Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The last post

Posted in Adam by Adam Westbrook on October 4, 2012

After six years, 520 posts and who knows how many words, this is the last thing I’m going to write on this blog. 

It’s a decision I’ve been thinking about for almost a year and I’ve kept putting it off, partly because I still had things I wanted to figure out and share with you, and also because – believe it or not – this blog does make a bit of money!

But 2o12 has been a year of reflection and contemplation for me and ultimately of heading in new directions. Over the last few years my interests and passions have developed to the point where I now no longer think of myself as a journalist, but more of a producer and publisher. What I write about has gradually shifted from news to storytelling, to cinema to entrepreneurship, and I know that’s not what many of you come here for.

At the same time, how I think about creating stuff has changed and I want to focus my energy on building things that matter: films, magazines, books, businesses and more. Sadly a weekly blog post, and hours spent on Twitter don’t fit into that.

Parting gifts

I’ve spent some time bringing together 20 of my favourite pieces from the last few years and written five brand new ones, and put them all into a one-off collection. If you’re here for the first time and want the highlights this is for you, or if you want an intensive burst of ideas and inspiration in one sitting then I recommend it too. It’s completely free:  you can have the pdf right here, no email address or nuthin’.

Everything I’ve written on here will stay forever, for free. You can select just the video and storytelling posts or the entrepreneurship and creativity posts if you like, or just see what’s popular.

What next?

In a few months I’ll be leaving my life in London behind and seeking some new adventures. I’ll be heading to Paris in January and then to wherever the wind takes me. There is no plan or strategy, just embracing uncertainty, putting faith in having no plan.

I’ve got some bold new projects I want to start, some experiments I want to try and I’ll generally be gettin’ busy gettin’ messy. I’m still insanely passionate about creating insightful, intelligent and thought-provoking factual stories so a lot of my projects will be trying to solve this problem.

I’m also crazy about storytelling structure and visual storytelling and still have loads of questions about it. The response to the Inside the Story project earlier this year was awesome, and I have plans to develop it in early 2013, most likely in magazine form. If you’ve downloaded a free copy of the ebook, then you’ll hear about it later this year. Click here to get a copy if you haven’t already.

I’ll be location independent so I’ll still be working with clients in the UK and elsewhere and I’ll continue to be available for film, motion graphics and writing commissions. Click here to contact me about that. I’m also still consulting and training, and there are still a few spaces left on the next video journalism workshop in November. At the same time, if you’re an organisation committed to creating great narrative experiences anywhere in the world then drop me a line too, maybe we could work together one day.

Thank you

Finally, and most importantly, I want to say a huge thank you to you for reading all this over the years. You can double that thanks if you’ve ever left a comment after a post, triple it if you’ve retweeted, reblogged or shared a post, and quadruple it if you’ve ever bothered to send me an email. Knowing that something I’ve written has inspired another person, given them a new idea, or helped them do something awesome always puts a smile on my face.

After all this time blogging about journalism, what advice can I offer? Well, there’s a spot open for someone to share more new ideas about how journalism can be done better. If that appeals to you, then remember: be positive, not critical, share and inspire and above all be immensely generous.

Blogging is a great way to crystallise your own ideas and get feedback, not to mention a great way to learn, build a platform and a reputation. It worked for me and it was great fun, so go on, get busy writing. Here’s a series I wrote a couple of years back with advice on how to start your own blog.

Keep up!

I have honestly no idea what will happen next in my life but here are some ways you can keep up with whatever the hell does happen.

My Journal: I’ve slowly been building a personal online journal. Is it just another blog? Sort of, although it is really a blogazine, with each article individually designed, as a way for me to practice web design. It’s a 100% personal site, so if you’re interested in me as a person then take a look. Inspired by Robin Sloan’s brilliant tap essay I’m going to be making tributes to people, things, places and stuff that I really love.

My homepage: My main website is still there – it’s the best way to contact me.

Twitter: I’ll still be tweeting and tumblring, although a lot less frequently.

Hotpursuit.co: This is my new publishing venture..it’s just a top co right now, but will develop more in the future. Still you can sign up to the mailing list if you really want.

• • •

And lastly, I’m not stopping this blog because I have lost faith in the future of journalism or the industry. Quite the opposite. In the lifespan of this website we’ve seen journalism hit hard, and its foundations thoroughly shaken. But the last two years have brought an energetic burst of new ideas, platforms and experiments from ordinary people that I’m certain will propel us through to a remarkable new age, where stories are told, ideas are spread and the truth always challenged.

If you ever despair, remember: we are just at the beginning. 

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 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.

Are you really a visual storyteller?

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 9, 2011

The climax to Road to Perdition

Lots of multimedia producers describe themselves as “visual storytellers”: a sort of umbrella term to cover off video journalism, photography, motion graphics and maybe flash interactives too.

And as an umbrella term it’s a good one..but how many visual storytellers are really that?

The mantra in creating television news, documentaries, cinema and now online video – is to let the pictures tell the story. But this is actually extremely rare: watch the majority of news, docs and online video stories and instead the words lead the way, dragging pictures along behind them.

So what is visual storytelling?

To be a visual storyteller you should be able to tell a story with as few words as possible – maybe even none. If someone was watching your film with the sound turned off, would they understand what was happening?

There are a huge number of tools we can use as visual storytellers to convey messages with images alone: from the type of shot we use, the editing style, whether we go handheld, use a steadicam or sticks, transitions, repeated motifs and all sorts.

The first 10 minutes of Dirty Harry have absolutely no dialogue; the last 20 minutes of Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition contain just six lines of dialogue but bring the story to bloody climax and denouement. You know exactly how someone is feeling, what they’re thinking, and what they’re going to do next – but you haven’t been told in words, you’ve been shown.

One thing is for sure: it is easier said than done. My last production, explaining the AV Referendum had more than 600 words in 4 minutes. Rubbish.

Can you tell a whole story with no dialogue? You bet’cha. I love this 3 minute short by Norwegian film maker Kristoffer Borgli. Drama, plot twists, humour and suspense – all in three minutes – all without a single word being uttered.

Why not set yourself a challenge to tell your next story in 100 words…or less?

The five principles of editing

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 21, 2011

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1920 film was still very young, but growing in popularity.

As a new industry grew, practitioners raced to understand this amazing new medium and how it worked. Back then there was no precedent and there were no rules about how a shot should look or how a piece should be edited together.

Sound familiar?

But the early film makers did such a good job of understanding the medium, by the end of the 1920s the basic tenets had been laid down – and are still used by us today.

I recently discovered this Russian chap called Vsevolod Pudovkin who started making films in 1920. A few years later he penned a book called Film Technique and Film Acting: inside are five editing techniques. Reading through them, you realise there are plenty of tips and tricks online video journalists can take on board, nearly 100 years later.

Pudovkin’s 5 principles of editing

Pudovkin’s techniques describe several ways editing can be used to enhance the viewer’s understanding of a story, and they’re all designed to create a specific reaction from the audience, something he calls relational editing.

01. Contrast: cutting between two different scenarios to highlight the contrast between them. As an example, Pudovkin suggests moving from scenes of poverty to someone really rich to make the difference more apparent.

.02 Parallelism: here you can connect two seemingly unrelated scenes by cutting between them and focusing on parallel features. For example if you were shooting a documentary about fish stocks in the Atlantic, you could cut from a trawler being tossed about in the ocean to a family chomping down on some  fish’n’chips – in both scenes drawing our attention to the fish: the object that connects them. It creates an association in the viewers’ mind.

.03 Symbolism: Again, more intercutting, you move from your main scene to something which creates a symbolic connection for the audience. Pudovkin (living in Soviet Russia) suggested cutting between shots of striking workers being shot by Tsarist police and scenes of cows being slaughtered: in the audience’s mind, they associate the slaughter of the cattle with the slaughter of the workers.

.04 Simultaneity: This is used lots in Hollywood today: cutting between two simultaneous events as a way of driving up the suspense. If you’re making a film about a politician on election night, you might cut between shots of the vote being counted to shots of your main subject preparing to hear the result. This extending of time builds anticipation.

.05 Leit motif: This ‘reiteration of theme’ involves repeating a shot or sequence at key moments as a sort of code. Think how Spielberg uses a ‘point of view’ shot in Jaws showing the shark looking up at swimmers. The first time he does it creates a visual code for “the shark’s about to attack”. Every time we see that underwater POV we know an attack is imminent. He has allowed us to participate in the decoding.

You can read Pudovkin’s five principles in full in this Scribd copy of his book – pages 74-78.

So can video journalists use these techniques?

Image Credit: Adam Westbrook

Well clearly we don’t all make films loaded with symbolism in the way movie directors do; nor do we have time on screen to build anticipation through simultaneous cutting. However Pudovkin’s five techniques tell us something deeper and more significant about visual storytelling.

Because sound hadn’t been invented when he, Fritz Lang, Eisenstein et al first picked up a camera, they developed a real understanding of visual storytelling. They had to. If you couldn’t tell a story solely in pictures you couldn’t tell it at all. So they constantly invented ways to manipulate camera, edit, props, rigs and lights to get a message across. What they created was a form of ‘picture-telling’ where the audience are invited to participate in spotting and decoding subconscious messages.

This, I think, has been lost in the debate about the future of video and journalism, and possibly from the craft altogether. Instead we rely on dialogue to tell our story, and (at our worst) plaster pictures over the top.

When we move beyond straight point-and-shoot reportage and we want our viewers to understand a story, to relate to it, to care – the cameras in our hand are more than neutral observers: they are powerful tools, more often being left unused.

You wouldn’t learn the intricacies of 3D animation without first being able to draw – so why do we pursue video journalism without learning the basic building blocks of visual storytelling?