This interview features Thomas R. Clifford - Corporate Documentary Filmmaker & Story Katalyst - "Breaking patterns...Discovering heroes...Igniting conversations"
Tom's blog is full of great storytelling insight and in this interview he shares some secrets about filming and creating insightful company stories. Tom also has a superb list of "Ten Tips to Create Your Remarkable Company Video" at this link.
Nettie: Tell us about your background.
Tom: here's the elevator pitch. I'm a documentary filmmaker and my passion is telling remarkable stories from remarkable organizations. I've been doing it for almost 25 years. I've done PBS, broadcast, commercials, and had some film pieces in the NFL hall of fame.
Nettie: What is important in making and producing a great story in terms of businesses?
Tom: There are many ways to tell a story, I tell stories literally through the lens of the camera. Most of the films are short- under 10 minutes. What I do are short corporate films and they could be for human resources, marketing, sales, diversity issues, recruiting/hiring, raising awareness, correcting misconceptions.
The secret ingredient or the sauce is my crew and how I shoot. I have a unique style of filming that is handheld, no tripods and energetic. I interview people very close and tight, it's all moving – never a dead moment on the screen.
My mentor 25 years ago said, "If the camera's not moving or your subject is not moving, you better be a still photographer." The film is always moving.
Nettie: And your films focus truly on the employees of the companies right?
Tom: Yes, that's number two for the secret ingredient. 95% of my films use entirely the employees of the organization. That is important because of authenticity. To have a top down message come out especially in a film, you can't hide anything in a film, so you have to have authenticity.
I despise narration for these types of films, coming out of the documentary field, my bias is that when you pre-script something from a top down or marketing department as soon as I roll tape the audience will smell "inauthenticity." My audience is usually people learning about an organization or they're trying to retain employees and my films typically have a highly driven people focus in them.
To have slick voiceovers or a dispassionate voice in the background tell you the story it doesn't resonate. And over 100s of films I've made, using the voice of the employee is so much more engaging and compelling.
Nettie: Is it because it presents the company's true meaning?
Tom: When I film the person in that chair in front of me, the person who ultimately views it has to identify with what is going on in the screen. That's key.
Nettie: What is the process of making the films?
Tom: First you meet the client and you really understand the scope of the job. Meeting with them, you see the hidden agendas and real agendas. Stage 2 is you discover the employees (who I call heroes), I call them storytellers or heroes to tell the company story. They are sharing their truths in front of the camera and their perspective on the world, so before we get to that point, I make it my mission to discover the company's heroes. That is the most exciting thing. Finding out what makes the company great, what the employees love about it and why they're all there. Once you have those heroes, the rest is easy – you just have to capture the story.
Those heroes "employees" are the people that the viewer can easily identify with. The polished message crafted perfectly doesn't resonate. I look for the journey and how the heroes got there. That is the heart and soul of every film I make.
FINDING THE STORY:
Nettie: How do companies get to the place to better tell their stories?
Tom: Here's the trademark indicator. If the internal actions match the external actions – then they are in true alignment. They walk their talk. You can easily tell that. For me that's the indicator. Frankly if an organization is trying to present something else, it's not something that works or that I want to represent.
When I discover the story and the people, that is the true North of the compass. That all comes out when you cast these people and they believe in the dream, and they're great at telling the story on camera.
Nettie: What are ways to identify a company's story? How is it separated out from the marketing speak? Do you have surprises as you go through the discovery process?
Tom: Yes, that's a great question. A few years ago I made a film for a Fortune 500 insurance company. A big huge company and I'll never forget it, they wanted a film made about their huge department and how they supported the company. And they gave us a 40 page PDF file and all these links on their Web site as a starting point for who they were and I looked at the folks at the meeting and said, "We're just going to throw these in the trash. I want to know from your heart who you guys are, I don't care about the upper management, you have hundreds of people supporting thousands of people, what is great about your story? Give me examples of what you do."
The story has to come from heart, past experience, positive moments. Appreciative inquiry is something I've really tapped into and that means to ask really affirming questions. If you keep asking questions about the problems, you will keep getting problem answers. If you ask, "What's the problem here?", you'll get 10 problem areas.
But if instead, you ask, "What is one success story?" You get a success and then you just keep going further for more positives.
The other stuff that's important in my filmmaking is quantum physics. Years ago people used to think "We'll just watch and observe, but we won't affect the outcome." That's impossible. Quantum physics has ripped that apart, as soon as the camera is in place, you have totally affected the outcome. So I'm still aware that by engaging the process of making the film, I change the outcome of making the film. So always be mindful of the truth of the story. The story and the message still has to be true at its core. That is the overarching principle and the company needs to know their true story.
Nettie: What still keeps you inspired?
Tom: I have an insatiable quest to understand the world and all the stories that are out there. I get a total charge out of "what's the next story" and I've got amazing clients.
Nettie: Are you doing what you love?
Tom: I can't imagine doing anything else. I was a rock and roller years ago and that's all I wanted to do and my dad was a lawyer but he really supported me in my dream and following that passion even though he wanted me to go to college.
In the summer of 75, in New Haven, our band was going to open for Crosby, Stills and Nash and two weeks before the big concert it got cancelled. And so instead that summer, I went into college and majored in filmmaking and here I am.
Nettie: Everything happens for a reason.