By Tucker Walsh
We hear it all the time: The "future" of digital storytelling is about collaboration -- telling character-driven stories with a purpose, publishing them in multiple platforms, and sharing through social media. Well folks, the future is here. Scott Anger and Bob Sacha, who've collectively produced work for National Geographic, NPR, LA Times, and MediaStorm, to name a few, have set the bar. By creating poignant and intimate character-driven stories for The Open Society Foundation's "Stop Torture in Healthcare" campaign, they took issues I didn't even know existed and made me care. Find out how in my Q&A with Scott and Bob below.
TDN: The Open Society Foundation asked you to tell stories about torture in health care. Explain the process of taking this broad topic and distilling it down to three intimate stories on three individuals living on three different continents. What were the biggest challenges that stood in your way?
SCOTT: Bob Sacha and I were given the three, general topics that the Open Society Foundations wanted to highlight as part of its Stop Torture in Health Care initiative and a directive to each as a stand alone, compelling narrative film. The three topics were the denial of pain relief, forced sterilization of women and the forced detention of drug users. We worked very closely with the communications person for the project, Paul Silva, and OSF’s multimedia producer Pamela Chen. The five of us met and talked about the need to find unfolding, contemporary stories with a central character - or characters - going through a process that’s visual. Of course, filmmaking is about visual storytelling so historical films about something that happened in the past - or films simply about a topic or an idea - can be less than compelling. Every good film has a character that pulls the viewers through the story so we worked together to find one for each of these topics.
The biggest challenge was identifying amazing characters from afar. Because we were aiming to make three films, 10 to 15 minutes in length, we knew that each film had to contain a single main character with enough happening in their life to add depth and allow us to address the larger message that we wanted to communicate. Because OSF works closely with local NGOs on the ground in most countries, we were able to quickly cull through well-written, detailed reports for character leads.
We first narrowed down the countries; Ukraine for denial of pain relief, Cambodia for forced detention of drug users, and Namibia for forced sterilization of women. These three countries best represented this issues needing the most attention. Next, we compiled a list of potential characters in each country and had conversations with local representatives who knew the people. In addition to having someone deeply involved in each issue, they needed to be willing to let Bob and I basically spend 10 consecutive days with them filming every aspect of their lives. That’s a tall, but essential, requirement to make the kind of observational, cinema verite films we wanted to make.
BOB: One thing that was great about working with OSF was that they understood that we needed to find characters that were compelling to tell these stories and not just talk to the heads of their programs. While administrators have a valuable point of view, it's really hard to make a gripping film based on interviews with them. So many other foundation pieces seem to have staff people included, and I always feel that weakens the story.
TDN: How did you find your subjects, and what did you see in each character that ultimately led you to deciding to tell their story?
SCOTT: Each of the three main characters were going through a process that had already been documented by representatives of OSF. For example, Vlad in Ukraine, with whom we spent 10 days filming, was dying in pain. He was suffering through exactly what the Stop Torture in Health Care initiative was setting out to stop. He and his mother struggled daily to secure pain relief medication and he had a doctor willing to talk about his condition, which allowed us to expand on the larger issue. Vlad and his family were also very willing to have us spend considerable amounts of time with them.
TDN: How does focusing your story on one individual allow you to best document a broad topic, like torture in health care? What are the challenges of this approach to storytelling?
SCOTT: Compelling stories are always told through a strong character. It is a standard storytelling structure to use a character as a thread to pull the audience through a story or communicate and idea.The challenge is to find the most compelling characters. It is standard practice to travel in advance of the production in order to meet potential characters and assess their viability. Sometimes, people with the most compelling story can’t always communicate clearly or are reluctant to allow the filmmaker access. Because of time and budget constraints, we were not able to travel and meet the potential characters for this project. Bob and I know what to look for in finding characters and assessing potential. However, since we were enlisting the help of some who had never cast characters for a documentary, I created a simple set of guidelines to help with the assessment. Here is some key criteria when assessing story/character potential:
- CHARACTER: Is there a main character through which the story can be told? Are they interesting and able to communicate the story? Are there supporting people who can help corroborate and support the main character?
- STORY ARC: Is there a process with a beginning, middle and end?
- VISUAL: Is there a process the characters are going through that’s visible and visual? Can it be seen?
- ACCESS: Will they allow you to witness their process? Can you physically get close enough to record the story?
- TIME: Do you have enough time to witness and film the evolution of the process?
As long as these five points are present, there’s a good chance of telling a successful, visual story.
TDN: You consider this project advocacy journalism. Can you expand on what this means, and where and how this niche of storytelling is making a difference?
SCOTT: Advocacy journalism is a relatively new term. For me, it means telling journalistically sound, non-fiction stories that have a specific use or that are intended for a specific audience.
To some, the term “advocacy” might mean that the story is somehow manipulated but it is not. I have been a journalist for my entire career. I never stage, re-enact or ask people to do anything for the sake of the film beyond sitting for a formal interview. I like to think of it as how a newspaper or magazine columnist might work. The idea is that I’m not trying to balance a story but present an aspect of in the most truthful and compelling way.
Ultimately, this kind of storytelling is about credibility. Credibility, especially in social advocacy organizations, is just as important as it is for journalistic organizations if not more. If an organization is seen “creating” stories or manipulating them in any way, they run the risk of losing the ability to be believable. This would jeopardize not only future storytelling but also the organization’s ability to function effectively and be trusted.
Another important point is that these films we created for the OSF initiative had to be able to stand up to potential scrutiny by critics, governments and other organizations. These are controversial issues being debated within powerful institutions. The stories had to be completely honest and true. Approaching them as journalists and truthful storytellers was the only way to accomplish this.
BOB: There was never any doubt nor conversation about how we were going to approach these stories. We've been journalists our entire career and really believe that telling the truth is the best and most powerful way to tell a story like this. We're especially careful to never stage anything. That's one of the great challenges about this kind of work in that you need to capture something when it happens. If you miss it, you either watch for it to happen again or figure out another way to capture the point. The thing about working with someone like Scott, who is also a great shooter, is that one of us was always thinking ahead. so there were really two brains watching and anticipating what was going to happen next. It's doubled the chances of success.
TDN: Your three videos, along with other content, lives on its own website: StopTortureInHealthcare.org. What are the benefits and downsides of having an entire website dedicated to your project?
SCOTT: To me, there is no downside to having content live on a dedicated website. A dedicated website allows organizations to build a specific audiences around a topic or cause. It’s easier to promote and allows for better engagement with people and other organizations through blog posts, requests for action, social media, etc.
BOB: OSF was smart in that they served the videos from their YouTube channel, so people can also find them directly from YouTube.
TDN: Knowing this project was created for a niche audience, what storytelling or shooting approaches did you take to best connect with your viewers? There are very little stats and figures in your stories; was that a conscious decision? If so, why?
SCOTT: We set out to tell the most compelling, character-driven stories we could. We researched each topic extensively so once we arrived, we knew exactly what kinds of information needed to be conveyed in the stories in order to make them both useful for the OSF initiative and interesting for someone unfamiliar with the topics. Our goals was to make three good films, period.
Characters make films and stories successful. Although facts and figures are important, there are more effective ways to deliver statistics around the films on the websites or in reports. When someone sits down to watch a film, they want to be transported into an interesting story. Statistics tend to interfere more often than not. It is much more compelling to watch a powerful character go through a process than to see a list of meaningless numbers on a screen. It’s about putting a face and a personality on those numbers.
BOB: One advantage about making a film for a specific audience was that they helped teach us more about the subject. There were a few suggestions in the editing process about scenes where we didn't realize we were perpetrating a stereotype. It just made us more sensitive as storytellers to work with people who really understood the issues because they've been working on them for years. So it was great to be educated by them.
TDN: Talk about the logistics of each story: how many days were you in the field, how long did the post production take, did the two of you edit together side-by-side?
SCOTT: We budgeted for 10 days of shooting in the field and estimated that we would collect about 30 hours of footage. In the end, we were pretty close to those numbers. We arrived at these estimates simply from experience of knowing how stories unfold, what kinds of footage we needed to shoot and the typical logistical padding needed when working/traveling in unfamiliar places.
The post-production was done apart simply because Bob and I live on separate coasts. We each edited one of the films and hired a very talented editor, Linda Hattendorf, to edit the third film because of deadline constraints.
Post-production was a challenge because each of the films were in a different language other than English. We had time-code accurate transcripts made from all the footage so we could edit relatively accurately on our own. Editing conversation off of transcripts is difficult. Every language has nuances and different types of sentence structure. Once we had a rough cut close enough, we had a native speaker brought in to help use make a fine cut.
It was important to make films in the native language of the subjects and use English subtitles so the films could be shown in each country.
BOB: All the subjects spoke some English and they were proud of it and wanted to communicate to us in English. But I learned that even though a subject speaks some English, it's still better to conduct the interview in the language that they were most comfortable expressing themselves in, which is usually their native language. While it was a lot tougher for us in the post-production stage, it allowed us to capture much better interviews.
TDN: How can collaboration take advocacy storytelling to the next level? What are the pros and cons of working together?
SCOTT: Collaboration is key to the success of projects like the Stop Torture campaign films. As much as I can do research, I can never match the level of understanding of an issue or topic of those working in specific fields for years on end. Bob and I were able to draw from the deep knowledge of OSF staff members who have been working for years in Ukraine, Cambodia and Namibia. Paul Silva and Pamela Chen where able to stay focused on the overall goals of the organization and ultimate usefulness of the films. They are also wonderful, talented storytellers in their own right. We were all able to work together in a very synergistic way.
In terms of Bob and I working together in the field, it is always better to have a colleague to bounce ideas off of at the end of the day or a collaborative partner who works alongside to shape story as the production progresses. Bob’s an amazing visual storyteller with years of experience at National Geographic and elsewhere. We’re both used to working in strange places on difficult stories. There’s no real downside to having a small, efficient team working together. Another benefit is that Bob and I have similar skills so we were able to trade off for every day between filming and collecting sound. This took some of the physical strain off each of us. As much as the idea of a single-handed, multi-platform journalist working alone in the field sounds ideal, having a second person adds strength to the storytelling. Our days were rarely shorter than 12 hours long for ten days straight. This kind of cinema verite storytelling is intense and exhausting work. Having the opportunity to swap tasks allowed each of us to keep a focus on story development while the other concentrated on making good images. We were always in agreement on story direction and production.
BOB: There are so many advantages to working in a team of two with someone who has the same technical and practical skill set. We agreed that we would switch roles every other day, even if we didn't film the day before. For instance, whomever was doing sound that day would conduct the interview. We'd always discuss the questions and the direction of the interview in advance and also listen carefully during the interview and ask each other if we had other questions. We also were able to form a tight bond with our subjects because were had such a flexible team of two (plus interpreter).
Seeing the story one day through the camera and then experiencing it through headphones the next day while recording sound really helped us see the story in multiple dimensions, which is really helpful.
And finally, in some situations it helps to have two people who can shoot. We were spontaneously invited into a rehabilitation center one evening and because we knew we had limited time inside, Scott went in one direction and I went in the opposite direction. We both filmed some really great stuff in a short time (we each handled our own sound in that case) and that doubled our effectiveness.
TDN: In each story you had an official or professional's interview included in the video. Were those interviews conducted before or after your shoot with the main subject? How can having an official's voice benefit the story? Does including these interviews ever hinder a story, and if so, how can you avoid that?
SCOTT: We usually conducted more than one interview. I like to do an interview at the beginning of a story in order to get the basics recorded but also discover what I don’t know about a story. These interviews always lead into a previously unknown direction. Once the story is shot, I like to go back and re-interview subjects in order to precisely fill holes in the narrative and get them to talk specifically to the images and scenes recorded.
BOB: Since we did multiple interviews with our characters, it was interesting to see how they relaxed a lot more during the final interview, after we had been hanging out together for a week. All the interviews--everything we shot as a matter of fact--was done in a single trip . One thing about a two person team where we do everything is that we also have to set up all the interviews as well as capture them, download and manage the files, transcode, change flights,etc. So it's a lot of work and more times than once we wished we had a third production person to help. But it all worked out fine in the end.
TDN: You both prefer the title "multiplatform journalist" over the more commonly used "multimedia journalist." Explain the differences between the two, and talk about how publishing your content in various platforms helps reach your audience more effectively.
SCOTT: The term “multimedia” has no meaning anymore because all storytelling is executed, to some extent, in more than one medium. It’s redundant. Actually, the title “multiplatform journalist” is redundant as well. I prefer to be called a journalist or documentary storyteller. Everything I do, including audience engagement, spans multiple mediums now.
Audiences are fragmented like never before. The one-medium-fits-all strategy is no longer valid. This is true in the non-profit world as much as it is in the traditional media. Some people consume storytelling in video form, on specific websites, while others consume it on their mobile devices. There’s also a significant group of people throughout the world who still experience stories in the traditional way on television or in a cinema. Unfortunately, this means multiple distribution strategies for every story so the widest audience can be reached.
Successful distribution of stories means knowing your audience extremely well. For example, what are they interested in? How do they consume stories or content? Most NGOs know their audiences already so this usually isn’t a hurdle. But it goes further beyond just knowing audience. Every campaign should aim to engage the super-supporters - also known as trusted sources - of a cause or issue. In addition to fragmentation, we all are more willing to listen to those friends, colleagues or even strangers that we trust and follow. These trusted sources become another distribution channel and help spread the message by linking, blogging and broadcasting the content.
TDN: At what point in the post-production stage did Vlad pass away? After building such a close relationship with him, how did that effect you personally (you don't have to answer this if not comfortable doing so)? Did the two other subjects get to see their video? If so, what did they think?
SCOTT: Vlad passed away near the end of the post-production of the film. It was extremely sad because we really got to know Vlad and his family well. They were extremely warm and generous by allowing us into their home and allowing us to witness what they were going through. Vlad was funny, smart, charming and, despite his condition, a real pleasure to be around.
As journalists, we’re taught to keep a distance from our subjects but that’s not realistic. We are human and its our humanity that allows us to tell stories more intimately.
BOB: We knew that Vlad was going to die but it was really a punch in the chest to me when it heard that he had died. You try to distance yourself somewhat from subjects but you can never really distance yourself from being a caring human being.I did feel very lucky that were were able to spend time with him and we'll forever be indebted to him and his family for the way they so bravely and willingly shared their lives with us. I hope that by sharing his story, some thing will change.