Digital Narrative Alliance

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“BEYOND THE SCRIPT” – A look at digital storytelling

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Story Written By: Jeff Clark, Videobot

Getting back to my beginnings; 30 years ago when I was just getting started in this business, I came up with an idea to make a pair of documentary style videos for the home video market called “So You Wanna Be a Rockstar” and “So You Wanna Be an Actor”. I interviewed a lot of celebrities for those videos and there was one particular sound-bite that stood out to me more than all the others. I had the chance to interview Paul Reubens, most people know him as Pee-wee Herman. To end each of these videos we would conclude by asking each celebrity we interviewed “What advice would you give to young people just starting out in the business”. Pee-wee thought for a second and then answered with something like this;

“Whatever creative work you aspire to do in life, whether it be an actor, writer, director, musician, if you’re getting leading roles in plays, working on your script every day, practicing your guitar til your fingers bleed, whatever your dream is…. If you simply just work on your craft every day, you are certain to be successful”.

That advice really stuck with me, and I’ve followed it to this day.

It takes years to become a good video storyteller. And there’s nothing like creating work in volumes to help you get there. When I received my first MTV Award, people would sometimes ask me how I did it. My answer was always: “10 year overnight success story”. It honestly took years of doing mediocre work and teaching myself how to make my work better before I arrived at where I am at today in my career.

Most importantly, it’s not the successes we learn from. It’s the failures. Without failure, how can we define success? I think failure plays the biggest role in understanding how to succeed. And unfortunately, you have to do it a lot.

Let’s fast forward to today.

So that’s what I do today. I tell stories using video.

But now anybody can make a video. It’s pretty easy for anyone to get their hands on a camera, they can even shoot a video with their cell phone, and they can readily distribute that video on the internet. With so much video out there it’s becoming increasingly difficult to break through the noise.

The film and video business used to be somewhat exclusive to those who could afford the equipment. By dropping a few zeroes off of the price tags of video cameras, and the general cost of making videos, the playing field has opened up to a lot more filmmakers. In many ways that’s healthy. It creates competition and that keeps the bar high.

But just because everyone can make a video, should they? Or is filmmaking still an elitist endeavor? Sure, everybody has the right to be heard. Everybody has the right to create video if they want to. But does that mean everybody today is talented? Of course not.

Do you think if any of today’s top filmmakers were young filmmakers today, and they put any of their early work online, would they be the filmmakers they are now? Would their work even get noticed in the thousands of videos that are uploaded daily on today’s web? I really doubt that too. I call it the “Sea of Mediocrity” and the bar seems to be getting lowered every day. So how do we stand out? How do we break through the noise?

This kind of craftsmanship is being lost in the masses of creators, but not due to technology. Even the best craftsmen demand the right tools. I think technology is great. We all benefit from it, and over the years I’ve seen what technology can really do for this industry. The quality of video and video cameras has improved greatly. I love that! There’s all kinds of new software that makes our lives easier for organizing shoots, in post-production, and even for review and approval processes. Maybe all this technology will allow us to spend more time on creative and storytelling.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there is a cycle that occurs with technology and creativity. Within that cycle, technology typically serves a need or solves a problem, but then we take that technology and do something new with it, make it something creative.

For instance; As speakers and entertainers grew their audiences, the need for amplifying the voice became more important. The technology followed with the invention of the microphone and then of course the loudspeaker to amplify that sound. Eventually music artists like the Beatles were able to take that technology to create and deliver songs to arena size levels, reaching bigger audiences.

And again as the cycle of need/technology/and creative perpetuated, George Martin the producer for the Beatles took the tools of the recording studio; the tape machines, mixing boards, and created a whole new level of psychedelic sounds that we had never heard before.

This happens all the time with technology. The technology is created out of a specific need, but then our creativity allows us to expand on it. It’s a cycle that has been repeated again and again throughout history in many forms. So one could assume that as long as this cycle of technology and creativity continues, the evolution of craft will follow as well. Or we would hope, right? I suppose that really depends on what we do with that technology.

In Television there are basically two types of shows, you have “Series” based shows, and then there’s “Procedural” style. In a series based show, the programming progresses in a linear fashion. Some examples of these could be Breaking Bad, How to Get Away With Murder, to name just a few. Procedural shows are more situational – Big Bang Theory, or Person of Interest. However, once we take television online there’s sort of a 3rd dimension that we can add: Interactivity.

I’m not talking about voting for your favorite singer or dancer, I really don’t consider that to be interactive television at all. It’s more reactive, than interactive. I’m talking about the type of interactivity that you experience in a multi-player video game you play online with your friends. What if we take it to that level? Let the audience write the stories? Let’s take a look at this video I created for Current TV back in 2009:

As the internet and television continue to converge, the possibilities for interacting with your audience may open up a whole new level of interactivity in television. I believe that Virtual Reality is also going to play a part in the convergence of television and the internet. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Samsung and Vice’s new cable network Viceland, partnered up to create Virtual Reality programming that they intend to run throughout the year. These short VR films are already airing on the network, under the series titled – “Beyond the Frame”

Viceland Promo

So if that’s where we’re heading, what can we do about this today? What about the craftsmanship, and what about the art of the story? Audio, Color, and Editing all play important roles in this craft of visual storytelling. This is where I notice companies cutting costs first.

When creating video for the web, people often ask me how long a video should be. My usual answer is “As long as it is compelling, surprising, relatable, and authentic”. I’d like to share some simple examples of how visual storytelling can be enhanced by factors beyond a good story or script and how that affects production values.

– B-ROLL

If you want your videos to be more memorable, create memorable imagery.

I like to think b-roll is the new A-roll. You can tell a great story visually with b-roll, but it’s much tougher to do the opposite. Try watching a talking head for ten minutes, or even 30 seconds. You’ll find it really doesn’t tell a story nearly as well as b-roll does. I know that sometimes you have to include some talking head footage to satisfy some corporate egos, but I often refuse to include too much of that footage for the sole reason that it’s just not very compelling.

– AUDIO

Audio is probably one of your most powerful tools. Sometimes, I use audio to help tell the story, and other times, the audio tells its own story.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with this group, but what you don’t know is that nobody had heard of these guys when I was working on this little project. Their management company kept them a secret until the debut of this video on MTV in 1996. JT was only 16 years old at the time. Prior to the shoot, I had only seen a few choreography rehearsal tapes they provided to get me familiar with their dance moves. When we went into post-production on this video, I felt that the best way to really capture the feeling of their choreography in the edit was to avoid editing on a non-linear edit system as a tape-to-tape system would be a more physical process and would help me to feel the movements within the music more easily. Once I started editing, I quickly realized that it also made more sense to edit this video standing up. By the time I laid off the first cut, I was dancing every move right along with them. I had become immersed with the story. I was merely acting on instinct, but later I received a number of compliments on the editing of the choreography, and the video was eventually nominated for an MTV Video of the Year Award.

Through my years of making music videos, those experiences helped me to create better music scores, and music edits in the web series videos I create today. I gained a lot of exposure to so many music styles and subgenres I’d have probably never known about if it weren’t for working with record labels in the Caribbean, making music videos for Calypso, Dancehall, Reggae, Ska, and Soca artists. Or in places like New Orleans I learned to appreciate Dixieland Jazz, Cajun, and Zydeco. This pattern was repeated wherever I filmed music videos throughout the world.

I now look at editing a music video like I’m scoring a video, but in reverse, as you’re actually matching visual movements to music, rather than editing music to a visual. I like to think that has really helped me to have a better understanding for how music and video work together.

– MUSIC & SOUND DESIGN

Music and Sound design can really help to tell your story in a variety of ways as well. It can help to establishing the tone, find the center of the video’s theme, or it can even be used to create disruption, drawing attention to the work. In this next spot, we used the sound of hairdryers, bicycle chains, ratchets, zippers, and music mix that embedded those sounds so organically that they feel completely natural when instinctively, they shouldn’t. That’s when you truly know your craft. Take a look.

– LIGHTING

Lighting is another aspect of filmmaking that is also quickly being forgotten. Many of today’s video cameras are so light sensitive that lighting isn’t really needed to get a good exposure so it’s often overlooked when budgets are low. However, lighting is used for much more than exposing your image. It’s used for drama, and effect. It can be harsh, or soft, it can set a mood, create a sense for temperature, or establish the time of day in a scene. Many of today’s less professional videos simply either get lucky or live with what they get. This is a huge disservice to the craftsmanship I’m referencing.

– GRAPHICS

Graphics can also communicate so many things. Graphics can be edgy, polished, cartoonish, static or animated. There are so many ways to influence the look and feel of a piece using graphics that may be a subject for a bigger conversation. It certainly bares mentioning though.

– COLOR

Color also plays a very important role in storytelling. It can set the mood, establish design or brand sensibilities, or even become a part of the story as it did in this clip.

When we were asked to create a series for Dolce & Gabbana Eyewear, we thought how can we capture the point of view of the audience in a way that not only looks striking, but visually captures the feeling of wearing the product. We had toyed around with Infrared in the past and thought we could use this concept to tell the story with color, or in this case, the lack of color. BTW – If you haven’t worked with Infrared photography, it’s a bit tricky. The model in the video was actually wearing a red dress, and her hair was black. We also had to coat her in sunblock so we wouldn’t see her veins or she would have looked more like a vampire.

– THE EDIT

In 2002, my business partner and I co-founded the Music Video Commercial Institute, the world’s first film school with an all music video and commercial based curriculum. It was a great way to revisit all of the things we had learned over the years and put them to use teaching others. One of the things I enjoyed teaching was editing. We had 10 video editing workstations, and one of my favorite editing exercises was to take a series of b-roll shots from a music video and provide each students with these same random shots on their edit systems. We’d then have them select a piece of music and as an assignment they were required to edit a story any way they liked. It was really amazing how many different ways the students chose to edit that same footage. There were always 10 very unique edits.

Our school held a fairly hands-on approach to filmmaking and we often put students to work on real music video and commercial projects. We decided to employ this concept on a trailer for a music film and let the record label decide which they liked best. I edited a version, my partner edited one, and a handful of our students edited their own versions as well.

The record label picked their two favorites from the numerous edits and the two they liked most were created by students, one of which you just watched here.

Back in 2005, while working at Current TV, I had the great fortune to work on a project that included an on-camera interview with Ira Glass on storytelling. It’s too long to show you the whole interview here, but I want to give you a taste of his approach to storytelling, as it’s quite compelling.

Personally, I had a lot of great takeaways from this interview and would highly recommend you check out the full 20 minutes on YouTube when you get home. I believe Ira is one of the best storytellers of our time. Another tip Ira focuses on in this interview is what he refers to as “Killing your baby”. Anyone who has tried their hand at editing would agree, is that all video production is trying to be bad, and it’s the editor’s job to get rid of everything that’s bad. Deep down, you know what’s bad, so you have to be willing to “Kill your baby” by throwing out all the bad stuff, that way you’re allowing all the good stuff to shine that much more. When you watch a video that is telling a great story, it’s great because the editor knew how to get rid of everything that wasn’t good about it. He simply “Killed his baby”.

That’s not always so easy to do if the editor is also the person who shot it or directed it. As the price of video production continues to drop and teams get smaller, the director or camera operator is far more likely to also become the editor. It becomes increasingly difficult to be objective when you’ve fallen in love with your own footage. And this is rarely a great approach to good filmmaking.

So is this the dumbing down of art and culture as we know it? Will there be a cultural backlash against the large amounts of crappy content we see on the internet and television, or will we become more and more accepting of the every-day mediocrity and eventually succumb to this level ourselves? Will we hit bottom before some of these newer technologies become part of our everyday experiences? And if so, when do you believe that will happen? In a month? In a year? 10 years?

Or is cheaper really better? A few months ago, I had several meetings with a potential client that needed 200 videos for their YouTube Channel. They were highly interested in the high level of work that I had created for other brands. Prior to these meetings, I had learned that they had hired somebody with less experience, and had produced a handful of videos that didn’t meet their expectations. They let that person go, and were seeking a better solution to their problem.

I offered them a better solution, and they were very excited to work with me, but after learning that to get the production values they were after they would have to pay for things such as color correction, graphics, and an audio mix. Anyway, they quickly went back to their original low-budget approach and continue to put out less than satisfactory work.

So apparently, they weren’t quite willing to pay for the quality my expertise provides. That’s not the first time that has happened. It seems that clients are the first to say, it doesn’t make a difference. I like to think it still does.

– CONCLUSION

So there are some real challenges coming as we adopt new technologies and attempt to streamline the process of video storytelling while still holding on to the attributes of great craftsmanship and strong storytelling. I hope we’re able to continue finding the ways to preserve the level of storytelling for those of us who truly appreciate it.

I just want to say this – We don’t make videos to tell stories that are mediocre, that’s not why we get into this business. I’d like to think that most of us got into this business to tell stories that are memorable and special. I’ll continue to strive for that and I hope you do as well.

I’d like to conclude with an example I think demonstrates a lot of concepts I’ve discussed today. We’ve use a combination of sound design, lots of b-roll of course, and an edit that really embraces the music’s pace and buildup to create an emotional connection with the audience.

I hope you enjoy the video. And keep working on your craft.

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