Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

On dialogue

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 10, 2012

It is well acknowledged in cinema that the purest form of visual storytelling contains no dialogue. 

I say well acknowledged: I’ve seen it said by film makers like David Mamet and Andrew Stanton, but hardly ever applied. It might explain the success of The Artist in this year’s Oscar rout, but that is one of only a handful of silent homages made since the 1940s.

What makes it so ‘pure’? Well, without any dialogue to explain the narrative, how a character is feeling, or backstory, the film maker has to rely solely on the pictures to do the work. It is visual storytelling and visual storytelling alone. The earliest film makers made huge ground on establishing a visual language for film because they had to.

If it sounds difficult, it is because it is. But when done well it is captivating. I have blogged about Kristoffer Borgli’s brilliant short I Expect No-one before and watched it a dozen times. Here it is again: watch how the tension, reveal and punchline ending are all conveyed visually.

But enough about movies. What about video journalism?

I think factual video suffers because as journalists, when we start a story, our first instinct is to set up interviews and write the voice over script. After all, we have a lot of facts to get across, some of them complicated.

It means the dialogue is down before the pictures are, and what that eventually creates is wallpapering: the sin of just pasting shots over long stretches of interview to make it look a bit interesting, but with no visual meaning at all. It might as well be radio.

I’m sure you’ve seen the question coming already: is there a way online video storytellers can make a documentary without a line of dialogue in it? How would we go about making one?

I honestly don’t have an answer to these questions – but maybe you guys do.

Possible? Impossible? Pointless? Hit me up in the comments.

And speaking of storytelling….

Thanks to all of you who got in touch about possible collaborations. I heard from some really exciting and talented producers & film makers. I’ve got all your details and I’ve been looking through your work. I’ll be in touch in due course!

Meanwhile, production on Inside the Story: A masterclass in digital storytelling from the people who do it best is well underway with the book almost entirely laid out. It’s looking fantastic and I’m excited to announce the book will be available in German, Catalan and Spanish a few weeks after the English version is published, thanks to the efforts of three talented translators.

It’s honestly a book like no other: it’s cuts straight to the heart of how to tell remarkable stories, and remember, every penny will be donated to Kiva. Become a part of the Facebook page to get more info!

Are you really a visual storyteller?

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 9, 2011

The climax to Road to Perdition

Lots of multimedia producers describe themselves as “visual storytellers”: a sort of umbrella term to cover off video journalism, photography, motion graphics and maybe flash interactives too.

And as an umbrella term it’s a good one..but how many visual storytellers are really that?

The mantra in creating television news, documentaries, cinema and now online video – is to let the pictures tell the story. But this is actually extremely rare: watch the majority of news, docs and online video stories and instead the words lead the way, dragging pictures along behind them.

So what is visual storytelling?

To be a visual storyteller you should be able to tell a story with as few words as possible – maybe even none. If someone was watching your film with the sound turned off, would they understand what was happening?

There are a huge number of tools we can use as visual storytellers to convey messages with images alone: from the type of shot we use, the editing style, whether we go handheld, use a steadicam or sticks, transitions, repeated motifs and all sorts.

The first 10 minutes of Dirty Harry have absolutely no dialogue; the last 20 minutes of Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition contain just six lines of dialogue but bring the story to bloody climax and denouement. You know exactly how someone is feeling, what they’re thinking, and what they’re going to do next – but you haven’t been told in words, you’ve been shown.

One thing is for sure: it is easier said than done. My last production, explaining the AV Referendum had more than 600 words in 4 minutes. Rubbish.

Can you tell a whole story with no dialogue? You bet’cha. I love this 3 minute short by Norwegian film maker Kristoffer Borgli. Drama, plot twists, humour and suspense – all in three minutes – all without a single word being uttered.

Why not set yourself a challenge to tell your next story in 100 words…or less?