Video storytelling with Android phones

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A photograph of a clapper board.

We know that story telling is an important form of communication, but telling that story can be difficult. How do you best capture the story you want to tell in a way that will reach the most people and in the most interesting way? If you were thinking “through a video” then you have read our mind. 

But if you’re anything like us, while you believe video is the best way to tell your story, you don’t actually know how to go about making a video and you have a limited budget. 

A man standing in front of a banana tree looking at a tablet he is holding in his hand and smiling.

We have put this guide together to help you put together the best video possible using the resources you have at your disposal. You will not only learn the best way to film, but also walk-throughs on how to craft a narrative, plan your scenes, edit your video and more. 

Video storytelling can be used to attract funders, raise public awareness, grow your community, the sky is the limit.  Regardless of the purpose for your story, the tools for creating it and the method of creation will remain the same. 

Pre-Production (planning and organizing)​

Step 1: Establish your cast of characters

When deciding who to include in your film, you will want to take into account who has the most passion for your topic and the most compelling story to tell. You’ll also want to pay attention to how they come across on camera. People with expressive faces, who are animated when they speak, are authentic and articulate will be more engaging for your audience to watch than someone who is more timid or stoic. You also want to choose people who are trust worthy. Will they show up to your scheduled shoots and will they tell the truth when you interview them. Working with people who are unreliable will add additional, stress to your project and can also cause costly delays.
Once you have decided on who you want to include you’ll need to determine how they will be included. Will you be interviewing them? Will you be following them around as they go about their daily activities. How many times will you need to interact with them. All of these logistics will play into how you scheduled your shoots as well as if and how you will compensate those appearing in your film.

Lastly, make sure you have everyone appearing in your film sign a consent form agreeing to be on film and that they are okay with you distributing the film. It’s important to have written consent to avoid any potential confusion down the line.

Once you have determined who will be in your film, how they will be appearing, if they will receive compensation and obtained written consent you are ready for the fun part. Bringing your vision to life!

Step 2: Define your purpose

When determining the plot for your film, you’ll need to determine what purpose your film serves. What is your thematic statement, meaning what message are you trying to get across? Keep in mind that in documentaries you will not write a traditional script so it’s important that you are very clear on the purpose of your film and the message you are conveying. Additionally you’ll want to know exactly what the aspects of your subject are that beg to be explored and which elements of the subject the audience will care the most about and find compelling. This will help you get the footage you need in order to tell a cohesive and meaningful story that will engage and motivate audiences. Speaking of footage, figure out in advance if there is existing footage or photos you can use or if you will be shooting all brand new film.

Step 3: Plot out your story

Your story structure will help you conceptualize the story you wish to tell using the main characters and key story points (the issue that underlies your film, the purpose of your film and the main character’s goal) that you’ve come up with. It will guide you in what footage you decide to shoot, who you choose to interview outside of your main character/characters and the questions you plan to ask. Don’t get too caught up in the details when thinking through the structure, “guide” is the key word. You won’t know the actual story until after you’ve done the filming. It’s perfectly okay and sometimes even better if the story you end up with is different than the story you planned on having. But before you cross that bridge, here are things to think about when creating a story structure for your film.

  1. The set up — establish the protagonist of your film and their world. You’ll need to establish your protagonist’s back story and the problem they are up against.
  2. The journey — once you’ve introduced the audience to the main character and their plight it’s time for the “journey”. In other worlds, the protagonist’s quest to achieve the goal and solve the problem that you introduced in the set up. This will be the meat of your film. . Show people what the protagonist has already done. What are they up against? Why isn’t this an easy challenge to overcome? Why does it need to be overcome? You’ll want to highlight the stakes and detail what will happen if the protagonist fails to achieve their goal. The higher the stakes, the more compelling your story will be to an audience.
  3. Climax and conclusion — the climax should come at the mid-point of your film and will ideally showcase a scene when the stakes are at their highest, perhaps with an acute risk of the protagonist failing — think major setback in achieving the goal. The rest of the movie will then focus on how the protagonist deals with this set back and the outcome of it. Did the protagonist end up meeting their goal? What difference did meeting their goal have on them/their world? If they didn’t meet their goal then what now? You want people to understand the magnitude of the problem, and the severity of the consequences if the problem isn’t dealt with, but you do not want them to feel like the situation is helpless or that it’s a lost cause, especially if the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal by the end of your film. Hope and the feeling that an individual’s actions can make a difference are powerful motivators for an audience. Other things you probably will want to include in your conclusion regardless of if the goal was met or not, is what the protagonist learned while working to achieve their goal. How things have improved since the journey to achieve solve the problem was started. What still needs to be done and how interested parties can learn more, get involved or support the work.

Note that you don’t have to follow your protagonist on an actual journey. Your film might focus on a problem the main character already tried to tackle. If that’s the case you’ll probably rely heavily on archival footage and interviews instead of real time footage and interviews.

Step 4: Scope our your scenes

As mentioned previously, documentary films won’t have a traditional script. But you still want to have an idea of how you would like the story to be organized and play out. A simple way to do this is to create a split script.

A split script is a visual representation of what is expected to happen in the film and depicted in two columns. The left column is used to describe the imagery that the viewer will see in each shot/scene and the right side will describe the audio that will accompany the video in the shot/scene. Like the story structure this is meant to be a guide so it doesn’t need to be detailed shot by shot and may change as you film depending on where the story goes and the footage you capture.

*insert example split script*

If you are making a higher budget film with intricate scenes and advanced post-production needs than you may need to create something more complex than a simple split script called a shot list.

With a shot list instead of two columns you will set up a table. The table will have columns with the following headers:

  • Scene
  • Setup
  • Shot
  • Description
  • Equipment
  • Movement
  • Angle
  • Shot size
  • Audio
  • Lens
  • Time estimate
  • Camera
  • Cast
  • Best take
  • Timecode
  • Notes

In each column you will note the following:

  • Scene: Indicate the scene number.
  • Setup: Add a new setup every time you reposition the camera or change the lighting. You can use these setups later to group similar setups together, making it simpler to shoot.
  • Shot:Increase the shot number by one every time you start a new shot. Depending on your preference, you may even want to reset the shot number for every new setup.
  • Description: Use this column to quickly explain where you’re at in the story structure. You should say what the focus of the scene is – whether it’s an actor, group of actors, prop, or a setting. Then describe any action that’s happening, any props involved, and what exactly the camera should capture. This description lets the director know everything that’s happening in the shot and helps ensure that everyone is on the same page.
  • Equipment:Use this column to list the equipment that will be supporting the camera. Note if you will be using a tripod, Steadicam, wagon, etc.
  • Movement:Use this column to explain what your camera’s doing when it’s not static, i.e. it’s moving. For example: static, pan, tilt, etc.
  • Angle:Use this column to describe the angle of the camera in relation to the subject of the scene. If your camera’s lower than your subject, it’s a low angle. If it’s higher than the subject, it’s a high angle. You can also include other terms that help to explain the angle, for example: eye-level.
  • Shot size:Describe the size of your subject in the frame. Varying shot sizes and having them appear in different orders creates dramatically different effects and creates visual interest for the viewer. A scene might start with a wide shot to establish where it’s happening, before moving to a mid-shot of your subject, then a close-up of the action. Shot sizes are often abbreviated. For example: wide shot (ws), very wide shot (vws), mid-shot (ms), close-up (cu), etc.
  • Audio:Use this column to explain how you’re picking up the audio.  Are you using an external mic, will there be a voiceover, etc.
  • Lens:Use this column to record which size lens you’re using. For example: 24mm, 50mm, 200mm, etc. Note that when filming with a smart phone you will only need to include this column if you are using your phone in conjunction with external lens.
  • Time estimate:Use this column to estimate how long it will take to set up (not shoot) each shot. This will help you build your schedule and timings for each day. It’ll also highlight any time-consuming shots, in case you need to cut or change them on the day.
  • Camera:Use this column to remember which camera/device you’re using (if you’re using more than one).
  • Cast:Use this column to note down which characters are in the shot.
  • Best take: Using this column and the following Timecode column can make editing easier. In this column note down if you got a particularly great take for a scene. scene was a great take and when it happened. If you don’t have a timecode, just change that column from ‘timecode’ to ‘clip’.
  • Timecode: In this column indicate the timecode of the great take. If you don’t have a timecode change the heading to “clip” and indicate which clip the take happened in.

*Insert example shot list*

Production (equipment and shooting)

Shooting is probably the most important stage of the video-creating process. If the material you capture is low quality no amount of post-production will be able to fix it for you. Sure there are tools that can help enhance poorly captured video, but to get professional quality footage there is no substitute for well shot film.  In this section we will review tips, tricks and tools for making sure you are shooting the highest quality video possible with your device.

Step 1: Choose your equipment

Not all Android Phones are created equal and the quality of yours will have a big impact on the quality of the video you film. Generally speaking, the higher the quality of the phone you are using, the better the lens and camera will be. Usually this is reflected in the price, but there are still decent options in  lower price ranges.

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Post-production (editing and distribution)

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