Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

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Keep It Real: Video With a Host

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


Frame grab from That Film About Money

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:

Ep. 6: THAT FILM ABOUT MONEY | James Schamus from We The Economy on Vimeo.

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:

James Schamus, photo via

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:

photo by Gerhard Kassner

photo by Gerhard Kassner


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:


James Schamus, from the video

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 6.37.50 PM

Frame grab from That Film About Money

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:

Ep. 20: MONKEY BUSINESS | Shola Lynch from We The Economy on Vimeo.

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:

Shola Lynch, photo from

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 12.43.09 PM

Frame grab from Monkey Business

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:

Shola Lynch documentary film maker photographed in Harlem, NY on 24 May 2013

photo by Sally Montana

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 12.52.41 PM

Frame grab from Monkey Business

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.

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 12.46.09 PM

Frame grab from Monkey Business

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.

Exploring the Creative Process – Zoë Keating

Music is so ephemeral it’s hard to capture in words, but I like Zoë Keating‘s music so much I’m going to give it a try. She’s a mesmerizing live performer and improviser, and I’ve found some great web media to help you see what I find so appealing.

photo by Lane Hartwell

Zoë Keating photo by Lane Hartwell

Zoë Keating’s music is rich with emotion, color and light. She’s a passionate performer, reaching deep within to find the confidence and strength that powers her phrases – at times delicate as dew, then gently drifting like a burbling stream, then dark and brooding as a gathering storm.

photo by Jerry Dodrill

photo by Jerry Dodrill

Unlike most classical musicians, Zoë improvises her compositions on the spot, using her acoustic cello and computer looping technology that she controls with her foot. She’ll typically start with a phrase, capture it in the computer, play it back and accompany herself as she builds her intricately layered pieces. Note upon note, she weaves a tapestry of sound with lush melodies, pulsing rhythms and haunting atmospherics.

Her move from San Francisco to make her home in a Northern California forest inspired her latest CD, Into the Trees.  Zoë describes the creative process that sparked the CD on the website:


CD cover for “Into the Trees”

I think of this album as moving into an unknown world. Having been an urbanite for so long, the forest sort of represents that. 

When I lived in San Francisco, 75 percent of the pieces I wrote came from me riding my bicycle through the city while singing to myself. Cycling itself is a repetitive motion, so the melodic segments I would improvise would also be repetitive. Here in the woods, I experience something similar when walking. It’s hard for me to walk by myself and not sing at the same time, so that’s where some bits come from now. I also dream some musical phrases. I’ll come up with them in my head during the night. 

I “discovered” her as I was revisiting Intel’s Visual Life series on creative artists. Their agency’s production team crafted a fine documentary about Zoë and her music:

Like her music, the video is very textured, with images that reflect and amplify her creative spirit. As the video opens we hear Zoë playing as we see closeup images of her studio, revealing little fragments from her life, creative space and work. Then we hear a few brief memories from her early days, punctuated by closeup snippets of Zoë playing her cello. In this sequence the filmmakers give you a sense of her development as an artist and performer, with imagery that is personal and intimate. It draws you in, making her music less abstract and more accessible.

Later, when she talks about what the sound of her cello looks and feels like, we see images of nature, the forest and water with the natural sounds mixed in. The intercutting of sounds and images echo nicely with what she’s talking about and remind us of the source of her inspiration.

Jeffery Rusch2

photo by Jeffry Rusch

You also see her briefly in rehearsal and performance, so by the time the video shifts to exploring the nature of her music, you’re ready to understand what Zoë means as she describes what she’s doing as “creating a world of feeling, motion, color and light.”

Then they use a highly effective technique to portray her description of music as a captured moment of time. As she describes how each note comes and goes, you see superimposed images of her moving through the same space. It becomes a beautiful metaphor and visualization of how she layers her music – how it lingers in the same space for an instant and then vanishes into memory. I liked that section very much and, overall, found the video well-designed, lyrical and visually engaging.

photo by Mark Trammell

photo by Mark Trammell

In the interview below, NPR takes a more journalistic approach as it explores Zoë’s creative process and how she used improvisation to free herself from the rigid confines of perfectionism:

Finally, here is a complete performance of her piece, “Escape Artist”

Zoë Keating produces her own work, books her own concerts, serves as her own agent, record company and distribution network. She’s an example of how an enterprising artist, with just a few thousand devoted fans, can sustain themselves financially.

photo by Jeffery Rusch

photo by Jeffery Rusch

I think it’s a great time to be an artist. My recording studio consists of a laptop and a microphone. I can sell music directly to listeners on the web. I can talk to them on Twiter and Facebook. It’s a marvelous democratization of the arts and I can’t imagine that I would be able to have had this career a decade ago. I’m not going to become a multi-millionaire, but I can make a living and I can reach people.

As for me, I guess I’m one of those people. I’ve been listening to her latest CD and highly recommend it. You can find it here.

A final thought:

photo by Chase Jarvis

photo by Chase Jarvis


I’m compelled to do what I do. I think that’s true for a lot of artists. There are things we have to express. Creating cello music is the thing I’m driven to do. It makes me very satisfied. If I’ve worked for a couple of hours in the studio, I feel really good. It’s like therapy. It helps me be okay with the world.


Does her music speak to you? Add a comment and share your thoughts.

Something Borrowed Something Blue

QV Image photo

Wedding photos.  Sometimes tacky, sometimes enchanting.  Offering all the romantic vision of a Hollywood/Bollywood movie.  At their best, they’re an approximation of the photo above, displayed on the web portfolio of QV Image, based in Sydney, Australia.  And QV, from what I can tell from their website, takes themselves very seriously, showing lots of artfully posed couples approximating some version of marital bliss.  And videos too, all somewhat predictable, like “David and Vanessa, First Dance.”  But that’s just once side of the QV Image. 
They also know how to have fun.  And I highly recommend Jimtrace Wedding Highlight – Casual Story Part 2.  It is at once strange, weird, fun, charming, silly, a spoof and an all around good time.  And you can tell, everyone had a great time making it.  
So there you go.  Even the wedding video biz can provide its creative moments.  And thanks to QV Image, Jim and Trace for theirs.

Hong Kong Honey

Just watched a wonderful short piece on Vimeo about a man keeping bees in Hong Kong.  Beautifully conceived, a simple mediation.  The insanely huge city of Hong Kong, the almost insignificant but essential honey bees and the nostalgia they bring for a connected life.  Check it out at Hong Kong Honey.

But wait, there’s more.  HK Honey has a website.  And they are an organization of “beekeepers, artists and designers that aim to communicate the value of bees and benefits of locally produced honey.”  Even thinking about it slows my mind to a more contemplative state.  And how nice to think about these bee fanciers living on the other side of the globe, creating an oasis of peace in a frenetic urban environment.  The photos were taken by Martin Cheung.  And he has some cool pinhole camera shots of the bees that feel like an inside the hive pov.  You can see those on his site.

Photos by Martin Cheung


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