Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Your online video shopping list

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on August 20, 2012

There’s an old analogy, which I can trace back to the 1990s, that says making a film is a lot like making a meal. 

It goes like this:

“You choose your recipe (subject and angle), write out a shopping list (treatment and storyboard), get some money (you need more than you think) and go shopping for the raw materials (shoot the pictures and record the sound). Then you return to the kitchen (cutting room) and start cooking (editing). The meal is made in the kitchen; the film in the cutting room.”

Harris Watts, On Camera

I like this analogy a lot, but it’s worth unpacking for 21st century video storytellers.

Choose your recipe

The big point here is you must have an idea of what your film is going to look like when its finished. You must be able to picture the opening, the closing and perhaps some key sequences in the middle. You must be able to close your eyes and hear your  potential interviewees talking, imagining what kind of things they’ll say. You should have a feel for the pace of the film – is it fast or slow? Upbeat or sad?

Ultimately your story should have a theme – a controlling idea of some kind – which you can summarise in a single sentence. You wouldn’t make a risotto for the first time without knowing what one looks like would you?

Write a shopping list

This always finds its way into my workflow, and I teach it to students and clients as well. Before I start filming I mind-map all the elements and use it to plan the shoot. I draw out the key ingredients: the interview, the sequences, the scenes, the other b-roll and anything else like music and graphics. Then from each of these segments I brainstorm ideas for how each one could play out.

A “shopping list” I drew for a short documentary in 2011

So around the interview bit I come up with different ideas for where I could conduct my interviews; I think about what questions I’ll ask. It helps me anticipate any problems which might come up during the shoot. Your first idea is rarely the best, so try and come up with unique takes on each segment.

I’m running another online video basics course with journalism.co.uk in September 2012. Click here for details.

Get some money

The quote above was written for television in the 1990s with its big budgets. These days I’d say video can cost less than you think. Certainly the hurdles to creating and publishing video have fallen through the floor. If you’ve got an iPhone or a flipcam – or even a webcam – the power to tell visual stories is in your hand.

Shop for raw materials

Here’s the big thing: the shoot is like the shopping expedition. You are merely collecting items to edit later on. This isn’t to belittle the shoot and the hard work that goes into it (you can’t make a good meal with bad ingredients, after all). However, to get obsessed by equipment and spend ages on complex super-slick camera moves misses the point: the film is made in the edit. It is the combination and contrast of images that tell the story, rarely the images on their own.

The rules of a good shopping trip apply: have a shopping list, know your way around the supermarket and get in and out as quickly as possible. You want more than enough of each ingredient so you can choose the very best to include in your meal. That means shooting more b-roll than you think you need, and shooting a longer interview than you’ll use.

Start cooking

As I said the real flavours of your film won’t emerge until the edit. That’s the magic moment when you combine your ingredients to create something greater than the sum of its parts. In video we are talking about the combination of images to create an idea in the audiences’ mind. Why does that matter? Because then the story doesn’t happen on the screen, in happens in someone’s brain: they own a bit of it, and it draws them in.

Too often – especially in journalism – we take the inverted triangle approach and tell our audience everything, instead letting them figure it out for themselves.

Anyway, once you’ve stirred all your ingredients together, leave it to simmer for 20 mins and add salt to flavour. But not too much.

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

On dialogue

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 10, 2012

It is well acknowledged in cinema that the purest form of visual storytelling contains no dialogue. 

I say well acknowledged: I’ve seen it said by film makers like David Mamet and Andrew Stanton, but hardly ever applied. It might explain the success of The Artist in this year’s Oscar rout, but that is one of only a handful of silent homages made since the 1940s.

What makes it so ‘pure’? Well, without any dialogue to explain the narrative, how a character is feeling, or backstory, the film maker has to rely solely on the pictures to do the work. It is visual storytelling and visual storytelling alone. The earliest film makers made huge ground on establishing a visual language for film because they had to.

If it sounds difficult, it is because it is. But when done well it is captivating. I have blogged about Kristoffer Borgli’s brilliant short I Expect No-one before and watched it a dozen times. Here it is again: watch how the tension, reveal and punchline ending are all conveyed visually.

But enough about movies. What about video journalism?

I think factual video suffers because as journalists, when we start a story, our first instinct is to set up interviews and write the voice over script. After all, we have a lot of facts to get across, some of them complicated.

It means the dialogue is down before the pictures are, and what that eventually creates is wallpapering: the sin of just pasting shots over long stretches of interview to make it look a bit interesting, but with no visual meaning at all. It might as well be radio.

I’m sure you’ve seen the question coming already: is there a way online video storytellers can make a documentary without a line of dialogue in it? How would we go about making one?

I honestly don’t have an answer to these questions – but maybe you guys do.

Possible? Impossible? Pointless? Hit me up in the comments.

And speaking of storytelling….

Thanks to all of you who got in touch about possible collaborations. I heard from some really exciting and talented producers & film makers. I’ve got all your details and I’ve been looking through your work. I’ll be in touch in due course!

Meanwhile, production on Inside the Story: A masterclass in digital storytelling from the people who do it best is well underway with the book almost entirely laid out. It’s looking fantastic and I’m excited to announce the book will be available in German, Catalan and Spanish a few weeks after the English version is published, thanks to the efforts of three talented translators.

It’s honestly a book like no other: it’s cuts straight to the heart of how to tell remarkable stories, and remember, every penny will be donated to Kiva. Become a part of the Facebook page to get more info!

Some things never change: 20-year-old lessons in video

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on February 13, 2012

I’ve wanted to make TV/video/films since I was a kid. That was a hugely frustrating experience back in the 90s as there were no cut-price flip cams, free editing software or platforms like Youtube to share it on. In fact, there was no way for a 10 year old to make video, so I had to settle with reading about how to make it instead.

The first book I ever read about this sort of thing was called Directing On Camera by Harris Watts, and it was published 20 years ago in 1992.

It started out as a checklist for trainee directors at the BBC before becoming a book. It’s got a matte red cover, with a graphic of an old VT countdown clock (remember them?) over it; some rather dated references to cassettes and dubbing, plus some quaint cartoon illustrations.

It seemed pretty out of date when I was reading it in the late 90s, but this week I decided to take another look at it to see how it fares in the 2012 world of online video, flipcams and Youtube. Is it still relevant today? You’d be surprised.

Lessons in video from 1992

Here’s a selection of advice from the book which I think still holds true two decades on, to a new generation of visual storytellers.

Show things happening: this is a big mistake made by many novice film makers – interviewing someone, sticking some pictures of buildings or trees or something over the top, and effectively creating a piece of radio. This is the first thing Harris Watts says in the book, so it must have been a problem 20 years ago as much as it is today:

“Television is moving pictures. So it’s no use turning up to shoot when the meeting is over, the factory is empty or the children have gone home. Whenever possible you should shoot action not inaction.There’s no point filling the screen with nothing happening – it doesn’t offer an experience for the viewer to share.” 

A useful book for editors of rolling news channels, perhaps. Twenty years on his use of the word ‘experience’ holds new meaning: we need to be creating ‘experiences’ for our audiences, not just videos.

Think in sequences: sequences are a cornerstone of strong video storytelling, and still today one of the most important things I teach my video journalism students. A sequence is most simply thought of as a single action, covered in two or more shots, creating the illusion of continuous movement from shot to shot. Watts describes them as “visual paragraphs…recording an event or sharing an idea in the finished film.”

Teaching yourself to ‘think in sequences’ – to effectively see them all around you – makes a huge difference on a shoot, when you need to get the shots in quickly.

‘Shooting is collecting pictures and sound for editing’: I remember this was the real takeaway for me when I read the book. Films are made in the edit, not in the shoot; Watts uses a cooking metaphor to explain better:

“You choose your recipe (subject and angle), write out a shopping list (treatment and storyboard), get some money (you need more than you think) and go shopping for the raw materials (shoot the pictures and record the sound). Then you return to the kitchen (cutting room) and start cooking (editing). The meal is made in the kitchen; the film in the cutting room.”

The filming part is still important of course, but visual storytelling is about the assembly of lots of juxtaposing shots to create meaning, not single shots following the action around. Hugely relevant for new film makers today.

Go for opinion, experience, anecdote: this bit of advice relates directly to interviews and what to get from them. Many interviews are very descriptive and shallow, eliciting facts from the subject alone. This rarely makes interesting watching, so good video storytellers tease specific stories, anecdotes, and opinions from their subjects. Ira Glass values the anecdote too, and you can see more interviewing tips in this post.

In the fast paced, tech driven world of online publishing, there’s an understandable push for the latest training or the most-up-to-date advice. But when it comes to video storytelling – or storytelling of any kind – the craft we’re learning is an old one.

The technology – the tools – are mostly irrelevant, which is why a book written as the internet was just being born can still be relevant to a new generation of digital storytellers that Directing on Camera‘s author could never have imagined would exist.

The most important part of your online video stories

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on January 30, 2012

What’s the most important thing to consider when making online video?

Is it having a high end DSLR camera with a prime lens? Afterall, if your pictures look pretty and slightly out of focus more people will watch it, right? Nope.

Is it having a really compelling character on a journey we can all relate to? That’s super important – but it’s not the most important thing.

Is it having a rhino suspended upside down from a helicopter? Nope, it’s not even that!

So what’s the most important thing to consider when making online video?

It’s the first ten seconds.

That’s how long you have to win your viewers over. As I mentioned in this article for journalism.co.uk last week, statistics suggest around 20% of people click on from a video after just 10 seconds.

According to Visible Measures, that means if your video gets 1 million views, 200,000 of them didn’t watch past the first ten seconds.

It’s a harsh fact but people are fickle; weeks and months of work, and thousands of dollars invested in a video all stand on the first 10 seconds.

It amazes me then, just how care-free some big publishers are with their first 10 seconds of video.

For example, in a non scientific test, I had a look at some leading online news organisations. The Financial Times, Telegraph Newspaper and CNN all blow their first 10 seconds showing me a pre-roll advert. No thanks guys.

The Guardian loses 4 seconds on its branding ident, even though Guardian videos are not shareable (and so you’ll likely only ever watch it on the Guardian website). That gives them just 6 seconds to make me interested.

So who gets it? Good.is get it – they don’t mess around with branding at the start of their videos and crack straight in. Not always, but usually with a good hookline.

Phos photos, the producers of Last Minutes with Oden get it. In the first 10 seconds they tell us the title, introduce the main character and he says something interesting.

Eliot Rausch/PhosPictures

The exceptions to the rule are the longer, cinematic pieces – for example those produced by MediaStorm: the first 10 seconds still matter, but they’re able to take a slower approach, easing you in & setting the scene. In this case we’re watching for the story, and the opening of Act I is a good place for storytelling nuance.

Getting the first ten seconds right is not easy. Looking back over pieces I’ve produced in the past, I’ve blown the first 10 seconds on all sorts of nonsense. I’m trying to make more active decisions though, and in this short film I recently directed for Kingston University, I used the first 10 seconds to tell a bizarre anecdote that doesn’t fit with what the audience expects, as a way of piquing interest.

Kingston University/Adam Westbrook

So what should you use the first ten seconds for?

  • To show your most arresting images
  • To use your strongest soundbite
  • To surprise your audience
  • To raise a question in the mind of your viewer, setting up “the big reveal
  • To get straight into the story

It is not the place for idents, adverts, cliches, weak pictures, hackneyed introductions, or anything waffly.

This advice has nothing to do with creating good documentaries or crafting engaging narratives – but none of those things matter if you blow your first 10 seconds.

Your unique route into journalism

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 16, 2012

How do you get into journalism?

The route above will be familiar to anyone working in broadcast journalism today as a typical career path into the industry. The sad thing is most people who want to be a correspondent will do their best to follow this track, because they assume it is the only way. And they’ll spend a career in a never ending race with all the other people trying to do the same thing, full of the stress, envy and critical comparison that comes with it.

10 years ago that was the only way to do it. But of course, everything has changed…including this.

Whatever it is you want to do with your life: be a BBC News foreign correspondent, edit a magazine, make a documentary about climate change, write a book, be an NPR producer, and every other job in our industry in-between, remember there is no single route. There is no right way.

There is only your way.

That’ll be news to some because most of us think there is a career path of some kind, as if getting your foot on the ladder with an internship is the only way to becoming an editor. But actually there are countless ways – ways that no-one has tried before, because they were too busy working on their CV, slogging it out as a junior reporter, and all of the other things we think we have to do to make it.

It’s the same reason people wear suits to work for decades, pull long hours for days on end and work for free when they really shouldn’t. What it boils down to is not living your life on your terms.

I haven’t worn a suit for near on three years now, and I don’t intend to start anytime soon. In the last two and a half years I’ve left the race to run my career on my terms – at my own speed. I know roughly where I want to get to, and I come up with plans to make that happen. Then I arrange my schedule for the week or month to suit that plan.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy, and there have been lots of hiccups, false starts and outright failures along the way. But when I look back on my career so far, I know one thing: I’ve done it in a way that is uniquely me – and no-one could ever do it exactly the same way.

Most of us would probably prefer to follow the path well-trodden, because it seems safer and more sensible. But the real challenges, and the real rewards, lie in straying off the path, exploring your career on your own terms.

Whether you decide to do this is up to you. But whatever direction you take, don’t waste time competing in a race with others. Run/sprint/jog/walk your own race, at your own speed.

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.

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.

Comments Off on 2011 in online video projects

How to produce online video from scratch

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 15, 2011

I recently showed the behind-the scenes progress of a motion graphics commission using the curating tool Storify and it went down pretty well so I thought I’d do it again, this time showing the process behind a typical video shoot.

Last week I published the third instalment of a web series I’ve been making with presenter Matt Walters. In each film he tries something new (and usually ridiculous) to try and drastically cut his carbon emissions. So far he’s crushed his car, and tried to cut his waste to zero.

In this film he tries to power his house using home-made methane, and you can see the results after the jump.

Below is the behind the scenes Storify – as usual, I can’t embed it into WordPress.com – but click on the image and it’ll take you straight there.

And here’s the film, released this week.

The multimedia journalist’s Christmas list

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 12, 2011

What to buy a multimedia journalist for Christmas?

On Monday I published a book list of great titles for any journalist, producer or publishing entrepreneur. If you’re still looking for festive ideas, here are ten gadgets and gifts perfect for any next generation journalist. Enjoy!

Field Notes Set: ($9.95/£7) Moleskins are so last year. These days, the chic journalist jots their thoughts down in a Field Notes book, currently on sale in handy three-pack sets. If you don’t already, always carry a notebook with you, and always write everything down!

Redhead windscreen: ($35/£22) a quirky essential for any multimedia producer recording audio in the field. These hand made windshields are designed specifically for the Zoom and Tascam audio recorders and if the video on the website’s anything to go by, they do an amazing job of ensuring crisp audio in windy conditions. Added bonus: your audio recorder will look like a robot troll.

Adobe After Effects: ($1,320/£850) The ability to design and animate motion graphics is becoming a popular extra string to any multimedia journalists bow. The most popular (but not necessarily the best) suite is Adobe’s After Effects. Get this with a good guide book, and you’ll be creating knockout animations in months.

External hard drive: ($290/£180) Just like no-one is disappointed to receive some Amazon vouchers for Christmas, some extra terabytes always come in handy. This 2TB beast from G-Tech is both reliable and lovely lookin’.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaccson: ($18/£12) this is on everyone’s Christmas list this year, and if it’s anything like the man’s speeches, talks and writing, it’ll be full of wisdom on creativity and business. Not to mention an insight into what it takes to revolutionise an industry.

Kindle Fire: ($199 US Only) People who have upgraded their original Kindle are raving about the Kindle Fire. The new one comes in colour and allows more iPad style user experience, but without the iPad price tag.

Plug bug: ($34.99 – US Only) A downside of all this 21st century gadgetry is it tends to hog all the plug sockets in the house. Well, TwelveSouth have come up with a neat solution: ‘one plug, two chargers, tres cool’.

Vimeo Plus subscription: ($59.99/£38) A year long subscription to Vimeo’s plus service gives you unlimited HD uploads, better viewing stats and a pass to the front of the encoding queue. Well worth it for any serious online video producer.

Glidetrack MobiSlider: ($129/£99 opening offer, December 2011) Yes, the inevitable has happened – someone’s brought out a camera slider specifically for iPhones and other small HD cameras. If you can get past the garish neon green design, this the most affordable way to add some elegant tracking to your smartphone footage.

Camera Table Dolly: ($90/£58 via PhotoJojo) But if wheels are more your thing, then why not try this new Table Camera Dolly – smooth camera moves with a greater variety of angles – a cheap option for any DSLR film-maker.

Holstee Manifesto: ($25/£16) This modest little poster has hit the internet like wildfire in 2011. I’ve had a copy on my wall for more than a year and it makes an inspiring reminder to go do epic shit. If you’re a freelancer or entrepreneur, this is good piece of decoration.

The gift of knowledge

Cheesy I know, but if you’d rather give someone’s brain a present for 2012, then here are three unrelentingly practical ideas guaranteed to make the recipients life better.

A good book: Easy to wrap as well! Here are 10 ideas from my other blog post this week.

Lynda.com ($25/£16 per month) There’s Google of course, but then there’s Lynda.com – the best online tutorial place I can think of. If you want to learn InDesign, Final Cut Pro, even HTML then Lynda’s got it all. A month’s subscription (enough to pick up a new skill) is in that perfect price range too.

RosettaStone ($240/£150+) Want a sure-fire way to beat the competition in a job interview? Knowing your Bună dimineaţa from your Guten Morgen is a sure fire way. Personally I’m trying to improve my French, but Rosetta Stone offers a range of languages to learn at home.

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.