SCMP’s character-driven video narratives showcase Asian voices

By Mat Booth

South China Morning Post

Hong Kong


News media extensively showcases and shapes perspectives through the lives of people and communities.

While news stories and features often shine a much-needed spotlight on overlooked issues, video journalism allows for uniquely impactful storytelling — especially if it covers well-developed human interest stories. This is why our storytelling and character-based narratives have been vital to our success.

Our video team’s vision is to elevate thought. There is no better way to understand the various facets of social and political issues across the Asia-Pacific than showcasing the people who live that experience by using techniques that put audiences in their shoes.

The SCMP Films team has created a suite of content driven by experiential storytelling.
The SCMP Films team has created a suite of content driven by experiential storytelling.

Show, not tell

Video journalism can be particularly effective, owing to the immediacy and immersion of the format. At SCMP Films, images and spontaneous moments on camera tell the story as opposed to using a voice-over narration. Sometimes capturing the simple things that people do on camera can be the most revealing or intimate.

Giving a voice to our subjects

Authentically representing our subjects on SCMP Films often means having characters tell their stories with their own voice. Most of our stories are told from the principal characters’ point of view.

This is deliberate because it serves to heighten the sense of connection between viewers and characters. We always maintain our characters can drive stories that represent larger issues or simply shine a light on the way people from different places live their lives.

Developing character-driven stories

We source and discover compelling characters in many different ways. Sometimes we find them over the course of our reporting, while researching a particular issue or covering regular news. SCMP Films regularly collaborates with young documentary filmmakers and directors across the region, and we are often introduced to characters by our collaborators all over Asia.

In developing a narrative around a character, it is important to understand what will drive a story. What is it about a character that makes them likeable and interesting? What is it about certain people and situations that can add up to more than the sum of their parts? What really attracts us are unique characters who can represent issues or a different way of life in captivating ways.

Characters drive the story in films created by the team.
Characters drive the story in films created by the team.

Sometimes there are multiple characters in a story, and relationships between the main character and the supporting cast make the narrative compelling. This was the case in the story of the graduate student from a Vietnamese immigrant family in New York who decided to help his father turn business around at his restaurant as he struggled to keep it afloat during the height of the pandemic.

Ice Boy

We reinforced our character-based approach in our video stories when we covered the social media buzz surrounding “Ice Boy” Wang Fuman, a primary school student who rose to fame after his teacher shared a photo of him with his hair frozen during a frigid winter in rural Yunnan.

We originally went to do a news story on the impact of his newfound fame on his family, but what we found was that Fuman was such a compelling character — positive, energetic, determined, cheeky, and mischievous — and we had to produce a more immersive and experiential piece.

We saw that life for his family was incredibly difficult as farmers living in poverty, gathering around a fire in their dilapidated house every night for dinner, which mainly consisted of potatoes they had harvested from the fields.

The story wasn’t about poverty or rural development; it was about Fuman’s aspirations against the backdrop of his family’s struggles. But viewers will see all these issues through his eyes, and that was what made us fall in love with this method of storytelling.

Occasionally the team is surprised by the story that emerges, such as with the case of Ice Boy.
Occasionally the team is surprised by the story that emerges, such as with the case of Ice Boy.

This approach requires spending a lot of time with our subjects before we even start rolling the cameras. We often start with a character, getting to know them well before piecing together their world and their story. We build a level of trust and craft the piece from there. Although we do produce some of our videos by defining an objective and specifying a certain topic, a lot of our best work has started with one character that has opened our eyes to a story.

The loneliest elephant in the world and Dr. Khalil

One of our most endearing pieces was about an elephant that had been freed from inhumane conditions at a poorly maintained zoo in Pakistan. It centres around Dr. Amir Khalil, a veterinarian from an animal welfare non-governmental organisation who cared and rehabilitated the elephant over a four-year period. The elephant was scheduled to be relocated to a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia.

Dr. Khalil had developed a bond with the elephant. Being a knowledgeable source with a first-hand account, he was able to talk the audience through the animal’s life story, its medical history, trauma, distrust of people, the long recovery process, and preparations for relocation by air.

But Dr. Khalil was also a character involved in the story, as he was clearly emotionally attached to the elephant and visibly sad as the day of the flight approached. The character-based narrative helps us get under the skin of stories like these, and it comes across quite poignantly in the video as he sings to the elephant and wistfully remarks that it has bad taste for enjoying his rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

Measuring success and quality control

We bear an immense responsibility to our audience as well as to the characters and communities we portray. With this in mind, we have certain expectations for ourselves at the team.

We look at our work and ask ourselves if we have portrayed characters true to the way that we know them to be or if something in our editing process has somehow made them appear differently. We hold ourselves to a rigorous standard of integrity. If we find that we could have represented them more authentically, then we revisit the piece to ensure audiences see these characters on our channels the same way we did when we first found them.

We can measure our success with video in terms of raw metrics: We have more than 2.8 million subscribers on YouTube, and we are ranked in the top 10 in the Tubular labs global leaderboard for video in the magazine and newspaper industry.

But our goals go further than numbers can measure. When we hear from people across Asia who feel proud that their people, their communities, and the truth of their lived experience is represented to an international viewership, we know we are on the right track. We know we bring something new to the media landscape and enable more people to identify with what they see on screen.

When you spend 10 to 15 minutes with our characters and their stories, you get a much better sense of their reality than you would if you only read news and features. We take viewers deep into the cultures and communities where stories happen, providing a window through which they can see what life behind the headlines looks like.

We strive to showcase the best of what digital journalism can be and serve as a hub that consistently takes stories from Asia to worldwide audiences. Ultimately, we want to give these stories a platform at SCMP as a premier destination for news, features, and analysis from Asia. In this regard, video can be both an important supplement and a standalone vehicle for the Post’s award-winning journalism.

About Mat Booth

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.