Johnny Harris is Vox’s one-man band filmmaker who makes documentaries as if he were a YouTuber. He combines cinematic storytelling with motion graphics to put the daily news in context. For his latest project, he travels the globe to tell stories on borders. In a previous life, Johnny studied international relations at uni. He started working at Vox "without any journalism or video experience". So, what are his secrets to filmmaking? OpenVRT and Media Fast Forward brought him to And& Festival to explain it all.
Text by Helena Verheye, header picture by Kaat DM Photography / OpenVRT
1. Be curious and claim creative freedom
According to Johnny, Vox is a place where there is no division between writers, tech people or idea leaders. Everyone is a creator (or a 'digital storyteller', as we like to call it). If you have writing skills, you can learn to become an animator. The purpose of the editor, then, is to empower creators: “What is your idea and how can we help you with that?” The most important asset for a digital storyteller is to be both curious and creative. Or like Kanye would say: “As a creative, your ideas are your strongest form of currency”.
2. Aesthetic matters
Yes, even on the news. Some people have the idea that aesthetic only matters if you are trying to sell something. They think that aesthetics are only relevant in the world of advertising. Story and facts remain 'king' when it comes to news reporting, but a story that is being told in a beautiful way travels further and inspires more. So respect aesthetics, don’t consider it something unnecessary.
3. Respect the intelligence of your viewer
Vox’s mission is to make useful knowledge shareable. They claim to make academic knowledge accessible to a mass audience. "The internet breathes ADD, but that doesn’t mean that every video has to be a viral cat video." You don’t always need to dumb things down to a non-intellectual format to get views. If you give someone an incentive to stick around, they will stick around (even on Facebook).
4. Storytelling is not (only) about fancy tools
When you’re on the road, compact and lightweight gear is key. Don’t break your back with all that fancy stuff, but stick to the lightweight essentials. Lightweight gear makes reporters free to go where they want, which allows them to hang out with local people. 'Less is more' also applies to the crew. Being a one-man band filmmaker makes it easier to blend in. This is important to get those local stories that are crucial to your storytelling. It’s easy to chase down the context and theoretical frame. What is often missing from that context is a human face.
5. You’re never a one-man band
Yep, the word is out. While Johnny Harris might look like a one-man band when he's out reporting, he always gets help from research producers at Vox and local fixers. Don’t try to do everything by yourself, you’ll get burned-out and in trouble. During his talk at And& Festival, he made clear that this topic was on the top of his mind right now.
"I'm trying to use the internet and its tools to tell my stories in a much more robust way." Parachute jumping into a random place on earth and pretending to know what you're doing is no solid plan. He is becoming obsessed with the power of community on the internet and is experimenting with new ways of balancing power. From a one-man band filmmaker to a curator of crowdsourced information? Way to go, Johnny!
Want to get updates and inspiration in Digital Storytelling? Sign up for REC.'s newsletter.