Planning your video project

WITNESS is a USA-based NGO that uses video and online technologies to expose human rights violations. WITNESS aims to empower people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, public engagement and policy change. Some of the information in this chapter is based on the work and experiences of WITNESS. Its Video Action Plan maps out a series of questions to consider when you are developing a plan to integrate video into human rights advocacy. Look at it to help create a tailor-made plan for your campaign, even if you only answer some of the questions (click here for more information)

Planning your video project is essential. Even a simple project will go through each of these main stages, and many of the steps within each stage.

  • Pre-production

Planning – see the Witness Video Action Plan and the Guide to Video Advocacy.
Preparing a budget
Preparing a script
Identifying which equipment, locations, interviewees, facts and figures, images, graphs, logos, archive footage etc. are required
Checking copyright on any pre-existing sound or images you plan to use, obtaining permissions if necessary

  • Production

Sourcing and obtaining archive or other pre-existing footage

  • Post-production

Logging and transcribing footage
Titles, subtitles and credits
Translation (where required)
Screening a rough cut for feedback
Final adjustments and checks
Sound mixing
Preparing your video for online and offline distribution

  • Distribution
  • Promotion 

All of these steps need to be considered and planned in advance; for example, promotion might require still images to be taken on set during production, and your distribution method could influence the style, length and content of your video. Don’t leave it too late!

Making an effective video requires creativity and dedication, so one or more people should commit themselves to overseeing the process from the planning stage right through to distribution. Decide in advance how much time can be dedicated to completing the video. If you need it in time for a particular event, plan backwards from that date, allowing plenty of time for any technical hitches or other contingencies. Generally speaking, the time needed to make a well-produced video piece can be estimated as one day for every minute of edited video time. Planning is the first stage of making any video, and well over half the total time will need to be dedicated to editing and to distribution.

Define your audience and decide which are the best media and distribution channels to use to reach them BEFORE you start production. Advocacy video is most effective when used strategically as part of your campaign, which means you should never be producing your film and then wondering what to do with it. Bigger is not necessarily better. When your distribution strategy is linked to grassroots campaigns and communities it may have a greater impact on the people that see it than would a programme on television that an audience has casually flicked over to.

Don't be afraid to ask more experienced film-makers for advice; you can also learn a lot by helping out with other peoples' projects before starting with your own.

What resources and skills will you need?

The cost of making a video is now very low compared to even five or ten years ago, but there are a few things you will need access to, depending on the type of video project you are planning:

  • A video camera – this can be simply a mobile phone or digital stills camera with a video function. If you are planning to edit together existing materials without creating new footage, then you will not even need a camera.
  • Software – this toolkit will direct you to free Open Source Software tools where they are suitable and accessible to most users, and to proprietary tools where no free tools are available.
  • A computer – if you plan to do any editing (it is possible to avoid this, or to contract editing out to others), the most expensive resource needed will be a fairly powerful computer. Most medium-range new computers these days will be able to handle basic video editing. If your project is large or your computer lacks the necessary resources you might need to be creative and find a way to access a computer through a large NGO, university or community media centre.
  • Production and post-production funds – other expenses to consider are production costs (related to shooting the video), and editing and distribution costs (related to printing and distributing DVDs, for example).


For gathering video, being able to use a camera effectively and get the sound recording right is all that is necessary. You can also put together pre-existing footage or even use still images combined with sound and music. 

Editing requires more skills, but is also increasingly accessible to the beginner. You also have the option of finding a volunteer editor who has more experience, or of paying a professional.

Distribution & screening can be done by anyone with access to copies of the video, screening technology (e.g. computer, projector) and/or a screening venue.

Some of the skills you'll need to have, access or develop are:

  • Planning and budgeting
  • Liaising and coordinating with interviewees, funders and any other people involved
  • Camera work
  • Sound recording
  • Video and effects editing
  • Managing licenses, permissions and copyright
  • Music and sound mixing
  • Transcription and translation
  • Encoding for internet and DVD
  • Packaging design and promotion

Story, style and synopsis

The habits of your intended audiences and the resources available to them should influence the style of your video, as well as your method of delivery and distribution, the length and language/s of your video, and whether you decide to make an ongoing series.

Do your audiences have access to the internet? Do they have fast broadband or slow dial-up access? DVD players? TVs? Do they attend public gatherings? For instance, if you're reaching out to workers who may not have internet access, a twenty-minute DVD about labour rights might be appropriate. If you're raising awareness about over-fished seas among college students, you may opt to create a two-minute humorous animation, distributed over popular video sharing services and social network sites.

Imagine you are in an elevator with a potential donor for your video project. You have only ten floors, or 30 seconds, to give your 'elevator pitch', a brief description of what your video is about, what the viewer will see and why it is important. Are you ready?

This is an important exercise to enable you to express concisely the message, story and storyteller of your video. Try writing a brief guiding paragraph or synopsis that explains what viewers will actually see and hear in your video. This should not be a summary of the video’s message or an analysis, but a description of how you visualise the story unfolding. Every word should relate to something one will see or hear in the video. Your synopsis can also describe the style and feel of the video; for example, a fast music-video style, a more slow-paced story or a series of stark images interspersed with title-cards.

Start by identifying the most important key messages of the video. Once you have done this, focus on the details, such as who your storyteller(s) will be, and what tools you will use to unfold the narrative.

Sample synopsis

Here is an example of a synopsis of a video on internally displaced people in Burma:

This video shows the continuing insecurity faced by people displaced by the military government at the end of 2005. 

We open with a fast series of graphic images of the government's offensive. We review the facts of the action, including how many people were displaced, using a series of title-cards. Then the villagers show us how they live in a community hidden in the jungle, relate their experiences and personal stories, and talk about their hopes and fears for themselves and their children. 

These interviews and conversations are shown alongside sequences of daily life that demonstrate the continuing challenges facing villagers in the war zone in 2006. They stay in small groups near their fields, living in temporary homes and avoiding their villages in the plains. They have very little food, no opportunities for education, limited healthcare, and no security. 

We travel with them through the jungle as they walk day and night to get away from the attacks; we are with them as they hide their food supplies, pack what they can carry on their backs, and prepare to set off again to escape a renewed offensive. 

The video closes with an explicit call –  in the video as well as in an end title-card –  for support, as well as for pressure on the government to stop the attacks.

About narration

Remember that compelling personal stories make for powerful videos. Evaluate how your primary audience would respond to your storyteller(s), while being mindful that an 'expert' interview may give credibility, and may help to elaborate nuanced legal or policy obligations. Often a balance between the voice of personal experience and that of expert opinion will be best.

This balance is influenced by your overall treatment; for example, whether facts and figures are narrated (spoken) or displayed (shown), and whether they come before or after personal accounts.

If you plan to use a central narrator in the film, who would be your first choice of narrator and how will you get access to this person? Narrators can play a very useful role in helping to structure the film, and to fill in gaps in information. However, for some audiences, narration may be perceived to be manipulative or indicative of a particular point of view or opinion. Other issues to consider when choosing a narrator include credibility, gender, national origin, celebrity recognition, and availability/accessibility.

Which style best supports your goals?

  • Interviews – the resources needed to create a video interview can be relatively minimal. Armed with a simple camera and microphone, basic shooting technique, and thoughtful questions, you can create an engaging piece of media that can be used to introduce a person, an idea, or even to spur viewers to take action.
  • Covering Actions – examples of this type of video are varied, from secret recordings that highlight injustice to video documentation of a march or gathering. Such documents can often be simple to record, but be aware of the possible ethical, privacy and security implications of releasing this type of video publicly (Read more)
  • Testimonials – can engage both the individual testifying and the audience watching. They can be used to build solidarity, to spur groups to action or to promote your organisation.
  • Drama/Fiction – people often assume that activist video has to be non-fiction. But fiction or drama can be emotionally engaging tools that ask real questions of their viewers and offer new insights.
  • Humour – is a good way to get people to see the absurdities in a policy, idea, or stance. Obviously it can be mixed with many of the other styles mentioned here.
  • Animation – Some types of animation require special skills, tools, and software. However, it can also be achieved very simply with a digital stills camera, a marker pen and a white-board. Making advanced animations can be a slow process.
  • Music Video – Combining engaging visuals with music can have powerful results. Consider adding text if your message is too subtle. Remember that most pre-existing music is covered by copyright.

Sequencing your video

A sequence is a series of shots that you put together to cover a particular idea or action. Try to prepare an outline or list of the sequences you need to tell your story. When this outline includes drawings giving a rough idea of what the shots will look like, it's called a storyboard. Make sure to describe what the viewer will see and hear: who is doing what, and what are they saying? 

Visual elements

There are many visual elements or techniques you can use to tell your story. Here are some that you may choose:

  • Images of things happening – people doing things, perhaps talking as they go, without commentary.
  • Landscapes & 'general views' – locations and inanimate objects that are part of the story or its context.
  • Conversations observed – people talking while aware of the camera, but not being interviewed directly.
  • Hidden camera – conversations or people talking to each other, with the camera unobtrusive or even hidden. Note: there are ethical, privacy and security questions to be considered (Read more).
  • Re-enactments – factually accurate recreations of scenes that could not be filmed, or that happened in the past. Remember that there may be credibility problems with this in the human rights context, particularly if the reasons why a scene could not be filmed, or needed to be re-enacted, are unclear to the audience.
  • Expressionistic shots – often symbolic or artistic, to represent a concept or provide visuals where you do not have access to the location; in historical interviews, for example.
  • Manipulation of imagery – using slow motion, fast-forward and other effects.
  • Still photos, maps, graphs or documents – filmed with a static camera or panning, tracking or zooming.
  • Text – including on-screen titles, headlines, names/affiliations and graphics used for creative and informational purposes. Subtitles for the hard of hearing and translations to foreign languages have also traditionally been added in the editing stage, but are increasingly treated more efficiently as separate digital files (Read more).
  • Archive footage – this could come from a professional archive, or personal memorabilia, and possibly from other films. Remember footage from a commercial source is usually expensive and it's complicated to get permission to use such footage.
  • Blank screen – used to separate images or sequences and help the viewer to reflect on what they have just seen or heard, to prime them for what is next, indicate a change of sequence or location, or to emphasise sounds. 

Audio or sound elements

  • Interviewee speaking – you can use audio recorded separately or use the audio from a video interview, or use both the video and audio.
  • Conversations – either recorded with the participants’ knowledge or unobtrusively/secretly.
  • Narration – this could be a 'voice of god' voice-over, or be spoken by the filmmaker or by a participant in the story, either onscreen or off.
  • Synchronous sound – sound recorded while filming, and therefore synchronised with the actions in the image. This kind of sound is very valuable to help smooth out an edit.
  • Sound effects – particular sounds, not necessarily synchronised, which can be recorded while filming, or at a later point, or found in a sound effect library.
  • Music – this is usually added during editing.
  • Silence – the absence of sound can indicate change of mood or place, or prompt the viewer to refocus on the screen.

       Pre-production planning

Once you have determined your key messages, your story and your storyteller/s, you need to identify any gaps you may have in your research. These questions can help you get started; however, you should also include additional questions that are relevant to your specific organisation and video advocacy plan.

  • What footage is already available, and how can you use it?
  • What are the audio and visual components that you hope to include in the video?
  • What do you currently have access to and what do you need?
  • What security and privacy risks may be involved in using footage?

For each of the elements below, consider what is the material, how will you obtain it and whether there are any copyrights in place, which would mean negotiating with the owner of the rights in order to use the material.

  • Video or audio interviews produced by others
  • Footage shot by your organisation
  • Footage shot by television stations or other videographers
  • Photos
  • Music
  • Other sound sources (not music or interviews)
  • Printed material related to the subject of your video

Archive video and photo material, as well as music, can be difficult and expensive to licence. However there is a range of 'Open Content licensed' material available. See Consider copyright under the Strategy section for more information (Read more).