Still from Sweet Mama

Critique: Sweet Mamma

Posted January 22, 2016
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Yesterday, I got a video submission from Merle Braley, a new member at

He requested a critique, and agreed to have me share his critique with the rest of you.  There is often a great deal to be learned from examining the work of others.

Merle shot this on an iPhone 6 and edited in on FCP.

The shooting is excellent, especially considering that it was shot with an iPhone (although Merle writes that he used a wide angle lens adapter).

Where I think we can vastly improve the piece (and move Merle up to a more sophisticated level of video production) is in the storytelling and the narrative.

What Merle has done here is, (and this is not uncommon) simply laid out an extensive interview with Lenore Braford, the Founder and Shelter Manager at the Piedmont Farm and Animal Shelter.  (I only know this because all this information appears in the credits as a font at the very end of the piece).  The story, as I intuit, once again from the font, this time at the beginning, is that Sweet Mama, the goat, escaped from being slaughtered.  

Well, now I can start to piece together the story, and what the shelter does.  This is a very good and very interesting story, but it takes far too long and it is too much work in a way to figure it out.  You have to tell the story from the beginning.  What I like to say is, (to make it simple) tell people what they are going to see, show it to them and then tell them what they saw.

Your first few seconds are critical. You have to both grab the attention of the viewer and also lay out what the story is.  (In the lessons, we call this, the Pirate Walks Into The Bar moment).

If we listen to Merle’s opening lines (actually Lenore’s) we have no idea what the story is:

“In dairy, as the animal ages, their milk production goes down.  At some point they become less valuable to the farmer and they are sold to be slaughtered.”

In newspapers and magazines we call this the lede (spelled that way!).  It is the ‘nut graph’ (another journalism term) the ‘thing’ that explains the story at the start.

If I were writing this, I would start in a very different place.  I would start at 1:28

“This is Sweet Mama, the goat. And these are her children, Ace and Ivy. They live here at the Piedmont Farm and Animal Shelter.  They shouldn’t be here at all. In fact, they shouldn’t be alive. Sweet Mama was on her way to slaughter, but she escaped, and now we take care of her and her family. “

Now, we have set the stage for the story.  Any good story needs two elements that are critical – characters you care about and an arc of story, or a reason why you should continue to watch. You have to set these out at the very beginning.

Once we set the story, we now have ‘grabbed’ the viewer sufficiently so that we can expand to the ‘larger issues’ – ie, when dairy production goes down, animals are slaughtered, the trauma of removing babies from mother goats, what we do at the shelter and so on….

Stories need narrative. That is, they need someone who explains to the viewer what is going on, starting from the assumption that the viewer has no idea of anything. (The person making the piece knows a lot, which can be a kind of handicap. You have to put yourself in the mindset of the viewer).  

A good way to ‘test’ your narrative is to imagine your script as a short magazine piece. Does it work?  Or just listen to the track without the pictures. Do you get the idea?  

This piece is nicely shot and all the elements are there. But it needs a better narrative to really make it work.


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