Skip to content

Impact Filmmaking

Introduction

In this post, I’ll provide a thorough rundown of the talk about impact filmmaking I gave to an audience of international conservation practitioners in September 2022. The reason we all came together is that we are all alumni of the “Making Moves: Creating Conservation Movements” which is the leading behaviour change for conservation course. So in this post I’ll provide an explanation of why impact filmmaking is important, some of the history and key terms to know, as well as an overview of how to produce an impact film and 10 suggestions if you’re new to impact filmmaking. If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into the topic of impact filmmaking, there are some example films and links in the Resources section and you can download the slides from my talk using the link at the bottom of the page.

What is Impact Filmmaking (and Why Does it Matter)?

Basically, impact filmmaking is all about harnessing the power of storytelling to make a positive impact on the world, and that’s something we could use more of these days. Impact filmmaking can apply to pretty much any sector where there’s a need for change or awareness-raising. The sector I focused on in my presentation was environmental conservation. So here I talk about films that highlight the urgency of biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution, and other environmental issues.  Impact filmmaking is all about using the power of film to inspire real change. These films shine a light on important issues and inspire viewers to get involved and create positive movements. They can tackle everything from the environment to social justice and politics, and can come in all shapes and sizes, from docs to narrative features to short films. The key is to use storytelling to get people fired up and motivated to take action.

Impact filmmaking is important for a number of reasons:
  • Raising awareness about underrepresented or overlooked issues, and giving a voice to marginalized communities.
  • Spreading knowledge and empowering viewers with information they need to make informed decisions.
  • Driving policy change by putting pressure on politicians and policymakers.
  • Creating empathy and understanding across cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic boundaries.
  • Connecting people and inspiring them to take action and be part of the solution.

Understanding, adapting, or using best practice about impact filmmaking can help you:

  • Understand how to create a compelling narrative that inspires action, and how to craft a message that resonates with your target audience.
  • Identify the right distribution channels and platforms to reach your intended audience.
  • Increase your ability to measure and track the impact of your film, and demonstrate the effectiveness of your efforts.
  • Gain a deeper understanding of the ethical considerations and responsibilities that come with making an impact film.

If you’re successful in producing an impact film it can create a sense of purpose and fulfilment for individuals by offering opportunities to support causes they believe in. Whereas for organisations and businesses involved in producing impact films, it can create positive brand recognition and help with community engagement. Employing impact filmmaking can increase customer loyalty and engagement, especially with younger generations who care deeply about ethical and social issues.

The History of Impact Filmmaking

Impact filmmaking has been around for decades, but it really gained traction in the last 20 years with films like “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), “Blackfish” (2013), and “The Cove” (2009). In the 1970s films like “Silent Spring” (1972) and “Blue Planet” (1974) brought environmental issues to a mainstream audience and helped create awareness about pollution and conservation.

Here’s a timeline of some significant environmental impact films:

  • 1973: “Silent Spring,” – a powerful documentary that explores the devastating impact of pesticides on the environment and human health, with a focus on the chemical DDT.
  • 1973: “Soylent Green” – a dystopian sci-fi film that explores overpopulation, environmental degradation, and corporate greed.
  • 1982: “Koyaanisqatsi” – a visually stunning film that shows the beauty and fragility of nature alongside the destructive impact of humans.
  • 1992: “Baraka” – a non-narrative documentary that explores the relationship between humans and the natural world.
  • 2006: “An Inconvenient Truth” – a powerful documentary about climate change, narrated by former Vice President Al Gore.
  • 2007: “The 11th Hour” – a star-studded documentary on the state of the global environment, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.
  • 2008: “Food, Inc.” – a searing indictment of the industrial food system and its impact on the environment and public health.
  • 2009: “The Cove” – a shocking expose on the dolphin hunting industry in Japan.
  • 2010: “Gasland” – a searing indictment of the fracking industry and its impact on communities.
  • 2012: “Chasing Ice” – a stunning visual record of the rapid melting of glaciers around the world.
  • 2013: “Blackfish” – a heartbreaking look at the dark side of marine parks and the mistreatment of orcas.
  • 2014: “Cowspiracy” – a call to action on the environmental impact of animal agriculture.
  • 2016: “Before the Flood” – a sweeping documentary on climate change, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio.
  • 2017: “Chasing Coral” – a stunning look at the devastating impact of coral bleaching on our oceans.
  • 2018: “Plastic Ocean” – a sobering look at the ubiquity and danger of plastic pollution.

Terms to Know

Here are some terms often associated with impact filmmaking:

“Advocacy Filmmaking”

Film that seeks to raise awareness and influence policy or social change on a specific issue.

“Social Impact Filmmaking”

Similar to advocacy filmmaking, but focused on addressing broader social issues, such as poverty, inequality, or human rights.

“Participatory Filmmaking”

Involves collaboration between the filmmaker and the subjects of the film, giving a voice to those who are often overlooked or marginalized.

“Impact Distribution”

The intentional and strategic distribution of a film to specific audiences to maximize its impact and create change.

“Impact Producing”

The process of designing and implementing strategies to maximize a film’s impact, such as outreach campaigns, screenings, and community engagement.

“Impact Measurement”

The process of evaluating the effectiveness of a film’s impact, often through surveys, audience feedback, and other data.

“Impact Investing”

The practice of investing in films and filmmakers with the intention of generating social or environmental impact, in addition to financial returns.

“Impact Evaluation”

The process of assessing the long-term impact of a film, including its ripple effects on behaviour, attitudes, and policies.

The Pros and Cons of Impact Filmmaking

Pros:

  • Raising awareness about environmental issues, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, which can lead to change.
  • Educating the public about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation and the importance of sustainability.
  • Generating support for environmental causes and encouraging policymakers to take action.
  • Inspiring people to take action and get involved in making a difference, for example, making lifestyle changes, such as reducing waste, eating less meat, and supporting sustainable businesses.
  • Generating support and funding for causes and organizations working to address pressing issues.

Cons:

  • Some might argue that impact filmmaking can be biased and one-sided, only showing one perspective.
  • Some argue that impact films may have a short-term effect but don’t result in lasting change.
  • There is also the risk of “slacktivism,” where viewers feel good about watching a film, but don’t take action beyond that.
  • Environmental documentaries can be perceived as preachy or guilt-inducing, leading to people tuning out or becoming apathetic.
  • They can also oversimplify complex issues, leading to a lack of understanding of the nuances and interconnections between different environmental problems.
  • There is also a risk of “greenwashing,” where companies or organizations use environmental messaging to promote themselves without taking real action to address environmental issues.

5 Examples of Impact Filmmaking

Baraka

“Baraka” (1992) is a visually stunning documentary film that takes viewers on a global journey exploring the beauty and diversity of the natural world, as well as the human impact on it. The film features stunning images of landscapes, cultures, and people from around the world, set to a powerful score and without any dialogue or narration. It highlights the interconnectedness of all living things and the impact of human civilization on the natural world. From the barren deserts of Africa to the bustling streets of Tokyo, “Baraka” is a mesmerizing and thought-provoking exploration of the human experience and the fragile balance of life on Earth.

An Inconvenient Truth

“An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) is a documentary film featuring former US Vice President Al Gore, who presents a compelling case for the need to address climate change. The film showcases the scientific evidence for global warming and the consequences of inaction, including rising sea levels, melting glaciers, and more frequent and severe natural disasters. Gore argues that the time to act is now, and that individual actions, such as using renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions, can make a difference. The film won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and sparked a global conversation about the importance of addressing climate change.

Gasland

“Gasland” (2010) is a documentary that follows filmmaker Josh Fox as he investigates the natural gas drilling practice known as fracking. As he travels to different communities that have been impacted by fracking, Fox discovers that the drilling has resulted in contaminated water supplies, health problems, and even the ability to set tap water on fire. The film exposes the harmful effects of fracking and raises questions about the safety of this controversial practice. “Gasland” provides a powerful and thought-provoking look at the impact of the oil and gas industry on communities and the environment.

Chasing Ice

“Chasing Ice” (2012) is a documentary that chronicles the work of renowned nature photographer James Balog, who sets out to capture the impact of climate change on the world’s glaciers. Through stunning time-lapse photography, Balog documents the receding of glaciers around the globe at a rapid pace, providing irrefutable evidence of the devastating effects of global warming. The film serves as a sobering reminder of the urgent need for action to address the climate crisis and protect the planet for future generations.

Chasing Coral

“Chasing Coral” (2017) is a beautiful and thought-provoking documentary that takes viewers on an underwater journey to explore the crisis facing coral reefs around the world. The film highlights the alarming rate at which coral reefs are disappearing, and the devastating consequences for marine life and coastal communities. The documentary follows a group of dedicated scientists, divers, and photographers as they embark on a mission to understand why coral reefs are dying and to sound the alarm about this urgent issue. Through stunning visuals and powerful storytelling, “Chasing Coral” provides an unforgettable window into the underwater world and the urgent need to protect it.

How to Produce an Impact Film

Here’s a high level step-by-step guide to producing an impact film:

  • Identify an environmental issue that needs attention and research it thoroughly, speak with experts and activists.
  • Develop a compelling story or narrative to convey the issue and engage the audience.
  • Build a team of filmmakers with relevant experience and skills.
  • Secure funding through grants, crowdfunding, or sponsorships.
  • Plan and execute filming, including interviews, footage of events, and location shots.
  • Conduct post-production, including editing, sound mixing, and color grading.
  • Create a distribution strategy, including film festivals, online platforms, and outreach campaigns.
  • Collaborate with environmental organizations to increase awareness and engagement.
  • Encourage audience members to take action, such as signing petitions or participating in activism.
  • Measure the impact of the film through surveys, impact assessments, and community engagement metrics.

Do not underestimate the skills and resources that each step requires. Take a closer look at what’s involved by downloading the slides for the presentation below.

10 Tips for Impact Filmmaking

Some best practices for impact filmmaking include:

  1. Focus on telling a compelling story with relatable characters and clear stakes.
  2. Engage with local communities to understand the unique challenges and solutions specific to their area.
  3. Use emotional storytelling techniques to connect with the audience on a personal level.
  4. Avoid sensationalism or shock tactics, and instead focus on providing a balanced and evidence-based perspective.
  5. Include interviews with experts and scientists to provide accurate and informative content.
  6. Incorporate real-life experiences and stories to add authenticity and credibility.
  7. Use striking visuals that capture the beauty of the natural world, while also illustrating the effects of environmental damage.
  8. Utilize a mix of interviews, b-roll footage, and other visual elements to create a dynamic and engaging film.
  9. Ensure the film has a clear call-to-action that inspires viewers to take action or make a change.
  10. Promote the film through grassroots campaigns and partnerships with environmental organizations to reach a wider audience.

Resources for Impact Filmmaking

Strategy

Impact Media Report: Creative, Collaborative & Outreach Strategies for Nature, Environmental and Science Films, Center for Environmental Filmmaking

The Guide

The Impact Field Guide & Toolkit, The Doc Society

Tipsheets

Messaging for Media Impact, Media Impact Project

Curriculum

Creating a Curriculum Guide for Your Documentary Film

Evaluation

Assessing the Social Impact of Issues-Focused Documentaries: Research Methods & Future Considerations, Center for Media and Social Impact

Case Studies

Blackfish
Chasing Coral
Chasing ice
An Inconvenient Truth

Ready to Dive Deeper?

In my talk I shared some of the secret sauce for creating impact with films by exploring these 7 topics:

1
Impact Filmmaking

Demystifying impact production by exploring the term “impact” and how documentaries contribute to change. I also introduce some of the skills and roles involved in impact filmmaking.

2
Visual Media

Here I provide the big picture about humans being highly visual animals. Hence, the need to show as well as tell.

3
Impact Strategy

This is where I look at the nuts and bolts of an impact production.

4
Audience

The most important part of any form of communication is understanding who your audience is and what matters to them.

5
Story Arcs

This is where I geek out about plot, story arcs, dramatic structure, visual grammar and other really important ways to build your story for maximum impact.

6
Image Choice

A reminder that we need to frame nature and conservation stories in thoughtful ways to inspire and engage audiences.

7
Measuring Impact

After going to all the effort of producing a stellar film to bring about positive change, you owe it to yourself and your funders to show how you contributed to moving the dial on your issue.

Download the presentation slides on impact film making

Impact Filmmaking presentation

    First Name*

    Last Name*

    Email*

    Back To Top
    Search