How to make a branded short film
At ARTIE MEDIA, making videos and branded short films for our clients isn’t simply about giving them what they want; it’s more important our clients get what they actually need.
We’re resolute: your video must help you achieve a business goal.
In this case, American Homestay Network (AHN) wanted a video they could use to get prospects into their sales funnel, so we helped AHN create a moving story about an international student and her host family’s shared homestay experience.
In June of 2017, I was approached by David Bycroft, Founding Director of Homestay International, based in Australia. David and I first met and worked together, quite by chance, at NAFSA 2017 in Los Angeles. Upon my urging, David appeared in a #YouAreWelcomeHere video I was directing for NAFSA.
When David reached out severals weeks later, I learned that he was interested in a video for Homestay International’s American Homestay Network that would also harness the power of the #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign. Over the previous 18-months, many American institutions we’re producing essentially the same #YAWH videos, which consisted of students and faculty holding up the familiar #YAWH signage and simply saying “You are welcome here”.
I’m not suggesting there was anything wrong with that. Quite the opposite.
This video format has been produced by over 350 American institutions, and continues to be very warmly received worldwide. But, to be honest, I wanted more for #YAWH.
As fate would have it, for several weeks after Los Angeles, I had been ruminating on how to transcend the #YAWH campaign’s format and tell a story that could pack an even greater emotional punch. For context, have a look at that first #YAWH video we produced at NAFSA 2017 in Los Angeles.
The first hurdle
David said that his team was interested in a video which could effectively reach the four unique target audiences surrounding the homestay experience:
- International students coming to America to study (and their parents),
- American college and university partners,
- International agents in foreign markets,
- American agents charged with enlisting homestay host families and responsibly matching hosts with students.
Out of the gate, I was very wary of this goal. It’s not often a single message is going to resonate with two different audiences, let alone four!
The lightbulb moment
About 30 minutes into my initial discussion with David, I realized that it was indeed possible to speak to all four of American Homestay’s audiences - and precisely because they shared all the common concerns and aspirational goals surrounding study abroad and the homestay experience. That was the lightbulb moment.
I told David that I had it figured out, had to end the call and start writing. Within an hour I’d fleshed out a story, discussed the vision with my Director of Photography, and returned to the writing process where I completed the film's scripted dialogue.
The script was forwarded to David and his CEO that night and approved the next day. This was a fantastic first step in our journey with AHN, but there were miles to go before we’d sleep.
What kind of challenges did we face?
Before we even scheduled our shoot, we had to find the right cast, in the right city, and we’d need to film for 3 to 4 days in a row. When you’re trying to make this type of docudrama work, it really comes down to finding the right kind of people.
When you’re trying to make this type of docudrama work, it really comes down to finding the right kind of people.
We needed flexible, willing partners, who would welcome us into their home and agree to do everything I asked of them as their director. David felt he had just the right sort of family in mind. Luckily, it was one of his agents who, together with her husband, also acted as a host family for American Homestay Network. This was perfect because it meant the family had both a personal and professional willingness to engage with our project. However, there was a challenge.
This was perfect because it meant the family had both a personal and professional willingness to engage with our project.
However, there was a challenge.
Our original script featured a family with a 7 to 10-year old son, and a male host student possibly from the Middle East. So when we discovered that our most willing family did not have children and was hosting a Japanese female student, a rewrite was needed. Since using a real host family and international student was an integral part of our vision, the core of the story didn’t change a lot. We just needed to focus less on the student/host family relationship and instead shift the emphasis to a mother/daughter relationship.
This kind of adjustment is not uncommon. It's similar to when you are making a documentary or filming interviews - you have to be flexible and willing to let the story develop right in front of you, and maybe even go someplace you hadn’t expected it to go. You need to view change and challenge as opportunity. In the creative process, often you're in this conversation with the world around you - and when it's speaking, you had better be listening! To further illustrate that point, we even ended up including our host family’s dog in the film's pivotal scene as well. Good job, Fresno! On a film set, if it isn’t bolted to the floor, wall or ceiling, it’s considered an asset to the production.
Circumstances and assumptions constantly change on a film set.
Circumstances and assumptions constantly change on a film set. Even though some of our scripted locations were readily accessible on our student’s campus, we were cautioned by our host family against relying on them. The institution was notoriously unfriendly to film crews. Instead, I called several towns in the area to find a library that was film friendly. Happily, I found a friendly library director who had worked for years as a film industry professional. And instead of filming in the campus bookstore, we found a wonderful Greek family who kindly opened their fruit market to us for 90 minutes of filming during their business hours.
Apart from our primary location, the host family's home, the rest of the shoot would be filmed mostly guerilla style. We'd find a location and plan the shot before we got out of our vehicles. Then we'd leap into action, quickly staging, rehearsing and filming before we might be chased away by neighborhood shop owners, or heaven forbid, law enforcement. To be clear, we didn't need a permit to film in these cities and we weren't breaking any laws, but it is easy to draw unwanted attention when you're out filming in public.
I even broke a common writer’s rule...
I even broke a common writer’s rule: avoid setting any scene on public transportation. You really don’t want to do that, because often you do need a permit. And you're not likely to get one unless you're a major motion picture studio. You also don’t have any control of your location because you’re constantly moving, people are coming and going. It's mayhem!
All that said, I needed a bus scene. So we hopped on a bus, asked the bus driver if he minded us filming, got the go ahead, and filmed during a 30 minute bus ride from our hotel to our student's college campus. Despite all our challenges, you could say we had a busload of good fortune! In fact, we got our last four shots in the unfavorably high glare of direct sunlight on our final afternoon of the shoot. Then, we packed up our gear and headed out on the road. My director of photography and I wound up sitting in 3 hours of traffic before nearly failing to make our redeye flight from San Francisco back to Boston.
When we arrived home, I backed up all the footage and started editing. This baby was in my arms. I was going to edit it from 12 hours of footage down to a 3 minute short film.
... from 12 hours of footage down to a 3 minute short film.
After a week of reviewing all the footage and pairing it down to the best of my ability, I had a 7 minute film. That was not going to work. So, I called up my director of photography, Anthony, and asked him, “What’s it going to take for you to bring our baby to the finish line?” I was asking Anthony to finish the edit. I’d gone as far as I could go and truth be told, Anthony is much the better editor than I’ll ever be. Anthony quoted me a painful figure to edit it down to 3 minutes, to which I agreed. The truth is, if we want nice things we have to pay for them. It's no different for me.
A week later we had a 3 minute film. But something was still missing. The film was flat. It lacked the tone and emotion we’d created in the script. And to be fair, we had not hired professional actors to give Oscar-worthy performances. I had embraced these non-actors and directed them meticulously in every scene. They’d done everything exactly as they were asked to do it. The ball was in our court.
How would we solve this problem?
Well originally, as we were preparing storyboards and our shooting script, we realized that there were some sequences we wanted to highlight by filming in slow motion at 60 frames per second (as opposed to regular speed at 30 frames per second). Because we didn’t want to continually think about which setting we were shooting in, we decided to shoot everything in slow mo, which gave us the option to use any shot in slow motion or at regular speed.
Now this is where Anthony made an instinctive decision with our edit. He decided to go back and create a cut of the film where everything was in slow motion except for sequences where our talent directly address the camera. What's more, he found the perfect musical score to complement this stylistic choice. Thanks to Anthony and some resourceful thinking in pre-production, our healthy beautiful baby had arrived home in all its anticipated glory.
The film was quickly approved by Julie and David. American Homestay Network had their first corporate branded short film entitled Always.
What kind of results did American Homestay Network achieve with Always?
According to AHN’s CEO, Julie Manché, they "sent the video to their agent and host networks, and it’s also included in their email signatures, so it’s been widely distributed. We feel like it’s a very high-quality video, and everyone who watches it feels the same. Always has garnered fantastic comments and a greater emotional reaction than from any of the other videos we’ve seen or done.”
How long should American Homestay Network expect to use their branded short film?
Always was developed and written to be evergreen. So, as long as AHN continues to provide their proven homestay solution, the film will be there to celebrate their emotionally rich and uniquely American international education experience.
What is the big takeaway here? Okay, there are two.
First, filmmaking is problem solving. You can have a stellar script and still screw it up if you can’t solve problems in real time on location and in the editing room! So minimize your risks (don’t film on buses), surround yourself with great people, and plan well but remain flexible!
Second, good stories well told have the power to move us emotionally. Buying is an emotional decision. How your prospects feel about a brand has an enormous bearing on their decision to do business with that brand. Your brand has its own narrative. And with every brand, for better or worse, this narrative is fluid, changeable. Your brand narrative is not only what people think and say about you, its greater part flows unspoken in the hearts and minds of your audience. Branded short films are the most impactful marketing we create because they give you the opportunity to make your prospects feel something.
When should international education brands consider making a branded short film?
Given the current socio-political environment, our undeniable need for positive stories that cut through the noise, and the void in our hearts and minds so in need of warmth and authenticity, the answer is simple: Today, tomorrow, early, often and Always.