Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to be a new media pioneer

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

If you’re interested in online video, journalism or film making generally, you really ought to watch Mark Cousins’ new series The Story of Film – an Odyssey. 

It’s a strangely minimalist affair – sparse writing, artistic landscape shots and lots of clips from films you’ve never heard of, while at the same time thankfully free of self-aggrandizing pieces to camera.

I had the pleasure of working with Mark briefly in early 2010 when he was starting work on the series; he also showed us the preview of his quite remarkable documentary The First Movie – a quiet but powerful story about Kurdish children in Iraq.

Episode 1 of this 15 hour series was broadcast in the UK on Sunday and in it Mark tells the story of the first 20 years of cinema, from Thomas Edison to Cecille B DeMille, and all the innovations in between. It was an extraordinarily exciting time of discovery, experimentation and invention, and led to the creation of visual conventions we all subscribe to today: continuity editing, reverse shots, parallel editing and the 180 degree rule.

It’s hard to remember another time when a completely new medium – a new art form – appeared. The equivalent of the invention of the pencil or the piano.

Except, of course, for the period we’re living in right now. The internet, digital film, the iPhone and the HD-DSLR have given our generation a new blank sheet to scribble on. In The Story of Film Mark Cousins describes an early movie where the director shot a boxing match using 63mm film instead of the standard 35mm – an innovation which led to the creation of widescreen.

Now, 90 years later, we have pioneers on Vimeo developing tall-screen and super-widescreen videos. There are foetal ideas about creating layers of video on top of each other, augmented reality, immersive storytelling and more.

Mark tells the story of Florence Lawrence the world’s first film-star; now, a century on, we are meeting the early super-stars of the digital age, who have used Youtube to propel their lives into the mainstream. And the new generation of digital directors and movie moguls, like Jamal Edwards: the 20 something South-London founder of SBTV who’s even been featured in a Google advert.

Yes, I know this feels like a difficult time with revenues down, layoffs up and impossible prospects of getting a job on a newspaper. But in the same breath this is the birth of cinema all over again! The door is wide open for the next generation of innovators, directors, and entrepreneurs.

And most importantly: this won’t last forever. There is probably only a few years before online video, for example, hits the mainstream through IPTV. For those already on board the train, that’s exciting stuff.

But if you’re not there yet – do not delay.

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Five simple tricks to spice up your storytelling

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 2, 2010

Storytelling: the most ancient of arts, under appreciated, and often overshadowed by technological advances.

We talk a lot about how a new piece of kit, or smaller camera will make journalism better – but then ignore how to tell the stories in the first place. Storytelling is a science as well as an art with rules and formulas, honed over centuries: every journalist should make it their business to understand the secrets.

A classic (non-journalism) example is James Cameron’s Avatar: celebrated for its use of the latest technology, but undermined by a crap, hackneyed, unoriginal story. Storytelling costs a percentage of what special effects do…but guess where Hollywood spends the big bucks?

The good news for you and me is good storytelling is free if you know how to do it. And sometimes it’s even quick. Next time you’re shooting a video story, audio slideshow, radio piece, interactive — whatever…try one of these simple tricks to make sure your story packs a punch.

Five simple tricks to spice up your storytelling

01. bookend

A classic of the television current affairs documentary but still pretty effective. It simply means returning at the end of your story to where you began. Maybe the same location to see how it’s changed or the same interviewee reflecting on what’s just happened.

It can be more subtle than that: gently bring in the music you opened your piece with to close it; or even bring up the same sound effects or natural sound if that’s what you used. It is a personal favourite of mine: I bookend with music in this audio slideshow about the prison campaigner John Hirst, and bookend with location in this 30 minute documentary about the 2007 UK floods.

Bookending gives the audience a real sense of time passed and reflection.

02. flashbacks

Not every story needs to be told in a linear way, despite the linear nature of the media we work with. Mess around with the chronology of your storytelling.

Sometimes it works really well to start with the powerful climax of the story and then work your audience back to that point through your story. You can use flashbacks literally to show events from the past in real time.

03. share media

Here’s an old rule of storytelling: “show don’t tell” (maybe it should be called story-showing); so start by really listening to whether you are telling a story or showing it. Stuck for a good way to get your subjects to show their stories? Give them the media to do it!

Veteran broadcast journalist Penny Marshall used this to great effect when she gave children in refugee camps in Chad pieces of paper and crayons to draw what they were too distressed to say. Film critic and director Mark Cousins built an entire film around the premise of giving Iraqi children a flip cam.

Just because you have the training doesn’t mean others can’t astound you with their abilities with a simple camera.

04. reflection

It is an accepted wisdom that when we hear someone talking and see them on screen, we see their lips moving. That is using video to document a persons thoughts in its simplest form. But you can mess around with this too.

Once you’ve finished an interview – especially if it has packed emotional punch – just keep filming, stop talking and let your interviewee look into your eyes or the lens. See how long you can get them to hold that look – usually somewhere between 5 and 10 seconds. If you want an example, check out this quickly cut promo by David Dunkley-Gyimah at the Southbank Centre.

Now you have an amazing reflective shot to introduce your interviewee; it gives the impression we are hearing their thoughts not just their words. Powerful indeed.

05. take your character back to their past

The best stories have a central character. Often they tell their story for us in the form of an interview, usually somewhere ‘contemporary’ to them, such as their living room. If they’re talking about a past experience, something is lost in translation.

Make the past live again for your character by returning them to the place where their amazing story took place (within the means of taste and decency of course). Not only will it make your character’s recollection far more vivid, it also gives you more interesting pictures. Click here to see how ESPN took a troubled wrestler back through his dark past – with great effect.

What’s the point of narrative?

Why bother with all this then? Telling a good story is what we’re all about. Your aim as a storyteller is simple: suck ’em in and spit ’em out. You need to hook your audience into your story quickly and ruthlessly, don’t let go for a second (they’ll try to wriggle free); and then spit them out in the other side. If you’ve done your job they’ll sit, astonished, covered in phlegm, trying to comprehend what just happened…but grateful to you for taking them on that journey.

Want more storytelling tips? Have you checked out “6×6 Skills for Next Generation Journalists“? It’s got a special chapter on storytelling.

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Note: Several people have been in touch in the comments in the last week requesting more examples of great multimedia journalism and film making. I’ve tried to provide good examples in this post and will stick as many more up in the future as possible – thanks for your comments!