Survival Kit Part 1

This is the original video activists survival kit published some years ago, it is fairly out of date and should be updated soon but hopefully is still of some use.

Uses for Video

There are many uses that video can be put to, these including news, documentaries or even legal witness. Even if you are only collecting footage for one purpose knowing the types of footage you need for all should help you make the best use of you time.


There is much debate (sometimes heated) amongst activists as to weather it is appropriate to get footage onto TV. Activists see TV as the establishment (with good cause) so feel supplying footage to it without editorial control is a bad thing. However every time an issue is covered on TV it can get onto the public agenda. News is a very fast moving area of the media with stories being edited quickly. As you choose what you shoot it will probably be easier for a positive than negative story to be put together. Local news is often conservative but there has been very favorable coverage of environmental protest in the past.

In 1996 a group of media activists in Oregon drew up a list of proes and cons of supplying footage to the media:-


  • The broadcast may help recruit people to the campaign
  • The campaign group may be able to record the news and use it for campaign purpose (Nothing quite like free editing)
  • The broadcast may influence decision-making positively
  • The group can earn money selling footage
  • The group can learn about how the media works
  • The group can learn skills from TV professionals
  • The broadcast may attract other media attention
  • The groups morale will be lifted
  • Public awareness will be raised


  • The footage may be used to incriminate activists
  • The TV station may loose the tape (Which in many cases is the only copy)
  • The group may waste time and other resources selling and chasing up footage
  • The footage may affect decision making negatively (It the campaign is portrayed in a bad light)
  • The group will not be included in the production process
  • Once covered the campaign may become an old story more quickly
  • The groups moral may sink if TV don't run the story
  • The audience may be the wrong one for the campaign.

News is one of the most exiting types of video work. The trick is to get in close and not to let security and police stop you filming (It is not there job). It can be quite nerve-wracking but with practice you should be able to focus on using the camera and not get stressed out by what is happening around you

  • News is interested in exiting shots of what people are doing.
  • Get a good mixture of wide shots (showing where the action is happening/how many people are involved) and closer shots (showing individuals and groups).
  • Get interviews with the main people and onlookers.
  • Make sure you ask difficult questions, as TV is very reluctant to use interviews from someone they feel may be biased. Playing the devils advocate may help (it may be an idea that you tell them you are doing this).
  • Briefly catching the onlookers but only for a few (i.e. 10) seconds unless they are doing something particularly interesting.
  • If something is being done which changes the environment (i.e dropping a banner or uprooting crops) try to get shots of the area before and after the event.
  • Try to get contact numbers from anyone who is willing to be interviewed by TV. If it is a particularly good story TV may want to do a supplementary interview.
  • Get any press releases from those involved (even if they have already sent them the TV).
  • Think about the type of shots you have got and try not to repeat yourself.
  • News desks will be much happier with 15 minuets of footage that 3 hours (as they have deadlines and don’t what to be looking through hours of tape).
  • Know when the news deadlines are and try to get to the station in good time (see Selling Footage).


Documentary making is a subject in its own right. Most documentary makers have researched the subject well. They know what is going to happen and what people are likely to say when interviewed. The documentary maker has normally spent some time with the subjects and done a fair amount of planning. There is however scope for Gorilla documentary making (where there is more uncertainty). This is a lot like news gathering expect:-

  • You can collect as much footage as you wish
  • You may be able to collect it over a much longer period of time (sometimes weeks)
  • You should ask a mixture of hard and easy questions (and allow people to rant)

This is mainly applicable to Video Activists and involved collecting footage to be used for legal purposes. The footage may be used to sue the police for false or violent arrests, or simply showing charges bear no relation to what actually happened. This is one of the first uses for video by activists with hunt sabs being one of the first groups to use video. They have been very successful in funding themselves by winning court cases using video evidence.Video also has its uses away from protests and demonstrations. Video evidence has been used to show wrong doings such as illegal treatment of animals or destruction of wildlife.

Witness video is a good place to start learning how to use a camcorder. The quality of the picture douse not need to be good and camera skills do not need to be high. The most important thing is that you keep the camera running. This is for two reasons. Firstly it ensures you get as much as possible. Secondly you will be less likely to be accused of just showing one side of the story.

Remember that you are trying to get as much as possible so close ups and shots of police on there own are of no use. It is also vital to label your tape clearly otherwise the footage will be useless for legal purposes. If the solicitor can not tell who shot the footage, where or on what date it was shot they can not use it. For witness video it is particularly useful to have another person with you. They can keep an eye out when you are concentrating on filming and tell you when anything relevant happens. You must be careful not to get anything that incriminates the activists. If you do try to get out before the police arrest you or destroy the tapes.

There are a number of things you must do to make the video admissible in court (you should talk to the solicitor to ensure this):-

  • Show the video is relevant to the case (i.e. it was shot in the same place/time as the event).
  • Produce original unedited tape (as well as any VHS copies required).
  • Produce a legal statement from the person who shot the tape saying they were the person who shot the footage and that is has not been edited or tampered with.
  • Establish a chain of people who handled/copied the tape and produce a statement from each of them saying they did not edit or tamper with the tape.

If the court wants a VHS copy transfer the whole tape (otherwise it is not a complete copy of the original). Bear in mind that you may be cross examined in court which can be a very nerve wracking experience. The prosecution will try to get you to interpret the action but if you are not sure say so and don't get pressured into it. The prosecution will probably challenge your position as an objective observer but if you sound confident the court has no reason to dought you. With this in mind it may be a good idea to distance yourself from the activists. Don't be surprised if the court, or even the solicitors, are not use to using video evidence. It has been very successful in the past and it is your job to educate them.

Video can also be used as a pacifier. Camcorders can often calm a potentially violent situation as security guards and police don't want to be court on cameras being excessively violent. In fact the camcorder douse not even have to work for this purpose. Broken camcorders can be purchased for virtually nothing from camera shops. However sometimes a camcorder can have the opposed affect. Police and security guards can target the camcorder operator and their is also the possibility that the activists may perform for the camera.

Campaign Videos

Campaign videos are a specific type of documentary. They may be a empowerment piece to be shown after an action. In this case throwing together the most exciting shots is all that is needed. If on the other hand they are of a more educational purpose, such as to be used in a public meeting or to raise awareness of an issue, more care is needed. Empowerment videos also require more care if they are for a broader audience. Another use of video is for fundraising where you should provoke sympathy in the audience, show the need for financial support and show how dedicated and hard working the campaign has been.

One very affective type of campaign video can be a video letter. These are targeted at a small audience such as a managing director (Believe it or not this has been successful), councilors or anyone else with influence. Undercurrents made a very successful video letter about Holtsfield. The purpose of the video was to persuade local businesses to stop banking with Barkleys. They had refused to pull in a load made to a property developer who wished to destroy a local community. This was very successful and caused local business to pull bank accounts out of Barkleys that totaled a million pounds.

In another case locals made a video letter which was sent to the managing director of Deside Aluminum in the UK. The video highlighted how bad peoples life had been made by the noise and pollution from the plant. The managing director lived in America and as a result of the video practices in the plant were changed.


The most important thing is not knowing what to film but when to turn the camera off. As an independent Journalist/Video Activist you are in a privileged position to get in with the action and find out where things are happening. With this comes responsibility. Remember that the police may seize your footage and use it as evidence. If this gets people into trouble it will damage the campaign and activists will not invite you to other actions. If you are filming people breaking the law get close and ensure people are not identifiable (i.e. don’t show there faces). You should only do this if you are sure your camera skills are good enough. If you think you are likely to be arrested with incriminating evidence it is worth having methods of getting rid of the footage (See Getting Rid of Footage). If things get totally out of control and you have incriminating evidence you should strongly consider destroying the tape.

This douse not mean that what you actually film should not be carefully considered. This is particularly important when things start to get interesting. The types of shots you should ensure you get are any police/security being violent/abusive (both physically and verbally). Shots of police charges and people being arrested are useo usefull. On the other side protesters being calm, good humored, non-violent or emotional all help to show the actavists in a good light.

If you are thinking of covering an event you should try to get in touch with those involved and talk to them beforehand. With there co-operation you are likely to get more powerful footage but they may not wish the action to be filmed. If there is a problem talk to them about how powerful getting footage on the news can be. You should also make the footage available to an alternative archive (See Why make footage available to an alternative archive) and make it available to the campaign. It is a good idea to offer to show the campaign what you have shot just after the action. This can be very empowering and douse not require much editing. You could just copy the more exiting bits onto a tape or simply sit with them and fast forward past the boring bits.

You should not video an action against peoples wishes. This could seriously damage you reputation and exclude you from finding out about further events. If you do not properly understand the issues you should do some research before you talk to actavists. This will help when doing interviews and make it easier to talk to the activists.

Selling footage exclusively is a bad idea as obviously the activists wont as many people as possible to see it. Aagreeing with them that you will not do so is another good way of gaining trust. If you are arrested do not divulge who told you about the action or any personal details of the activists. With this in mind it is probably worth only finding out personal details that you really need as what you don't know can not be passed on.

In a more general sense Ethics refers to portraying an accurate record of events. Even though the mainstream are particularly bad at doing this for the socially responsible documenter this is even more important. To keep the moral high ground it is important not to distort what is happening. The mainstream is very powerful and those who it suits love to potray alternative media as amateur and inaccurate. As a freelance Video Journalist/Activist distorting the truth (more than just a little) is a dangerous game.


Preparation is the key to successful video work. It is a good idea to ensure you always have spare tapes and charged batteries. You can never tell when you will get a call to film something or how much notice you will get. With this in mind it is a good idea to have all your kit packed into a bag ready to go. A list of the thinks you need is also useful and should be checked before you leave. Video tapes should have the beginning blanked as this part of the tape is unstable. To do this:-

  • Put the lens cap on the camera
  • Put each bland tape in the camera and rewind it
  • Press record for 30 seconds
  • Take the tape out without rewinding it

Lastly make sure you know exactly where the event is, how to get there and arrive in plenty of time.


It is worth getting the best equipment you can afford. As well as giving better picture and sound quality it will also last longer. Buying second hand camcorders is a fairly risky game as they are very complicated and not particularly robust. It you do spend a decent amount of time checking every function out. If in doughty leave it as repairing a cmacorder is often not worthwhile.


Get the best camera you can afford. The more expensive Hi8 cameras have a much better picture. DV cameras are slowly coming down in price and newsrooms are particularly interested in DV footage. Cable often uses DV for news and all the terrestrial channels in the UK use it occasionally. When choosing a camcorder there are a number of things to look for, although only the more expensive ones have all.

  • Manual exposure, focus and white balance.
  • A lens that accepts a wide angle adapter
  • External mike and headphone sockets
  • Time codes and the ability to display them when the camcorder is plugged into a TV/monitor.
  • Remote control
  • Manual sound

Other features such as effects and totaling are really only gimmicks, unless you are editing in camera (See Editing). A good way to choose a camcorder is to borrow, or hire, the model you are interested in. This is the only way to ensure it is the write one for you.


[Picture of battery Belt] Make sure you have plenty of spare batteries (preferably at least an hour) and that they are fully charged. For some cameras you can get replacement batteries that last much longer than the ones supplied (i.e. 8 hours). There are various types of batteries. Nicads should be discharged completely before they are charged otherwise they can't be fully charged again. Led acid are not used in modern camcorders. They can be recharged/discharged as much as you like but if you let them totally discharge (which can happen if they are not used for around a month) they die. Most modern camcorders you Hi-Dry batteries which you can abuse as much as you like. If you are going on a long shoot you should consider getting a battery belt. These are worn around the wast and can last up to 15 hours.

Mike/Mike batteries

A decent mike is essential (See Rough Guide to Video) and make sure you have a couple of spare mike batteries.

Wide-angle leans

A wide angle lens makes the whole situation look more dynamic and allows you to get closer to the subject (which will vastly improve your sound). Again get a decent ones (Which could cost as much as £100). Cheap ones tend to show black marks in the four corners of the picture when on full wide angle (this is called vianetting). Most viewfinders don't show up to the edge of the picture so you really need to plug the camcorder into a monitor (not a TV as they show less) to check this.

Tie Clip Mike

[Picture or Tie clip mike on person] These are very useful for interviews. Feed the lead inside the persons clothes so it comes out through the collar and clip the mike just left/right of center. Cheaper ones tent to be fairly good but don't get a really budget one.

Radio Mike

Very useful but expensive (don’t pay less than £100). Have many uses including micking up one of the activists beforehand or clipping to people up trees. One idea is to have one channel (e.g. left) For the radio mike and the other for a standard mike. It might sound a bit odd when played back straight from tape but can be very useful when editing.


It is worth getting decent quality tapes and having plenty of spares.

Rain hood

It costs quite a lot for a decent one (i.e. £80) but without one you can not really shoot even in drizzle without risking wrecking you camcorder.

Cleaning Cassette

Should be used fairly regularly and taking it with you is a good idea.

Lens Cloth/Wipes/Brush

Take them with you and use them before each shoot.

Getting rid of footage

Another thing to consider is how to get rid of footage if things get tricky. There are two main ways of doing this; either posting it or giving it to someone else. Posting it to yourself is the simplest and requires that you have self-addressed padded bags with you. The main drawback of this is that you won't be able to sell it to news on the day. The chances are that if it is very sensative you will not want to sell it immediately anyway. However you are also relying on there being a readily available post box. Alternativly having someone with you is very useful but may be difficult to arrange. One alternative is passing the footage to someone you know will be there anyway, but if they are staying and get arrested this could cause a problem.

Even if you get home safely with your footage your problems are not necessarily over. There is a chance that the police may choose to seize the footage at a later date (i.e. early in the morning the next day). Your options here are to have it well hidden (which can be risky) or get someone else to look after it. If the footage is particularly sensitive but you want people to see it you could send it to The International Federation of Journalists (+32 2 223 22 65).They specialize it getting this type of material seen but you will have to sign over copyright.

Meet the activists beforehand

If you are filming an action you should get in touch with the activists first. They may not want the action videoed and if they co-operate the footage is likely to be better (See Ethics). They may even be prepared to let you film some of their organizing meetings. One way to ensure the best footage is to go to the action with them. You can then film the journey to the action which will help you get the complete story. It will also ensure you get to the site at the correct time. Getting there to late means you miss everything and getting there to early can alert the authorities that something is about to happen. If you go with them you can even do interviews on the way to and afterwards, showing peoples expectations beforehand and how they felt it went afterwards.


Another thing you need to consider is what to ware. This is not just in terms of weather to take a waterproof/hiking boots. There is no definitive answer as to weather to dress smartly. As is pointed out in the legal section the police may use what you look like to distinguish weather you are a protester or a journalist. Looking smart (i.e. like a mainstream journalist) is one way of trying to ensure you don’t get stopped by the police before the action or arrested afterwards. If you are covering a protest in an office you may be able to wander in before the protesters if you are wearing a suit. It is not unknown for activists to be seen trashing generic crops wearing a suit. This makes it easier for them to get to the site without being stopped. However dressing smart can cause problems if you are trying to film a protest and the activists do not know who you are. Activists do not generally trust the main stream media so dressing like them is often a bad idea. One particularly useful piece of clothing is a sleeveless jacket with lots of pockets. These can be purchased from Army Surplus stores relatively cheaply (£10-£15).

Working in Groups

Most VJs (Video Jurnalists) work alone but there are many advantages in working in a group. The number of people can vary and they can take on more than one role.

It is useful to have someone to keep there eyes out for interesting things that are happening and alerting the VJ. They must also be aware of what the VJ is videoing and judge weather something they have seen is better. It is probabley best to tap the VJ on the shoulder, and talk quietly as shouting, or even speaking, could ruin the sound.

You may be filming people breaking the law or getting footage which the police/government do not want shown. In this case having someone to help you get the footage out can be very useful (See Getting rid of footage).

Is can also be useful to have someone (or even two people) who can help the VJ get around by trying to get people to move (most people are very co-operative). They can even try to stop the VJ being arrested, although they themselves may end up getting arrested.

[Picture] When moving through crowds it is useful to have someone hold you by the waste and steer you. The VJ may even lean against them for support. This is a technique that police themselves use.

Using separate sound

Using separate sound will drastically improve the quality of you footage although it is often not practical. This can be done using a second Camcorder, a recording Walkman, a Mini Disk player or for the best results a DAT player (See Rough Guide to Video). The main problem here is that you normally need a second person. The alternative is to use the second sound recorder on one of the activists and treat is as a radio mike. The main thing here to consider is how you are going to sync the sound. Separate sound is not really appropriate for news as a clapper board is usually used to sync sound.

Why send footage to an ethical archive

As an independent there are a number of things you can do with your footage, the most popular being putting it in a box under the bed and letting it gather dust. Selling it on the day to TV is a good way of getting it seen and recouping your expenses, but what then. TV may well try to persuade you to sign them exclusive rights but then you will loose control. You may not even be allowed to use it yourself or give others permission to use it. TV are unlikely to make the footage available to there competition (See Selling Footage). Putting the footage into an archive will: -

Ensure the largest number of people see it

When searching for footage program makers will get in touch with an organization in the UK called Focus (There are other organizations in other countries). They have details about all archives any what they spesilize in. If the program maker is looking for direct action, protest or campaign footage focus will refer them to the relevant archive. In this way program makers know about the archive and your footage may be made available to them.

Ensure your footage is used in an ethical way

Most commercial archives will sell footage to anyone (arms/fur trade, tobacco companies etc). Archives held by alternative media orginisations often have an ethical policy (which you should ask to see).

It will support alternative media

Alternative media can use an archive to help sustain itself. For example Undercurrents actually looses money producing the video magazine (The actual cover price would be something like £24, not £12, just to make it break Evan).

It will help you pay your expenses

When an archive sells footage you get a percentage of the sale. There are a number of different ‘Licensing Agreements’ and this is sorted out when someone uses the footage. The archive can not sell the footage until such an agreement is signed. In this way you keep control.