Why People Love Animal Stories



Many people who work in this business have heard writer William Goldman’s quote, “Nobody knows anything,” in reference to the challenge of predicting which stories will capture an audience. Well it turns out that what eludes many of us is not so puzzling to scientists.

In a study at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California at Los Angeles, scientists observed and measured brain neuron activity in human subjects who were shown images of animals. The results, published as A category-specific response to animals in the right human amygdala basically concluded that people like to watch animals. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the animal is cute, ugly, cuddly, or dangerous. We’re fascinated by them all. The paper theorizes on the evolutionary importance of animals to humans and offers insight into our devotion to pets.

Of course, proving audience demand is a bit more complicated than what is explained in a scientific paper. However, I think it’s intriguing that ‘Somebody knows something.”

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Six Tips for Book Trailers That Sell Books

Trailers or teasers have long been used to promote movies. Now publishers and authors are using trailers to promote books on the web.

Trailers are a form of content marketing, so they should not come off as an advertisement but rather as a piece of entertainment that promotes.

I’ve recently produced some book trailers and I want to share a few tips for getting quality results with tight budgets. The reality of most book marketing budgets means that one must create more with less.

People in the book business tell me that books sell because of a) the topic or genre and b) the author. That being said, a trailer can help sell a book by engaging people emotionally. People remember and act upon things that trigger feelings. Furthermore, video is highly discoverable in Internet search results.

While it’s easy to follow the familiar format of film trailers, I don’t think one must slavishly emulate that format. Books are not films. They can be promoted with short documentaries (especially non-fiction books) or voice-over narration for a scene from the book. Anything goes as long as it draws viewers into the story and creates that ‘want to read’ feeling.

Whether you do-it-yourself or hire a professional, here are some tips for good results:

Tip 1: Answer the question, “What’s the hook”?

Identify the hooks or selling points and use them to inform the trailer’s content. Is the book written by a popular author? Is the book written in a recognizable genre? Does the story raise intriguing questions that are answered in the book?

Tip 2: Choose an appropriate format, style, and tone.

The book’s cover design can guide the trailer’s tone and style. Maintaining consistency between the book and the trailer is good for branding. To further inform the trailer’s style and tone, answer these questions: What is the book’s category (fiction or non-fiction)? Who is the audience (by demographics and interests)? What is the genre (mystery, humor, thriller, etc.)? What is the tone (light and funny or dark and suspenseful)?

Tip 3: Work within your budget.

Be realistic about your budget and choose the highest quality approach for the money. It’s better to have great stills and illustrations than poorly done live action or cheap looking animation. If the book itself has illustrations or photographs, use these to create the trailer. It will ensure visual consistency with the book which is, again, good for branding.

Tip 4: Show the book cover.

This is obvious. However, I have seen a few trailers that did not show the book.

Tip 5: Use a call to action.

The trailer should feature the book title (with an image of the book cover), the name of the author, and a website URL where people can buy the book. You can even include a link and a call to action to ‘buy now’ or ‘download now’.

To provide an example, here is a trailer I made for a tween adventure book. Working with a tight budget, I used some of the book’s illustrations combined with live footage I shot for a related documentary. To create dynamics I used image motion and layering. The music befits the adventure genre. Have a look.

Tip 6: Spread the video.

It’s a mistake to only post the trailer on the publisher’s or author’s website. This misses the goal of driving traffic to where people can buy the book. Seed the trailer on relevant book review sites, platforms like YouTube and Facebook, book blogs — anywhere the target audience can see and share it. Provide an URL or link to the book’s purchase point.

Do you have more tips for book trailers?

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How Audiences Choose Movies


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December 21, 2012 · 3:57 pm

How to Protect your Video Footage

Sometimes you want your video content to spread and sometimes you don’t. Imagine producing a client’s confidential video and later discovering some of your footage is in another video by a third party. Incredibly it happens. The results can be lost trust, damaged reputations, and even legal liabilities.

For video producers, this article provides basic practices to reduce the risk of unauthorized use of video files. In an era of easy content sharing, video file security is vital to protecting client confidentiality and preventing piracy.

In the past, film and tape-based workflows provided a basic measure of security by the simple act of possessing the original film or tapes. With today’s tapeless workflows, digital files are at risk of unauthorized copying at each stage of capture, ingestion, edit, publish, and archive.

On a typical small video shoot the producer supplies the hard drives and the videographer supplies the camera. At the conclusion of the shooting day, the producer takes possession of the hard drives with the copied files while the original captured files remain on the videographer’s memory cards. In practice, those cards are later re-used, effectively deleting the files. However, it’s not unheard of for copyrighted and confidential content to find its way into reels and productions.

Some unauthorized use occurs when someone in the workflow chain uses video files for a reel or as stock footage for another project. Misunderstandings and misguided beliefs about sharing and re-use can lead otherwise well-meaning people to violate copyright.

To reduce the risk of unauthorized use of your video files, here are some practical steps:

–          Specify video file ownership, copyright, and confidentiality in crew and supplier contracts

–          Specify what, how, and when content will be provided for reels

–          Provide clear written guidelines for handling video files

–          Control possession by providing the camera and memory cards, or

–          Control possession by providing memory cards for a videographer-supplied camera

–          Specify the person who is authorized to take possession of the original captured footage

–          Specify the persons who are authorized to work with video files

–          Use password protection for hard drives and when editing

–          Use encryption

–          Use secure platforms to share content among suppliers and clients

Of course, there must be a balance between security and usability. Security that is too stringent will hinder the workflow by making file use too difficult. Try to find the balance that works for your situation and workflow.

Can you suggest more ways to secure video files?

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Anatomy of a Story

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October 25, 2012 · 10:58 am

Film for a Cause

A film that entertains while it delivers a meaningful social message is a powerful tool to get people talking, questioning their beliefs, and taking action. Film with a message is most often associated with documentaries but dramas are among the most compelling examples of stories for a cause. Think of films like “Erin Brockovich” (Academy Award-winning actress Julia Roberts is the single mom whose fight for what’s right exposes a profiteering polluter.) Television offers more examples such as the long-running series “Degrassi” and its realistic portrayals of kids dealing with issues from substance abuse to abortion.

Where there’s a social cause there’s a great story. One issue that affects as many as one in five young people is the stigma of having a mental illness.  Our society likes to see itself as being progressive and compassionate toward those who suffer. Gone are the days when fear and mania surrounded most illnesses but mental illness still carries the burden of stigma and misconceptions. It’s an issue that affects so many people and it is a topic of many compelling stories. This combination of a great story and a worthy cause is the reason I’m set to shoot a video to introduce a series that goes deeper into the story. I’m delighted to have some talented people on board to help make this series. I’d like to introduce one of them — musician-singer Gavin Slate. I’ll leave you to enjoy a song of his that will appear in the video.

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Be More Productive: Five Tips for Filmmakers (and Other Content Creators)

Creative people, as a group, are naturally good at being inspired, thinking, and starting projects. Here’s how to turn that inspiration into more productive work.

  1. Stop dreaming, start doing. We all keep hearing this one but I think it’s especially true for creative people. As a creative, you are wired to be inspired. Thinking is great up to a point but there comes a time when you have to just do it. Beware of the thinking traps: over-analyzing, self-editing, and self-doubt.
  2. Trust your instincts. That urge to run with an idea is nature’s way of making you better by moving you forward. Don’t ignore it and don’t let doubters talk you out of it. Listen to that instinct, listen to your audience, and hustle your idea into action. Be flexible about your idea as new information inspires you to revise it. You might be wrong and fail anyway but you won’t regret trying.
  3. Prioritize. Identify your 3 to 5 priority goals and focus on achieving them. Don’t let other things sidetrack you or dilute your time and energy. This is a wonderful exercise in self-discipline that will help you create more work.
  4. Block out the noise. There’s a cacophony of media and promotion that is driven by vanity and desperation. Don’t get sucked into it. Critics and detractors have a job to do for their own gain – not yours. Focus on your audience to get a true measure of your content’s worth. Give your audience something they want to see and buy, do it well, and show them you value their connection. They’ll show you some love by following you and your work and they’ll tell their friends.
  5. Nurture Your Network. You can’t get far without people in your camp. When building your network, focus on individuals who are a) positive, b) smarter than you and c) want to work with you. Don’t waste time trying to get attention from high profile people who won’t give you the time of day. Networking for career building is about creating a supportive reciprocating community. One day, the high flyers will disappear and you and your peers will take their place.

Can you think of more tips to improve creative productivity?

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In the previous post, Audience Building for Web Video: Part One – The Human Factor, I explained two basic theories that describe how audiences interrelate with content. In this article, I’ll look at audience needs.  

Over the years (yes, even before the Internet), I’ve developed a simple list of Three Audience Needs to inform my decisions to produce, market and distribute content. Looking at how content is promoted on the web, I think there’s a general tendency to focus on technology and tools. There’s a loud chorus out there on how to SEO your show and use the latest techniques. This focus can overshadow audience needs and can result in a one-size-fits-all tech-centric approach. The failure to consider audience needs explains, in part, why some web shows struggle to build audiences. What works for one show doesn’t necessarily work for another.

 To apply my list of Three Audience Needs to the web, I’ve looked at available web tools that invite and engage audiences. Some tools, like those for sharing and feedback, are useful across all needs while other tools are more specific. For example: shows that fulfil the audience’s ‘Need to Know’ have a higher than average sign-on rate for push tools like RSS, email, and subscriptions because people see these as a way to get the information the want or need. Also, shows that fulfil the audience’s ‘Need for Cultural and Personal Identity’ have better success with merchandise because merch helps people feel connected to a show. I’m not suggesting that other shows should not use these approaches. Experimenting is good. However, when faced with limited time and resources, prioritizing the most relevant tools and strategies will reap higher rewards.

These needs are non-hierarchical. In other words, people don’t have to satisfy one need before they will seek to satisfy another. (This isn’t like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Also, audience needs can overlap. Most shows fulfil two needs while the occasional show will fulfil all three (a triple threat!)

Now here are my Three Audience Needs:


People need information to survive and feel safe. They need to know what’s going on in their world and they need to learn. The Need to Know explains why some people are news junkies or fans of do-it-yourself, issue-driven, and other factual shows. People who want information tend to want it straight-up  — not watered down. They seldom plough through a lot of irrelevant content to get what they need. If a show fails to deliver the goods, people who Need to Know will go to a more direct source.

SHOWS: The Need to Know is a powerful motivator so it’s no surprise that a lot of content targets this need; (and you thought it was just because info content is cheaper to make). Shows that fill this need include news, how-to, documentaries, talk and interview shows, some dramas that are issue-driven (especially social issues) or portray how to cope with more complex things like relationships.

TOOLS: Think about how people seek information. Topic keyword SEO works well. Also, people want to be the first to know, so tools that push content like RSS, email alerts, and subscriptions are effective. Tools that help people share with friends and give feedback work well. Strategies like affiliate partnerships related to the topic or issue are also effective.


We need to interact with other people and feel we are part of a community. This is fulfilled by knowing and interacting with other people but it can also be fulfilled by connecting with other fans and the show’s performers and creators. This explains the popularity of celebrity. To take this a step further, people can even form virtual relationships with fictional characters. Character fan bases are huge in the popularity of some genre fiction.

One more thing: When thinking of how to fulfil this need, there is a certain kind of show I call the Super Slam. This is when the show, performer, and the character played by the performer combine into a compelling brand that hits an audience sweet spot. When all these things work together, audience building can generate a powerful fan base.

SHOWS: Shows that fulfil the Need for Personal Relationships and Social include dramas (including soft genres like comedy, romance, children’s, light mysteries), celebrity-driven shows, issue-driven shows that are fiction or factual, talk and interview shows hosted by a personality.

TOOLS: Think about how people want to reach out and connect. Audience feedback tools fulfil this need as do community building tools that let fans connect with one another. Tool for sharing let fans spread the show to like-minded friends who will join them in the show’s community.


People need to define themselves within groups and the larger society. They need to be part of a ‘tribe’ and they need to display their membership to their fellows and to outsiders. The range of cultural and personal identity seems endless and provides many opportunities to create content.

SHOWS: Genre fiction, documentaries relevant to a defined group, special interest, issue-driven, celebrity-driven.

TOOLS: Think of what helps people find their tribe. SEO by genre, topic, and issue is effective as is promoting via genre and fan media (blogs, magazines, etc) and groups, special interest media and groups. Think of how to help people be part of their tribe (badges, merchandise, clubs, subscriptions). Tools for feedback and sharing help them connect with the show, with like-minded people, and to advocate to others.

Those are the three basic audience needs and I think understanding them makes it easier to work the choices for audience building. What are the ways you’re building your audiences?

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I’m a huge believer in video on the Internet. I think we’ve barely begun to see the opportunities. A lot has been written about search optimisation, promotion, and paid services. I think these tools are great but I also think one shouldn’t slavishly follow a prescribed method. Guidelines for building audiences are useful but they are not a guarantee.

Beginning with this post, I will write a series of articles that go beyond tools and strategies to examine the people factor — audience psychology and behaviour. Content creators who understand people can make better use of the latest tools and strategies and can better understand why audience building strategies that work for one video or series don’t necessarily work for others.

What is an Audience? To begin, I think most people intuitively understand an audience is a defined group of people who collectively view, hear, or otherwise receive content with or without input and participation. Beyond that basic definition, there is a vast scholarly body of work on audience analysis. Let’s outline the two basic concepts.

1)      Passive Audience: This is also called the Hypodermic Model because it’s based on the concept of ‘injecting’ content into a passive homogenous mass of people. It assumes the creator or exhibitor is the powerful deliverer of content and that the masses have few choices but to receive what is delivered. This model views media as a powerful tool to shape the minds of the masses. Critics argue it limits content to a prescribed message and ignores how audiences use media beyond simply receiving it. It also ignores how each viewer’s individual experiences and beliefs cause him or her to have different perspectives on the same content. While the Hypodermic Model is rejected by most of today’s media thinkers, it has some proven applications. The most obvious example is propaganda  delivered within a controlled environment that excludes dissenting messages.

2)      Active Audience: The definitive example of an Active Audience Model is the Uses and Gratification Theory (Blumer and Katz 1974). This model portrays the audience as a diverse proactive group who choose and use media in different ways to fulfil their personal goals and needs. It acknowledges individual perspectives. Critics of the Uses and Gratification Theory point to flaws in data used to arrive at the theory and say it fails to explain why some people do appear to behave like passive consumers.  This theory continues to evolve as more media scholars analyse and build upon it.

If you think web video most closely fits the Uses and Gratification Model, you’re correct. Audience behaviour on the Internet is exemplified by people making choices and interacting with content. The next post, Audience Building for Web Video: Part Two – Audience Needs explains what motivates audiences to choose certain shows.

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5 More Tips to Better Documentaries

If you missed it, check out the previous post, 5 Tips to Better Documentaries. Now here are 5 more tips gathered from my own experience and that of fellow filmmakers:

  1. Location, location, location. Follow this tip for both its visual and contextual value. Visually interesting locations add production value while establishing a setting gives your story context.
  2. Use voice-overs and narration to enhance, not to duplicate visuals. This is basic common sense but I still keep seeing documentaries that tell me what I’m seeing. Viewers get restless when faced with this visual and audio redundancy. Why? Because people absorb images faster than they absorb words. This means they have already processed the images before the narrator finishes speaking. When the audience is ready to move on but the film is holding them back, the result is an impatient bored audience.
  3. Edit, cut, and edit some more. Be ruthless. Remove shots that don’t move the story forward. When you’re left with only the best shots, trim them. Put the film away for as long as your schedule permits (at least a week if you can) and go work on something else. Then come back and look at your film with fresh eyes. Trim some more.
  4. Have great audio. Viewers will forgive less than wonderful visuals but poor audio is not tolerated. It’s true that documentary filmmaking can involve some tough recording situations but don’t let poor location audio drag down your film. Replace ambient sounds and add sound effects and music. Poorly recorded location dialogue can be replaced with voice-overs.
  5. Respect your subject. This is about more than following privacy and libel laws. It’s the ethical thing to do and it will help you get a more authentic story. Respect builds trust. For you to make your film, somebody let you into their life to record their image and all that is personal to them. If you manipulate this, it will show as false and the audience will know it.

Can you think of more ways to make better documentaries?

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