Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How 1 and 1 makes 3 and more lessons in storytelling from Ken Burns

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

Tumblr followers might have seen this video I discovered (via Maria Popova’s ever-excellent Brain Pickings) last week. It’s a short profile of the history documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, a man whose technique and style has become so recognisable, he’s even had an effect named after him.

Burns has a difficult job: make stories from the past compelling on screen. It’s tough because your characters are dead and the action you want to film has long since happened. You are left with interviews with historians, still photographs and empty buildings. As a former historian myself it’s a genre I’ve long thought needs a fresh approach – but I’ve been looking at it in the wrong way.

Watch this short film (itself superbly produced by Tom Mason and Sarah Klein) and you’ll see the Ken Burns approach isn’t so concerned with what we see. For him it’s all about crafting a compelling story.

And here are my notes from watching it a few times over.

Great stories: there are millions of them! It’s easy to forget sometimes, but the world is full of amazing stories happening right now, every second. Burns gives two examples from US history – and you’ll notice both stories have a ‘wow’ factor: they both make you go “shit, no way“. We need to pursue these stories more often – remember the flying rhino!

The good guys have very serious flaws and the bad guys are very compelling. Remember how Indiana Jones is scared of snakes? That’s a great example of a contradictory hero. No-one is interested in a tough guy who solves a problem with ease. We want to hear about people who are as scared, nervous and fallible as we are.

All story is manipulation. This is a debate point for factual film-makers but I think I agree with Burns on this one. He says it’s ‘good manipulation’ – using the range of storytelling devices within reach to make people feel something. Whether you believe in manipulation or not, you always want someone to care about your film, and that in itself is an emotion.

We coalesce around stories which seem transcendant. This is a nod to the universal story. The best stories – no matter who the characters are, when or where it happens – stick with us because they evoke common ideas that we can all relate to. The story of Julius Caesar’s death is retold 2,000 years later not for its political ramification but because it is a story of betrayal: we’ve all been betrayed (or been the betrayer) and we understand the story more deeply. The lesson: always look for the universal in your own stories.

We’re all going to die; story is there to remind us that it’s just OK. Finally in a very elegant nod to the universal story, film makers Tom Mason and Sarah Klein end their piece with Ken Burns wondering why he tells stories about the past. He reveals his mother died from cancer when he was 11.

…I try to make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong come alive, and it might be very obvious and very close to home who I’m actually trying to wake up. 

If you care about storytelling then watch this a few times over.

And, if you want more great wisdom on storytelling, you should watch these interviews with Ira Glass, this talk by Amy O’Leary and of course, download your free copy of Inside the Story.

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Inside the Story: how to structure your stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 23, 2012

There are just four days to go until Inside The Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best goes out to the world, in a bid to raise as much cash for charity as possible.

And today I’m psyched to reveal what the front cover of the ebook will look like, thanks to the brilliant people on the Inside The Story Facebook page. Last week I threw up three front page design ideas and over the weekend, they’ve all been voting on which one they like best. And here’s the winner!

Front cover of Inside the Story

It features a mesmerising image taken by visual journalist and contributor to the book Jonah Kessel.

On Friday, I let you have a peek at what advice the book has about how to prepare your stories. Today I’ll show you what the best digital storytellers in the world have to say about how to structure a story properly.

How to structure your stories like a pro

When it comes to creating a narrative in the most effective way, no-one knows more than the contributors to the book, who all have scores of stories under their belt. Amy O’Leary is one of them: she’s a reporter on the New York Times and has been a producer of This American Life.

For Amy, it’s all about the start.

“Don’t be afraid to confuse your audience; suck them in with one gorgeous moment and use the rest of your piece to explain what the heck it was they just saw.”

I’ve written before about those vital 10 seconds at the start of every piece – something Amy echoes on her page in the book. She’s got some great advice on other ways to hook your audience right off the bat and reel them in. Many digital stories I see suffer from a boring, irrelevant opens so it’s important to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

Amy, Poul and Claudio's pages from Inside the Story

So you’ve hooked them in. Now what? Poul Madsen is the founder of the Bombay Flying Club, a multimedia collective based in Denmark, but usually found in all corners of the globe. For him, it’s vital every moment of a film, article or multimedia story has drive.

“From the very first frame, everything in your story – audio and/or visual elements – must point in some direction that makes sense to your viewers. Usually this means forward!”

How to you achieve forward drive in digital storytelling? Poul goes into the details in the book. And once you’ve propelled your viewer through your story it’s time to wrap it up, and according to director Claudio Von Planta that is where resolution comes in. Claudio’s been making films for 20 years, including the hugely popular documentary The Long Way Round which followed Ewan McGregor biking through Africa. Claudio’s page is crammed with nuggets like this:

“It’s always wise to develop a human-interest angle as a secondary focus where you explore how the characters in your story deal with adversity. This approach can offer an exit if you miss the primary goal.”

Claudio also offers advice for storytellers developing investigative films, and longer feature films – all of which require a strong resolution.

There’ll be another preview tomorrow, and in the meantime get on board the Facebook page and the mailing list!

Inside the Story: a video update

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 16, 2012

For the last few months I’ve been working on an exciting project which is almost ready to launch. It’s called Inside the Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling from the people who do it best – an ebook, to raise money for Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity.

The last few weeks has been a flurry of layout, web design and conversations with some of the best film makers, digital producers and  journalists out there, and the book is almost ready to go live.

What’s going to be in the book? Here’s a quick video update on the project – and a sneak preview of some of the pages. Later this week, I’ll be publishing snippets from the book so you can see some more and announcing the publication date.

If you’re not a fan of the Facebook page yet, why not?