A creativity crisis

Today I am having a creativity crisis. Last night I watched and judged all the videos entered in this month’s NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest. My crisis stems from the feeling of déjà vu. My entries looked and sounded like everyone else’s. So off I went for inspiration over to B-Roll.net TV. There are some really strong stories here. But after an hour of browsing TV news videos, I left feeling disheartened. To me, the television reporter driven voice-overs were all started to sound the same. 

Someone once described the TV news narrative as sounding plastic. I’d like to add the word cookie cutter to that. TV news shooters must cringe when their well-shot stories are chopped up with frantic one sentence reporter narration that intrudes between almost every video clip. Watching this style of video just confuses me as to what is the best way to tell an effective video story.

I was raised on the Platypus Workshop model of storytelling. A-roll + B-roll = Story. This is the traditional way to tell video story. Do your talking head interview, then cover it with b-roll of whatever the subject talks about. After several years of telling stories this way, I feel like I am in the movie Groundhog Day. I just keep telling the same formula story over and over.

I don’t know what my reprieve from this loop will be. Some photojournalist-turned-videojournalists have found a stylized storytelling niche for themselves such a Dai Sugano at the San Jose Mercury News. Many have emulated his work. When I watch one of these time-lapse or stop-action stories, the visual sensation delights me, but not always the substance of the message. Often, when I get to the end of these push the creative envelope presentations, I ask: “What did this story really tell me?” Other than being a cool creative exercise to watch, I am often left feeling unfulfilled.

Part of my dilemma is that I am sensitive to the fact viewership for my own video stories has a broad range of ages and visual literacy. Get too creative and you get the “huh?” factor from viewers who just hit the back button. Get too literal and the over-simulated younger set gets bored fast. Somewhere, there’s got to be a happy medium. It is tough trying to be all things to all viewers and maybe I shouldn’t worry about such matters.

My ultimate goal every time I produce a video is to tell a compelling and informative story. Sometimes I fail. Unfortunately, not all stories are barnburners. After four years of shooting news video, I reflectively have to ask: “What am I missing in my storytelling toolbox that could help me be a better storyteller?” There are not many resources to help me in my quest. So what to do?

I sometimes forget that most everyone who shoots video for newspapers is new to the craft. We’re all looking for mentors. The reality is there are only a few with experience to lean on. I think the one thing newspaper video shooters have all agreed on is we should break free of the TV news model. We will tell our video stories in a different way thank you. But one has to wonder– is tossing out the fundamentals of good video storytelling and production that has been refined for decades on TV news the way to go? I hope not. So for now, I wait.

It will be interesting to see how video storytelling at newspapers will define and refine itself over time. There are lots of smart and creative people entering the newspaper video arena. Once they master the fundamentals, hopefully a fresh approach to video storytelling will soon take shape. Until then, there is old reliable– A + B = Story.

4 thoughts on “A creativity crisis

  1. I agree with the sameness that has set in to much of newspaper video journalism. And as long as we focus our learning on each other, we will get stuck at the same place. Most of us are new to this medium. But it seemed to me, from the beginning, that we should be learning from the best of film-making, not from one another’s online videos. I’ve been inspired by Errol Morris’ work from day one. His Oscar-winning film “The Fog of War” might be his masterpiece, but his short-lived TV series “First Person” is available on DVD through Netflix and is a masterful example of how to do the interview.

    It’s obvious that some of the techniques for a feature film, or even an extended TV presentation don’t transfer literally to online, short-form, video. But the folks producing this work are far more experienced in everything we are trying to bring to online video-journalism.

    Dai’s work is indeed exemplary. And a recent comment that he might be ready for Sundance suggests that he has learned from the best. And right now, the best are not necessarily among online photojournalists. We are still learning.

  2. I’ve found recently that the interview + scene footage equation has fallen out of favor with some despite being a completely workable style. I have to admit that I’m drawn in by work like Dai’s but typically leave having gained very little besides an appreciation for the creator’s sense of style and pacing. Few of Dai’s pieces have left me thinking or truely moved the way videos like “Thin” and the HBO TV series “This American Life” have. A pair of Brooks students have a piece called “Warner Kids” (trailer here http://tinyurl.com/3cwuvr) in a cinema verite style that I think is simply amazing.

    I too have been feeling like I need to do something different, but I’ve decided so much of a video’s quality comes from the story itself that I’m spending a lot more time trying to find high quality stories and less time worrying about my style. Of course once a story is found the question becomes what style is going to best suite the story, but it still comes second.

    I’ve also been watching a lot of “Frontline” videos lately. Their topic-centric pieces are easily 30-50% talking head, but the clips are so well orchestrated to flow from one head to another that I stay enthralled to the very end. See “The Persuaders” episode for what I mean.

    Of course, all of these examples are 30 minutes long at least. Add distilling that sensibility down to 2-5 minutes and you run into the problem you’re running into now.

    I still prefer candid interviews and setup interviews to reporter voice over any day.

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