The Power of Film: Turning your talking head video into a story

5 November 2012

Last time, I focused on the art of the talking head video. This time I want to explore how to take your next steps into the realm of online film to develop something more elaborate: to produce an online ‘story’. I am assuming that rather than filming yourself, you are developing the vision and working collaboratively to produce the end product. Getting this right is almost as important as who you pick to do your filming and is not always an easy process. I want to focus on your role as the ‘executive producer’ and what you need to plan and do as part of the process to make it work for you.

Where to start?

  • PlanningIn my last blog, I outlined some of the strategic thinking to focus the content and style of your film (think objective and audience). For this type of film you are building a narrative and therefore you need to carefully craft your key messages and what you want to tell your audience.
  • There are some additional questions you should ask:  Where will you showcase your video? Is it just for online consumption or do you want to show it at a specific event? Have you tried using film before or is this your first time? If you have done some shorter films or talking heads videos – how did they go; what impact did they have? And how does this film fit in to the rest of your communications strategy?
  • Once you have defined and discussed all of the above, the rest of your planning will start to fit together better and above all, your film will have its purpose. Be focused but above all be sure you are making the film for the right reasons.
  • Write a short brief or communications plan: for you and your film team.

What do I want to produce?

Shop around’ and look at other examples of online film out there: this will help to give you a better idea of the type of product you want to produce. There are plenty of creative options to choose from. I’ve pulled together just a few examples to highlight several categories your film may fall under.

1. Using film to promote your work or highlight impact:

ICT-KM Program: How science can not only predict but also mitigate the effects of natural disasters

This film was shared on the evidence-based policy in development network (ebpdn) earlier this year. It demonstrates how you can turn what is largely an extended interview into a story. The film consists of a mixture of interview sound bites and photographs (zoomed). This wouldn’t have been difficult to produce, but was obviously carefully thought out, sequenced together and edited, and, as a result, is engaging to the viewer (you want to know what happens).

2. The project story: how to make research finding engaging:

Moving up a gear: Can a free bike help a girl’s education in northern India?

A slightly longer 6.47 minutes, this IGC film is a great example of how you can turn ‘dry’ findings into a story and has had nearly 7000 views since it was posted in March this year. The film is made up of quotes, action footage (of Bihar, of the school where the story takes places) a good soundtrack, graphics (and even charts!) mixed in with a few talking heads. This wouldn’t have been cheap to produce but is a simple concept, well executed.

Your budget: How long is a piece of string?

It’s hard to define how much is a good amount to spend on an online film; it’s all about the pot of resources at your disposal. There is no right answer, but similarly you don’t want to blow your communications budget on one product unless you are sure it’s absolutely worth it. Film is an art (and often an experiment!), but it doesn’t have to be complicated nor expensive to work (I’ve seen films at both ends of spectrum have impact).  A general rule of thumb is that an online film should be easy to view and listen to, and ideally filmed in High Definition (which is almost standard on most cameras today – even your iPhone).

Calling on help – invest in a crew or a ‘one man band’

Whether you pick high or low budget, unless you have a professional or semi-professional in house, or at the very least a good editor, then you are going to have to call on external help. You can investigate finding a team or film production company that can help you, although this is obviously more expensive. Increasingly though (and due to the evolving landscape of TV and film production), you can find individuals who can do it all without breaking the bank, from the filming to the editing and final packaging. For a simple film, this is a great option.

Finding help is not always easy and will, of course, vary from country to country. Here are a few suggestions:

  • I would in the first instance advise relying on ‘word of mouth’ i.e. asking your contacts/collaborators and looking for recommendations from others. Or if you have seen a film you like, perhaps find out who made it – they are usually credited at the end of the video or in text on the webpage.
  • Look to social media: ask contacts or news feeds through relevant social media websites or forums – I’ve seen this done a lot on LinkedIn and Facebook.
  • Always ask for references and showreels. Any good production company or crew member should be able to give you this.
  • If it’s a larger film project or a series of films – think about advertising or tendering it out to multiple bidders e.g. the Climate and Development Knowledge Network did this recently for a series of films on climate change and gender migration in Asia.
  • There are organisations who you can talk to for further advice: there’s a good list of tve’s partners here, based around the globe. Other well-known international organisations who have expertise in this area include BBC Media Action and Panos Pictures. And the BBC Academy College of Production has a wealth of ‘how to guides’ and tips for all parts of the process on its website.

Your wish list:

Once you have selected a professional, it’s time to sit down and give them a strong, clear brief about what you want. Be as explicit as you can.

  • Don’t underestimate the time it takes. This is probably one of the biggest issues that can cause problems between organisations and external film teams. Don’t underestimate how labour intensive even a short 5 minute film can be, for example, filming 3 short interviews could take 2-3 hours of someone’s filming time per interview – so a day, and then editing often takes longer than you might envisage.  You need to set deadlines, but be realistic and aware that turning a more complex film around in day simply isn’t possible.
  • Ensure all the costs are clearly defined and laid out from the beginning.
  • You might like to suggest two cameras for interviews: this makes life in the edit so much easier and saves time, but may not always be possible and will have cost implications.
  • Don’t be tempted to make it too long: 10 minutes should be the maximum, but if you can tell your story in a minute, then do it.
  • Think carefully about music: this can make a big difference to your video but it shouldn’t be too distracting.

Tips for the rest of the process:

  • Second pair of eyes: make sure you get to see an early version of the film to input where necessary and to give the editor time to make any critical changes.
  • The first 10 seconds are critical: as with most online content, people switch off very quickly so those first few seconds are vital.
  • Above all, try and be creative. Just because your competitor is doing the same thing, doesn’t mean it works.
  • Being there’: Once it’s finished don’t just stick it up online and hope for the best, think about your campaign to get it to as many people as you can. ODI’s Nick Scott talks further about maximising online product impact and digital strategy here. And don’t forget the power of an email to your contacts.
  • Monitor and evaluate the impact: look at simple web viewing stats, but also ask for feedback where you can, from colleagues, stakeholders and other contacts.