10 Elements of a good video activism project

By: APF Staff
video camera

Video activism is the future of political communication and persuasion. It’s the natural outgrowth of investigative journalism and issue campaigns, advocacy journalism and political action… all repackaged and synthesized in moving pictures. To do it well and do it right, however, depends on quality and planning. The following are ten elements of a good video activism project. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a starting point for assessing video activism projects.

1. Pick a meaningful subject you want to discuss

There are natural political issues and unnatural ones. Artificial public desires and real public desires. Yes, the public all desires low taxes and peace, but beyond the platitudes people want better schools, they want to save lives, they want to help individual people. They want to right moral wrongs. They don’t care about marginal tax rates. They don’t care about esoteric topics. People don’t want to reform the Census Bureau, they want to stop sex traffickers. To discuss a topic detached and divorced from its impact on real individual people is to consign the topic to the ashes of apathy. You want to choose something that resonates.

2. Expose the hidden truth/facts

Every topic has a major hidden fact, it’s the one that someone says “if only everyone knew _____, things would be different.” These are the big facts, the big truths that are hidden. For the Planned Parenthood racism calls project, the big fact was the racist origin of the organization and its ongoing presence. For the Love Thy Prisoner campaign, one big fact was that these individual terrorists were likely to be released soon and modern leftists were unafraid of their presence. For the issue that’s chosen, find the major facts that would change the debate if they were effectively communicated. Find the major facts that the media is covering up.

3. Ideally expose the hidden truth through the scandal of another, personalize the story

Truths are interesting, but most interesting when wrapped in the story or anecdote of another. This is the subtle difference between news and features. It’s one thing to tell a basic story, to write a basic press release or news story about whether ACORN would help a human trafficker who deals in children, it’s quite another to put it on video and display it for the world to see. The difference is in taking the fact and wrapping them in a modern story, to give a face to the problem you’re identifying. Take the truth that you’re seeking to portray and wrap it in the story of another, make an example out of the fact and truth you’re looking to convey.

4. Use a great prop

There should always be a visual in the frame that is a point of unique reference for the viewer. The classic example, from the Bailout Prize Patrol, is a big check. The check is a great prop, it’s simple, cheap, and communicates the central message: money being transferred. The British show “Trigger Happy TV” was excellent about using props, you can find their clips on Youtube. Every sketch utilized a visual prop. If you are discussing a topic, have a visual reference point that symbolizes the topic. Always use a prop.

5. Make the jokes simple, and direct

Layered jokes are bad. Humor that is complex or too ‘punny’ is bad. People want subtle humor in small doses. The bold audacious humor that involves direct, basic jokes are more appealing. Good humor is difficult, it’s challenging. Friends also give bad advice here, they can be either too critical or too validating, it’s tough to focus group the public at large for general humor. Never make the jokes complex though.

If you want to be creative, the best source of new and unique humor with a popular following might be situational awkwardness, made popular by the Office comedy series. You make an extremely awkward situation and then let the characters and actors stew in the moment. To write it out sounds silly, banal or flip, but with the right talent it works.

But never make complicated jokes, don’t be nuanced, don’t require a college degree, and don’t rely on the audience’s ability to master language. Simple jokes work because they’re universal, kids and adults can both enjoy them. As well, it’s an immediate gratification in lieu of some kind of humor that you enjoy best over time or with repeated viewings.

Keep the jokes simple and direct. Add humor to your pieces, but keep the jokes simple. Simple irony, meaning unanticipated consequences, is perhaps the most basic form of humor. It’s easy to replicate and always good for a mild chuckle.

6. Always use a costume

Costumes are always good. They always look silly and seem better than they really are, they appear on video as witty. In the Bailout Prize Patrol skit there’s a bank manager and a chicken costume, and no way to connect the two but the desire to use them. The phrase “nest egg” for people’s retirements easily connects the two. It was ridiculous and insane on video, but the joke made enough sense that it connected the two pieces together. You can find some way to use almost any costume in almost any situation.

When a small group in DC saw a rival organization canvassing at a nearby subway entrance, they decided to act. So they dressed up an intern in a hot dog costume and gave him a megaphone with the instructions to stand and repeat the words “eat me” ten feet away from the canvasser. The only goal was to distract people who were walking off the subway so that the other organization lost their desire to solicit strangers in the neighborhood. It worked instantly. The canvasser went from a few people signing up for his group every ten minutes to none, not a one. It was no doubt, in part, motivated by an unconscious connection in the mind of the stranger to the weird hot dog chanting in their midst, that this was no doubt a sign-up sheet for the Hot Dog of the Month club or something. Costumes work, they get undeserved attention. They are almost always interesting. In video, they always seem visually appealing.

7. Collect way more content than you can possibly use

You’d be surprised how easily it is to lose footage from shaky camerawork, and how easily it is to spoil footage. When you’re doing video activism you’re doing it on the fly, under stress, and without the normal controlled variables for other kinds of video and photo shoots. Even if you have a professional videographer with you, make sure they’re capturing everything. Never turn off the camera. And if you’re ever approached by any authority figure you asks you to turn off the camera, never ever do so. You may be forced to leave, but never stop filming. And if they try to confiscate your tape, give them a sim card or blank videotape. Never stop filming and never turn over your footage. It’s as good as gone once you give it to them. Always err on the side of getting the footage, capturing the moment and filming any interaction or altercation. You never know what’s going to happen in a split second where you won’t have five seconds of warning to get the camera up and recording. Always record.

8. Separate the good shots from the great ones, only use the great ones

When you shoot video you end up with a lot of footage. Hours worth, much of which is junk. Much of what you think is good, is really mediocre, and the amount that is really golden is very little. You often have to collect an enormous amount of footage to get a few usable shots. If you want to have high-impact videos, parse through and separate out your good and great video, and make a point to use all your great video and as little of your good footage as you need to tell the story. The temptation will be to use all of your mediocre footage to tell the most elaborate tale possible. Keep it simple, and keep it short. Videos over three minutes are painful to sit through and watch. If you can say it in a shorter time, always choose to say more with less.

9. Give the viewer something they haven’t seen before

People are immersed in constant digital entertainment. They are drowning in a sea of mediocre content. You want to make sure your project and activism shows something entirely unlike anything else. You want to do things different, new, unique, avant garde. Find ways to do things different, new. You can copy other styles and give homages, but try hard to be artistically unique.

10. Identify and focus on the “catalytic moment”

The hours of footage you might collect can be overwhelming. It can seem like it’s hard to focus on the most important moment, to find the anchor in the footage you collected. Every play has a moment of action, a moment where the story is built to a crescendo. That moment is where the main character, the focus, makes a fateful decision, it’s the point where the audience is screaming for the protagonist to make the right decision but they foolishly choose the wrong one. That moment is the catalytic moment, the point at which the audience realizes the grave moral wrong in front of them, it’s the point at which the curtain is pulled away to show the man pulling the levers. That moment is the most important part of your video content, it’s the point that shows where any normal person, any rational person, says ‘this is indefensible.’ Once you have this moment identified, make sure that’s the focal point of your video. Make it the point that’s near the end of your video, that captures the outrage.

Video activism has a multitude of issues to consider, these are ten of the more prominent concerns when you’re starting and planning a video project.