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.

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

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Can blogs create change?

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 2, 2010

Journalism aside, do blogs make a difference?

Today, two victories for two campaigners who have been using blogs to get their message across, heaping pressure on the establishment and building a community of support.

Fighting the law…

Firstly, in Hull in the North East of England, John Hirst also known as the Jailhouse Lawyer won a victory he has been waiting five years for, with reports in the press that the British government have (reluctantly) decided to give prisoners the vote. It comes after John won a landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights back in 2005, which ruled Britain’s disenfranchisement of prisoners violated their human rights.

Now whatever you think about whether prisoners should have the vote, John’s legal victory did not mean a change in the law like it should have. The previous Labour government stalled on the issue quite shamefully, and led to people like me making photofilms like this.

For a background on this story, check out this film I shot for the VJ Movement back in May 2010.

From his small terrace house in Hull, John persisted with his campaign and his blog became his main voice. He blogged everyday and built up a not insignificant following. He’s been interviewed on countless news programmes, and as I said earlier this year, he’s even been able to make money from advertising deals on the blog.

…and fighting companies

[UPDATE December 2010: WordPress took down the original blog, but it has now been moved to this address.]

Secondly, and closer to home, my mum and her partner Toni have finally been awarded a claim from financial company Welbeck Wealth, after a persistent campaign via a blog. Owed several thousand pounds, and ignored via the usual routes, they started Welbeck Group, I Want My Money Back!, and blogged regularly about their treatment.

Toni’s clever use of SEO and a growing readership soon put the blog in the top three results when you Googled Welbeck Wealth. As you can imagine, this irked the company somewhat, who – quite remarkably – threatened to sue for defamation (a claim they soon retracted). More importantly, Toni’s blog brought out a community of other unhappy customers, and even at one stage, a whistleblower, who gave her an interview. She was, in some ways, acting like a consumer journalist on this one story.

And today, the company finally paid out – again, reluctantly.

Neither victory would have been possible without the dogged persistence of both John and Toni, who kept going, even when it seemed no-one else was interested anymore. But online publishing – free, quick and easy – gave them another weapon to change the world.

Can blogs create change? Maybe, just maybe.

Another rare work update..

Posted in Adam by Adam Westbrook on September 23, 2010

It’s been quiet on the blog so far in September, as I’ve been working hard starting and completing around half a dozen new projects (who said multitasking couldn’t be done?!)

I know it’s not what you stop by here for, so I’ll keep it brief.

Some films

Two commissions from the VJ Movement have kept me very busy this month. The first, a challenging story on the uncertain fate of refugees in Britain, was published a week ago. I spent some time with a Kurdish refugee who doesn’t know whether she’ll be kicked out of the UK. Her legal files are in a pile of boxes somewhere in south London; she’s in York. Click here to watch it.

An article on the closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice also appears in this week’s edition of Big Issue In The North.

A second commission, on the surprisingly expensive problem of Japanese Knotweed, is delivered this week. I’ve had fun trekking through woodland, stalking through quarantine facilities and taking a look at the new Olympic site on this one.

Some more films

Meanwhile, studio .fu, my production company is slowly gathering pace. I’ve been working on building a portfolio of work, and building relationships with potential clients too. I’ve finally completed a short about the artist Toni Lebusque, and I am delivering two films for two clients this week (phew!).

Great fun has also been had beginning a series with presenter Matt Walters about green living…which began by filming his car being demolished – I’ll share when it’s up!

Some words and sounds

I’ve been appearing in various forms elsewhere on the internet. Check out my views on paying for journalism on the Tomorrow’s News Tomorrow’s Journalists blog; I’ve also appeared at owni.eu (in French) and the European Journalism Centre this month. More time is being taken up by blog.fu, studio .fu’s own storytelling blog. And I’m also becoming slowly addicted to Tumblr too.

And a couple of weeks back I appeared alongside Richard Wilson and Jon Slattery in Judith Townend’s Meeja Law podcast. It’s called I’m a Blogger Get Me Out of Here and here’s my segment talking about being a blogger and keeping on the right side of the law. (Click on the play button to listen)

Social mediary

I’ve clocked up more track-miles talking to journalists and academics about social media. I was in Glasgow at the start of the month talking about how universities can use social media more; a couple of days later I had the privilege of running a training session at Trinity University College in Leeds. More training plans are in the pipeline as we speak.

Next Generation Journalist

There’s some really cool Next Generation Journalist stuff on the way in the next week or so. I shot interviews with several of the interviewees for the book – you’ll get to see them soon. And there’s also a Facebook group to join. Don’t forget copies are still available – and now there’s five good reasons to get a copy too!

And back to the classroom

And as September rolls around its time to think about the new academic year; I am returning to Kingston University in London on a more permanent basis this month, and teaching both undergraduate and post-graduate video journalism modules.

It’s also required me to return to the classroom as a student, and take a Post-graduate certificate in Higher Education Teaching. Crumbs!

I promise to keep blogging useful stuff as much as I possibly can. And as always, thanks for reading!

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