3 Life Lessons I Learned From Kid's Movies

Spending two consecutive weekends of a glorious summer sequestered away in a dark room as a jury member for the Chicago International Children's Film Festival might seem like torture to some, but it was life-changing for me.

The CICFF is the largest festival of films for children in North America, and each year, it showcases films from over 40 countries, and is also one of the only Academy Award qualifying children's film festivals in the world. The festival, which runs in Chicago this November, is a bastion of culturally-diverse, non-violent, value-affirming films for children of all ages through adulthood, and its mission is to teach media literacy to kids through cinema. It's not always an easy task.

Dive, CICFF 2014 Winner for Best Film By An Emerging Director, Delphine le Courtois, director. Produced by: Hippocampe Productions

Making a compelling film that captures children’s imagination is a difficult challenge for the (mostly) independent filmmakers who compete at this festival. Even after they've bankrolled and created their film, they need to stand out in today's constant stream of media--everything from kid-oriented apps, websites and social media,to TV and Hollywood movies--competing for the attention of children. I'm a big fan of this festival because of the spotlight it shines on intelligent filmmakers and the stories they tell. This year, these stories of children, shot in every part of the world, taught me 3 huge life lessons.

1. People are more alike than they are different. Many of this year's films dealt with loss: Japanese brothers visit their mom's gravesite; An Indonesian boy who lives on the streets searches the faces of women passing by to find his lost mother; A Swedish girl is shunned by an older sister with a new boyfriend. The sense of universality in these stories is strong, yet sometimes hard for adults to grasp. We often focus too much on the things that make others different from us. These films bring the people and customs of other cultures to life in a way that reveals not how we are different, but how we all share some very basic human feelings, faults and aspirations.

Anatole's Little Saucepan, 2014 Best of Fest Award. Eric Moutchaud, director (France, 2014) 

Anatole's Little Saucepan, 2014 Best of Fest Award. Eric Moutchaud, director (France, 2014) 

2. Don’t be afraid to talk about big issues. Mental illness, war crimes, extreme poverty, class division, incarceration of a parent, divorce, sexual abuse--These are just some of the challenging themes the filmmakers observed through the eyes of children in this year's festival. When we face these sensitive and often tragic realities with honesty, we open a dialog that can foster understanding, justice and healing.

The Singing Pond, 2014 Teacher’s Choice Prize. Yashodhara Liyanaarachchi, director (Sri Lanka, 2014) 

The Singing Pond, 2014 Teacher’s Choice Prize. Yashodhara Liyanaarachchi, director (Sri Lanka, 2014) 

3. A good story is universal. As a father of four children, I saw myself and my kids as I watched stories from Romania, Israel, Palestine, New York, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Ireland, Pakistan, and many other countries this year. For a lot of these films, the subtitles weren't even necessary, because the visual language is so strong. That's the power of great cinema: to make a statement about the nature of living on earth in a single shot that can spark the imagination of people in any country, in any time period. Watching great films can be a transcendent experience.

After our jury packed up the pencils and notepads and headed our separate ways, I stepped out into the sunlight of a warm August day with a keen sense of gratitude for the lessons I learned. More importantly, I was excited to be part a festival showcasing honest, heartfelt films that explore what it means to grapple with life in these difficult, brilliant times.

About the author: Marc Wellin is an award-winning digital content producer and the founder of Mothlight, a digital video production company that specializes in telling stories for agencies and their clients. Follow Marc on Twitter @filmbilly and Facebook.

10 Tips to Capture Winning On-Camera Interviews: Part 2

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In this, the second of two posts, I'm sharing field-tested tips to capture compelling interviews. Be sure to check out Part 1: Set the Scene for Great Storytelling, with tips to improve your interviews before the cameras roll.

Part 2: The Art of the Interview

*"I sometimes find that in interviews you learn more about yourself than the person learned about you" * -William Shatner

Once the camera gets rolling and you’re underway, there are some methods you can employ to keep the good feelings going and ensure you’ll have the content you need for your finished program.

1- GIVE IT TIME. Often, it takes a bit to unwind in front of the camera, and giving your subject the time they need at the outset of your interview to get comfortable can really help bring out their best. Be sure your schedule isn’t too rushed.

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2- DON'T DISCLOSE YOUR QUESTIONS IN ADVANCE. If you can help it at all, don’t provide your subject with a list of questions before the interview. They will naturally create answers to your questions ahead of time given the chance, and this often results in a stilted, emotionless reply. So if you’re asked for questions in advance, address your subject's concerns, but in general terms. You might say something like: “During our interview, I'd like to ask you about the history of the work you’re doing, what inspired you to keep going during difficult times, and what you see for the future, going forward.” You've helped to put them at ease, but also kept them from calculating their answers too far in advance, which is a conversation-killer. Remember, your goal is conversation, and conversation is where you’ll find the best sound bites.

Even The King would have looked better without cue cards. Photo courtesy elvispresleymusic.com.au

Even The King would have looked better without cue cards. Photo courtesy elvispresleymusic.com.au

3- AVOID THE CUE CARD SLIPPERY SLOPE: If you're looking for real audience connection, insist your subjects abstain from using notes of any kind. But be prepared to explain your reasoning, as I've had to do numerous times, in conversations that, without fail, go like this: Subject: Can I use a prompter? Me: We'd really like your answers to be spontaneous and natural-sounding, so it would be best if we just have a conversation, without prompting. I think you'll find that, once were underway, you won't miss them at all. Subject: Well, I have a few notes I’ve taken. How about if I read from those? Me: I understand your desire to make sure your message is clear, but it just won’t look very natural to have you looking down at your lap during our conversation. Why don't you let me phrase the questions, and I can lead you through the interview in a more conversational way. I promise, it will make you look great in the end. Subject: Hmmm. How about if we just put a few bullet points on a piece of paper off-camera, so I can be sure to hit all of the points I need to? Me: I understand where you're going, but I'm concerned about how you will look to viewers. We want you to look your best on-camera. But if you're reading, your eyes will always give away that you’re scanning lines of text, and you won't look natural doing that. No matter how insistent your subject is, remember that it's in everyone's best interest to hold out and avoid using written words in any form. When a respondent insists, I’ll offer instead that we work together and shoot a few takes using nothing more than the subject’s powers of memory, and not cue cards or notes. They may resist at first, but I've had great success working this way, often to the surprise of interviewees who marvel at their own abilities. In my experience, this is the only method that ensures you’ll have natural, conversational footage in the edit. So don’t let yourself get on the cue card slippery slope with your subject. Be firm, and offer to help them out with some quick memorization—it will make them look much more natural in the end.

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4- TAKE A DETOUR. Sometimes your subject will go off-topic, meander, and lose the thread of conversation. Try to resist the urge to get back on track too quickly, because pursuing a tangent from an unexpected comment can uncover meaningful new plots or details. You’ll need to condition yourself to listen for these hidden pearls from your subject as the interview progresses, but your patience could yield great rewards.

5- CHECK IN. Once you’re underway, don’t push your subject too hard to reach the finish line. Extending a simple courtesy by asking "How’s it going for you?” or "Do you need a drink?" can go a long way toward supporting friendly and open communications with your subject, and get you the answers you’re looking for.

6- PARTNER. If you can ask “how did you like your response?”, you can enlist the help of your subject, making the interview a collaborative effort, and they will appreciate your concern for making them look good. They may ask to have another crack at their response, and that’s good for you, because it will get them vested in a better outcome, and also endear you to them so that they’ll want to help you by providing a successful and insightful interview.

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7- EDIT ON THE SET. Depending on the production, you may need to get a more succinct answer from your subject. It’s far better to ask your subject to deliver a more concise version of their long-winded answer than to have to chop their thoughts up into a shorter answer in post. Try to work with your subject on-set to get shorter answers in real-time.

8- STAY FLEXIBLE. Plan to shoot compelling visuals to support what’s being said. Be prepared, as this usually involves shooting additional b-roll that is germane to the story that is unfolding before you. Staying flexible when it comes to last-minute b-roll shooting is one of the best ways to improve the impact of your storytelling.

9- ASK ONCE, ASK TWICE. Once the interview ends, I often re-ask the first two questions, and am rewarded with responses that are much more natural, owing to the fact that my subject has warmed up, is in tune with the Q and A process, and is feeling more relaxed.

10- KUDOS. After the recording, let them know they’ve done a nice job. If requested, I’ll sometimes show them a clip of the interview so they can get an idea of how they did (it’s usually surprising to them how nice they look).

It’s not always easy, but taking special care of your storytellers during the interview can yield fantastic results onscreen. If you can unlock a great story, you can create something that sparks original thinking, contribute to the human dialog, and build bridges from our past into our future with words. Did I miss anything? What tips can you share from your interviewing experiences?

In case you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1: Set the Scene for Great Storytelling, with tips to improve your interviews before the cameras roll.

About the author: Marc Wellin is an award-winning digital content producer and the founder of Mothlight, a digital video production company that specializes in telling stories for agencies and their clients.  Follow Marc on Twitter @filmbilly and Facebook.

10 Tips to Capture Winning On-Camera Interviews: Part 1

In my first of two posts, I'm sharing 10 tips to creating a great interview environment. In part 2, I'll share my tips for bringing subjects and their stories to life.

Part 1: Set the Scene for Great Storytelling

*"Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today." * -Robert McAfee Brown

I have found that every person is a story in the making, and that means that there are millions of great stories out there. As a visual storyteller, it's often my job to help people--kids, moms and dads, executives and sales people--tell their stories onscreen through interviews. A good interview can help a subject to express feelings and make observations that resonate with viewers, pulling them into the story like a magnet. This pull creates empathy in the viewer and enhances their willingness to be a part of the conversation. They are moved to participate and contribute to the dialog. This engagement is what every website, every brand, every cause needs to succeed online.

But how do we get these real-people stories documented? How do we unlock their personalities, hear their insights, and share their feelings? Whether you’re producing, directing, shooting or interviewing, there are a few things you can do to ensure your subject will make a true impression on viewers. While the internet is jam packed with advice about lighting, microphones, composition and other technical aspects of the interview, the tips I'm offering focus on creating the best atmosphere for your subject. It's really quite simple: if your subject feels comfortable in front of the camera, they'll tell their story in a more relaxed, human and compelling way.

1-CONSIDER THE ENVIRONMENT. When you have the opportunity, scout your shoot location, and plan to put your subjects in front of backgrounds that make sense for your story. Sometimes, the relationship is easy: talk to a doctor in front of a hospital, interview a conductor next to the train. But you can get striking results by simply choosing the right corner of an empty room, or you may find an unexpected location that brings the story to life. I've shot interviews in taxicabs and abandoned stairwells, on elevators, and off the back of a Texas hayride. The producers of the music documentary “Muscle Shoals” use backgrounds that are at once thoughtful, harmonious, and well-fit to their subjects:

A still frame from the "Muscle Shoals" documentary trailer. Music legend Steve Winwood, interviewed in front of a massive factory loft window, overlooking—what else?—Traffic.

A still frame from the "Muscle Shoals" documentary trailer. Music legend Steve Winwood, interviewed in front of a massive factory loft window, overlooking—what else?—Traffic.

2-CREATURE COMFORTS. Making your respondent comfortable during the interview isn't difficult. It starts with a good chair (one that doesn’t squeak) and plenty of water to drink. Whatever you can do to make your subject feel more at home and less on-the-spot will put them at ease, and an at-ease guest is what you want. If they feel more relaxed, you'll see more natural and thoughtful responses to your questions.

3-WARM-UP. It's up to you to set your subject at ease for the interview, and the sooner you do this, the better. When they arrive at the shoot, introduce yourself and give them a brief overview of the recording process. I always tell my subjects three things: a. We have lots of time to record your interview. b. Our process today is flexible: we can stop, start, take short breaks, and re-shoot some of your answers, so don't feel you have to be perfect. c. We’re here to help you look your best on camera, so let us know how we can help.

4-TALK TO THE FACE. Producer Jim Staylor in San Diego has written an excellent guide to shooting great interviews. He says, "Unless your subject is a professional spokesperson or bring interviewed remotely, don’t have them look directly into the camera. Many people are not comfortable talking to a camera." He's right. And your audience will feel a stronger connection to a subject who is talking to a real person off-camera, not staring blankly into the lens.

5-FINISH THE INTERVIEW BEFORE YOU START. Sometimes, a subject’s natural conversational tone disappears when the red light comes on. They clam up, or try to choose their words too carefully. That's why I always instruct the camera operator to unobtrusively begin recording as soon as the subject is seated. While they're settling in, I'll ask the interviewer to begin a casual chat. I find that you can often capture the storyteller at their most natural and conversational during this time, before the interview has officially started. This trick doesn’t always work, but when it does, you’ll be rewarded with some really natural responses, and you’ll be a hero for shortening everyone’s day on the set.

6-KEEP IT LIGHT. A sense of humor and a relaxed demeanor throughout the production go a long way toward putting respondents at ease. Even if you’re under deadline pressure, don’t let your subject know; just stay loose and let the good vibes flow. Your footage will definitely benefit from a great attitude.

7-SAY WHAT I SAID. Explain to the subject that, since your questions won't be used in the final product, they will need to incorporate your question into their answer. It helps to give an example. "If I ask you what you had for breakfast, you could answer 'For breakfast, I had coffee and a roll.'"

8-DO YOUR HOMEWORK. If you are looking for answers that are more compelling than a simple "yes" or "no", you'll need to ask questions and engage in a true conversation with your subject. Before the interview begins, take a good hard look at the questions you’ve developed. You should strive for a mix of basic, factual inquiries, and questions that dig deeper. Do some research on your subject. The more you know, the more you can use that information to ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions that will produce some truly insightful replies. You'll also gain the respect of the respondent once they realize you are on their wavelength.

9-TALK LESS. Train yourself to bite your tongue once you've asked your question. Your "mmm hmm", "Yes" and "Uh huh" interjections can be picked up on the subject's mic, making them difficult to remove in post.

10-LISTEN MORE. As an interviewer, if you’re paying attention to their words, and not focused on the next question you’ve written down, you can draw out more details and dig deeper into the subject’s story. Often times, the best material comes from your followup questions.

I'd like to hear from you: What tips and tricks do you use to ensure high-quality, content-rich stories from your interviewees? What parts of capturing interviews do you find most challenging? Next week, Part 2: The Art of the Interview, with 10 tips to bring subjects and their stories to life.

About the author: Marc Wellin is an award-winning digital content producer and the founder of Mothlight, a digital video production company that specializes in telling stories for agencies and their clients.  Follow Marc on Twitter @filmbilly and Facebook.

Sideways: Why You Need To Embrace Vertical Video Now

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Are you a vertical video hater? You're not alone. In fact, I did a quick Google search, which returned these top "Vertical Video" results:

  1. Vertical Videos are a Sin
  2. Say No To Vertical Videos
  3. Vertical Video Syndrome
  4. Vertical Video Fix

But why the pushback from content creators when it comes to accepting the vertical video format? I've seen more vitriolic ranting online over this issue lately than Obamacare, Donald Trump and Caitlyn Jenner combined. If you're averse to shooting and watching vertical video, here are some reasons why you should reconsider:

  1. Like a lot of viewers, I cringe when I see that loathsome mismatch of a vertical video displayed on a horizontal screen, as decried in the Glove and Boots PSA, which has been viewed over 6 million times on YouTube. They're right: that ugly strip of video swimming in a sea of negative space is really ugly. But studies show that for the first time ever, mobile device web traffic surpassed traditional desktop web traffic in 2014, making the old horizontal desktop screen standard less relevant with each passing day. If the display no longer has to be horizontal, why should the source video be?
  2. Look around you: display screens the world over are increasingly being oriented vertically. Airports, convention centers and retail stores. We are a society that thrives on text for our information, and text is easier to read on a vertical display, when the eye isn't forced to scan across the wide expanse of a horizontal screen.
  3. In the age of mobile device video creation, ergonomics rule, and it's easier to record video on most devices when you hold them upright. Shooting horizontal video usually takes both hands. Another bonus: holding a device vertically almost guarantees you won't accidentally get your fingers in front of the lens. While it's not as easy to shoot vertically with most DSLRs or professional video cameras, the results from your extra effort will be worth it.
  4. Vertical video can capture the eye and the imagination because, in the history of moving-picture capture and display, the vertical concept is still fairly new. And that leaves room for innovation. Check out this video by Dan Toth, which, while not strictly vertical, uses vertical source material to spark a lot of new ideas.
  5. People are tall and thin—they’re portrait-mode subjects, and vertical video makes a lot of sense for capturing them head-to-toe. There are also many products that have traditionally best displayed in a tall-and-thin aspect ratio. Bringing this sensibility to a vertical video format just makes sense.
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6. Vertical video aesthetics are being raised to new levels, as evidenced by the first-ever vertical film festival, featured at this year's SXSW.

7. Finally, I have found that shooting and viewing video vertically opens up a whole world of visual possibilities by allowing you to see your subjects in new and exciting ways.


It's time to let go of the old horizontal desktop/TV standard and embrace the future of digital media in whatever orientation makes the most sense. What are your experiences with vertical video?

About the author: Marc Wellin is an award-winning digital content producer and the founder of Mothlight, a digital video production company that specializes in telling stories for agencies and their clients.  Follow Marc on Twitter @filmbilly and Facebook.

The Geeky Genius of Les Paul

June 9th was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Les Paul (the actual guy, not the guitar). His life story is a lesson in creativity and passion. He was self-taught, self-made, and totally driven.

Born Lester William Polsfuss in 1915, he became well-known as a virtuosic musician, but he was an even better problem-solver. Here are just a few of his engineering feats:

  • Growing up in Wisconsin in the 1920s, he wanted to play his harmonica and guitar at the same time, so he invented the neck-worn wireframe holder whose basic design is still in use today.
  • The Waukesha dance halls were too noisy for his country guitar playing to be heard clearly. So, from a plank of 4-inch lumber, Paul built one of the worlds first solid-body, amplified guitars, changing forever the face of music, and inspiring the design of the Gibson Les Paul. That guitar was adopted and beloved by rock musicians the world over, and I know some fans today who don’t realize there was a living, breathing guy behind that name.
  • In 1946, his car crashed into a ravine alongside Route 66 in Oklahoma. At risk of losing the use of his right hand, he asked the doctors to lock his elbow at a permanent 90-degree angle, so that he could always hold and strum a guitar. 
  • Check out this 1951 clip of “How High The Moon”.  I love it because it showcases his mad melodic skills and great charisma, but also his crazy techno-geekiness. Just look at all that gear:  
  • He was a pioneer in early overdub recording techniques, and later worked with engineers at AMPEX to develop some of the first multitrack tape recorders. That was back in the early 1950s, but I think it’s fair to say that, without “How High The Moon”, you could never get to the kind of layering that we hear all over The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s” recordings. 
  •  He continued to invent and play music well into his 80s, and even designed the hearing aid he used until his death in 2009.

Les Paul was an innovator and a problem-solver who made the world a better-sounding place for the rest of us.

About the author: Marc Wellin is an award-winning digital content producer and the founder of Mothlight, a digital video production company that specializes in telling stories for agencies and their clients.  Follow Marc on Twitter @filmbilly and Facebook.


Photo courtesy The Les Paul Foundation

Why This is the Best Stanley Cup Playoff Ever

As a Chicagoan, of course I'm biased because our team is (once again) vying for the NHL's highest honor. But hometown loyalties aside, I'm honestly amazed at the incredible skill, grit and sheer audacity of the players and coaches on both teams (did you SEE that crazy first goal of the series?).

But seeing this spot, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8uggvSFsl0&list=WL&index=1, I realized what makes this particular final series so historic: the indelible impression these Blackhawk and Lightning players are leaving on the sport today, right now, even as we speak. Toews, Kane, Crawford, Johnson, Stamkos, Bishop--these are names we'll remember long after this season ends. The new NHL Stanley Cup Finals spot, "Name", makes that point so well by looking back at some of the league's greatest: Bobby Hull, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Clarke, Stan Mikita, Bobby Orr (so many Bobbies), and of course my boyhood hero, Gordie Howe (rocking it sans helmet, like they all did back in the crazy days).

Eschewing traditional play-based action footage, "Name" focuses instead on players off the ice and between puck-drops. They're making their way onto the ice, changing shifts. They're sitting on the bench, or gliding up to the face-off circle. They're thinking, watching, planning. Shots like that make a strong emotional connection and reveal the basic humanity in each player. Here's what Cutter's Steve Bell said about this strategy for creating the spot:

As with our previous campaigns, the NHL preferred to leverage emotion and heritage to appeal to their incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable fan-base, creating the kind of tribute fans have responded to so well in the past.

Ad campaigns like this make me feel good to be a fan.

 

image courtesy tablehockeyheaven.com