Archives for May 2011

Interview: Will Yurman

Will Yurman worked as a newspaper photographer and multimedia producer for many years before joining the faculty of Penn State where he now teaches multimedia.   Early in his photojournalism career, he attended workshops and saw multiple slide projector shows that combined images and audio.   He traces these experiences, along with a family “addiction” to National Public Radio, to his later interest in multimedia.

While serving as the photo editor at the Utica Observer Dispatch in 1999-2000, Will started building basic HTML galleries to enhance the newspaper’s website.   He started playing around with Flash, discovering that it allowed him to recreate some of the experience of the multi-projector slideshows he had seen at workshops.

Will spent about a decade at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, serving as photographer and multimedia producer. “I was fortunate in that I was learning before newspapers had really caught the multimedia bug, so for the first few years I could do whatever I wanted,” he says.  Will started working with video about 3-4 years ago.  “I remember early on talking about multimedia as a vehicle for my photography.  And I thought of myself as a photographer who was using sound.  But pretty quickly I realized that it’s the audio that drives the story and began talking about that.  And recently I have come back around to seeing that it can’t just be the sound. Because then you’re producing radio. And I love radio, but multimedia, to be truly great, needs both compelling audio and powerful visuals. So now I just talk about the storytelling.”

Q: What was the original idea and purpose of The Determined Divas multimedia project?

Yurman: Before the Divas I project I did a year-long project on homicides in Rochester for the newspaper.  Not Forgotten – Rochester’s Victims of Homicide in 2007 tells the story of each victim of homicide in the Rochester area in 2007 through interviews with family and friends, family photos, and photos from vigils, memorials, funerals.

Among the many amazing people I met was Bev Jackson who works in the community with at-risk young adults and teenagers.  She told me about the Determined Divas.  She was looking for publicity and wondered if I would come to an event they had planned.  I proposed something different.  I thought it was a natural follow-up in some sense to Not Forgotten, and was another look at issues that have engaged me for years – the disparity between life in the city and the more affluent suburbs, the impact of education, or lack of, on people’s lives.

I think narrative multimedia is ideally suited for giving voice to people – it’s really important to do data driven investigative reporting.  But sometimes those stories turn people into numbers.  And I feel like I can give them a voice, and remind the community that the issues, whatever you may think about them, impact real people.

Q: What was the most challenging part of the project?

Yurman: My original idea was a more documentary approach – spend time with some of the young women, show them in their day-to-day lives, gather natural sound, interviews, etc.  But the reality was, I would never get the time to do that the way it needed to be done.

So in many ways, the final project was simply a solution to a problem.  How to tell their stories in the time I had.  Bev Jackson was amazing at getting the young women on board.  The paper gave me the time to produce the piece – the advantage of being on staff.

Q: What do you think of the result – did you accomplish your objectives?

Yurman: There are a lot of technical things about the final piece I would fix. But I think it gives a pretty honest voice to their stories, and the technique is compelling enough to keep people watching. It got good numbers on the website. Beyond giving them a voice I didn’t have any firm objectives – beyond world peace and an end to poverty, crime, and unhappiness – which didn’t quite happen.

Q: Did this project teach you anything or lead you to other endeavors?

Yurman: I learned a lot about the limits of what is possible – how difficult the technical part of shooting video is. Monitoring two cameras, keeping an eye on the audio, and trying to stay focused on the most important task – the interview – is something like, I imagine, juggling ten rings during a session with your therapist.

Q: In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?

Yurman:  Small things – a better solution for the sound.  I don’t think the audio quality is quite where it should be.  I would have spent more time – I think I could have pushed the interviews even further.  I wish I was a better designer – I’m not crazy about the presentation, and regret now that it is Flash-based.  It would be fun to watch on an iPad.

Q: Where does Divas project sit in the wider context of your multimedia work?

Yurman:  That’s hard for me answer.  You can see a pretty good sample of my work at my website Some of What I Do – Photos and Stories From Work and Play.  In terms of style, it’s a technique I’ve used in different variations, multiple times – the talking head(s) with some kind of visual gimmick. Seniors Talk is another example of a similar kind of approach.

But I also like a more documentary approach to the story when I have access and time.

When I think of my ‘body of work’ I’m more likely to consider the subject rather than the technique.  While at the paper I proposed and worked on stories that returned time and time again to similar themes – following a city school teacher and one class for a year, following the birth of an urban charter school through its first year, Not Forgotten, Divas, the High School seniors piece, among others.  In my head at least, they all connect – not in their technique, but in their subject matter.

Q: Now you’ve transitioned into a teaching role, how are you structuring courses on multimedia?

Yurman: I was an adjunct at the Rochester Institute of Technology for a number of years, but just started full-time at Penn State this past semester. Multimedia can mean a lot of different things depending on the context and who you are talking to. It’s ‘multi’ after all. So it can include all sorts of data and maps and graphics and interactives as well as images and audio.

Because of my skill set and interests I focus on narrative storytelling – using stills, video and audio to tell stories – generally character-driven stories. But of course a big part of the learning process is the technology, so we have to focus on that as well – learning to gather and edit audio, stills, and video using a variety of software applications and hardware tools.

Q: What are the essential skills for producing good multimedia?

Yurman: For what I teach, the most important skill and hardest perhaps to teach is crafting a story – figuring out a beginning, middle and end with a story arc that takes us somewhere.

Q: Other than university programs like Penn State, how can people get good training in multimedia?

Yurman: There are a lot of good college-level programs that offer classes and degrees in multimedia. There are also a plethora of workshops – Maine Media Workshops, Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, NPPA Multimedia Immersion, the Mountain Workshops, and the Northern Shortcourse are ones I’m most familiar with, but there are certainly others.
You can learn many of the technical skills online through services like Lynda.com as well.
But ultimately you learn by doing – pick up a camera and start shooting your dog or kids or whatever and go from there. I tortured my kids, and still torture them, by photographing and videotaping and interview them all the time.

Q: How is the field of multimedia developing?

Yurman: What’s so exciting is how new it all is – the rules change constantly and there is so much opportunity to innovate and experiment. It’s certainly evolving as the technology evolves – the DSLR was a game changer for many people – relatively low-cost, very high quality video. Now there are lots of limitations in those cameras – audio, the form factor, etc. but it certainly has opened lots of doors. News organizations struggle with how best to use this new medium – some are pushing out video as quickly as they can – less concerned with high production values and more concerned with immediacy. Others are thinking that that higher production values are what separates professional work from the silly cat on YouTube.

I don’t know where it all goes. There is still just 24 hours in the day, so I think as the medium develops, people will ultimately be drawn to the best stories and the people or organizations who develop a reputation for storytelling will succeed.

Q: Can you suggest some inspirational, well-crafted or innovative multimedia pieces to view?

Yurman:  LOTS of great work out there –

MultimediaShooter.com, MultimediaMuse.org, InteractiveNarratives.org all collect links to great work. I try and keep up at willyurman.com/links
Specific work I like:
and lots and lots of other stuff….

Inspiration: Will Yurman’s “The Determined Divas”

Will Yurman has put together a very well-done suite of multimedia portraits entitled “The Determined Divas,” combining video with audio interviews. 

The B&W set is sparse, focusing attention on the subject.  The subject provides their own narration. The audio is clear, simple and direct.  Through the imagery and audio interviews, Will Urman drops us into direct conversation (almost) with the subject.

In addition to the clear audio, I enjoyed the intriguing visual treatment of the subject as each woman speaks.  Yurman employs both video of the subject speaking; video of subject not speaking (but with the subject’s voiceover), and the occasional almost-still photography look with video.  Yurman varies his camera position, moving between ¾ shots, close-ups & full-figure shots of speaker standing in the set.  Urman also positions his subject all around the frame, fully utilizing the white negative space. Finally, Yurman keeps viewer’s interest piqued with periodic blur effects.

Inspiration: Liz Baylen’s “Waiting for Death”

Wow. I really love this audio soundslide project by Liz O. Baylen. Hat’s off to Liz for putting this simple, elegant, thoughtful collection of images and audio together.

It opens with an image of an elderly man – and the hand of a woman reaching across our field of view toward the man’s forehead.  Fade to black and the photo is replaced with sounds of breathing and a brief line of text.  The man starts a 30-second introductory dialogue.  You quickly realize this is the voice of intelligence and articulation.  He is thoughtful.  He is refined.  He is old.  He tells us he is about to die, perhaps within a year.  Perhaps he even yearns for death.

As the narration continues, images bring us through the details of this man’s life.  Simple details of home, of books, of activity and space.  To me, these images perfectly frame the narrative.  They don’t lead us through from point A to point B to point C.  The narration takes that lead.  The images instead work to fill in details unexpressed by words.  The imagery allows us, as listeners, to visually scan this man’s world and piece together his past, his passions, his loves.  Liz Baylen could have inserted the backstory of this man’s life: he married X person and lived in Y town, working in Z career, etc.  Instead, Liz provided images of the remnants of such a life (framed photo of a young woman), close-ups of books and reading materials, etc. that allow us to build up an understanding of this man’s history and personality.  Liz reveals the backstory via clues.

Project Review: Udayan – Refuge from Leprosy (Part 2)

Concept

The purpose of this project was to document the activities of Udayan, an Indian non-profit, for their fundraising purposes.  It was not simply a description of what the organization does.  More importantly, through this project I wanted to create an emotional connection between the viewer and Udayan by showing how Udayan’s activities impacts the lives of people (in this case the children at Udayan and the parents suffering from leprosy who place their children in Udayan).

Realization

Was the final project a success at creating this emotional connection?  Partially.  In a perfect world I would have:

  • Before the Shoot: prepared my image & audio “capture list” on a storyboard (another post on my how I storyboard coming up)
  • Day 1: shoot & record audio, looking for breadth of coverage, context, and some start at the narrative elements (interviews, portraits, activities, etc) identified in my storyboard “capture list”
  • Evening 1: roughed out my story with images & audio that I captured, and identified gaps or areas that I wanted to focus on
  • Day 2: shoot & record to fill in gaps and flesh out the characters and narrative
  • Evening 2: Continued editing and refining content
  • Day 3 / Evening 3: same cycle

But it’s not a perfect world, is it?  Nope.  Given the logistical snags, I had just 1 day to shoot & record audio.  So I went for breadth – making sure I had something in each area I needed to cover: images of location & context, characters and activities; interviews with enough people so I could intertwine comments and interview segments with my narration; some audio recording of ambient sound that would help set the tone and tell the story; and a little video of some of my interviewees to introduce them during the slideshow.

If I had the luxury & budget to spend additional days at Udayan, I would have sought out an individual character or two guide the viewer through this experience.  I would replace my narration with their voices, and let them tell the viewer about the facilities, the school programs, and what it’s like to be tested for leprosy each month or to return to a leper colony to see your parents.

Udayan girl visits her parents in a leper colony

I would add some missing elements (e.g., I don’t have a good image or video clip of the facilities & grounds; I would love to show the children both at play and in the dormitories) and improve some transitions.  I would have gone back to some items to get stronger images & audio (e.g., get some close-up, detail shots and audio interviews with the children).  In a short period of time, you’re doing well to get images and sounds to communicate basic information.  With extra time, you can build up characters who will move the storyline forward – and also personalize the information.  That’s the better way to create an emotional connection because face it: no one is emotionally connected to raw information.

Lessons Learned

First, when you travel to a project site, make sure you have contact information for several people that can help you.  Don’t rely on just one person – you never know if they’ll end up in the hospital.  And make sure you can connect several ways: get a phone and email for each person.

Second, build in more time that you think you need for your project, especially if you go long distances to get there.  You probably won’t have time or budget to get back – so you’ve got to get the information you need for your story in the time available.  And things will undoubtedly go wrong to cut into that time.  Plan for those distractions.

Third, rough out an idea of the storyline and what you’ll need to craft that story visually and with sound.  Walk into your shoot with specific ideas on what you need to capture (images, video clips, sound).  Your storyline may change over time, and you’ll absolutely play with the sequence and pacing of various elements in your story, but knowing what basic images and sounds you need to capture at the front end will increase your odds that you’ll have enough useable material to work with when you leave.

Forth, keep the big picture in mind.  Painters usually sketch out the entire canvas before they drill into a particular area.  Get enough raw material to tell the whole story first, even in a rudimentary form, and put the images and sounds together in a rough sketch while you’re still in the field.  Then circle back and fill in gaps, and build up elements that you want to emphasize.

 

Project Review: Udayan – A Refuge from Leprosy (Part 1)

As a starting point, I’m going to dissect a recent multimedia project I recently completed, going through the process of visualizing the project; pre-production considerations like lining up access, permissions, releases and thinking through logistical details; equipment used during the project; what I encountered during the actual shoot (and how flexibility and a sense of humor can help you ride out some tough ones); post-production activity to consolidate images, video and audio capture into an intelligible whole delivered via the Web; and a recap of lessons learned.

The Project: Documentary of Udayan – a Home for Children Affected by Leprosy

Udayan is a non-profit organization located on the outskirts of Kolkata, India.

Udayan girls eat lunch at the cafeteria

Founded 40 years ago, Udayan now houses 300 children whose parents suffer from leprosy. The organization provides housing, education, medical treatment, food and vocational training for each of the children, most of whom arrive at Udayan at a very young age to live the balance of their childhood within its walls instead of living with their parents in leper colonies and/or poor villages. (Most adult lepers in India live as beggars.) The children visit their parents during school breaks (and in fact I accompanied 3 students to visit parents during my visit).

I arranged to create a documentary slideshow of Udayan to highlight its activities and show its impact on the lives of these children. Udayan plans to use this material for fundraising purposes.

Part 1: Pre-Production Planning

Through some former work colleagues now located in India, I made contact with James Stevens, founder of Udayan. 40 years ago, James left his successful haberdashery business in England to do something more meaningful with his life. He founded Udayan and then borrowed a truck from Mother Teresa to gather up 11 children of lepers in the slums of Kolkata, bringing them to Udayan for safekeeping and nurturing. James and I arranged a week in February when I was in Kolkata to conduct the shoot. With everything planned I flew to India with my gear bag and great anticipation.

Only to find that James wasn’t responding to my local phone calls. Or emails. Or texts. Fortunately I had saved and printed out some old emails that allowed me to track down a board member at Udayan who also sits on the Kolkata Foundation board (a funding organization). Through Shamlu, the board member, I learned that James had been taken to the hospital for surgery just prior to my arrival. But Shamlu was able to connect me with several staff members at Udayan who knew of the planned shoot but unfortunately did not have my contact information.

So…. it all worked out but here’s a lesson to remember: bring some extra old-fashioned paper with contact information that will help you connect with more than one local person. And when travelling internationally, especially, be able to connect with those people in several ways. I’d switched my cell phone to international service but it took a couple of days for that to activate, so I didn’t have local cell phone service when I first arrived. So after trying James’ phone from the hotel (no luck), I had to fall back on email via the hotel business office (I didn’t have phone numbers for everyone I’d been dealing with in preparing the trip), all of which slowed me down, cutting into the 5-day period I’d set aside for the initial shoot, some hotel-based review of what I’d captured (and gaps I would need to fill), and another day or two for filling in those gaps. 5 days became 1 day – to get it all and get it right (or you’ll probably have to live with big gaps). Another lesson: build in extra time, especially when working with international non-profits, because logistical snags are much more likely to happen when you’re outside your normal environment, and you also have to expect a certain formality and ceremony when you first arrive at an international location. It’s a part of greeting an international guest and making him/her feel comfortable, and in fact it’s wonderful to experience the warm welcomes that people extend when you meet them on their own turf, so to speak. But it does take time, so don’t intentionally cut things too short.

Gear

Okay, this was my first trip to Kolkata, India and although I’ve travelled internationally quite a bit, I really had no idea what I would find in a city renowned for slums and poverty – especially as I planned to visit a leper colony or two. I needed to keep things light & portable – basically a kit that I could sling over my shoulder to haul from place-to-place, working as I moved along. Here’s what I decided on:

  • Allen shoulder bag – I use this bag (designed for hunters to carry shotgun shells) because of its easy access and, frankly, because it doesn’t look like a camera bag stuffed with expensive gear.
  • Nikon D300 body with two lenses: 17-35 f/2.8 workhorse and 50 f/1.8 (for stills)
  • Nikon D200 back-up body
  • Nikon SB800 flash unit
  • One foldable lightstand with Wescott shoot-through umbrella
  • Lumiquest III small portable softbox and Lumiquest snoot modifiers
  • Canon T2i body with a Fotodiox lens mount adapter to take the Nikon lenses (for the limited video I planned)
  • Marantz PDM661 digital audio recorder
  • Sennheiser MKE400 mini-shotgun mic (including a shock mount for the T2i, an XLR connector, and a windscreen)
  • Audio Technica AT899 lavalier mic
  • 8 ft XLR cable (to connect either mic to the Marantz recorder)
  • Assorted lens filters, lens cleaners, extra batteries, battery chargers, extra media cards, etc

This was a functional kit, and portable. The only modification I needed was to tie down my lightstand/umbrella to the bag (they kept slipping off) in a way that I could release the ties quickly for use. Would I have enjoyed other gear? Absolutely. My largest concessions were lenses. I left a 70-200 f/2.8 off the list due to size & weight, and a macro lens off because I doubted I’d have enough time to use it enough to warrant carrying the thing around. I didn’t bring a larger shotgun mic because it’s just too bulky and fragile – and because I took it internationally once and was stopped in every single airport security checkpoint for special review. That thing looks too much like a gun barrel.

Next up: The Shoot, The Post, The Results