Friday, August 7, 2009

Where Can You Find the Best Video Storytelling Lessons? Hollywood!

Most of what passes for videojournalism these days is a collection of shots of people talking and, if we're lucky, showing us what they do. Big snore! What can be done to make these pieces more compelling, engaging, and, dare we say, entertaining?

Videojournalists need to learn visual storytelling techniques from the masters: Hollywood filmmakers.

No sense reinventing the wheel here -- we have a century of experience to draw upon. We encourage aspiring vidjos to pursue the examples of great screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, and editors -- and apply appropriate techniques to their non-fiction endeavours.

Here are three inspiring titles to get you started -- and collectively pull you through the three major aspects of telling stories visually: creating/composing your story, shooting it, and editing it. Ideally these should be intertwined endeavours, in that each step informs the others, and at every stage you should be contemplating all of them.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee

McKee's popular screenwriting course has been attended by thousands of wannabes -- but also most of Hollywood's top studio execs, actors, directors, and filmmakers of all stripes. This is that class's best-selling bible, and it's chockablock with the basic dramatic fundamentals that will help you shape and structure your video story.

Replete with script examples from more than 100 modern films, most will find McKee an easier read than Aristotle (who was the first kid on the block with these lessons a few centuries ago). Though this is obviously targeted for fictional moviemakers, any videojournalist who embraces its lessons in story elements and principles -- and how and why they hook audiences -- will find themselves far ahead of the game.

Character, crisis, climax, resolution, scene development -- it's all here, and can all be applied to non-fiction stories. Just knowing these components will automatically help guide your story planning and structure.

Setting Up Your Shots: Great Camera Moves Every Filmmaker Should Know (2nd Ed.), by Jeremy Vineyard.

Every page of this cleanly designed book introduces you to a basic shooting style or technique (e.g. Jump Cut Sequence, or Split Screen), accompanied by illustrative line drawings and specific examples of movie scenes that incorporate it -- and why.

It's divided into sections such as "Composition Techniques" and "Techniques of Perspective" to help you sort out what's accomplished while shooting (e.g. with focus or camera movement) versus what's a byproduct of the editing process.

Even though you've seen and are familiar with many of these common techniques, just being visually reminded of their existence is often enough to get you thinking about the best way to shoot and edit your own videojournalism tale. You'll encounter ideas that may not have occurred to you, making it an invaluable reference work.

This new updated 2nd edition adds 25 techniques to the 1999 original -- along with references to 200 new films. It's guaranteed to improve your visual vocabulary and cinematic language, and hence expand your pallette when it comes to finding fresh, innovative ways to paint your story.

In our spare time, we've been fooling around with some of the simple shooting and editing techniques explained here -- Open Up, Close Out, Delayed Revelation -- and encourage you to be similarly playful with the selections as well. The more you try, the more you'll have "ready to go" when you need them. But as any professor would remind you, in actual practice don't go overboard -- it's also important to know when to exercise tasteful restraint.

In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing (2nd Ed.) , by Walter Murch.
Murch was Frances Coppola's go-to guy for all those years-long masterpiece projects. Though he is celebrated for his painstaking technique, it's also his vaunted aesthetics that makes this volume a must-read for anybody who sets a finger on Final Cut.

You'll get both philosophical musings and hardcore advice from the master whose work distinguished The Godfather II and III, Apocalypse Now, and a slew of celebrated films that owe their success, in large part, to their brilliant (if seemingly invisible) editing.

Murch's colorful career spans several generations of technological progress. This volume was originally published in 1995, the year that digital editing overtook linear editing. The updated second edition includes a lengthy Afterword devoted to digital that more than doubles the length of the book!

Although technical skills are critically important for editors, immerse yourself in Murch for a perfect blend of pragmatic and artistic considerations. After reading this, you'll never think of a simple "cut" in the same way again.

(NOTE: Instead of linking you to Amazon, we're encouraging you to patronize an independent bookseller or your local library.)

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