Compelling Videos About a Complex Subject
We the Economy is a series of 20 web videos on the economy covering everything from globalism to navigating supply and demand curves. The series is a pastiche of approaches transforming dry information into something at once witty, informative and fun – some pieces are excellent examples of how a video can wrangle its subject matter to both entertain and educate.
In a series of five posts, TheVisionThing will critique the most successful programs to show how filmmakers fashion work that is a once provocative, informative and stimulating. The first post explores using actors, the second animation and this one looks at using a host.
Using a Host
Who is that affable fellow with a bowtie and quirky hat? Oh, must be the host. Being a host is a lot harder than it looks. A host must appear friendly, knowledgable and confident – both with the content and the audience. The host’s words are important too, they help deliver the content and can draw you in or turn you off. We’ll look at two examples from We the Economy and see why one works better than the other.
James Schamus and That Film About Money
Here’s part one of That Film About Money:
James Schamus is an award-winning writer and producer of feature films. For That Film About Money he wrote the script, produced the video and played the host. Part two of That Film About Money continues in the same vein. If you want to watch it you can find it here.
James, from the Vice website:
I’m not trying to convey much information, my main goal is simply to freak you out… So the goal was, for the rest of your life, every time you see a dollar bill, there’ll be this weird middle-aged guy in a hat in your peripheral vision going, “Are you kidding?” And every time you walk by a bank for the rest of your life you’re going to go, “Oh, that looks like a weird temple but I know it’s not, or it looks like a weird airport lounge, and now I know why: because there’s nothing there.
As host, James Schamus sets the stage, asks questions, and lets his team of experts provide the answers as he drives the content from one question to the next. He presents himself as a kind of everyman with a wry, quirky touch, pitching softball questions to his team of experts. They present their comments packaged with a patina of irony, as if they all know that we, the viewers, are naive and misinformed and they’re going to set us straight. Does this approach work? Do you find it appealing or off-putting?
The video begins with the question, “what is the real value of the dollar?” but it’s really about how banks have created a money system based on debt (rather than earnings) and how they benefit at our expense.
James Schamus, from the Vice website:
There’s no way that the guys who control the banking system want you to know this stuff… because they really don’t want you to know that the whole system really is run by a bunch of bankers who have this thing rigged.
As the writer/producer, Schamus clearly has an axe to grind – so how should he present the information? Should the host be neutral or an advocate?
In That Film About Money the host segments are fairly straight forward, but the expert sound bites are not, which gives a political shading to the content. If you’re already inclined to agree with what’s presented, you’ll find the piece to your liking. But if you come into it with a different political viewpoint, it may not be so appealing. To reach people with a world view different than your own, you have to present your content in a way that will not turn them off.
Again, from the Vice website:
The one thing you know about economics is that when somebody says, “Well you know, that’s just the business cycle,” economically we can or can’t do this, it gives it the aura of the inevitable, when in fact—and this is what my movie is trying to say—there’s nothing inevitable about this. This is politics.
What Works and What Doesn’t
Given that writer/producer James Schamus wants to “freak us out,” the ironic messaging, elaborate bank interior and quirky host calmly exploding some of our myths about money and banks all make an impact. But he isn’t successful in tying his ideas together. There’s a choppiness to the editing along with a choppiness to the storytelling.
I like the different settings and especially the long shot of the host walking through the empty bank. But he keeps popping up here and there, seemingly in a new angle for each line of copy and the result is there’s no visual flow. Too often the relationship between the script and the visual setting seems totally random. It’s as if Schamus feels that couching his presentation in an ironic cheerfulness is enough to carry the piece.
Let’s talk about the content for a moment. Under the guise of a film about money, what we get is a film about stagnation of wages, debt and the role of the banks (and advertising) in perpetuating debt. Yes, it’s interesting to learn that money isn’t a thing and debt drives our financial system. But, surely there are other factors at play, like savings, investment, corporate and government spending to name a few. There are a lot of underlying assumptions in this video that aren’t explored. The more I watched That Film About Money, the more I felt I was only getting part of the story.
That’s why it was exciting to see Shola Lynch’s Monkey Business and Economic Inequality.
Shola Lynch Monkeys Around With Economic Inequality
Shola Lynch, an accomplished documentary filmmaker, takes a similar approach in using herself as a host, but does it very well:
As the writer/producer, Shola Lynch also uses experts to deliver much of the information and herself as host to ask questions and provide transitions. She describes her experience on the We the Economy website:
When I was asked to make a short doc on economic inequality, I thought sure this would be easy. Boy, was I wrong. I found out that I understood the feeling of inequality, which is exemplified in the doc by Frans De Waals’ fairness experiment with monkeys. But like most Americans, I conflated the feeling of inequality with the economic definition of inequality, and that was where the confusion came in. My goal with this film was to use my own learning curve as a point of departure to provide some clarity.
Why Monkey Business Works So Well
Shola Lynch does an excellent job as host – her comments feel personal but balanced, she speaks with authority, poses questions and is the vehicle that carries the video forward. She comes across as engaged, smart and confident. While her video is full of talking heads, the comments are well chosen and the whole video feels fresh, intelligent and informative. As a host she’s personable, relaxed, communicates well and has a sense of authenticity that builds trust.
Shola Lynch, from We the Economy website:
Economists do not deal with judgments or feelings but strictly with metrics and by comparing measurable terms. To understand the economic debates in the media about inequality and the income gap, it is key to make sure that economists are arguing about the same terms otherwise it is like comparing apples with oranges — useless. Now when I watch theses kinds of debates on television, I will be a better judge. My hope is that anyone who watches MONKEY BUSINESS aka ECONOMIC INEQUALITY will too.
Shola Lynch is very straightforward as the host. She’s a clear thinker and easy to follow. She also respects you, the viewer, and speaks directly to you. She helps you feel comfortable with the information, so you’re ready to travel with her as she explores the causes of inequality. I also like the graphics – they’re clear and easy to follow.
Everything flows at a comfortable pace so you can absorb and process what she (and her experts) are communicating. Finally, as host she sums up the issue and root causes of inequality and asks the right question – what kind of society do we want? She wisely doesn’t try to answer that question, but leaves it with you to ponder and come to your own conclusion.
All of these elements – her approach, the content and how it’s presented, make the piece very effective. You end up with some key insights regarding the root causes of economic inequality and the monkey business they create. Kudos to Shola Lynch for successfully navigating the shoals of propaganda to deliver some needed insight into an important and difficult economic issue.
One final thought: In making this piece Shola Lynch created a story by sharing her own personal journey trying to understand the economics of inequality. As a host, she became a storyteller, guiding us through the content. It is a very effective way to draw you in and keep you engaged.
This is the third of five posts on how to use video to inform or educate. You can the first post on using actors here and on using animation here. Next week we’ll look at two excellent examples of documentaries that engage the viewer and create powerful stories. Please share your insights and thoughts in the comments section below.