Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Six original ways to use online video

Posted in Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on August 1, 2011

I’ve said it before: everyone’s getting on the online video bandwagon. There are huge opportunities out there for film makers, video journalists and motion graphic designers, if you know where to look.

There’s also a fantastic opportunity to break new ground, and use video in new ways. Here are six different ways online video is being employed around the web.

Six original ways to use online video

NOTE: this is a video-heavy post; if you’re receiving this blog post as a newsletter, make sure you click on the link to see all of the embeds.

.01 product launch

OK, this one isn’t so much original as obligatory these days. If you’re launching a new website, product or service, you almost certainly need a video to promote it. Using online video can serve two key functions: firstly you can use it to generate an emotional response (usually, “this new thing is amazing!”) or you might just need it to explain something complicated.

En vogue right now is motion graphics and kinetic typography, such as this new launch video for infographics site Visual.ly; if you do it, try and use it alongside a narrative.

 

Don’t feel obliged to go down this route though. Live action works just as well. I really like this Wes Anderson inspired ditty from FireSpotter Labs to launch their new restaurant review app Nosh.me.

If you’re an online film maker, startup videos are a good stock of work: in the last year alone I’ve helped produce launch films for TheMediaBriefing, I Am Creative (not published yet) and I’m currently working on two more for launch in the autumn.

.02 training & explainers

Video, although not naturally designed to convey complex information, is excellent at explaining things – if put in the right hands. It’s difficult though – my personal project to explain the AV Referendum this year took some serious cognitive juice to avoid it drifting away.

 

Australian TV show Hungry Beast are masters at explaining complex stuff to young people: this explanation of the Stuxnet virus is one of the best things I’ve seen online all year.

 

A clear leader here is Vimeo – who’ve published scores of excellent training videos, explaining everything from ND filters to tripods.

.03 404 page

Online video on a 404 page? Seriously? You betcha. Serious credit again to Alex Cornell at ISO50/FireSpotter Labs for this gem of an idea. They’ve shot their own action film to appear every time you hit a Page Not Found.  It’s all filmed in one shot, but took some setting up to get right. I’ve never seen this done before, but I imagine it’ll appear all over the place before too long.

And the purpose? No-one likes seeing a 404 page – why not turn it into a treat? It makes your website more memorable.

.04 profiles & portraits

Here’s a little tip for any young film makers looking for work. There are loads of companies out there moving into creating online video and need people to do it properly. There’s a huge market in both online publishing (companies producing their own web content) as well as internal communications.

Interestingly, a lot of them use their online video space to produce simple interviews. After all, it’s quick, cheap and the easiest thing to learn. But actually, interviews are pretty boring, even in video. The more original video producers are instead producing portraits or profiles – that is, telling a story as a (legitimate) way to entice viewers.

For example, software company 37Signals have just advertised for a video producer position in Chicago, but they say explicitly they don’t want to just film interviews: “Testimonials are usually boring – we want to be sure to avoid anything boring.”

The challenge for these companies is firstly recognising portraits and narratives are better than quick interviews, and in finding the people good enough to do them. Make sure they know that’s you.

.05 create a blockbuster

OK, never mind portraits, explainers or product launches – why not suck up the balls and go all out, producing a mega blockbuster?

That’s what visual effects house Red Giant Software did to demonstrate their range of colour correction packages. The result is an epic story called Plot Device which cleverly references the archetypes of Hollywood cinema and shows off the product in a way you didn’t expect.

No deadpan screencasts here: you can see what the software does, at the same time being taken on a memorable journey. It takes a talented director and cast to make sure this doesn’t come off as seriously lame, but done right the results speak for themselves.

.06 behind the scenes

And finally, another new way to use video is to produce behind the scenes films of you, your business, or client. Transparency is big in demand these days and video is great way to show people that you’re human, and you have fun doing what you do. As well as adding a face to the name/brand it can be an effective way to add a personal touch.

UK national radio station Absolute Radio recently hired me to shoot this behind-the-scenes piece about a stunt they pulled in central London back in June. It shows all the fun, effort and camaraderie that people tune in to hear every morning.

Several of the above films have their own behind the scenes films, including Plot Device and Nosh.me. Hey, even Peter Jackson’s doing it!

Of course, behind the scenes video can also be a neat way to bring in some extra revenue – in the form of a DVD release or similar.

So the takeaway? Online video is not television, so why make it mimic the idiot box all the time? Video is far more flexible and hopefully this post has shown you some of the pioneers who are pushing it forward. Now go and join them!

How to achieve the new look in Video Journalism

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 6, 2010

There’s a lot of interesting talk about a new aesthetic for video journalism. New cameras, but more importantly, new ideas are breathing new life into video storytelling, and starting to break those rusty screws which so far have bolted video journalism to it’s televisual parent.

VJs  like Dan Chung, David Dunkley-Gyimah and Cliff Etzel are experimenting with new looks, and writing about them too. It goes without saying video on the web is not television and shouldn’t be bound by the same conventions. But how do you break the rules? Here’s three films working on doing just that.

Three examples of the new look video journalism

Haiti Earthquake Aftermath Montage, Khalid Mohtaseb

NOTE: there’s a fair bit of debate around this piece dealing with whether this piece is journalism or not. Here I’m more interested in how the visual style was achieved; to join the other debates have a look at DSLR Newshooter and Solo Video Journalist.

This short montage of high quality images were shot by Khalid Mohtaseb while on assignment in Haiti. The  beauty of these images relies partly on the use of the Canon 5D MKII, the top of the range digital SLR camera capable of  shooting HD video. Notice how Khalid also uses slow movement, long held shots and music to acheive his look.

  • Khalid shoots with a high shutter speed (1/60) – which means he can slow the images right down in the edit, and keep a smooth slow motion
  • He uses the Kessler Pocket Dolly, a small portable glider which creates the slow elegant tracking shots
  • He opens up the aperture to create a shallow depth of field in his close ups of people
  • He holds many of the shots for 6 or more seconds, which adds a slow, almost elegant pace to the final montage
  • Images are cut to the music, scenes changing with changes in the key
  • In post production, Khalid uses Magic Bullet and Apple Colour to grade the images, increasing the contrast and adding a subtle vignette – you can see the results of just a few examples here:

Image credit: DSLR Newshooter

Image credit: DSLR Newshooter

(For a more detailed technical breakdown of this piece, by Khalid himself, checkout the excellent DLSR Newshooter)

And then they danced, David Dunkley-Gyimah

I have had the pleasure of working with David at the Southbank Centre in London, where he is experimenting with the new cinematic aesthetic. In this film, shot for the Southbank, he uses a range of different effects and styles – a veritable toolkit for VJs to take from.

  • For some of the shots of the rehearsals, David uses a wide angle lens to create a “fishbowl” effect
  • Around 1’10” David uses post production to add a flare to the pictures of the farm building; note the filter and vignette on the picture too
  • He cleverly cuts the shots of the guitarist, drummer and tuba player, creating a stylised jump-cut effect
  • He plays with speed, slowing down and speeding up footage
  • In terms of creating a narrative, note the absence of a  voice over – this story is told solely with the voices of the contributers: they are sometimes only captioned off screen. Does this affect your understanding of the story?

What if..?, Adam Westbrook, Dominique Van Heerden, Alex Wood

In this short film for the London Future of News Meetup we experimented with the cinematic aesthetic. We wanted to get a feel of urban decay and abandonment which we achieved partly by choosing a great location and partly with some tricks with the camera and in post production:

  • We shot on a south London estate early in the morning, to make sure it was quiet
  • We shot with the JVC GY-HM100 which has a really nice grain to the image
  • I opened the aperture to create a shallow depth of field, and layered certain shots
  • We cut in lots of fast moving close ups of buildings and objects to add a sense of movement to the piece
  • Annoyingly, our day of shooting happened to be the first day of spring, so the location was bathed in sunlight. Not great for our moody aesthetic, so we used the camera’s ND filter to take out some of the light.
  • In post production we desaturated most of the images, to remove some of the colour, and increased the contrast
  • We also put a very subtle vignette over most of the shots, which adds a vintage/off colour feel to the image
  • The whole piece is cut to the rhythm and pace of the music, the final “what if?” reveal happening as the music crescendos.

All three pieces manipulate shutter speed, aperture and filters, as well as grading in post production to create their aesthetic. They also all use music effectively – another tool which shouldn’t be an afterthought (check out Christopher Ave’s contribution to the Fresh Eyes series for more).

Importantly, although they all experiment with new visual styles for video journalism, they still obey the old rules from the first days of cinema: the rule of thirds and sequences in particular.

You can use these tricks too!

All of these are tricks any video journalist can experiment with. They can all be achieved with the cameras mentioned and in most standard video editing suites. Small changes can really add oomph to the message you are trying to convey or the story you are trying to tell.

Is manipulating camera and edit manipulating the viewer? I don’t think so: what are recording should still be true to life. But like a writer has different ways of manipulating language, and a photojournalist has different ways of manipulating their stills, so it is for video journalists.

Up until now most camera people have left these powerful tools untouched. It’s like a writer refusing to use similes, metaphors or alliteration to tell their stories.