I worked in corporate video production for years (including at NASA in Silicon Valley) before I transitioned to copywriting and videos for the nonprofit niche. Back in the day, I worked as a writer, producer, editor and sometimes director. But I usually had an excellent videographer to work with and I rarely had to worry about shooting anything myself.
But that all changed when I suddenly had the opportunity to fly to Africa and capture the hearing clinics put on by the Entheos Audiology Cooperative in the remote Chibombo region of Zambia.
Of course, I said yes! And then immediately wondered how in the heck was I going to pull that off?
I knew I’d be a one-person crew, and I knew I didn’t want to lug a hundred pounds of gear along with me. Not to mention, I had to be able to run and gun and capture a lot of nonstop activity, as the team of 20 audiologists and volunteers worked through hundreds of patients a day at 6 different stations.
After a bit of research, I settled on a small but robust HD camcorder that was touted as the best run and gun camera for documentaries. The end result would be mostly for the web, so I knew HD would work just fine.
The camcorder was lightweight and had some great features that made shooting easy (perfect for me!) Plus, I could plug in external microphones, which would be critical for gathering good quality natural sound and interviews.
And because lighting is admittedly not my forte, I opted not to bring along a light kit. Although I did have a small camera light that I could use if I had to. My main excuse was that electricity is scarce in those parts of Zambia so it was best not to have to rely on it.
I think in the end, using only natural light worked to my advantage. The look of the video doesn’t feel manipulated, which is something that could turn off donors, even subconsciously.
So, my camera kit was basically a compact camcorder, a shotgun mic for natural sound, a lavalier mic for interviews, a monopod that doubled as a cheap steadicam, and a lightweight tripod for interviews. Of course, there were batteries, chargers, extra cables, memory cards, power adapters and other sundries that filled out the rest of my kit.
But it all fit either into my camera backpack that was my carry on luggage, or in my suitcase. And with such a low profile, I breezed through customs because I didn’t have any extra cases of expensive looking gear for anyone to feel a need to inspect.
Not to mention, this cut down on the opportunity for theft along the way. All of my gear arrived intact and ready to go, in spite of flying halfway around the world.
On the ground in Zambia, this setup worked perfectly for me. Since I wasn’t worried about lighting anything, I could slip in and out of the different stations at the clinic and unobtrusively gather footage.
I even turned off the tally light, so my subjects never knew if I was shooting or not, even though I was invariably shooting all the time!
I brought along lots of memory cards and I shot everything I could because you never know what you’ll be able to use in the edit room.
Fortunately, there was a documentary film crew on the trip as well, and in short order we decided to share each other’s footage and maximize what we could capture. Clearly my fundraising video wasn’t competing with their documentary so why not augment each other’s footage for the greater good of Entheos?
Now we could split up and cover twice as much territory, instead of hovering over each other shooting the same thing. Invariably, wherever I was shooting, something amazing was happening somewhere else, so the more ground we could cover at one time, the better.
But there was more to all this than just showing up, pointing the camera and shooting.
Before I left the States, I talked to my favorite NASA cameraman for some advice and he said, when you find a shot, hold on it and count to 10 – every single time. Even if it’s a mediocre shot, hang on it for 10 seconds.
Constantly moving and searching for shots gives you nothing to edit with. And 2 second shots give you next to nothing to edit with either. But odds are excellent that within that 10 second shot, you’ll be able to find that 3-4 second clip you need.
Another friend reminded me to cover each scene with a wide shot, medium shot, reverse angles on the principles in the frame and close shots of the details. These would be things like typing on a keyboard, the computer screens, hands taking notes, hands inserting a hearing aid, and the like.
I already knew these basics, but it was really good to be reminded of them before I left. Shooting in a staged situation with people who will do your bidding is a whole lot different than shooting nonstop activity documentary style.
Even though you may want to just shoot the most interesting thing going on in that moment, you also need to shoot enough coverage so you can edit it together later. So, it pays to take a breath and look around and assess how you want to cover the action.
With all that said, I also had to be ready to react and catch the great moments that were happening around me. This is where my little run and gun camera came in really handy!
Besides capturing b-roll of the activity at the hearing clinics, I also had to tape interviews that told the story of what Entheos was doing in Zambia.
So, on the plane over, and in my bungalow at night, I would pour over and refine the interview questions that I wanted to ask the audiologists and volunteers.
I knew from my years of producing video news releases for NASA that I needed a list of about 10 to 12 specific questions that would efficiently guide my interview subjects through their story. This would give me a series of manageable soundbites that I’d be able to work with back home.
If I just asked them to tell me their story, I’d end up with 8 minutes of a rambling narrative that is very difficult to cut in and out of and may not even touch on the main “Entheos in Zambia” story.
And if my finished video is only going to be 4-5 minutes long, working with an 8-minute long answer makes editing really difficult!
Since this was going to be a fundraising video, I knew that I had to focus on what the donor wanted to hear. They don’t care how long the days are, how tired the audiologists are, how fulfilling the work is for them (which it is!) or how uncomfortable the working conditions are. The donor knows these volunteers will go home afterwards to their comfortable beds and successful careers and be just fine.
What the donor does want to know is, who is Entheos helping, how are they helping them, why is this help so important, and how is this changing people’s lives? I knew if I could emotionally engage the donor in this story, then they were more likely to donate their hard-earned money to this cause.
So, all of my questions were geared toward pulling those answers out of my interview subjects. And since I shot interviews with several people, no one person had to carry the whole story.
As it turned out, each of the people I interviewed ended up telling one important aspect of the story really well, and it all came together perfectly in the edit.
Here are my takeaways from this trip, in no particular order:
In a nutshell, I knew I didn’t have to shoot feature film quality video. But I did have to capture the Entheos story in a professional yet economical way that would emotionally engage their donors and compel them to donate to their cause.
If you want to see how all this came out, here’s the video:
About the author:
Barbara Beck is the owner of Words by Barbara. She helps nonprofits tell their stories through copywriting and videos so they can engage their donors and increase their fundraising effectiveness.
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