Storytelling with just a Smartphone

By Christoph Trappe, VP of Communications, United Way

A smartphone is one of the most accessible tools nowadays and it can help us document stories that are worth sharing with our networks or audiences. Fifty-six percent of Americans carry one – a number that’s likely to increase.

One way people are collecting and documenting stories is through video. One hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. That’s a lot of video. But just because video is shot, doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile to watch for one reason or another. There certainly are ways to produce high-quality video that’s worth watching and that tells stories – either authentic ones or at least entertaining.

“Looking at some of these videos, it certainly is amazing to see that these were shot with smartphones,” said Will Lenzen Jr., who launched a 24-Hour Film Festival in Iowa’s Creative Corridor that required participants to shoot their videos with a smartphone.

Some stories work even if they are shot with low-production value. The horrific traffic crash, the house fire or any other breaking news event will attract viewership even if the picture is shaky. Scripted videos can lose an audience’s attention when production value goes down.

But phones are good for both kinds of videos. Let’s look at the scripted and produced ones for a moment. Some of what’s shared here was gleaned from what worked and what didn’t work at Lenzen’s festival.

Things to consider

Battery life: Once a phone’s battery is out of juice, the phone needs to be plugged in to charge. That could mean a limited amount of time to shoot.

Storage: Some phones – my iPhone, for example (and I love Apple products) – have limited storage. This could mean shooting and constantly dumping footage to a computer. Plus, you might get into a continuous cycle of deleting apps, reinstalling apps, deleting iTunes songs, re-downloading iTunes songs, etc.

Audio: Shooting interviews – especially if the phone isn’t directly in the person’s face – can be tricky. The audio can sound less than stellar. Microphones can be bought for this purpose. Another option could be to record audio with a second device or to shoot only b-roll with the phone and record voiceover later on.

Stability: Handheld smartphone video can be shaky, and it was when I first tried my luck during the 24-hour film festival in Iowa. To say the least, my video turned out a bit shaky. Sam Fathallah, a high school senior at Linn-Mar in Marion, Iowa, said he used to shoot all his videos with an iPhone and uses a steadi-cam with the phone to keep it stable.

Shot length: If you are a novice shooter, keep in mind that you’ll probably want to hold shots longer than you think you should. Once you have a nicely framed shot, hold it for a few seconds. If you want to incorporate a camera move, do that after holding the shot.

Shooting high-quality videos in a day

In October 2013, 10 filmmakers in Iowa’s Creative Corridor participated in the first ever Corridor Filmmakers 24 Hour Film Festival. The rules included that every video had to be shot on a mobile device.

Lenzen, the festival’s founder, said that the rule wasn’t meant to be restrictive but freeing and that stories can be told through simple, everyday devices. All videos can be seen on the festival’s YouTube channel.

Videos ranged from quick-moving shots highlighting the region, to a team shooting at 15 locations, to a video shot by just one person (who also starred in the video).

The audience favorite was one that was “voiced over” by a five-year-old boy. His aunt asked him to tell a story. She recorded the story and then acted the story out using toys and a doll house.

“I didn’t even know my computer had editing software,” she told the crowd at the screening. The video is a great example how audiences appreciate creativity. The team won second place – awarded by the official judges – and was also voted the audience favorite by those in attendance.

Just like in any project, planning can help. Caitlin Wiedenheft, who is the content development specialist on my communications team at United Way in Cedar Rapids, produced a video with her husband, John, who is an email marketing manager at GreatAmerica Financial Services.

“We started writing the script around 8 p.m. on Friday night and finished the shot list around midnight. We woke up the next morning before sunrise and continued shooting until 10 a.m.,” Caitlin Wiedenheft said. “We gave ourselves an hour and a half to edit, with 30 minutes to double-check everything and export the final video. What really saved us was that we wrote a shot schedule and kept to it. We had 5-7 locations and only 3 hours to shoot video so we had to map out our shots in advance and stick to our schedule.”

As tools become easier to use and people get more accustomed to using them, my hope is that the number of authentic stories will continue to increase. Community members, businesses and nonprofits (here’s one example from Cedar Rapids) all can share their stories in an authentic and meaningful way that can help us connect even more.

About the writer:

Christoph Trappe is currently United Way of East Central Iowa’s vice president of communications and innovation and helps United Way as well as Iowa’s Creative Corridor as a whole tell its authentic and meaningful stories. He sits on the Internet Marketing Association’s International Executive Council and often holds workshops on social media and storytelling.

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