Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

“This is not the internet!” What Robinson Crusoe tells us about the future of news

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 8, 2011

I

Enough talk and conferences and experimentation about the future of journalism! We want answers right!? I mean, how long has it been already?

For all the talk by people like me about experimentation and enterprise, the number of jobs in the industry aren’t getting any larger. If you’re a journalism graduate looking for a job your prospects haven’t gotten any better since reading my blog a year ago, have they?

Well, yes and no.

II

I’m currently reading Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion: how the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the way we tell stories.

In it, he quotes the introduction to Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, it goes like this:

“If ever the Story of any private Man’s Adventures in the World were worth making Pvblick, and were acceptable when Publish’d, the Editor of this Account thinks this will be so….The Editor believes the thing to be just a History of Fact; neither is there any appearance of Fiction in it…”

To decifer the 18th Century parlance, Daniel Defoe is saying – before you read his fiction novel – “this is not a fiction novel.”

Why? Well, with a few exceptions, Robinson Crusoe is one of first novels ever written. Up until then, it had been poems, plays, myths and The Bible. As hard to imagine as it is, the idea of a novel was so new, it was risky to publish it.

Rose notices a common trend in all the major mediums since (movies, television and the Internet): when they first begin, they try to convince you they are not new.

The earliest films were basically filmed like a theatre performance: a stage and a stationary camera – the first movie makers were saying “this is not a movie!

Television did the same thing, up until the 1950s producing shows that resembled theatre – the first TV producers were saying “this is not television!

You can argue TV News still does the same thing, sticking presenters behind desks to mimic the radio announcers of the 1930s.

And the early attempts at online publishing have tried so hard to mimic print and television that it’s almost laughable. From the front page of the New York Times website, to the format of all online video stories, these digital producers are busting their nuts to convince you “this is not the internet!”

III

And it was ever thus.

But Frank Rose’s other point is what’s really important for any digital publishers, journalism entrepreneurs and video journalists: we are only at the beginning – and the answers won’t come for years.

Frank Rose sold me on his book with his tidy use of online video to publicise it (beats a crappy blurb, right?) He makes the point quietly (about 3’20” in) that whenever a new technology arrives, it takes pioneers 20 or 30 years to figure out what to do it with it.

Cinema was invented in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the mid 1920s that Pudovkin’s five principles of editing were laid down. It took decades for someone to say ‘hey, what if we edit two different scenes together to make it look like they’re happening at the same time!’

TV was born in 1925, but as Rose points out it was another 25 years before it came into its own with the sitcom format, game shows and the like.

So, by the same logic, this marvellous new medium we’ve created for ourselves – the internet – is 20 years old this month. But you could argue, its true power (web 2.0) wasn’t born until 10 years ago. Either way, it’ll be another decade before we really figure out what the hell this thing can do.

However far we think we’ve come, we’re just at the beginning. 

And us? We’re the pioneers. Anyone who’s produced online video (specifically for the internet), created a podcast, launched an online magazine, started a social network or written a blog: you are the internet’s pioneers, marching determinedly into the frontier.

And that’s a generational privilege we should relish.

The five principles of editing

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 21, 2011

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1920 film was still very young, but growing in popularity.

As a new industry grew, practitioners raced to understand this amazing new medium and how it worked. Back then there was no precedent and there were no rules about how a shot should look or how a piece should be edited together.

Sound familiar?

But the early film makers did such a good job of understanding the medium, by the end of the 1920s the basic tenets had been laid down – and are still used by us today.

I recently discovered this Russian chap called Vsevolod Pudovkin who started making films in 1920. A few years later he penned a book called Film Technique and Film Acting: inside are five editing techniques. Reading through them, you realise there are plenty of tips and tricks online video journalists can take on board, nearly 100 years later.

Pudovkin’s 5 principles of editing

Pudovkin’s techniques describe several ways editing can be used to enhance the viewer’s understanding of a story, and they’re all designed to create a specific reaction from the audience, something he calls relational editing.

01. Contrast: cutting between two different scenarios to highlight the contrast between them. As an example, Pudovkin suggests moving from scenes of poverty to someone really rich to make the difference more apparent.

.02 Parallelism: here you can connect two seemingly unrelated scenes by cutting between them and focusing on parallel features. For example if you were shooting a documentary about fish stocks in the Atlantic, you could cut from a trawler being tossed about in the ocean to a family chomping down on some  fish’n’chips – in both scenes drawing our attention to the fish: the object that connects them. It creates an association in the viewers’ mind.

.03 Symbolism: Again, more intercutting, you move from your main scene to something which creates a symbolic connection for the audience. Pudovkin (living in Soviet Russia) suggested cutting between shots of striking workers being shot by Tsarist police and scenes of cows being slaughtered: in the audience’s mind, they associate the slaughter of the cattle with the slaughter of the workers.

.04 Simultaneity: This is used lots in Hollywood today: cutting between two simultaneous events as a way of driving up the suspense. If you’re making a film about a politician on election night, you might cut between shots of the vote being counted to shots of your main subject preparing to hear the result. This extending of time builds anticipation.

.05 Leit motif: This ‘reiteration of theme’ involves repeating a shot or sequence at key moments as a sort of code. Think how Spielberg uses a ‘point of view’ shot in Jaws showing the shark looking up at swimmers. The first time he does it creates a visual code for “the shark’s about to attack”. Every time we see that underwater POV we know an attack is imminent. He has allowed us to participate in the decoding.

You can read Pudovkin’s five principles in full in this Scribd copy of his book – pages 74-78.

So can video journalists use these techniques?

Image Credit: Adam Westbrook

Well clearly we don’t all make films loaded with symbolism in the way movie directors do; nor do we have time on screen to build anticipation through simultaneous cutting. However Pudovkin’s five techniques tell us something deeper and more significant about visual storytelling.

Because sound hadn’t been invented when he, Fritz Lang, Eisenstein et al first picked up a camera, they developed a real understanding of visual storytelling. They had to. If you couldn’t tell a story solely in pictures you couldn’t tell it at all. So they constantly invented ways to manipulate camera, edit, props, rigs and lights to get a message across. What they created was a form of ‘picture-telling’ where the audience are invited to participate in spotting and decoding subconscious messages.

This, I think, has been lost in the debate about the future of video and journalism, and possibly from the craft altogether. Instead we rely on dialogue to tell our story, and (at our worst) plaster pictures over the top.

When we move beyond straight point-and-shoot reportage and we want our viewers to understand a story, to relate to it, to care – the cameras in our hand are more than neutral observers: they are powerful tools, more often being left unused.

You wouldn’t learn the intricacies of 3D animation without first being able to draw – so why do we pursue video journalism without learning the basic building blocks of visual storytelling?