Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: We the Economy

Keep It Real: Video and Documentary

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, the third using a host and this one looks at documentaries.

Miao Wang’s Powerful Documentary

I was so surprised by this documentary on globalism I had to watch it a second time just to absorb all it had to say.

Ep. 17: MADE BY CHINA IN AMERICA | Miao Wang from We The Economy on Vimeo.

Documentary filmmaker Miao Wang was born and raised in Beijing and works in New York. Her film Made by China in America clearly shows that the key to making a powerful documentary is a good story well told.

From the We the Economy website:

miaowang_page22nyc website

Miao Wang, photo from page22nyc website

When I was first approached to create a short film on the monster-sized, complex global topic of explaining China’s economic boom, trade, and its impact on the U.S. economy – I had a flashback to the intensity of cramming for exams at the University of Chicago, where I graduated with a BA in economics. I couldn’t say no to this challenge – a project that aptly combines my background in economics and film.

Exploding Expectations

Miao Wang’s video starts out as a typical bad news documentary. You meet a range of South Carolinians who were once involved in the area’s booming textile industry. They walk through abandoned factories and speak about broken dreams.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.38.09 PM

Frame grab from Made by China in America

With this approach, you expect the rest of the documentary will focus on the devastation caused by the loss of American jobs migrating overseas. Just as you settle back to hear that very familiar story the documentary takes a sharp turn and shows a growing Chinese investment in American workers and businesses. You learn why it makes sense for China to build factories here and how they’ve reshaped the local landscape by bringing back jobs, rebuilding lives and reinvigorating the American Dream. It’s an amazing story and one rarely if ever reported.

What Works and Why

Miao Wang structures her piece very effectively, setting up your expectations for one story and then making a turn towards a better one. Her graphics are powerful and a strong conceptual element in the story, although there’s so much going on it’s hard to absorb all the information.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.42.44 PM

Frame grab from Made by China in America

Still, they support her story and the visual treatment works elegantly within the documentary style. The sound bites are well chosen and the camera work, while at times crude, manages to create a strong visual presence – especially in the wide shots. It’s very moving to go out into the field and get a first hand view of abandoned factories, the people left behind and the struggle to put their lives back together. Documentaries are very powerful for that reason – they plunk you right in the middle of the action, introduce you to real people and show you the challenges they face.

Miao Wang fashions her documentary with a light touch – she lets the process evolve naturally to capture our interest and curiosity. In making her documentary Miao Wang has a point of view, but wisely keeps it in the background as she unfolds the story bit by bit. Her piece is so compelling, it makes us change our preconceptions about China’s impact on America’s economy.

last shot

Frame grab from Made by China in America

From the CNBC website:

Miao_Wangphoto by Jake Price

Miao Wang, photo by Jake Price

I see Chinese investment in the U.S. as a positive opportunity for the U.S. as well as China. After all, these Chinese companies have to operate on the U.S. playing field, under U.S. regulations, contributing to the local tax base, and hiring Americans. The U.S. has the responsibility and advantage to guide these companies to better governance practices. In turn, China could play a role in helping to revive the U.S. economy.

A Chinese proverb goes, “If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, grow people.”

You can check out Miao Wang’s other video projects at her company site, Three Waters Productions.

Albert Hughes and City on the Rise

City on the Rise is another form of classic documentary, a strong emotional piece with a lot of heart. It also focuses on globalization – what happens when jobs go overseas.

We The Economy: City On The Rise from Eric Alexander-Hughes on Vimeo.

America’s industrial revolution was launched in cities like Detroit, once a center for technology and innovation. Albert Hughes goes back to the city of his birth to explore what happens when jobs disappear.

Director Albert Hughes, from the We the Economy website:

"The Book of Eli" - Photocall

Albert Hughes from website

Anything having to do with money or the economy has always been totally foreign to a person like me. I don’t even live in the U.S. anymore and rarely carry more than 20 bucks in my pocket! I kept thinking about it but just wasn’t able to wrap my head around such an abstract subject. And then it finally hit me… Detroit, the place I was born. A place that would be the perfect case study for what can happen to a society when the bottom falls out — whether it be from the effects of globalization or automation eliminating countless manufacturing jobs.

What Works and Why

Early on Albert Hughes made some choices for his video that help heighten its impact. He uses stock footage newsreels to show the early days of Detroit. The stock footage was shot in black and white and Hughes decided to turn his present day exteriors black and white as well. That choice creates a strong visual consistency, especially since the bulk of the story is centered in the past, with the loss of jobs and decline of the city – all fairly dark subjects and well-suited to a monochrome treatment.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.53.21 PM

Frame grab from City on the Rise

City on the Rise is well-structured, as it first shows the rise of industry and a flourishing city, then the decline, and finishes with a positive turn and signs of recovery. The visuals are so compelling that part of the story is simply told with text on the screen and stark images of decay. And then there’s the personal stories.

Albert Hughes:


Albert Hughes, from the website

The whole story was suddenly there for me — and hit home in a very personal way as my father was once an auto worker, as well as many family members. I tried my best to tell the story on a personal level and hear from the former auto workers as well as city officials. I didn’t want to wallow in the glut of the city or the doom and gloom everyone has become so familiar with. I wanted to show the city in a new light.

The people featured in the video are eloquent advocates for their own stories as well as the larger theme of the city’s decline and hopeful return. Personalizing the story with the two workers makes the piece more emotional. Ultimately this documentary is about people’s lives, not statistics, and making that the focus is key to its power.

The interview settings work well with an abstract environment that visually supports the story’s content. The interview setups are well-framed and free of clutter and distraction.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.33.40 PM

Still of Kathy Milam from City on the Rise

You learn from former autoworker Kathy Milam how she adapted to the challenges thrust at her when she lost her job. In telling her story, she also becomes a symbol for a city fighting its way back.

The piece was edited by Albert’s son, Eric Alexander-Hughes. The pace moves along but also gives you time to absorb the content. The music stays more in the background but still makes its point by helping create the mood. The images work well – you see the devastation in the abandoned buildings and later on, the hope and excitement in the faces of Detroit’s people.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 5.07.13 PM

Still from City on the Rise

Although Albert Hughes obviously has a point of view, like Miao Wang, he kept it in the background. Instead, you feel the immediacy of the story told by people who are living it. You feel their passion and pathos – they become your guides to understand what has happened and their dream for a better life still to come. This is another strength of documentary – it can put you right in the middle of things and make you feel you’re part of the experience.

Together, these documentaries convey their information with passion and conviction as they show how the loss of jobs impacts a community and the people who live there. They both raise up positive stories from the depths of a ruined economy – offering hope where others only find despair. They tell engaging stories, moving from place to place as each new story element serves the next until you arrive at a deeper understanding of the issue. City on the Rise and Made by China in America are two excellent examples of powerful documentary storytelling.

This is the fourth of five posts on how master communicators use video to inform or educate. You can find an earlier post on using actors here, on using animation here and on using a host here. Next week we’ll look at an excellent advocacy video that engages you as it reveals a powerful story. Please share your insights and thoughts in the comments section below.

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.

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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.

Keep It Real: Video and Animation

Compelling Videos About a Complex Subject

We the Economy is a series of 20 web videos on the economy produced by Cinelan, 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 video can wrangle its subject matter to both entertain and educate.


Frame grab from Amazing Animated Film About the Deficit

In a series of five posts, TheVisionThing will critique the most successful programs to show how filmmakers fashion work that is provocative, informative and stimulating. Last week we explored video with actors and this week we’ll look at using animation.

Marshall Curry’s Amazing Animated Film on the Deficit

“Amazing Animated Film on the Deficit” – WE THE ECONOMY SERIES – Ep 12 from Marshall Curry on Vimeo.

Marshall Curry:

Dan Koehler

Marshall Curry photo by Dan Koehler

I wanted to make a documentary, but knew that there was only one thing more boring to most people than the words ‘debt and deficit,’ and that was the word ‘documentary.’ And then my nine-year-old daughter said, ‘Maybe you should do it as a cartoon. Everything’s fun when it’s a cartoon!’

Marshall Curry is an award-winning documentary filmmaker – two of his feature length documentaries have been nominated for academy awards.

Marshall Curry:

Marshall Curry photo by Kaitlyn Winston

Marshall Curry photo by Kaitlyn Winston

I spent the next few weeks talking with economists of different political persuasions, asking them what they thought most people don’t understand about the debt and deficit. I did my best to boil down those conversations into a handful of ideas that wouldn’t answer every point or counterpoint about the issue, but would give a viewer a basic framework for thinking it through.

What Makes this Video Work?

Beginning with cute kittens, Marshall Curry launches this video with a smile and sets up the viewer to expect more. All through the animation we see little visual asides, riffs and buffooneries. So while the main character is trying to play it straight there are lots of funny bits that entertain as they educate, and also serve as a brief pause in the flow of ideas so we can absorb the information.


Frame grab from Amazing Animated Film About the Deficit

Marshall Curry covers a lot of ground with a light-hearted touch – to keep it simple and fun. The animated drawings portray the characters with tongue-in-cheek to help the piece convey complicated information with a light touch. The script works well, making this animated video a great example of how to write an informational piece with humor and snap.

The piece also enjoys a continuous track of sound effects – mixed in at a subdued level to support the action but not grab our attention. The sound effects help key in the humor and keep things moving, but never get in the way of the overall narration.

vimeo 4

Frame grab from Amazing Animated Film About the Deficit

Using a quirky main character as the organizing thread for the video gives us a fun “host” to connect with. With animation he can walk us through charts, graphs and goofy visualizations with his cheerful raconteur style and keep our attention and the information flowing. The pacing, even with all the little asides and visual riffs, just moves along nicely. Kudos to Marshall Curry – with all the dense subject matter, this video is a great example of how to join animation with complex content and keep ’em smiling in the process.


Frame grab from Amazing Animated Film About the Deficit

The next video was also directed by a documentary filmmaker with many feature length programs to her credit. She uses animation just as effectively, but in an entirely different style.

Katy Chevigny and The Honor Code

The Honor Code is from an earlier Cinelan series exploring innovation and creativity.

The Honor Code | Katy Chevigny from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

The Honor Code animation is more abstracted and stylized, more sensual even, than the visualization in Marshall Curry’s piece – but it flows nicely in and out of the frame with Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah talking on camera.


Katy Chevigny photo from Sundance Institute

Katy Chevigny does a great job organizing the flow of Kwame Appiah’s ideas – each one building on the next. His direct, low-key delivery makes it easy to follow him from example to example as he talks about changing how we think about honor. Did you notice how each new thought is captured within a new visual scene? As each new idea is presented, the scene changes from text on the screen to Appiah on camera or a short animation package – all with visual transitions as well. This is an excellent way to subtly clue the viewer as each new idea or concept is presented.

Animation and Story Structure

The animation by Ace & Son Moving Picture Co. is simple, effective – even playful as words and images float in the air like 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.

The Honor Code

Frame grab from The Honor Code

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 Kwame 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 the philosopher’s ideas join harmoniously together.


Frame grab from The Honor Code

Consider the setting for the interview.  Everything is shot in brown tones with the background textural but muted. The effect is Kwame Appiah talking to us within his own abstracted world, making the vibrant animation and ideas portrayed even more vivid. Conceptually and structurally, The Honor Code is powerful and well-executed.

Katy Chevigny

Katy Chevigny photo from the Tiburon Film Festival site

Katy Chevigny’s structure also shows us how to build a compelling argument as part of telling a story. The piece begins with Kwame Appiah on camera telling us:

Honor is very important in bringing about change in the world.

Then the scene shifts – as he defines honor we see it written in animation, which reinforces the concept and also gives us a sense of how the rest of the video will be structured. We’re grounded in the visual treatment as we’re also grounded in the content. A simple and effective way to begin.


Frame grab from The Honor Code

If Katy Chevigny decided to begin 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 Kwame Appiah’s reasoning until we’re able to embrace his innovative ideas that may well turn honor on its head. It’s really quite difficult to introduce, explain and advocate for a new concept in just a few minutes and do so in such a visually striking and entertaining form. Katy Chevigny’s video shows so elegantly how animation can be a powerful and creative force for storytelling.


Frame grab from The Honor Code

Animation offers so many styles and visual options. When it serves the story, it’s a highly effective way to create something wonderful out of thin air.

This is the second of five posts on how to use video to inform or educate. You can find the first post on using actors here. Next week we’ll look at two excellent examples of using a host to engage the viewer and drive the story. Please share your insights and thoughts in the comments section below.

Keep It Real: Video and Actors

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.

Paul Allen photo by Reuters:Robert Sorbo

Paul Allen, photo by Reuters:Robert Sorbo

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.

Morgan Spurlock photo by

Morgan Spurlock, photo via

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.

SUPPLY & DANCE, MAN! | Jon M. Chu from We The Economy on Vimeo.

Jon Chu, from the We the Economy website:

John Chu photo by

John Chu photo from

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.

Jon Chu:


John Chu from the Step Up 3 movie site


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.

Ep. 22: THIS WON’T HURT A BIT! | Mary Harron from We The Economy on Vimeo.

Mary Harron has directed feature films and television series. From the We the Economy website:


Mary Harron, from the Sundance site

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.