Amy Marquis, an editor for National Parks magazine, founded The Digital Naturalist to ‘put advocacy videos under a microscope, dissecting the elements that make them succeed or fail.’ When she saw ‘Growing Is Forever’, she contacted Jesse and I for a Q & A and we all think it turned out quite well, but we’re biased. (To do a great, 1980s reference and show my age with my nerdity, “don’t take my word for it!“)
What follows is my portion of the Q & A, see the rest, including Jesse’s portion and some very glamorous photos of us, visit this here page. Many thanks to Amy and her support through National Parks and The Digital Naturalist.
TDN: Talk about how this script came to be. Is it from a personal experience you had in the park?
MARKLE: The script came from several personal experiences in the park. Growing up in the Northern California foothills, camping trips to the redwoods were very special. It’s a 3+ hour drive over the Trinity Mountains to get from home base to the forests in and around Trinidad, so it’s not a trip I’m able to make as often as I’d like, though I’ve been going there my whole life. There’s a lot of nostalgia mixed in with the awe and respect I feel when I’m there. This particular time was the first time I’d gone as an adult, camping with six friends. We’d stopped in Trinidad Grove and hiked around and there was just a lovely sort of hush that took over. We meandered the trails, walked along the fallen trees, wove in and out, and just really absorbed it all. I wasn’t consciously ‘writing’ in the moment (I rarely do that), but a few days after we got back home I felt the need to put it all down. I was at work at the time, at a job where I formatted spreadsheet data for hours at a time, so it was clearly not borne out of anything but memory! There weren’t really drafts, and not very many revisions. I started it by telling a story of ‘the six people who went walking in the grove,’ but quickly determined that the heart of the experience came from the trees, not the people, so I let the trees take over and it pretty much wrote itself. I put it up on my blog and went back to formatting data. Some months later, I closed my blog and forgot to save off any of my entries before doing so. Fortunately, Jesse, who was among the camping group, had really connected with it when I’d published it, and had saved his own copy for whenever he was able to do something with it in the future. This was all in 2008, I think. It really is a testament to the power of the place and our experience that it forced me to write it out in the middle of a busy workday, compelled Jesse to take it to the next level, and stayed with us for years before we could really do it justice.
TDN: What’s your goal with this piece?
MARKLE: I’m not a disciplined writer; something really has to stir me in order for me to stop what I’m doing and sit down and work with what I’m feeling. This piece obviously forced me to react to my experience, and I guess I wanted to acknowledge that this place, these woods, the earth, is worth attention and marvel and so many other things. Without intending to, I took on a very spare, child-like tone with the language, probably because I always feel so small, physically and I guess significantly, when I’m there in the forests. I hope that translates and that people connect with that pure sense of wonder.
TDN: Why can this kind of writing be such effective advocacy?
MARKLE: For one, there are no people in this piece as characters or as voices. I think that in our rush to communicate strong feelings, we too often make it about us- our opinions and perspectives, and nature usually does really, really well without any of that. This piece is effective because there’s nothing divisive about it; it’s just awe, and nature deserves our awe. Similarly, it’s the perspective of the trees, and that voice isn’t heard as often as it could be, so people take notice.
TDN: Talk a little about the art of writing for video. How is it different from print, or even long-form writing online?
MARKLE: Writing for video requires stepping back and examining the script as objectively as possible to make sure it sounds the way it looks. I have a tendency toward parenthesis and asides, which don’t translate well in a video script, so I have to be intentional about staying the course. I also try to be mindful of the way a word works in a mouth. If a word means and connotes exactly what I need it to, but the sound or rhythm of it is awkward enough to make it stand out above the whole, then it isn’t the right word. (I do a lot of reading out loud to my dog.) The matter of pace is different too. A single line separate from stacks of paragraphs is a powerful visual tool; the reader sees the blank space and hears their own silence. When text is performed for a video, half of that sensory experience is missing because viewers are only hearing whatever silence the filmmaker injects and not seeing the distance the line has from the rest of the piece. I wasn’t worried about how the text would ‘look’ in this case because I knew Jesse was in sync with it, which is a sign of a good filmmaker. In the responses to ‘Growing Is Forever’, many people called it a poem. I was so used to seeing it in prose form that I never expected that reaction, and it really appealed to me that people were visualizing the text in different ways.
TDN: What are three common mistakes you see people make in scriptwriting—especially for web videos?
MARKLE: The most painful one is the ‘trying to win at Scrabble’ mistake. Going bigger for a video script with impressive, 6-syllable words is only going to make it sound like you’re faking your book report. If you need the word “good”, don’t make the actor or narrator say “salubrious.”
Another common mistake is that scriptwriters often forget (or ignore) that it’s not a solo project. If you’re not used to writing scripts it can be a challenge to get beyond your own experience with your words.
Finally, too many writers want to explain everything and describe everything. We really love words, so it’s hard to refrain from pigging out at the language buffet. Similarly, chasing stories is very tempting, but too many directions weaken a script like nothing else.
TDN: What are three pieces of advice that you’d offer in response?
MARKLE: Web videos are typically short in length and in age: accessibility will expand their lifespan. That’s not to mean everything should be a Dick & Jane-style of elementary minimalism, but when necessary, embrace the power of less.
Think beyond yourself and your art. There will be a physical voice to consider, a photographer and/or an animator, and probably a musician. Is your contribution improving theirs? The answer should be ‘yes’. If it’s not, revise.
Rely on the visuals to show what needs to be seen, and only fill in where necessary. Don’t over-tell; you would be amazed at what you don’t need to say. Determine what you want to communicate and write toward it in a straight line.