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Film Activists Better

Above photo: Sam Lee at the Just Stop Oil blockade, Westminster Bridge, London, 1 October 2022. Zoe Broughton.

A guide to filming protests on your smartphone for maximum impact.

By one of the most experienced activist filmmakers around.

If you film your campaign group in action, the footage can be used on social media or even broadcast news to get the message out to a wider audience.

By filming it yourself, you are being part of DIY (Do It Yourself) culture and not relying on the mainstream media to turn up.

Here are a few hints to get you going, using a smartphone.

Before you go out

Try and make sure your phone is fully charged.

Pack your charged battery pack and charging cable if you have one.

Make sure you have space on your phone to record onto.

Make sure you have data available on your phone plan, if you are going to upload your films while you are out.

Take a lens cloth – you’ll probably have one if you have glasses, or you can get one from an optician’s or maybe a chemist’s.

Keeping the lens clean while you’re out will improve the quality of your image and help the auto focus to work.

Take basic wired headphones (see below). If they didn’t come with your phone, they might cost £20.

These are helpful for improving the quality of the audio on your interviews (as explained below) and can also be used for the editing after.

When you’re out there

  1. Film in landscape (wide screen, with your phone on its side) not in portrait (how you normally hold a phone, upright). Landscape is the shape of computer screens and television. Shooting in landscape makes the footage useful for future documentaries and the news. (If you want portrait footage for social media, like TikTok, just film a slightly wider image in landscape; it’s usually possible during editing to crop the landscape into portrait.)
  2. When you’re interviewing someone, ask them to look directly into the camera lens, especially if it’s for social media. On the other hand, you may want them to look at you instead. (If you don’t tell them where to focus their eyes, they could look all over the place during the interview, and this will look strange later, on film!) Do also think about light levels (though the latest phone cameras tend to get this right automatically). You want the face of the person you are interviewing to be well lit – it doesn’t matter if the background is too bright or too dark. You can usually adjust the light by tapping on the screen where their face is and sliding the sun icon to the right up and down.
  3. Film short interviews. Let people know how long you want their answer to be. For example, if it’s for social media, the answer should be under a minute! Ask open questions, not questions they can answer with a yes or no: ‘Can you tell me where you are and describe what is going on today? What you hope to achieve? Please could you answer in full sentences because my questions will be edited out of the film. So you could start your answer: “I’m here today because.…”’
  4. Think about the background of the speaker. It’s best if the background is relevant and shows where they are and the action.
  5. To get good audio when you are filming an interview at an event, think about how noisy it is. Can you ask the person to move away from the noisy people nearby, or away from the traffic or the samba band? Film a short clip of them saying their name and then stop and listen back to this. Can you hear them over the background noise? Also, now, when you edit the film, you can find their name if you need to credit them!

You, the camera person

  1. Hold the phone steady while you’re filming. Film each shot for at least seven seconds. Think of it like taking a long photo. Don’t keep moving the camera around. You can just hold your phone in your hand, or you can buy a phone holder or even a gimbal. A gimbal is a device that holds your phone and keeps the image steady even if you are walking around – see the picture below for an example. [‘Gimbal’ sounds like ‘thimble’, except it starts with the ‘g’ from ‘give’ – ed]
  2. To improve the audio when doing interviews, plug the headphones into the phone and…
  3. Hold the microphone bit out towards the person you’re interviewing.
  4. You don’t hold the actual mic, you hold the wire on either side of it. Hold the mic just out of the frame, so it can’t be seen by the phone camera! (If you want to invest in kit, Rode wired mics for smartphones or Rode or DJI radio mics are excellent.)
  5. If it is windy, hold your lens cleaning cloth loosely over the mic. This will block out some of the wind buffeting and improve your audio.

Film these types of shots

  1. Interviews – film someone explaining the where, why and what is going on. (See the first picture above for an example of an interview.)
  2. Action – have your phone out and be ready to film when the event starts.
  3. Cutaways – interesting shots like banners, wide shots to show the size of the action and where you are – and also the audience looking on. Cutaways help keep the audience’s attention.

How to share your photos and videos

One way of sharing your videos and photos with the media is through a ‘For Press’ Google Drive folder which you create before the demo/action/event. You can then put the link for this media folder into the press release for your event.

How do you get images/footage from the event into that folder?

Many groups now share their content using the free app Telegram (which can be used on your phone or on your computer). Telegram is like WhatsApp but it doesn’t compress imagery (it can take files of up to 2GB), so you can use it to share good quality photos and videos with high resolution.

Create a Telegram ‘group’ for your group, and ‘pin’ it when you are on an action, so it is easy to find.

When you have something to share, open Telegram. Click the paperclip icon and then choose your video to share. At the bottom, you can then choose the highest option to share it in. You can also choose ‘file’ for the highest quality option.

When you post content, add a brief description of the action and where the picture or video was taken – and who should be credited for the image.

Also clarify to all in the chat that if images are posted in this Telegram group then the owner is agreeing for them to be used by the media.

If you have someone managing press for the action, they can watch the footage coming in on the Telegram chat, choose the best photos and videos and download them and upload them to the ‘For Press’ folder. This folder can be updated as new images and edits are made through the day.

Alternatively, people filming on the ground could upload their footage and photos to a non-press ‘group’ Google Drive folder set up for the event. (You need to create that folder, and share the link for it with the people who will be filming and photographing, before the action takes place.)

Someone managing this group folder on their computer would then choose the highlights, or edit the film, and choose what should go in the separate ‘For Press’ Google Drive folder for sharing with the media. This folder can be updated as new images and edits are made through the day.

Also, don’t forget to post your footage to the best-known social media platforms!

Edit in your phone

I use the free app CAPCUT to edit footage on my smartphone but there are lots of apps you could choose from.

Download the app and then start by opening a new project.

Choose the interview as your first clip. Trim the length of this.

To make the film more interesting, you can add a few clips as cutaways, called ‘overlay’ in CAPCUT.

Choose an interesting clip that is relevant to what the person is saying.

Use your fingers to stretch the clip so that it fills the screen. This will then be seen but you’ll still hear the interview.

Remove or reduce the audio from overlay clips.

Add text if it’s needed. This could include the name of the speaker and ‘Filmed by [your name]’. You could also include your group’s website or a campaign message.

When you’ve finished the edit, you can click ‘add auto captions’. Check these through for typos to correct.

If you want to make a portrait video (maybe for TikTok), start by recording a short portrait video of anything right now.

In CAPCUT, start a new project.

Add this portrait video first.

This makes the settings for this project ‘portrait’.

Then add your interview. You can resize it by stretching it out with your fingers on the screen until it fills the shape.

Then delete your first random portrait clip by tapping on it and hitting the ‘delete’ option.

Then carry on your edit as above, adding cutaways/overlays and resizing them, and adding text.

All options, such as ‘cut’, ‘adjust audio levels’ and ‘add overlay’ are picture icons at the bottom of the screen.

Once you have finished editing, export the film.

It will then appear in your photos on your phone and can then be shared.

Congratulations on becoming a filmmaker!

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