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.

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.

11 brilliant books for multimedia producers, journalists and entrepreneurs

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 8, 2011

In 2011 I read more books than I probably did at any other time. I picked up The Catcher in the Rye for the first time, and thanks to the ease of downloading books via the Kindle app, I’ve been able to read more titles on a whim. 

My reading interests range from everything from journalism to design, to minimalism, stoicism, film making and business. I’ve picked out the best 10 for anyone making the most of the Age of the Online Publisher.

A quick note: all links to titles are affiliate links. Some titles are only available as Kindle downloads. The prices I’ve listed will probably change.

The best books I read in 2011

Steven Pressfield | War of Art: (£5.87/$9 Kindle Edition) I actually read this last year, but Steven’s follow up Do The Work, came out in 2011. If you work in any creative or business  endeavour, then you owe it to yourself to read War of Art, it is the best book I know on the battle you face to create something new. Anyone who’s launched a new website, made a film, published a book or started a business will know what I mean by the word ‘battle’: War of Art is an essential weapon.

Kurt Lancaster | DSLR Cinema: (£14.64/$22.57) This is one of the best books I know for anyone starting out using DSLR cameras (like the 5D, 7D or 550D) to shoot video. If you’ve been using these cameras for a while, it’s probably not an essential buy, but early chapters clear up any confusion you might have about frame-rates, codecs, and shutter speed.

Jonathan Field | Uncertainty: (£12.10/$14.46) Jonathan’s first book Career Renegade, was the book that made me quit my job and go freelance. About eight weeks after I finished it I was down in London starting a new life. His follow up, focuses on how to deal with uncertainty in life – if you’re self-employed, starting a new business, uncertainty is regular spectre.

Frank Rose | The Art of Immersion: (£12.92/$17.79) Frank’s book is so good, it sparked several blog posts here earlier this year. Frank examines how storytelling, journalism and even movies are being changed by new technology, chiefly by allowing audiences to participate in stories too. I can’t tell you how many ideas I had after reading Frank’s book – so give it a try.

Ira Glass | New Kings of Non-Fiction: (£8.34/$10.88) Speaking of great storytelling, it doesn’t come much better than Ira Glass. He’s compiled a collection of excellent long-form journalism, including Malcolm Gladwell and Jack Hitt. It never hurts to read journalism at its finest.

Derek Sivers | Anything You Want: (£5.73/$5) Another title that sparked a big blog post here in 2011, Derek Sivers has some of the best common sense (or as he would say ‘uncommon sense’) advice for starting a business in the digital world. It got me wondering how newspapers would fare if they were run this way – if you liked that post, then dig deeper with Derek’s book.

Brenda Ueland | If You Want To Write: (£7.99/$7.99)This one came recommended by future of photography expert Miki Johnson this year, and boy is it a game changer. Brenda offers the best no-nonsense advice for anyone wanting to write (fiction or non-fiction) and her style is addictive. A word of note, this book was published in the 1950s so comes with some rather old-school values. See past that and you get some gems.

Darrell Huff | How to Lie with Statistics: (£5.99/$6.83) And sticking with old school, here’s another mid-century treat for any journalist dealing with numbers – a skill very few excel at (if you’ll excuse the pun). Guardian data journalist James Ball recommended this book to me as a great primer for the tricks people try and play with numbers. If you’re into data, infographics or similar this is fun introduction.

Alison Bavistock | The Naked Author: (£10.42/$22.95) Alison’s new book is a beefy guide for anyone thinking of by-passing traditional publishers and joining the likes of John Locke as authors making a mint on Amazon. As well as practical advice, Alison takes a good hard look at where publishers fit in this new world. [Disclosure: Alison is a colleague at Kingston University’s Department of Journalism & Publishing].

Al Tompkins | Aim for the Heart (2nd Ed) (£18.99/$29.35) US TV news journalist Al Tompkins has updated his guide to video storytelling and has techniques on interviews, graphics and ethics. It’s aimed at the US local news reporter, so is a bit focused on quick soundbites and writing leads – but Al’s core message is an invaluable one: tell human stories.

Scott Belsky | Making Ideas Happen: (£6.06/$17.79) the founder of 37 Signals (one of the most successful web businesses out there) published this book early in 2010, but I had to wait patiently until this spring to get a copy in the UK. It’s worth the wait though: and guides you through the 99% of perspiration that goes into creating great stuff, with neat advice on time management and motivation.

What great books have you read in 2011?

How to feed your journalism cow

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 22, 2011

Image: cheeseslave on Flickr

Here’s a question I bet you don’t get often: do you feed your cow?

In the early days of my freelance career, back in January 2010, I spent a couple of weeks working on a film with video journalism supremo David Dunkley-Gyimah at the Southbank Centre in London.

We were interviewing artists from around the world, and every discipline imaginable: poets, musicians, film makers, painters and violinists. Among them was the architect Shumon Basar. Off camera he was the most interesting and relaxed, and while we were talking he said something that’s stuck with me since.

He said whatever type of art you do, it’s vital you keep consuming ideas and information. He likened the brain to a cow: ‘you want the cow to produce milk [ideas] but to do that you must feed it well.’

Journalism, and its periphery disciplines (writing, film making, photography, design) consume ideas like we consume petrol. If you’ve worked on a magazine, 24-hour news channel or even run a blog, you’ll know just how ideas hungry these things are.

So, no matter how busy you are, make time to take Betsy out for a big lunch. As always, I’d love your own personal recommendations too – stick ’em in the comments box!

Six things to feed the cow

.01 A good newsletter

Sign up some inspiring, idea-laden, newsletters, that pop into your inbox without you having to do anything. If it’s sitting in your inbox it’s harder to ignore, and you can still save it for later on.

I’m personally loving two particular newsletters right now: BrainPickings, a weekly collection of great design and ideas curated by Maria Popova in New York. Her Twitter feed is really worth following too. Secondly the Do Lectures (think TED lectures but on a Welsh farm) send out a weekly newsletter called Kindling, which does just that: it sets off little sparks of inspiration and lets them catch hold.

.02 TED Lectures

If you can make time, even once a week, to watch an 18 minute TED lecture, you’ll be a more informed and inspired person. As well as good talks on productivity, ideas and the like, the best TED talks are about something completely off the wall, like whaling or painting.

The success of the format relies on the focus on new ideas (rather than a soap box for criticism) and on the 18 minute slot: too short for an expert to waffle on for hours, but too long to just scramble a powerpoint together at the last minute. This one on the future of online video has inspired my ideas throughout 2011.

.03 Kickstarter

Never mind cool ideas, what about being inspired by what people are actually doing? That’s why I love visiting KickStarter. It started as a platform to raise funds for cool projects, but has a secondary role as a hub for inspiring ideas people are trying to get off the ground. If you’re a film maker, it’s a useful watering hole to see what documentary projects people are trying to get off the ground.

I’m living in patient wait for KickStarter to become available to those outside the US (at the moment only US citizens can fundraise). Oh and if you see one you like, don’t forget to donate a dollar or two to the cause.

.04 Video .fu library

Speaking of films, I couldn’t miss off the video .fu library from this list. I’ve been curating a collection of epic, cinematic, memorable video storytelling all year. There are more than 30 films in the library so far, and dozens of subscribers.

In particular, I look for factual stories which take a cinematic approach to how they’re made, focusing on compelling characters and strong narrative arcs. Many appear on this blog but not until some time after they’re in the library so get an early peek. If you’re looking for inspiration for characters, styles or story structure, this is a good place to start.

.05 This American Life

This American Life is a wonderful way to feed the cow when you’re on a long journey or even just commuting to work. The hour-long weekly podcast is a finely crafted nugget of great stories well told, by Ira Glass and his team. If you want to learn how to tell better stories you must listen to TAL.

As it’s a podcast it’s something you can drop onto your iPod, iPhone or just the laptop, and listen when you’re travelling. A word of warning about This American Life: each episode demands (and rewards) your concentration. Don’t listen while you’re doing emails or writing a blog post – give it your full attention.

.06 beta620

A new product from the New York Times, beta620 is a platform for experimental projects being tried about by developers, journalists and co at the paper. They include apps and mashups – worth a visit to see what some of the smartest people in journalism are up to. They also have some great hacking events going on, if you’re NYC based.

Of course, I should add visits to museums, galleries and exhibitions to this list, plus who knows how many countless books. But at least this digital selection is something you can dive into right away. Please add your own suggestions below!