In Focus

The Whitney Museum on Digital Storytelling

Sofie Andersen

Director of Digital Media, Whitney Museum

Sofie Andersen leads interdisciplinary teams of digital storytelling and product development across platforms and in-gallery. She designs impactful, user-centered experiences and tells stories at the intersection of art and place. Previously, she worked as a Digital Strategist and award-winning multi-media producer with leading arts organizations and brands including MoMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Tate Modern, The National Gallery, London, Statens Museum for Kunst, The Hong Kong Museum of Art, Discovery Communications, and Hugo Boss. Sofie holds a BA Hons in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art, UK, and a certificate in Arts Administration from NYU. She runs production and digital strategy workshops, speaks regularly at industry conferences, and conducts research on emerging digital storytelling trends.


 

What role does video play within the context of audience engagement?

Video plays an important, integrated role within our digital presentation, communications, and education strategies to engage our audiences. We use video strategically and aim to give artists a platform to talk about their art, as well as to share behind-the-scenes footage of artists studios, and to provide opportunities for the viewer to learn more about our and exhibition installations.

With modern and contemporary art in particular, it is important to see art in context and as true to its intended purpose and original form as possible. During the museum’s move downtown, the museum launched Whitney Stories, an institutional video-storytelling series, which helped us to share the process of moving downtown and building a new building, keeping our audiences alongside us in real time. It helped our audience follow along with the transition and to give authentic behind-the-scenes access. Now that we’ve grown into our new home, we’re focused on using video to help create a connection between our audiences and our dynamic programming and collection.

What platforms work best for you to reach a new audience using video?

We use video for a range of purposes, from live streams of performances or talks, to documentation of works in motion, such as our current Calder show, to more expansive storytelling in the three-part series on the history and themes of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. It’s all about picking the right channel for the content. YouTube and Facebook are the primary primarily platforms for live content, and our deeper content lives across whitney.org, Vimeo, and YouTube. We also post on Google Live. It’s an area we’re looking to grow in as we experiment with newer tools like VR and 360.

What are the specific challenges cultural institutions have in creating original video content?

Resources are always an issue—producing great video is expensive and time-consuming. The Whitney’s exhibition program is very dynamic, so we try to balance restrictions with being nimble. There are also practical considerations for when we work with artists’s estates, and in capturing installation-based experiences. There is also often a balance between providing too much access versus giving just enough to pique our audience’s curiosity.

On the flip side, some exhibitions can really lend themselves to experimentation. So for the Dreamlands exhibition last fall, we created worked with 360-videos and shared less didactic film reels for the exhibition’s related film program. We are also lucky to have an incredible installation team at the museum. So for our current Calder:Hypermobility exhibition, we filmed the works in motion….and experimented with how the audience will activate the videos across our platforms—along with a specially commissioned video of one of the works accompanied by an original soundtrack by musician Jim O’Rourke.

How does video interweave with your bigger digital strategies?

Video is a critical part of our digital storytelling strategy and is fundamental to how we communicate across platforms. Video supports our mission of supporting the work of artists, and so beyond providing engaging experiences, it is critical as part of our function as storytellers and documenters of artists and their work.

In conjunction with our user experience and development strategies,  we are looking to present well-produced videos, that are sometimes fast-paced and engage with larger themes, such as the Biennial, and at other times are more documentary in nature. It’s an investment, but we are increasingly approaching it as we do all other aspects of our programming, with a view to presenting the most engaging and innovative approaches we can. For the Biennial, video helped us tell the story of the show as it was being created, as well as share first-person interviews which formed an archive of the show—culminating in the last episode of the three-part series which came out in the closing week.

In Focus

Dotdash on Building Production Teams for a Digital World

Heather Menicucci

VP of Video, Dotdash

Heather Menicucci oversees video strategy and production at Dotdash. She joined in April 2016 and is charged with building a distributed video strategy, focusing on social platforms, quality production at scale, and branded video content. Dotdash is among the fastest-growing publishers online, helping millions of users each month solve problems and get inspired.


 

What are the unique challenges with building a team for digital video production?

We all consume so much digital video across so many platforms—which is fantastic—but one of the biggest challenges for any video team is the sheer volume of video output that’s required to keep audiences engaged and deliver meaningful experiences. And, it’s not just more video you need. It’s video thoughtfully crafted for different experiences and audience interests, that all needs to be ROI positive in a shifting revenue landscape (just look at the recent announcements by both Apple and Google to limit auto-playing pre-roll).

As a video team, you need to be agile and efficient—able to produce a lot of video at a reasonable CPV. You need to develop a true understanding of audience experience on different platforms and translate that into production decisions. And you need to be able to balance quality with speed and cost. As the head of a video team, I’m looking for really special folks who can play an impactful part in our video effort and help us address all these challenges. I’m looking for people who have a unique creative vision because the final piece of the puzzle is: how do you stand out in the vast sea of digital video?

Videos are being published across so many platforms. How do you build a team and workflow that meets the needs of this kind of pipeline?

Dotdash’s brands (Verywell, The Balance, Lifewire, ThoughtCo., The Spruce, and TripSavvy) are new to the world. Part of my job, on the video front, is spreading news about our vibrant new properties across social media. Another part of my job is delivering fun, smart, instructional video to audiences looking to cook a particular dish, explore a new destination, or learn about the history of a topic for school. Our approach needs to be mindful of things like where the audience might find the video, where are they while they watch, if they are watching with audio on, and how much time they want to invest. Every platform, use case, and audience intention requires a fresh perspective.

The only reasonable way I find you can produce across multiple platforms and verticals is by creating mini-groups of experts within your team and giving them the space they need to actually become experts in that thing. We’ve tried a more scattershot approach and it really doesn’t work for us. Everyone needs time to see what’s working and what’s not, build on it, and improve. We need to be able to specialize, to some degree, in order to innovate.

How do you create a team and workflow that is able to meet these incredible volume needs?

This is truly a challenge. One way we solve it is by having a team that can easily expand and contract as our volume requirements shift. We have a core team of full- timers and then a small family of reliable contractors who we love working with and know us well. This allows us to respond quickly to the changing marketplace which we try to track religiously.

In the year I have been at Dotdash, we have never slipped into a mentality of “this is how we do it, so this is how we’ll do it.” We are always striving to improve what we make, how we make it, and how we deliver it to audiences. In order to do that, we strive for a team that is flexible not only in terms of size but also in their capabilities and interests. Passion for the work unites us but everyone brings a unique set of skills to the table that might be activated sort of unexpectedly as we respond to the market. I think that approach is part of who are at Dotdash and having spent seven years at a startup, that kind of agility is something I believe in.

What makes digital video producers unique today?

I think it’s especially challenging being a digital producer today in comparison, for example, to producing video pre-internet or in the early days of the internet… One thing that really strikes me is that producers must be creative and technically skilled, but they also need to be sociologists of sorts. In film school, one of my favorite teachers was a John Cassavetes expert and we talked a lot about how a true indie filmmaker doesn’t think too much about audience when they make a film. There’s truth to that, because it’s crucial for an artist to focus on the art. But today, digital video producers like us need to analyze what the audience is doing: Why are they watching? Where are they watching? What are they watching? Sharing? And more granularly, things like, at what point in this video do they stop watching, and why might that be? With all of the content out there for audiences to choose from, I don’t think you can afford to not be studying these questions and applying what you learn about your audience to everything you make.

And, it’s not just about your audience. Producers need to watch a ton of video and pay close attention to what audiences are responding to. We work together to analyze data and translate that into production decisions, and we obsessively share great (and not so great) content we come across. That’s a requirement, I think, for any digital producer: watch, watch, watch, talk about what you’re seeing, and watch some more.

 

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Heather began her career in web video with the launch of Howcast in 2007. During her seven years at the instructional video startup founded by Google and YouTube veterans, Heather oversaw the production of over 20,000 videos. More recently Heather launched a social video strategy for Consumed Media, a division of global ad technology company CPXi. Before moving into web video, Heather produced award-winning short films and video for brands like Converse, Pfizer, and HP. Heather has always been a big fan of all things DIY, and is also the author of Let’s Get Primitive: the Urban Girl’s Guide to Camping (Ten Speed Press).

In Focus

Blue Chalk Media on Nonfiction Storytelling

Greg Moyer

Founder + CEO, Blue Chalk Media

Greg Moyer is an award-winning television and digital media executive with deep international experience and a track record of innovation in channel design, brand positioning, programming, marketing, and global distribution. A creative and inspirational leader, Moyer has successfully operated across senior positions for Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet, VOOM HD, and Food Network, among others. Moyer also led Discovery in collecting five George Foster Peabody Awards for programming excellence.

Blue Chalk Media is a video production company dedicated to using the power of nonfiction storytelling to answer the communications challenges facing a wide range of clients. With a staff of 16 split between our headquarters in Brooklyn, NY, and a West Coast office in Portland, OR, Blue Chalk specializes in producing short-form videos that touch both the head and the heart. Since opening for business in November 2013, Blue Chalk has completed over 350 short films for clients ranging from media entities such as The New York Times to philanthropies such as Carnegie Corporation of New York to commercial enterprises such as The Weather Channel.

 


 

Why do we believe so deeply in nonfiction storytelling?

Most of the people who work at Blue Chalk came to their love of storytelling through formative experiences as photojournalists or documentary filmmakers. To a person, we crave authenticity and celebrate when we capture moments of genuine human emotion. This “see it for yourself” approach appears to be the way people want to receive information in this digital age. For us, success is producing a film that allows a viewer to walk authentically in another person’s shoes, if only for three minutes.

How important is it that your work has an educational impact on the audience?

We value education as the cornerstone of functioning democratic society and the means by which individual people can achieve their fullest potential. That said, our videos are not designed to be “educational” in a formal sense. So much of what the world needs today is to be able to empathize with the circumstances of others. We’re satisfied if we’ve delivered some insight into how others live their lives.

Why short-form narrative? What are the advantages or differences as opposed to broadcast?

I spent over 25 years working for cable networks that produce nonfiction entertainment. The biggest difference is that short-form videos have fewer expectations around format and structure required by ad-supported, series-driven television channels. It’s a pleasure to produce outside a three-act, three-break format for a televised half-hour, a structure that fights true documentary-style storytelling. We also enjoy some advantages in the range of cameras we employ given that our films are primarily designed to be distributed online.

As a multi-faceted production company, your award-winning work takes many forms: branded content, social impact, journalism, interactive web content. What is the biggest challenge and opportunity you see in moving between these varying clients/outlets/distribution platforms?

Different clients have different needs. But in every case, we deliver true stories told in an authentic voice. What’s common to all our work is the high level of emotional integrity which comes from respecting the people who are choosing to share their stories with us. We don’t hire actors to appear in our films, and we don’t pay for “real” people to offer commercial endorsements. The stories we tell have to be real for the magic to happen. In that sense, there are few differences in our approach despite a diverse stable of clients.

What’s the impact of your video work created for non-profits?

Most nonprofit organizations are trying to demonstrate their impact on the world. There is no technique that better delivers proof of performance than documentary-style storytelling. As filmmakers, we have the privilege of entering the lives of people who are often living in challenging circumstances. Our job is to show how the work of a nonprofit organization is impacting those lives. It doesn’t get more real than that. The nonprofit films we’ve created have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for their causes and have been seen by millions.

What sort of skills do you look for when hiring your team?

All Blue Chalk team members are enthusiastic, intelligent, humble, empathetic, and possess an unbridled curiosity about the larger world. We also seek out people with demonstrated talent in their respective crafts, whether that is research, producing, handling a camera, or editing a film. Not everyone has years of experience, but it is fair to say that even the newcomers are precocious. In fact, journalism attracts people like this. We consider it a privilege to undertake the work we do.

In Focus

Ghost Robot on What It Means to Be a Creative Company

Mark De Pace

Executive Producer, Ghost Robot

 

 

I’ve been doing this for nearly 12 years. “This” being defined as running a small company and constantly trying to best define what it is that we “do.” It’s an endless, vicious cycle.

It started off as a simple proposition: create a production company that represents a roster of directors for music video and commercial production. At the time, that was the only way a company like Ghost Robot could exist. And it worked—the core of that business model is still the defining structural element of our company.

But since then, we’ve seen a relatively stable, familiar landscape erupt, crumble, and continually re-invent itself, largely because the emergence of digital media has created the need to be more efficient, more flexible, and more resourceful. More media doesn’t translate into more time or money.

We were early adopters of an integrated production model, folding post-production offerings in with our commercial production services. At first, because we knew it was more efficient and creatively satisfying (we began our careers making films and music videos and always edited our own work), and later, because it was expected.

Next, we began taking on more and more creative responsibility. Opportunities where we could help shape the creative began to find us. Our nimble nature allowed us to mold things in ways that are both achievable and indicative of the type of content we would like to see. We could crack creative and logistical puzzles because we knew what we needed in order to make things happen.

What emerged was a business model that allowed us to integrate with any kind of client or agency partner and provide a wide range of services in addition to our core competency of making imaginative film. We can effectively say “we do it all.” And we do—we even turned it into a joke. We boast that we specialize in “Commercials, Music Videos, Branded Content, Immersive Media, Feature Films, and Telepathy.”

But doing it all isn’t exactly unique anymore. Agencies now have production companies and post-production studios in-house, production companies now do creative, we’re all competing with digital media companies—
everyone needs to find ways to do it all. Plus, “doing it all” isn’t always the easiest thing to sell. If we’re all vying to do the same thing, then what distinguishes one company from the next?

Over the past few years, we have taken a journey at Ghost Robot to answer this for ourselves; to find the easiest way to inform our clients and collaborators and make our brand story truly reflect who we are as a company. In short, it’s not really about services anymore. It’s about being more than just a vendor. It’s about creative and culture and community.

A creative company has momentum and drive to create that exists regardless of what’s currently in their pipeline. A creative company has a culture of exploration and inquisition. A creative company is community of people who share similar beliefs and support each other artistically, professionally, and sometimes emotionally. A creative company is a place where things are happening that anyone can be a part of.

We’ve tried to make this our benchmark for success at Ghost Robot and it’s led to amazing opportunities and a diverse body of work. The more we explore our own creative passions, the more we see that being reflected in the work we do for clients. It’s not uncommon for a short film that we funded ourselves or a low-budget music video we made to turn into inspiration for a successful brand campaign. We experimented with graphic novels, a pop-up shop and event series, newsprint zines, and augmented reality. Each of these ventures turned directly into a similar activation for a brand.

At any given time, we’re already in the process of collaborating, brainstorming, seeking out new inspiration, and motivating each other. Often times in conjunction with other creative collaborators—musicians, artists, comedians, actors, and technologists. We’ve started to think of our brand as more of a magazine or newspaper. We’re constantly curating and editing, digging for new stories, and shaping the narrative of who we are and what we do. And we offer our clients the opportunity to seamlessly plug into this web of culture and conversation and let the natural momentum of Ghost Robot help connect dots in ways that aren’t completely obvious.

To stay honest, we ask ourselves, how does this business opportunity fit in with our story? How does this job support our community, culture, and creative aspirations? What would we be doing if we didn’t have a client paying us to create? Most of the time, it’s not that different than what we find ourselves doing on any given day.

If we can attract clients that are excited about our brand and inspired by our culture, our creative momentum, and our community, and are willing to take a ride with us, then we know we will be successful. It means we’re doing something that’s unique. It means we’re truly a creative company.


Mark De Pace is an executive producer and partner at Ghost Robot. Born and raised in the Mid-Hudson Valley, he is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. As a producer, Mark has overseen hundreds of projects across all mediums. Highlights include Björk’s “Wanderlust” in 3D, the feature film “Creative Control,” and U by Kotex’s “The Period Shop.” In addition to his duties at Ghost Robot, Mark is a visiting professor at the Pratt Institute and an adjunct professor at NYU. In his spare time, Mark enjoys spending time with his son, fly-fishing, sailing, snowboarding, and cooking. Fun fact: He is also an Eagle Scout.