Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

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?

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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