Profiling individual people and telling their story is a fundamental method of documentary style filmmaking.
In this post, I give you two examples from my own library. They’re both health stories I made while working as a field producer and health reporter for WSMV-TV in Nashville, TN.
PEOPLE WANT TO WATCH OTHER PEOPLE
To enhance the “watchability” of a video and make it appeal to a broad audience, the standard practice is to profile a person who experienced the subject matter of the story.
In short, you videotape them doing whatever it is they do, and weave it into the final story in a logical way.
On the surface, the story appears to be about them, but the core of the story is really the situation or topic and the person’s experiences become the vehicle by which you tell the story.
This is a great technique, especially when you’re trying to visualize an abstract topic or trying to be more creative with your storytelling.
People respond to people. So make you story about people no matter the underlying topic.
Audiences respond to emotion, not dry facts.
The best, most entertaining videos are compelling stories of individuals who experienced whatever issue the video is actually about. You film sequences of their activities and turn that into your b-roll for the story.
PROFILING PEOPLE ENHANCES CREATIVE POSSIBILITIES
The first video in this post is about losing weight. As you can well imagine, like any health reporter, I’ve written more than once of the subject of weight loss! I didn’t want to do the same old standard story showing carrot sticks and scales so I profiled Maria, a lifelong obese woman who was very open and honest about her problems.
Weight loss is a complex emotional issue. What better way to impart that in a short minute and a half video than to intertwine it with the most emotional of all events, a wedding! That’s the emotional hook that brings viewers into the story.
The video clip posted at the top of the page is the full video that ran on the air, but without the anchor intro which, of course, is an integral part of the viewing experience in TV news broadcasting so I apologize for its absence.
VISUALIZING THE ABSTRACT IN A CONCRETE WAY
How do you make a video about an abstract subject like depression? Sad faces? Tears. Maybe, but whose face and tears? It’s best to tell the story of depression by telling the story of someone who dealt with it. That’s what I did with the second video in this post, which I named “Garden Grief.” (Video posted here is just the first half of the story.)
The woman in the story below had suffered from serious depression after enduring a brutal car wreck that killed her friend and left her seriously wounded, both physically and mentally.
She worked out her grief and stress by creating a huge backyard garden overa number of years. So videotaping her on her knees digging in the dirt was logical and pertinent video to weave into the overall story, which was about depression, not gardening.
The video in the weight loss story is a basic sequence of her dressing and preparing for the wedding. I used those sequences as b-roll and wove in the emotional aspects of obesity, which the core subject matter of the story.
Now you can’t tell me that isn’t a better technique than doing the twenty zillionth dieting story showing carrots and scales!
HOW TO MAKE DOCUMENTARY STYLE VIDEOS YOURSELF
In order to do a basic profile story of a person on video, you need a good interview plus video of them doing something. If you are doing a long piece, you can make it more compelling using variety. Videotape them doing several different activities, not just one.
Interview your subject in more than one location if you have time. Interviewing them while they are doing something, and not just sitting there, is a good idea although neither of these pieces make much use of that technique. You’ll probably need a wireless microphone to do that.
Hopefully, whatever video you take is actually related to the subject matter, but if it’s not, no worries. Sometimes it’s impossible to get the video you really WANT so you have to learn to configure the story around what you have.
The trick is to write the narration in such a way that it makes perfect sense to see whatever video you use. In the story on Maria getting married, once I established the link between love, weight loss and her wedding, it made perfect sense to see video of her putting on her wedding gown.
In the same manner with the depression story, close-ups of bird’s nests and wind chimes make sense in context.
When I made the Garden Grief story, I really would have liked to have added some still pictures of the auto accident which lead to her depression. If you watch the portion of the story I posted, there is no doubt that at the right time, screeching tire sound effects, music and quick shots of the wreck scene would have worked well.
I did not do this because this video was produced in a context of JOURNALISM. I needed images of the actual wreck, not just any generic wreck. There was no way I could get them by deadline so I left them out.
If I had not been telling this story in the context of journalism, I would have felt free to use generic wreck shots and sounds. It would have added to the impact of the story, but it would have crossed ethical boundaries of realism in journalism. Now there is not much ethical journalism going on in America today but that is another post! I always tried to be strict with the boundaries of journalism, even if that made the story less dramatic.
Neither of these stories is anything outstanding really, rather they are typical of what I used to do on a daily basis. They are typical of documentary style filmmaking in general but news is produced at a much faster pace than a high-budget corporate video.
No matter what kind of documentary-style videos you want to make, chances are high that profiling people and telling their stories will be one of the best ways for you to accomplish your goal.
PROFESSIONAL DOCUMENTARY MAKING TIPS
I hope you enjoy these examples and can see from them all the different elements it takes to make a quality documentary style video. Notice the pacing of the editing. Rarely does any one shot last as long as ten seconds. There are lots of close-ups.
There are short natural sound breaks between paragraphs of narration. Natural sound is a storytelling element that can be used similarly to punctuation in written storytelling.
The video illustrates the story but really does not match word for word with what the narration is saying. It is more of association type relationship between the words and the video, not a literal one.
People who have been making video forever (like me) consider this type of relationship between our visuals and our spoken words to be a more creative method that tells a more effective story than matching images to narration precisely.
“Say dog, see dog” is the jargon. This means a newbie filmmaker is inclined to show EXACTLY what the narrator is saying in a literal sense. Not t say that method is wrong but higher-level filmmakers would come up with something a bit more creative, like showing something indicative of a dog, like food bowls, bones or chewed up shoes.
Thanks for reading Video Production Tips. As always, drop me a line if you have questions about online video.