How to make great information films
Explainers are short online films that help inform the public about big and often complex subjects — such as astronomy, pregnancy, or DNA — in an interesting and accessible way.
After the Flood made both a ‘how to’ film and a production guide for other BBC-partners making Explainers. The importance of narrative structure and scripting is emphasised as much as visual direction and graphics. The key to making successful Explainers is the interplay between the voice-over and the visual tracks – these two elements compliment each other and can perform different roles, but they should both be pinned to the main story structure.
In the interests of storytelling economy, it’s important to take an integrated approach to the script and visuals from the beginning. Explainers are different from more poetic ‘brand identity films’ that exist to encourage emotional connection – they need to impart a much higher degree of factual information, but in a way that is sophisticated and relevant to the subject. Below we present key parts of the production process and some of the films we created.
With a running time of just three minutes, an Explainer video needs to get its point across very efficiently. It’s impossible to cover all the ground in a particular area, so you need to focus on a story ‘hook’ that is fundamental, understandable and repeatable. Examples from previous Explainer videos include: ‘The stars are us and we are the stars’ and ‘The Titanic was unlucky, not doomed’. This message should be carried throughout the script and throughout the choice of visual elements. Conversations between the scriptwriter, creative director and an external subject expert will help to identify the most appropriate ‘hook’.
Although each video will deal with one specific topic only, they are also intended to spark interest in other, related areas. We want to inform as to certain subjects, but we also want people to discover new ones. Your explainer will need to contain ‘jumping-off-points’ to related content.
Your story idea will have to accommodate three distinct layers of information, and it’s worth identifying these at an early stage:
Can you simplify complex ideas without making them simplistic? Think about how to avoid patronising your audience (for example, with bright colours, bouncing type and intrusive music). Respect the subject, but be selective and clear; look for magic moments in the story that help you to avoid getting bogged down in too much detail.
These principles are general to the field but useful in video too. They may help you to think about how you organise your information, textually and visually.
Set out key structural elements at the beginning, introducing consistent way-markers in v/o, graphics and sound. For example, if you are using a timeline, show a date early on, so that people can work out how they are going to read it.
We like to see the whole information field first – to see its general shape and areas before zooming into a guided place. But use your judgement too far out, the information is illegible; too far in, we lose sight of the context.
Some facts, people and place are well known. Use these to signpost and pace your script so that people are never too far from a known concept. Keep familiar information arriving at a regular beat, so that you can suggest new and more challenging things in between.
Good stories often set up a problem before showing how it is resolved. Likewise, when we are trying to understand something problematic, it helps to show what a neutral state looks like and then show how something (e.g. pollution) turns it bad.
New ways of measuring and displaying network – be they social, economic or organisational – now mean that the public is more aware of the connections between people, events and things. Use this newfound literacy to tell stories about networks and how they work and fail.
Storyboards give a strong sense of the shape of the Explainer. Preliminary sketches will be part of early script discussion and may take place concurrently as a way to explore the visual content of the script, but realistically the main task of storyboarding must wait until a workable script is available. Allow for the fact that most scripts are re-edited at least a little once storyboarding has shown where the script works and where it needs changing.
Working with reference to the script, match each numbered scene to a visual data event represented by one or more storyboard panels.
Each storyboard panel should be marked with the scene number, the beginning of the part of the script it refers to and a sketch describing basic features and movement in the shot. Notes outside the box fill in detail of form, objects included and movement.
Key elements can be colour coded so that the eye can follow them throughout the storyboard. These colours are not necessarily taken through to the final video, but they will help with reading the storyboard.
The Stars was the first film in the Explainers series. It allowed us to try out a lot of new ideas that would define the format including pacing, use of music, plot foreshadowing and information design elements.
We made a film for the BBC marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic that focuses on the ship’s route, structure, and survivor data as an alternative to the traditional picture of the disaster. The film shows data from an untraditional perspective wherever possible. The mapping was inspired by Richard Edes Harrison, whose 1944 Look at the World Atlas shows destinations from where they're seen – inspired by the new technology of civilian air-travel. (His ‘Europe from the East’ illustration has pride of place in our office.)
There is obviously a lot of effort involved (the full method will be in the AtF Playbook) but here are a selected five things we did:
The ‘how-to’ film and production guide were rolled out to other companies who created films about subjects including DNA and Dinosaurs as well as our subsequent work on WW1.