Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Some things never change: 20-year-old lessons in video

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on February 13, 2012

I’ve wanted to make TV/video/films since I was a kid. That was a hugely frustrating experience back in the 90s as there were no cut-price flip cams, free editing software or platforms like Youtube to share it on. In fact, there was no way for a 10 year old to make video, so I had to settle with reading about how to make it instead.

The first book I ever read about this sort of thing was called Directing On Camera by Harris Watts, and it was published 20 years ago in 1992.

It started out as a checklist for trainee directors at the BBC before becoming a book. It’s got a matte red cover, with a graphic of an old VT countdown clock (remember them?) over it; some rather dated references to cassettes and dubbing, plus some quaint cartoon illustrations.

It seemed pretty out of date when I was reading it in the late 90s, but this week I decided to take another look at it to see how it fares in the 2012 world of online video, flipcams and Youtube. Is it still relevant today? You’d be surprised.

Lessons in video from 1992

Here’s a selection of advice from the book which I think still holds true two decades on, to a new generation of visual storytellers.

Show things happening: this is a big mistake made by many novice film makers – interviewing someone, sticking some pictures of buildings or trees or something over the top, and effectively creating a piece of radio. This is the first thing Harris Watts says in the book, so it must have been a problem 20 years ago as much as it is today:

“Television is moving pictures. So it’s no use turning up to shoot when the meeting is over, the factory is empty or the children have gone home. Whenever possible you should shoot action not inaction.There’s no point filling the screen with nothing happening – it doesn’t offer an experience for the viewer to share.” 

A useful book for editors of rolling news channels, perhaps. Twenty years on his use of the word ‘experience’ holds new meaning: we need to be creating ‘experiences’ for our audiences, not just videos.

Think in sequences: sequences are a cornerstone of strong video storytelling, and still today one of the most important things I teach my video journalism students. A sequence is most simply thought of as a single action, covered in two or more shots, creating the illusion of continuous movement from shot to shot. Watts describes them as “visual paragraphs…recording an event or sharing an idea in the finished film.”

Teaching yourself to ‘think in sequences’ – to effectively see them all around you – makes a huge difference on a shoot, when you need to get the shots in quickly.

‘Shooting is collecting pictures and sound for editing’: I remember this was the real takeaway for me when I read the book. Films are made in the edit, not in the shoot; Watts uses a cooking metaphor to explain better:

“You choose your recipe (subject and angle), write out a shopping list (treatment and storyboard), get some money (you need more than you think) and go shopping for the raw materials (shoot the pictures and record the sound). Then you return to the kitchen (cutting room) and start cooking (editing). The meal is made in the kitchen; the film in the cutting room.”

The filming part is still important of course, but visual storytelling is about the assembly of lots of juxtaposing shots to create meaning, not single shots following the action around. Hugely relevant for new film makers today.

Go for opinion, experience, anecdote: this bit of advice relates directly to interviews and what to get from them. Many interviews are very descriptive and shallow, eliciting facts from the subject alone. This rarely makes interesting watching, so good video storytellers tease specific stories, anecdotes, and opinions from their subjects. Ira Glass values the anecdote too, and you can see more interviewing tips in this post.

In the fast paced, tech driven world of online publishing, there’s an understandable push for the latest training or the most-up-to-date advice. But when it comes to video storytelling – or storytelling of any kind – the craft we’re learning is an old one.

The technology – the tools – are mostly irrelevant, which is why a book written as the internet was just being born can still be relevant to a new generation of digital storytellers that Directing on Camera‘s author could never have imagined would exist.

2 Responses

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  1. Michael said, on February 16, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Being in video- and TV-production Business since 1995, I agree to this.
    Over the years I had to learn, that a lot of tv producers and desicion makers at tv stations believed and now even more believe, that camera man (dop and operators) as well as editors are technicians or button press slaves. Nobody would come to the idea to pay authors by work hours, well? An editor is mesured not by the style or his creative ideas but by the amount of video output they produce per hour. There for it is a logical step to cast unexpirienced chep editors and cam operators or force authors/producers to film and edit themselfs with only rudimental technical supervision but without teaching fundamental rules of film arts and skills.

  2. […] the above to frame some key/guiding questions that you can ask the talking head(s). Adam Westbrook talks about focusing on “opinion, experience, anecdote.” In your interview try to extract this type of […]


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