How To Succeed in the Business of Video Storytelling
COW Library : Business & Career Building : Eric Philpott : How To Succeed in the Business of Video Storytelling
You may have great storytelling chops, but it doesn’t matter if you can't help your client tell theirs. Aside from the vision, talent, and hard work it takes to create compelling content, there’s a process that every creative needs to navigate to help the client find their story and tell it well. If you make your living creating video content for others, this skill is essential for your survival.
No one knows that better than Rob Shore. A few years after graduating with a degree in film and cognitive anthropology in 2005, he began his filmmaking career in Atlanta. After a few years honing his skills as a creative director with an in-house video team in Washington D.C., he established his own video production company, Picture This Productions.
Rob has been an Adobe user for years, editing with Premiere Pro and finding brilliant ways to communicate complex ideas with After Effects, including this beautiful profile of the artist Katherine Mann.
Katherine Mann's art starts with an act of chaos, an act of chance — and then seeks to impose order around it. Her work invites people to take their shoes off and step into another world.
I chatted with Rob about the challenges of storytelling when it’s someone else’s story.
You’re an artist who navigates the business landscape successfully. How did you learn to do that?
For my career to go anywhere – and just to make a living – I needed to collaborate with people who have the resources to support the work I love to do, which is storytelling. And I needed to learn how to speak their language.
How did you break into the business?
At first, I was just scraping by, trying to convince people to take a chance on me. I think many filmmakers of my generation can relate to this. I eventually landed a job at a think tank in Washington, D.C., FrameWorks Institute. Their work is based entirely on empirical communications research, so I learned how to take that science and tell stories that drive change on issues like early childhood development, water conservation, disability rights, and so on.
How did that influence your approach to storytelling?
A lot of my work has been informed by my time there: learning how to tell stories that do things. But, that said, you can have all the science in the world behind you, and you still have to tell a compelling story that people are going to sit through. If no one sees it, it doesn’t matter.
Rob Shore on location shooting for AFL-CIO with president Richard Trumka
Why did you decide to start your own company?
I liked the work, but I wanted to tell stories that are more playful, more entertaining, and aren't afraid to tell jokes or be a little edgy, so I started Picture This Productions. We make animated and live action videos with the goal of changing social conversations and spreading the good word for companies that do good. What is smart and sophisticated can and should also be beautiful and engaging.
Who are some of your clients?
I do a lot of internal communications and some external communications for the United States Postal Service. I did a series for National Geographic on conflict photographers that won a Webby Award for Best Documentary Series and ended up on Netflix. And I’ve also done work for Major League Baseball, Facebook, Salesforce, The U.S. Conference of Mayors, and The AFL-CIO.
Rob with producer Nick Fitzhugh at the 20th annual Webby Awards, where they won for Best Documentary Series for the digital mini-series Conflict.
How do you start a new project with a client?
When clients come to me, the first thing I ask them is, “Why do you want to make a video?” We need to start with outcomes and work backwards from there. What is the organization trying to accomplish? It needs to be clear how the story will help the organization achieve its goals – whether it’s increasing awareness, attracting more donors, or securing new business.
You put a lot of effort into understanding the client.
It starts with understanding the language of business. This goes beyond simply knowing what terms such as “ROI” and “stakeholders” mean – it’s about understanding how they impact an organization. For example, I need to arm an executive director with the reasons why a video is a good investment, because she must justify her budget to a Board.
What about getting the client to buy into a creative concept?
I challenge the client to think visually. I ask them, “What can we point the camera at that will keep people’s attention? Ideally, we'd tell this whole story in pictures. If we can tell the whole story in just pictures let's do that and then we'll use words to fill in where pictures fail, but let's start with pictures.”
Often clients will come to me and say, "We want to make a viral video," and I say, "No, no, no, viral is an outcome, not an input. What you mean is you want to make a good video and I can help you do that.”
Rob, on location, directing his short film “The Garden of Steven”.
There are so many ways a concept can go off the rails. How do you guide the client through the process?
Once we've come to an agreement, and a budget, and a scope of work, and delivery dates, the creative work begins.
I start with a two-column script for audio and visuals. I fill out just that left visual column as much as I can, describing the images that we're going to have with as few words as possible in the audio column.
After two rounds of revision, we'll move to storyboards. I invest a lot of time in the storyboards because I want the client and all of the creative people to have seen the final video in their head before we start the really expensive work of production.
So at this point you have translated the client’s business objectives into the visual language of storytelling.
Yes. My job as a producer is to speak the languages of everyone around me. Once I’ve won the business, I can translate the client’s needs to my creative and production teams. That means speaking the language of editing, of animation, of special effects, and so on.
How do Adobe Creative Cloud facilitate this common language?
With Adobe Creative Cloud, we can carry a common language through our production workflow – whether it’s sound mixing or assembling a timeline in Adobe Premiere Pro, or compositing, graphics, and text treatments in Adobe After Effects. Standardizing on Adobe Creative Cloud allows us to converse in the same language.
Using the same file structure, for example, eliminates a lot of questions about where to find folders or what’s in those folders. Once all the pieces come to me, I can simply sit down, open the files, and put everything together in Premiere Pro.
Rob with his crew on a shoot for Smithsonian.
How have Adobe tools helped you grow your business?
Early on, I had to add some new hard and soft skills to my creative skillset. For example, how do I create a budget and stick to it? Well, I guess I need to learn Excel. How do I keep my work organized, especially if I’m collaborating with others? Maybe it would be helpful if I created a file structure instead of randomly dumping files on to my desktop.
Thankfully, the Adobe toolset helped me establish some organizational skills that have been foundational to the success of my business. And over the years, new platform capabilities such as Dynamic Link in Premiere Pro have helped me focus on the output, versus the process.
What are some of your favorite Adobe tools or workflows?
What's really just been incredible for the last five or six years using Creative Cloud is the automation of things that used to be highly meticulous technical processes. For example, just how good Puppet Warp and all the Content-Aware tools have gotten: You used to have to fine-tune details to get that clean line, and now it's almost a one-touch process.
All the behind the scenes improvements that Adobe is doing have made a really big difference to me and have allowed me to reach the ripe-old age of 37 with almost no gray hair. I’m loyal for life.
To see more of Rob's work, visit the Picture This Productions Vimeo channel.