One of the biggest differences between creating an effective still photo and producing a captivating motion piece is how you approach telling the story. This week, our contributors share their insights, advice and practices for tellling engaging stories in motion.
[by Pascal Depuhl]
Story trumps everything
Story is the most important part of any video. Great story trumps great visuals, amazing audio or an intricate edit every time. As a photographer, you’ve been a visual storyteller for as long as you’ve captured still images so I’m not gonna waste your time on how to craft visual content that tells a compelling story designed to change the viewers mind.
(If you want to learn more about that kind of story telling, check out Alex Buono’s Visual Story Telling Tour that’s running through September 20th and don’t forget your ASMP member discount. Or check out the How to Step Up Your Video talk I gave at WordCamp Miami this past May.)
The 3 ingredients necessary to create a powerful story
I believe the philosophy behind creating a powerful visual story is simple. It consists of three basic steps that, when followed, make your story irresistible. These three ingredients are simple to learn, yet difficult to execute. I discovered them when creating my first documentary in Afghanistan, shared them in my TEDx talk called The Art of Changing Minds and try to incorporate them into all of my video productions.
Step #1: Vision
Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.
~ Jonathan Swift
Without vision you have no story. Without vision you are literally flying blind. How are you going to tell a story, if you don’t know how it ends, where it begins and what twists and turns there will be along the way? By the way, it was Aristotle who wrote that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end.
Your vision is imperative to transform your viewer. Without vision it’s the blind leading the blind. True vision can not be manufactured, it has to transform you first.
(As an aside, if all you have is vision, you’re a just dreamer; someone with a great idea who’s afraid of going out on a limb to make it happen. You need the next step to get the driving force to help you get your dream off the ground.)
Step #2: Passion
If you don’t have a passion for what you do, any rational person is going to give up.
~ Steve Jobs
Without passion your story is dull, boring, uninteresting and lame. Without passion your story is a carbon copy of someone else’s at best – a counterfeit clone at worst. How are you going to excite your audience if you’re not sharing something that you deeply believe in? More importantly, where are you gonna get the strength to deal with the people who will discourage you from telling your story without having that fire in your belly? It’s easy to give up if all you hear is “No!”…unless you have passion driving your vision.
Your passion is vital to inspire your audience. Without passion you’re producing a story that’s gonna put everyone to sleep. True passion can not be faked. Passion has to inspire you first, before it inspires your audience.
(As an aside, if you have passion, without vision – you’re like a bull in a china shop. There’s a lot of noise, but nothing good is gonna come out of it. Shoot first and ask questions later does not work.)
Step #3: Action
Your aspirations are in heaven, but your brains are in your feet.
~ Afghan proverb
Without action your story is going to die. I don’t care how transforming your vision is and how inspirational your passion is; without taking action, you will fail. It’s as simple as that. Without action your story never gets told and an untold story is worth as much as an unprocessed piece of film.
Your action inspires and breathes life into your story. Without action your story remains lifeless and dead. It stays buried inside your head or entombed in some dusty screenplay or faded storyboard, that’s never gonna get shared. Great stories need you to get your head out of the clouds and get going.
The philosophy behind riveting storytelling:
- Be a true visionary and create a transformative story by staying true to your vision.
- Become a person of passion, who shares an inspirational story fueled by the burning passion in your gut.
- Take action! Produce an inspiring story that follows your vision and combine it with passion to let it rip…
Pascal has been telling visual stories for a couple of decades and believes that video is a powerful medium to create riveting stories that change minds. Check out his TEDx talk called “The Art of changing minds” and let him know, if you agree on twitter @photosbydepuhl.
[by John Welsh]
Perspective. Observation. Clarity. These words help me find vision. And vision is something we need in order to differentiate ourselves within the horde that’s creating images. But I believe these words are also a component and fundamental layer in storytelling.
So, what if we took the Big Bang Theory and applied it to storytelling? That the moment of creation is when the story begins to have structure. That it’s something tangible. That if you inserted all of your facts and research on a story into the three act formula, the result would be that moment. But what happens before the Big Bang moment?
First, you must have one regarding your story and you must apply it. For a moment forget objectivity if you come from a journalistic background. Of course you must maintain ethics, but your vision is created from being subjective.
Perspective also can be used as a tool. The same story can be told from different points of view. Finding the viewpoint for your story is a key part of the information gathering process and deciding how to tell it. Brainstorming other POV’s is a great way to get around roadblocks; it’s an important tool to have in the box.
This is a quality we already mastered when creating still images. It’s so ingrained in our thinking it’s hard to extract the idea from our thought process. It’s something we just do. But how do we use it when storytelling?
A great exercise is to engage in people watching. Do it whenever you have a few free minutes. (Airports are great places to practice.) Become a harmless stalker. Learn to read people, their reactions, their motivations. And if you want to go for gold, engage in conversation with strangers and take the next step as if you were interviewing a subject. You have nothing at stake, you’re just honing your skills of observation.
Learn to be clear. Learn to be direct. Ask others who understand story telling for blunt force feedback and become comfortable with it. Sure, it can be a shot to the ego, but you’ll need to get past that to grow as a storyteller.
In an effort to find clarity you may also have to go off on wild tangents. While they often turn out to be nothing more than distractions, exploring an alternate direction can sometimes lead to clarity. You may discover what’s important to cut from your story. Exploring tangents can also lead you to undiscovered perspectives and aid your story’s journey into existence, so don’t rule them out entirely.
John Welsh is a photographer from Philadelphia and, in an effort to keep himself sane, tries not to think about what was there before the cosmological Big Bang moment (if that truly is how we all got here).
[by Gail Mooney]
“…it depends on where you stop the story.”
The story is everything, and as the director and/or the DP (Director of Photography), I must have a clear idea and commitment to the story that I want to tell. If don’t, I’ll confuse or lose my audience. When I set out to create storytelling pieces – short form or long form documentary or narratives, I am mindful at all times of the story I want to tell or the message that I want to deliver. Every decision I make from my choice of angle, lens, lighting, music or pacing in the edit room, is made with the story in mind.
- Have a story. Stories aren’t just a bunch of pretty visuals strung together on a music soundtrack.
- Determine exactly what your story is. Be able to describe your story in one sentence.
- Have you heard the expression “moving the story along”? Think about your story’s structure. Have a title. How will you start? How will you end? Where are the highs and lows? Good stories move and keep the audience engaged. There’s a great book about writing a screenplay called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s all about great storytelling.
- For short pieces, open with your strongest material or something that will get your audience’s attention. You have about 7 seconds to either get their attention or drive them away.
- Sequencing – nothing is worse than watching long drawn out video takes. Break down your shots into sequences made up of a variety of focal lengths and/or angles. In the edit these can be cut together in many ways to have the impact you want with your audience.
- Lens/Angle choices – Yes, different lenses will convey a different message. For example, using a very wide angle lens can force perspective creating an intimacy with the viewer or make them uneasy depending on other factors – lighting, music etc..
- Camera movement – Cameras movement is a language of its own – tilts, pans, tracking, zooms all send different messages. Each move can change the feel and pace and move the story in different ways.
- Music drives the story and sets the tone. It’s integral for creating the right mood. Choose the right music for various parts of your story to create the tension, sadness, triumph or resignation.
[by Charles Gupton]
Taking the plunge from being a still photographer for 30+ years to creating motion projects was a huge one for me.
As I started out, I thought the greatest obstacles were going to be learning the technical aspects of editing and audio or the learning curve related to purchasing and understanding how motion equipment differed from my still cameras.
Although each of these areas has had its specific challenges, the greatest hurdle has been convincing the businesses we work with that the best way to communicate their message in a film or video is by using the amazing power of a great story.
But not just any story. The story needs to capture the emotion and energy behind why the people who work with that company do what they do.
Our storytelling process doesn’t begin with creating a storyboard, writing a script, scouting a location or making decisions about who will be in front of the camera.
Instead, we always begin every motion project by sitting down with our client and asking the question “Why?”
Why does your business exist? What are the values and motivations that lie behind why you do what you do? Why should that matter to your potential clients or customers?
Then we make the case for using a powerful and compelling story to communicate that “why” to the audience of potential customers or clients the company is trying to reach. It’s not what they do — or how they do it — that most interests customers or clients. Instead, it’s the stories that explain why they do what they do that build loyalty and connection.
The power of a well-told story is in the emotion that the story evokes in the mind and heart of the listener. Stories connect with listeners at the why level because stories are amazing conduits for communicating what we value – why we get out of bed every morning to do the work we do.
The answers to these why questions provide the foundation on which we base every other decision:
- If this a business testimonial video, which stories have the greatest power to explain why customers are loyal?
- If we want a particular call-to-action, how can we use a story of why the business exists to inspire and motivate?
- How can the story be told from the point of view of why the customer is a fan?
- If camera movement is important to telling the story, how can it be done to further the story rather than just be a gimmick?
The opportunities to use various media to tell stories that engage viewers — and make a difference for businesses that tell them effectively — has never been greater.
But too frequently, we get caught up in our technical ability to create something quickly or more affordably and, in the process, overlook the most fundamental element of telling a story – why we’re telling it.
Charles Gupton is the host of The Creator’s Journey podcast. He is a filmmaker, still photographer, writer and all around curious guy who loves asking questions and engaging in deep “why” conversations. firstname.lastname@example.org | www.charlesgupton.com