We live in an era of technology. Gone are the days when phones provided little more than emergency contact, replaced by an all-seeing, Big-Brother-esque network that reaches tendrils of video streams and Snapchats into even the remote quietudes of our great National Parks. It’s important to remember that technology is a double-edged sword that can promote our mission just as effectively as hinder it, and the connection goes both ways. As our visitors can download, we can upload, and therein lies a powerful tool to reach the community and broadcast our national parks and their programs to the million-plus eyes that are glued to social media pages all over the world.

One of the most useful platforms from which to accomplish this is YouTube. Video is one of the best communicative resources of our age, with the ability to capture the essence of a moment through a unique combination of sight, sound and motion. As a result, the filmmaker has the opportunity to directly influence an audience through multiple senses and, with a couple little editing and camera-angle tricks, trigger empathetic responses that can inspire. Not to mention the informational bonus—a 3-minute video is much more accessible to the general public than a 3-page article. With millions of youth checking out YouTube’s vast array daily, a short video can be the perfect way to really promote park programs!

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We at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (HAVO) decided to film a 3-minute video on the Every Kid in a Park (EKIP) program, with the goal of demonstrating how easy it really is to get your pass and come to the park to fourth graders and their families. The video launched at the end of September, and so far the response is positive. The best part? It only took a few hours to film and edit! The video-creating process, for those who have never tried it, can actually be made fairly simple, and with only minimal equipment and effort, the results can be pretty awesome.

During this process, however, I learned a few things about filming in a national park, and those, along with a couple general tips to get started, are what I will share today with any of my fellow SCAs interested in trying their hands at movie-making for their park.

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First, don’t worry about getting a fancy camera. While having a Canon or other DSLR is certainly fun and can be useful, it isn’t necessary to create a video. While we at HAVO were lucky enough to have the Canon t5 to work with, iPhone and Android users have probably already figured out that a phone works just a well—today’s phones can even shoot 4k! My only suggestion is that you shoot in landscape, as portrait will cause your video’s aspect ratio to fit at odds with the average screen. Additionally, even with a phone, always use a tripod! Even if you think your hands are surgeon-steady, there’s always a little tremor, as we learned from experience, and having shake in your footage will instantly lower the quality. 

Location, location, location! Much more than camera choice, the location you pick to film is highly important to your video. You will probably have limited sound and lighting equipment (if any), so picking somewhere that’s not too dark and sequestered from serious wind will make a big difference; a day with lots of wind will ruin any sound you try to record. Sometimes (as with our video) sound doesn’t come into play at all, which takes some of the pressure off, but even then, visualize the look and shots you want, and pick your space carefully. In the picture below, for example, the openness and scope of Steam Vents provided exactly the look we were going for.

Connected to this, always make sure you check the weather for the day you’ll be filming. Needless to say there’s a big different between the visuals of a sunny day versus a rainy one. But more than that, an overcast day will give your footage a flat, gray look, while a sunnier day will offer better lighting and more interesting contrast. But of course the weather is never fully predictable, so it’s best to have a backup, indoor location in case the weather doesn’t do what you want it to. Worst case scenario, editing can offer a little wiggle room, as with the lighting below. We shot on one of the grayscale days I’m talking about, but if you go into color correction and change ONLY the saturation of your clip, it can fix a lot of that flat look. 

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It’s also a good idea to have a backup camera. Two angles are always better than one! If you can find a friend or partner to make a video with, film any action simultaneously from two different angles and from two different distances (i.e. one at a close up and one from further away). For the Every Kid video, I shot on one camera while my mentor/supervisor Jessica shot on another, leaving us with every action recorded at least twice, each from a different perspective. Doing this will give you a lot more options when editing later; cutting between angles lets things appear continuous and keeps the visual aspects of your video interesting. This is especially helpful since film time for the park is often short, squeezed in between other activities and visitor presence, and doing multiple takes isn’t an option. That being said, don’t shy away from including plenty of action!

Particularly in a national park video, as they often include lots of information through narration, title cards or interviews, make sure the camera isn’t just staying on one stagnant person for too long. Showing the speaker is good—the perfect opportunity to include a title card introducing them by name and title—but B-Roll footage (shots of separate actions or scenes relevant to the narration or dialogue) is a way to keep the audience engaged and listening to the important information.

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Speaking of keeping the audience interested: Pick good music! For those videos, like ours, that don’t include many (or any) speaking roles with only one or two throw-away lines, a good soundtrack can make or break your video. Identify the feeling of your message (playful? Calm? Upbeat? Serene?) and find music that matches (for Every Kid in a Park we picked playful, childish music to appeal to our younger audience). The only trick here is that, as the video was made on behalf of a federal agency, it’s more imperative than ever that your music is either given to you by the artist, or falls under a license that doesn’t require fees, the most effective being Creative Commons licensing.

I recommend visiting ccMixter.com to find creative commons or license-free music. If you can’t find anything there, just type the kind of music you want into the search bar of YouTube and add in “Creative Commons,” and plenty of stuff will crop up. Just make sure you credit the artist at the end of your video.

Lastly, and perhaps most important to someone working on behalf of a national park, make sure the creation of your video is done in a safe way, with minimal disruption to visitors. This can be tricky, particularly if you want to film anything in the really popular areas of your park. My recommendations are to schedule your filming early in the morning, or other times that you know it will be less busy at your park. When shooting the EKIP video, we chose a Saturday and shot early in the morning before most visitors arrived. Almost all of our footage was easy and low-impact, with filming at the entrance gate as the only challenge. But it was pretty easy to close one lane, wear our orange safety vests, and get the filming done quickly while visitor traffic was low. The best advice I can offer here is to have a shot list composed in advance: think about exactly what you want to shoot, from what angles, so that you don’t have to spend much time thinking about it on-set. This way you can get things shot rapid-fire, and have the smallest space-and-time impact possible. 

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Making this video was a whole lot of fun—our child actors really enjoyed themselves, and the legwork was done after only about an hour! Better yet, the responses we’ve gotten have been more than worth it, and we look forward to seeing lots more fourth graders in the park! If you haven’t, try your hand at making some simple, short videos for your park. It’s a great way to get messages to the public, and so fun it will leave you reeling!