Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Three examples of great online video stories

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 14, 2010

Regular readers will know how much I like to bang on about storytelling. It’s the oldest craft the journalist uses, yet still one of the least well understood (including by me).

Stunningly well told stories are so rare to come by, I think it’s worth highlighting them when they do.

Here then are three examples of how to weave a gripping narrative in video. These haven’t been chosen for how good they look, or how well they’re edited, or necessarily any journalistic rigour. But they all take a story and don’t just tell it in a linear way. There’s a lot to learn from them.

Soul mate Stories by Guardian Video

Expertly directed by Sonali Fernando to tell the stories of people who’ve met via the paper’s online dating service Soulmates.

What to take away: what makes this special is the visual narrative devices weaved in to tell the story. Most of the story we hear from the two characters, but rather than just having talking heads, Sonali has one paint the other. That’s a narrative device with the visuals firmly in mind. It leaves you with this wonderful reveal when she’s describing meeting the love of her life online, and we see his face appear in the painting.

Just about subtle enough to still pack a punch, it’s a great device and used very well. When making your own video stories, what ways can you get your subjects to show, rather than tell?

16:moments by RadioLab

This is a concept rather than a story – but there’s no doubting there’s a story in here. Directed by New York filmmaker Will Hoffman the film plays around the idea of a single moment.

What to take away: The opening fast cut montage of pictures, matched with some enticing audio builds suspense. The voices we hear pull us into the story, and reveal the talent of a film maker with passions for radio too.

Putting moments together, and visually connecting certain visual cues packs a powerful punch. Notice how he matches the first steps of a toddler with the strides of a grave digger – it instantly tells a great story about birth and death. The music is important: as it builds it pushes the story towards a climax.

50 people 1 question by Deltree

Directed by Benjamin Reece, the 50 people 1 question videos have been shared around the web a lot in the last year. Post Secret takes the same concept but the question is ‘what’s your biggest secret?’

What to take away: It’s a simple concept, but leaves the director with the problem of having a random collection of vox-pops to turn into a narrative. He does it skillfully, however, inter cutting half answered voxes to build tension, and making excellent use of the reactions, pauses, recollections and silent regrets. He makes use of all his shots, even when he’s framing up or pulling focus.

The climax comes half way through when we see a couple tell each other their biggest secrets. Putting them together, facing each other on screen, is a wonderful idea. Similarly, watch out for the skeptical girl who appears near the beginning (01’00) and says “why would I tell a secret to a bunch of strangers?”: she appears right at the end, revealing the most intimate secret of them all. It’s known as book-ending – an old trick, but a good’un.

As with 16:moments above, the piece makes use of music, this time to change narrative direction.

So there you go, three pieces of multimedia which show us how in the right hands cameras are powerful tools. Hopefully it’s inspired you to aim for something as powerful in your own films. And I’m always on the look out for amazingly well told stories – if you’ve seen any, please recommend them in the comments section!

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