Episode six of Digital Democracy Television, a show I helped to create and have edited four episodes of, has just been broadcast over the cyberwaves. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really ought to take a look at the first few episodes and see what we have created. We really know of no other show that is doing what we are: following the development and work of a nonprofit as it happens, not through liveblogging but on a fully produced internet TV show. This process has allowed us to connect directly to our supporters and engage them more fully than before in our mission.
I’m as proud of the process behind the show as I am of the product itself. It’s particularly apropos that a nonprofit whose goal is to democratize restrictive areas near Burma through open technology is also taking a new and high-tech approach to video advocacy. In trying to create a show that rivals professional big-budget media, we encountered challenges we did not expect and learned how to use free technologies to solve them. I’d like to share our process and the things we have learned in this entry.
My story with Digital Democracy began when I came to work for them as an intern. Mark Belinsky and Emily Jacobi, the co-directors, had hours of footage they had taken in 2007 while doing the research that led to the organization’s creation. In countless interviews and scenes from refugee camps, the videos told the stories of activists working along the Burma border in the name of openness and freedom. They had made a short documentary, Under The Sun: Life on the Thai-Burma Border, that had been shown at a number of film festivals, and I proceeded to edit more of the interviews into three-minute video clips. As we sat together working on the videos, we realized the real power of these voices to tell their own story to our friends in America far more powerfully than we could.
DdTv was born in our minds, and over the next month we formulated a strategy for Mark and Emily’s trip back to Burma’s borders. Our discussions began at a theoretical level: our ultimate goals, the tone of the episodes, the structure, and the timing. We decided on a 3-6 minute episode length, with a cold open, an out-of-context clip to pique interest that would later be explained in the episode, then our title card, then the story. We knew our core audience well: supporters of the organization who believed in our struggle and were well-informed about the issues related. Still, we did not want to alienate any other audience, and began the series with the assumption that a viewer who knew nothing must be able to understand our story with a little Googling.
I had a good sense of Emily and Mark’s vision for the series, as well as the thoughts of Liz Hodes and Gabe Hopkins (the other co-founders), so I took this time to communicate advice to them about shooting. The technical: give a few seconds before and after clips, shoot lots of scene-setting footage. But also the narrative: even as you travel, think of the story arc for the episode as you are shooting. Above all, I told them that each episode must be defined by a singular goal and obstacle. Whether they were related to the core takeaway of the episode or not, a goal and obstacle were what subconsciously kept a reader interested.
(My favorite example of this structure is in Episode 3, Soliya. Emily and Mark go to meet with a nonprofit, and the whole time hope they will escape the rain. Goal: interview Soliya. Obstacle: it might rain. It’s a very, very weak obstacle that is not connected with the goal or the episode, AND YET it makes a viewer more interested in what they are seeing.) I was important for us to remember that even if our audience wanted the information we were providing, they weren’t going to keep watching unless we kept it interesting.
NEXT in Part 2, I discuss the obstacles we faced in collaborating and editing an episode across the globe!