How to make a high-quality video on a shoestring budget

In preparation for GlobalGiving’s Video Contest in February (see the winners here), the team from the What Took You So Long Foundation joined us in hosting trainings for GlobalGiving’s partners on how to create a high-quality video on a shoestring budget.  Below, Philippa Young, Director, Writer, and Co-Producer for the What Took You So Long Foundation shares some wonderful insights into the film-making process.

Telling tales of the creative process

There is both huge demand and incredible potential for telling the stories of non-profits and the important issues they work on through film and video. Distilling complex stories into a simple message in under five minutes, however, can be a daunting task.

Just like writing this post, it’s impossible to say it all. Video is not the same as writing a report or essay on a subject and being selective is half the battle. Leaving room for creating mood and tone through image, sound and music, is just as important as the best interview.

Advice from top filmmakers and development experts

Award-winning filmmaker and Africanist Aaron Kohn: “my top three pet peeves with fundraising videos are too much text, shaky video, and audio recorded on some busy street.”

New York based Director David Newhoff: “I’m not a fan of sound bites in which people say very generic things, so that if I close my eyes I wouldn’t know what organization this is.”

What Took You So Long Director Alicia Sully: “I like to see faces, so make sure that the subject isn’t too far away. Be clear with your style and use both wide and close-up shots in your B-roll and scene setting.”

Global Giving UK, Learning and Support Manager Seth Reynolds: “Keep it short and sweet. Online videos shouldn’t be much longer than three minutes, otherwise viewers just flick.”

Creative Process

The most exciting thing about film and video is the countless ways to be creative and innovative with the medium. There’s no single “correct” way, and everything to be gained from hacking the following advice. But just to get you started on your filmmaking journey…


…to someone creative who is not familiar with your organization’s work, someone who isn’t a part of your team. Explaining your story to this person so that they fully understand will help you clarify what you want to say. This person’s creative interpretation and questions will help you see the story from new angles.


…a single, simple message, and illustrate it with an example. Remember that an engaging story uses more than just interviews.

Five important questions to ask during the writing process:

1) Who is your audience? what do they already know?

2) What visuals of the people/country/organisation would set the scene?

3) What visual action will illustrate the issue and solutions being worked on?

4) What words can be shown in visual form? Film does a great job of telling the audience two things at once. The images used in context to the voices can expand or provide counter-point.

5) Does your story come full circle, or pose a question to the viewer?


…a simple storyboard on a piece of A4 paper. This will map out the story’s progression, and show you how much space you are using for interviews and visuals, plus continuity of style and content. A story flows from one point to the next, with a clear beginning, middle and conclusion. Drawing this out will help the team visualize the story, agree on what needs to be shot, and make the editing process simpler.


1) Wherever possible, let voices from the local population tell their own story, in their own words.

2) Look for what is unique in your organization’s work and be creative. As the volume of communication grows, the bar will continue to rise for what is considered a competent and interesting video.

3) Watch lots of videos with your team, noting down which elements you like, and those you don’t like.

Technical tips for recording interviews


1) Ask your subject to be patient – you want to make sure that the interview is of high quality and they look superb. They may have to move a few times so that the background or lighting works perfectly.

2) Put the subject at ease. It can be nerve-wracking being in front of the camera, so a sense of humor and conversation outside of the subject can help.

3) If language is an issue, make sure you have a good interpreter, and remember to add subtitles in the editing process.


1) Better lighting means a better image on the camera. Be careful not to position a bright light behind the subject as it will cause everything else in the frame to turn dark.

2) A side light on your subject can work well, especially if it hits the eyes. In the absence of a reflector, a white board can do this by bouncing light toward the subject.

3) Video cameras do not like stripes, and black and white are such extreme differences they are best avoided. It’s best if you surround yourself with a variety of tones and complementary colors.


1) Use a microphone! Or place the camera very close to the subject so the internal mic is also close.

2) Record interviews in the quietest place possible, turning off air-conditioning units, closing windows, and staying away from busy roads, or groups of other people.

3) Use headphones during the interview to make sure you don’t hear anything you shouldn’t, such as a neighbor hammering the wall, your subject tapping his foot on the ground, a battery that needs to be changed, etc.


1) Keep the camera steady. You don’t need an expensive tripod, just something to rest the camera on that won’t move or wobble.

2) The background is best if it’s not too boring (a white wall), but not too distracting (a kitchen). Depth is the best thing to aim to achieve.

3) Construct your picture like a painting – if your subject is wearing a dark sweater place them in front of a lighter background so that they stand out. If there is a plant behind them make sure it’s not “growing” out of their head.


1) Explain to your subject that interviewer and interviewee should not speak at the same time and that there’s no rush, so taking time to think about the question is fine.

2) Ask the subject to answer in complete sentences. For example if you ask “Do you enjoy elephants?” They should say “I love elephants.” not “Yes.”

3) Listen to what they say and ask follow up questions so that the result is more of a conversation than a Q&A.

4) Smile as appropriate, but don’t hesitate. It’s very encouraging to see someone smile!

Finally, it doesn’t work to make the story something it isn’t. Audiences are smart and will see straight through glossy PR rhetoric. Documentary-style filming means listening to the story you capture, whether it’s planned or not and going with it.

No Comments

Comments Closed