Posted on December 27, 2007
Video packages and longer video
So I’m studying a few feature-length documentaries and reading the book Documentary Storytelling, 2nd edition, by Sheila Curran Bernard. Some thoughts:
1. We can learn a lot from Errol Morris.
I watched The Fog of War for the first time and found it fascinating, amazing, a great example of compelling storytelling. At the same time, I found I was not able to watch it in its entirety without falling asleep. At least, not if I started after 8 p.m. But because the film is divided into 11 segments — each one marked by a black title screen — it’s really painless to go back (via the DVD chapters) and watch parts of it again.
The first night, I watched segments 1 through 8. I didn’t expect to fall asleep, but hey, I guess I’m getting old.
The next night, I really wanted to see what I had missed. So I started at segment 8 and went through to the end. Then I watched a few of the outtakes (DVD extras).
On a third night (a few days later), I started at the beginning again. It was about 9 p.m. and maybe I’d had too much food at dinner — I fell asleep at segment 6.
I’m not finished with this documentary yet, however. Just because I have no attention span anymore doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, and even brilliant — it just means I can’t stay focused on this particular material for 107 minutes.
- The use of titled segments is fantastic, especially given that the film is essentially one helluva long interview.
- The pacing and use of archival footage has me aghast with admiration.
- The illustrative imagery of dominoes falling on a map of Asia and the reel-to-reel tape recorder (as we listen to recorded conversations between McNamara and John F. Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson) contribute to the viewer’s sense that the past is being explained, and it’s been carefully researched.
2. Chapters or segments can improve the storytelling, even if they are linear.
I’ve watched the video package Touching Evil, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, three times now. All three times, I watched it from beginning to end. The second time, I didn’t intend to watch all of it again, but it compelled me forward so effectively, I didn’t want to quit. That happened the first time I watched it, but I didn’t expect it to have the same effect the second time.
What Steve Mellon (videographer, photojournalist and Flash designer) created with Touching Evil is a five-part narrative that stands on its own, apart from the text story that ran in his newspaper. The segments are numbered (1 through 5), and each one builds on the previous segment.
Mellon was really, really smart to make the video stop and go black after each segment. Why? Because whenever you click, you make a commitment. Instead of auto-playing the segments one after another, Mellon leaves it up to you: Do you want to know more? This was what I found particularly effective on second viewing. Yes! Yes! I want to see the next one! Just one more … and then I watched all five.
- Visual storytelling: Look at the way Mellon cut in the B-roll in the first third of Part 2, “The Happy Face Killer.” Classy, sophisticated stuff.
- Use of music: In a lot of videos I see from newspaper journalists, the music is cheesy and too assertive. Mellon sometimes went sensationalistic with the music, but overall I think he’s used it in a way that enhances the storytelling — reminding us that a real serial killer is truly horrifying.
- In her book, Bernard talks at length about the ways in which time is manipulated in documentaries (Chapter 6). She gives an excellent example from Michael Moore’s 1989 film Roger & Me. I was thinking about this a lot as I watched Mellon’s fourth segment (“A Killer’s Voice”), in which the college forensics students in their classroom have a conference call with the serial killer in prison. Are the cutaways honest? Is the sequencing true? And if it isn’t, is that okay — so long as everything in that scene was shot in that room during that phone call?
3. Storytelling is everything.
In July, The Virginian-Pilot posted a video package about suicide (Out of the Darkness). It’s an important issue, far more weighty and persistent than many issues to which we turn our journalistic attention.
This package starts out with a very engaging intro that immediately makes you want to know more. As soon as the intro concludes, it makes its first mistake: The four segments we can choose from are offered up as four individual head shots (of people who lost a loved one to suicide) and their names. There is no indication at all of what their stories are.
Now, you already hooked me with the great intro, so I am inclined to go ahead and blindly click one of the people. But I am really clicking blind. What if the first story fails to grab me? I am probably going to give up and leave. Even if I don’t, and I try another story, you have already eroded my attention span.
- Stick to your storyline: In the first segment, we are inside the home of a woman with young children. Her husband, their father, committed suicide. I don’t mind that the segment opens up with some daily routine and some natural sound from inside the home. Then we move into the interview. But many of the images seem too random, totally unconnected to what she is saying in the interview. When the audio switches into some more random household talking and natural sound, I lost interest and quit.
- Use the first 30 seconds to suck me in: In the second segment, we begin with the interview and a close-up of a woman whose adult brother committed suicide. In addition to distracting music, the audio content is factual rather than emotional. She sounds emotional, but her words are facts about the time, the location, his age. In her book, Bernard describes “the hook”: It’s “what got you interested in the subject in the first place.” In the story of the brother who committed suicide, what is the hook? I don’t hear it (or see it) until about 45 seconds into the segment, when the sister says: “He was a quiet kid.” I think that’s what should be the beginning, the opener, because everyone has known “a quiet kid.”
- Music can hurt more than help: In the fourth segment, the interview subject is a woman whose husband struggled with depression. Her way of speaking is very engaging on its own. I found the underlying music to be very distracting. I wanted to hear her and nothing else. Some interviews can simply stand on their own (after some judicious editing, of course). This was one.
As always, your comments will be much appreciated.