. Also need more “So what? Who cares?” questions asked, and a deeper look at the issue. Don’t just say “This is bad and needs to stop”; it’s boring and insults the viewer.
Statistics and science are boring. They’re a start, and facts are clearly an important part of the story, but dousing people in facts is no better with a video than with a print piece—and in many respects it’s worse, because people can’t re-read them and let them sink in.
Maps are KEY. Many of these videos don’t tell you where these things are unfolding and to get a quick sentence explaining it isn’t enough, as a lack of concentration for 1 second will force you to miss it. A map should be included early on. An animation of a map would be even better, but likely more expensive.
A narrator/point of view is important. Some people are naturally better in front of a camera than others. In one video, the narrator looked like a 12-year-old giving a book report; in another, the narrator was like your friend, talking to you as if you were there. Some of the best videos have no single narrator, but rely on 5-7 interview subjects, with the questions removed, and that’s a GREAT way to go IF the speakers are compelling—many aren’t. A TV producer would interview these people beforehand and we should do the same.
Music/audio is key. Bad music or audio can make a beautifully shot video look amateur. Use good mics, and watch wind and ambient noise. Custom music is worth the expense. (More on this in a previous post.)
Essentials of photography remain essential with video. Avoid capturing shots in the middle of the day with harsh lighting, terrible composition, etc. In many ways, "photofilms" were among the best multimedia we saw because they were compilations of great photos. (One note on photofilms: It’s distracting to go vertical/horizontal/vertical. A video camera has to always be horizontal, and the same should be done with these images.) Also, many pieces use stills and video, and the difference between the two can be jarring if the video quality is far worse. There should always be a good reason for transitioning from one to the other.
Technical aspects. It’s frustrating to watch a video that doesn’t tell viewers how long it is, so that we have no idea what we're getting into. ALL should include a total time and track how far into it we are at any given stage. Size is also important: Small videos are a wasted opportunity.