Kitten being rescued

How to SAVE a charity video and make it awesome for an online audience

Edward Dark blog

I have had the pleasure of making dozens of online videos for charities. Over the years I’ve learned how to make videos that work.

Our films for UNICEF, Age UK, Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, Scope and many more have had millions of views, shares and likes online. More importantly, they’ve helped these organisations to get vital messages out to defined audiences.

So why do they work? And how do I save my video if it’s not working?

There are a few key elements. They’re simple but often overlooked. At the risk of putting us out of business by giving away all our secrets, I’ve broken them down into four secret ingredients.

I believe this simple S.A.V.E acronym can rescue any charity film. And I’ve learned this the hard way – by making mistakes along the way. Which means you’re lucky – you can benefit from my cock-ups experience.

S is for STORY

If you’re making an online film, the film’s story is fundamental to everything. And when we lose sight of the story we’re telling, we risk confusing and alienating our audience.

Before you begin, break your story into three simple acts, agree them as a team and stick to them. This gives you something to refer back to, whether you’re in the shoot or negotiating over the edit.

It’s very easy to get distracted by a happy accident when filming – a beautiful shot that creates a stunning lens flare or a wonderful improvised line that you just can’t live without! But if it doesn’t work for the story it’s an unhelpful distraction.

Now there will be times when you do need to change the story entirely – if it becomes clear that the original story doesn’t work in practice. This needs to be an explicit decision, agreed by all involved, rather than something you continually tweak or accidentally stray from.

I changed the story when I directed Compassion in World Farming’s ‘Time to Decide’:

My original plan was to make this a visual piece with beautiful imagery juxtaposed with horrific violence towards animals. I thought that by making the violence beautiful it would act as an example of how our society represents violence – with animals and in general. I was completely wrong. Something really interesting happened on set – I started focusing the camera on the performances of the children in the piece rather than the scenery. It all makes sense to me now because I have since learned that ‘Story is Character’ (I highly recommend Kate Leys lecture of the same name at the LFS). Story isn’t visuals. Visuals are important, and you can tell a story with them (‘Koyaanisqatsi’ is a great example of this), but to tell a deeper story in a short amount of time you have to focus on characters. So, the edit process was an extremely difficult few weeks of me shifting the entire piece onto the characters in the story. They were the story so that’s what we focused the film on.

I realise those two points conflict slightly, but the most important takeaway from this point is Story is everything. Make sure you know what your story is (preferably you know this from the very beginning) and focus everything in the video to stay on track with that. It trumps everything, even the next three points in the S.A.V.E acronym.

A is for ASK

The most important question we ask all our clients at the start of our process is “who do you want to do what?”

Once you know the target audience and action you are seeking to drive, you can direct your story and all your visuals towards that end.

Catsnake’s Creative Director, Stephen Follows, always says that the end of your story should be unexpected, but at the same time feel inevitable. “Of course!” is the feeling you want your audience to say to themselves (or out loud in crowded places – word of mouth is important after all).

This is extremely important with charity films. People online want to be entertained (more on this later), they don’t want to be preached to. If people get to the end of your video and they feel bored or duped into watching a charity film then you have failed. There is no point making a video filled with exciting clips of death-defying stunts then slapping THE DONKEY SANCTUARY – DONATE NOW on the end. It has to make sense.


V is for Visuals

Before I start on this one, it’s important to state that story trumps visuals EVERY SINGLE TIME. If there is a conflict, you should always favour the story. But, this doesn’t mean that the visuals aren’t important.

Online you have a few short seconds to grab your audience. Your opening shot has to work hard for you.

Start your video with an image that is visually striking or interesting.

An example of this is Scope’s ‘Two Words can Change the World’.

Scope’s online promotion plan meant we needed to ensure that the opening 6 seconds really grabbed people on YouTube. We see the sun coming out from behind the earth and we hear the familiar voice of Stephen Fry say, “Two Words…” – it kept people watching.

E is for Entertaining

Your video HAS to entertain. There are no two ways about this and you have no excuse for putting something out that people don’t want to watch.

Online is a wild west of content and you are competing with EVERYTHING THAT HAS EVER BEEN CREATED EVER. Put that into context: online audiences can watch The Godfather part 2, their favourite clips from Saturday Night Live with Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Alex Baldwin as Donald Trump, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, they can watch their favourite Monty Python sketch, the award-winning Documentary Black Fish, they can watch every episode of Breaking Bad. They can watch the highlights to whichever Football, Rugby, Cricket or Basketball team that played yesterday. They can watch their favourite match of all time. They can scroll through Facebook and see an inspirational video about a man who saved 669 kids from death camps during WW2 being thanked by those survivors all at once (he kept it a secret from everyone by the way – what a hero). Hell, they can even watch their niece walking for the first time on Facebook Live Video or they can watch kittens on youtube.

Such is the competition I know for a fact that I just lost a bunch of readers to the WW2 hero video and the kittens compilation. Thanks for staying by the way.

Start from the idea that no-one wants to watch your video and listen to your message. It’s your job to make them.

So, if you have a charity video that just isn’t working or if you simply want to start from a good place… you can SAVE time and use the S.A.V.E acronym to SAVE your charity film.