Telling Stories

Narratives are fundamental to human life. As meaning-making creatures, we look at the stars and see pictures; then we use those pictures to predict floods. Humans have even been described as “homo narrans,” hard-wired to see meaning. Doesn’t it behoove us then as content creators to ensure that whatever we’re producing be rich in narrative? If you look at the best content (this is not a word I’m a fan of usually but is applicable in this context) from across all realms of mass communication, one thread remains constant, it tells a good story.

So let’s look at what makes a good story shall we? The Atlantic shows us some of the best visual storytellers working today showing us what makes a story great.

All of these storytellers talk about authenticity, truth and honesty. Now this isn’t just truth as in being under oath, but a larger reach for truth that applies equally to fiction or nonfiction. A good narrative uses specificity to reveal universal truths to the reader or viewer about the subject and even about themselves. Legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns describes it as “1+1=3”, meaning that a great story’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Ken Burns: On Story from Redglass Pictures on Vimeo.

This applies so much more to visual storytelling (in the form of film, TV, or even MOOC’s like we make at Onlea) because the visual format engages multiple senses through pictures and sound, but it also engages both intellect and emotion. Further as creators in visual storytelling we have more power to control the story than an author or playwright might, because we can decide what you see, what you hear, and what the perspective is for both of those senses. We can control how long you see something and how well you see it. As visual storytellers we have almost unlimited tools and methods to create an engaging narrative to hold on to our viewer, to draw them in, and if we do our jobs well, to change them in some way when it’s all over.

This is not an easy task and if you’ve ever spent an hour or two looking for something good to watch on YouTube you know that in spite of natural talent, the difference between something that’s not very good and something that’s amazing is a chasm as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. Even if you can’t quite put your finger on why one video works and another doesn’t. Well, there’s a language for visual storytelling and that is as good a place as any to start. The website, LearnAboutFilm, teaches how to tell your story, using the “language” of film.

As you can see there are all sort of tricks of the mind and eye that filmmakers use to tell a story. How you frame or light an interview can affect the narrative of the story almost as much as the interviewees words do. Or here’s another example, could you imagine if John Williams had switched the musical motifs for Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader? Not so easy to distinguish who the good guy or the bad guy is anymore is it? This is the power of film, of creating great narratives using everything at your disposal as a visual storyteller.

I try to achieve that in everything I make personally, and we absolutely set that goal for ourselves here at Onlea. We bring the full breadth of our instructional, design and filmmaking experience to bear when we create courses so that learners and teachers can get the absolute most out of the medium.

I’m going to leave you today with some links to short films, or pieces of video that I think are great examples of visual storytelling. Some of them use flashy editing to do it. Some use sweepingly beautiful cinematography. Some have dialog, voiceover, and others no words at all. They all have incredibly good sound design, and they’re all very well scripted. By scripted I mean, these films are all made with a very specific intent in mind. They’re well thought out, well conceived and well executed. They pose a question, or provide and answer; inevitably, they leave the viewer changed in some way.

The last video on our list is a trailer for our Mountains 101 MOOC. Hopefully you can see the ways we used the tools of cinematic storytelling to inform a new way of online teaching. If the trailer grabs you, you can even sign up to take the course for free. What would you like to learn today? Even better… What would you teach the world?

A visual poem

Arian Foster: "Where We Dwell" from Todd Martin

A short visual essay

BACK TO THE LAND | JEREMY FOKKENS from Human Impact Stories.

Short film

Me & You ♥ A Love Story from Jack Tew.

A Video Essay

LEARN from Rick Mereki.

A Short Film

INSEPARABLE - starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Nathalie Press - 11min short film from Nick White.

A Trailer for MOOC

If you liked the Mountains 101 trailer, go sign up for the course for free!


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Jeff Woodward

Jeff Woodward

Production Director at Onlea