Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How I develop my online video projects

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 23, 2011

I’ve been making films on-and-off, collaboratively and on my own, for around six or so years. Over that time I’ve developed my own workflow: a way of thinking about how to tell a story and assemble all the crucial elements in my head.

I thought it would be useful to share my basic process to see how it differs from other people, and hopefully, to help other film makers too. This is also a process I teach my video journalism students at Kingston University.

I should point out that every film-maker has their own ways of doing things – and there’s also standard practice/terminology for those working in industry. The terminology and techniques below work well for me.

I start with a blank sheet of paper, put the title/subject of the film in the middle, and then draw out the five categories below to come up with ideas. It’s nice and quick and means I spend more time filming and less time planning.

An example of a mind map I might draw out while planning a film

.01 Interviews

If you’re going to tell a narrative through the words of a character, then the interview is a core part of your film. This is where you get most of the story in audio, as well some visuals: although the interview may appear on screen occasionally, most of the time it provides a voice track.

When to do the interview? Again, it’s horses for courses and depends very much on the restraints of the character and story. Michael Rosenblum makes a good argument for doing it last; I usually prefer to shoot my interview early on. Listening to it you can form a sketchy narrative in your head and get ideas for scenes and sequences (see below); it also comforting to know you have got something substantial in the bag early on.

.02 Scenes

Scenes are my shorthand word for what other people might call ‘action’ or (in radio) ‘actuality’. It’s basically something happening uninterrupted on camera – an event you are observing as a film maker and capturing as it happens. The scene below from The Sartorialist when the photographer stops two women in the street is an example of a scene.

An example of a scene from The Sartorialist.

To me, scenes are the spices in a good meal. Without them, you’re left with something bland: just your interview with some footage floated over the top. Scenes draw us further into a story because we’re watching real-life unfold before our eyes. The change in mood, audio and picture style also piques our interest.

I never shoot a story without drawing up ideas for possible scenes to bring it to life.

.03 Sequences

Sequences form an equally important structure to your online video stories. I’m talking about sequences in the television news sense: that is, a single action occurring over three or more shots. Continuity between each shot is vital to maintain the illusion of continuous movement.

Sequences are vital because they draw our attention as we watch an event unfold on screen. In a story about a teenager learning to drive, we’re more engaged watching a sequence of them driving, than by static shots of different angles of a stationary car – or even worse, a series of juxtaposing shots of a moving and stationary car.

I aim to shoot as many sequences as possible when filming. A warning though: it is possible to get sequences wrong, in so many ways – as this attempt by a local newspaper in Norwich shows.

.04 Visual Flair

You could make a decent, engaging well produced piece with just interviews, scenes and sequences – especially if the story is short and you’re on a deadline. If I have time though, I try to think of ideas of how to use these next two elements.

The first is visual flair – and you can divide it into two categories: which I call porn and imagery.

Yes, I said porn, and what I mean by that is lots of beautiful juicy close ups, or grand wide-shots, or elegant tracking shots. For some stories this is essential: if you’re shooting a story about a chocolate factory I want to see a sweeping wide shot of the factory in action – and then lots (and lots!) of closeups showing chocolate oozing of pipes. This film about the chocolatiers The Mast Brothers packed with visual porn.

Shots like this one (from Mast Brothers) a great visual porn

Imagery is my way of thinking about using pictures to tell a story in a more visual way – as I describe in more detail in this blog post. It could involve using symbolism, repeated motifs, colours, shot sizes and much more to convey the meaning of a story without dialogue.

.05 Theme

Finally – and this is only on rare projects – do I get to think more about a theme for the story: something deeper, more significant that it trying to say. The theme is never expressed outright, but implicitly revealed in the story itself. How do you find the theme? Usually by asking “what is this story really about?

Director Brennan Stasiewicz makes some great points about theme in this interview for studio .fu.

Regular day-to-day journalism rarely has or needs a theme – but longer documentary, or online video feature pieces are built on solid foundations when they have a theme.

So there you go: as I say it’s a very personal way of developing a film, and unique in that I don’t always work with others, sometimes developing, shooting, editing and publishing  a film entirely on my own. How do you make your films?

Can we teach journalists entrepreneurship?

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 16, 2011

I

This is the question I’ll be asking lots over the coming months. I am carrying out research on behalf of Kingston University into entrepreneurial journalism. We want to find out whether we should be teaching it, and if so – how.

Other journalism programs in the UK and US, including UCLAN, BCU, City and CUNY have all introduced (or are planning on introducing) enterpreneurship into their courses, and all in different ways.

Personally, I am very excited by the possibilities and opportunities that entrepreneurship provides – especially to young journalists and creatives.

In a brilliant and inspirational commencement speech at Berkeley this month, the NPR journalist Robert Krulwich summed it up superbly:

It’s not easy. It’s not for everybody. Just something to think about.

Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something. No one will pay you. No one will care, No one will notice, except of course you and the people you’re doing it with. But then you publish, you put it on line, which these days is totally doable, and then… you do it again.

The people in charge, of course, don’t want to change. They like the music they’ve got.  To the newcomers, they say, “Wait your turn”.

But in a world like this… rampant with new technologies, and new ways to do things, the newcomers… that means you… you here today, you have to trust your music… It’s how you talk to people your age, your generation. This is how we change.

II

In the last two years I have dragged myself from a reluctant biz-novice to someone who has produced and sold books and started a business: like Robert says, it’s tough, it’s not for everyone…but it’s addictive.

Thing is, I don’t think its got much to do with the nuts and bolts of business itself (sales, spreadsheets, business plans) – although they play a part.

Entrepreneurship is an attitude: a way of looking at life, perhaps as a playground full of opportunity and not (as most of us do) as an assault course of pitfalls and hazards. I never used to have this attitude but I’ve ‘learned’ it in some way over the last few years.

And the attitude we need to instill in the next generation of journalists is simple: start things. And then finish them. That’s all. Sounds simple, but it requires a lot: the ideas, the initiative to marshall the all the forces to bring the idea to life, and the dogged determination to see it through to something that ‘intersects with the market‘.

Beyond that, you need the thick skin to deal with the inevitable failure of your idea. Then the balls to repeat the whole thing again. And again.

On Wednesday last week I was invited to chair a panel of digital journalists at We Publish in Leeds. The Guardian’s Sarah Hartley, Nigel Barlow from InsidetheM60 and Emma Bearley, founder of The Culture Vulture discussed a whole range of things – and entrepreneurship was a hot topic.

The feeling from the audience, and some of the panel, was that this attitude is rare, especially among young journalists. And blame was placed partly on the education system – at all levels.

III

If you get time, you should watch the marvellous Sir Ken Robinson talk about education in this TED Talk. The education system we use is the same one the Victorians used: and it was designed for a Victorian world – an industrial world.

Schools, says Ken, are like factories: we batch children by age (why age?) put them through a machine, a system, and churn out identikit office and factory workers at the other end. This was fine for our military industrial complex but as offices go digital, and factories go east, we don’t need identikit workers any more.

We need risk takers, creatives and entrepreneurs.

The world has changed. But education hasn’t.

And so, as great as it is that more journalism educators introduce entreprise as a part of their training, they’re still very much rooted in the Victorian tenets of education: failure is bad, risk leads to failure, so stick to the rules and do as you’re told.

How do we make people less risk averse? Can we? Should we? I’d love your thoughts.

Are you really a visual storyteller?

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 9, 2011

The climax to Road to Perdition

Lots of multimedia producers describe themselves as “visual storytellers”: a sort of umbrella term to cover off video journalism, photography, motion graphics and maybe flash interactives too.

And as an umbrella term it’s a good one..but how many visual storytellers are really that?

The mantra in creating television news, documentaries, cinema and now online video – is to let the pictures tell the story. But this is actually extremely rare: watch the majority of news, docs and online video stories and instead the words lead the way, dragging pictures along behind them.

So what is visual storytelling?

To be a visual storyteller you should be able to tell a story with as few words as possible – maybe even none. If someone was watching your film with the sound turned off, would they understand what was happening?

There are a huge number of tools we can use as visual storytellers to convey messages with images alone: from the type of shot we use, the editing style, whether we go handheld, use a steadicam or sticks, transitions, repeated motifs and all sorts.

The first 10 minutes of Dirty Harry have absolutely no dialogue; the last 20 minutes of Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition contain just six lines of dialogue but bring the story to bloody climax and denouement. You know exactly how someone is feeling, what they’re thinking, and what they’re going to do next – but you haven’t been told in words, you’ve been shown.

One thing is for sure: it is easier said than done. My last production, explaining the AV Referendum had more than 600 words in 4 minutes. Rubbish.

Can you tell a whole story with no dialogue? You bet’cha. I love this 3 minute short by Norwegian film maker Kristoffer Borgli. Drama, plot twists, humour and suspense – all in three minutes – all without a single word being uttered.

Why not set yourself a challenge to tell your next story in 100 words…or less?

Great online video: Wait for Me & Goodnight Moon

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 5, 2011

Not one, but two more superb examples of online video storytelling were added to the video.fu library this week, both stories of families coping with loss.

Both demonstrate  a great sense of visual storytelling – as well as a too-often overlooked rule: a familiarity/relationship with the people you’re interviewing. There are more than 20 other great films in the video.fu library at the moment – you can subscribe here.

Wait For Me/Red Light Films

The first I actually saw about two years ago, but it took me a while to track down. Wait For Me is about a mother’s long vigil for her son who disappeared while backpacking in India nearly 30 years ago.

Very intimate and well produced, but also full of little tips and tricks other visual storytellers can apply. It opens with a sequence of shots showing a box being opened. This immediately piques our interest: ‘what’s in the box?’ and it’s a similar device to showing your main character heading somewhere – we know there is something about to be revealed and it engages us.

Next we hear our character read from an old letter, a lovely device, which explains the story without having to literally describe it. The fact she cannot finish the letter shows us too how emotionally raw her loss is.  Well treated archive footage forms the bulk of the visuals, which serve to show us more about who the missing son is; the faded 8mm stock a subconscious hint to fading memories.

Finally, rather than using more full-screen images of the son, the director films a small passport photograph in the mother’s hand. A clever device to place the photograph in the real world.

Goodnight Moon/Margaret Cheatham Williams

And secondly, on a similar theme, is Margaret Cheatham Williams’ intimate portrait of her own family as they lose her grandmother to Parkinson’s disease.

The personal nature of this film must have made it hard to make: the two main subjects are her own family. Margaret deftly mixes video with stills, and in particular brings in some nice ‘actually’ at two points to break up the interviews.

In particular there are nice references to visual symmetry, with shots of her grandparents together in bed, repeated later with their daughter Katie. I also love the tight framing on interviews and a confident use of lighting too, which tells its own story.Again faded 8mm home movie footage takes us back to happier times, with the memory too starting to fade.

The video.fu library is constantly growing, curating some of the most exceptional online video storytelling. There are more than 20 films there right now – make sure you subscribe to see them before they hit the blog!

5 big reasons to stay small

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 2, 2011

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”

Albert Einstein (via 37 Signals)

Do you know how many people are employed in the two Chinese factories that makes Apple’s iPads and iPhones?

Well, according to this worrying Guardian article & NGO investigation, the Shenzhen and Chengdu factories house 500,000 workers. That’s larger than the population of Manchester, UK or Atlanta, Georgia.

The industrial concept of ‘economies of scale’ has led us to create mammoth corporations, in the hope that the efficiency makes them more profitable. It’s a daunting prospect for new entrepreneurs. But very few consider the benefits of doing the opposite – of running an intentionally small company.

If you’re a journalist dreaming of dipping your toe into business waters, staying small is where it’s at.

Five big reasons to run an intentionally small business

.01 The risks are lower: when you stick to being small your overheads are much lower and you invest less time and money. If the idea eventually fails, you haven’t lost too much, but gained plenty of experience. It’s the old adage: fail fast, fail often.

.02 You are profitable sooner: you don’t have a business until the money you bring in exceeds the money you spend. Up until that point you’re running a hobby, not a business. Staying small – keeping your overheads low – means you’ll be in profit sooner, and your profits will be higher.

.03 It’s an edge over the competition: if you’re going into competition against established brands, online magazines or production companies, your small size is a big advantage. With no office rent, stationary or admin staff to pay for you can focus on investing in the business itself. The bigger companies need to charge more to sustain their mass.

.04 You can do things a lot faster: You can launch faster. You can change direction faster. If it’s clear the business needs to go in a different direction you can move that way almost instantly; a larger company needs to consult its board, its shareholders and put strategies in place. Cue big delays…

.05 Because you can! The internet has cut the overheads of running a business right down to virtually nothing. In the past you needed to rent landlines, offices and office equipment. These days a website and some moo cards is all you need.

People make the mistake of believing that being bigger and more complex makes them better. I think the opposite: the more simple and small your business is the better your product or service is going to be.

Be small

So, if you’re toying with the idea of launching your own news business – an online magazine, a hyperlocal blog, or a design agency, then set yourself a challenge of doing it small:

  • force yourself to strip your idea right down to its bare minimum
  • challenge yourself to launch it on less than £100/$150
  • challenge yourself to launch it in less than two weeks
  • challenge yourself to make a profit within two months
  • always ask yourself how you can do things faster, cheaper, more simply

Last year I launched studio .fu, my online video production company on these terms. After I wrote my idea down I kept reducing it, removing the complexity and convolution. I narrowed my offering down to just online video and motion graphics.  I challenged myself to launch it on less than £100 (it actually cost me £60) and in less than two weeks (I did it in 5 days). Within two weeks I had my first gig – which instantly knocked me into profit.

What, do you think, are the other benefits of being small? 

Using online video to explain AV & First Past the Post

Posted in Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on April 28, 2011

There’s no such thing as boring information, just boring presentation.

Anon

In a week, voters in Britain will have a once-in-a-generation chance to decide whether the election system in the UK should change.

At the moment it’s run on a plurality system called ‘First Past the Post’, but after last year’s election there were calls to switch it to the ‘Alternative Vote’ system.

In the last couple of months, opposing campaign groups, politicians and journalists have been trying to sway public opinion, in the minds of some, by using increasingly desperate tactics, creating (in Charlie Brooker’s words) “a stupidity whirlpool that engulfs any loose molecules of logic”. For example, both sides claim voting the other way would bring in the extremist British National Party.

It’s created so much confusion, there are worries people might not bother to vote at all.

As a pet project over the Easter break, I’ve created this video explainer to cut through the crap and explain First Past the Post and Alternative Vote properly.

Youtube version

Source list (pdf)

It comes with an accompanying source list, with every fact that appears checked against a reliable source. I interviewed political scientists to clarify key points of explanation too. I’ve tried to avoid opinion as much as possible, although I think you sometimes have to sacrifice total objectivity for the sake of clarity.

It’s far from perfect: it’s twice as long as I was aiming for and the visuals aren’t strong enough for a start. Feedback from close colleagues suggests the second half might be bordering on comment and not explanation (what do you think?)

I’m not the only one who’s had a crack at explaining the nuances of these two systems.  The BBC’s heavyweight current affairs programme Newsnight tried using (rather weak) satire to do it; the Electoral Commission itself attempted a Common Craft style cartoon which might have mis-read its audience; cartoons were order of the day in other films too. And Dan Snow’s piece is actually a campaign so doesn’t count, but he uses a good real-life example to explain AV.

Explaining the news

This explainer is the pilot of a bigger project on explaining the news I’m starting this spring, inspired by the work of Jay Rosen’s Studio20 program in New York City.

I think online video has huge potential to simplify a complicated topic and engage people with the issue, in fact, I believe video can do this better than any other medium.

I’ll go into detail in a later post, but in the meantime I’ll be watching the reaction to this video to get an idea of whether it’s got legs. If you like it (or don’t like it!) please share it online (and let me know in the comments)!

Top posts you might have missed so far this year

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on March 31, 2011

Image credit: morning_rumtea on Flickr

Wow, we’re a quarter of the way through 2011 already! How did that happen?

I’ve had an intense but brilliant start to the year, producing four commissions for studio .fu, launching myNewsBiz (the deadline’s in one week!), continuing to lecture in video journalism at Kingston University, and of course keeping this blog up to date.

Every three months or so I try to sum up the most popular posts for those of you who might have missed them. Here’s the last one from 2010.

Online video

5 conventions every online video journalist should scrap – a controversial one, with plenty of comments.

10 free and totally legal programs for multimedia journalists – the most popular post this year by far. An update is on the way soon.

My 10 predictions for journalism in 2011 – check out my video predictions for the big trends in journalism this year.

Great online video: The Sartorialist – my favourite piece of online video so far this year.

Great online video: Gold’s Strong Stories

Great online video: Live the Language

Entrepreneurial Journalism

10 Great themes for your online magazine – if you’re starting an online magazine, here’s a great resource of free & premium themes to use.

How to use Flavors.me to create a quick online portfolio

How journalists can get ahead of the game in 2011 – I rummage through JWT’s annual intelligence report to see if there are any big trends journalists should know.

Can journalists really be entrepreneurs? – I ask some of the most successful j-entrepreneurs in the UK.

The first question every entrepreneurial journalist should ask – you’ll have to click to find out what it is!

10 revenue streams for your news business – does what it says on the tin. I list 10 revenue streams every j-entrepreneur could use.

On revolution – This one got picked up by BBC News Online the night Mubarak fell.

If you like what you see, don’t wait for another three months to find out what posts you’ve missed: subscribe and get each email delivered straight into your inbox! The box is on the right…

5 TV news conventions video journalists should scrap

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on March 17, 2011

Time is something TV News does not have.

It does not have much time to turn around a package (anything from 12 hours to just 30 minutes); and it does not have much time on air to explain a complex news event (usually just 90 seconds). As a result formulas and conventions were developed over the decades – which help the journalists tell a complicated story very quickly.

But rarely is online video journalism shackled by such quick deadlines. If a newspaper or magazine decided to invest in a video report, it’s usually for a diary event which they can plan in advance: the video journalist might have days to prepare for a story. Online, video stories can run as long as the streaming platform will allow.

So more time on screen, more time behind the scenes…so why do online video journalists still follow their television brethren so closely? Here are five conventions which TV news designed and VJs could leave behind.

Five TV news conventions video journalists should scrap

 

Classic framing for an interview

.01 the 3-quarter-shot interview

The 3-quarter-shot as it’s known, is the classic framing for interviews in news and documentaries. Traditionally, we see the interviewee off-centre, looking either to the left or the right, presumably having a conversation with the reporter.

It exists in TV news, because it’s quick to set up and execute. The camera-person can frame the shot quickly without needing the subject to participate.

Instead: try having your interviewee look directly into the lens. This allows them to make direct eye-contact with the viewer, and gives the audience use of the full range of their facial expressions. Michael Rosenblum explains it well here, and I’ve been experimenting with it in these films for myNewsBiz. I found my subjects very comfortable and natural looking into the lens, as they would be looking at me.

Just because TV news does something, doesn’t mean online video journalism must follow suit!

.02 cutaways and noddies

Another TV new convention to creep into online video journalism is the ‘cutaway’. It’s that shot that gets inserted to cover-up an edit in the interview you’ve recorded. It’s done so often, we’ve become very accustomed to them – but, they can still be done badly…really badly. This clip is called ‘Police typing fail’ but it should be called reporter and camera-operater, and editor and producer fail:

It exists in TV news because it’s a very quick way to splice an interview together without distracting the audience with your edits. If you were to leave the cutaway out, the audience would notice a sudden jump in the interview, and get distracted. But what TV news is really doing is misleading its viewers, suggesting the interviewee spoke in one smooth uninterrupted flow.

Instead: don’t con your viewers. Be honest with them – they’re smart enough to know interviews get edited. Replace your cutaway with a ‘flash-wipe’ or ‘flash-through-colour-dissolve’. Make it just 10 or so frames long and be sure to put in an audio cross-fade too.

Just because TV news wants to trick its viewers doesn’t mean online video journalists should too!

.03 reliance on voice-overs

In most of the Western world, you never see a TV news report which doesn’t consist largely of voice-over. If you’re not familiar, that’s the reporter’s narration over (often quickly assembled) pictures. 95% of the time it’ll start a new report, and it’ll end at least half of them, unless the reporter decides to stick themselves on camera.

Voice over exists in TV news because it is an extremely quick way to cover over gaps in narrative and explain complicated things in a short space of time, both on screen and behind the scenes. Why go to all that effort to show a story happening, when you can just pull out a biro and tell it? At its worst and most hammy, it quickly becomes a source of parody:

Instead: use voice over sparingly. It should be a last-resort, rather than something you always factor into your storytelling. If you can’t show your story happening or have the people involved tell it themselves, is it a story worth covering in video?

Just because TV news covers stories regardless of whether they’re good visually, doesn’t mean video journalists should too!

.04 skin-deep storytelling

For the same reason, a TV news report is really only trying to summarise a story as quickly as possible. It wants you to know the key development that day – just enough so you can keep up a conversation at the bar and be quickly forgotten. And let’s be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But there is a large audience for more deep storytelling, more engaging explanations and analysis of our spinning rock – and that audience is online…and they’re currently dissatisfied.

So instead: don’t blow your online video skills producing shallow stories which will just bounce off the water. Use it to do what video journalism is best at: getting access to people and places the big cameras can’t go. Your small, intimate set-up will get you closer to eye-witnesses, into the homes of insurgents and weeks on the frontline with soldiers.

Just because TV news needs to quickly wrap a news story before 6pm doesn’t mean video journalists are in such a hurry!

.05 zero-transparency

Finally, if there’s something TV news is really bad at, it’s transparency.

Agency footage is never labelled, so viewers are left believing the BBC (or Sky News or CNN) cameras were on hand to catch an event when they were not. (Interestingly, US networks are far better at crediting footage to APTN/Reuters etc). It might seem a small thing, but in the Middle-East, whether footage of a suicide bombing is shot by a Palestinian or an Israeli freelancer can make a lot of difference. It also does not give credit to the crews who put their lives on the line.

We never hear where a story has come from, so people aren’t aware how much of news on television is taken from agencies, lifted from newspapers or worse still, from a press release.

So instead: set a new standard for transparency in online video journalism. Be straight up with viewers, tell them where every frame of video comes from. We can do it with graphics on screen, or in a ‘production details’ section below the embedded video. If we’ve edited an interview, tell our viewers that we have.

One more thing

Marco left a comment on this post earlier this week, raising a valid point:

…since the television formulas have worked for so long (and so successfully), shouldn’t we use them when we are producing video for the web?… I do know that television and online video are different by nature. But is the storytelling process so different as you try to show on your post?

He’s got a point. TV news works (for the most part) doesn’t it? Well, that’s something up for debate. Online video is a new medium, and should be approached as something new. There are lessons from past practitioners we can learn…but my advice is skip television and learn from the early cinematographers. Fritz Lang and Orson Wells really understood visual storytelling – they invented it.

They had the time to devise ways of explaining something visually, passing information, often without any dialogue.

Those devices are still relevant today – and should be used by video journalists when they can. TV News just doesn’t have the time.

Great online video: Gold’s Strong Stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on March 10, 2011

Newspapers and magazines are still, I think, hesitant to use online video in new and creative ways. It doesn’t help that many are trying to cut costs, but the other problem is a creative one: most video journalism still mimics television.

It’s not the first time on this blog I’ve highlighted great online video coming not from journalists, but from businesses. They’re the ones picking up the mantle of of video storytelling, embracing it and providing work for reporters, film makers and editors.

A week or so back I added a prime example of this to video .fu, our library of great online video storytelling.Production company Phos Pictures were approached by – of all people – a gym. They used documentary-style, portrait storytelling: not to create a naff advert for the gym, but to engage us with the stories of the people who use it.

The videos themselves are not embeddable, but here’s a promo produced by director Eliot Rausch.

You can’t gleam a huge amount from the trailer, so head over to the main site and watch one of the short films on there.

What’s the point?

You might recognise the people who produced these films – they’re the guys behind Last Minutes With Oden (Vimeo’s Documentary of the Year 2010) and Pennies HEART, both of which feature in the video .fu library.

The Gold’s Gym films utilise many of the same strengths: a single, engaging character, on an internal and external journey. We hear their voice, but don’t always see them speak. The characters are carefully chosen, and interviewed extraordinarily well: their words are almost poetic, and you’d think they were scripted if they weren’t delivered so naturally.

This comes from a skill which really sets the Phos Pictures team apart: they know their subjects intimately.

Here’s what Lukas Korver said about making Last Minutes With Oden on my other storytelling blog, blog.fu:

I think the best advice we can give is to always keep your eyes open for fresh characters and stories, they are all around us.  Take a few moments out of your day and talk to interesting people you pass in your daily life. If you’re intentions are good most people are quite receptive to being on film, once they get to know you and your intentions.

One of the best parts about being a filmmaker is getting away from the bubble  you create at your desk around your computer and go out into the real world and do some real face to face interaction.  Most days I’m not shooting I live a pretty solitary life so its great to break out of that routine of controlled isolation and experience life, or in our case as a filmmakers, experience others experiencing life.

These videos prove that engaging, documentary storytelling has uses beyond the boundaries of news and current affairs. Why does that matter for us? Well, it provides a possible new revenue stream, which can potentially fund independent journalism. Not only that, it provides a great opportunity to practice this very challenging craft.

It’s a lesson for journalists, but really it’s a lesson for businesses big and small: online video done well can bring your business to life.

Why entrepreneurs are journalism’s only hope

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 7, 2011

Even David Cameron’s saying it now. In a speech to his spring conference this weekend he announced that entrepreneurs are Britain’s ‘only strategy’ for growth, and is promising help for people starting their own businesses in this month’s budget.

The same is true for journalism too. The call to enterprise isn’t a stop-gap, nor an acceptance of defeat trying to get a ‘proper’ job.

Journalism needs entrepreneurs to shake things up and make some new things happen. In the shadow of newsroom cuts, creative famine and spreading churnalism, these brave starters are journalism’s ‘only strategy’ for growth.

As if by magic (or more likely by perusing the planning diary) the Observer yesterday featured several ‘young guns‘: young men and women who, in the face of high youth unemployment, have made their own careers happen. Included was 20-year-old film-maker Jamal Edwards who founded SBTV, an impressive youth channel; Georgina Cooper, 26, the creator of PretaPortobello.com; Gerard Jones, 21, who founded his own football training academy while still at university; and Edwin Broni-Mensah, 25, who’s come up with a great business around refillable water bottles.

They are inspiring stories of young people who, in the face of a game where the odds were stacked against them, invented a new game, with the rules squarely in their favour. And they’re relishing the freedom and opportunity it gives them. Meanwhile, more young journalists who fought their way into a national newspaper the old way are handing in their notices!

So start now…but start small.

The time to make your own career happen is now.

I had the pleasure of speaking at Leeds Trinity University’s Journalism Festival a week ago, alongside Joanna Geary from the Times, Chris Ship from ITV, Patrick Smith from the The Media Briefing and many others.

I was there to talk about entrepreneurial journalism – and in particular, the often overlooked beauty of starting an intentionally small, but insanely profitable business. In it, I presented several examples of journalists making money in new ways, described how I did it launching my business studio .fu and gave some practical advice on how to start a business with no funding, no employees and no office.

My presentation is available to view by clicking here.

You can also read a write-up and listen to an interview here.

The lure of having @bbc.co.uk or @cnn.com on your email address is a temptress, I know. But we are entering an age where the self-starter is the one with the opportunities – don’t miss out! If you still need convincing read this great article in Smashing Magazine.

And for another four weeks, there is the opportunity to win £1000 in cash to get your business off the ground in our unique myNewsBiz competition. Click here for details of how to enter.

UPDATE: a couple of similar excellent posts from other young journalists today: Joseph Stashko asks why are j-students still attracted by the mainstream media; and Marc Thomas explains why he’s going entrepreneurial instead of looking for jobs this summer.

Video: can journalists really be entrepreneurs?

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 17, 2011

More and more people are turning round to the idea that journalism alone is not enough, and that to make it in the uncertain world ahead you have to be entrepreneurial too.

Last week’s buy-out of the Huffington Post will add some hope to the mix too.

The criticism from those who are still skeptical or unsure is that the two must be incompatible.

How can you be good at giving a voice to the voiceless and also know how to rake in the cash?’ Or: ‘In business you have to be ruthless and money orientated. I’m a creative person not a business person.’

Both valid points. But at Kingston University we’ve launched a nationwide competition to prove that’s not the case. We want the next generation of journalists, currently studying at a UK university, to come up with their own idea for a news business that has the potential to be sustainable.

The winning team gets £1000 to turn it into reality, and the runners-up get £500. Pretty cool, right?

Free business training

So now’s the time to flex that entrepreneurial muscle. But if you’re still unsure, we’ve been putting together a great collection of free videos and guides to the basics of business. What makes a good business idea? What’s the difference between a product and a service? It’s featuring a raft of journos and entrepreneurs and will be updated regularly over the next few months.

Find out right here, and let your entrepreneurial journey begin!

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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