Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Great online video: The Sartorialist

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on February 3, 2011

The top video pick over in the video .fu library right now is a portrait of the fashion blogger The Sartorialist.

I first saw this one over Christmas and many of you will have already watched it, but I wanted to dissect it a little more and work out its secrets. If you haven’t seen it yet, take the time to watch it through. It’s a short documentary portrait of Scott Schuman, an unassuming sort of guy living in New York. Except for the fact he created and runs one of the most famous blogs on the net.

Directed by Tyler Manson/Visibly Smart Films it’s actually a commission from Intel (you know, the core processor guys) as part of their Visual Life campaign. Like the successful Honda’s Live Every Litre campaign of last year, its success is partly down to the fact the sponsor message takes a back seat to the story.

It’s a good example of a new, but growing, genre in video portraiture, rubbing shoulders with concepts like California Is A Place, Last Minutes With Oden; and portraits of Toni Lebusque and The Mast Brothers. Its secret is in its simplicity: a single interview with a fascinating character which creates the spine of the narrative, weaved in with captured moments, evocative music and gorgeous sequences captured in a cinematic style.

So what do we like about it?

It starts with a classic film convention: someone walking somewhere. We don’t know who they are, or where they’re going, and for that reason we keep watching. The camera does a good job of keeping The Satorialist steady and in focus, and slowing the footage down adds elegance and gravitas to our heroes journey.

Films like these are made up of (I think) a few key elements, which I teach to my own video journalism students at Kingston University:

  • interview
  • scenes
  • sequences
  • and a final category of ‘visual flair’ .

The interview in The Sartorialist drives the narrative, and when we do actually see as well as hear the interview, Manson hasn’t been afraid to let Schuman’s face fill the screen. He knows this will be viewed online, on a small screen, and isn’t afraid to cut off the top and bottom of his subject’s head in order that we really see The Sartorialist’s features. He’s clearly positioned near a large window or soft light, and shallow depth-of-field focuses our eyes on his.

When we watch video online it's important to get features in close-up

The easy trap is to shoot and cut a quick interview (the easy part) and then ‘float’ some footage over it at appropriate places – or to cover the edits. As well as ignoring the visual part of visual storytelling, it’s also extremely boring.

That’s why scenes and sequences are important.

A scene is a bit of reality caught on screen; for those taught in the traditional broadcast way, I’m talking about ‘actuality’; on a documentary project at The Southbank Centre last year, David Dunkley-Gyimah used to talk to me about ‘capturing moments’. The Sartorialist is brought to life through these captured moments – where we see a bit of reality unfold, unhindered, before our eyes. For example at around 02’30 into this film, we watch as Schuman spies two women at a junction, and approaches them to take a photograph.

Seeing this action unfold before our eyes shows us how he gets his shots…far more effective than interview where Schuman tells us how he does it.

A 'captured moment' of reality, as Schuman gets a photograph. We see for ourselves how he works.

Before you choose a story to tell this way – or in anyway visually with video – you should be sure these moments happen and that you’ll be able to capture them. If you’re making a film about a cyclist, then you must show us footage of them cycling no excuses. If you’re making a film about a doctor carrying out life saving surgery in Tanzania, then we’d better see it on screen. If, for whatever reason, you don’t think you can get scenes, then ditch the project. Perhaps it’s a story best told in words, audio or stills rather than video.

Finally, sequences are the bread and butter of any good video storytelling. Certainly a convention in television and cinema, I still think they are vital for online video storytelling too. A sequence of shots showing one continuous action brings us into the film and in Vin Ray’s words ‘heightens the viewers’ involvement’ in the story.

Here, Manson devises an aesthetically pleasing sequence of The Sartorialist going to get his hair cut before hitting the streets of New York. My guess is this is something Schuman does regularly, and in presenting this sequence the film makers are showing us this truth, without telling us.

The Sartorialist's haircut is presented in a sequence of shots including wide-shots and closeups.

On top of this, there is a palette of other treatments open to filmmakers, including things like montages or straight GVs, which can be used at will. But I think without and interview, scene and sequences, a film has little to it. But as The Sartorialist shows, these three elements, as well as a compelling character and a great journey are pretty much all you need to for your online video to get viewed thousands of times.

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