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

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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.

Video .fu is a a growing collection of great factual online video – click here to subscribe and recommend films!