Compelling Storytelling with a Short Video

How a 5-minute video has spawned a new career as a producer.

One of the most important features of the current media explosion is the number of different channels someone has at their disposal to tell their story or sell their product – and we’re not talking just cable or TV channels! Some are tempted to use the shotgun approach and merely replicate their message everywhere – print, video, web site, Twitter, Facebook, you name it – but the real winners are those who learn to use alternate media channels in a savvy and effective way to raise above the noise and effectively communicate to their target audience. That’s where we come in: We help clients convey their message in a visually attractive manner. But this brave new world will take some education, both for us and for our clients.

This is primarily directed at those who are new to producing video interviews, commercials or documentaries – or as in my case, being stretched outside of your “comfort zone”. I’m not a filmmaker by trade, nor have I had any formal training and have merely picked up my skills through “osmosis” working with other pros or by trial and error. And I observe a lot. I’m a post-production guy of sorts. Not even an editor, but mainly motion graphics, compositing, VFX, animation, titling, etc. I started out with years ago with still photography, illustration and painting and it evolved into making things move and adding 3D depth. I’ve always wanted to do documentaries, but never really knew how to get started. But enough about my background – I really just wanted to establish that this whole video production thing is new and somewhat foreign to me.

I was recently tasked with producing a short YouTube based “infomercial” for a couple of local artists here in Ojai who had written a book about their artwork with their story of creating it. They approached me with their initial concept of just reading a script into the small SD camera and telling the audience what they thought the important points in the book would be and wanted a few pictures from the book in a “sideshow” format and then post it on YouTube. This didn’t really interest me to do at first, since neither of us had a decent camera to shoot with and quite frankly, the idea sounded quite amateurish and I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, so I said it was going to cost them to do this right. That’s all I needed to say. I knew they would either give up and do something themselves or get on board and let me help them produce a quality project that would achieve what they really needed – traffic and sales. They said we have a modest budget, what will it take. We really want this done right but have no idea how! Okay – now I was committed and I better deliver!

Since I’ve been primarily an animator and post-production guy for nearly 20 years, I knew this was going to be a challenge for me, but I was still excited to take it on. Then the video production questions came flooding into my brain… Sure, I’ve been involved with a lot of documentary projects and corporate interviews, etc., but how was I going to cram all of this information into a 5-minute movie? What kind of visuals would I use and how would I segue from one to another? How can I get them to look presentable on camera? Where was I going to shoot this and how could I best present the bulk of their artwork – which was mostly paintings and sculptures?

So many questions, and very little time to really plan the project before the book was to be released…

I knew that I didn’t want the “read the teleprompter and stare at the camera” look, but rather a more sophisticated interviewing style. Nothing too formal mind you – these are, after all, artists!

Preparations for Telling the Story

I first learned about “Digital Storytelling” back in the late 90’s and the term was being touted as the new wave of spreading information that people will actually listen to and assimilate a message – evoking an emotional response and driving a call to action. This IS supposed to be a commercial of sorts – selling not only the book and its contents, but the artists themselves and their experiences. These are accomplished artists, with works hung on permanent display in the Smithsonian. This project had to look professional, but I didn’t have to get all Oliver Stone on it. I knew a local videographer friend that could do the shooting for me – he had the pro gear and the know-how to actually run the cameras and I didn’t have to worry about that aspect of it on this project, so I could really concentrate on the development of the content and the story.

After meeting with the couple to discuss the book, reading their initial script, looking at their artwork and scouting their home/studio for possible shooting locations, I came home and started immersing myself with their topic and the visuals of all their artwork. This was to mentally prepare me for how I would like to interview them. What kinds of questions would I ask them? How would I get them to tell me what we needed for this project? Why was their book important? What would compel their audience to buy it? I decided to check the entire “script” they had created and only pull a few key points from it, along with the other notes I had taken at our visit. But it was actually sitting down and reading through the galley copies of the book that I got the real material for my interview questions. Things that struck me emotionally – and emotions that they shared in their writings. Points of discovery that changed their lives – and their outlook on life. None of this really came up in conversation before. I was going to just wait and surprise them with my questions, observations and comments and see what kind of responses I would get. This proved to be golden!

The Interviewing Process

When the day of the interview shoot came, we got to their house in the morning and selected the best location with the most available natural lighting and positioned three cameras around and a chair for me to interview them from, wired them up with lapel mics and got them comfortable. They were a bit nervous and had way too much stuff memorized already, which actually got in the way in the beginning. I had to keep stopping them and getting them to just relax and STOP LOOKING AT THE CAMERAS! I asked some simple casual questions about their relationship – how they met and things that would take them back and just talk to me. Once I felt that they had relaxed a bit I would ask them some questions about the projects. What inspired them? What was their initial motivation for their subject matter? How did it make them feel?

Yes, I was playing therapist.. and it worked! Before I knew it we were running out of time and had to swap P2 cards and take a break. They couldn’t wait to continue telling me stories that all supported the contents of the project. After the interviewing was completed we had them take us on a tour of their home/gallery/museum and then out to their artists studio where we captured them working on a couple of their current projects. I knew this would make for some great B-roll if nothing else. I also wanted to get some shots of them walking around their property as well, since it is such a beautiful setting. By the time we were done shooting we had about five hours of footage from the three cameras and they handed me a disc with hi-res scans of all the artwork used in the book.

The Editing Process

I came back and started living with the footage for about a week… cutting it up into conversational segments in FCP and spreading it all along the Timeline like a big mess that my desk usually is! I then started carving out smaller segments and clips that were meaningful and had some impact. It was very much a shuffling game for me to decide how it would all flow and what could really be said in the five-minute time frame we had for the project. It was like working on one of those 3000 pc puzzles on the kitchen table. There was just SOOO much material it was hard to leave anything out, but I surely didn’t want to present that problem to the client as we would end up with a half-hour video in the end!

I did my initial cut, using only the interview footage and black layers with text stating inserts and B-roll over the dialog where I saw it appropriate. The client liked what they saw/heard and suggested a few “ums & uhs” to eliminate and we were on our way. Once I started adding in images and secondary camera angles it really evolved. I ended up swapping some elements and moving footage around to better tell the story both aurally and visually. I didn’t just want a snapshot of the cover of their book, so I took the book cover artwork they gave me on disc and created a 3D model in Photoshop CS4 and did a slight animated turn on it. (I can’t help it – it’s in my nature to animate stuff!) Another local musician provided a piano soundtrack that I worked into the project where appropriate and the final video was well received by the client. We posted it on YouTube and it’s taken off quite well. Great responses from viewers and the book sales have been brisk. The publisher has re-ordered in just one month, and they’re getting calls to appear on talk shows and do personal speaking events.

Here’s the finished video:

Now I can’t take credit for the book sales or even the amount of traffic the video has received – after all, I simply got the clients to talk – share their stories and show some emotion about what their project is about. But one thing that has happened for me as a result of this simple project, is I am now approached by other artists, photographers, writers, etc. wanting a similar project done for them. I have to be cautious however, as the success of the project is really dependent on the contents you can put into it. Is their story compelling? Who are they trying to reach? Are they presentable? Are they unique? Why would anyone care to watch their video? Is there a call to action expected as a result of the video?

No, not everyone should run out and be a video producer… thanks to YouTube, that has already been made quite evident. But if you have a creative mind, an ambitious spirit and the desire to help someone tell their story, then its all just a matter of putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

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Jeff Foster has written and contributed to several books and magazines, and has been producing motion graphics, photography and creative design for major corporations, television and film for more than 25 years. See his full…

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