The Digital Naturalist is an inspired forum for video, film, and multimedia with a cause. It brings together an elite panel of experts to analyze what makes digital storytelling successful, establish helpful guidelines for advocacy groups, and shine a light on the most effective and inspiring work being produced today. Through analysis, forums, interviews, and personal accounts, we hope to help nonprofit organizations and the creatives working with them better communicate the most pressing, complex issues of our time.

Try This!

If your video is comprised of interviews, try to get your b-roll after you’ve recorded all or most of the interviews. The reason is that inevitably the people interviewed will say certain things that may inspire the kind of b-roll you’ll want to shoot. Read more bladeronner.com.


Entries in video guidelines (16)


The News/Event-Driven Video: Part 2 of a 5-Part Series

Arkansas Puppy Mill Rescue - Humane Society of the United States

Two weeks ago, in my excitement to "turn a squishy, abstract art into something more tangible and process-oriented," I started diving into production details that deserved much more research and critical thought than I was capable of giving in the midst of a film assignment. So I really appreciate multimedia producer Jessica Chance for raising a red flag on the post. She's right-- defining some arbitrary and regimented production schedule, failing to take NGO expertise into account, and forcing vastly different stories into one prescribed mold is dangerously misleading advice.

Visual storytelling is an art, and it always will be, no matter what kind of practices we standardize. Our work will be most effective when we remain adaptable in our approach and keep our vision creative and unique. My goal with this series is not to offer some rigid checklist that guarantees brilliant results-- no such thing will ever exist. Rather, I hope to start a conversation about how we can focus our messages, refine our processes, and produce appropriate videos based on our advocacy goals.

So this week, I'm taking a step back. I'm sticking to ideas I can vouch for, while encouraging critical thinking about the stuff that's harder to define. As you watch the videos below, challenge yourself with questions like, why do they work? What kind of production team do you think they required? What kind of advanced planning might have taken place? And how can you apply those ideas to your next video project? At some point, I hope to engage the original filmmakers in this discussion-- but for now, I think there's value in pondering the answers ourselves. It stretches our brains and makes us more active participants in the art of effective storytelling.

As I see it, the News/Event-Driven Video is defined by:

THE GOALS: To capture viewers' attention about a timely and critical event related to your cause.

THE PRODUCT: A video that illustrates a specific event and people's raw and genuine reactions to that event. Might include formal interviews if interviews are needed to further explain the story, but sometimes visuals alone can carry the piece. Might also include graphics or animation to help illustrate what's happening.


The Humane Society

This video is never going to win any cinematography awards. The lighting is poor; the compositions, mediocre; the audio, challenging to make out in places. But damned if I'm not moved to tears every time I watch it. Why does it work? Because it's a shocking event with shocking visuals to back it up. It's impossible to watch this without wondering how humans can be so careless with other living things. It stirs emotions, triggers anger-- and according to this study, angry viewers are much more likely to spread the word. So I can forgive the guerrilla-style filmaking, because the topic alone is powerful enough to make this story a visual success.

World Wildlife Fund

WWF Earth Hour - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

I can't imagine the amount of planning that went into this. To capture real-time footage in all these different locations all over the world must have required months of planning, tons of equipment, multiple filmmakers, a hefty budget, and a brilliant editor to make sense of all the resulting footage. I don't imagine many nonprofits have the means to pull off a project so sweeping and grand, but that doesn't mean they can't learn from this one. If you know you have an event coming up in April-- the kind of event that might rally a community and create new excitement around your cause-- why not start thinking about the visual potential now? Planning ahead is huge.

Filmmaker Matt Wisniewski

This one breaks the mold. There are no formal interviews, or even many soundbites-- just an inspiring song and beautifully synced visuals to back it up. Sure, this filmmaker could have gone around and interviewed the protesters, featured more quotes from the podium, and even inserted his own voice. But I doubt the final product would have stood out from the flood of news coverage on the Wisconsin protests as well as this video does. Instead, we have an inspiring and memorable glimpse of a timely and critical event-- a video whose message is simple, clear, and uncluttered.

You might be wondering why I didn't include an example like this-- the old-school, formulaic, TV news correspondent-driven narrative. I suppose it works just fine for network news, but I have a real aversion to this style in the advocacy context. The narrator's inflection is so unnatural-- I'd never tell a story to a friend in such a tone-- and using it risks making intimate human stories sound cold and mechanical. And the predictable nature of it gives viewers too many opportunities to get bored and zone out. I know we can do better than that.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Keep the conversation going in the comments below, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Next Monday we'll drill down on a biggie: the Issue-Driven Video. Stay tuned!


A User Guide to The Digital Naturalist

© Pink Sherbet Photography

Web design is not my strong suit. I'll be the first to admit that. And it occured to me recently that because of the way I've set up this blog, a lot of really great content gets buried really fast. So if you're a new reader, it could take you hours, if not days, to comb through this site-- and unless you have the time and patience to explore page-by-page, you could miss some really great posts.

I've enlisted a super-savvy marketing guru to help me find some remedies. More on that to come. In the meantime, I thought I'd offer a basic "user guide" to help readers-- specifically, nonprofit employees who want to push their organization's outreach to new levels-- navigate the many resources TDN can offer.

I don't have much time. Where can I learn a little about digital storytelling, and fast?
About TDN
5 Ways to Rock an Advocacy Video (my guest post for Innovative Interactivity)
8 Rules of Multimedia
8 Rules of Audio
12 Glimpses into the Future of Storytelling

How do I convince my organization that advocacy videos are worth producing?
Never Say Never 
Cause and Effect 
A Journey from Print to Digital 
Nonprofit Profile: Charity Water 

Where can I learn more about the art of storytelling?
Scott Simon on How to Tell a Story
America reCycled: Q&A with the Hussin Brothers 

How can I break down a really complex subject?
Climate Wisconsin: Q&A with Finn Ryan 

How can I think visually?
A Designer's Eye
Fonts Matter

How can I conduct better interviews?
Where Hope Works: Q&A with Danger Docs
America reCycled: Q&A with the Hussin Brothers 

What should my team look like? Who should I hire?
It Takes a Village 
Meet Tucker Walsh
Eye Candy by Ami Vitale 
A New Generation of Wild 
TDN's Contributors 

How do I budget for a video project? How can I measure results?
Climate Wisconsin: Q&A with Finn Ryan 
Nonprofit Profile: Charity Water

Where can I find good music? What if I want to create my own score?
Inside the Mind of a Composer 
TDN's Music Sources

How should I write differently for video versus print?
Growing is Forever
Panel Review: A Golden Opportunity 

What if I don't have much of a budget to work with?
The Beauty of Stills

I made a video-- how do I make sure people watch it?
Viral Videos: A Reality Check 
3 Rules for Getting Your Video Seen
Nonprofit Profile: Charity Water 

What are some examples of really engaging advocacy?
Growing is Forever 
We Are All Connected
Climate Wisconsin: Q&A with Finn Ryan 
Nonprofit Profile: Charity Water 
America reCycled: Q&A with the Hussin Brothers
Where Hope Works: Q&A with Danger Docs 

How can I develop a better eye for digital storytelling?
Panel Review: Witness 
Panel Review: A Golden Opportunity
Plastiki, Deconstructed 
Sometimes Simple is Better

Dude, it's Monday. Can't I just turn my brain off and watch something fun?
TDN's Music Videos 
TDN's Cutting-Edge Videos 
TDN's 3 Stumbles Archive


Possible Futures: A Film Contest

"Ecologize Growth" by Katie Teague

I'm torn about today's post.

Late last week, I got an email from Tucker pointing me to this film contest, Possible Futures. And after a long holiday weekend in Crested Butte, I admit I only scratched the surface last night with about 10 of 317 total entries. Among those, only one held my attention long enough to watch it all the way through.

Don't get me wrong-- I LOVE the idea of this contest. It delivers exactly what it promises: Filmmakers' dreams for the future of our planet and humankind. It's well organized (entries fall into four different categories: Peace & Freedom, Fair Societies, Sustainability & Beyond, and Human Fulfillment). It's beautifully branded, and the website is gorgeous. It's engaging-- the public can vote on the films that inspire them most (deadline: 7/19). And clearly there are some talented folks in the lineup; the professional camera work and gorgeous animations weren't lost on me.

But in many cases, the storytelling fell short. Visuals didn't match content, storylines had no arc, pacing was slow, and filmmakers failed to answer the ever-important questions, "So what? Who cares?" If I were a judge, I'd be extremely disappointed on this front. I wouldn't go easy on the contestants, either. There's a tremendous opportunity for learning here-- and if there's any group of filmmakers we need to bring up to speed, it's this group, with their devotion to advocacy and connections to such critical stories.

So here's hoping that as this contest gains more traction, it both gains and creates stronger competitors. Think you could be one of them? Then mark your calendar for the deadline next June.

If I've missed a masterpiece-- quite possible-- please post a link in the comments section below!


3 Stumbles


Sometimes Simple is Better.

By Scott Kirkwood

Amy and I have spent a lot of time trying to raise the bar for the production of multimedia pieces within our national parks nonprofit. Many of our colleagues want to go out into the parks with a Flip camera and produce a video that they’re certain will captivate viewers. Their thinking often seems to be: “The parks are beautiful, the threats facing them are serious, and anyone can use a camera—you just need to push a button and aim, right?” We’ve spent a lot of energy trying to persuade people that you need a lot more than that.

But these videos from LOVE146 show that sometimes, if your story is powerful enough and simple enough, it just might be better to turn on a camera and listen to someone talk.

A few months back, Amy shared this video with several of us, and told us she thought it was brilliant:

love146.org - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

When it comes to photography, writing, storytelling, and multimedia, Amy and I pretty much always agree. But this time, we didn’t.

I found the piece terribly depressing from the very beginning. The dreary music, the plodding pace, the imagery-- all of it brought me down. The title animation is slick, the distressed font is graphically interesting, and the sepia photos are well-conceived, but it all feels like a very corporate way to tell an otherwise human story.

And the problem is, there’s really no story. We are bombarded by numbers—27 million enslaved, 2 children sold every minute.... I’ve read a lot on what motivates people to advocacy and nearly all of it says that people are more likely to give to your cause if you share the plight of one person, not the plight of millions. A member of your audience can’t help millions, so the response is to quickly shut off. But the idea of helping one person? That’s do-able.

(Interestingly, LOVE146 tries to do this with another piece: Diana’s love story introduces us to a young girl who has been rescued from enslavement, but in blurring her face to protect her identity and translating her own words into English, we never experience the young girl directly, so the attempt fails.)

If you stick around long enough, the piece changes rhythm about two minutes through. People exchange 146 tags, we hear impassioned quotes from Martin Luther King, and then we see colorful images of children, illustrating hope and positive change. Then we’re told some very vague things about what Love146 does. Prevention, advocacy, after-care—I don’t really know what any of these things mean in concrete terms. We see a building of some sort that clearly provides schooling and care, and that tangible image helps a little.

But in the end I’m left with this vague idea that something horrible is happening to many children and some group with a weird name is doing something vague to help them. In the end, it just wasn’t enough to provoke my interest in learning more, or joining the cause. I just wanted to stop watching.

I actually think this LOVE146 video is far superior:

The Broken Heart Club - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

It’s very simple—Rob Morris, the director of LOVE146, sits before a video camera and tells a story. The sound is mediocre. The lighting is poor. A bland, grey wall serves as the background. Morris looks a little like he just woke up. But in the piece, he describes how he stood in a brothel for the first time looking into the eyes of children. He remembers trying to hold in his tears and his anger. He remembers calling his wife from his hotel. When she asked “How are you doing?” he just lost it. He “allowed his heart to break into a million pieces.” At that point, something came to life in him. Someone once told him it is the broken heart that makes us human and only once that happens can love and compassion spill out. And at that point he and the cofounders gave birth to the organization. He tells us that these stories are absolutely heartbreaking, but he celebrates that heartbreak, because it is the broken-hearted that end up changing the world.

In this brief, startlingly simple video, we learn the story of these children, the story of the director’s very personal experience, and even the story of the organization’s founding.

Because Morris starts by telling us how hard it is to deal with this subject, we’re willing to go there with him. The piece leaves us a little saddened, but with a little bit of hope. And enough curiosity to want to learn a little bit more.

Scott Kirkwood is a regular contributor to TDN.