Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Great online video: Live The Language

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on February 14, 2011

Time to dig down into another awesome piece of online video from the video .fu library.

This week it’s a brilliant commission from the EF Language School, and although it is technically a commercial, for us online video journalists there is a lot we can learn about telling an engaging story.

Director  Gustav Johannson has created  short films for London, Barcelona and Beijing – but because it’s Valentine’s Day – let’s head to Paris, the city of romance and one of my favourite places.

OK, very sweet right? But of course, there’s more to it than that.

Firstly these shorts tell us about the power of collaboration. Johannson directed these films, but they were shot by Niklas Johannson and the pitch perfect typography was created by Albin Holmquist. All three clearly have unique talents and together their work is much more impressive. Collaboration works well for a lot of documentary makers too – just look at the work of Phos Pictures, a similar collaboration between director, videographer and editor.

Let’s look at the film itself. Firstly, each one has a central character (in each case a new student arriving in a city to take an EF Language course) and we follow them on their journey of discovery through the city. Character & journey: it’s a format as old as the hills but still as effective today.

A character is identified immediately - she's on a journey

What I really love about these films are they are a great example of visual storytelling. It’s a phrase bandied around all the time, and too often, people mistake anything shot on video as visual storytelling. But they’re wrong. This documentary about car crash victims in Qatar is not visual storytelling – it’s a series of talking heads and static shots. It won’t get watched as much as a result.

Visual storytelling is playing with images to create a narrative. These films are full of them – for example these two shots teach us the French for left & right (à gauche & à droite) in a visual way: our character walks one way, gets lost and walks the other way.

Left or right? Visual storytelling is about using pictures creatively

Similarly, this montage of French confectionary is used to reveal the words for different colours. This could have been done with a collection of shots of different objects – but using the same object in different colours makes a visual point.

Again, this is visual storytelling in action - a montage of colours

And finally, what wraps up the film to make it far more engaging and memorable? That’s right, girl meets boy – or in other words: a story.

Drawing a narrative into the films, instead of just a music montage, captures our attention, engages us, and we put ourselves into the position of the protagonist. Interestingly all four of these films contain this same ‘go abroad fall in love’ narrative, a cynical way perhaps to bring in more customers. Either way, it’s a reminder that without a story our films are mere shadows of what they could be.

I featured this film in the video .fu library last week: if you want to see more awesome online video before it gets mentioned on this blog, be sure to subscribe to the channel!

And hurrah - a story! Boy meets girl is an old one, but still works, right?

So what do you think? What else can video journalists and documentary storytellers learn here?

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