Creating video in the service of ideas is a lot harder than it looks. Telling a great story takes skill, talent and the right subject to make it all work.  When you have to do it in 3 minutes, it takes a real pro to create something special.


The three-minute rule is becoming standard for web videos.  Last year I helped create 15 web videos for the MacArthur Foundation’s MACEI awards for creative and effective institutions.  For each video we had just three minutes to describe the organization’s mission, its impact, why it won, and what it hoped to accomplish.  To be successful, each piece had to quickly get to the heart of the matter, focus on a few key facts, and streamline the story.


That compressed approach to non-fiction storytelling inspired the launch of Cinelan a few years ago as a “publisher” of short documentaries. And while their early films were well made, they were all over the map.  The only common connection was their short length.

Then Cinelan created a partnership with General Electric in August, 2011 to feature mini-documentaries “focused on the incredible human power of ideas and invention.”  With that, they launched a terrific collection of videos under the umbrella of GE Focus/Forward.


I want to introduce three of them, because they offer three different approaches to telling a story and they’re each very successful in their own way.

Good Bread | Eddie Schmidt from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

I wrote a post on The Vision Thing about Homeboy Industries last year. This video by Eddie Schmidt brings Homeboy to life as Noe shares his life story as a former gang member who’s forging a new path with his first job baking bread.  The piece is constructed in a classic documentary style and it’s very visual as you witness the bread-making process.  Watching the transformation of raw dough into finished loaf, you also get the story of Noe’s transformation, aided by Herb and Homeboy Industries. I like the way the filmmaker interweaves the visuals, the little blips of actuality sound, and the comments from Noe and Herb.  The video has heart and, through Noe’s comments, gives you a window into what Homeboy has to offer.

Take a look at the next video and think about how differently it’s put together.

Fire With Fire | Ross Kauffman from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

Ross Kauffman’s video uses three doctor interviews to tell the story.  Most of the visuals are quite abstract, with some actuality footage of Emma, the patient.  The story is quite dramatic, with interviews structured so you get Emma’s problem, learn the difficulty of overcoming her illness and the experimental nature of the solution. The amazing medical outcome delivers a real sense of success and a magical cure. Dr. June is almost overcome with the emotion of it all, bringing everything back to a human level as the piece moves to its conclusion. The video is beautifully constructed and leads you simply and gracefully through a procedure that could be quite complicated and confusing. The doctors’ comments play well over the abstract visuals and the soundtrack is very powerful with music composed just for the video.

The third video, from Sweden, is more nuanced and experimental.

The Invisible Bicycle Helmet | Fredrik Gertten from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

Inventors Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin started working on the concept of an invisible bicycle helmet as their masters thesis in industrial design and created their company Hovding to manufacture them. I like this film for several reasons. The information gently unfolds, it’s not linear in its construction. There’s a soft, dreamy quality that adds a little mystery to the visuals and aids the storytelling.  You may want to watch the piece more than once to absorb how it’s put together.

I like the woman power subtext and Anna and Terese’s determination to “think big and aim high.” I like that the invisible helmet isn’t visible until the end of the piece. It’s there all the time but we don’t “see” it, which makes it all the more impressive when we realize what they accomplished.  And your view of the two women changes as you come to appreciate them as innovative entrepreneurs.

I’ve looked at quite a few of the offerings on the Focus/Forward site and I’m sure there are others you will like.  The Honor Code is a commentary with animation and the concept is quite interesting.  Hilary’s Straws  celebrates the human spirit.  And Panmela Castro features a feminist activist who uses graffiti art to raise awareness of violence against women.

Finally, kudos to Cinelan and GE for bringing these bite-sized chucks of the world to our fingertips.