I'm really excited about this week's review. Not only are we discussing a beautifully produced piece by TDN contributor Morgan Heim for The Wild Foundation about a subject that's near and dear to my heart (Boulder, my hometown)-- but the judges' critiques are brilliant. Simply brilliant. I am so thankful for the time and thought these busy professionals put into this exercise.
As always, our promise: To be positive, honest, and constructive. Our hope: That everyone-- from creator to critic-- walks away a little wiser.
Meet this week's judges:
- Adam Westbrook: Multimedia journalist, lecturer, and founder of video .fu
- Emily Long: Program director for Mountainfilm, former Peace Corps volunteer
- Sarah Menzies: Filmmaker for Red Reel, LLC
- Scott Kirkwood: Editor in Chief of National Parks, multimedia director
1. What are the video's strengths?
ADAM: These subjects really lend themselves to beautiful photography, and this video doesn't disappoint. The opening landscapes in particular are very well lit and graded. I also really liked the motion graphics animations - they worked as a very nice way to avoid going overboard on the Ken Burns effects with old photographs.
EMILY: One of my responsibilities at the festival I work for, Mountainfilm in Telluride, is managing a screening committee for selecting documentary films for screening. The most common critique I get from committee members is that the films are "too long," regardless of length. A video can feel too long at 5 minutes just as easily as it can at 25 generally for a very simple reason: it does not keep the viewer interested and engaged. I would say this particular video is well executed and is just the right length for the information presented. Some of the other highlights are the beautiful still photography, the use of historical materials interspersed with original footage and also the music, which is sweet but doesn't divert attention.
SARAH: Visually, this piece was beautiful! The photos and video were breathtaking and drove the story. From the storytelling side, it was powerful to learn about the history of the conservation movement in Boulder County. With a foundation that strong, I came away feeling optimistic about open spaces in the area.
SCOTT: Great photography and videography. The diversity of images and the strength of each one really kept the piece moving for me; it didn’t seem like it was 7 minutes long. Love the use of time lapse and the appearance of so many people—too many conservation videos focus solely on landscapes and wildlife. Animations were used when they seemed appropriate, and woven in naturally. Music was good, and hardly noticeable, which is how it should be.
2. There's a lot of info packed into this video. Is it well organized? Do the transitions flow? Are there any places where you thought, "Man this is overwhelming," or "I wish they would tell me more!"?
ADAM: I think you hit on one of the underlying problems with this video - there's too much information to digest, and it I wonder if it hampers the effect of the video a little. Video is great for many things - conveying emotion, action and a sense of place, but I personally think it can't convey complex facts and arguments in the way text can. However, on the plus side, this video moves from one topic to another very quickly, and there's not really a point where you're thinking "I'm bored of this now" - quite rare in a long video piece!
EMILY: The story is told out of sequence -- it jumps from the '50s and '60s to 1910 back to '67-- but that fact in and of itself isn't necessarily a flaw. Stories don't need to be told in chronological order to make sense. However, there does need to be a structural reason for telling events out of sequence, and I question whether there is a strong enough story arc for it to work in this case. The middle pieces -- from about 2 minutes to around 5 minutes in -- seem to be thrown in at random and I would question the sequencing. Was the story told out of order just so it wouldn't be too "straight"?
SARAH: A lot was packed in there indeed. I felt as though there were a few different stories going on. We first learn about a specific park that Ruth Wright enjoys. We then move into the history of the area and the policy put in place to protect these spaces. Then we’re learning about the line set for mountain development. We then wrap up with the power of nature and our need to protect it. Perhaps a series would have been stronger so the viewer could dive in deeper with each sub-story. I find it interesting that Boulder was the first city to dedicate a fund for open spaces. I would have liked to learn more about that. Instead the video glossed over what could be stand alone stories. That said, the development and transition of the story flowed well, but the viewer lost the depth that could have been there.
SCOTT: For the most part, yes, I think it’s well organized. I wish I’d learned more about the conflicts and the challenges overcome. The way it’s portrayed, this whole process of conserving land was quite easy, and I doubt that was the case. Video is about storytelling, and without a conflict, there’s no story.
3. Were video, stills, and animation used appropriately, in the right places, for the right reasons?
ADAM: The film has a nice mix of multimedia; I think the photographs work particularly well because of the wildtrack running in the background for almost the entirety of the video. The animations are refreshing, although there's quite a mix of styles in one place and not much repetition/unity throughout the piece.
EMILY: There were almost too many materials utilized for the length of this piece. In the middle section, specifically, the photo stills transition too quickly; in several cases an image with relevant text disappears before the viewer is able to read the text. The original still photography is beautiful but I would cut out about a third of what I would call "atmosphere" images -- photos that are displaying the beauty of the area -- in favor of leaving the historical and text-driven imagery on the screen longer.
SARAH: Integrating video and stills together is tricky. I liked the photographs used in the history section, and the other stills did an excellent job of showcasing the natural beauty in the region. It’s hard for me to go from video to stills though, because I’m expecting the leaves, for instance, to continue blowing in the wind, or the water to keep flowing, as they had in the frames prior. I found the video to stills transitions to be abrupt at times. I think it would have been more powerful to keep them separate but still use both to tell the story. As for animation, I wasn’t very inspired by the motion graphics. However, they were used well in illustrating the urban growth line, and I found that to be very helpful.
SCOTT: For the most part, yes, the flow was very natural. The animation of the “blue line” was very clear, and the perfect solution. In terms of design, I thought there were far too many fonts used in the piece—it’s always best to pick a few fonts and use them consistently. Historic photos were also shown in several different ways, as slides, torn edges, etc. Pick a format and stick to it—each decade doesn’t need a different format.
4. Action check: Did you forward the video? Share it on your social media accounts? Donate? Click on a link to learn more?
ADAM: I tried to add it to the video .fu library of great online video storytelling, but The WILD Foundation doesn't allow their videos to be shared anywhere on Vimeo!
EMILY: I did not forward, share, donate or click any links from this video. If there is a purpose beyond informational, it was lost on me. Considering that it has only 35 views as of Tuesday afternoon, July 26th, it seems that there hasn't been a dedicated campaign to increase viewers. If it is a promo video for Nature Needs Half I think it does fulfil its mission in a lovely way, but it doesn't beg to be watched in a viral social networky way. I imagine the target demographic must be educated well-off mid- or late-career professionals who are likely to donate to open space campaigns.
SARAH: I clicked around a bit on the links to learn more about the Wild Foundation. I didn’t know that Boulder was the first city in the nation to create a fund for open spaces, which inspired me to look into my own region. After the video, I looked into the history of the urban growth area in Portland, OR, which is where I live. I will send the video on to friends I have in Boulder. They all take advantage of the open spaces there, and I know they will appreciate the history of how they came to be protected.
SCOTT: No, not living in Boulder, this piece didn’t touch me as deeply as it might have if I were a local. This really struck me as a local history piece, not a global conservation piece.
5. Fact or fiction: The opening text works; I was totally engaged from the very first frame.
ADAM: Fiction: I worry that the opening text is at risk of losing viewers before the story begins. First of all, the two slides take 24 seconds to roll out, and really you need to hook your audience in in a third of that time. The opening slide is a bit of a convoluted sentence and doesn't tell us at all what's at stake. And with no music or sound it doesn't build a sense of place. If you're asking people to stick with you for 8 minutes you need to give them a very good reason early on!
EMILY: Fact-iction, if I can coin a new word. The opening black cards are very informative and set the piece up so the viewer knows exactly what they are getting into. The moments that follow the opening cards are what draws the viewer in: beautiful scenes of nature, a thoughful voice-over and soft but driven music.
SARAH: Sadly, I have to say “false.” Not being from Boulder County, it didn’t grab me instantly. I also had a hard time with the 68 percent fact. Without context, I struggled with the number. I kept going back and forth as to whether or not it should be higher than that. Thinking about the significance of the number left me distracted and unengaged before the video began.
SCOTT: Fiction. I’m given a statistic (which meant little to me, without any context), and then a note saying, “Here comes a history lesson,” which isn’t very engaging. I would have focused on the fact that Boulder was a trailblazer, and then framed the story in terms of challenges overcome, forceful personalities, or ways that this story can shape the future—something to give it immediacy.
6. Suggestion box: If you could offer ONE tip for improving this, what would it be?
ADAM: My one tip would be to introduce some action to the film. Beautiful photography over voice-over only goes so far. For example, I would love to see Ruth walking through the park, showing us her favourite spot and why it means so much to her. That would give us a very human investment in the future of the parks.
EMILY: I think that this is a sweet, informative, thoughtful and well-produced video. My suggestions for changing it would depend on the purpose and defined intention of the filmmakers. If they were trying to make an informational piece about one open space success story, then they were also successful. If it is a fundraising piece for Nature Needs Half or The WiILD Foundation, I would add a direct plea at the end -- otherwise, the opportunity to reach a wider audience may be missed. My one suggestion box tip, then, would be for the filmmakers to be more clear and agressive about their goals.
SARAH: I came away feeling very inspired and excited for the future of protecting green spaces. But I have heard similar stories and could fill in the blanks. Being on the forefront of the conservation movement makes Boulder County a unique story to tell. My one suggestion would be to go into more depth with either one element of the story, or expand on each element and create a short series.
SCOTT: Add at least two more voices to the mix. Ruth has a quiet, charming presence, and she’s clearly a heroic figure in the story, but one voice over seven minutes gets monotonous. How great it would be to have a modern voice, someone who has worked on conservation issues in Boulder for just a few years, who marvels at what Ruth and her colleagues accomplished, and views it through a modern lens. I would have also tried to get quick quotes from some of the people enjoying the river and trails—parents and kids just saying why they love it so much.
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