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?

7 Responses

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  1. NickCharalambous said, on May 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Good insights into the creative process. Enough discipline to create effective pieces. Enough freedom to keep you efficient. Thanks.

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  3. hamishcampbell said, on May 31, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    Interesting to see different views of this, here is ours for our training project http://visionon.tv/produce click on the template images.

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