CAN WE KILL THE TALKING HEAD ALREADY? (OR: How a chance collab ignited a new style of brand video)
Updated: Dec 1, 2019
Switchblade Lemonade writes killer bios for entrepreneurs. We recently collaborated on a project and it changed the way we make films.
Together, we killed the talking head.
Switchblade Lemonade's founder Caroline Mays' own bio begins, “I’m a fugitive on the run. I come from a small town where kids fight with broken pieces of glass from their makeup cases. Sometimes you have to outrun a particular kind of destiny.” You can’t ask for a more cinematic intro.
What Caroline and I have in common is that we both escaped grimy southern towns as soon as we were old enough. Hers is only 40 miles from mine. Also we are cousins. We kept in touch over the years. I first read Caroline’s bio when we met up on a recent trip to Northern California, where she now lives. Her writing crackled with energy and read like beat poetry. I knew before I put it down that we had to make a film out of it.
But first I had to kill the talking head.
I’ve been making talking head videos for 11 years. A talking head video is where someone sits in front of a camera and talks with a light in their face, answering questions from an off-camera interviewer. To the viewer it appears that the talking head is telling the story.
If you're not a pro, and most of us aren't, staring at a camera with a light on your face makes it hard to focus, harder to relax and really hard to say insightful things. You become slightly disembodied, like a puppeteer trying to animate your own stupefied brain that’s stuck like a deer in headlights. You feel self-conscious. You say a bunch of things that you don’t remember. Then the job lands in the lap of an editor to forge your words into a story. This is like a skilled surgeon putting a body together from parts. In the end, there you sit, nicely lit, saying choice words intercut with footage in the guise of a documentary that tells a story about who you are or what you do. A nice story. A boring story.
Caroline’s company is called Switchblade Lemonade. I don’t know why or how she writes such good stories about people but she claims: “A killer bio doesn’t tell people who you are, it shows them what you’re made of.” This is also the fundamental law of filmmaking: Show don’t tell.
Talking heads tell. Films show. And since I was the one calling the shots on the creative this time, I wanted to make a film.
Caroline’s bio uses running as symbol for escape and black ink as an indicator of the hard work of writing. Black Ink & Sneakers are what she’s made of. These two images became the visual clay that we mashed into motion: A lone runner slashing through a thicket like an animal; the beating of feet on pavement marking mile after mile; the writer confronting a field of marked-up pages. These were images inspired by the copy. She made it easy for me. Great writing is the filmmaker’s best friend, showing up early with donuts and coffee, ready to work.
I didn’t have to make a story out of words from a disembodied brain.
An actor's greatest gift is making you believe they are real people on camera. The real people’s flaw is that when they are on camera, they try to act. They try to act like a person on camera. I hired an actor to read Caroline’s story. She gave life to the script in the way that actors do, giving shape to the character behind the words and saying them as if they were her own thoughts. It felt real. It felt genuine.
In the end, the words drove the images instead of following them. It was a great lesson to me as a filmmaker who had built a business on talking head interviews. They are popular because the feel authentic. But what you gain in authenticity you lose in the ability to craft meaning and metaphor and give the viewer surprises. At this point I’m ready to craft better messages, and kill the talking head once and for all.
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