Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Writer's Life: Free Pictures

Shuttle Atlantis - Photo - NASA Archives: # ISSC21E029818
One of the tough things if you are a blogger or if you're writing a book is to find pictures to illustrate your stuff.  A lot of us finally gave up and took up photography and learned to use illustration software.

A long time ago (ten years or so is a long time in the information age), many books were published without any illustrations whatever.  This was because finding illustrations or photographs was hard to do and permission to use those illustrations were even harder to come by. Today's ebooks practically require illustrations and pictures and given how easy they are to come by, there's no excuse not to include something to relieve the eyes of your wear readers.

As time has gone by (that last decade I was talking about earlier), photographers and families of dead illustrators have come to realize that there are a lot of pictures out there and with illustrating software, it's easier than ever to make pictures of stuff you want.  All those old negatives just aren't very valuable anymore - not when a typical book may only make a thousand dollars or so for two year's work. So many have given up their dreams of being rich on Grandpa Bob's old negatives and allowed copyrights to lapse willy nilly.

There are literally thousands of downloadable photos, images and documents out there now.  These vast piles of pictures have been collected and placed online by researchers, universities, libraries and information entrepreneurs who make money off the ads you see when you visit the site.  At most sites, you can download pictures by right clicking them and clicking "save image to". Some have a download button which is also nice. You thus have millions of pictures with which to illustrate your blog, magazine articles, your ebook or even your printed book. And they are free - sort of....well most of them.

Watch out for land mines!  In all of these collections are both public domain and copyrighted pictures and photos of documents.  I've included here a list of some of the key sites you should bookmark on your browser and these will help you avoid copyright entanglements.

The government, it turns out, is not totally useless. They have commissioned and collected a lot of photographs. Many of them were designed to promote government programs, the military and to make whatever the current administration in power look, if not effective, at least re-electable. These contain pictures of everything from an Ice Cream Social at Nasa to a family photo of the Wright Brothers' Uncle George. The two images on this page are both courtesy of the American taxpayer through NASA and the US Forest Service.

Flickr conveniently lists photos offered under the Creative Commons licensing scheme that allows photographers and artists to offer their work free to the public in exchange for photographic credit. Just cut and paste the little copyright tagline as requested to identify the photo and you're good to go.

Another handy site is the Dotgovwatch list of Best Copyright Free Photo Libraries.  It includes free government and public domain photos and offers links to other compilations of public domain photos. 

The government itself offers a compilation page called US Government Photos and Images that's a good bit more Spartan, but has links to huge libraries of government bought and paid for pictures. Again, even here there are photos that are restricted in how you can use them so always check the disclaimer.

The United States Library of Congress has a nifty page of links to photos and images in their American Memory Photo & Document Collection.  This collection also includes photographis of historical documents and images related to historical events.  Well worth checking out!

US Forest Service Image by Ansel Adams 
Famous photographer, Ansel Adams, did a bunch of photos of national parks for the US Forest Service just before WWII.  Many of them are considered works for hire and thus public domain since they were done with taxpayer money. The National Archives has a few of these, but notes that some in their Yosemite collection may still be under copyright.

Public Domain Sherpa is a huge collection of links to other collections. Each link includes a description of the site's contents and a word about copyright related to each unique collection.

When you search for free images, beware.  "Royalty Free" doesn't necessarily mean the website won't charge you to download the image.  Many so-called royalty free image collections make their money charging you for the download.

If you need a lot of graphics type stuff, it's better to buy a collection of images that you can then use royalty free.  Be careful there too. Just because you buy an image disk, don't be so sure it's royalty free if you use it for commercial purposes like on your weblog.  Older CD-based graphics collection often retain certain "commercial" rights. Many newer ones have given up doing that and simply sell you the images for a one time price and thereafter they are royalty free.  Watch the disclaimers on the packaging.

A good writer now has to do so much of the work on his own including finding images to illustrate his work.  These websites make it easier to find good pictures for free. Bookmark these links and get used to searching them and watching for copyright notices.  Your weblog will always draw better if you have a picture with it when you post the link on Facebook. 

If you regularly need images and you're making a living at your writing, it may be worth your time to get a subscription to a royalty free image library.  Anything that makes your writing life easier.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Blackberry Pie with Whip Cream Topping

It doesn't have to be pretty. It just has to taste good.
I picked and froze two gallons of wild blackberries last summer and ate another almost by myself.  Up her in Washington State blackberries are considered a pest plant. I usually pick up a quart or so whenever Daisy and I go out for a walk along the roads and paths around here.

I'm trying to use up last year's berries before this season's crop comes in, so I've been playing around with pie recipes (I like pie if you haven't noticed).  This one was easy and fun and a little off the traditional. I'm on one of those low carb diets and Sabbaths are my off day when I can eat bread and desserts.

To help reduce the carb backlash I decided to cut the crust in half.  This doesn't cut the carbs in half, but I figure anything that helps.....

Get the following stuff either off the vine or from the store:

1/3 to 1/2 gallon of frozen blackberries
Pie shells (they usually come two to a package and this recipe makes two generous pies.
Light whipped topping
The rest should be in your pantry if you have a well-stocked pantry

1.  Use a medium sized pot.  Fill it about 3/4 full with rinsed berries
2.  Add one cup of flour
3.  Add two tablespoons of corn starch
4.  Add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
5.  Add 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
6.  Add 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
7.  Add no more than a cup of sugar
8.  Turn on the stove to medium heat
9.   Add 4 tablespoons of butter or margarine
10. You'll be tempted to add water - DON'T.  The berries will produce a great deal of juice
11. Heat slowly stirring occasionally.  As the berries heat up, they will make juice.
12. Keep stirring to blend the ingredients together.
13.  When the butter is melted watch for the mixture to boil.and show signs of thickening
14.  Add a cup or two more berries to make the pie "berrier".
15.  Stir gently so the fresher berries don't get juiced.
16   Lower the heat and prepare the pie crusts.
17 . Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
18. Cut 4-6 evenly spaced slits in the bottom of the pie crusts.
19  Pour the hot thickened berry pie filling into the pie crusts (the hot filling partially cooks the crust.
20  Place the pies on a cooking sheet and bake in the oven till the edges begin to brown.
21. Remove the pies and turn off the stove so your wife doesn't yell at you.
22. Allow the pies to cool to room temperature.
23.  Spread whipped topping over the pie generously and put the pies in the fridge to chill.

The great thing about this pie is that it doesn't need ice cream or any other additions. It's good just like it is.


Wednesday, August 08, 2012

How to Write Effective Promotional and Explainer Videos

(c) 2012 by Tom King

They are called everything from marketing videos to startup videos, Internet commercials to promos.  No one in the marketing industry seems quite satisfied with the term “explainer” videos, but nothing else seems to capture the concept quite as well. In fact, this could be the first tip we offer as to how to write a killer explainer video script.

Say what you mean. Know who you’re talking to.

Before you do anything else, remember that it is best to make yourself clear to those who will view your video. Know who your audience is and prepare yourself to speak their language. If you’re speaking to a college educated audience, you’re vocabulary will be rather more sophisticated than if you’re trying to sell your goods or services to a more blue collar audience. An explainer video is no place to show off your artsy side or to exercise your vocabulary. 

Identify your call to action.

We make explainer videos for a purpose. We want viewers to do something specific once they’ve seen the video, whether it’s to buy a product online, make contact with a sales person or to visit the rest of the website. Knowing what you want the viewer to do before you write is essential. Without a call to action, the viewer may drift off into the sunset without doing what you wanted him or her to do. Write down your call to action in one or two sentences before you start writing the script.

Choose a look.

Once you know why you are making the video, who the video is for and what you want them to do at the end of the video, it’s time to decide on a look for the finished product. Do you want a calm, sedate talking head in an office, a funny story, bold outdoorsy documentary, a colorful animated romp or friendly classroom feel? The look of your video will to a great degree determine the cast you choose, the setting for the action and the words your actors speak. Make notes describing settings, clothing styles, backgrounds, colors, music, tempo, etc..

Cast your video

Of course, you won’t be hiring people at this point, but at least have strong types of people in mind. You may not be able to get Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts, but you can use them as mental placeholders while you write. Your video will sound more authentic if you write to specific characters. Choosing strong characters helps you avoid ending up with a script where everyone sounds like everyone else.  It’s far easier to capture the rhythm of speech, the inflection and tone of a character if you write one you know well. Make a character list and describe each character in detail.  If you want someone like John Wayne in your video, put that in your notes for whoever casts the video.

Planning and blocking the action.

Sit down with the notes you have and create a storyboard.  Draw pictures or make boxes on a blackboard and put ideas on sticky notes in the boxes. However you do it, block out what will happen, how the characters move, when things happen and how long each action takes.  This will dictate how much dialogue you have to write for each segment of the video.  Get key people involved in the project to join you for the story-boarding process. You’ll get better ideas from the group and they will help you avoid wasting time with dumb ideas that seemed brilliant to you at the time you wrote them down.  The story-boarding process will help you determine a good length for the video and creates an outline for your scripting. Often the storyboard will practically write the script for you. 

Remember these tips as you lay out your explainer video storyboard:
  • Keep it short. If you have a captive audience, say at a fair or workshop, six to eight minutes is about maximum. On a website on the other hand, keep your time to less than half that. In the editing process keep trimming the video till it stops just before you lose your audience’s attention.
  • Put the important stuff first if you don’t want your audience to miss it. Try to get your message spelled out in the first 30 seconds of the script.
  •  Make your video personal and specific to the audience. They have to feel like you’re talking straight to them. If they don’t, their attention will drift.
  • Watch the pacing. Don’t use more than 125 to 150 words of dialogue in a minute and don’t keep up that pace for more than a minute at a stretch. Create a conscious rhythmic interplay between dialogue and action that keeps re-engaging the viewer every 30 to 60 seconds all the way to the end of the video.
  • Be careful with humor. It should support the story. Unless humor supports your message, it becomes a distraction and poorly executed can lose you your audience.
  • Use screen-writing software. These handy programs run anywhere from free to several hundred dollars and help you format your script as you go so that you can focus on creating screen directions and dialogue rather than how far to indent and formatting cues.

Write your first draft.

Writing is a disciplined process requiring you to be absolutely honest with yourself. You’ll write pages of stuff that seems totally inspired, only to have to go back and toss out all you’ve done and rewrite it. It’s good to have a partner who will read your stuff as you finish each segment and honestly tell you what he or she thinks. It will save you a ton of time over writing the whole thing and then revising, but work the way that best suits you. Every writer has his or her own process. Use what works best for you. When you’ve got your first draft, show it to the team.  Revise and repeat until most everyone on the project likes it.

Tips for First Time Explainer Video Writers
  • Tell a story.  Avoid the temptation to rely too heavily on bullet point slides in an explainer video. People think in stories with an arresting beginning, some conflict in the middle and a satisfying resolution. 

  • Don’t hammer the viewer with statistics and dry factoids.  Tell the story of your product or service. Statistics and facts are only useful when they support the story-telling. 

  • Show how your company makes its customers’ lives better or their jobs easier or their bottom lines healthier. Don’t just tell the viewer you can help.  Show them using powerful stories. 
  • End your video with a clear resolution and an unmistakable call to action. 

  • Test your video.  Movie companies spend a lot of time testing the endings to their films. They want people to leave the theater satisfied with the ending so they’ll encourage others to buy tickets.  In the same way you should audience test your video to see if people understand the message you were trying to get across and respond to your call to action. Ask the audience what they liked and what they didn’t like and take careful notes.
  • Rewrite and reshoot. If audience testing reveals the audience didn’t understand your message, if they didn’t like the ending or if they didn’t respond to your call to action fix it.

In Short:
There’s not a lot of glory in writing promotional videos, explainer videos and ads for small businesses and nonprofits. The great American novel it ain't.  Still, in this day and age, videos are critical promotional tools. Hiring someone to write and producing effective videos is hideously expensive if you’re starting a new business or working for a small nonprofit. If you’ve got decent writing skills, however, you can do it yourself.  After all, who knows more about your business than you do, so who better to articulate your message.

The video that we made from my first promotional screen-writing effort won gold awards at two international film festivals in the promotional film category. The judges said the film stood out in the category because of its emphasis on story-telling rather than the mere recitation of statistics and facts. The advice I got when I wrote my first script was the same that’s given here. Good luck with your video.