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How To Make Effective Explainer Videos

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There are three keys to creating effective explainer videos. Whether you need one to promote a for-profit company, product or service, or you are looking to help explain/advocate for a nonprofit enterprise, these are the most important tasks at the outset:

  1. Know Your Target Audience

People often start the video production process, understandably, thinking about their company, their product or their service. But actually, when planning a video, it’s smart to start with your audience. Who is your viewer? How old are they? What language(s) do they speak? Will you need to make your video accessible to the visually impaired or hearing impaired community (and if you are a federal agency, this is required by law.) What does your viewer already know (or not know) about your company, your nonprofit, or the featured product or service? Most importantly, what do you want them to know, and how does it affect their lives? Once we delve into these questions, we can start developing a conceptual framework or creative direction for your video.

  1. Know the Viewing Environment

Some of my work gets shown on giant screens at big events. Many of my videos get viewed on a smart phone. How we approach each project—from the visual design to the audio planning—depends largely on the primary viewing screen and environment. For example, if you think someone will likely be watching your video in a fairly quiet, home or office computing environment—let’s say for a training video—then we might use graphics that move pretty quickly and some fun music. If, however, this is a video that might be watched on a smartphone without the audio on, we’ll need to plan a design that has impact with only subtitles.

  1. What Do You Want the Viewer to Do Next?

When working in the fundraising and nonprofit arena, you often want the viewer to Volunteer Their Time, Write a Check, or encourage others to Get Involved.  If you are selling a product or service, you want someone to Click and Buy. These are very specialized goals that require the right kind of crafting of the story and message, because causing behavior change can be quite challenging. Usually we (or your in-house marketing team) spend time in pre-production interviewing people who are the target market, or in the case of a nonprofit have become involved as volunteers, to find out what triggers made them care.  We also may spend time out on location, meeting those people who have been affected by the product, or by the work of the nonprofit so we can hear their first-hand stories and scout the location to figure out the best way to show impact on the screen.

This pre-production preparation is essential to successful storytelling. Only then can we craft a design, the messages (script), a production timetable and budget.

What about some examples?

The video at the top of this post is an animated explainer I produced for a children’s hospital, to ensure families engaged in rounds while their child was in the intensive care unit. We had to translate this into multiple languages, thus the choice of mouth-free animated icons.  Animation by David Fuchs at RHED Pixel.

 

Here’s a fun US Postal Service explainer using what we in the production business call a “practical” visual effect (in other words, a real effect created on set, not done through the magic of post-production) to accomplish the visual “flip”. (Shot by Matt Gottshalk)

Here’s an animated explainer I created for an issue advocacy organization, in the style of the famous Monty Python graphics, in order to capture attention at a large membership event.  Animation by David Fuchs at RHED Pixel.

Here’s a fun stop-motion style explainer about a subject that isn’t always fun–dental care–produced by Rachel Rasby, with co-producer, Julia Hoppock, and cinematographer, Lee Gillenwater at the Pew Trusts.

This video for a farewell gala was created entirely in After Effects from archival photographs, interspersed with some original graphics and quotations that we solicited from supporters about the leader of this performing arts organization.  Animation by, you guessed it, my favorite animator David Fuchs at RHED Pixel.

What about costs?

It’s best to set firm parameters for you project, including the number of reviews you want to be able to have, whether you want live-action or animation, and any significant or quick turnaround deadlines, plus the target length. I know 2 minutes seems short, but it is double the number of frames of a one-minute video, so can take twice as many resources! For the purposes of this blog post, and based on my years of experience, I can give you some fee ranges.  If you’re project is entirely animated, and you have a very small team helping to guide the project and do reviews/approvals (i.e., there aren’t layers of bureaucracy or board members etc who might make significant changes along the way, thus adding to time and costs), then you can get an explainer for as little as $5,000-$7,000. Remember that on the low end of the scale, you must be sure any quote you receive includes proper licensing of any stock graphics, photos and music!  (Be VERY skeptical if someone tells you they can produce an explainer for much less than this.  I’ve seen some websites advertising $500. The professional rate per day for an editor or graphics designer and their equipment is this amount, and that’s just an average rate and doesn’t include time for scriptwriting, storyboarding, meetings with you, and working with your team to research and verify the factual content to be included, not to mention the creation or licensing of music, hiring and directing a narrator, etc.)  On the higher end, if live-action videography is involved, for example, because there are impact stories and interviews to be filmed, perhaps with travel to various locations, then you are more in the $20-25,000 ballpark.  Many videos will fall somewhere in between, and with a streamlined internal process for content design and approvals , you can get a quality product for about $12-15,000.

The opportunities and the options are endless with video. So start with 1, 2 and 3, and then engage some professional help to get you across the finish line.

Amy DeLouise is a writer-producer-director and love to explain things using video!

 

Hacking Video in 10 Essential Steps

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AmyDirectsTalentSo you want to make a video for your company or nonprofit. You may want to capture a particular event or person on camera. But what’s next? Actually, a lot comes first, before the shoot ever happens. Let’s break it down into all the steps that go into production. Then you can decide which parts you want to manage yourself. And you’ll understand the workflow if you decide you want to team up with a Producer or Production Company to help you.

Step 1. Define the Goal. Wasn’t it Yogi Berra who famously said “if you don’t know where you’re going, you probably won’t get there”? So knowing what you want to shoot is great, but if you don’t know WHY, and what kind of outcome you want for your production, you might miss your mark. Do people need to learn a key skill from this video? Do they need to get motivated to take action on a social or political cause? Do they need to feel good about their new company? Buy something? Attend your big event? Knowing your goal here is essential to how you design the video, but also how you measure success afterwards.

Step 2. Define the Audience. Success will rely partly on knowing your target audience. And please don’t say “everyone.” Have you noticed how many cable channels there are? And how about YouTube channels? We don’t live in a one size fits all world. Take advantage of that, and determine who you want to reach—age, demographics, viewing habits, and what information they bring to your subject matter. You might end up shooting 3 different versions of your show for those different audience segments.

Step 3. Consider the Viewing Environment. Are folks going to watch this video on their laptops? In a busy office environment? At a training session? At a purchase counter? On a noisy trade show floor? Gathered together with thousands of other activists for your cause? The viewing environment—the “envelope” as I like to call it—matters a lot. It helps determine length, emotional content, style, sound design, and many other factors. In addition to thinking about where people will view your video, this step is vital in determining your output specs. And output specs will influence your shooting specs. If I know something needs to be very high quality, on a big screen, I might shoot it in 4K or higher. If it could air on broadcast, we need to shoot interlace. If it will never be seen on anything other than the web, I might acquire footage in 1080p. All of these decisions need to be made up front by you, typically with the Director and Producer, in consultation with the Editor.

Step 4. Hire the Production Team. Pulling together the right team—for writing, directing, shooting, sound, editing, graphics design, sound design—is a key step. You might decide to do all of this coordination and management work yourself, or hire and direct a crew and editor you’ve worked with before. Or you may hire a Video Producer. She has a rolodex of folks she’s worked with, or perhaps a production company, who work as a team every day.

Step 5. Define Creative Concept and Budget. OK, Now that you know Why, Who and Where, you can start thinking about How and How Much. How will you best connect with this audience? Does this need to be fast-paced? Funny? Dramatic? Documentary style? Will the end product need to be less than 90 seconds long, for web viewing? Can it be longer–more like a brief news package (2-3 mins)—for group viewing? You’ll want to develop a creative treatment and maybe a few storyboards, so you have a sense of how things will look, and how much they will cost. You’ll also need these documents for internal approvals before moving forward with production. Here’s where a Scriptwriter and Creative Director can be helpful to your project. They have loads of experience developing concepts that are creative, but also achievable. Cost drivers will include schedule (is this a rush project?), how many shooting and editing days, and complexity of the concept.

So how about cost? People used to define video budgets in terms of “cost per finished minute.” I think it’s more useful to consider cost-per-impression. If your video costs $10,000 and reaches 20,000 people live and online, that’s 50 cents per impression. If those people go out and raise $4 million for your cause because the video helped inspire them, that’s a pretty cost-effective outcome. If your video costs $40,000 and reaches 2,500 people worldwide in online training sessions, that’s a cost of $16 per person. If you would normally spend $150 per person to send trainers to multiple locations, then you have saved yourself a bundle. So you need to know from Step 1 what the goal is, and whether this cost is justified. There is also a direct relationship between cost and quality, there’s no getting around that. Some situations do not merit a full-scale production. You may be able to get away with recording someone with an iPhone. That’s another cost-benefit analysis you need to make when weighing your options.

Step 6. Plan the Shoot. The shoot takes 10% of the time spent a given production, but it’s the part everyone thinks about most. Typically, the Director will work with the Producer and the Writer to develop a shot list. These could be very scripted scenes, or more documentary style “we hope to get this” kind of scenes. If it’s the latter type of shoot, be aware that you won’t get everything you dreamed of. But you might get some cool stuff you didn’t even imagine. If you think you might need footage for multiple platforms or purposes, it’s a good idea to bake this into your shoot plan and schedule. It will take more time and money, but save substantially on the back end.

Step 7. Tag and Digitize Footage. This step is usually done by the Producer with the Editor. It’s a time-consuming but vital process for reviewing, prioritizing and organizing all your content–footage, photographs, logos, audio, music–in a digital Nonlinear Editing System so that you can use it now and in the future. Make sure the tags are something that would make sense to someone not intimately involved in the project. So don’t label a shot “MS w JJ.” Label it “Marilyn Smith CEO _ Jarvis Jackson CFO”.

Step 8. Editing. Footage editing typically goes through several rounds. The first round—the rough-cut—might be done with only temporary or “scratch” VO and music. Later rounds will include professionally recorded voiceover, if that’s the style of piece you’ve planned, plus music that the Producer needs to license for your specific usage. Even stock music has a license, and YouTube will pull your video down if you can’t demonstrate that you have it. I tend to go through about 4 rounds of edit drafts: a rough cut for only internal folks to comment on, a finer rough cut for their bosses or decision makers to comment on, and then two rounds of final refinements for graphics, audio, narration and music. A sub-step of editing is graphics—whether simple text or more complex animation. If you have a million shots from various sources, you’re also going to need a color-correction step so it looks like a unified piece. The same goes for audio—an audio mixing session will help even out interviews or other audio from multiple sources.

Step 9. Compressions. In the world we live in, there are many platforms and many output specs. Hopefully you already figured out what you needed in Step 3.  My clients usually need several different compressions for projects—one version for Vimeo, another for YouTube, and another for a live event projection system.

Step 10. Future Proofing. Be sure you archive all your edit media—you’d be surprised how often you’ll need to go back for shots and use them in another production. Back up your project files. And be sure you also output one master file, at the highest possible resolution such as ProRes 4444, as well as a version with separated audio tracks, so that you can always go back in and reversion as needed in the future.

Brain Chemical Connects Us to Human Stories

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When we watch cSigning a Checkharacters on the screen, why do they make us laugh or cry? And why does one story make us want to support a charity or social cause? It turns out compelling human stories trigger a chemical response in our brains. Neuroscientist Dr. Paul Zak has been studying the neurochemical oxytocin for years, and learned that humans have a chemical response similar to animals when we find another human trust-worthy: a spike in our oxytocin makes us feel connected to another human being. Even when watching the human on a screen, this response is triggered—what Dr. Zak calls the golden rule response: “if you treat me well, in most cases my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to treat you well in return.”

Most recently, Dr. Zak conducted a study with several short films from St. Jude’s Hospital. When viewers connected with the characters in a short film about a father whose young son is dying of cancer, they had an increase in cortisol and oxytocin. That chemical boost ran parallel to feelings of empathy with the characters, which was increased when there was a strong “narrative arc”—a powerful dramatic rise and climax to the real people story line.

This doesn’t come as a big surprise to those of us working in nonprofit direct response and impact story-telling. We know that to get donors to give and communities to care, we have to tell powerful stories. We know that viewers must connect emotionally with our characters, just as they would with characters in a fiction film. We do this through not just their words and images, but through lighting techniques, music scoring and the pacing of our edits. But building empathy isn’t enough. We have to create a dramatic arc that builds to a climax. We have to create suspense around some kind of obstacle that the characters must overcome, whether it is in their past or present. And our viewers have to relate to that obstacle, even if it is not precisely the same for them.

This is why pre-interviewing potential characters is so essential for documentary-style stories based on real people. Before they go on camera, we need to understand what will be compelling, what will not be relatable, and what will build suspense for our viewers.  And now it turns out that what we’re also doing is triggering those chemical responses in the brain that will make our subjects and their story connect to the brains of our viewers.  In the case of nonprofit storytelling, we need those chemical responses to be strong, because we are usually looking for a response that extends to well after the video ends: we want a viewer to get involved in a cause, donate money, write to their elected officials, or change some previous behavior (stop smoking, lose weight, etc). So it turns out that all these years I thought I was an English major-turned-filmmaker, it turns out that I’m in the neuroscience business: triggering a brain response that helps people act on the golden rule, and do great things for others and the world.

Amy DeLouise is a director and producer who tells real people stories to help viewers connect with causes and take action.

Storytelling Connects With Donors and Grassroots Supporters

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In philanthropy, the saying is that people give to people, not causes. Connecting at the level of hearts and minds has always been critical to building long-term relationships with donors, and also with grassroots supporters. And the best way to do that is through storytelling.  Now that YouTube and other Web 2.0 tools are giving so many nonprofits a “channel” for their stories, personal narrative is being rediscovered.  But to tell a compelling story requires critical elements.

What makes a compelling story about mission?

1.       Focus on outcomes. Everyone loves a success story. Reality TV is filled with them: obese person becomes thinner, aspiring chef wins the prize, talented singer gets a record deal.  Think of the success stories in your organization, but instead of listing them as bullet-points, express them through anecdotal stories.

2.       Focus on people. The people who make it happen and the people whose lives are changed. Who are the teachers who made a difference in students lives? What are those students doing today? Who is the volunteer who went into a community and changed it for the better? What is happening in that neighborhood now? What would have happened to that child without a medical intervention paid for by others? What kind of life does this child have today?  Interview-driven narratives are highly successful at building the case for donors and volunteers.

3.       Show why your organization matters. Somewhere in the narrative, you need to show viewers why your organization made a tangible difference in the outcome.  It wasn’t just random acts of kindness that led to this success. It was your people, your dedication, your/their dollars at work.

4.       Engage viewers in their own narrative. Make sure there is a call to action somewhere in your story, usually at the very end. “How can you make a difference just like Alice did?”  “With just 20 cents per day, you can change the life of a child like Shawn.” “Join us at our XYZ event to make your voice heard.”  Think about what story viewers want to create for themselves after watching yours.

5.       Provide follow-up options. If a viewer is moved by your narrative, they should easily be able to click somewhere next to the video or case study to do something–sign up for the conference, make a donation, become a member.  Despite the tendency to want sheer numbers—hey, our video got 20,000 views!—you really want qualified viewers. You also want the video to be the entrance point to engage them with other content, either on your web page, Facebook page, etc.  So be sure you provide that option in your web video interface.

Telling and hearing stories is our oldest human instinct. Web 2.0 just makes it easier to share.