Creating that compelling story — the ultimate formula. Presenting at Apple ~ from International award-winning videojournalist
It’s sunday morning. 10.30 to be precise. Day light creeping into the bedroom looks like something out of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. It’s grey, sullen, one of those days, when I half expect a flesh-eating neighbour will come barging through the bedroom door.
Come to think of it, where’s that toe scissor and screw driver.
I’m laying in bed, a laptop support table is crowded with my mac and various hard drives. To my left is my trusty 12-year-old radio. BBC Radio 4's Hugh Sykes is reporting for the current affairs programme, Broadcasting House, about how communities in France are healing from the terrorist atrocities.
I really should be up, but I’m stretching for some thinking space — that liminal zone between squeezing the last drop of sleep and being fully active.
Apple in London have kindly penned me in for a presentation at their London store in February and it’s got me thinking about what I want to say. It’ll be the third time, but something’s changed.
The first was 2006; I’d just won the US Knight Batten Awards for Innovation in Journalism. It was all a bit surreal. Then there was 2009, which I remember because a documentary maker and scholar attended and then wrote a book which featured the talk. But this time it’s different.
It’s different because what I now know, I did not back then, and what I now know has deeply affected me in a heightened way. I feel the need to pass this on.
Me: You know that thing I’d been studying.
Lynn Sear: Yeah.
Me : The examiners looked at it.
Lynn Sear: They did?
Cole Sear: I now know the secret to creating compelling stories.
Lynn Sear: Me, you’re scaring me.
Secret, perhaps is too mawkish a word, because the form already exists. You probably know already, but I have spent the last six years trying to prove and disprove what I think I know through a PhD.
The journey hasn’t been pleasant. I have re-written the text more times than I would have cared for. But I have come to learn something else in the process. What’s not inside the thesis (book) is just as important as what I have left in.
If my ambition was to write about the theory of everything in story form, believe me, I would have wanted to, but it’s impossible and impracticable ~ and it took a while before that sunk in.
I have also learned and been humbled by the process knowing that there is no such thing as ultimate. It’s a fictitious word dependent on an individual’s perception. Your ability to tell a story and mine may be different. I might perceive yours as better, but that formula may change when we play around with the theme in different cultures and periods.
I might like the film Inbetweeners, though that’s questionable. You might think it puerile. Same film, different tastes, but we can harmonise our perceptions by framing the parameters we’re using to examine what it is we’re examining.
So my Apple talk has me thinking about the aspiration and mechanisms to to telling great stories and the things that can be grasped and generalised. But the story form I have chosen has a problem for many practitioners because they, or you, might consider that what I am doing is highly unconventional.
I’m wanting to tell cinematic stories in journalism and news.
GY^%$£@!! I know, I know. If you work in news, this is the bit where you leave this text thinking, this guy is from the funny farm, or you’re cutting me some slack for a minute.
The thing that sticks in the craw is ‘cinema and journalism are two different entities, and why would you want to mix the two?’, you might ask.
The last question first. I love cinema. Who doesn’t. I love being lost in a good movie and being transported into its magical, as well as realistic worlds. One of my top three films is Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It.
‘You talking to me…You talking to me!! ‘You had me at hello’… ‘You’re going to need a bigger boat’. Name the film?
Yep ! A history of story form shows how we all love stories. We need stories to survive. The chat with your mum, the bosses instructions, story, story, story.
When we wrap these vignettes of mini stories, instructions, and conversations together, we can conceive a form of story that fulfils us in a certain way. A form first delivered on film we call cinema. We call it cinema not just because it’s shown in a cinema theatre, but from the way it’s put together. Another form we might come across is journalism or documentary, because of the way it’s perceived.
In 2o12, I created my own experiment with my Masters students. Oh I forgot to say I’m a senior lecturer in documentary journalism at the University of Westminster.
I took the same event and produced it in different ways and when I had finished producing the film I asked the students what they thought.
To them one was journalism and the other was like cinema, or to more specific, cinematic.
Then a month latter I asked them. ‘So, do you all remember those two films I showed you a month ago, which one do you remember?’ Most of them remembered the cinematic film.
Mmmm, so there’s something in this. Based on my students (and its generally universal) we tend to remember a cinematic story, more than we do if its designed journalistically.
Now this is a generalisation, because some well crafted journalism can also be considered cinematic or cinema — the latter is more difficult to sustain. Take the BBC’s Michael Buerk’s Somalia story in 1984. Try and imagine yourself in 1984 watching this.
That’s the first reason why cinematics should be taken seriously. But you might still be left in doubt about my silliness at attempting to tell a true story in cinematic form, when it should be told journalistically.
Here’s where I have been pondering this morning how I might do this at Apple and make it highly entertaining and I think I have got the idea.
Rather than reference some of the people I have in my presentation, why not have them with me. So at the appropriate time I’d like to bring to the front one of the UK bands tipped to be big this year to play one of their tracks; then a world expert in mobile camera filmmaking, and lastly a fictional filmmaking who’s last film is doing rather well on iTunes.
Each one of them provides a specific something that adds to the cinemacity of a film and why, perhaps we tend to remember what we’ve seen or heard.
Supporting them will also be people I have interviewed for my project. One of those is the great, and now late Robert Drew. Drew and his colleagues made one of the most important films in the last century, which remains equally significant now. It was the first film to document a presidential race in the US which featured senator John Kennedy, who would soon become the next president, Primary.
Drew posed the same question I did 50 years earlier. Why can’t journalism be more cinematic?
His work would attract the name ‘Direct Cinema’ or ‘Cinema Verite’.
Drew fundamentally changed journalism, but the new journalism fraternity back then (TV journalism was just over a decade old) remained stubbornly resolute against his ideas.
Drew tells me why. From our talks my journey opens new territory.
In the 1990s I worked at Channel 4 and some time as a freelance at ITN, so another interviewee who I managed to get was Deborah Turness. Turness, seen here from my video interview, was just about to become one of the world’s most powerful women in news. She is now the President of News at NBC News and what she says is enlightening.
There are interviews — some 150 — that include powerful figures at the BBC, including the head of BBC News and senior figures from the World Service.
Then there were some of the events that I staged with the BBC and University of Central Lancashire, when we invited a select group of experts to the BFI
(British Film Institute) to question them about videojournalism.
So the evidence in this project is empirical, as well as conceptual.
But I don’t want to make the talk theoretical. It should be a celebration of the changes we’re going through and how the feat of making news cinematic first suggested in the 1940s, and rejected, is now having its day.
Here’s a hint of my thinking on my website viewmagazine.tv where I also read Laura Poitras’s CitizenFour.