Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Great online video: The Sartorialist

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on February 3, 2011

The top video pick over in the video .fu library right now is a portrait of the fashion blogger The Sartorialist.

I first saw this one over Christmas and many of you will have already watched it, but I wanted to dissect it a little more and work out its secrets. If you haven’t seen it yet, take the time to watch it through. It’s a short documentary portrait of Scott Schuman, an unassuming sort of guy living in New York. Except for the fact he created and runs one of the most famous blogs on the net.

Directed by Tyler Manson/Visibly Smart Films it’s actually a commission from Intel (you know, the core processor guys) as part of their Visual Life campaign. Like the successful Honda’s Live Every Litre campaign of last year, its success is partly down to the fact the sponsor message takes a back seat to the story.

It’s a good example of a new, but growing, genre in video portraiture, rubbing shoulders with concepts like California Is A Place, Last Minutes With Oden; and portraits of Toni Lebusque and The Mast Brothers. Its secret is in its simplicity: a single interview with a fascinating character which creates the spine of the narrative, weaved in with captured moments, evocative music and gorgeous sequences captured in a cinematic style.

So what do we like about it?

It starts with a classic film convention: someone walking somewhere. We don’t know who they are, or where they’re going, and for that reason we keep watching. The camera does a good job of keeping The Satorialist steady and in focus, and slowing the footage down adds elegance and gravitas to our heroes journey.

Films like these are made up of (I think) a few key elements, which I teach to my own video journalism students at Kingston University:

  • interview
  • scenes
  • sequences
  • and a final category of ‘visual flair’ .

The interview in The Sartorialist drives the narrative, and when we do actually see as well as hear the interview, Manson hasn’t been afraid to let Schuman’s face fill the screen. He knows this will be viewed online, on a small screen, and isn’t afraid to cut off the top and bottom of his subject’s head in order that we really see The Sartorialist’s features. He’s clearly positioned near a large window or soft light, and shallow depth-of-field focuses our eyes on his.

When we watch video online it's important to get features in close-up

The easy trap is to shoot and cut a quick interview (the easy part) and then ‘float’ some footage over it at appropriate places – or to cover the edits. As well as ignoring the visual part of visual storytelling, it’s also extremely boring.

That’s why scenes and sequences are important.

A scene is a bit of reality caught on screen; for those taught in the traditional broadcast way, I’m talking about ‘actuality’; on a documentary project at The Southbank Centre last year, David Dunkley-Gyimah used to talk to me about ‘capturing moments’. The Sartorialist is brought to life through these captured moments – where we see a bit of reality unfold, unhindered, before our eyes. For example at around 02’30 into this film, we watch as Schuman spies two women at a junction, and approaches them to take a photograph.

Seeing this action unfold before our eyes shows us how he gets his shots…far more effective than interview where Schuman tells us how he does it.

A 'captured moment' of reality, as Schuman gets a photograph. We see for ourselves how he works.

Before you choose a story to tell this way – or in anyway visually with video – you should be sure these moments happen and that you’ll be able to capture them. If you’re making a film about a cyclist, then you must show us footage of them cycling no excuses. If you’re making a film about a doctor carrying out life saving surgery in Tanzania, then we’d better see it on screen. If, for whatever reason, you don’t think you can get scenes, then ditch the project. Perhaps it’s a story best told in words, audio or stills rather than video.

Finally, sequences are the bread and butter of any good video storytelling. Certainly a convention in television and cinema, I still think they are vital for online video storytelling too. A sequence of shots showing one continuous action brings us into the film and in Vin Ray’s words ‘heightens the viewers’ involvement’ in the story.

Here, Manson devises an aesthetically pleasing sequence of The Sartorialist going to get his hair cut before hitting the streets of New York. My guess is this is something Schuman does regularly, and in presenting this sequence the film makers are showing us this truth, without telling us.

The Sartorialist's haircut is presented in a sequence of shots including wide-shots and closeups.

On top of this, there is a palette of other treatments open to filmmakers, including things like montages or straight GVs, which can be used at will. But I think without and interview, scene and sequences, a film has little to it. But as The Sartorialist shows, these three elements, as well as a compelling character and a great journey are pretty much all you need to for your online video to get viewed thousands of times.

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6 Responses

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  1. Alex Murray said, on February 3, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    I disagree on the use of the tight headshot early in the piece. It’s an establishing device to create intimacy, not to do with size of screen it’s going to be viewed on.

    There’s plenty of wider shots throughout so relatively that shot is all about putting us in The Sartorialist’s space, being close and personal with him, attaching the viewer to his story as part of it rather than simply a spectator.

    And the barbershop sequence, listen to the interview, it’s about how he grew up in the midwest. It’s a visual bridging device.

    You say “The easy trap is to shoot and cut a quick interview (the easy part) and then ‘float’ some footage over it at appropriate places “. That’s essentially what they’ve done here. The scene is a float, the barbershop is a float, albeit a non-sequential one, the walking is float.

    The reason they don’t end up looking like float is because, as you say, they reveal a truth you don’t otherwise see: the process by which the sartorialist comes to be. So they are revelatory rather than illustrative. That’s why they work, not because they are scenes or sequences. That they’ve been worked as scenes or sequences makes them strong, it doesn’t make them interesting.

    It looks like it was produced either by doing interview then shooting exteriors to fit or shooting exterior shots and then asking questions to fit with actuality.

    That’s a key lesson: listen to your interview and shoot accordingly, or know what questions you need answering before you start the interview.

    • Adam Westbrook said, on February 4, 2011 at 9:43 am

      Interesting thoughts, although to be clear when I talk about ‘floating’ pictures over the top, I’m talking about the lazy wallpapering which is all over TV news and other factual programmes, just to cover edits. Although the barbershop sequence is clearly floated over the top, it’s not wallpaper because -as you say- it’s a reflection on what we’re hearing.

      When I shoot similar pieces I tend to do the interview first and then get pictures based on how I think I’ll edit the audio.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Alex Murray said, on February 4, 2011 at 9:54 am

    I find that, when you dig deeper, a lot of what gets called out as “lazy” turns out to be necessity in news and factual.

    I’ve lost count of the number of interviews where I’ve barely had time to set up the main interview shot and get that in the can before the subject is unclipping the microphone and out the door. That’s where you rely on your reporter to buy you time at the start to get that establishing wide.

    I think lazy is when you see interviews with flashes to black/white in because they either don’t have any cutaways or can’t be bothered to find a good one. Then again sometimes that’s the necessity when you’re filming at 4pm for a slot on the main evening bulletin.

  3. […] Great online video: The Sartorialist […]

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

  5. […] At its most simple: if you’re filming an interview with an IT specialist for your website, don’t just film a straight interview. Make it visual: film them at work, going for a walk, cycling to work, eating lunch, playing squash whatever – it’s the eye-candy video is made for. Done well, visually led films can turn an interview with a blogger (snore…) into something quite wonderful. […]

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