Q&A: how to document experiences remotely

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Hey Lindsay! Wow – I just wanted to say… I come back and check out what you’ve been up to every few months or so, and I am always amazed by you. I’ve followed you from WTI, through your Fiji project, Project Explorer, and now as you continue in your amazing job that I am so jealous of (truly the coolest job in the world, and obviously a great fit for you!)

I’ve been fascinated to see the things you are working on and see how you somehow get better and better at everything you do.

Recently I started working for a nonprofit that facilitates international exchange. Sadly, I’m not quite traveling the world like you – we are based in the States and facilitate tons of professional exchange and experiential learning programs both coming into the U.S. and Americans going abroad – but I am trying to up our game in the communications and social media realms. I think the work you are doing is going to prove as a real inspiration in that area!

One thing I am hoping to do is be able to create some great videos like these you’ve made for THINK. It’s hard because I have few opportunities to capture raw footage myself – only when a program happens to be somewhere nearby like D.C., but I want to get practicing! What kind of programs and equipment do you use? ANY tips you could offer would be so great. I know you’ve spent thousands of hours perfecting your craft just in the area of filmmaking – like I said, I have watched and read about your growth! I also know you are crazy busy, but I’d greatly appreciate any insights or lessons learned you have.

Thanks and best of luck! And next time you’re in the Baltimore/DC area – let me know! :) -Rachael T.

Rachael, when I receive questions like this, it makes me really happy that we've developed a course at my work that allows me to teach these sort of things. Thank you so much for your kind words, and I'm flattered you've kept up with my progression for so long! I know I put it out there on this platform, but the reminders that people are listening are always necessary in order to keep me sharp.

I love the sound of your organization! It's a thrill to hear you think we're doing well with social media marketing at TGS. In the same way that the school is an experiment in education, everything we are doing with social media is an experimentation based on new ways of communicating and what seems fun. I recently heard David Karp, Founder of Tumblr, say: "Don't grasp what's new if you're not going to enjoy it." I felt like that connected with my personal work as well as how we approach communication at TGS. Maybe that connects with you and your work as well.

I read your questions and interpreted the following: you want ideas for filmmaking when your work budget doesn't allow the globe-trotting necessary to film it yourself and gear/filmmaking tips in general. Hope that's what you were getting at. I want to approach this situation conceptually first and then reference filming tips and gear ideas.

Should I make videos? About what?

Photo by Joann McPike

Photo by Joann McPike

With an organization that values experience, it would make a lot of sense to create your own videos (my favorite experiential medium) and let that content reflect the totality of the experience you sell. It would help to first get a sense of your goal. Is your product confusing to first-time visitors to your website? Maybe that calls for a short video that explains your model and the value of your product. What do your customers want to know about your product after the first impression? Do they want to walk in the shoes of a traveler to the United States or an American traveling abroad? That's a pretty straight forward video concept. Do they want to see the diversity of your provided experiences? That presents a more difficult task.

Test out your audience by engaging with them on Facebook, Twitter, and beyond. Ask them what they are interested in. Use polls that only require a quick, instinctive response. Include required questions on any inquiry forms for your product, for example: how did you hear about us, what interests you most, of the following things what are you most curious to learn more about, etc. This data will inform your filming needs.

How do I film remotely?

Let's say your company needs to show an example of the experiential learning programs you offer as opposed to just telling what they are. You've established through the previous questions and social media engagement that people want to see one American's experience abroad, from the departure flight to the return. If you can't go, what do you do? Here are a couple options:

1. Rake through your participants in that kind of program and find one willing to avidly document.

Maybe they love filming and own an iPhone or a simple point and shoot. I tell my students a lot that the best camera is the one you have, and in your case of remote filming, it will be more valuable to you to have a motivated documentarian who can identify dynamic moments rather than just giving someone a nice camera. It might be in your company's interest to strike a deal with a willing participant who documents and reports back their footage while reaping a nice discount. Set up a Dropbox or Google Drive folder that allows for easy up/downloading of footage, and then you can craft a video snapshot with a great soundtrack to engage your audience.

2. Strap a Go Pro on a participant.

This style of filming might allow for more wiggle room with that person's filming know-how. Viewers of this end product will be able to almost literally put their feet into the shoes of their hopeful future position. Again, you would set up a way to easily gather the footage online and create a video snapshot, which is my way of saying a visual video that has little if any audio storytelling involved but relies on the viewer's desire to follow.

3. Ask someone to exercise their webcam to create footage.

What if your participants sit in gorgeous locations to sip coffee and observe the world around them? Do they witness guest speakers? Are they vocal about their experiences or encouraged to vlog? Maybe someone with a webcam is interested in being an ambassador of your programs to prospective customers. There's a variety of content that can be captured with this tool, and you have to think outside the box and experiment with what might be engaging for your audience. Just a warning: Photo Booth is a syncing nightmare sometimes. iMovie or Final Cut will work better to capture these recordings. I can't even try to help you with anything PC. #onetrickpony

4. Utilize free streaming applications like UStream.

Filming at TGS, behind the camera

Filming at TGS, behind the camera

Okay, so you can't find anyone who is willing to gather raw footage for you, but maybe they are willing to point their webcam at some interesting part of their life abroad. Can you think of a moment when live-streaming your participant's experience would be fruitful for the viewer? This reminds me that you should make sure your willing participant isn't super-de-duper crazy. It could definitely be a blow to your brand if someone utilizes the authority of live-streaming for your company in a negative way. No exhibitionists allowed...unless that's what you're going for. No judgment.

5. If you can't wrangle some A/V action, piece something together.

As you well know, video is audio + visual. In a video, A &V are married and have the same message or focus. They may be from the same original source or spliced together from the same story. You could also ask your participants to send you their media in both audio or visual form in order to weave together something that takes the A/V form. Make an Instagram hashtag for your participants to use, download those images, and lay them in a video editing timeline. Ask others to create Voice Memos of their feelings on their experience, ambient noise from their location, music from a local busker, you name it. Layer that sound onto the photos. Be creative and try this in many different manifestations.

All the above suggestions are either things I've tried or ideas I tugged out of my brain early this morning. Try your own experiments as well and make it fun.

What about tips for filmmaking and gear?

I'm not a star marketer by any means. I try what I've seen and develop my own vocabulary based on experimentation. When it comes to your video needs, I think you need to determine from that previous social media research what would work for you. Why don't I break down for you the different classifications of videos I've created for work thus far.

Video styles

Video Snapshots

Ingredients: visual b-roll (in my opinion, best achieved with a DSLR) synced up with a great soundtrack that can carry the pace of the b-roll and the theme of the content, audience takes away an idea of an experience

Experiential Academic Shorts

Ingredients: strong visuals of students in place, stand-ups of students talking about learning happening, often meta-cognitive commentary by teachers as core of story, audience takes away a lesson

Explanatory Marketing

Ingredients: pre-scripted, emphasis on capturing quality audio (from the script) that pulls the story forward, covered with a diverse range of dynamic b-roll, audience understands an aspect of your business better

Production/post-production gear and supplies

You might be able to tell from my previous suggestions that I work with Apple products like the MacBook Pro, the iPhone, and Final Cut Pro X. I won't be able to help you much with PCs or other gear (again #onetrickpony), so I hope this translates to what you have to work with. I have also mentioned a DSLR for video, which I think works wonderfully for online video content. I use the Canon 5D Mark II at work, but definitely do some searching around for the camera that fits your needs technically and functionally. I also use the Canon Vixia HFS30 camcorder for longer filming, because DSLRs aren't meant to film long clips.

A good soundtrack can also be as crucial as the footage itself. I wrote a hefty piece a while back about using music ethically, which might be a useful read for you.

Self-teaching filmmaking

As you mentioned, I spend a lot of time self-teaching new techniques, because it's crucial to always be evolving into a more effective, more dynamic storyteller. A good resource is the Vimeo Video School, which offers ideas for all skill levels. You are also welcome to view my newMedia Lab course for TGS, which is open to the public. My kids often supply the course with cool new ideas and tips in the form of bookmarks, files, and comments. Give it a look-see!

I hope I answered your question with new ideas or accessible suggestions. I encourage any reader to comment below any other tips for Rachael on how to achieve her goals at work with filmmaking. Thanks for your question, and keep in touch!

The ideas in this post are mine and do not reflect those of THINK Global School.