Zen and the art of video storytelling

Anyone who makes videos, whether they’re churning them out 9–5 at a huge corporation or producing experimental video art in their basement, wants to produce something of quality. But we all know that when it comes to art, ‘quality’ is an amorphous concept. Inspired by Robert M. Pirsig’s seminal 1974 text, we decided to examine the Metaphysics of Quality when it comes to video storytelling. We chatted to Wipster CEO and Filmmaker Rollo Wenlock and Joey Dello Russo, in-house video producer at Asana, about how they achieve creative zen and make amazing videos.

The upshot? Many of Pirsig’s concepts – authenticity, personal identity, freedom, duality – ring true for video makers today. And no matter what your subject matter is, or what techniques you use, it all comes back to telling a good story. Joey and Rollo agree that to reach creative zen when making videos, video producers need the freedom to tell a story using original and unique, yet believable ideas, all while keeping within their brief.

“It’s about constantly pushing as hard as you can for a video to be as interesting as possible and for your ideas to be as far-fetched as possible, while still creating something that works for the brief that’s been set,” Rollo says.

And any video you make has to have a story in it. You have to find your arc, you have to find your conflict and your resolution, and take people on a journey.

When it comes to achieving video storytelling nirvana, Rollo and Joey suggest the following four principles:

1. Authenticity

Rollo explains that as a video producer, it’s critical to actually believe in what you’re doing, and in the product or service you are featuring.

“By believing it, you are convincing,” he says. “Everything about that video has authenticity because you believe it. The sign of a bad video producer is not believing in it but doing the job anyway.”

Joey concurs. He totally believes in Asana’s product, but says it’s not always easy to make videos believable to Asana’s wide range of his clients, and he has found certain techniques to help him.

“What we try to do is make stories and videos that are relatable to every work place,” he says. “So rather than showcasing very specific office situations and very specific use cases, we try to keep things as event-centric-type stories that everyone can relate to.”

He approaches each video with the idea of “how can I convince my mom and a CEO to both start using Asana” and what situations they could both relate to.

“Once you kind of hone in on those hopefully universal emotions then we start to craft the messaging around them,” he says.

Joey finds production techniques can also help make a story more authentic.

I often approach things with a kind of hand-held documentary aesthetic. So if the user believes that a character or a situation is real-enough looking, and real-enough shot, in a very documentary-style way, then that’s the first step to making it more ‘believable’ or even relatable.

2. Identity

Possibly the most important aspect of a fantastic video is one that captures the video producer’s own creativity and identity.

Rollo has found that when a video producer is working to their own creative potential, they will bring unique and recognizable features to their work.

“Each video producer, when creatively uninhibited, has their own style that they can’t help but express,” he says. “Through all of their different client videos you can find a thread running through, and you see this person is giving themselves every time they make a film.”

Before Asana, Joey worked in documentary filmmaking and live-action storytelling. That is what he loves doing and what he does best, and – of course – he uses those techniques in his videos. He casts real Asana employees in his videos, and shoots real-life or staged real-life situations which aren’t overly directed.

“Those are the personal inputs that I inject to each video. I try to look at each project as some sort of short film or short commercial rather than just a product education video.”

Ignoring one’s creative potential is like an artist denying himself his art, and Joey says it’s absolutely critical to be true to yourself – for the success of the video you’re working on now, and your longevity as a video producer.

“I think it’s very easy to burn out if you’re constantly making someone else's videos or constantly making someone else’s desires.

There's a reason that you’re the one holding the camera and there’s a reason you’re the one that’s got the editing program open. So stand by whatever you think is right, as far as a creative decisions go.

But, he concedes, convincing a boss or client to embrace your ideas is not always easy.

“If I’m really adamant and feel strongly about something, I’ll do a quick, down-and-dirty test, or what’s called a mood reel,” Joey says.

“There’s a certain point where you can’t keep trying to explain your idea; you just have to show people. If it comes to that I often just stop talking and start showing.”

3. Balance

It’s important for company videos to strike the right balance between emotive storytelling and the facts. Successful video producers know they need to evoke emotion in their videos, to help viewers to engage with the content.

“If there are no emotions in that story then there isn’t anything for anyone to care about, so they won’t really know why they’re watching it,” Rollo says. “It’s just giving them information, it’s very, very dull.”

Joey says at Asana, like most other tech businesses, they want people to understand how their software will improve their lives and solve frustrating problems.

The only way to convince them is to tap into their emotions

Asana software allows users to organise their workflow and check off tasks as they go. So Joey regularly uses the idea that checking off tasks can make people feel good and give them a dopamine rush.

“These tech products do affect us in real chemical-emotional ways,” he says. “It’s not unlike checking your phone, when you have 90 notifications and you finally go through them, there’s a physical feeling of relief. And it’s proven that your blood pressure raises in the morning when you’re going through your emails.”

But while those techniques make a video entertaining to watch, video producers must ensure each video conveys all necessary information their client requires.

Rollo says the ideal video is one that both entertains and informs, and can be compared to a pearl made around a piece of grit.

“The piece of grit is the information you have to portray and the pearl around the grit is the video that you’ve made. The only reason for that video to exist is to get that piece of information across. But the fantasticness of a great video maker is they make it effortless. It’s so enjoyable to watch, so interesting and entertaining, the person gets the information without feeling they’re being told that information. The video has failed if people don’t get the information.”

At Asana, Joey has a structure in place to ensure all the facts are covered, working closely with the marketing department, content writers and support team.

“We need to make sure the proper educational information is being conveyed in whatever situation that we’ve creatively decided upon. So cross checking and constantly giving feedback is what really keeps that working.”

4. Experimentation

A great video will be both interesting to the viewer, and interesting for the video producer to make.

Joey has some techniques for making seemingly dull topics more interesting, both for himself and for his viewers.

“Try to understand what the root problem is when you’re asked to do a video, before just reacting and doing what you’re asked,” he says. “If it is something perhaps a little more mundane than other videos I will try to experiment with a style that I’ve never done before, like hyper lapse, time lapsing or some sort of animation technique that I hadn’t tried before, just to keep the process interesting and at least a learning experience nonetheless.”

Rollo says creativity itself will help make dull subjects exciting.

“You can choose a very weird environment to tell a story in, or think what sort of characters can I use to make it intriguing?”

He also suggests using a range of devices to help keep things interesting, like varied transitions, scale, sounds and music.

Rollo says videos are sometimes unsuccessful because the video producer hasn’t thought outside the box.

I think the majority of videos that don’t work are simply because the video maker has not gone beyond the limits, and thought how else can we portray this concept without having to do a very standard thing.