Streetfilm Strategy in Ten Steps

dsc05327.jpgWe have more and more people in their own communities out shooting their own "streetfilms" style shorts (notice the lowercase use there.) And whether it be a public screening or via e-mail, we frequently get asked advice on best techniques to use, what our story selection process is and what makes our films so effective. Of course we want to encourage as much video activism as possible - and can't be everywhere - so we are providing a "cheat sheet" for what we think are our Top Ten most effective strategies/methods.

Please note: where possible, I have provided linkage to some Streetfilms to illustrate some of the examples below.

1. - Pick a reasonable topic. Say you want better bike lanes or safer pedestrian crossings in your city, don't propose a system of ridiculously expensive, elevated walk/bikeways high above the city streets. Remember, to win more livable streets goals, you're looking to convince a skeptical, mainstream public which is comfortable with the status quo. We want to enlighten them by appealing to their sense of logic and common sense - not have them poking fun at you. Here's a good hit-the-ground-running idea that can't go wrong: videotape a known dangerous intersection in your town and interview respected experts to get their take on how to fix it.

2. - Define your target audience. Politicians? Neighbors? Health officials? Transportation officials? A funder? Yes, it can be all-of-the-above, but most times one of these groups will be your target. Know what they will want (or need) to see most.

3. - Know the best time to film. For example, if you wanted to do something on pedestrian overcrowding, you should actually go when the problem is most apparent. In other words, don't go Sunday morning. If you want to showcase people using bike amenities, don't go on a grey day when it's 20 degrees and snowing. You want to show people using them. I cannot emphasize how important this is. Besides your video looking bland, it might actually provide fodder for those who oppose your view.

img_4341.jpg 4. - Gather plenty of "evidence" - and use liberally. This is perhaps the most important of all. We call this shooting b-roll, the video you use in you film that will prove your point or argument. Say your interview subject is talking about a livable streets issue, well you better cut to ample video evidence to show what they are talking about. If you are on a street where people dangerously run a stop sign, you need to show that over and over. Heck sometimes even just a simple video montage can work wonders.

5. - Use experts, but also talk to the people. Interweaving sound bites from advocates and experts with interviews of regular people-on-the-street about issues in their neighborhood can be very compelling and can help make your case.

6 . Don't be a perfectionist. Sure, make your streetfilm as good as possible and mistake-free, but if you spend months trying to find the perfect shot/situation, or re-write your script over and over, or decide not to use a great shot because there is a smudge in the lower corner of the lens, then at some point you will enter the point of diminishing returns. Be very aware of your time frame and goals. A slightly-less-than-stellar Streetfilm that debuts during the momentum of an issue is probably better than a perfect one that misses a great window of opportunity.

7. Comedy and satire can help. But be careful when using them.

8. Refute arguments naysayers may have. Let's be honest, all documentary filmmakers and news stations approach their story with an angle in mind. But if you know the counter-arguments, address them in your video. Produce facts or use respected voices to defend your point of view. Use diagrams, charts, photos, and on-screen stats that prove it; similar case studies and solutions from other cities are great things to cite.

9. Three minutes (or less) is the goal. The majority of Streetfilms are in this range. We find that's about the maximum length to bring a topic across and still hold most of your audience's attention. To the general public, three minutes or so seems like an acceptable time commitment to sample your film. Of course something more comprehensive might need to go longer, but keeping your viewers engaged, entertained and enlightened is vital. Keep that in mind at all times.

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10. The cost of your camera doesn't matter, it's what you do with it. With the right editing and care you can make a great Streetfilm with a $200 camera, camera phone, or even just a bunch of great photos! The goal is not to create a Hollywood film, just a piece of video advocacy that will help you achieve livable streets in your area. Besides, you'll probably be posting on YouTube or a website to get attention and thus quality will suffer to some degree anyway. The awareness hopefully will generate more coverage by newspapers, tv stations, other websites and get politicians and the neighborhood involved.

Of course we realize we haven't even touched here upon camera technique and other shooting/editing tips. But there is only so much you can do in one list. So look for our Top Ten Camera Strategies in the near future! Good luck, now go out and change your neighborhood.