A prominent client recently asked me to deliver a series of splashy videos. “I want them to be realistic,” he said. “I don’t want them to look fancy or have all sorts artsy camera angles. I want them to look real.”
I thought about my response before I opened my mouth. “Let’s figure out your message. I presume you’re looking to convey a few key points instead of trying to drown your audience in minutiae, right?”
“Of course,” he said. “But I don’t want these videos to look like something we staged. I want it to look like the real thing, our thing.”
This is a tough spot for a production team. Looking like the real thing and showing the actual real thing are not the same. The reason something looks real is because a production team has gone to pains to present visuals and words and other narrative elements that suggest realism to the viewer. To the uninitiated, this sounds like an effort to present a documentary or some sort of cinema vérité.
It’s not. Forms of semi-journalistic storytelling behave differently than other commissioned work. Usually requiring hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours of footage captured over the course of many long days, often with producers embedded amidst the action while events are taking place, documentary realism captures stories by careful editorial selection of events that creators determine to be important. For everything else—that is, for projects that must invent a simulacrum of reality—storytelling usually requires artificial yet carefully artful depictions of elements to reveal details that might otherwise elude a non-expert.
In other words, creators lie in order to tell something truthful.
Considering perilous trends in contemporary media, the great populist pugilist Bugs Bunny comes to mind: “Dems fightin’ woids!” When a client asks for reality, I must gently explain that real life doesn’t always reveal the meaning he or she wants. The elán vital of a story sometimes only shines for non-experts when burnished by some window dressing. Sure, we can keep colored lights and fancy special effects out of the production, but for fickle audiences who may not be willing to wait for the message beyond more than a few seconds, a successful production needs some narrative front loading, some sizzle, and some focus.
Alas, the customer is always right, which sometimes turns into a delicate process of self- discovery. When this particular client insisted that he and his team were resolute and determined to do it their way, that we should deliver our products with a minimum of edits, camera movements, lighting or other schematic designs, I calmly promised that we could do just what they asked, despite my recommendations.
Some lessons are learned the hard way. When they saw the footage we captured, cut together with our best efforts to breathe life into the project, they were dismayed. “Maybe we could hire an actor to appear besides just a narrator’s voice,” one of the principals said. “Maybe we should explain more about what’s going on in the script,” said another. “I don’t think outsiders will have any idea what we’re doing here. It just doesn’t feel very interesting. It doesn’t feel realistic.”
Shortly thereafter, we agreed to draw up a new production plan. They sat back in their chairs. I asked them what they wanted to communicate, and then I offered to present them some new ideas about how we might get those ideas across. I promised to try and preserve as much work as we cold from the first effort, but I also suggested a significantly redesigned sense of style and pacing and presentation for the overall project. They nervously agreed, and we rolled up our sleeves.
When the new videos were all done, everyone said they loved finally seeing their messages shine, bright and lifelike. The revised work communicated something essential about their message. When someone feels like they’re making themselves understood to an outsider, they usually feel like they’ve achieved something that makes the effort worthwhile. After all, the purpose of communications in the first place is to reach an audience with meaningful messages.