Volunteer Videography Tips on a Charity Mission
One of the best things I did recently took a working holiday as a volunteer videographer with a charity local to where I live. The video would be for a 30 minute documentary about the work of a children’s charity. We traveled as a group to several rehabilitation hospitals in several cities in Vietnam. Some of the videos I created can be found at my Video-Connects channel.
As a speaker, I am always trying to perfect my story telling ability. But as a videographer, my role now shifts to being on the outside looking in; first to recognize a story, then to immediately capture it in video. I already started putting to use a video arsenal doing video blogs for my website. Some skills of videography I already knew and practiced. But several events caught me by surprise and helped me grow my expertise.
Here was my scenario. I was traveling with our team of 11 plus interpreters to hospitals giving full-day workshops to parents and young children with cerebral palsy. Rooms were tight. It was hot and humid. Near the end of day, the children were tired and crying. At times I had to jump from room to room capturing scenes of the children ranging in age from 9 months to 17 years. I was looking to capture emotion in the faces of the mothers and their children. I also wanted to profile each of our health care professionals who volunteered to work with these children.
We would leave our hotel by 7 am and not be back until 5 pm on most days. Along with wanting to visit and dine with our team in the evening, I usually had no less than 2 hours of work in my room backing up, reviewing, and indexing all the days video I collected.
But I was in my element as there was a lot going on around me. I felt I had a story to capture and tell. What follows are tips I learned which I would like to share.
Don’t assume you will only be holding the camera and capturing video. You may also have to jump in and be the producer, choreographer & editor – everything from beginning to end of producing the video. Also, you being the editor will empower you to capture the video just the way you want it and save you valuable time editing later.
Make sure you have enough battery power – enough to power a full day of camera work. Buy the largest battery you can. I had 2; 1 for the morning and 1 for the afternoon. We were out for 12 hours some days. Also ensure you buy an external battery charger. The built in charger of the camera is a poor standby. Don’t rely on it when you are shooting every day on a road trip. You wouldn’t want to risk blowing the electronics of the camera while charging the battery. One reality was that I did not have a backup camera. If it broke, I would be sitting idle.
Have a travel backpack you can easily carry and access during your daily video hopping. I had 2. The main one was my carry-on with all my video gear contained. When travelling you do not want to check-in your delicate video gear. For your day outings, have a smaller backpack with lots of pockets that you can comfortably sling over your shoulder or back so you can access easily while shooting.
Have a long extension chord for your hotel room when you backup your video and recharge your batteries each evening. I took this tip from a work colleague who travels internationally and it saved me big time. The hotels we stayed in usually had only 1 plug that was easily accessible, albeit across the room from where all my laptop and video gear was set. If I didn’t have this long power cord with me, I would be in dire straights.
Backup your videos each evening to an external drive if not two. Review them to ensure they copied over properly before deleting from your camera. I made 2 backup copies; 1 in the laptop drive and another on an external USB drive.
Have a laptop with a video viewer so you can review your videos to ensure you have the shots you want that aren’t jerky or out of focus. I had my video previewer installed on my laptop so I can quickly watch my video of the day, I.e. lighting, panning or maybe too much jittery motion. Mistakes made today can be corrected for tomorrow’s shoot.
Ensure you have enough spare SD memory cards. Sometimes they can go bad or get lost due to their small size. You may also have found good content and decided to shoot longer to capture everything.
Have a wrist strap attached to your camera. If your camera slips out of your hand, you have 1 more chance to save your camera from bouncing on the concrete. This saved me several times, especially in a hot climate when workdays were 10+ hours and I was tired.
The wrist strap should have some branding on it like your country flag. Mine was a red TEDx lanyard and actually started several conversations with other tourists and eventual biz card exchange.
Wear hiking shorts with LOTS of pockets. I had SD cards, batteries, notepad, pen, water bottle and everything else in every pocket.
Tripods are big and bulky. I had a telescopic carbon monopod which was great at getting me into tight spots quickly. It also adjusts on-the-fly. It was so comfortable to hold and adjust the telescopic legs. It was also great for going over people’s heads when a crowd developed around my subject matter. Overhead shots add dramatic effect also. There’s nothing like getting right into the story subject.
You may have a story in mind but be prepared to follow a segway story or 2 that may unravel right before your eyes. You must always be on the lookout for scenes and stories developing around you. Have your camera on and microphone running to capture that video clip with good sound. These can be blessings in disguise to give your story a twist or spinoff. Remember, you may also collect enough good footage for 2 or 3 additional stories, to be edited and released at a later date.
Always have your video camera at hand during your filming day – even in the evening when you are out for dinner with your team. You never know when a video story could break out in front of you. You want to be able to capture it. During a cab ride I got a very insightful opinion from one of our Vietnamese interpreters about the history of CP in Vietnam. Genuine episodes like that just cannot be repeated.
Always have your camera visible around your team or subject matter. Your subjects will get so accustomed to you they eventually won’t know whether you are filming them or not. This is great to capture those candid shots. My purpose was to capture them at work around the parents and children as candidly as possible. We all know that as soon as a camera appears, people go stonefaced, guarded, and rehearsed. You want to capture them as relaxed, candid, and natural as possible.
Be sure to have a variety of energy bars and snacks including water in your pack or pockets. I didn’t and there were days where we weren’t eating for a while. You want to keep your energy up. Nothing worse than a hunger pain or thirst to distract you from your videotaping.
Most importantly, do a daily index of all your video clips while the day is still fresh in your mind. I started to slip after the first several days and began to forget what clips were from where. I quickly corrected that by doing an excel sheet on my laptop, indexing by clip number and briefly describing the scene, location, and significance. I did this every evening in my hotel room while charging up the batteries and doing backups. If you know what storyline you want to follow, you can start marking specific clips for use in your documentary. This saves you time when you get back home. I also found it very helpful to review all clips each evening so it would become embedded in my mind; what I had enough of and what was still needed.
Keep your video clips no more than 2-3 minutes long, even 1 minute in duration. Once I returned to Canada, I found that it is much faster to find a video clip by searching 5 one minute clips, than to search 1 clip 5 minutes in length. This discovery completely surprised me.
My key subject Laverne and I made an agreement that whenever she felt an epiphany of emotional commentary ready to surface, she would signal for me to come over asap and video her monologue. These commentaries would be sprinkled throughout the documentary to reflect truly what transpired during our 3 week mission. It helps for the videographer to get to know their subject person fast by spending some time with them over coffee, a drink or a meal. In this case it was easy as Laverne and I have become good friends over the past several years.
Upon returning to our hotel at the end of day, we always had a 1 hour debrief in the dining area, giving each team member a chance to share anything they wished, whether related to their workshop or their true feelings in general. This was the time I used to get some ideas for other video clips I could capture next day. It was also a great way to team build and share your experiences as a group in a distant country.
Videography Learning on the Street
There you have it; my tips for aspiring videographers. I am already looking forward to my next video trip where I will further strengthen my skills mentioned above. Happy video journaling!