Recently I went back to the GE Focus Forward site to explore their short films on big ideas. It’s quite a challenge to tell a compelling story in three minutes, especially with a complex subject. You’re taking viewers on a journey that arcs across a very short timespan. So what do you put in, what do you leave out? How do you express the ideas and visualize your story?
As you keep your focus on the big picture you can’t ignore the human dimension. Big ideas that work well in print are often difficult to express in video, unless you personalize them. The more your viewers feel involved with the person telling the story, the more they’ll give themselves to the information. That’s one of the keys to good storytelling – create a bond with your viewer and they’ll stick around to discover what’s next.
I’d like to introduce you to The Honor Code by accomplished social documentary producer/director Katy Chevigny. She’s a co-founder of Big Mouth Productions and IMDb has her down for producing or exec producing ten feature documentaries.
For Focus/Forward she set quite a challenge for herself, as her piece explores an innovative approach to an old and troubling concept.
Her video focuses on how we view and maintain honor, sending us on a journey of ideas with Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who wrote a book on the subject. He’s published widely on cultural and racial identity, political theory, and ethics and serves as the storyteller for the piece. I really like how Chevigny uses his thoughts to construct her video. But you may be wondering, how will she go beyond a talking head to make something visual about honor?
You’ll find an innovative answer in The Honor Code.
I like the way the ideas build one upon the other to create a foundation for Appiah’s argument. His direct, low-key delivery makes it easy to follow him from example to example as he makes his case for changing how we think about honor. And each thought is packaged within a new visual scene. As the ideas build, so do the scenes, be they text on the screen, Appiah on camera, or the short animation packages – in all, an excellent way to create a conceptual piece.
The animation by Ace & Son Moving Picture Co. is simple, effective – even playful as words and images float in the air as little bubbles of thought. The simplicity draws you in and holds your interest. Often the animation starts with a detail, then moves wider to reveal the scene, teasing your eye as it stimulates your curiosity. You don’t know where you’re going until you get there.
Here’s how Ace & Son describe their work:
We wanted the animation to open the space of the screen… we employed a fluidity within the animation by substituting drawn transformations for hard cuts. In this manner the picture acts as an agent of the content.
The animated transitions flow with the rhythm of Appiah’s words, there are no abrupt cuts from scene-to-scene. The animation may launch in a frame featuring Appiah on camera, or end like a little wisp of smoke outlining his image – a delicate approach that helps unify the visuals and tie everything together. That’s what the animators mean by “open the space of the screen” as their visual treatment and Appiah’s ideas come harmoniously together.
Consider the setting for the interview. Everything is shot in brown tones with the background textural but muted. The effect is Appiah talking to us within his own abstracted world, making the vibrant animation and the ideas portrayed even more appealing. Conceptually and structurally, The Honor Code is a powerful, well-executed piece.
Chevigny’s structure shows how to build a compelling argument as part of telling a story. If she started her piece talking about honor killings, there really wouldn’t be anywhere to go other than to condemn them. Instead, she leads us step-by-step though Appiah’s reasoning until we’re able to embrace his innovative ideas that may well turn honor on its head.