Brian Storm: a passion for storytelling
Brian Storm is one of the most respected multimedia storytellers in the world today. In 2005 he founded MediaStorm – an award-winning film production and interactive design studio, which specialises in digital storytelling and has thus far won four Emmy Awards for its work. In an exclusive interview with CPN Brian Storm explains his approach to multimedia storytelling and reveals how the roots of his work remain firmly embedded in documentary still photography.
CPN: Can you explain what MediaStorm’s approach is to multimedia storytelling?
Brian Storm: “MediaStorm is a storytelling company based in Brooklyn, New York. We have a talented staff and prolific alumni that have received numerous accolades including 15 Emmy nominations (with four wins), two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards and an Edward R. Murrow Award.
We run several lines of business including:
- A publication where we publish films in partnership with some of the world’s top storytellers.
- Content and software licensing.
- Original reporting, interactive application development and film production for clients.
- Online training and workshops.
At MediaStorm, our mission is to convey the essence of the human experience in deeply personal, intimate and emotional ways.
We believe that quality storytelling is the killer app.
We focus on stories with universal truths – those that bind us regardless of race, religion or border. Stories about common people who move through history unseen, with experiences often not noted in the history books.
We approach the process of storytelling with a few key ideas in mind:
- Everyone has a story to tell and it’s not always obvious what that story is without deep reporting and keeping an open mind.
- Time to report, along with time in post-production, are the keys to success.
- Quality is the central ingredient to having impact.
If you gain traction on the web, it likely means you’ve done something that connects to a broad swathe of humanity. To be relevant, your offering needs to be either super funny or the highest quality story about the topic. That’s what readers will tweet, post and share. Mediocrity is just noise.
Our approach to storytelling has been shaped from working with the limitations of other formats. Traditional media outlets, be it print, radio or TV, encourage – consciously or not – a specific type of storytelling. This can limit the depth of a story, and it can limit the story’s ability to be leveraged in other media.
In looking at the limitations of other formats, we’ve done our best to remove them:
- We don’t work on deadlines for our own publication. We publish when we simply can’t make the story any better.
- We aren’t focused on one media type or one delivery platform. We work to tell the story to the best of our ability, utilising all the tools at our disposal.
- We don’t publish to any set duration. Our stories are as short or as long as they need to be in order to make them compelling.”
CPN: How do you decide on the length and combination of content elements within a multimedia piece – for example: music, stills, video, graphic, titles etc?
Brian Storm: “‘What is the best duration for a film?’ is one of the questions I’m asked all the time. Our calls with clients often start with the dreaded: “We’d like a three minute piece because that’s all people will watch.” We have proven that duration is not the defining metric, but rather the quality of the story is the real key to a successful film.
When we published ‘Kingsley’s Crossing’ [by Oliver Jobard] in July 2006 the film ran at over 20 minutes long. No one believed people would watch a film that long online, but we’ve had a completion rate of 65%. That data tells me that if a story is powerful, people will watch it regardless of duration. I think it’s hard to start watching ‘Kingsley’s Crossing’ and not stick with it to see whether he makes to the end of his journey and what happens to him if/when he does.
When we start a film, we honestly don’t know how long it’s going to be. It’s really about using the material we have to tell the best story that we can. A great example of how that approach has allowed us to produce the most compelling story possible is a film we produced in collaboration with Tim Matsui and The Alexia Foundation called ‘The Long Night’.
When we started, the client brief called for a 10 to 15 minute multimedia package. After months in post-production, it was clear that the story warranted a longer run time. In fact, ‘The Long Night’ will be our first feature length film.
Determining which media types to use in the storytelling process, we work with the best assets that we have available. Both of the stories were reported by still photographers. Oliver Jobard only shot stills and so the photographs drive that film. Tim Matsui shot both stills and video for ‘The Long Night’ but we will be packaging them separately. Video will drive the film, and the stills will be presented within a slideshow.”
CPN: How do you discover the narrative and issues to tell within a multimedia presentation?
Brian Storm: “MediaStorm’s approach to storytelling is built upon the great tradition of documentary still photography. I have a master’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri and my values were defined during the years I spent there, from 1993 to 1995.
We utilise the documentary photojournalist ethos in both the reporting and the post-production processes. One of the main elements of this approach is to report what we see. We don’t go into a story with a set idea of what the story is or should be and we don’t set anything up in the reporting process. Rather, we are open to what is there.
A story that exemplifies our approach is one we did a few years ago, called ‘Amazing Amy’. We discovered Amy after seeing an award-winning picture of her taken by Melissa Golden – you can see that picture here.
I think most people see that picture and laugh. My first response was actually, ‘She looks amazing!’ I thought Amy would be the type of person who was the life of the party. But, MediaStorm producer Tim McLaughlin called Amy to interview her before the workshop and said to me after the call: ‘I think she might be the loneliest person I’ve ever talked to.’
I was surprised to hear that and even more surprised to find out that she was only 53-years-old. From looking at her picture, I thought she was much, much older. Clearly, the story we were hearing didn’t match our initial perception.
During the reporting process we learned why Amy looks so old, why she performs and how lonely she really is in her life. Everyone has, at one point or another, felt extremely lonely. This is a universal human condition and it is exactly the type of focus we look for in all of our stories. If we had assumed who she was, based on our first impression of her and tried to tell a story to support that belief, we would have missed the real story of Amy’s life.”
CPN: How can you ensure that a multimedia piece grabs the attention of an online audience and that it will be re-posted, tweeted and shared?
Brian Storm: “In 2013 we were commissioned by the International Center of Photography (ICP) and the Harbers Family Foundation to produce a series of films for ICP’s prestigious Infinity Awards. One of the winners was [actor] Jeff Bridges and we thought that his film would be the most watched because of his celebrity status. It turns out, the most popular film in the series, by far, was [by photojournalist] David Guttenfelder. The key to his film is that, aside from Dennis Rodman and Eric Schmidt, he was the only American to spend time in North Korea that year.
His coverage over 108 days allowed people to see daily life in a country that hardly anyone has ever seen. Once people saw the film they started to tweet about it. Major media outlets including NBC News, The Atlantic, Vice and The Washington Post embedded the film. Even The Associated Press promoted the film on their homepage. Quality storytelling and the unique nature of the story coupled with the timeliness of the film were the big drivers of this viral promotion.”
CPN: How do you plan and structure a multimedia piece – shooting, equipment choices, journalistic approach, ensuring quality in the finished piece, editing (what to leave out/keep in and why)?
Brian Storm: “One of the products I’m most excited about is MediaStorm’s Online Training. Our focus is to teach the methodology around our approach and the nuance of our storytelling decisions. Two great modules for understanding how we do original reporting for our films are ‘The Making of’ modules for ‘Surviving the Peace: Angola’ and the MediaStorm Workshop story ‘A Thousand More’.”
CPN: What are the differences between telling a multimedia story for a web audience as opposed to a traditional TV News audience?
Brian Storm: “I wrote a Transom Manifesto in 2012 about a MediaStorm Workshop film to talk specifically about this issue. The lack of an established framework on the web allows us to tell stories in a way that traditional formats don’t usually support. Many college professors have told me they use this case study in their classrooms to talk about the opportunities and limitations of publishing in different formats.
CPN: How do you generate revenue from multimedia storytelling?
Brian Storm: “Without revenue no storyteller can operate for very long. We’ve worked hard to create multiple lines of business to balance out how we generate revenue. Our goal is to have a diverse model and to not rely on only one revenue stream.
In June of 2012 we released a new model for our publication that we call ‘Pay Per Story’. Our goal was to make a statement that quality content deserves a financial return. For us, it’s another way to support our contributors in that we split the revenue from Pay Per Story 50/50.
I think the industry was in search of this type of solution. Several people wrote about the launch including Jonathan Woods of Time, [visual storytelling analyst] David Campbell, PDN [Photo District News] and even [documentary photographer] Maggie Steber responded to the critics on duckrabbit’s blog.
Pay Per Story, in the short run, is not something that will solve all of our revenue needs. It was important for us to start that process and to build an audience around our storytelling that values our work, and that of our contributors, enough to pay a few dollars. Our next step in this process will be to launch a subscription offering that will provide access to all of our Pay Per Story films for one yearly price.”
- To find out more about MediaStorm and how it operates please click on the Links on the right hand side of this article.
Biography: Brian Storm
Originally from Minnesota, Brian Storm is Executive Producer of the award-winning multimedia production studio MediaStorm, which he founded in 2005. In 1994 he launched the first version of MediaStorm as an interactive CD-ROM production company and received a master’s degree in photojournalism in 1995 from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. From 1995 to 2002 he was the first ever Director of Multimedia at MSNBC.com with responsibility for the audio, photography and video elements of the site. Prior to launching MediaStorm he spent two years as Vice President of News, Multimedia & Assignment Services for Corbis, leading the company’s global strategy for the news, sports, entertainment and historical collections. Brian Storm serves on the media advisory boards for a number of projects and charities including the Council on Foreign Relations, the W. Eugene Smith Fund, the Eddie Adams Workshop, the Alexia Foundation for World Peace and Foundation Rwanda.