Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

2011 in motion graphics projects

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 19, 2011

Although I write lots about how to make online video, I rarely show you any of my own stuff. That’s partly because I don’t want this blog to be a shameless showreel, but this week I thought I’d collect some of the films I’ve made this year.

On Thursday I’ll put up my best video work of the year, but today I’ll start with motion graphics.

[NOTE: If you’re receiving this post via email, click on the link to read the post online to view the videos]

Back in 2010 I bought Final Cut Studio when I upgraded my video production kit. The package comes with other products, like Apple Compressor, and something I’d never heard of before – Apple Motion. It’s Apple’s equivalent to Adobe After Effects, and allows you to create motion graphic animations.

Throughout 2010 I taught myself how to create animations from scratch – an investment in time which has really paid off in 2011. I have completed several commissions for whole range of clients, and even had to turn some down for a lack of time. Here are some of the motion graphic-only pieces, although almost all of my video this year feature a motion element somewhere.

myNewsBiz

January 2011 – an animation to launch the myNewsBiz student enterprise journalism competition. The two winners are now working on launching their new products. This one has a strong palette and was my first real experiment with 3D and moving cameras.

AV referendum

April 2011 – I created this explainer about the AV referendum back in May to experiment with the idea of making complex issues more simple. It was a bit more complex than any I had done before, and I had to break it down into four ‘chapters’ to put it together. This has led to the creation of a new website & business, launching in early 2012.

StuConnect

September 2011 A commission for StuConnect, a new startup aiming to help students collaborate across different UK universities. Videos like this for startups need to be short & sweet.

VInspired: Food Poverty

November 2011 – A recent commission for V Inspired a UK organisation helping young people become leaders. I’ve written about the creation of this piece in more detail in this blog post and Storify.

Hopefully, the takeaway is that you can teach yourself a new skill and quite quickly convert it into paid work. The great thing about programs like these is that they’re relatively cheap – and learning them can be completely free if you use the right sources.

I invested about £40 in a book about how to do motion graphics, and then about two hours a night for a couple of months – and I’ve easily recouped that now.

How to make motion graphics animations

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on November 24, 2011

Motion graphics have grown in popularity over the last few years, as an effective form of both storytelling and data visualisation, exploiting the popularity of web video.

I’ve had a few requests from readers this year for information about how motion graphics animations are created. So I thought I would open the lid on the process using Storify to show the steps of designing a short motion graphics animation from start to finish.

A quick caveat: I am not suggesting this is a particularly good motion graphic – it was done to a very tight deadline, and if I could go back, there are lots I would change. But it’s a good example of kinetic typography, one of the most popular styles of graphics.

I can’t embed the Storify unfortunately, but click on the image below and you’ll go straight there.

 

 

And if you want to see the finished piece first, here it is:

The best journalism articles you might have missed

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on June 30, 2011

Image: crsan on Flickr

Another three months have flown by and it’s been a busy quarter with lots of new articles on online video and entrepreneurial journalism on the blog.  

It’s been a bit quieter this spring as I’ve been working on several film and training commissions.

A normal (twice-weekly) blog service should resume shortly. In the mean time, here’s some of the most popular articles on this site since March. For earlier ones, click here.

Online video

What makes you a visual storyteller? – we talk a lot about ‘visual storytelling’ but what does it mean? And how do you do it?

The end of television and what that means for you – why I think television’s days are numbered (and why that’s great)

Five principles every video editor needs to know – from the 1920s, the earliest principles from the masters of cinema.

How to let transitions tell the story – how can our use of transitions make us better storytellers?

How I used motion graphics to explain the AV referendum – In May I produced a film to explain the UK referendum.

Two amazing video stories about loss – two more examples of extraordinary video storytelling.

My process for developing new video projects – I explain how I develop my visual storytelling ideas.

How to make online video that really engages audiences (and how to utterly fail it it) – one issue, two very different ways of using online video.

Entrepreneurial journalism

Can we teach journalists to be entrepreneurial? – I argue we must teach journalists to be entrepreneurial – for their own sake, and for the profession.

The age of the online publisher – and five people who are embracing it – some inspiring examples of people who have become online publishers.

Five big reasons to run a small news business – I explain the big advantages of running an intentionally small business.

Why layers could be the secret to improving online video – some ideas I helped come up with for the future of video with Mozilla and the Guardian.

Why do so many student journalists call themselves ‘aspiring’? – would you hire a journalist who called themselves ‘aspiring’?

What does the myNewsBiz competition tell us about entrepreneurial journalism? – as our nationwide search for entrepreneurial journalists wraps up, I look back at what we’ve learned.

How I develop my online video projects

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 23, 2011

I’ve been making films on-and-off, collaboratively and on my own, for around six or so years. Over that time I’ve developed my own workflow: a way of thinking about how to tell a story and assemble all the crucial elements in my head.

I thought it would be useful to share my basic process to see how it differs from other people, and hopefully, to help other film makers too. This is also a process I teach my video journalism students at Kingston University.

I should point out that every film-maker has their own ways of doing things – and there’s also standard practice/terminology for those working in industry. The terminology and techniques below work well for me.

I start with a blank sheet of paper, put the title/subject of the film in the middle, and then draw out the five categories below to come up with ideas. It’s nice and quick and means I spend more time filming and less time planning.

An example of a mind map I might draw out while planning a film

.01 Interviews

If you’re going to tell a narrative through the words of a character, then the interview is a core part of your film. This is where you get most of the story in audio, as well some visuals: although the interview may appear on screen occasionally, most of the time it provides a voice track.

When to do the interview? Again, it’s horses for courses and depends very much on the restraints of the character and story. Michael Rosenblum makes a good argument for doing it last; I usually prefer to shoot my interview early on. Listening to it you can form a sketchy narrative in your head and get ideas for scenes and sequences (see below); it also comforting to know you have got something substantial in the bag early on.

.02 Scenes

Scenes are my shorthand word for what other people might call ‘action’ or (in radio) ‘actuality’. It’s basically something happening uninterrupted on camera – an event you are observing as a film maker and capturing as it happens. The scene below from The Sartorialist when the photographer stops two women in the street is an example of a scene.

An example of a scene from The Sartorialist.

To me, scenes are the spices in a good meal. Without them, you’re left with something bland: just your interview with some footage floated over the top. Scenes draw us further into a story because we’re watching real-life unfold before our eyes. The change in mood, audio and picture style also piques our interest.

I never shoot a story without drawing up ideas for possible scenes to bring it to life.

.03 Sequences

Sequences form an equally important structure to your online video stories. I’m talking about sequences in the television news sense: that is, a single action occurring over three or more shots. Continuity between each shot is vital to maintain the illusion of continuous movement.

Sequences are vital because they draw our attention as we watch an event unfold on screen. In a story about a teenager learning to drive, we’re more engaged watching a sequence of them driving, than by static shots of different angles of a stationary car – or even worse, a series of juxtaposing shots of a moving and stationary car.

I aim to shoot as many sequences as possible when filming. A warning though: it is possible to get sequences wrong, in so many ways – as this attempt by a local newspaper in Norwich shows.

.04 Visual Flair

You could make a decent, engaging well produced piece with just interviews, scenes and sequences – especially if the story is short and you’re on a deadline. If I have time though, I try to think of ideas of how to use these next two elements.

The first is visual flair – and you can divide it into two categories: which I call porn and imagery.

Yes, I said porn, and what I mean by that is lots of beautiful juicy close ups, or grand wide-shots, or elegant tracking shots. For some stories this is essential: if you’re shooting a story about a chocolate factory I want to see a sweeping wide shot of the factory in action – and then lots (and lots!) of closeups showing chocolate oozing of pipes. This film about the chocolatiers The Mast Brothers packed with visual porn.

Shots like this one (from Mast Brothers) a great visual porn

Imagery is my way of thinking about using pictures to tell a story in a more visual way – as I describe in more detail in this blog post. It could involve using symbolism, repeated motifs, colours, shot sizes and much more to convey the meaning of a story without dialogue.

.05 Theme

Finally – and this is only on rare projects – do I get to think more about a theme for the story: something deeper, more significant that it trying to say. The theme is never expressed outright, but implicitly revealed in the story itself. How do you find the theme? Usually by asking “what is this story really about?

Director Brennan Stasiewicz makes some great points about theme in this interview for studio .fu.

Regular day-to-day journalism rarely has or needs a theme – but longer documentary, or online video feature pieces are built on solid foundations when they have a theme.

So there you go: as I say it’s a very personal way of developing a film, and unique in that I don’t always work with others, sometimes developing, shooting, editing and publishing  a film entirely on my own. How do you make your films?

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?

Using online video to explain AV & First Past the Post

Posted in Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on April 28, 2011

There’s no such thing as boring information, just boring presentation.

Anon

In a week, voters in Britain will have a once-in-a-generation chance to decide whether the election system in the UK should change.

At the moment it’s run on a plurality system called ‘First Past the Post’, but after last year’s election there were calls to switch it to the ‘Alternative Vote’ system.

In the last couple of months, opposing campaign groups, politicians and journalists have been trying to sway public opinion, in the minds of some, by using increasingly desperate tactics, creating (in Charlie Brooker’s words) “a stupidity whirlpool that engulfs any loose molecules of logic”. For example, both sides claim voting the other way would bring in the extremist British National Party.

It’s created so much confusion, there are worries people might not bother to vote at all.

As a pet project over the Easter break, I’ve created this video explainer to cut through the crap and explain First Past the Post and Alternative Vote properly.

Youtube version

Source list (pdf)

It comes with an accompanying source list, with every fact that appears checked against a reliable source. I interviewed political scientists to clarify key points of explanation too. I’ve tried to avoid opinion as much as possible, although I think you sometimes have to sacrifice total objectivity for the sake of clarity.

It’s far from perfect: it’s twice as long as I was aiming for and the visuals aren’t strong enough for a start. Feedback from close colleagues suggests the second half might be bordering on comment and not explanation (what do you think?)

I’m not the only one who’s had a crack at explaining the nuances of these two systems.  The BBC’s heavyweight current affairs programme Newsnight tried using (rather weak) satire to do it; the Electoral Commission itself attempted a Common Craft style cartoon which might have mis-read its audience; cartoons were order of the day in other films too. And Dan Snow’s piece is actually a campaign so doesn’t count, but he uses a good real-life example to explain AV.

Explaining the news

This explainer is the pilot of a bigger project on explaining the news I’m starting this spring, inspired by the work of Jay Rosen’s Studio20 program in New York City.

I think online video has huge potential to simplify a complicated topic and engage people with the issue, in fact, I believe video can do this better than any other medium.

I’ll go into detail in a later post, but in the meantime I’ll be watching the reaction to this video to get an idea of whether it’s got legs. If you like it (or don’t like it!) please share it online (and let me know in the comments)!