Independent video artist Adam Westbrook's sharp and constructive blog on visual storytelling was a guiding light for many early adopters of the DSLR video revolution. While many media organizations were still using broadcast-style video online, there was also an explosion of experimentation. Westbrook was always a step ahead in terms of rethinking visual storytelling.
In recent years, Westbrook has moved into the visual essay genre for publications including Vice and Fusion. He writes and directs films that blend interviews with motion graphics and archival footage.
In the latest episode of the Multimedia Week podcast, host Sharron Lovell spoke with Westbrook about his latest project, Operation Infektion, which is a three-part series about Russian disinformation and fake news, which he co-wrote and directed for The New York Times.
Westbrook talks about how he’s worked long and hard to develop his own unique style, and how he was sought out by The Times precisely because he offered something distinctive.
Read on to hear some of the main takeaways from the episode. If you want the whole story, however, you’ll have to listen to the full podcast.
Westbrook gives listeners the backstory to the series, which took a year to create. The film is an origin story about fake news and mis-/disinformation, detailing its rise from the Cold War to today.
The video essay unravels complex issues in an articulate and compelling narrative with a touch of British deadpan.
Westbrook says the film is creative and career high but not one without challenges. “It was daunting at first, partly due to the scale and the amount of information, and also because it was The New York Times.”
He says that one of his biggest (and most enviable) hurdles working with The Times was increasing his “ambition and thinking bigger.” His initial ideas were approaches that could be completed in a few weeks on a relatively low budget, but Adam B. Ellick, director and executive producer of Opinion Video at The Times, made it clear that there was a substantial budget and time frame, and that he wanted big ideas.
“I had to start allowing myself the luxury of thinking about visual and narrative concepts on a much larger scale,” said Westbrook. After toying with some quirky ideas — including hiring a company to perform the whole thing with puppets — the team settled on a format that blended filmed video interviews to highlight some of the strong characters that had emerged during Ellick’s original pre-reporting with some of Westbrook’s signature approaches to his visual essays.
Breaking the format
Online video journalism has unlimited potential for new approaches and formats, but the proliferation of social video has led to video journalism that has started to look just as formatted as the old broadcast formats.
Westbrook’s unique style for factual video essays caught the eye of Adam B. Ellick at The New York Times, who had already completed a great deal of groundwork on the project. Ellick wanted someone who could make the reporting visual, digestible and compelling.
Swimming against the tide hasn’t been easy and Westbrook has taken on various freelancing gigs while continuing to hone a style that is true to him. Back in 2013, he started a YouTube channel to experiment with the video essay format. He gave himself a series of strict, but viable deadlines, regularly publishing nonfiction films and a five-part science fiction project called Parallax.
“We get tricked into thinking that the internet is ephemeral, but actually everything you make stays there,” says Westbrook. He advises thinking about the work you do as an ongoing process, with each work building on the last until you have a body of work that is unique, and that you are proud of. This takes time and dedication, and many video journalists don’t have the chance to unleash their creativity while creating daily, assignments. Westbrook’s advice is to start small and finish things.
Don’t just start a project, finish it
“When I was younger I was very ambitious and wanted to go straight into making big things. Toward the end of my twenties, I had more abandoned and failed projects than finished ones,” says Westbrook.
It’s typical for young creatives to be told to start projects, he says, but while it may be well-intentioned, it’s not helpful. “Starting doesn’t mean anything unless you finish, because that’s where you learn the lessons. He advises starting with small-scale, manageable projects that you can start, finish and learn from.
“Over the last five years of making my own videos, I’ve developed a process that got me from the idea, research and story design, to figuring out the themes and structuring the narrative,” Westbrook says.
While Operation Infektion was on an entirely new scale, he explains that since he’s honed the process, many of the steps he followed were the same, just scaled up and with a bigger team.
Multimedia Week is produced by DJ Clark, Sharron Lovell, Christine Schindler and Beimeng Fu. They all lecture on China-based Visual and Multimedia Journalism programs of the University of Bolton.