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.

Hilary Lister: Profile in Courage


Hilary Lister, sailor photo from YachtPals site

Hilary Lister, photo from YachtPals site

Who is Hilary Lister? For some, a woman determined to follow her dreams. For others, one of the world’s great sailors. She sailed solo across the English channel and then solo 3000 miles around Great Britain. Oh, and she did it without the use of her arms and legs.


Photo from YachtPals site

A biochemist and musician, her illness left her trapped at home until a friend introduced her to sailing… and despite the challenges, it quickly became her passion. As her husband says, Hilary is “not a lady you say no to.”


Photo from Hilary Lister’s website


People joke that when I’m on the water, I’m part cyborg, because I kind of become part of my boat, and my boat becomes part of me. It’s just that incredible freedom that I lost completely… gosh, now we’re talking nine or ten years ago, and I never thought I would find again. So to have that back – to have that control over my life back – is such an incredible buzz, that every time I come off the water, whether I’m cold and wet, or it’s a warm sunny day and I’ve just been having a great time, I’m high as a kite!

Hilary Lister

Photo from Hilary Lister’s website

This courageous woman is profiled in “Hilary’s Straws,” a very moving piece by Phil Cox and Lisa Cazzato Vieyra. The three minute profile was created for the Focus/Forward series on innovative people.


Phil Cox

I was enchanted by their lyrical sensibility and gift for storytelling. With Phil as Producer/Director, part of what makes the video work so well is the way it’s shot and edited by Lisa.


Lisa Cazzato Vieyra

I’ll talk more about that after you have a chance to look at the piece. Now that you know a little about Hilary, check out “Hilary’s Straws.” As you watch, think about how it’s put together… about what’s included and what’s left out.

Hilary’s Straws | Phil Cox from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

I like the way the piece opens. Most of the video is shot in tight closeup with just the natural sound ambiance. As the visuals give a flavor of her home environment, the swaying leaves and rising steam suggest movement and the lure of a gentle breeze. Everything seems cozy at first, as we see Hilary sipping from a straw. Did her head just bang on the wall? Why do these people hover around her? We sense something is off-kilter, but we’re not quite sure. When we’re finally tight on her face, we hear her thoughts and begin to understand. The stage is set and the filmmakers have peaked our curiosity.

I especially like the way the visuals reveal part of the action, but conceal as well. They add mystery and preserve dignity in a gentle approach that’s lyrical and subtle. We see people helping move and position her but we don’t dwell on her affliction.


Photo from YachtPals site

Good editors work by feel, using sound and images to build the scene. Yes, as you edit you think about what you’re doing, but you also make choices based on how the shots play from one to the next. You work with your intuition.

As the filmmakers counterpoint movement with her stillness, the airy surroundings make her home both refuge and prison. We witness her daily confinement and inspiring optimism as she explains her condition, not with sadness, but offering a big smile.

We visit the workshop and see people making things. We know they’re crafting solutions to help her, but nothing is explained. Kudos to the filmmakers for having the sense to show, not tell. Hilary gives us enough of an explanation when she says “technology, when you’re disabled, becomes incredibly important… but at the same time, it kind of traps you… as you end up never leaving the house.”

Then comes an important turn. “If you’re brave enough to make it your own, like the straw system we’ve built, technology can set you free.” And with that, we’re plunged into her excitement and exhilaration as she gets out on the water.


From Hilary’s site

 Yes, what she’s accomplished is truly amazing. You can only be inspired by her grit and courage. I like this film because it reveals her story in a way that is so uplifting. With their poetic approach, the filmmakers help you feel what Hilary is feeling… for a few moments you experience her excitement and joy… what it means to be free.


Photo from Hilary’s site

In an interview, Hilary says, “I don’t believe in things being impossible.” Seeing her, you believe it too. That’s the gift she has to offer. As for the filmmakers, they’ve shown us the real power of video – that it helps you experience the world from another person’s vantage point. And being able to walk a few steps in their shoes can take you quite a distance.



Donna’s Diner: A Deep Dive Into America’s Heartland


Donna’s Diner by Nicole Bengiveno for the NYT

What happens when a journalist/poet and a photographer with a keen eye for storytelling  visit a small Ohio town to explore America’s Heartland?  The result is a series of five videos and articles created for the NYT’s This Land.  I want to share with you the first video, “Donna’s Diner,” as a focal point for exploring the connections that bind together the people of Elyira, Ohio.

Nicole Bengiveno

Nicole Bengiveno

For NYT photographer Nicole Bengiveno who saw the story potential in Donna’s diner, this was her first big plunge into video.  She strapped on still and video cameras and spent weeks hanging out at the diner.  As you’ll see, she artfully intermixes stills and live action to tell her story.


Dan Barry photo by Fred R. Conrad NYT

NYT journalist Dan Barry, her creative partner who writes This Land, certainly has a way with words.  Here’s how he describes Donna’s Diner:

“ From the vantage point of these booths and Formica countertops, the past improves with distance, the present keeps piling on, and a promising future is practically willed by the resilient patrons.”

As the video tells Donna’s story, it also begins to paint a portrait of the town.  Donna and her diner hover on the brink of their own fiscal cliff, which is why Dan titles the piece “At the Corner of Hope and Worry.”  I believe it’s his voice you hear as the writer/narrator.

If the video doesn’t play, click here.

I like the way Nicole uses her stills in the video to show telling moments.  Here’s how she describes her process:

I’m so used to being like a cat, you know, where you can just wander around. I like people to just go about their business, and I love being quiet and getting in and sort of capturing moments in between moments.

Her stills reveal those unguarded moments that bring the piece to life.  They seem almost more “real” than the video sections, as those tend to be more mechanical, simply showing some activity and lacking the delicacy of the photographs.  It’s the observant eye of the still photographer that captures those frozen moments that show so much.  Her informal portraits are compelling and filled with emotion.


Nicole Bengiveno

Her more abstract images, like the detail of the coffee cup, play well over Donna’s comments near the end of the video.  I also like the way Nicole runs her audio track over her stills.  As a photographer, she was very sensitive to sound and it’s key role in bringing the diner to life.  Nicole talks about what she was trying to accomplish and her experience shooting the piece here.


Nicole Bengiveno

Donna’s Diner puts a human face on abstract concepts like unemployment, the economy, small town life and middle-American values.  Which is why Donna’s Diner is so powerful in its simplicity.  It does what documentaries do best by inviting you into the moment.  It lets you feel Donna’s struggle to keep her diner open and shows you what it means to her and the town.

Donna embodies America’s entrepreneurial spirit.   And the challenges that confront her are familiar to others who try to forge their own path.


Nicole Bengiveno

She cooks because food connects her with the people she serves.  And that keeps her going, even when so many others have failed.  In that way she serves the town, too.  Places like Donna’s diner are really the heart and soul of a community.  It’s that coming together to share food and conversation that creates a sense of place and helps connect us to our neighbors.


We used to have a place like that back when we had a house in Sedgwick, Maine.  Fishermen would come in early for coffee and donuts, workmen would come by for lunch, we’d often wander over to pick up a treat, chat with the owner and friends who would happen by.  News was shared, stories swapped, gossip whispered.  When the Sedgwick Store closed, it really snatched the life out of the town.  Without it, all you had left was just a bunch of houses along a road.


Nicole Bengiveno

So I believe there’s an underlying optimism in the story of Donna and her diner.  After the piece was featured on the front page of the NYT, everyone could understand  that we were witnessing a story about the American character.  And viewing something quite special that can be found at the intersection of  worry and hope.


GE and Cinelan Create Some Magic

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.

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