Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Six original ways to use online video

Posted in Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on August 1, 2011

I’ve said it before: everyone’s getting on the online video bandwagon. There are huge opportunities out there for film makers, video journalists and motion graphic designers, if you know where to look.

There’s also a fantastic opportunity to break new ground, and use video in new ways. Here are six different ways online video is being employed around the web.

Six original ways to use online video

NOTE: this is a video-heavy post; if you’re receiving this blog post as a newsletter, make sure you click on the link to see all of the embeds.

.01 product launch

OK, this one isn’t so much original as obligatory these days. If you’re launching a new website, product or service, you almost certainly need a video to promote it. Using online video can serve two key functions: firstly you can use it to generate an emotional response (usually, “this new thing is amazing!”) or you might just need it to explain something complicated.

En vogue right now is motion graphics and kinetic typography, such as this new launch video for infographics site Visual.ly; if you do it, try and use it alongside a narrative.

 

Don’t feel obliged to go down this route though. Live action works just as well. I really like this Wes Anderson inspired ditty from FireSpotter Labs to launch their new restaurant review app Nosh.me.

If you’re an online film maker, startup videos are a good stock of work: in the last year alone I’ve helped produce launch films for TheMediaBriefing, I Am Creative (not published yet) and I’m currently working on two more for launch in the autumn.

.02 training & explainers

Video, although not naturally designed to convey complex information, is excellent at explaining things – if put in the right hands. It’s difficult though – my personal project to explain the AV Referendum this year took some serious cognitive juice to avoid it drifting away.

 

Australian TV show Hungry Beast are masters at explaining complex stuff to young people: this explanation of the Stuxnet virus is one of the best things I’ve seen online all year.

 

A clear leader here is Vimeo – who’ve published scores of excellent training videos, explaining everything from ND filters to tripods.

.03 404 page

Online video on a 404 page? Seriously? You betcha. Serious credit again to Alex Cornell at ISO50/FireSpotter Labs for this gem of an idea. They’ve shot their own action film to appear every time you hit a Page Not Found.  It’s all filmed in one shot, but took some setting up to get right. I’ve never seen this done before, but I imagine it’ll appear all over the place before too long.

And the purpose? No-one likes seeing a 404 page – why not turn it into a treat? It makes your website more memorable.

.04 profiles & portraits

Here’s a little tip for any young film makers looking for work. There are loads of companies out there moving into creating online video and need people to do it properly. There’s a huge market in both online publishing (companies producing their own web content) as well as internal communications.

Interestingly, a lot of them use their online video space to produce simple interviews. After all, it’s quick, cheap and the easiest thing to learn. But actually, interviews are pretty boring, even in video. The more original video producers are instead producing portraits or profiles – that is, telling a story as a (legitimate) way to entice viewers.

For example, software company 37Signals have just advertised for a video producer position in Chicago, but they say explicitly they don’t want to just film interviews: “Testimonials are usually boring – we want to be sure to avoid anything boring.”

The challenge for these companies is firstly recognising portraits and narratives are better than quick interviews, and in finding the people good enough to do them. Make sure they know that’s you.

.05 create a blockbuster

OK, never mind portraits, explainers or product launches – why not suck up the balls and go all out, producing a mega blockbuster?

That’s what visual effects house Red Giant Software did to demonstrate their range of colour correction packages. The result is an epic story called Plot Device which cleverly references the archetypes of Hollywood cinema and shows off the product in a way you didn’t expect.

No deadpan screencasts here: you can see what the software does, at the same time being taken on a memorable journey. It takes a talented director and cast to make sure this doesn’t come off as seriously lame, but done right the results speak for themselves.

.06 behind the scenes

And finally, another new way to use video is to produce behind the scenes films of you, your business, or client. Transparency is big in demand these days and video is great way to show people that you’re human, and you have fun doing what you do. As well as adding a face to the name/brand it can be an effective way to add a personal touch.

UK national radio station Absolute Radio recently hired me to shoot this behind-the-scenes piece about a stunt they pulled in central London back in June. It shows all the fun, effort and camaraderie that people tune in to hear every morning.

Several of the above films have their own behind the scenes films, including Plot Device and Nosh.me. Hey, even Peter Jackson’s doing it!

Of course, behind the scenes video can also be a neat way to bring in some extra revenue – in the form of a DVD release or similar.

So the takeaway? Online video is not television, so why make it mimic the idiot box all the time? Video is far more flexible and hopefully this post has shown you some of the pioneers who are pushing it forward. Now go and join them!

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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)!

Video: top trends in journalism in 2011

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on January 5, 2011

The New Year is here and that means it’s time to look ahead at some of the big trends in journalism in the 12 months ahead!

This year I’ve brought in some of the brightest young minds in journalism today, including Alex Wood, Tracy Boyer, Patrick Smith and Philip John for their suggestions – and the 11th prediction this year has been suggested by one of you guys!

Enjoy – and if you think I’ve missed anything good out, or got something completely wrong, then the comments box is right downstairs.

Happy New Year!

 

What Blackadder can teach you about video journalism

Posted in Journalism, Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on November 24, 2010

Some films are just a struggle to bring into this world.

I’ve found you can spot them early on: you can’t quite nail the story, or your character’s not willing to really get involved; or it starts to get runaway-complicated. These problem films affect novice video journalists and film makers more often. It damages morale and we think: ‘this film-making malarky isn’t nearly as fun as it looks.’

What do you do in those situations? 90% of people give up.

But the actual solution, to borrow from the brilliant Steven Pressfield, is to ‘shut up and keep humping’. Keep working away at that film, regardless of how miserable the trench warfare is. Turn up every day until it’s done. It isn’t fun. It’s hard. But don’t you dare give up.

And every film can be rescued. If you don’t believe me, take inspiration from one of the most famous scenes in British television history – which very nearly never happened.

The original footage shot, the producers realised they had a flop on their hands….but through creative thinking, team work and sheer bloody minded determination they worked this last scene until it came kicking and screaming into the world.

And it came out as an iconic piece of television.

Has the DSLR come of age?

Posted in Journalism, Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on November 3, 2010

*Apologies to email subscribers who may have received an unfinished draft version of this article when I published it by mistake!

DSLR cameras with HD video capabilities have been on the market for a couple of years and have been making a significant impression for pretty much as long.

I spent part of last week nerding out big time at the annual Canon Expo in London (my write up of last years event is right here).

It’s mostly targeting stills photographers, with the majority of demos, products and talks aimed at the traditional DSLR user. But this year, there was a significantly higher number of videographers attending, and more and more products designed for their needs.

For example, the Steadicam Merlin (a lightweight stabiliser that gives you steadicam smoothness on moving shots) was one of the most popular items. There was more paraphernalia including handheld rigs, LCD monitors, matte boxes and ring lights – all designed for the filmmaker. You can now even rig up DSLR cameras to shoot in 3D!

So, has the DSLR come of age?

That’s what Dan Chung, one of the real pioneers in the cinematic aesthetic of video journalism, told attendees on Tuesday.

He says DSLR cameras offer a flexibility and portability that a camcorder alternative just can’t. For him, the most important thing is being able to fit all of his gear into a backpack, and the size of DSLRs means he can bring as many as four cameras with him, plus lenses, filters and the like, on any assignment.

That’s a huge amount more video power than one, more expensive camcorder.

Why you should think about the Canon 550D

Currently the cheapest popular version of the video DSLR is the Canon 550D. I have been shooting with it since the spring, and have made films for editorial and commercial clients.

At £600 it is a sliver of the cost of its daddy, the 5D Mark II, and because of that, you would imagine – less good.

But here’s what I really took away from the Canon Expo: the 550D was getting applause from many quarters – as a better alternative to the more expensive 5D Mark II.

For example, James Tonkin, head of the multimedia production company Hangman said he would choose the 550D over a 5D, and Dan said if he could buy 1 5D Mark II, or 3 550D cameras, he would choose the 550D. Their affordability means he’s prepared to take risks with them to get more unique and dramatic shots.

The only other cameras in this price range are realistically, the Canon Legria camcorder, which has no aperture or focus control, the Lumix FZ100 or a much older camera. Either side you could pay £100 for a flip cam, or £2,000 for a broadcast camera.

I’m sure we’ll start to see more remarkable stuff being shot on the 550D entering the mainstream soon.

Great advice from great documentary storytellers

Posted in Journalism, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on August 30, 2010

Over on my other professional blog, blog .fu, which has been dedicated to the craft of digital storytelling, I’ve been interviewing some of the young, exciting innovators who are making some amazing online video.

They’ve produced things like Last Minutes With Oden (which I raved about here) and the very popular portrait of the Mast Brothers.

Even if you’re not interested in their more artistic and cinematic styles of documentary production, their advice on how to create a narrative and find good characters is essential for any multimedia journalist.

Bert McKinley, producer, The Human Project

I wanted to try some techniques to make non-fiction film a little bit more visually and cinematically appealing without compromising authenticity or relying on reenactment.

Read the rest.

Brennan Stasiewicz, director, Mast Brothers

“Bringing out those dreams, defining the dreamer, and displaying the pursuit as narrative is what good storytelling is all about.”

Read the rest.

Lukas Korver, director, Last Minutes with Oden, Pennies HEART

“Ask yourself, is this is a character driven story or is it conflict driven? If it’s a character driven story you can be a little more loose in the way you plan to capture the story. If its conflict driven you better know before hand what these potential conflicts are, when they will go down, and how are you plan to capture them.”

Read the rest.

And apologies for the gap in postings over the last fortnight; as well as a (very) brief staycation, I have been busy with three commissions, keeping me away from the blogosphere!

Introducing studio .fu

Posted in Adam, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on July 13, 2010

Did you know one of my big projects for 2010 is to launch a new business?

Some of the others included writing an ebook (which I’ve done) and doing some kind of sporting event for charity (I ran the London 10k on Sunday).

With those out of the way, it’s time to focus on the business, which is why I’m very excited to announce studio .fu, a new multimedia production company. Those of you who have read Next Generation Journalist: 10 New Ways to Make Money in Journalism will recognise the model from Chapter 8.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time rattling through a business concept, target audience and finance plan – and I’ll be sharing all my discoveries along the way. I’ve set it up because I really believe online news products, NGOs and small businesses need to embrace high quality digital storytelling – but shouldn’t pay through the nose for it.

Much of the past few weeks, and the next couple of months are being spent building up a strong portfolio of digital stories, talking to potential clients and other journalists interested in collaborating in projects.

Because it’s a new business in journalism, I have promised to write about it once a week on this blog so you guys get some value out of it as well. The business is in a soft-launch phase ahead of the autumn, and already has just missed out on a commission (more on that soon).

I’ll be sharing as much of the process as possible, the ups and the downs as well. The whole thing may well fail…and in a strange way, I’d almost be quite relieved if it does – as long as it fails quickly (see this advice from the Knight Foundation!)

Changes to the blog

studio .fu also has its own blog – blog .fu which means there’ll be some changes on this site over the coming weeks.

blog .fu will focus on techniques and examples of digital storytelling as a craft. So all the stuff about how to tell stories, how to create awesome online films will appear on there from now on (you can subscribe by clicking here). If you come to this blog to learn about how to do multimedia journalism, I strongly recommend you subscribe to blog .fu!

All the posts from this blog, such as this one and this one, are now available to read on blog .fu. You can also follow the company on twitter (@letsfu)

This blog meanwhile, will focus on entrepreneurial journalism, the business of journalism and the future of news. There’ll be information about the Future of News Meetups which I continue to organise, and my own research into journalism business models.

Right, that’s it. Wish me luck!

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