Thursday, 25 October 2012

"Chaos Storytelling"

During a recent project for factual television producers, one of the participants asked if there was any way to "break out" of the same old beginning / middle / end - character/conflict/resolution story structure that has held away for producers and their audiences since Aristotle first articulated it all those years ago.  He wanted to know if there is something he called "chaos storytelling" - a way to tell stories for television which don't always have the rigid character/conflict structure and a neat and complete ending.

For me, the best place to start thinking more about the idea of "chaos storytelling" (as opposed to "structured" storytelling) would be to read Erich Auerbach's famous essay "Odysseus' Scar" from his book "Memesis: the representation of reality in Western Literature." Auerbach explains the origins of Aristotle's idea, and how, back then, he had a rival who was equally influential, with exactly the opposite approach to storytelling.

Ovid's "Metamorphosis" is a good example of how memorable stories can be told without any kind of definitive ending or structure. In Ovid's approach, stories are about "continuous transformation" - from the grotesque to the beautiful to the shocking to the reassuring, etc. etc. etc. There's no end to it, and that's what the Metamorphosis was all about. Ovid's "message" is there is no clear "resolution" to stories (and in life)... we just keep changing.

The ancient Indian epic "The Mahabharata" follows a similar pattern to Ovid; there are few clear winners and losers in its incredible collection of stories. And deeply connected to the Mahabharata are the fantastic Indonesian shadow puppet plays known as the "Wayang." The art of storytelling in the Wayang is fascinating (everything is told in shadow and seen through smoke, which represents desire and human failings); it is very deep and has profound things to say about human stories. Again, like Ovid and the great Indian epics, the Wayang has no clear winners, losers or final resolutions.

My colleague's question made me think - could "chaos" and Ovid's ideas about impermanence and change be the key to storytelling for a completely new medium that is all about continuous transformation... the web?

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Telling your science story on film and video

I do a lot of work with scientists and researchers, and many of them want to know how to make a short film about their research for their presentations, the websites of their institutions and research centers and for online platforms.

My message to scientists is: telling the story of your research in a short film or video is possible. It’s a LOT of work and it takes a lot of time. But it is a fun process, and helps you think differently about your work (which is good). Your audience will respond.

First, answer the most basic question of all: who is your film “for?” Your film is for an audience. That means, you have to express your ideas about your research in a way that your audience understands. That's an easy concept to understand but much more difficult to execute properly.

For example, audiences within your scientific discipline might have one expectation for your film. People in science, but outside the discipline might have another expectation. And the general public has another expectation altogether. So it's tricky. It is essential that you keep your target audience in mind when you think about how you want to tell your story film or video.

The two key structures we use to explain scientific research in the medium of film or television are:
  • Processes
  • Character driven stories

A "process" is simply describing step-by-step, in a logical way, to your audience how a certain result was reached. Obviously because that matches your work process, it's an ideal structure for expressing scientific research on video. But what's essential is the process is explained clearly and understandably for your audience. "Processes" in films about science are quite common and usually quite effective.

Process: animation

The most basic approaches involve simple computer animation. Some creative scientists have taken animation a step further, to tell a short story about their research:

Process: live action

The next level of telling your science story using a process involves live-action and “real people.” It's a step above simple animation, but the principle of showing a process is still very clear. Here is an example of a process using live action. This one uses a very technical, step-by-step approach. Videos like this are quite common in science today:

Process: visual metaphors

The next step up in making your process more interesting for audiences is using a “visual metaphor” to explain your process. What's most important is that the metaphor is a simple one, easy for your audience to understand. That also makes it easier to visualize (shoot.)

Character-driven stories

Now the next level up from "process” stories are what are called "character-driven stories." A character-driven story is the "gold standard" for storytelling in film and television, because audiences respond extremely well, if they are done well. But there’s a big drawback: process stories are easy, character driven stories are very, very hard to do well.

The topic has to be strong enough to support a character driven structure with enough built-in, ever worsening conflicts to keep the audience with you, and the character, and what is happening to them, has to be strongly compelling for the audience.

That's a tall order and obviously means not every scientific or research theme is suitable for a character-driven story. But when everything comes together there are few structures more powerful for audiences:

If you want to do a character-driven film about your research, here are the key points to consider when it comes to structuring and planning your idea:
  • Who is affected (your “character”)?
  • The stakes have to be the highest possible for the character (the loss of life, by the way, is the highest)
  • You don't tell what happens, until the end

“Sense of wonder”

This is quite possibly why a lot of researchers got into science in the first place. It is the "sense of wonder" about scientific research, and the challenge of visualizing that on film.

This is perhaps the most famous example of inspiring a “sense of wonder” about science in audiences.

Millions of people have seen “Powers of 10” since it was made in the 1960s. It is directly responsible for inspiring tens of thousands of young people around the world to pursue a career in science. That's not a bad goal for your own film about your research!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The coming of "iPadTV"

Finding ways to express content and turn the iPad (ok, no free plugs) "tablets and smart phones" into something closer to a television experience (that also combines the unique characteristics of mobile platforms) is accelerating:

A start up in San Francisco called Remixation has introduced a "TV Guide" for mobile platforms, an app called "Showyou" which shows thumbnails of all the videos currently playing on YouTube, Vimeo, etc that friends are sharing on social networks:

In the first major study of its kind, Nielsen, which tracks media use, found in 2011 young American television viewers are more or less watching the same television shows their parents do, but more and more young people are watching on smart phones and tablets, not on TV. 

And for the first time, in 2012 the Super Bowl was broadcast online - it scored 2.1 million unique views, compared to 111 million on television. NBC claims the game was "the single most-watched sports event ever online." 

I wonder how many people watched it on their iPad, um, I mean tablet?