Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to make boring things interesting in video

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 2, 2012

There’s no doubting that video is an incredible medium. It has the power to transport us to other worlds, feel other peoples’ feelings and can affect our emotions quite dramatically, when done well. Ultimately, video can move people to action.

Part of the secret to doing good video is choosing the right stories to tell with video in the first place. Read that sentence again and you get an important truth about video: it can do some stories, issues and subject matter really well. Everything else, it does badly.

What is video good at?

When I give talks, lectures or workshops about online video I usually start by laying out what video can and cannot do. This is my list of its favourite subjects:

  • explosions, fire, sparks and noise (ever wondered why these always lead the news bulletins?)
  • action and movement: every video must involve someone doing something
  • awe-inspiringly big things like landscapes
  • amazingly small things that our eyes can’t see – but also anything closeup in general
  • human stories and emotion – no matter how complex

What is video bad at?

Human emotions are probably the most complex things out there but video can convey them better than any other medium. When it comes to other complex issues however, video is out of its depth:

  • Politics and meetings: much of it happens behind closed doors, is polemic and involves little physical movement
  • Business, economics and theory: similarly non-visual at first glance
  • Statistics, numbers and data: video and data journalism don’t sit side by side
  • Interviews (yes, really): video is not designed for people sitting down and talking

However, almost everyone involved in video finds themselves working on the latter a lot of the time. The nightly news has to cover politics and the economy. A management accountancy firm has to make videos about management accountancy. We all have to run interviews (do we?)

So the question then is: how do we make this shit interesting?

“There’s no such thing as boring knowledge. Only boring presentation.”

Dan Roam

I start with this quote in mind. Although I’m putting down business, politics and data as video subjects, there is no denying they are hugely interesting subjects in and of themselves. But to make them work on video we have to put in some extra work.There are some tested techniques filmmakers use to inject interest into potentially dry stories – many of these you will recognise from television, where programme makers face this challenge regularly.

In other cases, we are still struggling to make it interesting – so there’s potential for disruption from brave new film makers (that’s you).

.01 humanise

Tell a real human story as access into the issue. Ever wondered why news packages about gas price rises always start with an old lady filling up her kettle and worrying about her winter fuel allowance? That’s how journalists try to get people to care about a story that is actually about oil prices and Russian diplomacy.

This, incidentally is the secret behind great films that promote either non-profits or business. Duckrabbit’s TV campaign for Oxfam uses the real story of a donor to make us care; this series by Phos Pictures uses the same device to advertise -wait for it: a gym. It almost made me sign up, and I live 4,000 miles away.

.02 visualise

If every story should be human, it must also be visual. Video, like photography, graphic design and web design is about using images to convey the message – not words. A common crime of directors is to rely on dialogue, voice over and interviews to tell the story when ideally people should get it with the sound turned off.

At its most simple: if you’re filming an interview with an IT specialist for your website, don’t just film a straight interview. Make it visual: film them at work, going for a walk, cycling to work, eating lunch, playing squash whatever – it’s the eye-candy video is made for. Done well, visually led films can turn an interview with a blogger (snore…) into something quite wonderful.

.03 surprise

Amy O’Leary makes the point in this talk that surprise is a key element to a successful story. We love surprises because they release happy chemicals into our brains. You can hook your viewers on the surprise drug in two ways: you can be clever with your narrative to create a set-up and punchline throughout a piece (difficult) or you can smack them in the face with a wet fish.

For example, if your bread and butter is a weekly video interview with a leader in your field, why not do the interview while they’re getting their haircut? I’m serious. Find an amicable barber and you’ve got something easily set up, that fills its purpose and is visual at the same time…all while sticking annoyingly in your audiences mind. (If you manage to pull it off in your organisation, let me know!)

UPDATE: jump down to the comments section to see how Reuters do this effectively with a strand of their videos

.04 be useful

If you can’t be interesting then at least make sure your video is useful. Some people will sit through a 20 minute panel discussion if they know the information is important to them.

If you can’t even be useful, then for the love of God…

.05 be short

Some people say videos on the web shouldn’t be longer than two minutes. You can definitely tell a good story in less than this. While I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule, I do believe anything longer than five minutes is a result of laziness or ego (please note: I am regularly guilty of both of these).

Does your video have an upside down flying rhino in it? If not, it probably doesn’t warrant being longer than two minutes.

That said, if you’ve got a great human story, that you’re telling visually and is packed full of surprise: then please, I will give you hours of my attention. 

So in summary: if you can’t be interesting, useful or concise, you’ve picked the wrong medium.

The video decision workflow

To help you out I’ve designed this video decision workflow which puts all the above points into place. Start at the top and hopefully it will help you decide whether or not to tell your next story in video. As well as journalists and documentarians, it is also designed very much with commercial factual video in mind too. I know there are a lot of B2B magazines, agencies or industry websites out there wanting to use video but doing it ineffectively.

Please note: although the image has a © symbol on it, I am releasing it under a Creative Commons Licence for attribution. Please takeaway and use, but give credit if you publish it elsewhere. 

Adam Westbrook's Online Video Workflow

Click to enlarge

The most important part of your online video stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on January 30, 2012

What’s the most important thing to consider when making online video?

Is it having a high end DSLR camera with a prime lens? Afterall, if your pictures look pretty and slightly out of focus more people will watch it, right? Nope.

Is it having a really compelling character on a journey we can all relate to? That’s super important – but it’s not the most important thing.

Is it having a rhino suspended upside down from a helicopter? Nope, it’s not even that!

So what’s the most important thing to consider when making online video?

It’s the first ten seconds.

That’s how long you have to win your viewers over. As I mentioned in this article for journalism.co.uk last week, statistics suggest around 20% of people click on from a video after just 10 seconds.

According to Visible Measures, that means if your video gets 1 million views, 200,000 of them didn’t watch past the first ten seconds.

It’s a harsh fact but people are fickle; weeks and months of work, and thousands of dollars invested in a video all stand on the first 10 seconds.

It amazes me then, just how care-free some big publishers are with their first 10 seconds of video.

For example, in a non scientific test, I had a look at some leading online news organisations. The Financial Times, Telegraph Newspaper and CNN all blow their first 10 seconds showing me a pre-roll advert. No thanks guys.

The Guardian loses 4 seconds on its branding ident, even though Guardian videos are not shareable (and so you’ll likely only ever watch it on the Guardian website). That gives them just 6 seconds to make me interested.

So who gets it? Good.is get it – they don’t mess around with branding at the start of their videos and crack straight in. Not always, but usually with a good hookline.

Phos photos, the producers of Last Minutes with Oden get it. In the first 10 seconds they tell us the title, introduce the main character and he says something interesting.

Eliot Rausch/PhosPictures

The exceptions to the rule are the longer, cinematic pieces – for example those produced by MediaStorm: the first 10 seconds still matter, but they’re able to take a slower approach, easing you in & setting the scene. In this case we’re watching for the story, and the opening of Act I is a good place for storytelling nuance.

Getting the first ten seconds right is not easy. Looking back over pieces I’ve produced in the past, I’ve blown the first 10 seconds on all sorts of nonsense. I’m trying to make more active decisions though, and in this short film I recently directed for Kingston University, I used the first 10 seconds to tell a bizarre anecdote that doesn’t fit with what the audience expects, as a way of piquing interest.

Kingston University/Adam Westbrook

So what should you use the first ten seconds for?

  • To show your most arresting images
  • To use your strongest soundbite
  • To surprise your audience
  • To raise a question in the mind of your viewer, setting up “the big reveal
  • To get straight into the story

It is not the place for idents, adverts, cliches, weak pictures, hackneyed introductions, or anything waffly.

This advice has nothing to do with creating good documentaries or crafting engaging narratives – but none of those things matter if you blow your first 10 seconds.

Meet the online video heroes of 2010

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 21, 2010

I’ve got a really good feeling about 2011: online video is going to be huge.

This last year’s been ramping up to that realisation. In the past few months I’ve been approached by journalists, online magazines, charities, corporations and even individuals seeing the enormous potential of online video and wanting to commission films, consulting or training.

Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee.

James Cameron

The real heroes are the people out there already making video. They’re not asking if it’ll make money before picking up their camera.They’re just getting off their arse and creating content. The online videos heroes I’ve chosen have done more than made a pretty film: they’ve used online video in a new way, for journalism, art or even business.

The list is pretty arbitrary though: if you know other, better online video heroes, add them to the list via the comments!

my online video heroes of 2010

1. Phos Pictures

Heading up the list is a group of three young American filmmakers who are showing the rest of us how online documentary ought to be done. They blew me away back in March with Last Minutes With Oden a short about one man and his dog, a piece so good, it was recognised as Vimeo’s documentary of the year. It’s clocked up 1.3million page views at last count. They followed it quickly with Pennies HEART and most recently with The KINGDOM.

I interviewed filmmaker Lukas Korver about the production of their films for blog.fu earlier this year – check it out here.

2. Yoodoo

Coming in from a different line is the UK enterprise Yoodoo.biz, founded by Nick Saalfield and Tony Heywood. I met them both when I invited them to speak at the UK Future of News Meetup back in the spring.

Yoodoo is an online training course for entrepreneurs and new businesses. It is content which could be delivered through text and pictures. Any other producers would probably do just that. But Nick and Tony saw the potential of online video earlier than many, and the free course is delivered through short video interviews.

Disclaimer: I write occasionally for Yoodoo.

3. Food Curated

What you need to know about me is pretty simple. I love food. And I love telling a good story.

That’s how Liza Mosquito de Guia describes the founding of Food Curated: an online video blog all about food. Throughout the year Liza’s been out shooting and editing (she’s a one-man-band) short films in all sorts of food establishments.

Each film is unique and she does a good job of keeping herself out of it, and letting the subjects tell their own story. Her site was nominated for a James Beard Award this year, for best Video Webcast.

4. The Scout

If there’s one thing American new media producers can do better than European ones (in this reporter’s humble opinion) it is designing online magazines that look insanely stylish. Dwell, for example, has an elegant aesthetic which outclasses the Darth Vader-esque front page of Britain’s Monocle.

Another stylish number is The Scout, a food culture and design blogazine from the US. They’re on this list for commissioning several short films about inspiring creatives which leave you drooling. They’re the work of director Brennan Stasiewicz who I interviewed back in the summer. His piece on eccentric chocolatiers the Mast Brothers has been shared very widely, but his film on architects Roman and Williams is also superb.

Hat-tips for dedication to similar online video content this year has to go to The Monocle and Vice’s VBC TV.

5. Honda

Yes, it pains me too. But one of this years online video heroes has to be Honda, for their surprising Live Every Litre campaign.

They hired top director Claudio Von Planta to tell a series of powerful short stories, on the premise of a journey taken while driving a Honda Civic. The vehicles and any Honda promotion takes a back seat to the stories however, which is what makes this campaign quite unique in 2010. In particular, check out this short about a D-Day veteran and his daughter which gives many history documentaries a run for their money.

6.Vimeo

Many of the best online video of the year wouldn’t be possible without Vimeo, the classier alternative to Youtube. But that’s not why they’re on the list. The video sharing site was a late entry, with the release, just last week, of their online video school.

It’s something they’ve been working on all year, according to the site’s blog, and it’s a comprehensive, stylish and fun introduction to shooting video. They even brought in Philip Bloom to teach us how to use our DLSR cameras properly. Again, some training Vimeo could have been tempted to deliver in text or even in paid face-to-face courses.

But they chose to harness the power of online video and create something of far more value instead.

7. Witney TV

OK, straight-up, Witney TV ain’t pretty. They’ve actually chosen the ‘broadcast news’ theme from Garageband for their opening titles, which themselves, look like they’ve been done in Microsoft Paint. There isn’t a huge amount of care taken to making pretty video.

ButWitney TV is one of the first, sustained attempts at online video serving a local audience. And, it’s incredibly popular. Some episodes I’ve seen have 150,000+ views and scoops with Jeremy Clarkson and David Cameron have had them mentioned in the national press. I grew up in Witney, and family members tell me it’s also huge in Japan. Who knew?

They’re showing the rest of the hyperlocal world how it should be done. If you choose to follow in their footsteps, just don’t use Garageband.

8. Tim Johns

BBC radio producer Tim Johns (Disclaimer: he’s a friend) is on the list to represent all the people who’ve picked up a camera and got creative with it this year, again without any desire for reward.

Online video is an unrivalled platform for original drama and comedy, and with a flipcam costing less than £100 it’s possible for anyone to join the party. But how many do? And how many get scared away?

Tim isn’t one of those. He’s just started making films for the hell of it, and for a radio producer, he shows a startling aptitude for visual comedy & storytelling.

.09 VJ Movement

Another online video hero this year is the Dutch social enterprise  VJ Movement.

It launched back in 2009 amid some hype (among video journalists, at least) and since then has got down to the business of building a network of VJs from across the globe. After a recent rebrand this autumn, the VJ Movement have focussed on developing larger scale projects and commissioning films for that project from all over the world.

Personally, I think it’s yet to find its real voice and distinctive style, but this will come with time. For the time being, it is one of the only fully independent platforms commissioning in-depth journalism from outside mainstream circles, and long may that continue.

Disclaimer: I occasionally produce films for the VJ Movement

Lifetime achievement award: TED

And finally, a lifetime achievement award is deserving of one organisation who clearly ‘got’ online video when Youtube was still in nappies.

TED lectures have been around for sometime, but it was only when they started uploading them to Youtube and making them freely available that the organisation’s remarkable talks really started to take off.

They’ve collectively been watched more than 600 million times, and spurred future speakers to up their game, a concept TED boss Chris Anderson called Crowd Accelerated Innovation. In this TED lecture, he predicts online video will have a profound affect on our future. Which begs the question: if you’re not getting in on the fun now, why not?