Improving web video – Three S’s Part 2: Script

In the first post of this little series on improving web video, I looked at sequences.

The point I tried to stress was the control that you have with sequences. You can decide how the story gets told. And before the ‘ethical’ lobby get on my back, I don’t mean control the story in terms of the editorial but in the way you tell it in the space given – we work with what the medium gives us. Script is another tool in that bag. How can we use the time given to effectively tell the story? Well one way to approach it may be to ‘tell’  the story.

I picked up on a lot of the practicalities of writing script in a previous post. So I wanted to take a more illustrative approach to the process in line with my thoughts on sequences. The recent announcements of the Emmy award winners for broadband video gives me some nice examples to play with.

What is script for?
Script is, along with good sequences and compelling interview, one of the engines of your story. In a linear medium like video its vital to give people a point of reference where they are in the narrative, and script is a key way of doing it.

For me the starting point for a script is always the story itself. So when I’m getting started with a video story I try and break it down in to the basic journalism points of who, where, what, why and how, script will usually be the for the why and how. Unless the story is based around a very sequential activity – how to bake a cake for example – the how and why are abstract concepts. Why did it happen? Why is this important? So whilst the who can be interviewed and the where and what can be shot in nice sequences the journalistic approach often finds its heart in the why and how.

Approaching a script.
Once you have that you can begin to form the story in to some kind of structure. So Imagine the pitch you give to your editor to green light. Try and write that out in condensed form – 100 or so words of text. Thats for me is the starting point of your script.

I often advise people to write that out before they even start story-boarding the piece.

Just to stress that this isn’t that this is the actual script – it will need a lot more work. 100 words equates to around 30 seconds of script so it isn’t going to fill your comcscore 2.7 minutes. But if you consider that you may have interview etc. then its going to give you the bare bones.

The way to approach it is more like (and excuse the management speak here ) a mission statement for the piece. Everyone working on it can buy in to it and knows where they are going. That’s especially important when you are working as part of an editorial team.

Never write script before you shoot.

It’s important to stress just what that 100 words is for because I don’t want to contradict myself when I say: You should never write and record your script before, or even during shooting.

Video is a medium where picture and sound work together. But pictures drive the experience so why restrict yourself. Wait until you have cut the pictures and then see how the script works around them.

Script and actuality / interview work together.

A BBC producer I once worked with insisted that you ‘tee-up’ everything in a script. In other words each bit of script should signpost what is coming next – who is going to talk next and what are they going to say.

But in the longer form, especially the story that is more feature based, the flow of the script doesn’t need to be that obvious.

Consider the script for this highly-commended video by Travis Fox and Kevin Sullivan from The Washington Post. It’s almost a kind of a dropped intro setting the scene for a discussion on the issue of Romania joining the EU. ( BTW. it also starts, and continues with great use of sequences).

Interview from Romania’s Hopes Lie With E.U.

But listen to the way that the script leads in to the first interview.

Script: “there still a lot of confusion here about what the regulations say exactly. But there is one thing everyone agrees on…”

Interview: (translated as subtitle) Life will change in the countryside.

Who the farmer was, has been set up in script before that. His low-tech approach has been shown in a nice sequence of shots. But who he is and what he does is not the crux of the story. How and why the EU will impact is and he tells us that. Script, pictures and interview working together.

Don’t explain, enhance.
Another award winning video, Two Dads, Five Sons, Forever Family from the SF Chronicle, that uses script nicely to set the scene falters slightly with an urge to over describe.

Two Dads, Five Sons, Forever Family

Listen to the script in the section where Stillman White tries to find out why two of his boys aren’t on the school bus home (about halfway through) . The scene is set well but some of the urgency is lost to the linearity of the story and as a result, the script simply describes action or is used to bridge holes in the narrative.

Just to put some perspective in here. There is so much that is right about this piece. The main thing being the story and contributers. Its an interesting story, worth telling, whatever the medium.

AlagnaYou say it best, when you say nothing at all.
In reality that section would have benefited from no script at all. Stillman vocalise’s a lot of his concern and using that actuality and tighter editing would have upped the urgency and told the story just as well.

Sometimes the sound and pictures are enough to tell the story. Knowing when to let the pictures and sound ride comes from knowing your story and constructing the edit to enhance that.

Listen to the way the script and music work in this BBC news video about the Tenor Alagna storming off stage in the middle of a performance after he was booed. Hear how the script and actuality work together.

The case against script
On one level many people don’t like script because they simply can’t stand listening to poor delivery – especially when it comes to newspaper video. They say that the skills needed to write and deliver a script are so specialist that it’s just too much to expect a stretched print journo to master everything.

But on a more serious note there number of commentators who don’t like script for editorial reasons. They say that the protagonists in a story should tell the story. They often come from a visual story telling background influenced by pure documentary approach – mainly photographers who witness rather than report.

Another outstanding video from the Emmy’s the Washingtonpost.com’s Contamination and a Crusade by Pierre Kattar illustrates how video can work without script.

Water 1 water2

The case for script.
Given the short time that we have to tell a story a contributor is often the last person you would rely on to tell it. If we accept that journos (who have some experience in the form and function of making stories interesting to a broad audience, can’t tell the story effectively in the medium, then it would follow that a member of the public would perhaps be worse.

When you do get people who can tell the story, like Sheila Holt-Orsted (above) then there still needs to be scene setting. In this case it’s block of text at the start. A voice over reading that text would have made it more accessible. But I have bigger ethical worries than the editorializing journalist when this approach is taken. Where is the balancing voice of the journalist?

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that the only person who knows the story is the person who experienced it but are they always the ones who know how to tell it in a fair and accurate way?

No script often means little or no context. That means you need to put it in another way. In TV that would usually be done with a cue. A bit of script delivered by the presenter to set the scene. Look at this peice of video by Frontline Club founder Vaughan Smith

It includes the intro by Newsight presenter Jeremy Paxman. (BTW Nice face there Paxo) Without that intro would the film be as instantly accessible?

The only equivalent we have online, if we don’t want presenters, is the text that appears around the video or the link that takes you to the clip. Without it you lose some of the value of your clip as something stand alone.

As for the quality of the delivery. I have some sympathy with that. But practice makes good enough. I often think that the biggest hurdle in getting a good delivery is getting over the sound of your own voice. Then it’s a matter of deciding what sounds good coming out of your mouth.

So script is a way of making a story more coherent and approachable in the time and medium we are working in. It is also one of the ways, not the only one but a controllable way, that we can get that all important balanced and critical journalistic voice in to our work.

Conclusion
You can guess that I like script. But the truth is that I actually have no feelings one way or another other than my general stand point which is ‘if the story needs it or will stand it then you should use it’. I think there are great examples of non-scripted work out there.

I’m actually more bothered by the anti-script brigade who have some kind of ethical problem with it. That’s a script I can’t read from as it ignores a whole bus load of more important ethical issues.

We need to see script for what it is: one of the tools in our storytelling bag. Used well it takes a story in to new directions. Not used at all and it can leave a story as nothing more that a collection of soundbites.

And in that round about why, thinking about soundbites nicely leads me to the last in this three parter: Sound.

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