Sketching in Film

My next bit of insight into how to sketch a service comes from the intersection of ethnography and cinema.

The French anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch pioneered the art of ciné-ethnography in the mid-twentieth century to explore the potential for collectively improvised narratives. This obviously has some parallels to the theatrical techniques we’ll cover at the end of this series but Rouch’s filmmaking approach used non-actors in explicitly contrived scenarios that he called “ethnofiction.” His work moved away from the use of film in anthropology as a mere note-taking tool.

He describes this point-of-view in The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Anthropology:

“For me as an ethnographer and filmmaker, there is almost no boundary between documentary film and films of fiction. The cinema, the art of the double, is already a transition from the real world to the imaginary world, and ethnography, the science of the thought systems of others, is a permanent crossing point from one conceptual universe to another; acrobatic gymnastics where losing one’s footing is the least of the risks.”

Rouch made half a dozen films centered around ethnofiction during the 1950s and 60s. Generally he recruited non-actors who had never met in order to act out a topic he felt worth exploring. For example, in La Pyramide Humaine he gathered two sets of high school students from West Africa, one group white and the other group black. Rouch proposed that they collectively act out a story on the topic of what would happen if they all met each other and decided to be friends and overcome racial prejudices. The filmmaking process had three ground rules:

  • Films composed of first-take, non-staged, non-theatrical, non-scripted material.
  • Featuring non-actors doing what they do in natural, spontaneous settings.
  • Handheld on-the-go interactive filming and recording techniques with little or no artificial lighting.

What’s interesting to me about this approach is that Rouch made no attempt to mask the fictional nature of these documentaries. Indeed, he began his films with himself on-camera explaining the scenario. The filmmaker acted as a catalyst for exploration; he provoked a situation and then intervened when necessary according to how he felt the group was progressing.

After filming, Rouch would gather the participants to screen the footage and record an audio track about the experience in a reflective mix of narration and actor commentary.

Rouch’s one-take filmmaking process can’t really be called sketching, but the narration and commentary and the contrived nature of the scenarios is the genesis for a service design sketching technique that I call a “service commentary.”

The basic idea is to start with a short video clip representing some aspect of a service. A group of designers watch the clip on a loop and use it as a catalyst for thinking about the service encounter. The “sketch” is embodied in the discussion itself and each loop through the footage represents a new sketch offering the opportunity for iteration or branching into new insights.

As the brainstorming continues, it’s helpful to assign a focus to each pass through the scenario. This is similar to how DVDs sometimes offer several different commentaries for a particular film, each focusing on a different aspect of the production. In a service commentary, as one theme is exhausted the group moves on to a different focus. Each sketching session might move through a number of different loops, exploring aspects of the customer journey or the backstage process.

Like the group bodystorming sessions I mentioned during the earlier segment on choreography it’s important to assign someone whose sole responsibility is to jot down ideas as they bubble out of the conversation so that the other participants can focus on generating ideas. After a number of passes through the material the group could stop to reflect on their progress and switch someone new into the role of the scribe.

Each loop of the service commentary should be short enough to keep the entire sketch in mind but long enough to thoughtfully describe an idea and iterate on previous concepts. Probably no more than a few minutes per loop. This ensures a sketching process that is quick, timely, plentiful and disposable.

Of course, this approach requires that a film be shot and edited beforehand, and that can be expensive. Luckily the filmmaking is a one-time expense that can be incorporated into primary research. The footage could be documentary style and unscripted and might leverage the participation of front-line employees for interviews about critical incidents. I’m also intrigued by the possibility of handing out Flip cameras to employees to document their own perspective of the service on an ongoing basis. Service commentaries could easily leverage ad-hoc clips from design probes along with more general footage.

For this technique to work the films need a focus but not necessarily a point-of-view. Remember, sketches should seek to invite, suggest, question and explore rather than show, tell, explain or convince. In this case the footage should act as a catalyst, but it shouldn’t be limited to a collection of pain-points. It’s equally helpful to focus attention on the daily interactions between employees. For example, following a memo as it makes its way through an organization. Or documenting the reservation process for a particular conference room.

Rouch believed that “you can film anything anywhere” and he was dealing with archaic filmmaking equipment. With advances in technology service designers have every opportunity to embrace film as a tool for sketching.

. . .

This article is part of a series on how to sketch a service based on techniques from the performing arts.

How to Sketch a Service
Sketching in Choreography
• Sketching in Music
Sketching in Screenwriting
• Sketching in Theater


  1. I’m enjoying this series on sketching.🙂

    One thing that colleagues of mine regularly do when researching how people use products is to do retrospective protocol. As you describe above, you video someone using a product/service/system. Rather than replay the video for designers, they replay the video for the people in the video, asking them to comment on it or to clarify aspects of what they did. This is especially useful when people are interacting in the video. You can get them together to give more detail about what they did or you can get the separately if you want them to comment on the other person.

    Of course, this is extremely time consuming and requires buy-in from everyone. As academics this is par for the course for us but there may be way to adapt this to more focussed time scales.

  2. Jeff

    Hi Ben, thanks for stopping by. I think that involving the original subjects in the videos would work here as well. That puts it much more in line with Rouch’s original technique, but with a focus on concept generation rather than exposition.

    It’d be especially nice if the subjects also participated in the creation of the video. But again, you’re running into the time-consuming aspect that you mention as a problem.

    The upcoming installment on Theater will come back around to this idea, but in the context of live performance.




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