Practical guide to video activism

By Taya Govreen-Segal*

Last week I wrote on the practicality of video activism for activists (see the first part of this two-part article series here). Now that you know why one should do video activism, I collected here 10 practical tips for video activism that I learned through my work in Israel Social TV, accompanied by examples. These are not rules set in stone, so if any of the things written here are a set back, you are welcome to disregard them.

*The examples are from a variety of fields of activism, mainly from Palestine-Israel, but all have English subtitles.

1. What to film?

The first step in making a video is choosing what to film. This may seem trivial, but it's really important, since making a video takes a lot of time and energy. So when you think of an idea, a good way to check whether it's worth making into a video is to ask yourself “will a video add something that cannot be achieved by a text with a photo?”. Usually you'll discover that the answer is yes when you are showing “something that is happening” and we want to see and hear it and not just hear about it. Good examples are police violence and arrests, exposing things that are generally considered bad, like racism. Video is also a strong medium for showing creative actions like flash-mobs and street theatre, and actions that use humour.

Make sure people know what they are watching. You can do this by adding a date and place title, or by explaining in a few sentences, either with voice over or with text.

Example: I was on the bus on the way to Jerusalem and a soldier asked the driver to check the bag of a Palestinian woman to make sure she isn't carrying a weapon. I took my phone out and shot

I barely edited it. Only added subtitles and covered the face of the woman, for she asked for her identity not to be exposed. This video went viral, and a few of the major news channels wrote about the incident, raising public discourse around the topic. I think in this case, watching the video made the racism even more obvious than being on the bus, for while watching the video, the viewer does not experience the fear that I imagine many people on the bus were feeling. And no doubt, no text article could achieve the same effect.

2. Keep it fast-paced and short

Today viewers lose interest in a video (or any internet page) very quickly. some studies say that after as little as 15 seconds. So keeping your video short and interesting is one of your main goals. Especially if you plan on spreading it through social media, where viewers are exposed to many stimulations. How short it needs to be is hard to tell, but probably a good bet is not more than a few minutes long, and no longer than it needs to be.

The video needs to gets interesting within a few seconds, so try and put something powerful at the beginning that will catch people's’ attention, give them an understanding of what the video is about, and make them stay for the rest of it. Preferably, have the beginning be a visual of something happening, and if it's a part of a speech or interview, add subtitles, to make it more accessible.

Make sure you constantly have something 'happening', so that people don't get bored and close it. Something happening on the visual level means either movement within the same shot, or else a change of shots.

Example: you can see in this video of a joint Palestinian-Israeli animal rights protest that there is constantly something happening, and that the video is short. this is also a good example for the power of a soundtrack. 

3. Speakers and interviews

Interviews and speeches, both with people who agree with your message and with people who disagree with it, can help get a message across. but getting a complex idea across this way can be difficult, and long interviews may get boring to watch.

A few things to consider in terms of interviews are:

Language: If you want to show someone in positive light, interview them in a language they are comfortable with, and if necessary add subtitles so that people who don't speak that language can understand. Hearing someone struggling with language and making mistakes can be distracting, and shift the focus from the content to language mistakes.

Where is the person looking at? If the speaker looks straight into the camera, it gives the feeling of speaking to the viewer. This technique is often used by politicians as a way of trying to convince. If the speaker looks at the interviewer, it gives the feeling of someone expressing an opinion. This is worth considering when choosing how to interview.

Where is the person's head in the frame? When interviewing, try and film at eye level, and have the person fill the majority of the height of the frame, without cutting off the edge of their head. in the width of the frame, try and leave more room in the direction they are looking towards.

If a person doesn’t want their face to be shown: ideally, we want to see the face of the person who is speaking. But sometimes because of privacy reasons this isn't possible. While blurring a face is not very simple to do, it is possible (and there are plenty of tutorials online that explain how to do it). The disadvantage of blurring a face is that it gives the feeling that the person speaking is ashamed of something. If this isn't the feeling that you want to come across, another option is to film the person while they are doing something (for example: driving, walking, fixing something, cooking, sitting at the computer) so that their face isn't visible.

Visuals: film the person you are interviewing doing things other than talking, preferably things that are related to what they said. You will later be able to show these so that a longer interview stays visually interesting. Having visuals also enables you to cover up connections between two parts of an interview.

Example: In this video, made about the role of women and feminism in the struggle against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, you can see the different women interviewed in different languages, Arabic, Hebrew, and English, so that they all speak fluently and comfortably. You can also see the way speeches are shot, and see that in interviews, the women looking slightly sideways, towards the interviewer, and that they are videoed so that there is a bit more space left in the direction they are looking at. you can also see that the interviews are covered with visuals, that add to what is said. 

4. Social media

Uploading the video directly to the social media of your choice (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr) (instead of sharing a link to an external site like Youtube) tremendously enlarges the amount of views because the social media platforms promotes videos uploaded directly more than they promote links. Make sure to go into the settings of the video to choose what picture you want to be shown before the video plays, and choose a good title.

Video posts often write “WATCH:” and then a short explanation about the content of the video. So it's worth considering. The short text can also be a powerful quote from the video itself.

Also, If you have a bit of money, consider the option putting a bit towards promotion of the video on Youtube and social media. It's something we often don't consider, but it's cheaper, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly than handing out fliers.

5. Equipment and filming

Make sure you have enough visuals. Film the area, especially if there are famous or relevant landmarks. Film from different angles and perspectives.

Another important thing is to try and keep each shot as steady as possible, so that the viewer can understand what’s going on. Try and hold the camera in place for 5 seconds before moving on to film the next thing.

If you do move to follow something that is happening, try and stop on the final frame for a few seconds.

When possible, use a tripod or a monopod so that the image is stable.

Videos can be made with equipment as simple as cell phones or webcams. If you use a cell phone, try and film in landscape (with the phone on its side) so that it fits nicely in a video player. If you didn't, you can make two layers of the video, and blur the back layer.

Example: A video of an arrest at a demo in east Jerusalem. You can see the video was shot in landscape, and that the camera is moving. two things that make it difficult to understand what is going on.  

6. Sound

Cell phones and most cameras are limited in terms of sound quality. If you’re filming an arrest, or violence, a demonstration, or something that “just happened”, the bad sound is understandable and doesn't bother as much.

If you are making a more planned video, you may find that the sound from the phone is not good enough for you. There are a few ways to bypass this. The easiest is to make a video that doesn't need sound, and then use a song in the background to achieve a kind of clip. Another thing you can do is to try and film in a quiet room, connect a microphone to the phone or camera, or use another device (that can be another phone or recording device situated closer to the person talking) especially for sound recording and that synchronising the two while editing.

Anyway, it's worth adding a soundtrack and subtitles. The soundtrack helps hide background noises, as well as helping in creating the atmosphere you are interested, and subtitles help make the video more accessible to people whose hearing is impaired, people struggling with language, or people watching without sound, as well as help us understand what people are saying even when they don't speak clearly, or when there is a lot of noise in the background.

If you use a soundtrack, you can change the volume as you go along to emphasise different parts, and not overrun people speaking. Also, try and have the shots change together with changes in the music.

Example: In this video, vegan activists pretended they were promoting a new product - breast milk - in order to raise awareness to the fact that consumption of dairy milk is also taking milk from someone’s mother. The video was shot with a cellphone, right near a busy road, but because of the soundtrack, the background noise doesn't bother the viewer. Pay attention to the soundtrack and it's synchronisation with the video and the change of shots. This is also a good example for a creative action aimed at being made into a video. 

7. Editing

Editing is very important in creating a good video, but it's also one of the most difficult and time consuming parts of creating a video. While I do enjoy editing, and find it very rewarding, it does always take longer than expected, and may get frustrating.

If this is your first time editing, you may want to start with a simple project and a lot of patience. Even experienced editors take about an hour of editing for every minute of video, and at the beginning it can take a lot longer.

For simple editing, iMovie for Mac and Movie Maker for Windows, or Youtube video editor for online editing should be sufficient. There are also some editing software’s available for free online as well as some free phone apps that may be used. It takes trial and error to learn how to edit, and find the right software. creativecow.net has some good tutorials for more advanced softwares, and there are lots of other guides and tutorials online that can help too.

Since editing can be done from anywhere, if you have a hard time editing, you may be able to find someone elsewhere who is willing to do the editing.

8. Usage rights

If you plan on using music or video that you didn't create, you may come up against some problems, since most music and video are subject to copyright. It's worth checking the law in your country to see whether using things that are protected by copyright can get you into trouble. It may be that as an individual making a non-commercial video, this is not a problem.

However, if you decide to use music that is subject to copyright, you may have a hard time uploading the video to Youtube. Youtube automatically identifies if the video containers sound that is protected by copyright, and depending on the agreement with the owner of the music/recording, in some cases blocks the uploading of video. In other cases, Youtube may allow you to use the music as long as you credit the artist, but put adds before or during your video.

If you are trying to avoid using copyrighted material, here are a few things that are good to know:

  • Music and sound effects can be found on websites like this one incompetech.com that stock free music and sounds as well as on Youtube Video Editor, that has some free music and sound effects

  • Videos can be found on Youtube by filtering the search only for video defined as creative commons

  • Pictures can be found on google by filtering the search by usage license as well as on Wikipedia

  • Videos and photos owned by formal national and international bodies are often free to use as long as they're credited. For example, UN news related videos, and low resolution of some other videos can be used for non-commercial use, as long as the UN is credited

  • Always look at the usage license to see whether the creator wants to be credited

9. A few more ideas

Here are a few ideas for what kinds of videos you can do. However, of course any video could have more than one of these components, or none of them.

Arrest/Racism/Police Violence: Something bad is happening and you film it with whatever you've got, probably with your phone. Try and stay stable if possible, and don't move the camera too much, so that the viewer will be able to see what's going on. Also, unless the situation is revolving around you, or you are approached directly, try not to interfere in the situation, because it makes it very difficult to follow. These kind of videos can be spread on social media, as well as used for legal reasons. If you can, get the face of the person who is acting violently, because that may help if you'd like to use the video later as evidence in court.

Showing an action: Filming an action or demo just to get across the feeling of what was going on. You may want to have the video answer part of these questions:

  • Where is it happening? (for example by showing famous landmarks)
  • Who and how many participated? (wide shot that shows the whole crowd, close ups on people, was there diversity of people who participated? Show it!)
  • What was the goal of the action? (placards, parts of speeches, chants)
  • How did it feel? (try and get the energy across)
  • What were the reactions to it? (film the general public passing by, the police presence)

For this kind of videos a soundtrack can really help getting the message and energy across.

Example: Stop the arms fair 2013. Pay attention to the dramatic opening, the fast pace, and the use of the soundtrack. Also, you can see there is a use of photos, and that the editor put a bit of movement into the photos so that the video doesn't suddenly “go still”.

An action that is aimed at being a video: Usually a cynical or creative action with a strong visual aspect that is done for the sake of being videoed, but the narrative of the video is still showing something that happened. The viewer of the video is in a sense “an insider” who knows things that a bypasser may not know.

Example: In the Mama’s Milk video (mentioned also in the part about the sound) the viewer of the video knows that it is a critical action, and not really a new product.

Another example is “Frackstons Estate Agents Want to Buy Your House”. This half a minute video filmed with a phone manages to get across the a message, and explain one of the effects fracking will have on the people living in the area while still being funny and light.

Street Survey: Asking random people in the street the same question in order to say something about public opinion. This can be used to criticise the public for having certain opinions without knowing the facts, or to show that public opinion is different than media is showing, or to show people's reaction to something that is happening and that isn't getting enough media attention.

Example: In July 2015 a flotilla tried to reach Gaza and bring in aid. In response the prime minister said that there is no siege on the Gaza strip, and most of the media was busy discussing who is on the flotilla and and how the military will react to it. In this video we tried to use the current public interest in Gaza in order to draw attention from the flotilla back to the situation in Gaza.

10. Shortcomings of video

With all love and praise for video, video takes a lot of time and energy to create and there are things that just work better in other mediums:

  • If you are trying to bring across a complex idea, it may be difficult to do that in video.
  • If you don't have anything to show visually;
  • If your video is based on speakers, and they turn out to be not charismatic or hard to understand and generally if you think what you have to say will be as powerful in text and a photograph, by all means, do that. It takes much less time and energy.

*Taya Govreen-Segal is a conscientious objector and activist from Israel-Palestine, and a former video journalist in Israel Social TV, an independent media organization that sees video as a tool for social change and promoting human rights.

Photo: Video Volunteers

Geographic terms: 

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