But if we want to hit home runs, we need to study home runs. Not just look at them but pick them to pieces to figure out exactly what works — then figure out a way to apply the lessons to our own content programs.
With that in mind, here’s the first of a series of posts called, “Let’s Steal From…” that will help fellow travelers rip off the very best.
First up, one of my all-time favourite branded videos, Follow The Frog:
I love, love, love this film and I’m desperate to tear it into little bits, so we can all harness some of its powers in our own content.
Let’s do this thing:
Who we’ll be ripping off
First, a deep, awkward kow-tow in the direction of Where Credit Is Due:
Follow the Frog was written, edited and directed by Max Joseph, the American filmmaker. His first feature film, We Are Your Friends, starring Zac Efron, is due out this summer.
Max has also produced a lot of documentaries, several for Good Magazine, including a deadpan, Swiftian animation called, “Let’s Harvest The Organs of Death Row Inmates” (which either makes total sense or is a scathing indictment of the death penalty… or both).
He also co-starred in Catfish: The TV Show, a controversial reality TV series that aired on MTV, about relationships between real(ish) people and invented online personas. (I’ve never seen it.)
The main actor in F-the-F is Tim Rock and the music was done by Jeff Conrad. The producer was Aaron Weber and the production company was Wander, a creative collective of do-gooders.
How high the Frog has jumped
Follow The Frog has earned over 5 million views on YouTube – rare for any sponsored video and almost unheard of for a charity. As a comparison, another video, called The Rainforest Alliance Needs You — a smart, well-produced example of the usual non-profit, awareness-raising piece — earned just 15,000 views.
They’re both about the same subject. They both have very similar goals. They’re both about 3 minutes long. But Follow the Frog generated over 333 times the views.
Over 333 times the impact.
That’s the power of a great idea, beautifully executed.
So what makes it work? Well, here’s what I think we all ought to be stealing:
Start with a powerful crystal of insight.
All the best work comes from a kernel of truth: a clear, distilled insight into the psychology of the target audience.
In the case of Frog, the crystal of insight is this:
When confronted by huge, global problems – like a football-pitch-sized patch of rainforest disappearing every 75 seconds – we become paralyzed by a feeling of powerlessness.
If you’re a non-profit trying to mobilize people to help save the rainforests, this hopelessness-fueled paralysis is your biggest obstacle.
Follow the Frog exposes this deep feeling. It makes us feel less ashamed for feeling it.
It then encourages us to turn that guilt into action by saying, “You don’t have to sacrifice everything you love in life to attack this problem. Just do one small thing: choose products with the little frog logo on them.”
This Insight Crystal really resonates with me. It’s probably my number one reason (okay: excuse) for not being more active about the things I claim to believe in.
Take a cool, “What If…” idea to its limits.
Follow the Frog uses one of my favourite techniques: taking a simple ‘What if…’ scenario and pushing it to the furthest extremes.
The movie Groundhog Day uses the same trick, asking, “What if you lived the same day over and over again? What could you do? What would you do?” — then exploring possible answers in an ascending spiral of delightful idiocy.
Same with Frog. It says, “You can’t just quit your job and devote your life to righting wrongs. But what if you did?”
It’s a funny thought experiment allowed to bubble out of its petri dish.
(Of course, the world is a much better place because of the people who actually do drop everything to attack big problems. Like Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners In Health. But these people are heroes. Giants. And I’m a mere mortal. Please don’t ask me to give up my job and house and guitar and bike. Just tell me how I can help without making a major sacrifice…)
Write a wonderful script.
It all comes down to this. The idea can be great. The insight can be sharp. But if the script is weak, the piece will suck.
You can not make a good film from a bad script. Ever. (You can make a shitty film from a great script though. Happens a lot.).
This script is outrageously brilliant. Fast, furious, funny and tight as a drum. Here are some of its tricks:
Running gags – The on-screen groundhog (later wildfire victim) or “Take me to the heart of the rainforest, Siri.”/”Siri I want to go home!”
Sub-plots – The wife/trainer betrayal; the fire; TJ at work…
Using second-person – The hero of the piece is us (“You” in the script). That’s way more powerful than if it was told in the third person (“Bob had had enough. He had to act.”)
A strong structure – Follow the Frog is an entire feature film in three minutes and nine seconds. It follows the classic, three-act story structure that 98% of all Hollywood movies adhere to (as the one-man industry Robert McKee loves to demonstrate). And it does it in nine distinct, clearly signaled sections:
I. Start to 00:20 – The set up. ‘You’re a good person”
II. 00:20-00:29 – Guilt: “Something tells you you should be doing more”
III. 00:29-00:50 – The Inciting Incident: “One day you read about [the destruction of the rainforest]… you feel bad.”
IV. 00:50-1:19 – Act Two kicks off: “I Quit!”
V. 1:20-1:26 – Doubt sets in: starting to suspect you’re living out the “cliché Gringo fantasy…”
VI. 1:26-1:28 – Back on track: “But screw it. If they can do it, so can you.”
VII. 1:29-1:50 – Going for it. The piece rushes to the big, climactic battle scene, then…
VII. 1:51-2:15 – Crash. It all falls apart. ACT 2 pivots into Act III, the failure in the forest.
He fails (and destroys a habitat by starting a fire) but he’s going home. There’s hope.
VIII. 2:15-2:30 – Back home. Everything has moved on without him. Our dude hits rock bottom.
IX. 2:32-3:09 Redemption (not his, ours). What you can do is follow the Frog. Montage of Rainforest Alliance logos on food packages (in the home of the ex-wife and her trainer-boyfriend — the hero is still barely conscious on the front step).
In storytelling, structure matters. And this is how it’s done.
Work light and fast.
If you’ve got a great idea and script, you don’t need a huge budget. Some scripts might need a lot of money to be realised. Most don’t.
I’m (wildly) guessing that Follow the Frog cost under $100,000 and most of it was travel and subsistence. Even though there are dozens of shots, this has all the hallmarks of a fun, agile shoot. A small crew working fast. That energy makes it to the screen.
Insist on great acting and direction.
The next hurdle that can kill a piece is casting, performances and direction. Again, Follow the Frog is a big win.
The main actor, Tim Rock, is terrific. He’s a Chaplinesque every-schlump who’s a perfect stand-in for… us. And all the little cameos are perfectly cast and well-acted.
The comic timing is perfect — knowing exactly when to pause for a beat and when to use the little scenarios that pepper the piece, stopping the narration to act out a little vignette.
These guys had fun doing this.
Hire a great editor.
The editing makes Follow The Frog. It’s a piece that depends entirely on pace and momentum and only great editing can deliver that.
In this case, it would be easy just to characterise the editing as ‘fast’ — but it’s much more subtle than that. There’s a lot of variety in shot length and number of shots per scene. Some scenes are a single shot. Others are two or three. But they all have perfect comic timing – knowing when to take a beat to let something sink in. When to take two. When to let a mini-scene play out before jumping back on the narrative train.
You could teach editing from this piece.
Use a simple, appropriate soundtrack.
The simple but rich soundtrack (by Jeff Conrad) works in the service of the story, supporting the action without ever imposing itself.
It starts with drum sticks clicking away an urgent pace, punctuated by perfect little sound effects. The squeak of the shower tap. The scratch of the pen on the check. The bike bell.
Then silence for two beats while the protagonist’s guilt trip kicks in.
Switch to cymbals for the next section. Then silence and lots of sound effects for the build-up of the inciting incident, and Psycho-style string-section stabs for his breaking point.
He quits and the urgent rock drumming starts, taking us right through his big adventure, layered with rainforest sounds, Siri’s boops, singed flesh… then a cowbell-like chime for the cliché Gringo fantasy moment. Pause for him to re-commit to his mission, then back to the back-beat drums.
This track, plus effects, takes us all the way to the end of his odyssey. Then a pause to introduce, “But what you can do…” and kick off the drums again, but this time with added bouncy bass line.
Don’t be afraid to use supers.
There are a lot of text supers and a whole bunch of supered arrows for the Frog-logo montage at the end.
A lot of people hate this kind of heavy-handed stuff – if the story is well-told, do we really need the supers to drive home what we’re already seeing and hearing?
Not me. I think they add a lot and it was a brave call to use them as he did.
This is a fast film with a hell of a lot of plot. The text supers make sure we haven’t missed the point of key scenes before barreling off to the next ones. They’re huge, taking up the entire screen, and presented on the beat…
So what are you going to steal?
Even for the most talented creatives, work as strong as Follow The Frog is rare. A whole lot has to come together in that inexplicable alchemy of delight that powers the best work in any medium.
For me, I plan to steal these things:
• Dig for the Insight Crystal inside every story
• Play with ‘What If’ scenarios
• Spend a LOT more time at the script stage.
• If the script is great: travel light, work fast and have fun.
• Work with the most talented people in every department – but make sure they’re all serving the story not hijacking it
How about you? Does Frog inspire you as much as it did me?
I’d love to hear about it if so (or even if it doesn’t ring your bell… why not?).
P.S. It’s okay to rip yourself off.
In researching this post (yes, wise-ass, I research these), I discovered that Max Joseph ripped himself off, co-writing a later piece for we-buy-your-cellphone service Gizmogul, called Sell Your Junk Before Other People See Your Junk.
Tim Rock acts in this one too (only on screen for a second but somehow giving a very similar performance) and it has a drum-only music track by Jeff Conrad. And a what-if scenario and supered text and arrows. You got a problem with that?
I think it’s not only okay to rip yourself off, it’s practically mandatory. If I’d written Follow the Frog I would spend the rest of my life doing new versions of it instead of going off and making feature films starring Zac Efron.
Others posts in the ‘Let’s Steal From’ series:
You mean you haven’t read these yet? Shame on you.
The Simpsons – The masters of storytelling, character, humour… and stealing.
Seventeenth Century Explorers – And you thought marketers had a rough time convincing their audience.
The NBA – It was just basketball, then it took over the world.
The Greatest Infographic of All Time – Has an infographic ever made you cry? This one might.
Paths of Flight – a beautiful, understated film from GE Aviation
Epic Split – Jean-Claude van Damme nearly rips his tight jeans (and dies) for Volvo Trucks.
Great First Lines of Novels – Turns out Orwell, Salinger, Garcia Marquez were content guys.
Rand Fishkin and Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays, which owns SEO.
Airbnb City Guides – Useful, optimized, crowdsourced.
Icelandair – Delivering content experiences on transatlantic flights without driving anyone crazy.
Catch up, lazy-bones.