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.

Powerful multimedia to illuminate the past

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on January 27, 2010

65 years ago today, Russian scouts entered the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau near Krakow in Poland, and one of the darkest chapters in human history came to an end.

These days the end of the Holocaust is remembered with events around the world; this year multimedia is playing a big role in reminding a new generation about what happened. The Media Guardian reports on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust‘s web 2.0 efforts, including a Facebook group and Twitter feed.

They’ve also commissioned a pretty extraordinary film. Anyone who’s met me in person may know about my personal pet project to reinvent how history is done for mass audiences. So much is dry and formulaic about the offerings of the mainstream TV networks I could be here all day talking about.

But telling stories from the past isn’t easy, which is why these cliches exist: depending on what period you’re talking about, many of your subjects will be dead; you are left with GVs, archive photographs and grainy footage…and at worst beardy talking head historians: the Times New Roman of interviewees.

I’m excited the internet & multimedia provide the potential for new styles, new stories and new audiences, and even more excited the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust have invested in that with this film.

OK, it’s narrated by Harry Potter, and OK, it is 10 minutes long…but it is beautifully shot, elevated by strong characters, amazing stories and a haunting soundtrack. And just wait until you see what they’ve done in After Effects (you’ll know when you see it). It’s good to see history being illuminated with innovative storytelling.

At the time of writing, it’s only had 552 views in 5 months which is a crying shame; it’s something the people at Chocolate Films should be very proud of.

A little bit of history repeating

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 24, 2010

This whole multimedia journalism thing seems very new a lot of the time.

We’re always being told we’re breaking new ground, doing things no-one has done before. But that’s not necessarily so:  some of the ‘innovations’ we have come accustomed too have been around for decades.

Citizen Journalism

When do you think the first citizen journalists appeared? Did amateurs start recording news events a few years back? 2004? 2002?

How about 1940?

BBC Four in Britain are screening a series of programmes called Shooting The War, about how ordinary soldiers and civilians used the first cinecameras to record daily life during World War II. People like Leslie Fowler and Derek Brown provided us with an intimate portrait of life in Britain in the run up to, and during the early years of the war.

Their footage shows Home Guard preparations for a possible invasion of England in the summer of 1940.

The documentary describes amateur film-making as an unusual hobby in the 1930s, but it was still there.

One-man-bands

Now what about solo-journalists? The one man* film-maker, out in the field on his own with a camera? 1990s? 1980s?

How about the 1940s again?

During the war, the British government became aware of the extent to which the Wehrmacht had been using propaganda films to accentuate their sudden invasion of Western Europe. Realising the potential of this, they created a new division in the army: the Army Film and Photographic Unit. It trained ordinary soldiers to carry their own film cameras and shoot activity on the front line.

As well as lugging their weaponry and everything else, they were carrying a huge wooden cinecamera and probably loads of film too – and then filming entirely by themselves, something most of us didn’t think could happen until Betacams in the 1980s.

Multimedia

And number three, what what the first newspaper to go multimedia? Was it the NY Times in 2000? Or the LA Times in 2003?

Nope?

What about the Observer…in 1951?

I’ve spent the last two weeks documenting a project at the Southbank Centre in London, the home of what was once called the Festival of Britain. In the festivals last weeks in the summer of 1951, the Observer paper (the Guardian’s Sunday edition) commissioned a 15 minute film called Brief City. You can watch it here too.

It explained how the Royal Festival Hall was built, and how it was used. It is a stunning piece of film making of its time, with its own specially orchestrated score.

So that’s a newspaper investing in moving pictures to tell stories. In 1951.

It’s a shame they all forgot pretty soon after how to do that.

*sorry ladies, it is still the 1940s after all

History alive!

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 21, 2009

The world shared a very important anniversary this week: 40 years since man landed on the moon.

Some call it the biggest single moment of the 2oth century; they all call it a day history was made.

But what does history have to show for it? It is a subject in decline, both academically and in the mainstream. That, however, could be changing and the moon landing anniversary has spawned a project which I think symobilises history’s rebirth as a popular subject.

Wechoosemoon1

We Choose The Moon began a week ago, and lets its visitors follow the Apollo 11 mission in real time. At it’s centre: a beautiful 3d animation showing key sequences including the Apollo launch (above). Original audio recordings from mission control and the lunar module let you relive the event. At certain stages you can click around an interactive multimedia display to look at video, pictures and audio.

You can follow history in real time, in not one – but 3 different twitter accounts.

It is a fantastic – and rare – example of multimedia being used creatively and with innovation, not to tell news stories, but the news stories of the past. And I really think there’s a future in this.

Wechoosemoon2

There is another one I’ve found, albeit on a newspaper site. Ted Kennedy: A Life In Politics, set in the same iconic era as We Choose The Moon is a multimedia biography of the brother of the man who uttered that immortal space-race phrase.

Less innovative than the moon landing story, it is still packed with beautiful images and video. What I really like is the carousel at the bottom of each chapter, giving you access to original documents from the past.

TedKennedy1

Could this be the start of a much needed retelling of history? I think history is a fantastic subject for multimedia storytelling to embrace. History is already leaving the dull theoretical debates behind for the academics; for the average punter I think an exciting new fascination awaits: focused on using video, original archive material and interactivity to tell amazing stories. It’s a heady mix of surprising facts, gripping narratives and great personalities. There might even be money in it.

Who’s with me?

Presidential mashup

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 24, 2009

A fantastic piece of ‘history 2.0’ from the New York Times this week.

They’ve produced tag clouds from each of the 44 US presidents inaugurual speeches, and then arranged them in an interactive timeline.

Like the tag cloud on the right of this blog, the words which appear most often are larger. Those which appear more than the average are highlighted in yellow.

New York Times

Copyright: New York Times

It’s fascinating to see the word “country” and “people” as the popular words, slowly replaced by “nation” and “America.” Note how Obama’s big words are the same as Clintons.

And a brilliant use of web 2.0 to help understand the past.

Hat tip: Cyberjournalist.net

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History of the internet

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on January 7, 2009

I’m amazed mainstream broadcasters haven’t  developed a documentary looking at the history of the internet – it is afterall the most important tool since, I dunno, electricity probably.

Until they do, there’s a few decent shorts online – including this one I just discovered on Vimeo.

Could do with a bit more humour, but the graphics are nice and I learnt the idea of networking computers goes back to 1957, not the 1970s as I always thought.

Check it out!

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