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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Art of the Interview

If nothing else, Errol Morris has perfected the art of the interview. And more than that, he has a keen talent for drawing people out. Which means he's able to present them as their real or authentic selves. And that kind of authenticity really communicates, making his work at once powerful and intimate. That's the magic of using real people in video and political campaigns.

The New York Times has an interesting article about the history of using real people in campaigns, written by Errol Morris. In addition to his well-known documentaries, he makes his living producing commercials and political campaigns.

Having worked on many campaigns myself, I know effective interviewing is a subtle art form. You have to use a great deal of skill to create something that seems so real and unedited. You have to gain a person's trust, make them feel at ease, be patient, empathetic and gently lead them to the place where they will let down their defenses and say what is on their mind. It's not something that you can force or fake. And watching the raw footage, you can feel when those moments are there and when they are not.

You have a greater ability to manipulate the words and to some degree the sentiment if you take the person off camera, edit their comments, and add strong images and music. That's what you usually see with politicals, but Morris takes a more pure and difficult approach.

And you can see some of his current work in the political realm at People in the Middle for Obama. No matter your party affiliation, it's worth a look at how he's able to craft a message. Each person is shot against a white background. And their comments are pasted together to create an informational moment. There is basically nothing there except the person and their comments, yet the overall effect can be quite moving.

You can see the same technique employed by Jennifer Crandall and her wonderful people portraits at "On Being" a special video feature of the Washington Post. Jennifer's series has been running for some time and creates an in depth look at character and life story through a similar approach to the art of the intervew.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

No More Deja Vu

I've been thinking about what makes video so effective and reflecting on a project we completed last year and one we're about to begin this year. Last year we went to the Denver School of Science and Technology to show how innovative design can create a dynamic and highly effective environment for learning. The results of that effort is on our website, as part of the Great Schools by Design series we're doing for the American Architectural Foundation.

The point of the video was to show how the extraordinary use of space, place and design has transformed teaching and learning. In the video we hear from many people touched by the project: the architects, teachers, students, the school principal and founder. Even the mayor had something thoughtful to say. And we spend a lot of time showing different aspects of the school, exploring everything from the physical design to the overall vibe.

So, you might ask, why does the piece work so well? I'd say the answer is in how the piece is put together. First of all, there's no narration. People express themselves in their own words. So that brings in a level of enthusiasm and passion that helps carry the ideas. Second, there are few facts. Facts and data work well in print. Ideas and feelings work well in video. So the video focuses on how people feel about the new school, what they like, what excites them, why it feels special and so on. While we do include some specific information, we tend to show instead of tell. And that leads to the next point. The piece has a beginning middle and end. Because we structure our pieces to tell a story -- starting in one place and ending in another -- and along the way we take the viewer on a journey of discovery and understanding.

And now we're about to embark on the next video in the series, about a primary school in Portland, Oregon. This school serves younger kids, so there will be perhaps less to tell and more to show. And the big challenge will be to find a new way to tell the story. So it won't be deja vu all over again.

Friday, April 25, 2008

eye candy

I read a Portals column by Lee Gomes in the Wall Street Journal recently that made me think about video effects and graphics and how they so often seem to define the current approach to making programs. These days software programs and video clip art make it easy to add effects. And that certainly seems to define the video look. Jazz it up with lots of eye candy. Below is a link to a video example of what I mean.


Gomes relates a story that puts it very well. Quoting from his column:

"The Daily Show" satirist Samantha Bee once visited the Washington bureau of Al-Jazeera English, the Middle East news channel that U.S. Cable and satellite companies won't provide for their American customers. Ms. Bee set about making the show more palatable to Yanks. She did so not by changing its perspective on events, but by redoing its look. Full-screen shots of solo anchors talking calmly at their desks were tossed out, replaced with computer-rendered crawls, tickers, charts and graphs. None of the fake graphics imparted any useful information. That was part of the joke. The show's writers were making the point that as far as TV news is concerned, nothing says "Made Proudly in the USA" better than video game-style graphics that keep viewers in a perpetually agitated state.

Later he quotes Dean Velez, a veteran of the news-graphics business, "Just because you can use Apple's LiveType to animate text with fire doesn't mean you should use Apple's LiveType to animate text with fire." Amen to that.

The truth is, if your piece is vital and compelling then graphics just get in the way. And if it is boring and full of facts, then graphics will appear to make that bitter pill go down better. But basically, all that eye candy is a poor excuse for not doing a better job at making a compelling program.

In the final analysis, good producing, shooting and editing beats anything else. And around here, our work, sans eye candy, is still winning the awards.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

facts v. ideas

When it comes to writing narration copy for video, why are so many "writers" in love with facts but have such a hard time with ideas? Let's face it, facts are boring. Who cares? Facts sound like they mean something significant, but unless you understand the context and how your fact relates to what came before and what will come later, what's the point? Facts just fill up the spaces. And I like spaces. Spaces give you room to feel, contemplate and understand. Spaces are what it's all about.

Now, I'm not talking about a fact like "this is the tallest building in the world." No, that's a fact that carries it's own context. Namely, that there are scads of other buildings and this one, right here, is the biggest. No, I'm talking about a fact like "this building is 387 feet tall." All I can say to that is, "so what?"

Here's the problem: facts get in the way of understanding. They appear to be important, otherwise why include them? But by themselves they just hang out there, standing in the way of insight and comprehension. They are poor substitutes for concepts and ideas. And, if nothing else, we're in the idea business. That's what we do: create programs that help people understand the issues, what's important and why.

So recently, we took on project for a new client, a trade association, who came to us to do a series of very short pieces honoring their nominees for a prestigious award. Each nominee would get a 25 second video explaining their project. The videos would be shown at the awards ceremony and then they would announce the winners.

I saw the videos that were done in the past and they were fairly typical, with wall to wall narration full of facts and devoid of insight. Not a pretty picture.

We thought, these should really be like memorable campaign spots. You know, "Morning in America" or the famous Daisy Countdown. They should present concepts. Show, not tell.

So we took that approach, writing sparse, open narration filled with ideas. Not a fact to be found. Letting the visuals tell the story. And when it works, you feel like you've taken a little journey, starting one place and ending somewhere else.

You can do a lot in 25 seconds, when you make every word count. And, let's face it, facts are a dime a dozen. Ideas can change the world.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Good Story Appeals to Everyone

In today's WSJ, "A new study shows that Coca-Cola's Super Bowl ad starring Charlie Brown was the most talked about ad online" according to a company that monitors blogs.


The article went on to interview the ad makers:

WSJ: "Coke has long struggled to create ads that resonate with teens but don't rub older drinkers the wrong way. How much did that issue weigh in your head when dreaming up this spot?"
Hal Curtis (the spot's creative director): "A good story appeals to everyone. And a story that is well told appeals to young and old."

Coca-Cola's Pio Schunker: "We are at our best when we speak to universal values that appeal to everyone rather than try and skew it to specific segments."

Understanding the audience and how to best reach them does not lie exclusively in the domain of ad makers. It's something we also deal with. For example, one of the things you could say we bring to the table is an outside-of-the-organization world view. As you know, organizations have their own internal culture, jargon, and priorities. And those don't always communicate well to people on the outside. So while we believe in understanding the world from our client's point of view, we're also able to view their issues with a fresh eye.

You might way we can provide a different perspective. So, whenever I work on a project I ask these questions: Does it make sense? Can an audience not familiar with the subject follow the logic? Does it hold our interest? Is it compelling? Or, to come at it from a different angle, does it tell a good story? That's our job, to make sure that it does.

And then it will have a broad appeal. Which creates a greater impact and makes for a more memorable piece. Like the coke commercial.

Monday, January 28, 2008

More for Less

I like to clip articles. Going through my collection, I rediscovered a story that ran in the WSJ about Magnatag. As the journal article described it, Magnatag "thrived making highly specialized versions of an item that couldn't be less special--the erasable whiteboard." You can go to their website and see some of those versions at www. magnatag.com.

Okay, you might say, so what? Well, here's what: I like it because it's an example of how you can rethink what you have, or what you're trying to communicate and version it to meet the specific needs or interests of your audience. For example, we're working on a project for a client that includes producing an identity video for the general public. And then we'll create different packages from the material for a variety of uses. One version will be for members, another will be to recruit new people to the organization, others will be used as outreach vehicles to specific audiences. You get the idea. And that way each video will be tighter, more focused and more useful for the viewer and our client.

So in a way, you could say we're taking advantage of the Magnatag approach. Instead of making one whiteboard and hoping it will work for every occasion, the old "one size fits all" approach, they take the basic material and refashion it to meet the needs of their clients.

Just like the video work we'll be doing for our client. Which is a great way of getting more for less.

Monday, January 21, 2008


Dan Bailes:When the Web first became popular, it was all about something new. Soon, every organization had to be part of it: have a web presence, their own website, reach out and communicate. And some do that well. But too often the website model organizations seem to select is that of the newsletter or the brochure. They may work as print but are boring and unattractive on the web. You've got to tell stories. And make a strong visual impact. First, capture the eye.

We're always looking for new, effective ways to communicate. Which brings me to Howtoons. What is howtoons? Take the old boring how-to idea and express it in comic book mode. Like it's part of a story. Howtoons. http://www.howtoons.com/

The whole concept of the site is exploratory. Go there and you'll see what I mean. You have to move your cursor over an illustration and you get a message. You can check it out or move to another picture. You're immediately engaged and curious. You want to know more. And when you go to check out some of the how-to concepts, they're also illustrated, comic book style.

It works very well for what it is, a way to get kids to explore, learn something and do an activity that could be both educational and fun. Okay, you say, kids stuff. But why do we adults often act as if we think that communications for us should be educational and dull?

I think it's because we too often focus on the message and not enough on how we package the message. What's the best way to say what we want to say? That's where the creativity comes in. And hopefully, the fun.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Change, part one

Dan Bailes: Okay, so all we seem to hear about these days is "change." Everyone seems to want change, talks about change and yet so often when change comes, it's disruptive and unsettling. No, I'm not talking about the elections. I'm talking about change in the workplace. Here at GVI we just swapped out our old Avid systems for brand new Avid systems, new monitors, the works. The same, but different, which got me thinking about change.

In my work experience as an editor I've had to master three completely different technologies. First film, then video, and then computer editing. And not only were the technologies completely different, I also had to learn new ways of thinking and approaching how I should go about my work. I want to write about those differences in another post, but for the moment I'd like to focus on something I've learned in the process.

Most of my professional life I've worked on my own, often as a freelancer, although I've also had my own business. Over the years I've developed close working relationships, but always on a project by project basis. So I've pretty much had to depend on myself to shepherd myself through these technology and workplace changes. Fortunately I found that I was pretty adaptable and eventually I was able to thrive within all the changes. Of course, editing is mostly about judgment, creativity and experience and technology is only a means to an end.

But the changes were also stressful. Since I pretty much had to educate myself, there often was no one readily available to ask. Sometimes I'd get stuck or frustrated, knowing there was a better way, but not knowing how to get there. And of course, not being sure or not knowing is a byproduct of change. And that can be quite unsettling.

At GVI, I've had a different experience. We support each other. And that support makes the transition fun and exciting. I'm looking forward to learning about the new features and new systems. And now I have backup, so the stressful part is gone. And thinking about it, it's the same for programs I've produced here, too. When I wasn't sure or didn't know, I had plenty of people here to consult with and brainstorm. And that's the key to making change a positive instead of a negative. Having support and back ups, so you're not in it all by yourself. And then also sharing your own process and what you're learning so that everyone benefits.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Olan Mills Schadenfreude

Bob Burnett: Go to this fun blog of photos from studio photography shoots from over the years for a moment of diversion.

While I was enjoying the photos at the expense of others, I began thinking about the importance of how people "look" on camera and the importance of the proper location and set-up in order to enhance a message. We recently did a production project for the Diversity Group of Booz Allen Hamilton that was very well received. The feedback we had was not only was the content of the interviews exceptional but everyone looked great--which enhanced the credibility and impact of the video. The moral of the story---a few minutes discussion about "look"---and thoughtful lighting, make-up and locations--can make a huge difference in how effectively you communicate.