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How to Pull Off a Surprise Video

This holiday season, we surprised a veterinary student who couldn’t go home for the holidays by flying her mom to Colorado, and we caught it all on video.

Although the final video is only about two minutes long, it took weeks of planning and one full day of filming that lasted 11 hours. Was the student genuinely surprised? Yes. Did we give her major trust issues? Most likely. But, if you are trying to pull off a video to surprise someone, here are a couple things we learned along the way. (I apologize ahead of time for this dreadfully long blog.)

Ask for forgiveness later

Brian interviewing Melissa on camera
Brian Buss (phenomenal videographer and storyteller) interviews Melissa.

This is probably my riskiest piece of advice. Going behind someone’s back — even if it’s for a good reason — can backfire. In fact, when we first pitched this idea to the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences leadership team in late October, one faculty member asked, “What if the student says you can’t use the footage after the surprise?” That question haunted me until the day the video went live.

We essentially had to lie to the veterinary student, Melissa, for over a month and she could have easily objected to us posting the video, and at one point, I think she wanted to. But, here’s why I think she ultimately said yes. First, we did our research. We asked advisors and professors throughout our college to help us find a student who couldn’t go home for the holidays, who would be happy to see their parent, and who wouldn’t be too mad at us for lying to them. Rachel Yager, the college’s assistant director of communications, ultimately identified Melissa, a veterinary student, who couldn’t go home because she would be working at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Initially, we thought we would sift through Melissa’s social media accounts to identify her parents and then contact them without her knowing, but Melissa’s accounts were totally locked down. So, I did the second riskiest thing I could think of: Tell Melissa we were writing a graduation story about her and that we wanted to interview her biggest supporter. Luckily, Melissa wanted to take part. She identified her mother as her best friend and biggest fan, and gave me her mother’s contact information. Even luckier, though, her mom was totally up for the surprise. I don’t know what I would have told Melissa if her mom wasn’t game. “Sorry, we aren’t doing the graduation story anymore…?” I relied heavily on Melissa’s mom, Marsha, to guess how comfortable (aka mad) Melissa would be with the surprise and, well, deceit. Marsha’s confidence in Melissa and the project helped me feel more willing to ask for forgiveness later. (I’m still so sorry Melissa!) I booked a flight for Marsha the next day.

We had Melissa. We had her mom. We just needed a plan.

Go with the flow

Brian filming Melissa and a puppy.
The adorable puppy, Winston, from the video was a real patient who came in for a life-saving procedure after string he digested wrapped around his intestine.

If there’s one thing you can’t control when creating a surprise video, it’s everything. We had to be nimble and accept that the way we saw the video in our heads likely wouldn’t be the final product.

For example, I imagined the actual surprise taking place at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, possibly at the end of Melissa’s interview. But, Marsha’s flight to Denver didn’t land until 8 p.m. that evening, meaning we wouldn’t get back to Fort Collins until closer to midnight. How were we supposed to surprise someone at 11 p.m. on a Friday? Friday was also Melissa’s day off, so would we even know where she was?

During our interview with Melissa, we tried to figure out what her plans were that evening…without being too obvious. Brian, the videographer, pulled a genius move and asked Melissa if he could film a quick sound bite for another video he was working on for our Office of Admissions about what students do in their free time. We figured out her general weekend plans, but we couldn’t ask for more information without looking suspicious (and creepy), so we enlisted Rachel to figure out the deets. Rachel contacted Melissa’s classmate, who contacted Melissa’s friend and study buddy to keep us informed on Melissa’s plans as the day progressed. We didn’t officially decide how to surprise Melissa until our drive back from the airport, about 30 minutes before the big reveal.

We had two options: Surprise Melissa at home where she would likely be sleeping, or call her into the Veterinary Teaching Hospital for an emergency. The problem was, Melissa wasn’t on call that night and calling her into the hospital would be too weird. After consulting with Marsha, we decided to just go to Melissa’s home. As we suspected, Melissa was sleeping. Marsha called Melissa to wake her up and asked her to come to the door. It wasn’t the surprise I imagined in my head, but it was perfect.

But, plan as much as possible

Ashley and Brian riding the train at Denver International Airport
At the airport, 9 hours into filming.

Sure, there is a lot you can’t plan for when executing a surprise video. But, we planned as much as we could. There were many, many production meetings, location scouting, and phone calls to others who created surprise videos in the past (thanks Christian Herrmann).

Best piece of advice when planning: Have two videographers film the surprise. Brian asked another CSU videographer, Ben Ward, to help him film the moment Melissa saw Marsha to ensure we captured the moment on camera from two angles, and it made all the difference in the final product.

Two quick tips if your surprise video includes an airport or airline:

  • Airport: Filming in an airport requires special permission, so contact them ahead of time.
  • Airline: We wanted to get footage of a Southwest Airlines plane landing for the video. Brian attempted to get a few shots ahead of time. We learned later that airlines typically have their own b-roll of planes landing. Southwest Airlines was amazing to work with. They gave us gate passes to get to Marsha’s gate when she landed, and let Brian film her walking on and off the jet bridge. Pro tip: Southwest Airlines will also let videographers fly on the plane with their subject if planned in advance.

Give yourself plenty of time to film

Denver cityscape
Recognize this scene from the video? It’s the Denver cityscape.

As I mentioned, filming took 11 hours (including driving). In case you’re wondering what our day looked like, here is a (rough) timeline:

  • 12 p.m.: Interview Melissa and make her believe it’s for a graduation video
  • 12:30 p.m.: Film b-roll of Melissa around the Veterinary Teaching Hospital
  • 2:30 p.m.: EAT LUNCH QUICKLY and brainstorm how to surprise Melissa
  • 3:30 p.m.: Drive to Denver
  • 4:30 p.m.: Sit in traffic
  • 5:30(ish) p.m.: Pit stop for snacks and caffeine
  • 6:00 p.m.: B-roll of cityscape at night
  • 6:30 p.m.: Drive to Denver International Airport
  • 7:00 p.m.: Realize Marsha’s flight is delayed, sit in car, brainstorm how to surprise Melissa
  • 7:47 p.m.: Confirm Melissa’s evening plans with her friend
  • 8:00 p.m.: Kris gets us gate passes
  • 8:20 p.m.: Film Marsha throughout the airport
  • 9:15 p.m.: Drive to a quiet(ish) location to interview Marsha in the car
  • 10:00 p.m.: Drive back to Fort Collins, continue brainstorming how to surprise Melissa
  • 11:00 p.m.: Surprise Melissa at her house
  • 11:30 p.m.: It’s a wrap
  • Melissa and her mom spend the weekend together 💚💛

Recruit help. A lot of help.

Don’t feel like you have to do everything on your own. Ask for help! I was never on my own during this project. There must have been at least 10 people helping from beginning to end. From the “film crew” (Kris, Brian and Rachel), to Melissa’s friends, to faculty and staff at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, it took so many people to bring this all together.

Huge kudos (and thanks) to: Kristen Browning-Blas, Rachel Yager, Brian Buss, Marsha and Melissa, Team Social, Debra Liptak, all of Melissa’s friends, Dr. Amanda Cavanaugh, Dr. Tim Hackett, Christian Herrmann, CVMBS advisors, Southwest Airlines, Denver International Airport.

Ashley Manweiler

About Ashley Manweiler

Colorado State alum. Graduated in 2013 with a B.A. in journalism and technical communications, concentration in public relations. I’m not a science genius, but I write about it a lot. My favorite social media platform? Buzzfeed.