How to Evoke Viewer Emotion In Your Next Video

People who work in video production want two main things from every video they produce:

  1. High production value

  2. Emotional response from viewers

The first can be achieved with the proper equipment and the proper technical training. The second, however, can be more elusive.

How do you create a story that stimulates a meaningful, emotional response from viewers that inspires them to act?

Obviously, if there was one tried-and-true answer to that question that I could bottle and sell, I could retire now. But the following episode from the podcast Revisionist History provides some fantastic insight on human emotion. I think if you work in video production it’s worth a listen. There are some important lessons to be learned and practices to implement that will help your next story illicit the kind of emotion that you want.

Here’s the episode. In it, Gladwell explores the country music industry and why its songs feel so much sadder than any rock ‘n roll ballad. If you can’t listen to the full 45-minute episode, here are a few sections you can skip to:

  • 00:00-06:45

  • 08:10-10:00

  • 15:04-18:40

  • 18:56-19:35

  • 20:35-21:09

  • 28:04-32:00

Rather than provide you with my own take-aways, I’d like to hear from you. Leave your thoughts in the Comments section. What stood out to you? What can we all do as video production professionals to ensure that our stories resonate with viewers?

And if you haven’t subscribed to Revisionist History, I encourage you to do so. It’s a fantastic podcast.

How to Use A-Roll Effectively

The concept of editing, whether it’s a news piece, documentary, or corporate video, is fairly straightforward. First you assemble your A-Roll, which consists of all the sound bites you want to use in your video. Second, you add B-Roll on top of all the interviews, in order to illustrate what the subjects are talking about. Third, you cut between the two.

That’s the concept. The reality is that editing is an art, full of nuance. Each cut has a purpose and the way in which cuts are assembled can have a dramatic impact on viewer emotions.

The question then is, “How does an editor know when to cut?” Or “Why does an editor make a cut at a certain point?” 

Cutting away from a b-roll shot to a talking head shouldn’t be an afterthought. You shouldn’t place your interview subject on the screen just because you ran out of b-roll. Like every other edit in your piece, there should be a reason behind that edit. Why are we looking at your interview subject at this particular moment?

Here are a few of my own guidelines for when you need to show your interview subject: 

Introductions and Re-Introductions 

When introducing an interview subject for the first time, you definitely want to show who’s speaking.

Sometimes an interview subject is heard first, then seen. An editor may choose to insert the subject’s voice underneath a sequence of b-roll shots. Then the editor will cut to the talking head, so viewers can put a face with a voice. If this is the way you choose to introduce your subject to the viewer, be sure not to wait too long before showing the viewer who it is who’s speaking.

In situations where a variety of interview subjects appear throughout the piece (like in the case of a feature-length documentary), you will want to re-introduce your audience to your subject so viewers don’t get confused as to who’s speaking (“Who’s this guy again? I know I saw him earlier.”) This is especially true of you’re editing for television and you know when commercial breaks will occur. It may be necessary to reintroduce viewers to your interview subjects after the commercial breaks.

Emotional Beats 

I usually cut to a talking head when the subject is particularly emotional when discussing a certain topic. Real human emotion resonates with viewers, so if your subject is distraught, upset, teary-eyed, etc. it’s a good idea to show that on screen, but be strategic about it. Show it too often and the weight of that emotion dissipates greatly.

Personal Quirks 

Sometimes you can learn a lot about an individual based on certain facial expressions. A subject may tell you one thing, but his or her face may tell you something completely different. If this inner conflict can be seen on the subject’s face, let’s see it.

You might have an interview subject who smiles after finishing a thought, or scowls, or seems conflicted, or pensive. If so, let’s see it.

It’s great when you can glean information from an interview subject about a certain topic, but it’s better if you can both learn the information and also get a sense of how the person feels about what was just said.

Emphasis

When viewers watch a video, they’re taking in a lot of stimulus at once. They’re listening to an interview. They’re watching b-roll images. They’re reading subtitles, signage, or graphic elements. It could be easy to miss certain details, like an important point your interview subject is trying to make. So, if you really want to make sure your audience doesn’t miss a particular detail, strip everything else away and simply show your subject. Just as a writer will use bold or italic words to focus a reader’s attention, so too can an editor emphasize a point by showing the interview subject on screen.

Bridging Two Story Beats

Editors might choose to show their interview subject as a bridge between two story beats. One chapter is concluding, another one is beginning. So, audiences might see a talking head on screen making one final point before the story moves in a new direction.

Remember, when you’re editing, think strategically about when to show your interview subject. Make sure there’s a good reason for it. In fact, you might not need to show your interview subject at all. In the HBO documentary Come Inside My Mind, which details the life and career of Robin Williams, viewers never seen Robin Williams actually sitting in an interview telling his story, even though it’s his voice narrating the film. I’ve edited short docs before where I never show the interview subject. There just wasn’t a good reason to.

Have any other editing tips? Leave them in the Comments section below.

Here's How You Can Shoot Better B-Roll

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There are a lot of things that can frustrate a documentary film editor, like finding out there isn't enough good, quality footage to produce a well-rounded piece with a solid structure and full story arc. Shooters who are new to the video production industry not only need to learn the basics of lighting and composition, but also how to approach a b-roll shoot strategically and how to think like an editor. Improve the quality of your b-roll and you elevate the quality of the final piece.

Follow these tips for shooting better b-roll. Your editor will thank you.

  1. Hold The Shot - I've edited a lot of videos over the years and it always surprises me when I get footage from other shooters that never seems to settle long enough for me to find good in and out points. Just when I think that the shooter has finally framed up the shot, it pans off to something else after only a second or two, leaving me with no good edit options. Once you frame up your shot, hold it steady for at least seven seconds so your editor can make a cut. Now, the exception to this is if there's a compelling moment playing out in front of you in real-time. Leave the camera on the shot until the moment is complete. Remember to learn patience when shooting.
  2. Focus On What's Most Important - What is the scene supposed to be about? Who are the central characters in the story? It can be easy for an inexperienced shooter to arrive at a busy location and feel overwhelmed with the amount of activity going on in front of the lens (like a crowded market place, for example). The tendency for an inexperienced shooter is to get way too many wide shots. When you try to show the viewer everything you end up not telling the viewer anything of importance. When there are too many things in the frame, viewers don't know what's most important and aren't sure where to focus their attention.
  3. Build Sequences - Every shooter has heard this one before, "Get wides, mediums, and tights." It sound elementary, but it's often overlooked. The editor will be looking for shots that help build a narrative and that's impossible to do without a variety of shots at different focal lengths. For reference, look back at my post "5 Things To Remember When Shooting Documentaries."  In it I talk about the importance of giving your shots beginnings, middles, and endings, and looking for detailed close-up shots that an editor can use for transitional elements. Once you have those shots in the can, think about unique camera angles that you can get while on location.
  4. Give Us a Sense Of Time and Place - Viewers need to be oriented. Capture the environment in which the story takes place. In some cases, the environment is a character unto itself and shouldn't be neglected. Provide your editor (and ultimately the audience) with plenty of footage that conveys context.
  5. Show Subjects In Their Environment - As the logical next step from point #4, it's important that you get footage of the subject in his or her own environment. The sit-down interview with your subject might take place somewhere unrelated to the story he or she is telling (like a studio). Showing the subject in his or her environment makes him or her more real for the audience.
  6. Show Subjects Traveling - Your editor will need plenty of shots of your subject traveling from point "A" to point "B," then over to points "C" and "D." Capturing traveling b-roll is important for moving the story forward, and it helps your editor bridge scenes without jarring the audience with awkward cuts. Whether it's walking through the marketplace, driving through downtown, or bike riding by the river, get those traveling shots.
  7. Always Record NAT Sound - By "nat" sound, I mean "natural" sound; ambience. Set up your on-board camera mic to record the sounds of every b-roll location, and be sure to monitor the levels. The final video can't rely solely on voice-over and music. It needs ambient sound strategically placed throughout, to create a sense of presence and immediacy. So, go ahead and capture the sound, even if you think the editor will cover up the NATs with music or VO. 

Video editors, what other advice can you give to young camera operators? Leave your thoughts in the Comments section.

Storytelling Lessons From the S-Town Podcast

Just this past week I finished listening to the new 7-part podcast from Serial and This American Life called S-Town. Once again, the incredible staff does not disappoint. I continue to admire how they can masterfully craft stories that immerse and captivate.

I'm a filmmaker who produces a lot of short-form documentary content for my day job, so I'm always interested in finding ways to improve my storytelling techniques. That's why I love listening to podcasts like S-Town on my commute. I want to analyze each episode and deconstruct the process:

  • How is each story structured?
  • What's being done to make it so engaging? 
  • What isn't working for me, and why?

The more I watch documentary film and the more I listen to documentary podcasts, the more I can learn about how to craft and tell stories. Here are some things I learned from S-Town about great storytelling (*Disclaimer: I will try to be as spoiler-free as possible, but if you are at all sensitive to anything that strays slightly into spoiler territory, you might want to bookmark this article and come back to it later.)

Find the hook.

What will grab your audience's attention and encourage them to keep watching/listening? How can you introduce the story in a captivating way? One of my pet peeves about documentary filmmaking is how so many of them simply open with a prolonged series of talking heads, followed by a title card. Have you ever noticed this? The film starts and we're bombarded with a lot of people whom we don't even know yet, talking summarily about the subject of the film - a story we don't even care about yet. It's as if the filmmaker is saying "Here's what's coming up. Stay tuned." To me, this just isn't interesting. 

Contrast this with the way producer Brian Reed starts Chapter 1 of S-Town:

When an antique clock breaks, a clock that’s been telling time for 200 or 300 years, fixing it can be a real puzzle. An old clock like that was hand-made by someone. It might tick away the time with a pendulum, with a spring, with a pulley system. It might have bells that are supposed to strike the hour, or a bird that’s supposed to jump out and cuckoo at you. There can be hundreds of tiny, individual pieces, each of which needs to interact with the others precisely.

Reed goes on to talk about how challenging it is for people to restore these clocks, because of all the hands that have touched them over the years. Restorers look for what are called "witness marks," indications of what other people have done to the clock over the years that can provide clues about how to restore the clock to its original state. He then concludes the introduction by saying that he learned all of this information about clocks from an antique clock restorer who contacted him and asked for his help in solving a murder.

And we're off and running.

What's so brilliant about this introduction is how layered it is. In a little less than 2 minutes, Reed has managed to...

  • Introduce the name of the main character
  • Tell us about what the main character does (restore antique clocks), so we immediately know he's a craftsman, a handyman, an artist, etc.
  • Tease us with what's to come (details about a murder case).
  • Hint at the complexity of the story and the characters within it by using the intricacies and complexities of an antique clock as a metaphor.
  • Foreshadow the twists and turns that inevitably result from a complex story like this, by drawing parallels from the role of a clock restorer, as he/she follows the "witness marks" on a clock to determine how everything should fit together.

Remarkable.

The story should be as long, or as short, as it needs to be.

I have to admit, I bristle a little when I receive feedback from a short-form documentary and the critique is simply, "Make it four minutes," as if some group sitting somewhere in some board room decided that every video produced henceforth should be exactly four minutes long.

Yes, I realize that data exists showing just how long an audience will sit and watch an online video, but I don't adhere to the idea that every story can, or should, fit into a specific run time. Stories should be as long (within reason) or as short as they need to be to tell a nice, tight, concise story. S-Town decided that seven, one-hour episodes was the right amount of time they needed to tell their story. Serial season one needed 12 episodes; season two, 11 episodes.

Some of my short-form pieces have been around 6 minutes, while others have been as short as 2 minutes. You as the storyteller should realize how much material you have and should structure and edit accordingly. Always be asking yourself, "Is this section REALLY necessary?" Continue to trim and tighten the story. Your audience will thank you for it.

Allow the story to take you where it takes you.

I'm sure Reed had ideas about where the story would/should go as he embarked on his investigation. But life doesn't unfold into a nice, three-act structure. So, when Brian's story suddenly shifted, he went off into a new direction. This happens to documentarians all the time. Watch the film The Queen of Versailles if you want another example.

Embed yourself with the story's subjects.

Access, access, access. This is what you need if you want a story that feels thorough and complete, with characters with whom your audience can identify and sympathize. I'm sure Reed could have conducted a majority of his interviews via email or over the phone (after all, it's a story that takes place in a small Alabama town and he's a New York reporter), but the story would have suffered. It would have felt shallow. The people in the story would have felt more like caricatures, not real human beings. He needed to be there, in the town, meeting with the people, learning about them on a personal level. That's how you build rapport and trust, and if you have that relationship established, the people in your story will feel more comfortable opening up to you.

S-Town host Brian Reed (right) on location with an interview subject (Photo: Andrea Morales)

S-Town host Brian Reed (right) on location with an interview subject (Photo: Andrea Morales)

Always maintain a sense of time and place.

Even though it's radio, S-Town does an incredible job of providing the audience with a sense of place. You can't see John B.'s house, or his workshop, or the tattoo parlor, but you can envision it, based on Reed's descriptions. You don't know what John B. or any of the other townspeople look like, but you have an idea, again based on Reed's descriptions and the interview tape from each individual.

It's easy to see how this translates to documentary film. As you gather footage for your story, always make sure you capture b-roll that tells your audience something about where you are. Keep your audience oriented. Don't rely solely on close detail shots, or shots on long lenses that blur out backgrounds. Think about the relationship between subject and environment and how you can compose your shots to accentuate this relationship. Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting demonstrates this point in his video essay on how the Cohen Brothers use shot/reverse shot. Take this example from No Country For Old Men: Consider how much you already know about this woman based on her appearance and the environment around her.

You wouldn't get that same sense of place from a tight shot with a soft background.

Allow yourself to be self-reflective.

Along the way, and at the end of the series, Reed allows himself these moments of reflection: What have we learned? What does it all mean? Where do we go from here? Your story too should bring up these questions. They don't all have to be answered, but they can be presented to your audience, forcing them to think for themselves, to draw their own conclusions, to find something of themselves in the story you're telling.

We can learn a lot by observing and analyzing the work of others - people who have experience and a knack for crafting great stories. That's why I continue listen to podcasts like This American Life, Serial, and S-Town. I admire the work they do and I can draw lessons from their experiences and apply them to my own short-form documentary work.

Have you finished S-Town? What thoughts do you have on the series and on documentary storytelling? Be sure to add them in the Comments section below.