Stories are the crux of every universal language. They take on many different meanings; providing a window into other people’s experience, their truth, and all help us figure out what the hell we are doing, because let’s face it, we are all just as unsure as each other.
Likewise, visual storytelling is one of the most powerful tools a filmmaker can use, I mean after all, a picture does tell a thousand words.
So, it came as an undeniable shock and blessing for an 18-year-old filmmaker struggling to make his first big video on YouTube, when I received a discounted scholarship to an online visual storytelling course from two of my favourite filmmakers – Johnny Harris and Nathaniel Drew.
For those of you don’t know, Johnny is one of the most renowned journalist and filmmakers working today. Johnny’s dedication to fact-based and impartial journalism is a breath of fresh air in the swamp of Murdoch media that poison social media feeds today. He is the creator of the Vox series Borders, and his increasingly popular YouTube channel creates high quality and professional explanation videos on just about anything – from travel, the war in Ukraine and why McDonald’s ice cream machine are always broken.
Nathaniel is another one of those rare talented YouTubers working today. His creativity, intuition and genuine passion for what he does bleeds into his videos about life, philosophy, the universe and living abroad.
So, without giving too much of their course away for free, I thought I would compile together a summary of everything that I have learnt from their course, and how it has helped my filmmaking.
Beyond Instagram Photos and Hashtags – Use Your Visuals to Engage
More and more people travel to places to take the same cliché Instagram photos. And while that may work for them, if you want to tell good, meaningful and memorable travel stories, Johnny and Nathaniel propose something different: tell stories that explore an idea, a personal theme, and do so in an artistic and creative way. I’m talking about utilising the sound of crunchy food, the architecture of a building, the motion of traffic – different visual moments to immerse your audience in your location.
Just from 60 seconds of watching this video, you feel as if you were in Switzerland.
This is infinitely more interesting than a cliché picture of the Sydney Opera house, or a mindlessly dull TikTok with cool visuals.
For my own story, I didn’t want to just do a visually engaging montage of my road trip, but rather tell a story of my ups, downs and lessons I learnt from travelling by myself. I am so glad I did this, as it meant I told a much more engaging story.
Film absolutely everything and anything
This is definitely a lesson I wish I took in sooner: that is, you are infinitely better to have captured the moment than to capture nothing at all. When you are travelling or filming anything, you often get that voice at the back of your head saying “ah, I’m not going to bother with filming that.” Even if you point your camera random things, it is infinitely better to have quality B-Roll to work with than nothing at all, because you never know when you are going to use it. So shoot close ups, establishing shots, action shots, low depth of field, grab all the details and put aside your expectations and self-judgments, and just film, remember to just keep going and focus on capturing.
Show Don’t Tell
Ah yes, we have all heard this one before, but this is a crucial element of telling great visual stories. If you have emotion you want to convey, a lesson, or any piece of dialogue, see if you show it, rather than tell it. This provides the audience an opportunity to use their brains; it respects their intelligence and their ability to recognise patterns and feelings within visual information. For myself, I actually went back and cut down around 30% of my dialogue and simply replaced it with visuals – this made the pacing quicker, more engaging and moved the story forward a lot better than my rude head blabbering away.
This one is mainly for post-production but goes so well for being on foot too. If you organise your folders to have specific categories for music, b-roll, a-roll, sound effects ect.. you get into a habit of staying organised and on top of all your work, which makes workflows so much easier and helps you locate the perfect shot for the perfect moment. When you’re on foot, Johnny and Nathaniel recommend equipment that helps you be nimble and functional – so a small camera is probably better. When you are capturing beautiful imagery, you want to have gear that is light and at the ready when possible. When you are on your trip, or on site for filming, you are hunting for visual evidence – pretend your eyes are the camera and immerse yourself in the moment.
Be nice to yourself
Developing a skill takes time, like anything. So, one of the biggest takeaways of this course is to be kind to yourself, and most importantly to be kind to yourself in the process of capturing visuals and creating a story. It is important to bring your personality into your work, it may be embarrassing but it gets easier, and I think it is more important to do what you love and get laughed at than miss the opportunity all together.
I tutor high-school English, and one of things I constantly say to my students is that your essay/story/body of work is like a ball of clay. It doesn’t just become a beautiful pot but takes time through constantly shaping and moulding it. Likewise, stories don’t naturally become masterpieces, they take constant re-adjustments and shifts until you finally create something beautiful. What you initially envision in your head never becomes the final product, and that is the beauty of it.