Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Your online video shopping list

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on August 20, 2012

There’s an old analogy, which I can trace back to the 1990s, that says making a film is a lot like making a meal. 

It goes like this:

“You choose your recipe (subject and angle), write out a shopping list (treatment and storyboard), get some money (you need more than you think) and go shopping for the raw materials (shoot the pictures and record the sound). Then you return to the kitchen (cutting room) and start cooking (editing). The meal is made in the kitchen; the film in the cutting room.”

Harris Watts, On Camera

I like this analogy a lot, but it’s worth unpacking for 21st century video storytellers.

Choose your recipe

The big point here is you must have an idea of what your film is going to look like when its finished. You must be able to picture the opening, the closing and perhaps some key sequences in the middle. You must be able to close your eyes and hear your  potential interviewees talking, imagining what kind of things they’ll say. You should have a feel for the pace of the film – is it fast or slow? Upbeat or sad?

Ultimately your story should have a theme – a controlling idea of some kind – which you can summarise in a single sentence. You wouldn’t make a risotto for the first time without knowing what one looks like would you?

Write a shopping list

This always finds its way into my workflow, and I teach it to students and clients as well. Before I start filming I mind-map all the elements and use it to plan the shoot. I draw out the key ingredients: the interview, the sequences, the scenes, the other b-roll and anything else like music and graphics. Then from each of these segments I brainstorm ideas for how each one could play out.

A “shopping list” I drew for a short documentary in 2011

So around the interview bit I come up with different ideas for where I could conduct my interviews; I think about what questions I’ll ask. It helps me anticipate any problems which might come up during the shoot. Your first idea is rarely the best, so try and come up with unique takes on each segment.

I’m running another online video basics course with journalism.co.uk in September 2012. Click here for details.

Get some money

The quote above was written for television in the 1990s with its big budgets. These days I’d say video can cost less than you think. Certainly the hurdles to creating and publishing video have fallen through the floor. If you’ve got an iPhone or a flipcam – or even a webcam – the power to tell visual stories is in your hand.

Shop for raw materials

Here’s the big thing: the shoot is like the shopping expedition. You are merely collecting items to edit later on. This isn’t to belittle the shoot and the hard work that goes into it (you can’t make a good meal with bad ingredients, after all). However, to get obsessed by equipment and spend ages on complex super-slick camera moves misses the point: the film is made in the edit. It is the combination and contrast of images that tell the story, rarely the images on their own.

The rules of a good shopping trip apply: have a shopping list, know your way around the supermarket and get in and out as quickly as possible. You want more than enough of each ingredient so you can choose the very best to include in your meal. That means shooting more b-roll than you think you need, and shooting a longer interview than you’ll use.

Start cooking

As I said the real flavours of your film won’t emerge until the edit. That’s the magic moment when you combine your ingredients to create something greater than the sum of its parts. In video we are talking about the combination of images to create an idea in the audiences’ mind. Why does that matter? Because then the story doesn’t happen on the screen, in happens in someone’s brain: they own a bit of it, and it draws them in.

Too often – especially in journalism – we take the inverted triangle approach and tell our audience everything, instead letting them figure it out for themselves.

Anyway, once you’ve stirred all your ingredients together, leave it to simmer for 20 mins and add salt to flavour. But not too much.

Some things never change: 20-year-old lessons in video

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on February 13, 2012

I’ve wanted to make TV/video/films since I was a kid. That was a hugely frustrating experience back in the 90s as there were no cut-price flip cams, free editing software or platforms like Youtube to share it on. In fact, there was no way for a 10 year old to make video, so I had to settle with reading about how to make it instead.

The first book I ever read about this sort of thing was called Directing On Camera by Harris Watts, and it was published 20 years ago in 1992.

It started out as a checklist for trainee directors at the BBC before becoming a book. It’s got a matte red cover, with a graphic of an old VT countdown clock (remember them?) over it; some rather dated references to cassettes and dubbing, plus some quaint cartoon illustrations.

It seemed pretty out of date when I was reading it in the late 90s, but this week I decided to take another look at it to see how it fares in the 2012 world of online video, flipcams and Youtube. Is it still relevant today? You’d be surprised.

Lessons in video from 1992

Here’s a selection of advice from the book which I think still holds true two decades on, to a new generation of visual storytellers.

Show things happening: this is a big mistake made by many novice film makers – interviewing someone, sticking some pictures of buildings or trees or something over the top, and effectively creating a piece of radio. This is the first thing Harris Watts says in the book, so it must have been a problem 20 years ago as much as it is today:

“Television is moving pictures. So it’s no use turning up to shoot when the meeting is over, the factory is empty or the children have gone home. Whenever possible you should shoot action not inaction.There’s no point filling the screen with nothing happening – it doesn’t offer an experience for the viewer to share.” 

A useful book for editors of rolling news channels, perhaps. Twenty years on his use of the word ‘experience’ holds new meaning: we need to be creating ‘experiences’ for our audiences, not just videos.

Think in sequences: sequences are a cornerstone of strong video storytelling, and still today one of the most important things I teach my video journalism students. A sequence is most simply thought of as a single action, covered in two or more shots, creating the illusion of continuous movement from shot to shot. Watts describes them as “visual paragraphs…recording an event or sharing an idea in the finished film.”

Teaching yourself to ‘think in sequences’ – to effectively see them all around you – makes a huge difference on a shoot, when you need to get the shots in quickly.

‘Shooting is collecting pictures and sound for editing’: I remember this was the real takeaway for me when I read the book. Films are made in the edit, not in the shoot; Watts uses a cooking metaphor to explain better:

“You choose your recipe (subject and angle), write out a shopping list (treatment and storyboard), get some money (you need more than you think) and go shopping for the raw materials (shoot the pictures and record the sound). Then you return to the kitchen (cutting room) and start cooking (editing). The meal is made in the kitchen; the film in the cutting room.”

The filming part is still important of course, but visual storytelling is about the assembly of lots of juxtaposing shots to create meaning, not single shots following the action around. Hugely relevant for new film makers today.

Go for opinion, experience, anecdote: this bit of advice relates directly to interviews and what to get from them. Many interviews are very descriptive and shallow, eliciting facts from the subject alone. This rarely makes interesting watching, so good video storytellers tease specific stories, anecdotes, and opinions from their subjects. Ira Glass values the anecdote too, and you can see more interviewing tips in this post.

In the fast paced, tech driven world of online publishing, there’s an understandable push for the latest training or the most-up-to-date advice. But when it comes to video storytelling – or storytelling of any kind – the craft we’re learning is an old one.

The technology – the tools – are mostly irrelevant, which is why a book written as the internet was just being born can still be relevant to a new generation of digital storytellers that Directing on Camera‘s author could never have imagined would exist.

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?