The web video problem
Why it's time to rethink visual storytelling on the web from the bottom up
Adam Westbrook | May 2013 | 2545 words
So four months ago, I moved to Paris.
The unexpected side-effect of living in a country where you can't speak the language is that you spend a lot of time feeling stupid. Even a simple trip to the boulangerie can become a humiliating experience if someone speaks to you just a little too quickly.
You're a stranger in a foreign land and suddenly you don't know anything. You're no longer good at the things you took for granted. Your experience counts for nothing and you have no competence to rely on.
The amazing thing about this is that suddenly you question everything about yourself. If I can't even hold a conversation anymore, what else am I wrong about?
IMAGE: Olivier Guin for the Noun Project
It turns out this has come just at the perfect time.
Professionally I've been working in video on the web for four years; before that I first started working in television in 1999. I teach video, people read what I have to say about it and I get invited all over the world to talk about it.
IMAGE: John Thompson/Mousetrap Media
In other words, I have every reason to believe I know what I'm talking about.
But competency is dangerous. It closes you off to possibility. When you think you know everything, you're in danger of missing the obvious.
So, wandering around Paris, where nothing is certain any more, I have started to question what I really know about my craft, visual storytelling.
Is there something important we haven't figured out yet?
I think maybe there is. This is my attempt to explain what I mean as best I can…
First, we have to take a trip beneath the waves.
On Christmas Day last year a group of independent filmmakers released a five part series that had been in production for more than two years. The Underwater Realm was very ambitious - shot largely underwater and across five different periods in history. It gained attention in 2011 when it raised $100,000 on Kickstarter, making it one of the most successful crowdsourced film projects at the time.
With young British director David M. Reynolds at the helm, the filmmakers brought in friends and volunteers to produce the picture, a feat which involved hours of filming in specialist swimming pools, building replica Spitfires out of spare parts and Fairy Liquid bottles and even creating a 16th century replica Spanish galleon from scratch. And they built up a great following by releasing behind-the-scenes films and how-to's sharing the whole process.
IMAGE: Realm Pictures
And so fans, followers and backers waited eagerly at Christmas to see the result of all the money and effort. But uploaded to Youtube somehow the five parts of the Underwater Realm left people…underwhelmed. The producers had hoped to reach 1 million views, but the first film (and the most-watched) is lulling around the 60,000 mark, five months later.
A fair amount has been done to dissect why the project didn't make a splash, particularly by Phillip Bloom in this interview with the filmmakers. He puts it down to over high expectations, and a lack of a strong story among other things.
But I'm writing about it because it struck me as betraying a bigger problem we have in how we make and publish things on the web.
I think the Underwater Realm suffers from a fundamental mismatch between its form and its function: in other words, how it is made, and what it is made for.
And this problem is holding back lots of innovation in web content & publishing.
Here's the mismatch: the makers of the Underwater Realm wanted to make some cinema and then put it on Youtube. So they made a piece of cinema - the way that cinema is made and has been made for decades...and then uploaded it onto Youtube
The filmmakers themselves may well say "well duh, of course we did" but when you think about it, it's actually quite strange.
We've already seen this approach fail in online video news, where papers rushed to produce their own news bulletins with a newsreader (huh?) and television style packages, completely forgetting they were formats made for TV. The results were embarrassing.
(Incidentally, this also works (or doesn't work) the other way. Ever seen Great Movie Mistakes? It's one of the worst TV shows ever made, because it's trying to take clips from Youtube and make them work on television. Don't work, baby.)
Web video is obviously hugely popular and it's actually what I do for a living. I'm not trying to say it's irrelevant. But it has some big flaws that I don't think we can ignore.
Sitting and watching a video is like being put into a trance. You watch, you stare and dribble, you move on. Other media encourage your eyes to explore.
Video files are enormous. They don't work on all devices. They are broadband intensive.
It's linear and self-contained
You watch it the way the author intended, in the order they intended. You can't disaggregate the content or manipulate it. The internet is about both of those things.
It just looks like television and cinema
Stylistically (and that's the important word), web video is not new nor innovative. It has slavishly copied the formats, techniques, tropes and even the terminology of its older siblings. Why?
It doesn't make use of the web
For something that is supposed to be digital and web-based, online video is nothing of the sort. It's just a TV show uploaded to Youtube. It makes nothing of the connectedness of the web.
It's in the wrong context
Online video assumes people watch it in the same way people watch television, forgetting a TV and a laptop are different experiences.
Do you see what I mean?
Cinematic storytelling is designed for cinemas, those dark rooms with comfy seats you have to pay too much to get into. The rooms where your film is projected onto a huge wall and the sound is so loud it takes you right into the world. A room designed to have very few distractions, where you have turned up in order not to be distracted for at least two hours.
Surprise surprise, a 640x480 pixel box on a laptop in your bedroom (or even worse, on your iPhone on the train) does not provide the same immersive experience. It certainly doesn't remove distractions, and it's very unlikely your audience has stumbled on your Youtube film with two hours to kill and a box of popcorn to hand.
There's nothing inherently wrong with online video. But a lot of money, time and effort goes into creating wonderful stories that actually don't get watched as much as they could.
Ultimately: all of the styles, formats, structures, tropes, techniques that we recognise from films and from TV were invented for films and for television.
Why on earth do we think they should work on the internet?
I am not saying we should stop doing online video.
But I am wondering if there is a whole new medium waiting to be invented?
I'm thinking of something visual, built of and for the web. It uses the internet to its greatest strengths, not just as a platform for other media.
Amazing stories, fiction and non-fiction, that come alive, not because of flashy interactivity or glossy photography, but because they embrace the true nature of the web.
It's something built with the context and expectations of a laptop, tablet or smartphone user in mind.
It's canvas is not the screen, but the web browser and its perhaps its technicians are developers (as opposed to the chemists and engineers of cinema and television). It's simple, about substance, not style. Perhaps its subcompact. Or maybe it's epic.
Hang on, what am I describing?
I am not 100% sure because I don't think it's been invented yet. But it's some kind of web-native visual storytelling.
To define this, I think we need to strip it right back to its basic elements.
In his excellent book Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art, Scott McCloud attempts to define his art, by reducing it right down to its essence: the sequential juxtaposition of images in space.
In visual storytelling on the web we are still talking about images in deliberate sequence. We are juxtaposing these images, either over time (in a linear audio/visual way) or in space (like a web comic might).
If we accept this definition of visual storytelling (in the purest sense) then it doesn't matter if it's video, a web comic or even an animated GIF - or a combination of all these and more.
Combine this with the growing capabilities of the web browser, and the connectedness of the internet, and potentially we have the ability to tell dynamic, visual stories in a way that hasn't been done before.
This excites me very much.
But unlike television or cinema, this web-native form has some important differences:
Moving image not just video
Speaking in Inside the Story Magazine, my digital quarterly for web media makers, Zeega founder Jesse Shapins talks about making a distinction between video and the moving image. We don't necessarily need long-form video to acheive image juxtaposition.
Audio and image separate
Dynamic and live
This form of visual storytelling is connected to the internet. It involves live elements. It can be updated. It can be copied and pasted.
People can choose their own experience
I've built this essay to give you the chance to choose whether you read the whole thing or just the skinny. A web-native kind of visual storytelling could do that too.
Smaller, lighter and not self-contained
Web native navigation
The narrative could be advanced by the audience, at their own pace. It's already possible to tell stories using the simple scroll action to make narrative reveals.
Examples of this new form exist, even if they are basic.
Or, could we look at it in a different way?
Finally, perhaps there's a way to still make 'cinematic' video but improve the context in which it is consumed instead. A few years ago I had an idea for a weekly web-doc showing, on Sunday afternoons, in a cinema. It would be followed by a social gathering where people talked over the films they'd just watched. In a recent interview with Wired, Andrew DeVigal of Second Story mooted playing web video news stories in the screen time before feature films begin in cinemas, something they used to do in the thirties and forties. And perhaps too, someone needs to invent a place where not only people can upload their long-form web-docs, but people go with the expectation of committing 20 minutes or more, not just on their lunch break. That means building something that's more like Netflix (with premieres, subscriptions and original content for example) than Vimeo. In fact, Canada's National Film Board just indicated their intention to do just that. The growth of IPTV (iTunes on your TV) might create similar opportunities too.
IMAGE: Edgar Lichtner (GNU Licence)
But until then the real fun, I think, is in inventing something new.
The biggest challenge we face is that we haven't figured out how to use this medium properly yet. That's a privilege not enjoyed since the invention of cinema.
Whatever we invent must be grounded in the universal principles of visual storytelling, while embracing the true nature of the internet.
I don't know what this looks like. But I know it doesn't look exactly like cinema or television.
IMAGE: WikiMedia Commons
I've had the privilege of talking to and interviewing lots of people about visual storytelling over the last few months and many of their ideas are combined in this article. Thanks to Jesse Shapins, Cody Brown, David Dunkley-Gyimah (who's working on a PhD about the future of video journalism), Claudio Von Planta, Claire O'Neill, Dan Chung Jenny Nichols, Marc Thomas, Sam Anthony and Johnny Webb. Others have inspired me from afar: Scott McCloud (and his marvelous book), Richard Koci Hernandez, Craig Mod, Jonathan Harris, Robin Sloan, David Mamet and Alfred Hitchcock.
Adam Westbrook is a web producer and publisher based in Paris and London. He is the founder and editor of Inside the Story Magazine, a quarterly web-native publication for digital media makers, focusing on the principles of high quality storytelling. He runs Hot Pursuit Press a web publishing house experimenting with new ways of telling stories on the web.
A good briefing on the principles of visual storytelling are featured in the second issue of Inside the Story Magazine, available here. If you don't want to pay for the whole thing, this free article covers a lot of the same ground. Scott McCloud's comic book on comic books is an essential read for visual storytellers. Craig Mod's essay on Subcompact Publishing informed some of the ideas about thinking web-natively, as did this article by John Pavlus and this piece by Bryan Goldberg. Finally, Steven Benedict's analysis of Spielberg's cinematic storytelling skills demonstrate what visual narrative can acheive, and let Steven Soderbergh tell you why this new thing shouldn't become like the movie business.
Written by Adam Westbrook between January-May 2013. It is published under a Creative Commons Licence 3.0 for Attribution. Commercial reproduction is not allowed without permission. All images credited directly where appropriate. Colorbars & TV set animation by Adam Westbrook. This essay is built using the Curtain jquery plugin by Victor Coulon and powered by WordPress & Bluehost. Comments powered by Disqus.
The conversation starts here.
I want to start a conversation about this!
I'm interested to hear what you think about this idea, whether you like it or think it's nuts. The comments are open below.
But I'm really interested to hear from anyone who's as excited by this concept as me - particularly developers, designers, artists and storytellers who would like to build something with this concept. If that's you, email me directly: editor [at] hotpursuit.co