Shaping the Debate Through Visual Storytelling

When first asked to make a video on social mobility in America I couldn’t visualize how it would look and work as a video. It was about a week between when I was first approached with the idea and when I was able to meet with Brookings Fellow Richard Reeves. During that time I was asked on multiple occasions “How is the video going? What’s it going to be?” I responded with general statements of positivity. I still had no idea.

During my first meeting with Richard, I listened to him explain his research. As he explained I ran through various approaches in my head. Animation would be too sterile, Richard explaining two-dimensional charts would be visually mind-numbing, nothing felt right. I went back to the basics¬—why do we watch videos online? What do people respond the most strongly to? Emotion and Story.

In listening to Richard speak about his research I made two observations. The first was that it is clear that he is thinking of the people that the research (most often identified as percentages of the population) represent, not just the numbers. This creates a story. The second observation was that through his explanation of the research, it is clear that he cares about what happens to these individuals, and that made me care. Being in the room with him pulled me in, this was the emotion. The question then became, how do we get the viewer in the same room with Richard?

Rather than just mixing in graphics in post-production or using two-dimensional charts on camera, we determined that we needed three-dimensional objects for Richard to interact with and more importantly we needed these objects to represent human beings. With their colorful bodies and little faces LEGO was the way to go. My coworker, Ian McAllister, and I were off to the LEGO store. We were in constant communication with Thomas Young, our communications advisor, who made sure our LEGO builds were accurate to the research. At this point the three of us weren’t entirely sure that this was going to work, but it felt like the right direction. After two hours in the LEGO store listening to “Everything Is Awesome” on repeat Ian and I felt we may have it.

Richard, Thomas, Ian, and I meet a couple days later and Richard immediately began using the LEGO set up to illustrate the research as we hoped. The movement of Richard arranging the LEGO figures on the bricks brought the numbers to life, and drove home the impact of an individual’s mobility. In this meeting we also made the conscious decision to not script Richard’s dialogue beyond an outline. As an expert on the subject the explanation was more compelling in his own words. Again, this choice was something that just felt right.

The entire production was executed by our in-house video team with one exception. For the opening shot we brought in Chris Peters to supply and operate a motion control-slider. We shot in our studio with two Canon C300s with a 50 mm Zeiss lens and a Canon 24 mm tilt shift lens. Editing, compositing, color correction, and time remapping was performed in Final Cut X. Graphics were designed and built in After Effects. All foley sound was mixed down in Adobe Audition.

Four days after the launch of the video, “Is America Dreaming?” it had over 150K views, all through organic traffic, and three thousand plus comments from various reposts and embeds. University professors have messaged us to let us know that they are including the video in their curriculum, and screen grabs have been taken from the video to illustrate points such as in Yahoo Finance. It was clear that Richard’s new video was now helping shape the debate around the American Dream and social mobility in America. Shaping the debate with credible research, rather than opinion, is important because it gives authority for policy prescriptions to be made.

We never asked ourselves questions such as “are we over simplifying, are we diluting our authority by using LEGO or dumbing down the issue as well as our credibility.” If anyone else did, they kept it to themselves. But if they had asked, I now know how I would respond. To make our research and ideas accessible to wide audience we need to connect at a level of commonality. Richard refers to it as “penetrating the public consciousness.” The “consciousness” is the bubble of everyday life that surrounds us. Everything it means to be an overwhelmed human in modern civilization has to be “penetrated” by a three minute forty-one second video. And if we do it right, we get through that layer and engage the viewer, ultimately shaping the debate around the issue.

This is certainly not a formula, anything formulaic will not “penetrate the public consciousness.” Instead it’s more of a compass for making an effective video. Our team here has learned that we must constantly find and be open to new ways of storytelling for the screen—the internet is completely open to it and we have to be too.

Director: George Burroughs
Technical Director: Ian McAllister
Director of Photography: Sareen Hairabedian
Editors: Ian McAllister and George Burroughs
Graphics: Mark Hoelscher
Sound: Zachary Kulzer and Mecca Lewis
Motion Control-Slider Operator: Chris Peters

Creative Director in Communications at The Brookings Institution. I write scripts and direct. This includes animations, documentaries and narratives. @georgebthird

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Posted in Guidance
2 comments on “Shaping the Debate Through Visual Storytelling
  1. […] 2014 has been no exception. Think tanks have used lego to explain social mobility, interactive maps to plot financial distress, infographics to tell […]

  2. […] 2014 has been no exception. Think tanks have used lego to explain social mobility, interactive maps to plot financial distress, infographics to tell […]

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