Content is Key!



Guess what? Your audience probably isn’t interested in whether you are using an iPhone or a Red Epic to tell your story! If you have just saved up for a year to buy that camera you have always lusted over, that’s probably not what you wanted to hear. It seems obvious, but too many people that I teach, forget the importance of an engaging story line. Content is key!

It is easy to be seduced by equipment, especially for those of us who have been around for some time. Cameras available on the high street, costing five or six hundred pounds are now capable of producing broadcast quality footage. Ten years ago, the same quality would have cost tens of thousands of pounds. This puts the emphasis very much where it should be, on the content, not on production.

The fundamental way we tell stories hasn’t really changed for thousands of years. In his Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle put forth the idea that “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end”. This is sometimes referred to as the three-act play.

  • Act One – Introduction: Introduce your story and characters. Engage us in some way. Give us a reason to care.
  • Act Two – Development: The development phase. This is usually the longest part of the story. It is where you develop your story and/or characters. Impart information.
  • Act Three – Resolution: If you have introduced a mystery or question, this is where it is answered. Conflict and crisis are resolved; the story is bought to a finish in a satisfying way.

Up to now, you will notice that the structure hasn’t changed; we are still using tried and tested methods. However there is one major difference, we live in the age of the butterfly surfer, fluttering from site to site, sampling the nectar and moving on. In the UK twenty years ago, your potential audience would have had a choice of five television channels, now with the Internet they have the equivalent of thousands. This means that we have to work harder to capture them and once we have, to keep them! The Introduction has to have a hook, big enough to catch a whale. Hook them and draw them in! Research shows that within 10 seconds you will have lost 10% of your audience. By 5 minutes you will only have 10% of your audience left! As a documentary maker, you are asking people to give you time and as we all know this is an extremely valuable commodity. Why should they give it to you, when there are so many other pressures and distractions available?

One practical solution to this is; use your best, most compelling images or sound first. If you don’t, people are not going to be around long enough to see it anyway! Use any trick you can, to convince people to stick around. Cajole, surprise, shock, ask a question, do whatever it takes to get their attention. If you don’t, there are thousands of cat videos available on YouTube, calling like a siren in the night 🙂 !

Lecture Notes – University Wales (Newport) 22/10/09

Thank you for an interesting afternoon, as promised here are some of the references and links that I talked about:

Images from the project can be viewed at

For detailed essays and examples of ‘Re-Photography’ check out the Third View multimedia website.

The article ‘The Red House’ by David Campany about ‘Late Photography’ can be found here.

There are excerpts from Ed Kashi’s book ‘Three’ on his website.