Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

You can learn anything, and why you should

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 6, 2012

It was late on a Friday night and we were all drunk. 

My flatmate Rob picked up some juggling balls and offered me a challenge. “I bet I can teach you to juggle in 10 minutes” he said.

I remember trying to learn how to juggle when I was about 12 years old: a short lived experience full of frustration and ultimately failure. But now seemed as good a time as any to try again.

Over the next 10 minutes, Rob showed me the basic technique, starting with one ball, then two, and finally three. When the 10 minutes were up, I had managed to juggle all three balls about once or maybe twice before I dropped them – but I got the general technique.

Then something interesting happened. As everyone else went to bed, I stayed up and kept practicing. I tried juggling the three balls, and dropped them. Then I picked them up, and tried again. I practiced this over and over and over – until four in the morning. Silently throwing the balls up in the air, dropping them, picking them back up.

As I was doing it, I could almost feel my brain making new connections. Arm movements which seemed awkward an hour before were beginning to feel more natural. Soon I could juggle for two rotations, and then three, before dropping the balls.

II

This was the moment I realised something: I absolutely love learning new things. And I realised that learning something new is as simple as picking up the technique, and then working at it, silently, humbly, unflinchingly, until it sticks. They say your brain is like a muscle – you can train it new habits and build strength by regular repetition.

Of course, most people give up before then. Learning French seems pretty romantic until you factor in the hours of repeating irregular verbs over and over in your head. Every boy dreams of becoming a footballer, until it comes to the moment he has to practice hundreds of penalty kicks over and over in the rain. Everyone signs up to a new gym membership after Christmas with dreams of toning up, until they realise this involves dozens of painful press-ups, over and over again.

III

I’ve decided to make 2012 a year where I learn relentlessly with machine-line procedure: first I study the key points and then I practice, putting in the repetitive legwork until the muscle is strong. I won’t ever make it to Malcolm Gladwell good, but good enough. So far this year, I’ve been teaching myself some new web design skills: HTML 5, CSS3 and Jquery, building on my French, and hopefully a new musical instrument too.

This attitude to learning is essential in this modern world where technology seems to continually create new platforms, new workflows and new disciplines. In 2010 I taught myself how to animate motion graphics following this idea, something which soon became a source of income.

How to learn anything

So what’s the best way to learn? Luckily for us journalists, producers and publishers access to knowledge we need is pretty easy. But there are things you can do make it easier on yourself.

.01 Find free or cheap resources:  if you need video skills, hit the Vimeo Video School. Anything code related, tap up the Code Academy. You can even learn how to code your own iPhone app at Stanford University – for free! For everything in between I highly recommend Lynda.com*. They’ve got a huge range of courses on design, coding and other key software, and a month subscription costs $25 (£16).

.02 Learn on a need-to-know basis: you need to be smart about this sort of learning. There are no exams, no coursework: you decide the curriculum. So don’t waste your time learning something if it’s not going to be useful to you. What I mean is, if you want to learn how to make small styling adjustments to your WordPress blog, there’s no need to delve in to the history, syntax and ins and outs of  CSS. Just get what you need.

.03 Allocate regular practice time: this is where the legwork comes in – the regular practice, the bit where you create those grey matter connections. Depending on how intense you want to make it, somewhere between an hour a day and an hour a week will do it. Keeping motivation going is tough though, which is where the next tip is the killer…

.04 Give yourself a project: quite simply, the best way to learn something new is to turn your learning into an exciting creative project. In the education world it’s called experiential, or work-based learning, and experts are sure that people learn better when they’re excited by a particular goal. I haven’t been learning HTML step-by-step in factory fashion. Instead, I challenged myself to redesign my personal website from scratch and learnt on the job.

At the heart of all this, is the belief that there is nothing you can’t learn, regardless of age, income, background or education. Director David Mamet puts it well:

“…you get someone who knows how to take a picture, or you learn to how take a picture; you get someone who knows how to light or you learn how to light. There’s no magic to it. Some people will be able to do some tasks better than others – depending upon the degree of their technical mastery and their aptitude for the task. Just like playing the piano. Anybody can learn how to play the piano…There’s almost no-one who can’t learn to play the piano…The same thing is true of cinematography and sound mixing. Just technical skills.”

Finally, an important note about learning. Too often, we use education as a procrastination tool. Someone who wants to make a documentary (or says they want to) will go out and buy a big book about documentary making for beginners. What they should do instead is pick up a camera and start filming. Learning is best done by  doing.

Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr said “An expert is a person who has made every possible mistake within his or her field”. And nobody made any mistakes while reading a book.

*affiliate link

Meet the online video heroes of 2010

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 21, 2010

I’ve got a really good feeling about 2011: online video is going to be huge.

This last year’s been ramping up to that realisation. In the past few months I’ve been approached by journalists, online magazines, charities, corporations and even individuals seeing the enormous potential of online video and wanting to commission films, consulting or training.

Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee.

James Cameron

The real heroes are the people out there already making video. They’re not asking if it’ll make money before picking up their camera.They’re just getting off their arse and creating content. The online videos heroes I’ve chosen have done more than made a pretty film: they’ve used online video in a new way, for journalism, art or even business.

The list is pretty arbitrary though: if you know other, better online video heroes, add them to the list via the comments!

my online video heroes of 2010

1. Phos Pictures

Heading up the list is a group of three young American filmmakers who are showing the rest of us how online documentary ought to be done. They blew me away back in March with Last Minutes With Oden a short about one man and his dog, a piece so good, it was recognised as Vimeo’s documentary of the year. It’s clocked up 1.3million page views at last count. They followed it quickly with Pennies HEART and most recently with The KINGDOM.

I interviewed filmmaker Lukas Korver about the production of their films for blog.fu earlier this year – check it out here.

2. Yoodoo

Coming in from a different line is the UK enterprise Yoodoo.biz, founded by Nick Saalfield and Tony Heywood. I met them both when I invited them to speak at the UK Future of News Meetup back in the spring.

Yoodoo is an online training course for entrepreneurs and new businesses. It is content which could be delivered through text and pictures. Any other producers would probably do just that. But Nick and Tony saw the potential of online video earlier than many, and the free course is delivered through short video interviews.

Disclaimer: I write occasionally for Yoodoo.

3. Food Curated

What you need to know about me is pretty simple. I love food. And I love telling a good story.

That’s how Liza Mosquito de Guia describes the founding of Food Curated: an online video blog all about food. Throughout the year Liza’s been out shooting and editing (she’s a one-man-band) short films in all sorts of food establishments.

Each film is unique and she does a good job of keeping herself out of it, and letting the subjects tell their own story. Her site was nominated for a James Beard Award this year, for best Video Webcast.

4. The Scout

If there’s one thing American new media producers can do better than European ones (in this reporter’s humble opinion) it is designing online magazines that look insanely stylish. Dwell, for example, has an elegant aesthetic which outclasses the Darth Vader-esque front page of Britain’s Monocle.

Another stylish number is The Scout, a food culture and design blogazine from the US. They’re on this list for commissioning several short films about inspiring creatives which leave you drooling. They’re the work of director Brennan Stasiewicz who I interviewed back in the summer. His piece on eccentric chocolatiers the Mast Brothers has been shared very widely, but his film on architects Roman and Williams is also superb.

Hat-tips for dedication to similar online video content this year has to go to The Monocle and Vice’s VBC TV.

5. Honda

Yes, it pains me too. But one of this years online video heroes has to be Honda, for their surprising Live Every Litre campaign.

They hired top director Claudio Von Planta to tell a series of powerful short stories, on the premise of a journey taken while driving a Honda Civic. The vehicles and any Honda promotion takes a back seat to the stories however, which is what makes this campaign quite unique in 2010. In particular, check out this short about a D-Day veteran and his daughter which gives many history documentaries a run for their money.

6.Vimeo

Many of the best online video of the year wouldn’t be possible without Vimeo, the classier alternative to Youtube. But that’s not why they’re on the list. The video sharing site was a late entry, with the release, just last week, of their online video school.

It’s something they’ve been working on all year, according to the site’s blog, and it’s a comprehensive, stylish and fun introduction to shooting video. They even brought in Philip Bloom to teach us how to use our DLSR cameras properly. Again, some training Vimeo could have been tempted to deliver in text or even in paid face-to-face courses.

But they chose to harness the power of online video and create something of far more value instead.

7. Witney TV

OK, straight-up, Witney TV ain’t pretty. They’ve actually chosen the ‘broadcast news’ theme from Garageband for their opening titles, which themselves, look like they’ve been done in Microsoft Paint. There isn’t a huge amount of care taken to making pretty video.

ButWitney TV is one of the first, sustained attempts at online video serving a local audience. And, it’s incredibly popular. Some episodes I’ve seen have 150,000+ views and scoops with Jeremy Clarkson and David Cameron have had them mentioned in the national press. I grew up in Witney, and family members tell me it’s also huge in Japan. Who knew?

They’re showing the rest of the hyperlocal world how it should be done. If you choose to follow in their footsteps, just don’t use Garageband.

8. Tim Johns

BBC radio producer Tim Johns (Disclaimer: he’s a friend) is on the list to represent all the people who’ve picked up a camera and got creative with it this year, again without any desire for reward.

Online video is an unrivalled platform for original drama and comedy, and with a flipcam costing less than £100 it’s possible for anyone to join the party. But how many do? And how many get scared away?

Tim isn’t one of those. He’s just started making films for the hell of it, and for a radio producer, he shows a startling aptitude for visual comedy & storytelling.

.09 VJ Movement

Another online video hero this year is the Dutch social enterprise  VJ Movement.

It launched back in 2009 amid some hype (among video journalists, at least) and since then has got down to the business of building a network of VJs from across the globe. After a recent rebrand this autumn, the VJ Movement have focussed on developing larger scale projects and commissioning films for that project from all over the world.

Personally, I think it’s yet to find its real voice and distinctive style, but this will come with time. For the time being, it is one of the only fully independent platforms commissioning in-depth journalism from outside mainstream circles, and long may that continue.

Disclaimer: I occasionally produce films for the VJ Movement

Lifetime achievement award: TED

And finally, a lifetime achievement award is deserving of one organisation who clearly ‘got’ online video when Youtube was still in nappies.

TED lectures have been around for sometime, but it was only when they started uploading them to Youtube and making them freely available that the organisation’s remarkable talks really started to take off.

They’ve collectively been watched more than 600 million times, and spurred future speakers to up their game, a concept TED boss Chris Anderson called Crowd Accelerated Innovation. In this TED lecture, he predicts online video will have a profound affect on our future. Which begs the question: if you’re not getting in on the fun now, why not?