Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

On dialogue

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 10, 2012

It is well acknowledged in cinema that the purest form of visual storytelling contains no dialogue. 

I say well acknowledged: I’ve seen it said by film makers like David Mamet and Andrew Stanton, but hardly ever applied. It might explain the success of The Artist in this year’s Oscar rout, but that is one of only a handful of silent homages made since the 1940s.

What makes it so ‘pure’? Well, without any dialogue to explain the narrative, how a character is feeling, or backstory, the film maker has to rely solely on the pictures to do the work. It is visual storytelling and visual storytelling alone. The earliest film makers made huge ground on establishing a visual language for film because they had to.

If it sounds difficult, it is because it is. But when done well it is captivating. I have blogged about Kristoffer Borgli’s brilliant short I Expect No-one before and watched it a dozen times. Here it is again: watch how the tension, reveal and punchline ending are all conveyed visually.

But enough about movies. What about video journalism?

I think factual video suffers because as journalists, when we start a story, our first instinct is to set up interviews and write the voice over script. After all, we have a lot of facts to get across, some of them complicated.

It means the dialogue is down before the pictures are, and what that eventually creates is wallpapering: the sin of just pasting shots over long stretches of interview to make it look a bit interesting, but with no visual meaning at all. It might as well be radio.

I’m sure you’ve seen the question coming already: is there a way online video storytellers can make a documentary without a line of dialogue in it? How would we go about making one?

I honestly don’t have an answer to these questions – but maybe you guys do.

Possible? Impossible? Pointless? Hit me up in the comments.

And speaking of storytelling….

Thanks to all of you who got in touch about possible collaborations. I heard from some really exciting and talented producers & film makers. I’ve got all your details and I’ve been looking through your work. I’ll be in touch in due course!

Meanwhile, production on Inside the Story: A masterclass in digital storytelling from the people who do it best is well underway with the book almost entirely laid out. It’s looking fantastic and I’m excited to announce the book will be available in German, Catalan and Spanish a few weeks after the English version is published, thanks to the efforts of three talented translators.

It’s honestly a book like no other: it’s cuts straight to the heart of how to tell remarkable stories, and remember, every penny will be donated to Kiva. Become a part of the Facebook page to get more info!

8 Responses

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  1. jbtvnews said, on April 10, 2012 at 9:37 am

    As a news cameraman and editor for one of the world’s largest broadcasters I can tell you that I hardly ever just paint pictures on over the voice track. I’m not saying it isn’t done, I’ve seen it happen in regional ‘opt-outs’, but for Network News in the UK, hardly ever. The pictures are the story. Full stop. Apart from a few notable exceptions nobody ever remembers script lines, but they always remember the pictures…

  2. Dan Bailes said, on April 10, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    I think you’re forgetting about cinema verite and the excellent work done without narration or interviews. And those films were quite visual. Also, there are people who are visual thinkers and word thinkers and journalists often fall into the latter group. But it’s not an either/or situation. You need both and thinking about the visuals beforehand is obviously key to good storytelling. As a PS, I found the video “I expect no one” very distancing and somewhat contrived. And while it works as an example of visual storytelling, the was no empathy for the characters, which is also a key component of storytelling and journalism.

  3. Adam Westbrook said, on April 10, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Good points, thanks for writing.

    @DanBailes do you have any specific examples of the cinema verite films you’re referring to here? It would be good to include them on the discussion.

    • Adam Westbrook said, on April 12, 2012 at 4:02 pm

      By the way, don’t confuse dialogue with ‘narration’. When I say no dialogue, I’m not just talking about getting rid of voice over.

  4. John Sydenham (@JohnSydenham) said, on April 12, 2012 at 9:33 am

    As you hint, we can easily do this in journalism. See The BBC Guide to Postmodern Journalism for full instructions.

  5. Claudio von Planta said, on April 16, 2012 at 8:04 am

    GREEN: DEATH OF A FOREST is a very powerful example of a visual film with no commentary at all.
    http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2012/03/201231483446653151.html

    It needs the editorial courage of Al Jazeera to break all rules of television and show a 52 minute film with no commentary at all. In my view, it’s the most powerful environmental campaigning film I have ever seen.

    • AdamWestbrook (@AdamWestbrook) said, on April 17, 2012 at 12:16 pm

      Thanks for this suggestion Claudio. I’ve just watched Green and it is exceptional. There are so many things to talk about I might save it for its own post. But the absence of any dialogue whatsoever does not take anything from it at all. You’re right it takes guts to show it, but I also think it takes a huge amount of discipline to film it in the right way too. A must watch.

  6. […] However, almost everyone involved in video finds themselves working on the latter a lot of the time. The nightly news has to cover politics and the economy. A management accountancy firm has to make videos about management accountancy. We all have to run interviews (…do we?) […]


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