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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Why visual journalists need to get their act together (fast)

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 7, 2010

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into finding new ways to do historical documentary storytelling over the past two years.

As those who’ve spoken to me about it in the past will know, I think what we’re offered on television and radio is formulaic, sometimes crude, and almost always boring. The internet offers a fantastic platform to try new ways of doing things.

So here is a rare and refreshing example of a wonderful, short, historical documentary. But here’s the shock: it’s been made by Honda.

Yes, it seems even car companies are having a go at being film makers – and succeeding.

It’s part of a new campaign called Live Every Litre, and aims to make a documentary about the amazing journeys people take, or want to take, in their lives.

The wonderful treatment of this story (showing a veteran taking his granddaughter to see Normandy – why has the BBC never done that?!) and it’s subtle execution aside, this little film could be evidence of two things for visual journalists:

  1. that teaming up with companies wanting to use the power of storytelling to market their products could actually be an effective way of producing great video journalism (this series has Claudio Von Planta at the helm)
  2. that if we don’t pick up the baton soon, it’ll be Honda winning BAFTAs and Emmys in 5 years – while video journalists are busy working in their showrooms.