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Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

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Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Steve Grisetti » Mon Sep 15, 2008 10:29 am

At first this advice may sound too obvious to even consider - but please do consider it well. If you want to make great videos, tell a story.

Story is the difference between a bunch of random images and a meaningful video experience. It's what sticks with your audience even when they don't remember everything they saw or heard on your video. It's what inspires an audience member to walk up to you after your vacation video, shake your hand and say, "Man, I really felt like I was right there with you!"

Story is the thread that holds your video together. It gives it shape, heart. Consider the difference between a generic commercial that just shows a car zipping around to a pounding rock beat and one of those brilliantly clever Volkswagen commercials. A story doesn't have to take long to tell - but its meaning will stay with your audience for a very long time.

At its most basic, story is simply about change. It's about how an event changes a person, a situation or a relationship. Story is about why a character at the beginning of your video is different from that character at the end. And this doesn't mean that story is limited to narrative or fiction. If you've had the good fortune to see such brilliant recent documentaries as "Spellbound" or "Born Into Brothels," you know that real stories of real people, well told, are every bit as powerful and dramatic as anything Hollywood dreams up. And there are opportunities for us to tell stories like that on video every day.

It's always about structure

A few years ago, my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary, and my siblings and I decided to put together a party, including a video presentation, for them and some of their dearest friends. With the help of my sisters, I gathered dozens of great, old photos. I could very easily have just scanned in the pictures, created a slideshow, added a sentimental soundtrack and that probably would have been enough. With an event that inherently emotional, you can't go wrong. But I decided to make the video more than just a collection of images. I decided to make it the story of their lives together. Your job, as a storyteller, is to show how the events in your movie changed everyone involved.

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The structure was simple. I conceived the video as five chapters, each one a story about a significant segment of their lives. These chapters weren't very long. The entire video didn't run more than 20 minutes. But each of those little four or five minute chapters told of a significant event and how it changed their lives.

The first chapter was, naturally, about how the two of them met. I gathered some photos of them growing up along with early pictures of them together, and I supplemented them some music representing the times, and then I audio interviewed with each of them describing how they came together.

Chapter two told the story of the cold January day when they got married. Chapter three told of how my dad, a construction worker, quite literally built the house that the two of them raised my sisters, brother and I in. Subsequent chapters told of the growth of their family and of how each of the children now have families of their own. It's old but effective Hollywood advice: Tell your audience what you're going to show them; then show them; then tell them what you showed them.

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These were simple stories. Just a brief beginning, middle and an end showing how their lives had changed as a result of the experience. But the end result left the audience with the feeling that they'd been a part of my parents' lives together. Rather than just a photo album or a slideshow, the resultant DVD became a keepsake that merited a dozen requests for copies and which my parents still play for anyone willing to sit through it.

The reason it is so meaningful? In a word: It tells stories.

Every moment has a context

Remember that no moment happens in a vacuum. A wedding is a powerfully emotional event, but it doesn't just happen at the altar. It's one of the most significant event in the lives of two people. But it goes even deeper than that. A wedding doesn't just involve a bride and groom. It's also about the uniting of two families. A celebration with friends. If your wedding video only shows close-ups of two people exchanging vows, you've missed the opportunity to tell an important story. And fleshing out the context of it all is the key.

With pictures, video and interviews, tell the story of the relationship - of how it began and how it all led to this point. Get video of the families as well as their points of view. Tell how we came to this great point in these people's lives.

Show your audience where these events are happening, who is watching, what time of day, what the weather is like, etc. An establishing shot - a wide shot of the scene or an outdoor shot of the building - gives your audience a feeling for the context of the events.

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Show the preparation for the ceremony and party. Get lots of establishing shots; the outside of the church and/or reception hall and/or the house. Show the weather, the season, the time of day. And, during the ceremony, while you're shooting the ceremony, make sure someone else is getting reaction shots from the guests. There's much more going on here than simply the bride and groom exchanging vows. Be sure to get the tear in the eye of the father of the bride. Mom's glowing face. The groomsman flirting with the maid of honor. It's all part of the story. And the more you include, the more rich, real and powerful the whole video experience will be.

Remember our golden rule: Story is about the difference between where your video begins and where it ends up. Show a man and woman exchanging vows and you'll have a record of an event. Show how that event changed them and everyone involved and you'll tell a great story that everyone will treasure forever!

What's the meaning of this?


Last year, after a lifetime of dreaming about it, my family and I had the opportunity to go to northern Italy and to visit my grandfather's home town. I could easily have shot the whole thing as a travelogue and it would have worked. The scenery is beautiful, the train rides exciting and the people are charming. But this trip was so much more to me than scenery and train rides and colorful characters. It was about a search for my roots, about meeting family I'd never met before, about overcoming language differences and finding our commonalities and, above all, about walking the very streets my grandfather had walked a century before. I knew that the key to making my video vital was somehow conveying those meanings in it.

I ran video almost continuously, capturing those precious moments when my American family and my Italian family first exchanged clumsy but effective greetings. I shot as much of the context as I could. The scenery. The tour of the house and the wonderful little details like the exchanging of gifts and the serving of meals.

And through it all, I kept in mind my throughline: This was the story of a journey back to the place that my grandfather had left a century ago. I took every opportunity to interview my hosts about the town, about my grandfather and about what it must have been like to leave a place like this, with no idea what lay ahead, knowing he'd likely never return.

When it came time to edit my hours of footage, I kept that throughline in mind. I made sure the spirit of my grandfather - or at least a sense of family - was in nearly every scene. I added map graphics, old photos of my grandfather and his family, appropriate music and narration - and, where necessary, subtitles.

Narration can help pull a story together and explain things that may not be immediately apparent. But more so, in this case, it personalized the story that was being told.

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Don't just show what happened. Show why the moment has meaning and relevance.I wanted this to be my story, told from my point of view. And so, wherever possible, I added narration explaining what was going on and why the events I'd recorded meant so much to me. When the video shows our arrival by train in Mozzate, it's clear that this is a deeply spiritual moment for me and for my family.

And, whenever possible, I let the scene itself tell the story. When my Italian "cousin" shows me the house where my grandfather was born or the basin at the 500 year old church where my grandfather and her grandmother were baptized, the moments I was able to capture are intimate, touching and powerful. And so I let them play as is.

The final DVD tells a single, cohesive story. Rather than being a collection of random travelogue-style sequences or a look at the scenery and people of Italy, it becomes our deeply personal story - a story of how we were all changed by these recorded events in real and powerful ways. The success of this project was told in the greatest compliment a videographer could receive: "I felt like I was right there with you guys, Steve." Success!

By the way, those hours of video I shot cut down to a DVD that runs less than half an hour. The sequence in Mozzate runs a little over 10 minutes. Just a reminder that your video doesn't haven't be long to tell a good story well. And, in fact, brief pieces with strong themes often have the most powerful impact.

And in conclusion

Finally, remember that nothing sums up a video like literally summing up the video. A concluding quote - whether shown as a title card, or heard as final thoughts via narration or a key clip from an interview - can really bring the meaning of your entire video home for your audience.

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Summing your movie up, with either a final quote, a final clip from an interview or even concluding narration (especially with a brief montage of clips from the preceding movie), can leave a lasting impression on your audience and can really bring home the meaning of your piece.
It literalizes everything that makes the story you have just told a story: the meaning, the significance, how the events you've just shown changed everyone involved.

Those final words give your audience something to take away from the whole experience. A chance to review the events they've just witnessed in their minds and to consider why the moments you've just shared with them were worth the time, effort and cost of producing this movie. A way to make the theme and story resonate with the audience long after the movie ends and the lights come up.

It's a trick that's long been used by the pros in Hollywood but, like many Hollywood tricks, it's one well worth finding inspiration in.
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby dalelpaq » Sun Sep 21, 2008 5:04 am

I agree of course that telling a story is where it's at. It's also where I have a problem. As an "older" videographer, I both have no friends with even an iota of interest in making videos and am out of touch with younger people willing to appear in one I make. As a result, I'm always looking for stories with no people in them (not really interested in documentaries and nature films)! One concept I'm pursuing is telling a story in the 1st person so that I'm the "star" but not actually in it. Then using shadows and other effects, eliminate the need for actors all together. I'd be interested in viewing other's videos who are dealing with the same problem, no actors available.
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Briantho » Sun Sep 21, 2008 12:01 pm

Great advice Steve, thanks!

A few times a year I film (using the two camcorder technique) a few evenings of local amateur opera and at the editing stage several times, during the overture, I've superimposed footage taken during rehearsals, set construction, the move-in, costumes, make-up, behind the scenes panic etc. The story is how it all came together. In fact, for the most recent production I 'pinned' the footage on the stage curtain so at the bottom of the screen you can see the orchestra playing but the footage looks as if it's being projected onto the curtain. It also makes it a bit more interesting for all the support people to see themselves somewhere in the production.
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby cdeemer » Sun Sep 21, 2008 1:17 pm

A realization that has worked for me is that any sizable town or city must have retired actors, or retired people with acting experience, that would love to work on short projects. In the summer of 2007, having decided to make some videos, I put an add in the local Craig's List for same, got an overwhelming response, and as a result I've worked with the same 7 actors for over a year now, on 8 different projects, and we continue to work together and even call ourselves a "company" now, Small Screen Video. Our work is at
http://www.smallscreenvideo.org.

Retired actors are EAGER to work. You just have to ask them.
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Greg mgm » Thu Oct 08, 2009 10:40 am

That was a story in itself Steve.

For me, the hardest part of making videos is writing a story, especially if it's going to be narrated. I like to make off road/ buggy videos and have always tried to tell the story of what happened during the trip that was videoed. I've seen tons of off road videos that just show cars speeding along, but don't tell a story at all...and they're kind of boring.

Anyway, you did a great job explaining the "story" aspect of videomaking....Great job! ::CLAP: ::CLAP: ::CLAP:
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Don Whitten » Thu Oct 08, 2009 11:30 am

Great advice Steve! Well written and illustrated. It does get difficult at times to tie everything together to get a logical story but a well executed video is great to watch. I find myself sometimes writing a story outline before I start a project. Then I find myself rewriting after I get my all video shot. Then I kick myself in the butt for the video I didn’t get…always a learning experience for me.
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Steve Grisetti » Thu Oct 08, 2009 1:16 pm

Thanks, Don!

I've begun pulling together and cutting video for our annual family video, and this is one amazing and terrified year, I'm tellin' ya! Job lay-offs, deaths, babies, people popping up I have seen in decades, surprise trips to places I never thought I'd go to. It's been a challenge wrapping it all around a single theme!

But I just keep whispering my mantra: Story is about why the world is different at the end than it was at the beginning. And there's definitely been plenty of that!
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Chuck Engels » Thu Oct 08, 2009 2:00 pm

Steve, I think you might have missed Greg's comments

Greg mgm wrote:That was a story in itself Steve.

For me, the hardest part of making videos is writing a story, especially if it's going to be narrated. I like to make off road/ buggy videos and have always tried to tell the story of what happened during the trip that was videoed. I've seen tons of off road videos that just show cars speeding along, but don't tell a story at all...and they're kind of boring.

Anyway, you did a great job explaining the "story" aspect of videomaking....Great job! ::CLAP: ::CLAP: ::CLAP:
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Bill Hunt » Tue Dec 29, 2009 9:05 pm

Steve,

What a great article. I know that I am echoing the sentiments and observations of others in this thread, but a heartfelt thank you for writing that.

Personally, I feel that pieces like this are too seldom seen in the various fora. I'd urge you to post it, or a form of it, into the Adobe Tips & Tricks (or I'll just link to this one!). =D>

I would love to see more of this, and similar, in the fora. I tire of trying to tell people that they need to learn just a bit of info on CODEC's, or how to install PrX from a download. Too much of the basics, and not enough creation and art. I feel that others share that feeling too. How many times must one tell users that 1GB of free space is not enough?

I'd love to see more threads on the art and the creativity of video. This site has much more of those discussions, and I greatly appreciate it. For me, at least, that's what I'd rather be doing.

One of the things that I try to point out, when commenting on your books, is that they cover more than just the mechanics of using an NLE. They cover some very useful subjects on videography.

Any film school course should go far beyond how to load a tape into a particular brand of camera. Even though my courses were many decades ago, other than showing how one loaded a Bolex 400' mag, or looped the film in an Eclaire co-axial mag, had little on hardware (no software in those days). It was more about the art, than the technique, though that was not omitted. One line that I took with me was a professor who offered, "art presupposes technique." That followed me through a career in advertising photography, and has served me well in other aspects of my "art."

Good one, and it is greatly appreciated. Nice to look beyond the NLE, and the camera used.

Thank you, and Happy New Years!

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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Bill Hunt » Tue Dec 29, 2009 9:12 pm

Steve,

Going back up to a comment that you made down-thread (wish we could reply directly to replies... ), one little bit that was drummed into my head, in one of the journalism classes in film school was, "there is a story there - your job is to find it, and then run with it." Sometimes, it takes a few nights of "sleeping on it," to find the "story."

I'm struggling with similar, in a Project that went from a wonderful chronicle, to an epitaph. It was to be a celebration, but events changed the entire thing. Now, while it will be a celebration, it will be for a life cut too short. Totally different in some respects. Joy become heartbreak and tragedy. Stuff happens, and sometimes it will change our "story."

Thanks,

Hunt
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Ron » Wed Dec 30, 2009 4:44 am

Bill Hunt wrote:(wish we could reply directly to replies... )

Try the "quote" feature to reference a particular post :)
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Steve Grisetti » Wed Dec 30, 2009 8:31 am

I would be very interested to see how your piece turns out, Hunt.

Sometimes the hardest stories to tell are the ones we're the closest too. In fact, sometimes we tell our most personal stories even better after allowing ourselves some time and distance.

Unfortunately, you don't have that luxury. So I'm sure your piece will have a lot of very personal feeling in it. I'm sure it will be the celebration of life you want it to be -- but I'm sure it will also be quite sad and powerful.

I wish you the best with your very difficult task!
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Jayell » Wed Dec 30, 2009 11:10 am

Steve, you've definately made a difference in how I approach building a video. I used to just gather photos, then try to build a story around what I had. Most of my videos have been an afterthought, so all I've had to work with were photos and videos that were created, sometimes years before the idea of putting the story together. But I've found that the idea of finding the story FIRST still works fairly well.

I put together a little 2-minute Christmas card for friends and family this year (because I'm just learning the page-turn and wanted an excuse to use it :-D ), but I wanted it to feel like it came from ME .. not some store-bought words. Most of my story was about the loss of lots of folks close to me over the past two years, but I found a way (by thinking about the story first) to make it a positive reflection on those we've lost and the process of learning to cope and re-shape our lives. The comments I received were that it felt so personal to those watching it, even though my techniques were limited. Thanks for all the time you (and so many others) spend helping us create our 'masterpieces.' :-D
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Steve Grisetti » Wed Dec 30, 2009 12:56 pm

That is beautiful, Jayell! Though I'm sorry to hear you've lost so many loved ones recently.

Telling stories can certainly be one of the best ways to mourn and to heal.
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Re: Don't just make a video. Tell a story.

Postby Matthew Max » Tue Mar 01, 2011 7:25 am

I want to write something to revive this topic, because it's so good.

I enjoy certain privileges as a trained journalist. I mean that people generally behave cooperatively with me when I interview them, following my line of questioning in order to allow me to build the story. I try to have a rough idea of a story before I cover an interesting person or event. That keeps an interview or filming real efficient. I can generally make a 10-minute video out of a 12- to 15-minute point of contact. That may sound impossible or at least unrealistic, but I'm speaking as a journalist. When I take time to write the script, however unknown most of it often is to me, and when I give the subject some questions and topics to think about before we meet, or to discuss with me over the phone so that I can draft a more detailed storyline, believe me, I can easily get a 10-minute video out of 12 or 15 minutes. I probably do about 40 videos a year that way. The rest take more time, simply because of the their nature. They don't involve storylines with people. For instance, I make lots of videos that are for practicing concepts; others are bilingual stories that requires everything I've got, drawing, photos, imaginative plot, teaching techniques, and the mental workout my particular storytelling method becomes if I'm going to do it right.

Before I did the story on the tracker way out in the wilds of Washington (one of the samples on my website), I had to get important details that I needed in order to decide whether I should invest the time and money to cover this STORY. I didn't know what the story would be. I wasn't sure there was one, even when I had some exciting details. I had to probe far enough to see. After I did the story, the tracker told me that Discovery Channel had done a story on him too, but he was very disappointed with how they did it. It was THEIR story, not his. He ended up giving me information and angles that allowed me to shape up the story into a six-part series. A very, very unusual opportunity. But I didn't see the story after our interview was over in the mountain. I thought it was boring. It didn't go where I thought the previously collected information was going to take it.

The tracker then invited me to his home (just an hour away, he said; everything out there is an hour or two away from everything), where he gave me a privileged view of the artefacts of his work. It still took a while longer--probably a day or two afterwards--to see the story the way the tracker saw. And that was what I needed to see. But, like so many people I interview, I have to steer the conversation, the interaction in order to draw out what is so familiar to them, or we may never arrive at the story.

So sometimes I get the story ultra-efficiently, and sometimes I have to go at it from one angle after another, but drafting what I can ahead of time makes the straightest line to the heart of the matter. I am out to change how people think about language. Americans don't really do language. Students in school don't really do much of it either. I just keep tying language with stories of life, getting students to use the language, rather than making a good grade or taking tests. The result is the same that Steve wrote about in the first part of this topic. People appreciate the stories (the lessons, the videos) and the constant report is that the students are using the language beyond class time. That's how you get good at language. And that is one way that stories continue to play a major role in my work to bring meaning and joy and sometimes sadness or intellectual conflict to the language and culture segments that I produce. The money is almost meaningless. I live for the story, and I try to find time to plan it right so that I can tell it right.
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