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How to Tell a Good Video Story

So far we've looked at skills most anyone can be taught or trained to do. With writing — otherwise known as the execution of "a good story, well told" — it is much harder because no one can teach another how to write a compelling story.

As with the visual artist, recognizing and writing a story is a talent that comes naturally. Not everyone can do it. Others can guide you in the right direction and give you tips, but no one can teach another person to write. That may sound contrary to what "trainers" will tell you, but it's true.

However, becoming a good writer is essential to videomaking. It's part of the "talent" part of the process. You must learn how to construct a story from the ground up in compelling prose. In this section, we'll look at what it takes to be a multimedia writer, but we can't tell you how to do it.

ImageWhen I say we must make "good television," I don't mean it in an elitist way. To me, "good" means the video tells a genuine story — one that grabs and keeps my attention.

Good television was traditionally the work of a single intelligent voice. In the beginning, that was the director. In today's micro video universe, the "director" is the part of the duties of the one-man-band that creates and executes the story. All the technical trappings described previously are simply auxiliaries to making that happen. How it is done doesn't matter — the important thing is that the director's intelligence and skill is applied to the story.

I'm reminded of a wonderful lecture by the late film and theatre director Elia Kazan "On What Makes a Director."

In a nutshell, Kazan said a good director must have some knowledge of just about everything: literature, dramaturgy, acting, speech, comedy, music, dance, scenery, costumes, lighting, color, cameras, tape recorders, cities, the country, the sea, animals, psychology, the erotic arts, war, history, economics, food, travel, sports.... and that is just the beginning.

Too many video directors today are obsessed with technology. They play the game of camera specs and always demand the latest gadgets. Sadly, some are actually convinced that the toys acquired for their video playpen will assure them the power to create magnificent, compelling programs. Sadly, they are very wrong.

Probably the best advice I've ever received about directing and storytelling came many years ago from a veteran motion picture cameraman who had successfully switched to feature film directing in mid-career. 

His advice was this: no matter which medium, video, film, theatre, etc., and no matter what kind of production — sales training tapes to news segments to documentaries to feature films — as long as people are involved, a good director must have a knowledge of the craft of acting.

For someone whose training (including a university degree in broadcasting) had always emphasized the technical side of video production, this advice initially threw me for a loop. Acting. Learn acting? No one, including all those "professors of broadcasting," had ever told me this. It was never on the radar screen.

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A knowledge of the actor's craft will fundamentally change your approach to directing any kind of program in which people appear on camera. I guarantee it, the film director assured me.

I took his advice and can now declare: HE WAS RIGHT!!! At the very minimum, every video director should study acting. Period. No matter where you are or what kind of programs you direct, do it.

Admittedly it's easier to study acting with a choice of great teachers in cities like New York City or Los Angeles. But some level of acting classes are taught in nearly every city in America. And many books are available that can start a beginner on the right track.

I was lucky enough to study with an excellent teacher who offers a class, which is tailor-made for video directors. Judith Weston, who is based in Los Angeles, teaches "Acting for Directors," a workshop of basic acting techniques for directors, writers and producers with no previous acting experience. 

An accomplished actress, Judy was inspired to create the workshop some years ago due to the many bad personal experiences she had working for directors with no acting background. "If a director knows something about acting, that director can communicate with the actors and will create a collaborative atmosphere," she noted.

The workshop will help fledgling directors communicate with actors and inspire them to do their best work. The classes are occasionally held in various cites outside of Los Angeles. Check Judy's website at www.judithweston.com for schedules.

If you can't attend a workshop, Weston has two excellent books on the subject: Directing Actors and The Film Director's Intuition. (I'm a bit biased about the second book, since I helped Judy with the editing.)

ImageOf course, there are many great books on acting. Names like Stanislavski, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen have written among the best. On the subject of directing, however, I'd like to recommend two personal favorites. One — On Directing by Harold Clurman — was published in 1972, and — On Directing Film by David Mamet — was published early in 1991.

Mamet's book is based on a series of lectures the playwright and director gave at the film school of Columbia University in the fall of 1987. Mamet's philosophy of directing follows that of Ernest Hemingway's theory on good writing: "Write the story, take out all the good lines and see if it still works."

Says Mamet: "My experience as a director, and as a dramatist, is this: the piece is moving in proportion to how much the author can leave out. A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful. What remains? The story remains. What is the story? The story is the essential progression of incidents that occur to the hero in pursuit of his one goal."

Harold Clurman, the legendary stage director and drama critic, produced one of the greatest books ever written on the directing craft. Though Mr. Clurman focuses on the process of directing for the stage, his insights and methods apply to all media. If you read no other book about directing, read this one.

I know what I've written in this final column was not what many had in mind about the requirements to be a good video storyteller in the multimedia age. But it is essential knowledge. In addition to using all the video gear, it is up to you to put together a compelling story that people will watch. That, my friend, is storytelling and it's hard — very hard.

Your job is to merge the tools of storytelling with the essential talent to find and communicate your story with others. That is a talent, and no one can teach it to you. When you are able to do it, you'll never be without a job.

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(Judith Weston's books are published by Michael Wiese Productions. On Directing Film by David Mamet is published by Viking Penguin, New York. On Directing by Harold Clurman is published by Collier Books, New York.)