by D. R. Hildebrand
Every year, shortly before Thanksgiving, I come across a spate of videos promoting compassion and humanity by way of veganism. Some of the videos are classics that have circulated for years and gain upticks in viewership around the holidays. Others are new releases receiving attention for the first time. Of those I have seen, many appear unaware of the importance of presentation. The final products often lack an understanding that content alone will not transform a viewer. Style, tone, length, variety, narration, and accessibility are equally imperative. To dismiss them is a fateful flaw.
One example that avoids these errors was published last year in the week before Thanksgiving by Animal Place. It is called “Something To Be Thankful For” and it serves as a model for how a video can capture an audience’s attention, pique its interest, and sway its sympathies.
First, we have the title. We sense gratitude. We assume it is our own gratitude since the holiday is Thanksgiving, but the director catches us in our prejudice. It is a turkey who is grateful—grateful to be alive when we expect her to be dead. Without realizing it, we are now curious. We are reminded of this one individual’s sentience; this one being whom we might otherwise eat suddenly returns to life and we ask ourselves: what right do we have to take it from her?
The music reinforces the image. It isn’t ominous or off-putting but peaceful and compelling. We want to listen. We don’t dread the sights and sounds of hell on earth, and as a result we are more receptive to the message we hear.
The same is true of the camera work and editing. It is beautiful, at times even stunning. It is high-quality, which it should be. Unless the video is undercover it needs to be vibrant or the desired audience is less likely to watch it. There are just too many other alluring things out there for us to watch.
Still in the first few moments, we notice the narrator. He is a normal guy doing a normal thing: driving a car. He is measured and unaffected and we sense he would be saving this lone turkey whether we knew he was or not. His candor and aplomb are inviting, unlike certain narrators who sound as though they are advertising the next big blockbuster. Sensationalism is a turn-off when the topic isn’t sensational. Hollywood should never be emulated in this regard.
By extension, the narration includes at least three noteworthy elements:
1. He speaks to us in the first-person plural—we. The audience feels a part of the heroism. It is no longer a journey but our journey. Right there beside him we experience the care required to save, not to slaughter; to open ourselves up rather than to shut ourselves off. We feel this and we realize that it actually isn’t so difficult.
2. The use of modifiers is limited. The narrator withholds almost all adjectives and adverbs and gives us only facts until at last he satisfies us, admitting, “It’s brutal, it’s disgusting, and it’s violent.” After an entire narrative of nouns, the adjectives strike hot. An excess of modifiers do the opposite. They invalidate their subjects until the audience questions if the nouns aren’t credible enough to stand alone. The same is true of needless adverbs. We have all heard statements like, “Workers violently throw the animals to the ground.” Does the word “throw” in this sentence really require a qualifier? Throwing an animal is, in itself, horrific. Modifying the action only weakens it. “Throw” can speak for itself.
3. Count the pauses. Listen to the silence. The audience has time to process what is said. We aren’t overloaded with information. There is no race to inundate us with every fact. The narrator knows our limits and he respects them. Similarly, he refrains from topics that are superfluous to the one at hand. We often hear narrators add in comments like, “And the conditions are horribly unsanitary.” In the current instance such a statement would be relevant since the topic concerns a business—“free-range”—that we presume maintains fitting standards. But when a video shows a man breaking an animal’s neck, why sidetrack the audience with trivialities like sanitation? It belongs in another video.
Unique here is the choice to show a scene of absence: the “farm” is enormous, and it is empty. There are feathers, feces. How many animals must have died? What holocaust happened here? We don’t know but we wonder. It haunts us. The narrator focuses only on the living, however. He has saved one life, and so can we. When we aren’t beseeched to save every living creature, an entire world of animals, we aren’t as overwhelmed. We’re compelled, at least, to try.
Duration, gore, and relief are not issues here but they are relevant to a number of vegan videos. Blood is often unavoidable, and appalling acts should be witnessed. Yet when they are exposed directors must ask themselves how long they expect an audience to watch before walking away. And if we walk away, what have they achieved? In short, horror demands relief.
This video tells a story and like any good story it has a climax. When the videographer focuses on the turkey, at ease in the narrator’s arms, and we see the turkey looking around, her curiosity, her subtle interactions with freedom and fresh air, it is all but impossible to deny her sentience, to disregard her life. She thinks, she feels! We respect that. We’ve made the key connection.
The video ends with reflective music and more silence. We can’t help but ponder our actions. Could I go vegan for a week? Could I try a month without meat? Would it be such a catastrophe to have Thanksgiving without a turkey? Some in the audience will inevitably try. It is difficult for an informed and intelligent person to believe, honestly, meal after meal, that his taste buds are more important than his morals. In the right context, with the right presentation, he is bound at the very least to think. Eventually, perhaps, to act.
I appreciate the final seconds of the video when, instead of some sudden demand to go vegan—as if the average person has the capacity to make that type of change overnight—we are guided to a site to learn more. It’s simple, it’s considerate, and like the rest of the video, it’s sincere.
There is no formula for creating a first-rate video. There are numerous variables involved and the material will dictate some decisions. It shouldn’t dictate them all though. In vegan videos the content is often morbid by definition, so the presentation of it needs to be creative, likable, and empowering. Anything less will leave audiences uninspired.