Compelling Videos About a Complex Subject
We the Economy is a video series that hopes to explain how the economy impacts our lives. We’re all affected by mercurial economic forces but most of us feel quite removed from them. To shed some light Paul Allen and Morgan Spurlock created a series of 20 short videos 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. While many of the pieces fall short, some are excellent examples of how a video can wrangle its subject matter to both entertain and educate.
Over a series of five posts, I’ll critique the most successful programs as examples of how filmmakers fashion work that is a once provocative, informative and stimulating.
Each post will tease out what works and what doesn’t and will include comments from the filmmakers. Part one will explore using actors (and dancers), part two – animation, part three – a host, part four – documentary and part five – advocacy.
Video + Dance: Navigating Supply and Demand
Director Jon M. Chu‘s Supply & Dance, Man! uses dancers in this quirky story about supply and demand.
Jon Chu, from the We the Economy website:
One of the things that stood out… was how the economy was always in constant motion whether an ebb, a flow, a dip or a rise. Everything is connected. It reminded me of a duet between our wants and our needs.
Jon Chu directs with a deft hand – he’s the creative force behind the Microsoft Surface tablet commercials and several feature films. In Supply & Dance, Man! the voice of the narrator drives the action – but unlike most narrations, this one is light-hearted and suggests rather than describes. The video is structured as a story, choreographed with elements of conflict and competition, courtship and romance.
Our biggest inspiration was the old Disney Goofy cartoons that taught you how to ski or golf. I thought the interplay of the narrator with our live-action actors could be hilarious and give us a lot of freedom to dive into more complicated economic ideas when we needed to.
For starters, this video is just fun – one of my favorites. I love the visual gestures as the two main dancers, Jonathan and Kristin respond to each other, the narrator and the supply and demand story about canes. The timing is also perfect – it’s fast-paced but easy to follow, plus the dancing is cool, quick and to the point. The pace keeps things moving, but not too fast to confuse you about what was happening.
Everything was dramatized, yet underplayed at the same time. It’s difficult to make an instructional video without being obvious. Placing the story as a competition, plus the little asides from the narrator and gestures from the actors, help make it all entertaining as well as educational.
As the video illustrated the supply curve (high demand = prices rising) the dance routines were more of a jazz dance style. When the story switched to the demand curve (high supply = prices falling), the style of dance changed too – more hip hop and acrobatic. Making an obvious visual change helps the viewer understand that the content has changed, too. It’s a subtle but effective cue to pay attention, that something’s afoot.
The graphics work well – simple, clear and to the point and also the way the story concludes – the two opposing curves resolve as the two opposing shopkeepers find “equilibrium.” We get a pastiche of dance and then fade out as Kristin and Jonathan find their own version of equilibrium. Very well done and effective.
Video + Actors: Why Does Healthcare Cost So Much?
A wry humor carries the next video too, this time with actors. This Won’t Hurt a Bit, created by Mary Harron, looks at the economics of the American healthcare system.
Mary Harron has directed feature films and television series. From the We the Economy website:
When researching the subject of U.S. healthcare, I came across a story about a young man who arrived at the emergency room with a headache and left with a $15,000 bill. I asked writer/comedienne Cynthia Kaplan to help me write a little drama about a patient who gets lost in the funhouse of American healthcare.
This Won’t Hurt a Bit uses humor and a zippy script to show the forces that make American healthcare so expensive. I like the lighthearted approach, Lili Taylor’s great group intervention with Ms. Insurance, Mr. Pharmaceuticals and the patient, and Bob Balaban’s slightly smarmy explanation of the history of healthcare.
However, the piece as a whole a wee bit too fast-paced, too wordy and a little overwhelming. Even seasoned actors can’t do much when all they’re delivering is information. That’s why media makers are always encouraged to “show” rather than “tell.”
When it came to Lili Taylor’s therapeutic intervention, the characters were able to exhibit a little more personality and the situation’s ironic humor played well. That scene is an excellent example of how to use a quirky situation to advantage. It was Mary Harron’s most creative approach to dealing with the content and it also gave us a little insight into the larger issue.
One takeaway from these two pieces is that if you’re using actors (or dancers) give them some character traits to enrich the story and personal moments to make us care about them. Also, with stiff writing educational videos can become didactic and boring, leaving actors little room to save the production from itself. Without a light touch or a spark of humor, actors can easily feel like they’re mouthing words or just playing a role. As a writer, I have to say that less words, more action works better.
This is the first of five posts on how to use video to inform or educate. Next week we’ll offer two excellent examples of using text and animation. Share your insights and thoughts in the comments section below.