Why authentic charity film-making rings true with donors

  • by Lucy Tugby
  • 16/07/2018

We live in an age of reality TV and fake news. Consumers are becoming adept at spotting anything that is staged, dodgy or downright untrue. That’s why, when it comes to charity film-making, telling the truth is a vital component of storytelling. For WPNC, it’s a case of film-making that is always grounded in reality; getting real people to relate real tales.

Maria Phillips, director of TV & film, says: “Everyone’s a film-maker now. The audience has changed and can tell a fake a mile away. For charities, that won’t work in terms of touching hearts and minds. And in today’s challenging climate for fundraisers, being honest and transparent is critical. The TV appeal is the public face and voice of the charity, so that honesty has to shine through.”

Charity fundraising has evolved since the early days of DRTV. In the past, film crews might not have thought twice about using actors or even shooting an ad in one country that had been mocked up as another. Nowadays, a more authentic approach is required. Maria continues: “Film-making needs honesty and integrity and has to ring true. That said, while a lot has changed in the way we film, the core principles of DRTV remain the same.”

She sums up these principles as “heart, head, hand”. In other words, emotional engagement; rationalising the reasons for giving; and creating the urgency and action needed to get the viewer to respond. There’s a lot to fit in to capture the attention of potential donors in a crowded market, so ads usually take the form of 60 or 90 seconds in length.

Despite the ‘cinema verité’ approach, a shoot often requires months of meticulous planning, for what in reality may be just a few short days of filming. There are many different participants to consider: beneficiaries, project workers and the wider group of people who may be involved. It’s vital that everyone is comfortable with the filming process and actively want to be a part of something special.

“We all work together to make magic,” says Maria. “We look for real stories, real people, real lives. Whether we’re filming here or abroad, in a UK hospital or a remote community overseas, we always prefer not to go in with a detailed storyboard.

“We want it to develop as we shoot, because we never quite know what we’ll find. It also means we return with lots of great footage that can be repurposed for online films or re-edits. That flexibility makes us different to a lot of agencies and film production companies.”

The search for an authentic location can take its toll on a film crew. Maria continues: “Conditions can be quite challenging. I recently returned from filming in a children’s hospital in South Sudan with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). We had to deal with complicated travel logistics, a volatile and potentially dangerous environment and then, of course, we were filming very sick children, which was emotionally draining for all of us. But our over-riding consideration was to create minimum disruption to the brilliant work of MSF.”

Despite occasional difficulties, the experience is both rewarding and humbling. Maria states: “Filming, particularly overseas, is what I love more than anything else about my role. It’s such a privilege to be welcomed into people’s lives and homes, when they often have so little. We are always mindful that they live in a very different environment to us, but we try to make the whole process a pleasant and enjoyable experience for everyone involved.”

It takes a camera crew with years of experience to ensure the right footage is produced from an often intense and difficult shoot. Maria says: “We like to use a small team of documentary film-makers as opposed to commercial camera people. They understand the challenges of the environment and the need to be flexible and agile.”

Maria concludes: “Charity advertising is all about emotional storytelling. We need to touch our audiences’ hearts and minds in order for them to respond. Authentic film-making plays a really critical role in the success of our ads.”

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