on making a video about chronic pain

So I made a video about my chronic headaches. Want to see it?

How long do you think it took me to make this thing?

Over 100 hours.

Is that crazy? Maybe not for someone who makes videos for a living, but for someone with a full-time day job, a family, an occasional podcast, a supposed writing life, and chronic headaches, this thing hurt to make. I spent so many nights (getting headaches!) while trying to draw rollercoasters and dead frogs and blue testicles.

As you can see, I’m no artist. (My litmus test for whether a drawing is good enough is whether my 7-year-old kid can recognize the thing I drew: So you can tell that blob is a frog? Good enough for me!) I also don’t really know what I’m doing when it comes to video editing — I’ve had no training. But none of this stopped me from stubbornly and inefficiently plowing through this project. I was really itching to characterize the feeling of chronic pain in a video.

In this post, I want to dissect some of the elements that went into making this video. Even though I’ve made a bunch of (crude) videos in the past, this one was slightly new territory for me. It’s the first one that focuses just on health issues, and not on writing stuff or geeky stuff.

Hopefully you’ll find this interesting. If it sounds like even more pain, then STOP READING NOW.

Are you gone?


The Script

When I make a video, I always start by writing the script. I write a lot of a script on my iPhone as I’m running around the world (not literally — more like limping around a grocery store) each day. Once the script is in decent shape, I record the audio. I don’t follow the script word-for-word, but the script keeps me focused on what goes after what. I tested it on my wife a few times to make sure I got the tone right. One recording was too morbid. One recording was too light-hearted. The final one, I felt, had the right balance.

Ideally, I want a (roughly) 3-minute audio transcript, but I couldn’t get the damn thing under 10 minutes. No matter how tightly I edited the story, it stayed over 10 minutes. There weren’t obvious places to cut. And I liked the story as is. This meant that it would require a ton of hours making crappy animations. Most of my videos take me 5 to 10 hours per minute. And this one was harder than usual.

Once I like the audio recording enough, I go through the audio, second-by-second, making a list of possible visuals to help convey the message. This part is really fun because it’s interesting to think about visual elements that can complement (or sometimes contradict) what I’m saying. One key for me is not to be too on the nose with a visual. No sense in showing someone exactly what I just said.

But there is more to a video than just a bunch of pictures…

The Point of View

Many of my videos require me to think about how I’m telling the story. Or from where I’m telling the story. It was quite a few drafts into the script before I realized I could tell the whole thing from within an MRI machine. This would really give the story a feeling I wanted to give it. I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten an MRI, but the experience is eerie. You’re stuck deep inside this machine (at least if they are examing your brain) and the sounds are just awful. I don’t get claustrophobic too easily and the actual MRI experience wasn’t so bad for me, but I knew that those sounds could really help the overall feeling of relentlessness related to chronic pain. Also, I genuinely went through the thought process you hear in this video while inside the machine.

The Style

I also like to think of doing a video using a particular style. This is a fuzzy science, but I want the video to have a consistent feeling. In this video, I knew I wanted a twitchy effect to give you an uneasiness while watching it. Sort of like that fabulous Dr. Katz cartoon from the 90s if you’ve ever watched it. I have no idea how professional animators work — there is probably some magical computer-generated effect to make this happen — but I did it in a more tedious way where I drew every frame three f@#$ing times. I used a great iPad app call Procreate to draw everything, and just redrew each frame three times in three layers. Oy.

(NOTE: I actually drew the images on top of each other, with the lower layer partially transparent to help guide me, but that is hard to illustrate in one still shot, so I just spread them out here for you to see. Don’t look too hard at her eyeballs. They’re creepy, I know. Also, a few people credited my wife for the nurse’s voice, but I’m sorry to say that it’s me, after fucking around with the audio effects in a few different ways…)

Oh. I should say that I actually did use an “Earthquake” effect in Final Cut Pro for the text that appears in the video… This effect didn’t work as well as drawing everything 3x but I felt it was good enough for the text elements.

The Constraints

Very related to the style and the point of view are the constraints. I like to give myself some rules on what I’m allowed to include and what I’m not. This helps narrow the playing field for me regarding what is acceptable to stick in the video. Some of my videos were done using stop motion animation, one was done with ASCII art, one was done entirely with book covers, one was done as if inside a movie theater. In this video, I decided that I’d draw everything using my rudimentary stick-figure drawing skills. And I’d draw everything on my iPad using Procreate. And I’d use that twitchy animation effect whenever possible. And the whole thing should feel like my thought process while inside an MRI.

I let myself break the rules occasionally, especially if I get stuck somewhere along the way. For instance, this visual (about the flaws with the 1–10 pain scale) is just a bunch of layers of typed text:

So I’m not too vicious about sticking to the constraints — it’s probably for the better that there are exceptions to the rule — but I try to follow the rules most of the time to make the video feel like it’s all part of one story.

The Tone

No matter what I’m talking about, I want my videos to be funny. Not so silly that they derail my point, but funny enough that people get a kick out of watching. I have varying degrees of success with this agenda, and often I’m surprised by what others find funny, but funny is always important to me.

The Metaphors

It’s fun to come up with interesting metaphors throughout any video. Sometimes these metaphors are both in the audio and the video, sometimes it’s just a visual element to accompany the audio.

At the heart of this video was my agenda to convey how the past and the future affect the present when it comes to chronic pain. What I mean by that is that the accumulated hours from carrying around the pain weighs on the pain right now. And the fear that the pain will never go away also weighs on the right now. But I can’t say that without a useful metaphor. As stated, this stuff is just too conceptual for someone to make sense of. So I landed on a bag of manure to help me out.

Actually, many bags of manure…

I don’t mind if the metaphors are ridiculous and slightly flawed. The less clichéd, the better. I just need them to help me convey some part of the story.

The Months

I chipped away at making this video across six months or more. Every night, I’d try to make a new drawing on my iPad (mmm… Apple Pencil), or bring a new set of drawings into Final Cut Pro, where I put this thing together.

About 75% of the way through the process, I tested the video out with my writing group. All the audio was done and half the video was done. I honestly didn’t know if this thing would speak to anyone — some of my videos are more about me getting something off my chest and don’t really serve others — but I was very pleased to see how affecting it was to the people I showed. This motivated me to get through the remaining 25 or so hours of animating…

There were many things I didn’t get to include in this video. And some little things in the video still bother me. But I was getting worn out after so many hours of work. And it felt good enough at some point.

Ship it.

The Conclusion

The most gratifying thing about publishing the video is that I got such positive feedback both from those suffering from chronic pain and from those who are close to sufferers of chronic pain. It was an honor to receive this feedback. I admit I was a little bummed that I didn’t have any luck when submitting this video to a few websites that show these kinds of things — just to give the video more visibility — but maybe this post can help…? Or maybe not. Either way, I loved doing this thing.

I know this video doesn’t solve any concrete problems about chronic pain, but I think it can help people understand the parts of chronic pain that don’t fit neatly onto a doctor’s chart notes. And if not that, then at least I got to draw a stick figure dude with a pair of blue testicles.