It’s great to see more people writing about storytelling technique in reference to nonfiction.
I’ve just finished Shawn Coyne’s book on storytelling which although aimed at authors is still useful for the nonfiction storyteller. Here he discusses how a fiction requirement - character wants and needs - can be transferred to nonfiction stories.
From the cutting room floor…
I’ve been working on a new video essay which is almost done. As usual, once a rough cut is done I end up reshaping and cutting shots and even whole sequences.
I’m still spending as much time as I can refining my process. One of the things I have realised just recently is that I have been mixing the creation and analysis stages of making a video essay together, which is a big no-no.
So I’ll often begin analysing a story design before I’ve even made a draft of it, and I’ll try and create and analyse on the same day. Your brain can’t switch from one to the other so easily, so now I’m updating my process to make sure church and state remain separated.
Here are a couple of shots which I dropped on Monday, after realising they weren’t essential to the story.
Deep into production on my next video essay for Fusion. I’m hoping to deliver a draft early next week.
Here are some snapshots of the story designs I’ve been working on for the story, including a script and thumbnail storyboard.
I’ve written a detailed story design analysis of the most recent video essay I published a few weeks ago.
I’ll do more of them if you’re interested!
You can read the full interview on their website, and here are a couple of my favourite questions:
You describe your website as being a quiet part of the internet, this is a good introduction to your work, which expresses ideas in a clear but contemplative way. Do you think that the internet is noisy with content because we haven’t worked out how best to use it for expression, or because we have so much to express and we haven’t learned how best to present it? Is it the internet or the users which lack clarity?
I think about this idea a lot at the moment. Stepping back a little, we can see that right now we are in the middle of what people call The Social Web. What matters at the moment is how popular you are - how many people share your work. So the people and companies that are successful (Buzzfeed is the prime example) have cleverly worked out how to engineer their content to be shared widely. All the major platforms we use, from Facebook to YouTube, reward people who are popular; everyone dreams of ‘going viral’. This inherently changes the dynamic of creation: to be successful on YouTube, for example, you must create a lot, which is why things are so noisy.
The way I see it, this obsession with popularity is a hangover from the 20th century age of mass marketing, which we haven’t quite got over yet. I also don’t think The Social Web will last forever - ten years perhaps, which means we are already half way through.
So I describe delve as being a quiet part of the Internet because I don’t try at all to make my videos popular (and, relatively, they’re not!) Instead I try really hard to make them objectively good. This attitude isn’t encouraged or rewarded by the Internet at the moment. Who knows what will come after The Social Web, but I hope it is an ecosystem that rewards quality not quantity; that is what I am building delve for.
Creative people view the world as a construct and so are able to play about with it, producing work that makes truth more palatable. Can you tell us a bit about your preference for video as a medium to produce palatable truths?
What a great question! I think all motion picture, whether it’s on a cinema screen, a TV screen or an online video is ultimately a medium of emotion. You could call it e-motion pictures. You can convey information of course, but video’s real power is in making people feel. Although my video essays are set up as educational, I am always trying to give people an emotional experience, maybe feeling inspired about their creative journey, surprised that computers are run on such a simple concept, or maybe even guilty that their habits of consumption hurt the poorest people. On the Internet most video makers use the medium in a very literal way: when they talk about a horse, they show a horse etc; but video is so powerful because it can be abstract and suggestive. You can make people feel an emotion by the use of almost invisible techniques in editing and image selection.
All storytelling, in any medium, when it is done well, is about manipulating the audience’s assumptions and ideas. But you do it to help people see a greater truth. And the best truths are emotional ones because they are so complicated and hard to define. I want to tell complicated truths; life isn’t simple and I think we do a disservice when we try and package life into self-contained blocks.
katapepaiderastèkenai - Greek, “to have squandered an estate through hopeless devotion to boys”
A occurrence so common in 4th century Greece it apparently needed its own verb.
Here are some shots from my latest video essay made in collaboration with Fusion.
The opening shot, showing the bombing of Hiroshima from the point of view of the bomb itself was an attempt to solve the problem of visualising an anecdote when you have no actual footage.
As well as solving this problem, the point of view creates an added layer of suspense, as the audience guesses what is about to happen. It also subtly punctuates the theme of the story, that history is only seen from the point of view of the victors.
Tony Zhou’s ‘Every Frame a Painting’ episode on Orson Welles’ F for Fake.
It’s a great lesson in structuring narrative for moving images. It’s best watched twice - once on YouTube, and secondly with Tony’s own editing annotations.
I’m tempted to try a similar annotation to unpick the editing decisions I make in my own video essays.
This attitude sustains me through the hard times.
Here is the transcript for the video essay “Bananas, Sardines and Sharks”. If you’d like to translate the film into another language, you can use this as a reference. Please email me with a .vtt file plus your website or twitter handle for credit. Thanks!
So, long before we were obsessed with all these things, and even these things, there was something else entirely.
Yep, this is going to be a story is all about a fruit…ok that’s a lie, because bananas aren’t actually a fruit.
It’s true. They’re a berry. And that isn’t the only thing we have wrong about them.
Maybe the most surprising thing about bananas is that they’re so cheap. Think about it - they’re grown on plantations thousands of miles away…transported, loaded, shipped…but when they arrive on our supermarket shelves they are usually cheaper than the apples which are grown just around the corner.
And they pretty much always have been. Even a hundred years ago, 25¢ would get you a dozen bananas, but only two apples.
That’s got everything to do with this friendly looking sailor, and this less friendly looking train operator. In 1899 they teamed up to create the United Fruit Company, and within 10 years they made bananas available and affordable everywhere. And their secret? Complete control.
United Fruit owned the plantations. United Fruit employed the workers. United Fruit built the railway line, and they even owned the ports and operated the ships.
[Old narrator] “The whole operation right from the first cutting is planned and timed…”
United Fruit turned an exotic delicacy into something cheap and convenient for everyone.
And man, we loved our cheap bananas.
[Lyrics] “I’m Chiquita Banana and I’m here to say that bananas have to ripen in a certain way. And when they’re flecked with brown and have a certain hue, bananas taste the best and are the best for you. Anyway you want to eat them, it’s impossible to beat them. Bananas are a solid food that doctors now include in babies diets. And since they are so good for babies, I think we all should try it. Si! Si! Si! Si!”
Long before these came along, the banana proved our appetite for all that is cheap and convenient.
But the story of the banana also comes with a warning…
[Old newsreel narrator] “Communist aggression has incited rebellion against established governments. In France, communist aggression has fomented strikes against essential industries in attempts to discredit the free government. In Iran, in Eastern Germany, in Korea and in China. And with the deadliest of all weapons available to the Russians, no peoples in the world can feel secure against this aggression”
Just 1400 miles from the American border, the shadow of communism was looming dangerously large.
The newly elected president of Guatemala - Jacobo Arbenz - was a well known communist sympathiser.
High level reports warned that the country was overrun with communists…many were even working in the government. Then, in 1952, Arbenz announced a new plan: to buy up all the unused land in Guatemala and distribute it equally to the country’s workers.
And even worse, he planned to nationalise the country’s railways and its ports.
Watching closely, the United States government was sure of one thing. Communism couldn’t be allowed to get a foothold in the Americas…Arbenz had to go.
So in 1953 President Eisenhower ordered his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to fix the problem. He spoke to his brother, Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA. And together they came up with a secret mission to depose the Guatemalan president.
Now this was a dangerous idea: to remove a democratically elected president from someone else’s country…and do it without getting caught.
Did the Dulles brothers think they could pull it off? They must have done. They called it Operation Success.
Here is the CIA Guide to removing a democratically elected president in six weeks without anyone knowing it was you.
Step One: set up a radio station in Miami Florida, but tell everyone that you’re based in the Guatemalan jungle.
Step Two: assemble a rag tag group of a hundred or so mercenaries and stash them on the border.
Step Three: announce on the radio that an army of thousands of well trained soldiers has just invaded the country - even though they haven’t.
Step Four: send a few light aircraft to strafe the capital city and scare everyone into running away.
Step Five: keep up the radio broadcasts and announce that your made up army is marching towards the capital.
And Step Six: sit back and wait for your man to break.
Just a few days later on June 28th 1954, Jacabo Arbenz resigned and fled from an army that never existed.
In his place the CIA installed this guy - happy to do as he was told…and definitely not a communist.
Except…Jacobo Arbenz…wasn’t a communist either.
He wasn’t even remotely dangerous…until that is you realise that Guatemala was known by another name…
[Old narrator] “Here is a banana plantation, and it is our first introduction as to why this rich area is known as Bananaland”
The stories that the country was overrun with communists were made up… all part of a big PR campaign…paid for by United Fruit.
But hang on…we’re talking about a fruit company here - how did they convince the president of the United States to stage a secret coup? Well it’s pretty easy actually…if the Secretary of State and the head of the CIA used to be your company lawyers…
Castillo Armas did as he was told and gave United Fruit all their land back.
And so the bananas kept on coming, as convenient as ever and still cheaper than apples.
The operation to remove Arbenz was remarkably quick and clean…but the 36 year civil war that it started was not.
[Lyrics] “I’m Chiquita Banana and I’m here to say that bananas have to ripen in a certain way. And when they’re flecked with brown and have a certain hue, bananas taste the best and are the best for you. Anyway you want to eat them, it’s impossible to beat them. Bananas are a solid food that doctors now include in babies diets. And since they are so good for babies, I think we all should try it…”
Around 200 thousand people died…or simply disappeared. Mass graves are being discovered.
Today we’re in love with cheap convenience more than ever…but usually someone somewhere pays the price.
Question is…as long as WE still get what we want…do we care?
[Old Narrator] “So now that you’ve seen where bananas come from before they reach your table, our journey to Bananaland has ended. We hope you’ve enjoyed the trip. We know you like bananas!”
1968 points and 392 comments so far on reddit
The latest video essay kicked off a juicy debate over on Reddit. It’s really great to see people having serious discussions about the ideas and issues in the video, plus asking how to find out more. (P.S. there is)
Before our favourite smartphones, tablets, taxi apps and online stores there was the humble banana. This remarkable true story of a Cold War coup warns us that no matter how cheap and convenient our stuff is, there is always a price to pay.
[Warning: contains some images that you might find disturbing]
The title Bananas, Sardines and Sharks is a reference to The Shark and the Sardines, one of the first accounts written about the Guatemalan coup, by Jacobo Arbenz’s predecessor Juan José Avéralo, and the first to accuse the American government of being involved.
Have you seen our new video essay yet? It’s a weird and almost unbelievable history of the start of #ww1 a hundred years ago. Even if you think you know the story, you’ll be surprised by what we found. Head over to delve.tv to watch it now, for free. #history #greatwar #learning