Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Inside the Story: setting up your story

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 19, 2012

First of all, an exciting announcement.

After three months of work, Inside The Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best is ready to launch, and will go on sale one-week-today: Thursday 26th April 2012 at 0800 BST. It’s now more important than ever that you’re a fan of the Facebook page or subscribed to the mailing list to make sure you get your copy!

The English version will be available first, with editions in German, Spanish and Catalans on the way in May. This is totally a fundraising exercise, with every penny from each sale being donated to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity.

But what’s in the book?

I’m really confident you’re going to love Inside The Story. For a start, there’s no other book, or website, like it. It’s a real masterclass in what it takes to create high quality, remarkable stories for the web. If you’re making films, designing graphics, animations, websites or podcasts and struggling to make it as good as you know it can be, you’ll find this book incredibly useful.

The contributors are almost all award-winners, and are behind some of the most popular productions on the web – you can get a sneak at some of the names here. And all their advice is ridiculously practical. To give you a taster, for the next week, I’ll be releasing short previews of some of the contributions.

How to set up your story like a pro

Let’s start at the beginning. How do you set up, research and prepare your stories to give them the best shot at being remarkable? The resounding thought from all our contributors is that preparation is key – and so are people.

Drea Cooper is one half of the team responsible for the quite extraordinary California Is A Place web series, which portrays fascinating characters from the US west coast with beautiful heart-breaking flair. Their latest film, Aquadettes, which tells the story of a group of elderly synchronised swimmers will get an airing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Drea gives some great advice about finding the right people in Inside The Story, and for him, finding characters is key:

Whether it’s fact or fiction, dynamic people and characters bring stories to life.  Any film, short or long, should have a dynamic person at its center.

But, Drea warns, it’s really not as easy at all. California Is A Place is celebrated for the incredible characters it features – and in Inside the Story Drea reveals how he, and partner Zachary Canepari go about finding them.

A sneak preview at some of the pages in Inside The Story

Once you’ve found the right person you need to make sure your research is up to scratch, says producer Ben Samuel who makes documentaries and history programmes for the BBC, on his page.

“Whatever field of human endeavour your story focuses on, there are experts who – more often than not – will be happy to give you an excellent grounding in the topic. And secondly, if your research isn’t quite up to scratch, there will be people who will clock your mistake, no matter how obscure your subject matter is.”

If you’re stuck for where to start researching, Ben gives some brilliant advice about where to start with your research, and a clue to the best research source of them all (and no, it’s not the internet).

Finally, some great practical advice from Guardian photojournalist and film maker Dan Chung, based in China. Dan’s covered everything from the Japanese Tsunami aftermath to life inside North Korea, stories you can’t just stroll into.

“Prepare yourself physically and mentally if the story requires. Think about the possible scenarios that will unfold and make contingency plans for them – both journalistically and technically.”

He outlines his preparations for each story in more detail in Inside The Story, one of more than two-dozen hand crafted chapters by some of the best digital storytellers on the planet.

So here’s the drill: find out more on the website….join the Facebook group…and tweet out loud: #insidethestory! There’ll be another sneak preview on Monday.

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? 

Three more lessons in video storytelling…

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 24, 2010

…from people who really know what they’re doing

Time for three more awesome bits of multimedia storytelling we can all learn from. You can see previous write ups on really good video storytelling here and here and here! Here’s three more well executed examples; I’ve tried to put  as much practical takeaways beneath each one as possible. If you think I have missed or misinterpreted anything, then you know where the comments box is!

Big Vinny / California is a place

A chapter from an online series getting lots of love on the internet at the moment — it would seem, by the sheer quality of the storytelling. Produced by Drea Cooper & Zackary Canepari for a series called California is a Place, it tells the story of a former car salesman, ‘Big Vinny’, looking back on the glory days. If you only watch one of these videos, make sure it’s this one.

  • the interesting thing about this film is visually, we are only seeing shots of a deserted car lot. There’s hardly any movement, and  no action. Does that hold your attention for the full five minutes?
  • this story is driven by one thing: an extremely engaging character
  • note the opening use of sound beneath a single caption – I find sound used like this sucks the viewer in more than moving pictures would
  • the opening sequence, cutting to “cars! cars! cars!” is a great way of using sound and pictures together for good effect
  • and then at 45 seconds the music comes in…say what you like about video journalists using music, but here it hits the spot and instantly conveys the tragic economic decline at the heart of this story
  • look at how they’ve framed Big Vinny – the shots are always slightly off centre or tilted at an angle
  • it would have been nice to have had shots of Vinny wandering around his deserted former business – if anything to inject more movement into what we’re seeing
  • there’s some great use of colour too, with the saturation pulled down just a bit to drain some of the richness out

Polyphoto / Daniel Meadows

Claire Wardle introduced me to the work of British storyteller Daniel Meadows just recently. His website has several small pieces, which he calls Digital Stories: 2 minute vignettes combining audio with still photos. Click on the image to see Polyphoto on Daniel’s website.

  • first thing you notice is Daniel’s choice of words – he is writing to pictures in the truest sense, a real craft in broadcast journalism which should (I think) continue into video journalism
  • combine that with his gentle voice and it’s like a trusted friend saying ‘come here and let me tell you a really good story…’
  • the narrative begins with the pictures and Daniel tells us about Polyphotos in much detail to draw us in. It’s only then that he begins the real story of how his parents met and their tough life after the war.
  • and this whole story was told using just a repeating series of old photographs, used in different ways: sometimes his mother on her own, then alongside her dad, then composited over each other.

Clifton Bridge / Rosie Gloyns

BBC Natural History producer Rosie Gloyns shot this short piece this month as part of a video journalism training course run by Michael Rosenblum. It’s a simple vignette, but full of clever storytelling tricks:

  • immediately you get the feel of this story: the music and opening shot of Barry (with no introduction) tells us this is going to be a lighthearted story
  • as in the first film, we see a some fast cutting near the beginning
  • but Rosie has been very clever in constructing her story: she sets it up in such a way to create a journey her character must embark on – and importantly she doesn’t tell us what it’s for: ‘he has all the things he needs..except one: and for that he needs to walk 200m to the other side of the bridge‘.
  • we then watch a sequence of Barry crossing the bridge – and we keep watching because we want to find out where he’s going! And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you keep your viewer interested.