Friday, May 30, 2014

Bonus Features: The Making of an Interpretive Short Film

I love to read and learn about how films are made.  Whenever I get a new internet device I always bookmark the IMDB first, because I know I'll be referencing it a lot.  I love bonus features and director's commentaries on movies.  It's so cool to learn about the choices the directors, producers, and actors made.  After spending a week and a half working on a series of short interpretive videos for Andersonville National Historic Site's Memorial Day commemorations, one of my colleagues posted a picture of me recording some audio on their Facebook page.

This image sparked a discussion about how to do short videos.
True story: Tossing a blanket over your head and recording
audio on a cell phone yields pretty good results.
It immediately prompted several interpreters from other sites to comment and say "I wish I could do that!" Or "How do you make these videos?"  Elizabeth quickly sent me a message and said "Hey Chris, you should totally do a behind the scenes blog post on how you make these things."  Since the videos went up I've had more than one park ranger contact to me to say "How'd you do that?"   So, here I am in a coffee shop (on my off day) offering up a few thoughts on my experiences with short form interpretive film making.

First things first: You are always an interpreter. Using video is just a tool for your craft.  Let your interpretive thoughts and motivations drive what you do - not necessarily the shot or the effect.

Secondly, as you get started - ask around!  There are a lot of folks out there making short films and many are willing to help you out if you reach out.  Even if you aren't comfortable making a personal request, quite a few of these folks are bloggers and talk a lot about their craft.  Read what they write.  Watch their films.  My personal favorites that I watch are "Yosemite Steve" - who is a filmmaker in Yosemite National Park and produces the wildly popular "Nature Notes" series.  Also, one of my  friends is a media producer at Tufts University, and his videos highlighting research at the school are stellar.  Additionally, you can head over to the Desktop Documentaries blog, which happened to interview my  previously mentioned friend from Tufts about how he makes mini-documentaries.  The more you watch, the more ideas you get for framing shots, or even shots you may try to duplicate to an extent.  Writers tend to read a lot of books and if you're going to be making videos, well you should probably watch a lot of videos.     

Don't pick up the camera until you've planed what you want
to shoot and where you want to shoot.


Here we go, into the nitty gritty (which I'll keep short).

First of all - Your equipment does not have to be fancy.  I use a Nikon dSLR (the d3200 and d5100) with kit lenses to shoot most footage, although I frequently use flipcams and cell phones to capture spontaneous footage - interviews during events, etc...  Even for audio I just use a free app on the cell phone and toss a blanket over my head.





Step 1 - Identify the interpretive connection you wanted to make.  For our Memorial Day videos "A Story in Stone" we wanted to connect people to stories beyond the Civil War prison site.  Then for each grave we selected we identified an interpretive angle for each film.  For example - for our John Jameson video we wanted to convey the idea that every young soldier who died was lost potential.

Step 2 - Write the script.  An interpretive video intended for social media should be kept to 2 minutes or less, if at all possible.  If it is much longer than that people won't watch - most folks won't even start the film if they see that timer say 5 or 6 minutes or longer. That means 5-7 sentences at max by the time you have an intro and an outro.  Script writing is different from long form writing - there's not time or room to elaborate or details or side stories.  Chose each word carefully and make them count.

Step 3 - Plan your shots.  Decide what you want on the screen before you ever pick up the camera.  The pros call this storyboarding, which makes it sound fancier than it really is.  You can use a pre made form like this. I just simply write out my script and over each line jot out a note describing what I want visually on the screen.


Step 4 - Video!   Don't pick up the camera until this point.  Most people get into trouble by shooting and then planning around what they shot.  Nope.  Plan first, then shoot what you planned.  For example, I knew in our Samuel Vernon video I wanted to highlight a girl placing flowers at the grave.  From watching a lot of other videos, I really like the look of somebody back-lit by the sun.  So I planned for our young volunteer to come out to the park one one day when the sun would be at the right angle.  And that's the shot you see at around 1:14 mark.


Step 5 - Edit.  This is probably the most intimidating part for an interpreter trying to create a video.  It shouldn't be.  Digital editing is designed to be easy to grasp even for beginners.  If you've got a Mac, congratulations - you've got a really nice video editor iMovie.  If you're got a PC, congratulations, you've probably got Windows Movie Maker installed.  These will work for sharing an interpretive story to your website or social media page.  Don't start out trying to do crazy titles and edits.  Most consumer video editors have default titles that you can use.  If you've story boarded literally all you're doing is putting your shots in order and exporting to a file format that works (I like .mp4, but there are a lot of others).  If you need drop in appropriate still images - Ken Burns does this really well, and there are a lot of images on the Library of Congress website.  One piece of editing advice - in the world of interpretive web videos, people have really short attention spans, so put all your credits and stuff on the back end, otherwise they'll tune out before they actually get to your video.  I've learned that one from experience.   

A good thumbnail will help spread
your story.  People want to click to
see more. 
Step 6 - Share!  Even if you don't have a site youtube channel you can still put it on the park's website or Facebook page.  Facebook really likes videos in their algorithms for what they share.  You can even schedule the videos for an optimum time and change the thumbnail - which for the record selecting the right thumbnail will do a lot to drive views up.  There's a reason a LOT of people clicked on the Samuel Vernon video.

That's it.  Six easy steps to creating an interpretive video.  Throughout the process - remember you are an interpreter first.  Your video could literally be a single shot of you telling a story and it can still be effective.  Don't believe me?  Check out www.learntheaddress.org

 

       



*As aforementioned, all content produced here has been written in my free time and does not reflect the official opinion of my employer.

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