Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The upside down rhino rule of great video storytelling

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on January 9, 2012

What does it take to make a story stick? To make the audience care enough to click “share”?

It’s not uncommon for clients to ask video producers or their PR agencies to “do them a viral”. But to even try to predict such a thing is to misunderstand its very nature.

Speaking of  ‘sharing’ things around, nearly 200,000 people have shared this short film about WWF’s work transporting rhinos around South Africa. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a look, and of course it’s in the video .fu library of extraordinary video storytelling.

© Green Renaissance/WWF

You might think the way it is shot is impressive (it is), marvel at the high quality lenses used, or the style of editing. But there’s one thing this video has, that no other does, and it’s the reason it has gone viral: an upside-down rhino, flying in the air.

The ‘upside-down rhino rule’ of video storytelling

In all my days I never thought I’d ever see a rhino being suspended, upside-down, beneath a helicopter. But there you have it, right there before your very eyes.

And this is what video is for.

Video is there to take us places we’ve never been, show us things we never thought we’d get to see. It gives us access to people we’ll never get to speak to, close-ups of things our own eyes can’t see, it lets people share ideas we would never normally hear, and see what it’s like to be someone living in poverty on the opposite side of the world.

It is not there for long interviews with CEOs, or coverage of conferences, or – dare I say it – vox pops.

Tell that to all the newspapers, charities, businesses and the like jumping into the video game to churn out more of just this kind of stuff, and then wondering why no-one watches it.

The upside-down-rhino, though, means different things to different people. To a small community, seeing a politician apologise for embezzling their tax dollar, as opposed to reading about it, has the rhino-factor. So does a video tutorial in using HTML to people who need to see it to understand it.

The next time you commission, or start to make a video, ask yourself this: for your audience, will it have the equivalent of a frickkin’ upside-down rhino being suspended from a helicopter?

No? Then put the camera down and go find a story that does.

How to keep up in 2012

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on January 2, 2012

So a new year is upon us, and as usual, it’s a good time for reflection and making big plans for the year ahead. 

There’ll be some small tweaks to how I do all this blogging in 2012, so briefly, here’s a quick round-up of how to keep in touch with everything I do this year.

In return for your attention, I promise to keep writing useful practical advice on multimedia production, plus ideas and advice on publishing and entrepreneurship.

The blog

This blog now reaches between 5 and 10,000 people a week which is really nice.  The posts here are usually much more thought out than anything else I write, and focus – as much as possible – on the doggedly practical.

Make sure you subscribe by putting your email address in the box to the right of this page. It’s free, and you should only ever get an email whenever a new post is written.

You can also keep in touch over RSS – click on this link to grab the rss feed for this blog.

Tumblr

I started using Tumblr more in 2011, and it’s a much more informal place for raw ideas, quotes, thoughts and more reflection. I wrote a post looking back on 2011, which was more personal than you’d expect here, as well as explaining why I’ve quit Facebook. There’s a very small, but growing, number of readers – if you’d like to be one of them, just follow me, the tumblr way, here.

Twitter

If you want to keep up anywhere, Twitter is probably still the best place, although I’ll be tweeting a little less in 2012. @AdamWestbrook is the link to click.

Video .fu

The video.fu library of  remarkable video storytelling is growing over at Vimeo. I add any awesome factual video I find – and usually go onto to write about it here. But subscribers see the videos as soon as they’re added: a nice way to keep your inspiration flowing.

The website & journal

Finally, there’ll soon be some changes to my home page on the web, with a new design, and the addition of a web-design journal, where I’ll be creating blogazine features throughout the year.

That’s it! Here’s to an amazing 2012.

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2011 in online video projects

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 22, 2011

Continuing my look back at work I’ve done in 2011, here’s some of video I’m most proud of this year.

I’ve been busy all year working on some interesting commissions for lots of clients; I’ve made short documentaries, produced interviews, made 10 minute long features and more. Although the clients have always been happy with the final pieces as I’ve delivered them, looking at this collection, I can see room for lots of improvements in 2012.

[NOTE: If you’re reading this in an email, click on the link to view the videos on the website!]

EcoMattic 3: home-made methane

The third film in a web series following Matt and his over-the-top attempts to cut back on his carbon emissions. He’s had his car crushed, tried recycling everything he owns. In this film, shot on the last sunny day of the year, he tries building a methane converter to power his house.

Attribution/ShareAlike

You can read a behind-the-scenes Storify of this project here.

Green Alliance: Bringing It Home

UK environmental think-tank The Green Alliance asked me to produce a film to support the launch of a major piece of research into peoples’ attitudes towards going green. It found some fascinating insight into what makes us tick when it comes to things like recycling and using plastic bags. I combined research footage, motion graphics and interviews for this piece which was shown to MPs at a launch in Westminster, as well as going online.

© 2011 Green Alliance/Adam Westbrook

MediaTrust: Untold Stories

This was the only piece of video which I produced for television this year (I work almost exclusively in online video). I spent some time with a British charity MENTER who support asylum seekers, and other minorities in the East of England.

© 2011 MediaTrust/MENTER/Adam Westbrook

Global Business Challenge China

A highlight of 2011 was traveling to Chengdu in southern China to produce a documentary about the Global Business Challenge. Nearly 100 students from around the world came together to battle for the crown and tensions ran high.

It was pretty inspiring to see such young ambitious people from places like Sri Lanka, South Africa and China showing their mettle with a determination young people in the UK don’t really seem to have: it makes you realise where the power in the future will lie.

© 2011 CIMA/Adam Westbrook

myNewsBiz: can journalists be entrepreneurs?

To promote our nationwide entrepreneurial journalism competition in 2011 we produced a short series of features, where some of the UK’s best entrepreneurial publishers shared their secrets.

Attribution/ShareAlike

And just for fun…the Absolute Radio Mobility Scooter Grandprix

Probably one of the more bizarre commissions I had in 2011. UK national radio station Absolute asked me to join their grand prix race through Central London …on mobility scooters for their breakfast show. It was one of the earliest shoots too: we had to do the race at 5am to avoid the police, and Buckingham Palace security.

© 2011 Absolute Radio/Adam Westbrook

Next week I’ll be looking at what went well and not so well for me in business terms, and thinking about my big plans for 2012. If you’re serious about doing great stuff and making a difference – whatever your field – then I highly recommend taking a good bit of time out to reflect.

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The “big reveal” and why it makes your stories better

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 5, 2011

Watch these two videos I have picked out of the video .fu library of awesome video storytelling:

They’re both quite memorable vignettes, one about loss, the other about finding someone. But they both have something in common: what you could call the big reveal – and it’s a potent storytelling tool.

The big reveal is about setting up a moment in your film where you surprise your audience by revealing a crucial part of your story: the answer to the mystery, the ‘will they live happily ever after?’ type question – or sometimes just something as simple as ‘what’s in the box?’.

To do this, however, requires going against an important rule in journalism: it requires you to hold something back from your audience.

Traditionally journalists structure stories in the classic inverted pyramid: most important stuff at the top, then adding less vital information as the story goes down. In broadcast, journalists often use a ‘figure-of-eight’ pattern to achieve the same effect. Both of these formulas are about giving the audience the big facts right at the top.

But the two films above do the opposite. They hold back information for as long as possible.

In Wait For Me, there are two reveals: firstly a short one at the beginning: revealing what’s inside the box; and then right at the end, revealing the details of her son’s disappearance.

In the Guardian’s Soulmates story, the fact this is an online dating story isn’t revealed until a minute in; then there is a lovely visual reveal, when we discover the person she is painting is her partner.

The big reveal is a good storytelling tool because by setting up a mystery, by holding information back – even for just a minute – you pique your audiences’ attention: they want to know what’s in the box, and will hang on to find out – in other words, they’re more likely to watch your story all the way through.

The narrative arc of the “Heros Quest” guide to storytelling is so successful because it begins by setting up a big question: will Luke Skywalker kill Darth Vader? Will the Man on the Wire make it across the Twin Towers? And it gives the audience an opportunity to figure things out for themselves, and feel the reward that comes with it.

The US screenwriter Billy Wilder said it best (the quote, at least, is often attributed to him):

“If you give the audience two plus two, and you let them add it up to it equals four, they’ll love you forever.”

It comes at the expense of direct, clear information – what news is supposed to be about. So it’s not something for the 6 o’clock news to adopt.

But of course, we’re not the 6 o’clock news – we’re the new generation of online video storytellers. Let’s experiment with the formula a little bit.

The journalists winning the race – to the bottom

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 4, 2011

The problem with a race to the bottom is that you might win.

Seth Godin

I.

Seth Godin’s words (buried in this blog post from just a few days ago) must seem painfully apt for any one of the journalists on newsdesks at The Guardian, Sky News, the Sun and the Daily Mail today.

I was in the pub celebrating a friend’s birthday on Monday night when my flatmate checked the Guardian app on his phone just before 9pm. “Amanda Knox has lost her appeal” he said, “bloody hell”.

Guardian app on my flatmate's iPhone

For several minutes we talked about how terrible that must be for her, and how dodgy the police case was – until, that is, I checked Twitter. At which point it got confusing.

“People on Twitter are saying she’s been freed” I said, counting the dozen or so independent tweets from journalists, friends and colleagues.

“Are you sure..?” my flatmate said, reaching for his iPhone.

II.

And so the sorry affair of the obtuse judge, the slow translater and the trigger-happy hacks unfolded.

In this mess lies a really important lesson for online publishers of all creeds, entrepreneurs and young journalists. The race to be faster than your competitors is the same as the race to be cheaper than them: it’s a race to the bottom. There is only one loser in this race and it’s usually you.

I remember an entrepreneur giving me advice last year when I launched my online video production studio: “you don’t want to compete on price – ever.”

So if you run, or want to run, your own publication or business, heed this advice: aim to be the be best: the most accurate, the most accessible, the best produced, the most beautiful – not the fastest and not the cheapest.

Your work should be the Coutts of journalism. Last night the Daily Mail et al joined the ranks of Wonga.com.

Don’t get me wrong, these were one-off mistakes, made by otherwise talented, experienced and honest journalists. But they are mistakes which are only made in a newsroom where the overriding attitude is to be faster. The ethos created the haste, not the journalists themselves.

In a newsroom where quality is king, the hands would have stayed.

III.

I’m convinced if you’re to succeed as an entrepreneurial journalist (or whatever we want to call it), the only way to get ahead of the pack is by betting on quality. Sure, successful new businesses like the Huffington Post and Mashable gamble on quantity but to succeed here you need legacy, or lots of money.

Brian Storm, founder of MediaStorm, made the quality point really well on a recent visit to London. He makes sure everything MediaStorm publishes is as good as it can be – even if it means going several months between each new piece. As he put it: “why be part of the noise?”

The mainstream media (especially those who make speed their tagline) are trapped in this race and can’t reinvent themselves. But that leaves a nice space for the next generation of journalists with a remit of quality.

Whatever kind of journalism you do, aim to produce the best. That is a race to the top: a race worth winning.

Six original ways to use online video

Posted in Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on August 1, 2011

I’ve said it before: everyone’s getting on the online video bandwagon. There are huge opportunities out there for film makers, video journalists and motion graphic designers, if you know where to look.

There’s also a fantastic opportunity to break new ground, and use video in new ways. Here are six different ways online video is being employed around the web.

Six original ways to use online video

NOTE: this is a video-heavy post; if you’re receiving this blog post as a newsletter, make sure you click on the link to see all of the embeds.

.01 product launch

OK, this one isn’t so much original as obligatory these days. If you’re launching a new website, product or service, you almost certainly need a video to promote it. Using online video can serve two key functions: firstly you can use it to generate an emotional response (usually, “this new thing is amazing!”) or you might just need it to explain something complicated.

En vogue right now is motion graphics and kinetic typography, such as this new launch video for infographics site Visual.ly; if you do it, try and use it alongside a narrative.

 

Don’t feel obliged to go down this route though. Live action works just as well. I really like this Wes Anderson inspired ditty from FireSpotter Labs to launch their new restaurant review app Nosh.me.

If you’re an online film maker, startup videos are a good stock of work: in the last year alone I’ve helped produce launch films for TheMediaBriefing, I Am Creative (not published yet) and I’m currently working on two more for launch in the autumn.

.02 training & explainers

Video, although not naturally designed to convey complex information, is excellent at explaining things – if put in the right hands. It’s difficult though – my personal project to explain the AV Referendum this year took some serious cognitive juice to avoid it drifting away.

 

Australian TV show Hungry Beast are masters at explaining complex stuff to young people: this explanation of the Stuxnet virus is one of the best things I’ve seen online all year.

 

A clear leader here is Vimeo – who’ve published scores of excellent training videos, explaining everything from ND filters to tripods.

.03 404 page

Online video on a 404 page? Seriously? You betcha. Serious credit again to Alex Cornell at ISO50/FireSpotter Labs for this gem of an idea. They’ve shot their own action film to appear every time you hit a Page Not Found.  It’s all filmed in one shot, but took some setting up to get right. I’ve never seen this done before, but I imagine it’ll appear all over the place before too long.

And the purpose? No-one likes seeing a 404 page – why not turn it into a treat? It makes your website more memorable.

.04 profiles & portraits

Here’s a little tip for any young film makers looking for work. There are loads of companies out there moving into creating online video and need people to do it properly. There’s a huge market in both online publishing (companies producing their own web content) as well as internal communications.

Interestingly, a lot of them use their online video space to produce simple interviews. After all, it’s quick, cheap and the easiest thing to learn. But actually, interviews are pretty boring, even in video. The more original video producers are instead producing portraits or profiles – that is, telling a story as a (legitimate) way to entice viewers.

For example, software company 37Signals have just advertised for a video producer position in Chicago, but they say explicitly they don’t want to just film interviews: “Testimonials are usually boring – we want to be sure to avoid anything boring.”

The challenge for these companies is firstly recognising portraits and narratives are better than quick interviews, and in finding the people good enough to do them. Make sure they know that’s you.

.05 create a blockbuster

OK, never mind portraits, explainers or product launches – why not suck up the balls and go all out, producing a mega blockbuster?

That’s what visual effects house Red Giant Software did to demonstrate their range of colour correction packages. The result is an epic story called Plot Device which cleverly references the archetypes of Hollywood cinema and shows off the product in a way you didn’t expect.

No deadpan screencasts here: you can see what the software does, at the same time being taken on a memorable journey. It takes a talented director and cast to make sure this doesn’t come off as seriously lame, but done right the results speak for themselves.

.06 behind the scenes

And finally, another new way to use video is to produce behind the scenes films of you, your business, or client. Transparency is big in demand these days and video is great way to show people that you’re human, and you have fun doing what you do. As well as adding a face to the name/brand it can be an effective way to add a personal touch.

UK national radio station Absolute Radio recently hired me to shoot this behind-the-scenes piece about a stunt they pulled in central London back in June. It shows all the fun, effort and camaraderie that people tune in to hear every morning.

Several of the above films have their own behind the scenes films, including Plot Device and Nosh.me. Hey, even Peter Jackson’s doing it!

Of course, behind the scenes video can also be a neat way to bring in some extra revenue – in the form of a DVD release or similar.

So the takeaway? Online video is not television, so why make it mimic the idiot box all the time? Video is far more flexible and hopefully this post has shown you some of the pioneers who are pushing it forward. Now go and join them!

Why being brave with online video pays off

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on July 18, 2011

About this time every year, universities across the UK prepare for ‘clearing’: a space of  chaos where students who didn’t get the grades they expected hurriedly try to arrange to get onto a different uni course.

It’s big business for some universities because it gives them a chance to snap up students (and therefore cash) who were originally going somewhere else.

Now, the marketing teams spend thousands of pounds producing glossy adverts, like this one and this one, and then spend tens of thousands more to get it on television.

It’s the numbers game that ‘old’ marketing is based on: shout in the face of enough passing strangers and some will buy your product. What an outdated, expensive and arguably ineffectual way of doing things.

Take a look at this lo-fi approach by the University of Lincoln.

The humour speaks directly to the prospective students, and was clearly made by students at Lincoln, rather than a distant production company. It was a very brave decision by the university’s marketing team (especially when you understand all the clearance/bureaucracy that goes with universities) but I think it’s paid off.

No surprise this one’s gone viral, getting the University of Lincoln more attention than a glossy ad on television.

That’s why you should be brave with your online video.

Hattip: Dave Lee

The best journalism articles you might have missed

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on June 30, 2011

Image: crsan on Flickr

Another three months have flown by and it’s been a busy quarter with lots of new articles on online video and entrepreneurial journalism on the blog.  

It’s been a bit quieter this spring as I’ve been working on several film and training commissions.

A normal (twice-weekly) blog service should resume shortly. In the mean time, here’s some of the most popular articles on this site since March. For earlier ones, click here.

Online video

What makes you a visual storyteller? – we talk a lot about ‘visual storytelling’ but what does it mean? And how do you do it?

The end of television and what that means for you – why I think television’s days are numbered (and why that’s great)

Five principles every video editor needs to know – from the 1920s, the earliest principles from the masters of cinema.

How to let transitions tell the story – how can our use of transitions make us better storytellers?

How I used motion graphics to explain the AV referendum – In May I produced a film to explain the UK referendum.

Two amazing video stories about loss – two more examples of extraordinary video storytelling.

My process for developing new video projects – I explain how I develop my visual storytelling ideas.

How to make online video that really engages audiences (and how to utterly fail it it) – one issue, two very different ways of using online video.

Entrepreneurial journalism

Can we teach journalists to be entrepreneurial? – I argue we must teach journalists to be entrepreneurial – for their own sake, and for the profession.

The age of the online publisher – and five people who are embracing it – some inspiring examples of people who have become online publishers.

Five big reasons to run a small news business – I explain the big advantages of running an intentionally small business.

Why layers could be the secret to improving online video – some ideas I helped come up with for the future of video with Mozilla and the Guardian.

Why do so many student journalists call themselves ‘aspiring’? – would you hire a journalist who called themselves ‘aspiring’?

What does the myNewsBiz competition tell us about entrepreneurial journalism? – as our nationwide search for entrepreneurial journalists wraps up, I look back at what we’ve learned.

How to make online video that engages people

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on June 20, 2011

Online video is growing: in consumer demand for it, but also in the desire for organisations to start using it. I work with lots of think-tanks, NGOs, businesses and publishers who all want to do more online video.

Lots of companies will tell you that you must start doing online video, and that it’s a sure-fire way to hook, engage and convince your viewers.

In many cases that is the case…but onlyand only – if it is done well.

Plastic video

Here’s a story of two online videos each competing for your attention – and your support. The first is a trailer for the 2010 independent documentary Bag It directed by Susan Bereza. It follows the journey of an ‘ordinary guy’ trying to find out the consequences of our reliance on plastic, and trying to cut it out of his life.

It’s got the key elements of a successful documentary here: a character, a journey, a narrative. We aren’t told about plastic – we are shown it. The voice over is conversational and informal: he speaks to us not at us.

Anyway, Bag It unsurprisingly irked some organisations in the US, including the American Chemistry Council which ‘represents the American chemical industry’ – who of course make plastic. They had some points they wanted to clarify about Bag It. And someone convinced them they needed to do it in online video.

This is a classic case of online video being done badly. Firstly, in style it sets out to mimic either  a TV news piece or a political campaign message – neither of which the public trust. We get a wholesome American guy (with a quite sinister stare) talking to us in a measured – but utterly unengaging way: he is talking at us, not to us.

And that’s all he does – talk. Our only break from him is some lazy b-roll of cars and milk cartons, and some amateur graphics. It is lacking visuals, it is lacking a story, and it fails utterly to hold our attention or make us care.

You could even argue this film harms their message: yes, online video can do damage as much as it can do good.

So let’s look at the stats. At the time of writing, the Bag It trailer had 46,900 views on Vimeo. The American Chemistry Council had 188 – a mere 250th of the audience. Now, I’m willing to accept that Bag It may have had some marketing support behind it, especially after a festival run. But I think the bulk of Bag It’s views come from that fact it is worth sharing.

The American Chemistry Council wanted to get their message across, and thought that online video would be the best way to do it. But online video done badly will, at best, skip off of the surface of the pond unnoticed; at worst, subject your brand to ridicule or heavy fire.

H/T: the digital naturalist

Great online video: Wait for Me & Goodnight Moon

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 5, 2011

Not one, but two more superb examples of online video storytelling were added to the video.fu library this week, both stories of families coping with loss.

Both demonstrate  a great sense of visual storytelling – as well as a too-often overlooked rule: a familiarity/relationship with the people you’re interviewing. There are more than 20 other great films in the video.fu library at the moment – you can subscribe here.

Wait For Me/Red Light Films

The first I actually saw about two years ago, but it took me a while to track down. Wait For Me is about a mother’s long vigil for her son who disappeared while backpacking in India nearly 30 years ago.

Very intimate and well produced, but also full of little tips and tricks other visual storytellers can apply. It opens with a sequence of shots showing a box being opened. This immediately piques our interest: ‘what’s in the box?’ and it’s a similar device to showing your main character heading somewhere – we know there is something about to be revealed and it engages us.

Next we hear our character read from an old letter, a lovely device, which explains the story without having to literally describe it. The fact she cannot finish the letter shows us too how emotionally raw her loss is.  Well treated archive footage forms the bulk of the visuals, which serve to show us more about who the missing son is; the faded 8mm stock a subconscious hint to fading memories.

Finally, rather than using more full-screen images of the son, the director films a small passport photograph in the mother’s hand. A clever device to place the photograph in the real world.

Goodnight Moon/Margaret Cheatham Williams

And secondly, on a similar theme, is Margaret Cheatham Williams’ intimate portrait of her own family as they lose her grandmother to Parkinson’s disease.

The personal nature of this film must have made it hard to make: the two main subjects are her own family. Margaret deftly mixes video with stills, and in particular brings in some nice ‘actually’ at two points to break up the interviews.

In particular there are nice references to visual symmetry, with shots of her grandparents together in bed, repeated later with their daughter Katie. I also love the tight framing on interviews and a confident use of lighting too, which tells its own story.Again faded 8mm home movie footage takes us back to happier times, with the memory too starting to fade.

The video.fu library is constantly growing, curating some of the most exceptional online video storytelling. There are more than 20 films there right now – make sure you subscribe to see them before they hit the blog!

Great online video: Gold’s Strong Stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on March 10, 2011

Newspapers and magazines are still, I think, hesitant to use online video in new and creative ways. It doesn’t help that many are trying to cut costs, but the other problem is a creative one: most video journalism still mimics television.

It’s not the first time on this blog I’ve highlighted great online video coming not from journalists, but from businesses. They’re the ones picking up the mantle of of video storytelling, embracing it and providing work for reporters, film makers and editors.

A week or so back I added a prime example of this to video .fu, our library of great online video storytelling.Production company Phos Pictures were approached by – of all people – a gym. They used documentary-style, portrait storytelling: not to create a naff advert for the gym, but to engage us with the stories of the people who use it.

The videos themselves are not embeddable, but here’s a promo produced by director Eliot Rausch.

You can’t gleam a huge amount from the trailer, so head over to the main site and watch one of the short films on there.

What’s the point?

You might recognise the people who produced these films – they’re the guys behind Last Minutes With Oden (Vimeo’s Documentary of the Year 2010) and Pennies HEART, both of which feature in the video .fu library.

The Gold’s Gym films utilise many of the same strengths: a single, engaging character, on an internal and external journey. We hear their voice, but don’t always see them speak. The characters are carefully chosen, and interviewed extraordinarily well: their words are almost poetic, and you’d think they were scripted if they weren’t delivered so naturally.

This comes from a skill which really sets the Phos Pictures team apart: they know their subjects intimately.

Here’s what Lukas Korver said about making Last Minutes With Oden on my other storytelling blog, blog.fu:

I think the best advice we can give is to always keep your eyes open for fresh characters and stories, they are all around us.  Take a few moments out of your day and talk to interesting people you pass in your daily life. If you’re intentions are good most people are quite receptive to being on film, once they get to know you and your intentions.

One of the best parts about being a filmmaker is getting away from the bubble  you create at your desk around your computer and go out into the real world and do some real face to face interaction.  Most days I’m not shooting I live a pretty solitary life so its great to break out of that routine of controlled isolation and experience life, or in our case as a filmmakers, experience others experiencing life.

These videos prove that engaging, documentary storytelling has uses beyond the boundaries of news and current affairs. Why does that matter for us? Well, it provides a possible new revenue stream, which can potentially fund independent journalism. Not only that, it provides a great opportunity to practice this very challenging craft.

It’s a lesson for journalists, but really it’s a lesson for businesses big and small: online video done well can bring your business to life.

Great online video: Live The Language

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on February 14, 2011

Time to dig down into another awesome piece of online video from the video .fu library.

This week it’s a brilliant commission from the EF Language School, and although it is technically a commercial, for us online video journalists there is a lot we can learn about telling an engaging story.

Director  Gustav Johannson has created  short films for London, Barcelona and Beijing – but because it’s Valentine’s Day – let’s head to Paris, the city of romance and one of my favourite places.

OK, very sweet right? But of course, there’s more to it than that.

Firstly these shorts tell us about the power of collaboration. Johannson directed these films, but they were shot by Niklas Johannson and the pitch perfect typography was created by Albin Holmquist. All three clearly have unique talents and together their work is much more impressive. Collaboration works well for a lot of documentary makers too – just look at the work of Phos Pictures, a similar collaboration between director, videographer and editor.

Let’s look at the film itself. Firstly, each one has a central character (in each case a new student arriving in a city to take an EF Language course) and we follow them on their journey of discovery through the city. Character & journey: it’s a format as old as the hills but still as effective today.

A character is identified immediately - she's on a journey

What I really love about these films are they are a great example of visual storytelling. It’s a phrase bandied around all the time, and too often, people mistake anything shot on video as visual storytelling. But they’re wrong. This documentary about car crash victims in Qatar is not visual storytelling – it’s a series of talking heads and static shots. It won’t get watched as much as a result.

Visual storytelling is playing with images to create a narrative. These films are full of them – for example these two shots teach us the French for left & right (à gauche & à droite) in a visual way: our character walks one way, gets lost and walks the other way.

Left or right? Visual storytelling is about using pictures creatively

Similarly, this montage of French confectionary is used to reveal the words for different colours. This could have been done with a collection of shots of different objects – but using the same object in different colours makes a visual point.

Again, this is visual storytelling in action - a montage of colours

And finally, what wraps up the film to make it far more engaging and memorable? That’s right, girl meets boy – or in other words: a story.

Drawing a narrative into the films, instead of just a music montage, captures our attention, engages us, and we put ourselves into the position of the protagonist. Interestingly all four of these films contain this same ‘go abroad fall in love’ narrative, a cynical way perhaps to bring in more customers. Either way, it’s a reminder that without a story our films are mere shadows of what they could be.

I featured this film in the video .fu library last week: if you want to see more awesome online video before it gets mentioned on this blog, be sure to subscribe to the channel!

And hurrah - a story! Boy meets girl is an old one, but still works, right?

So what do you think? What else can video journalists and documentary storytellers learn here?