Sound Stories #006 – Setting Story in Motion with Video

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    Video is a highly emotional medium. Are your stories getting the response you’re looking for? Adam Caplan, Principal and Founder of video production house web.isod.es shares his step by step process for setting a great production in motion. Learn how this Ontario Media Development Corporation Digital Dialogues Conference speaker is helping organizations tell their story through video.

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    TRANSCRIPTION SOUND STORIES #006

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Hi there, and welcome to another episode of Sound Stories, an inspirational podcast for creative professionals and storytellers who want to improve their lives at home and at work. I’m Stephanie Ciccarelli, your host and co-founder of Voices.com.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Today in studio, I am so happy to be joined by a long time friend of Voices.com, and also just of us in general, Adam Kaplan. He’s the founder of web.isod.es. And he’s an amazing storyteller using the visual medium of film. Welcome, Adam.

    Adam Kaplan:

    Thank you for having me.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    We actually shared office space at one point a number of years ago, so we go back a long ways.

    Adam Kaplan:

    It’s true. And actually, I was reminiscing the other night, as I was at your new offices, that on a number of Sunday afternoons, I’d watch David come into the office with a couple of new computers under his arm, and set them up himself for the new hires coming in the next day, and how far you guys have come from there.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, well thank you. Yes, we did just have a big office reveal, it’s pretty cool, nice space, be sure to check it out online on our social channels. But today, we’re going to focus on a conversation about storytelling with video. And you are the expert, I would say, in the city for what we’re doing here. But I wondered, Adam, just wondered about this, for those of us who maybe don’t know where to start with video, it can kind of be a little intimidating perhaps. Maybe someone thinks it’s too expensive, or they frankly don’t know where to start. What would you say to somebody about that?

    Adam Kaplan:

    The reality is that video is no different in terms of storytelling than the things you learned in grade school. It’s the same idea that you’ve got to kind of hook someone in, you’ve got to deliver a message to them, and then wind up with a conclusion. Except, instead of using a pencil and paper to note that, you’re using a more complex set of tools to be able to tell that story.

    Adam Kaplan:

    So what that means for a lot of folks is they have to make some bigger decisions earlier, because obviously the risks of production are much greater than sitting down with a pencil and paper, or a word processor. What we tend to start with is something we call the A5 system. And it’s really, anybody who’s worked in marketing communications will immediately recognize it as a marketing communications standard plan. We’ve just renamed everything to begin with the letter A, so it sounds like we invented it.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I see. Because you’re Adam, right.

    Adam Kaplan:

    Because I’m Adam, absolutely.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. Oh, I like it, go on.

    Adam Kaplan:

    So the first sort of step is to really assess who your audience is, and really understand who you’re talking to, very similar to what you would do on Voices.com when you’re selecting a voice actor. Understanding who you’re going to be speaking to will help you make some big decisions later on. For instance, if you’re going to be doing a video that’s targeted at grandparents, and seniors, selecting a death metal stock music track probably isn’t going to be an appropriate choice.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    No.

    Adam Kaplan:

    And being able to communicate that early on helps make some creative decisions. So it also helps you understand things like the length of the video, how long it should be, what kind of tone, and what kind of pace it should have, those sorts of things. The other thing it allows you to do is kind of define who you’re not talking to. And by excluding audiences, and by creating a focus, a narrow focus, you’re able to, again, make some strategic choices later on.

    Adam Kaplan:

    The secondary we work with people to develop are the aims. What are the goals? What do you want somebody to do after they finished watching the video? Or maybe even the middle of the video. Do you want them to visit a website? Do you want them to purchase a product? Do you want them to pick up the phone and call you? What are the outcomes that you’re hoping for with regard to the viewer?

    Adam Kaplan:

    It also helps to recognize that video has changed pretty radically in the last decade, because previously, most video was a lean back experience. You’d sit in your chair, you’d lean back, you’d watch the TV, you’d watch the movie screen. Even if you were watching something on a laptop, like a DVD, you were still leaning back, you were still not interacting with it. And they were probably longer things that you were watching.

    Adam Kaplan:

    Today, we have very lean forward experiences. And what that lean forward refers to is that video is sitting within a continuum of user experience. And that continuum means that someones arriving from somewhere, they’re having an experience with the video, and then they’re going somewhere afterwards. And we want to be able to figure out what influence we should have over that individual to help direct them to the next place in their user experience journey.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Right, because this is web video, we have to remember, right. So not just a film, or a documentary, or something that you’re watching on Netflix. This is actually, you’re in an environment where you literally could go click somewhere else, you could decide to search for something. You’re in a virtual environment on the internet, and I just want to make sure everyone remembers that when we’re listening to this, because it’s key. The messaging, and the story arc that you’re building will lead to, hopefully, a conclusion that they will go and do something.

    Adam Kaplan:

    And what’s interesting is, even the longer form content has recognized this. Our notion of binge watching, and even our notions of appointment viewing. Why did HBO start developing story arcs with The Sopranos that would leave on these crazy cliffhangers? They wanted you to tune in next week. They didn’t want you to cancel your subscription to HBO. Netflix has queued up the next episode so that it plays right away. YouTube is doing the same thing, but in the longer form. Even some of our lean back content experiences are also starting to mimic some of those lean forward content experiences, because they don’t want you to leave the walled garden.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Right. And I like that. And the whole concept of leaning back as in, I’m passively absorbing this information, and I’m enjoying it. It might be just something with a start and an end. But this leaning forward, it seems like that’s much more of what people want to do these days, is to be engaged with the content that they’re watching.

    Adam Kaplan:

    Absolutely. And they want to Tweet about it, they want to share it, they want to talk about it on Facebook, they want to comment on it. Those social activities can also be part of the aims that you’re developing for your content both on the web, and then also in longer form content.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wow.

    Adam Kaplan:

    The third piece is approach. And approach is where we start to think about strategy. What are the key messages we want to deliver? What’s the tone? What’s the style that we want to start to wrap around it? My favorite quote from Jean-Luc Godard is, “Style is the outside of content, and content is the inside of style.” And for him, this was a reaction to the modernist that said, “Form follows function.” He was saying, “No, no, no, form does not follow function, function and form are intertwined.”

    Adam Kaplan:

    And that’s where we are today. The way we communicate things kind of has to be in a wrapper of style that informs what we’re consuming. The branding rules that we’ve all developed for our companies mimic that. We want to have an emotional sensibility that’s tied in with the content. And the two kind of are inextricable.

    Adam Kaplan:

    The approach kind of covers all of that off. And the approach allows us to understand what branding considerations, what messaging, and how are we going to achieve that? It’s also where we make decisions around, is this going to be sort of a documentary style? Is this going to be someone talking to camera? Is this going to be something where we’re only going to have a voiceover, and images on screen? In our approach section, that’s where we define the creative strategy.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    And so the approach considers not only how this information will be received, but who’s receiving it, right?

    Adam Kaplan:

    That’s right.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Because that’s how you can package it to be more attractive to the viewer.

    Adam Kaplan:

    And we depend on everything from our aims and our audience to be able to help inform that part of the process. The next two steps, action and assessment start to work sort of recursively with the approach section. So what will happen next is, we start to figure out, okay, well how much money do we have to spend on this? When do we need to have it delivered by? What resources do we have? Where should we shoot it?

    Adam Kaplan:

    And now you have to start to go back into your approach and modify it around the realities of your circumstance. And similarly with assessment. The question we talk to people about when we’re looking at assessment is, what outcomes, at the end of this, would you consider a success? What needs to happen for you to think of this project as having been successful? And then we might need to go back and tweak our aims, and our approach a little bit once we understand what the assessments are.

    Adam Kaplan:

    And again, those also need to figure in with, how much money do we have? How much time do we have? All of those sorts of things. If someone comes to us and says, “Well, I would consider this a success if we had a million views on YouTube.” That’s great. But if we’ve only got a $700 budget, it’s probably not going to happen. So we’ve got to figure out, how can we maximize our resources to be able to accomplish a successful outcome for the video, for the project?

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wow, so, Adam, do you find that it’s difficult to manage people’s expectations of what their video should do? Do people come to you thinking, “I want to get a million views on YouTube”? That sounds quasi unreasonable. Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble there, but that’s a lot of views. Unless you’re a Mike Thompkins or somebody, you might not be seeing that kind of play. But how can someone maybe adjust their expectations to be more realistic, so that when they come to you, or another video producer, they don’t have that bubble burst, they’re actually thinking in terms of what is possible and doable?

    Adam Kaplan:

    We’ve been fortunate so far in that the folks that have approached us, and the folks that have talked to us have not had that expectation. They want it to be as successful as possible. And those who have approached us and said, “How can we get 25, 50,000 views out of this?” Have also been open to paid promotion.

    Adam Kaplan:

    And that paid promotion can really give a good push to a video. And we’ve sort of started to adopt paid promotion as some of the suite of services that we’re offering. We did some tests last year with it that were fairly successful. And with not too much money, we’re able to really give videos a good boost over what they would achieve organically. And what we hear a lot though is, “I want our video to go viral.”

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, yes.

    Adam Kaplan:

    Or, “We want to make a viral video.” And the reality is that there’s so much clutter, and there’re so many people vying for our attention, even the things that do, “go viral”, the most recent one I can think of was the Chewbacca mom from last year having been probably the most successful truly organic viral video, tend not to have a product associated with them. Nobody is kind of selling anything. And other videos that have gone viral, and been associated with the product, I’m thinking particularly of Poo-Pourri, which was-

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, goodness. I must admit, I did see that ad. Yes, I can see why people would be sharing that one. It had some good use.

    Adam Kaplan:

    Well, actually, I got a chance to hear from the fella who had produced that ad. And one of the things that surprised me the most about that was that there was a one to seven ratio of organic to paid views. So for every one organic view, he has seven paid views. And so it’s viral, but it’s sort of also a little bit artificially viral in that people are seeing it, and people are watching it through, it’s got good retention, people are sharing it. And certainly, someone who watches the paid version may share it, and that might increase some of the organic views, but it’s still very much a paid delivery.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah, well, it was basically a video that rolled before another video, I remember. And it takes a lot of good storytelling and creativity to actually get past that five to 10 second window where someone might decide to jump ship and hit that next, get me out of here, I want to see the actual content that I clicked through for. So that was a successful one. But as you say, they paid for it though.

    Adam Kaplan:

    They did. And they tested a lot of different formats, and a lot of different videos, and they had a pretty crack team working on it. And that was a successful use of video. Another example that comes to mind was the Old Spice-

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, yeah.

    Adam Kaplan:

    The videos where he spent a day and a half, or I think it was full day in a towel making videos that responded to Tweets, and Facebook messages. But again, they had done a lot of work previous to that, to be able to get to a place where they could have that carry in a viral way. And they spent a lot of money to be able to develop an audience that could carry that forward.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, you need to have someone almost recognizable, you create a character, someone who is recurring. Because there were multiple ads from that campaign I believe. But I don’t want to get too far off track on your wonderful list. So where were we? I think there might be one more, or two more?

    Adam Kaplan:

    Nope, there was the five. So audience, aims, approach, action, and assessment. But you did say something really interesting. And when we start to look at how do we structure the video, we talk about those five, 10 seconds, and that pre roll, it’s not just critical for pre roll, it’s for really any storytelling. You want to be able to ask a question that’s going to engage the imagination of the viewer. You want to be able to open up with something that’s going to provide the viewer with a reason to continue watching. And this was a system, and I love alliteration, as you’ll discover.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah.

    Adam Kaplan:

    We use four words to describe this process, and that’s, engage, entertain, educate, emotionally. So we engage the audience. And again, it’s not different than any other storytelling, we’re just using different tools for it. But we have to engage the audience. We have to entertain them so they stay engaged. But we also want to deliver a message. And video is a profoundly emotional medium. And so we need to be able to maintain that level of emotion, and even sort of adjust it so that we’re drawing someone through the story, and giving them a reason to keep watching.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah, well, there are so many different elements, and here’s another E for you, your engage, entertain, yeah. But just thinking, this isn’t like the audio medium where it’s very much a controlled environment where, here we’ve got all of these kind of dampening materials, beautiful studio setup. But when you’ve got video, you have all these other considerations. And I think that that might be part of why people shy away from it. They just honestly don’t know what it looks like to make a good video, and one that they’ll be proud of.

    Adam Kaplan:

    Today we’re in a really unique time, I think, in history, and certainly in the history of film and cinema, and that’s the access to the tools of production has become so affordable. And the kids are learning to make videos in grade school, and they’re beginning to understand the language, the grammar of filmmaking. And so it means we also have a generation of young people coming out of school that are, in some cases, very gifted storytellers as they enter college, and as they leave college and university.

    Adam Kaplan:

    But it still means that you have to figure out what you’re going to do. And more to the point, Michael Porter is really famous for saying this about business strategy, “Strategy is the process of understanding what not to do.” And in video, you have to make those same concessions, you have to figure out, what can I do with the money that I have, with the time that I have, and with the available resources that are around me?

    Adam Kaplan:

    And that process can be challenging, because you have this sense that, oh, I want to make it cinematic, or I want to make it epic, or I want to make it whatever adjective you’re using to describe it. You can still make a very powerful and effective video and have it be very simple. And so it’s understanding what you’re trying to do going in, and message you’re trying to deliver, and then being very creative about ensuring that you stay within the band of resources that you have open to you, and are available to you.

    Adam Kaplan:

    And that’s where that approach process kind of allows you to choose what to do. And also, your audience helps you do this, and your aims help you do this. It helps you define what you’re going to do. But really, it helps you exclude lots of activities. And we’ve had customers approach us and say, “I want to do this video with an actor, and do onscreen.” And then we start to put together a budget. Then they’re like, “Well, I don’t have that much money.” And there was one case where we actually ended up doing a photo slideshow with onscreen text because they didn’t even want to spend money on a voiceover actor.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh, that’s sad.

    Adam Kaplan:

    I know. That’s very sad.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    No, we know this happens, and it’s okay. But you really do have to think about, what is my budget for this? Because everyone should have a budget, you should know what you’re working with. And certainly, mapping out what you’re not going to do would help you. So what are some of the things that you would recommend people not do if they are being a little cost sensitive?

    Adam Kaplan:

    There’s a couple of things I’d recommend that they not do. And I know that there’s been some discussion about cellphone video, and so on. And if that’s a look you’re going for, there are a whole bunch of reasons why you might use a cellphone video. Actually, I did a test a little while ago with something we were going to put into a video. And I have a fairly new iPhone, and it’s got a very nice camera in it. But we had trouble with the video it produced. It didn’t match some of the other things we’d shot, and we had to go back and shoot it again.

    Adam Kaplan:

    I had a teacher in university. The fellas name was George Tyne, or Buddy Tyne. And he’d been a very talented and promising film director until a senator asked him if he had been, or was a member of the communist party. At which point, his career was over. And this was back in the ’50s. And after that, he kind of had disappeared from film, and then came back and directed episodes of New Heart, and Mash, and other sort of shows of that era. But he became my filmmaking narrative prof. And one day I was talking with him, and this was in the early ’90s, I’m about to age myself here-

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    In Los Angeles, right?

    Adam Kaplan:

    In Los Angeles.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah.

    Adam Kaplan:

    Yeah. It was in LA. And it was in, I think it was 1992. And I was talking with him after class about a project I was working on. And this kid who I knew to be the son of a fairly well known producer, literally elbowed me out of the way to talk to Buddy. And he was on a cellphone while he was talking to Buddy. Now, this is 1992, so this cellphone call was probably costing him 8.99 a minute.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    And it was like a brick probably.

    Adam Kaplan:

    And it was huge. It was this huge thing. And he said, “Buddy, my dad wants me to shoot a short film to enter into the festivals.” Because back then, there was no YouTube, the only way you could get your film in front of producers was to have it be in festivals, and that was the way you became a director, was to enter your stuff into festivals, and get noticed that way.

    Adam Kaplan:

    His dad wanted him to enter into festivals. What the kid wanted to know was, would the festivals prefer that he deliver something shot on video tape, or shot on actual film. And Buddy said, and this conversation made my whole tuition for the four years that I was there worth it.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Ooh, do tell.

    Adam Kaplan:

    Buddy said, “What’s your story about?” And the kid said, “Well, we’re still working on the treatment, and the script. But we have to reserve this equipment now for the shoot, so I just need to know if I should be reserving a film camera, or a video camera.” And Buddy said, “You don’t have a script, you don’t know what story you’re telling?” And this went back and forth comically, for probably about two or three minutes, or $17 of cellphone time.

    Adam Kaplan:

    And finally, Buddy said, “Kid, you could shoot this movie on your grandfather’s Super 8. If you got a good story, and you tell it well, people are going to want to watch it. If you don’t have a good story, or you don’t tell it well, no one is going to want to watch it.” So if you can tell a good story with your cellphone, great. If you have the ability to shoot something on a DSLR that’s a little more expensive, but not too much, great. But ultimately, it does come back to the story, and making sure that you have a compelling message, and an engaging way of communicating that message before any technical consideration.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I’m so glad you said that, because when people go about making something, they shouldn’t just be making it for the sake of, “Oh, I’ve got to put a video together, I want to get into this film festival, I want acclaim, I want some kind of prestige for myself.” It’s like, no, you make a story, and you tell a story, because there’s a story in you that you want to tell.

    Adam Kaplan:

    Absolutely. And as a service provider, we have to get engaged in the story emotionally too, we have to believe in the stories we’re telling. The only other technical consideration that I would put forward is this, and this is another reason to sort of consider about cellphones, and that’s, don’t forget the audio. So frequently, when people are out shooting video, they’re shooting in noisy environment, or they’re shooting in places where there’s lots of background noise, and it’s difficult to hear, or the audio is muddy.

    Adam Kaplan:

    It doesn’t have to be perfect by any stretch of the imagination. And you don’t need to have studio quality, pristine audio. But making sure that your audio is considered, that it’s relatively clear, that you’ve got a mic close to your subject, or subjects, those considerations are absolutely essential.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wonderful tip, especially for people on this podcast listening who are into audio, definitely love that. So if I were in the stage of planning out my video, what is the first thing I should do? Is there a worksheet, or a couple first ideas steps that you can recommend?

    Adam Kaplan:

    Start at your ending. Understand where you want to conclude, and work backwards. And for many people in promotional video, that’s a call to action. So that’s a, what are you going to do at the end of it? What do you want somebody to do at the end this? That will then kind of help you decide what your opening question should be.

    Adam Kaplan:

    The next step really there is to draft a very quick paragraph, or treatment to help you understand what the flow of the story would be. And then from there, if you’re developing a script that actors are going to read, or that a voice actor is going to read at a different time, absolutely put that out.

    Adam Kaplan:

    What we’ve done is, we’ve got a template where we have, and it’s an old TV template, on the left hand side is audio, and on the right hand side is video. And it allows us to create a textual storyboard if you will that helps everyone in production, and also post production, understand what visuals are going to line up with what audio.

    Adam Kaplan:

    And then from there, if you want to develop a storyboard, even a rough sketch so that you can communicate with the people, or even just remind yourself what you’re thinking, that’s a great step. We don’t tend to use a lot of storyboards, I find that we develop them, and then dismiss them as we get through the project. But they can still be very helpful, especially if you’ve got a more complex project that requires a lot of moving parts to all be in coordination.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wow. Well, you know what, I want all of you to go make a video. I want you to take what Adam just said, really think about your story though. Obviously, if you don’t have a story, then you really don’t have anywhere to start from, as that prof in LA had said, you need to have that. But anyone can tell a story.

    Adam Kaplan:

    Again, and Francis Ford Coppola talked about this in the ’80s, and even earlier than that. He saw a time when there would be a young, and I think he actually said, “A young six year old girl who would be the Mozart of filmmaking, who would take …” That back then, he said the family video camera, because I don’t he could see a time when we all had 4K cameras in our pockets.

    Adam Kaplan:

    But I think that there absolutely is an opportunity for a whole generation of people to tell stories not just in ways that we’ve seen before, but in totally new ways, developing a new syntax and language around the way we’re constructing story, and storytelling through video, and through transmedia where the story can be told not just through one channel like video, but can be told through podcasts, and through video, and through Twitter, and through blog posts, and books, and really any way, any media that you can think of.

    Adam Kaplan:

    And Ramona Pringle, who of course had hosted the event, and one of the things she said that impressed me the most was, “Today we think of it as transmedia. In 10 years, we’re just going to call in media.” And one of the panelists had mentioned that her child has an expectation of transmedia, has an expectation that that Dora The Explorer character is going to be in the video game, on the TV, with the action figure, that she’s going to be able to experience Dora in whatever channel she desires. And that really is, I think exciting for video, because video now becomes part of, it’s not the only part of, it’s not the only story, it’s part of a larger story. And that’s really exciting.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Thank you for tuning in. And if you haven’t already done so, I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, as well as give us a rating. We love hearing from you and gathering your feedback. Once again, I’m your host, Stephanie Ciccarelli, and I hope you can join us for our next Sound Stories podcast.

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    Stephanie Ciccarelli is the Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer of Voices.com. Classically trained in voice, piano, violin and musical theatre, as well as a respected mentor and industry speaker, Stephanie graduated with a Bachelor of Musical Arts from the Don Wright Faculty of Music at the University of Western Ontario. Possessing a great love for imparting knowledge and empowering others, her podcast Sound Stories serves an audience that wants to achieve excellence in storytelling. Stephanie is found on the PROFIT Magazine W100 list three times (2013, 2015 and 2016), a ranking of Canada's top female entrepreneurs, and is the author of Voice Acting for Dummies®.

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