Author: Tom Hannen, September 21 2016 - I was watching my one-year-old son playing on a beach in Turkey when the terrible photo of Aylan Kurdi lying motionless on a beach further along the coast appeared on social media. I will never forget the shock of seeing this while my child played happily in the same sea.

When BBC Media Action's research team told me about their refugee project - a series of in-depth interviews about the communication needs of refugees in Europe - I was very keen to make a video to support it. Initially we planned to make a conventional motion graphic explainer video in a 16x9 widescreen TV format. But since the target audience was humanitarian agencies working in the field, I decided to play with the vertical mobile phone format.

When designing videos I think it's vital to look for inspiration in a wide range of source material. Sometimes ideas come from unusual places. I had seen a Japanese music video called RUN and RUN which featured a mobile phone user interface, and I realised that we could use the same visual idea but for a very different purpose. Another source of inspiration was an excellent BuzzFeed article by Rossalyn Warren, which was discussed at the 2016 Polis conference on Journalism and Crisis.

People feel a strong personal connection to their mobile phone, and many viewers watching the refugee video for the first time assume the first message from ‘Dad’ that flashes up on the screen is from their own father. And that's the whole point. It makes the crisis personal.

Throughout, were trying to create something disconcerting - the sense that your phone has been taken over and you are no longer in charge of your destiny. The refugees interviewed for the research report said “who can you trust” was a key question for them. The “unnamed contact” in the film, who says the border is closed, reinforces this idea.

The decision to use an iOS screen was a practical one, as it was all I had access to. However, there’s evidence that refugees - particularly those from Syria use both Android and iOS smartphones.

I deliberately used the visual conventions of UIKit - a comprehensive collection of HTML, CSS, and JS components - altering them occasionally in unexpected ways. For example the dialogue box that appears in the video to say there’s no internet connection is the standard iOS error message. The one immediately after is a contrivance designed to make you think what you would do in the same situation.

The “camera section” was created using a series of still images re-filmed with my phone. There were some strange looks as I sat in an open plan office with a coat over my head to shield the reflections from the overhead ceiling lights from the screen. The images were provided for free by Getty Images and offer a powerful and truly harrowing insight into the journey of refugees across Europe.

I decided to avoid all keyboard input on screen, as it slowed the video down, and didn't add anything to the experience. Interestingly in pre-testing nobody seemed to notice that this was missing.

All the other photographs – in which people are lit by their screens - represent the idea of the mobile phone illuminating the refugees’ situation.

The final frame “the refugee crisis is not going away” came from the idea of receiving a notification and ‘dismissing’ it (tapping ‘OK’) – a visual to show that the international community has been notified about the refugee crisis but has not yet found an adequate way to address it.

I’m proud to have worked on this project for BBC Media Action. It’s a completely new video format for us and has been shared the world over. I’m certain that the new format has raised awareness to a wider audience that communication is aid, and vital during crises.

And finally – for those of you who are interested in making something similar - the video was built in Adobe After Effects using a combination of screen grabs, Photoshopped iOS templates, Xcode's Simulator, and Telestream's Screenflow for video capture from my iPhone 5. This is why the camera section shows an iPhone 5 UI scaled to fit an iPhone 6 target size – it’s all I had.

The film is featured in the new Global Goals app, which launches at the Summit for Refugees and Migrants in New York on Monday 19 September 2016. Tom Hannen is now an Executive Producer at the Financial Times, You can contact him on Twitter.

Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work on refugees

Image credit: BBC Media Action


BBC Media Action

BBC Media Centre, MC3A, 201 Wood Lane
W12 7TQ
United Kingdom (UK)
Phone: 44 (0) 20 8008 0001
Fax: 44 (0) 20 8008 5970

See video