Archives for October 2011

Ami Vitale Interview

Ami Vitale’s journey as a photojournalist has taken her to more than 75 countries. She has witnessed civil unrest, poverty, destruction oflife, and unspeakable violence. But she has also experienced surreal beauty and the enduring power of the human spirit, and she is committed to highlighting the surprising and subtle similarities between cultures. I would characterize her emphasis as “covering communities that are under-reported in the mainstream press.”

Starting in 2000, she has lived in and documented life and conflict in West Africa, India, Czech Republic and Kosovo. As quoted in a 2003 interview by Susan Markisz for the Digital Journalist, Vitale’s process of living with the people she documents allows her to delve beneath the surface story. “You have to get into a culture to actually live there to understand things aren’t as sensational when you understand them in their context. I’ve jumped in, parachuted into a few places before and I didn’t like it. It’s very dangerous and I’ve felt like I wasn’t portraying things truthfully, or it was a different truth.”


Ami has recently devoted a fair amount of time to integrating video into her stories. She was kind enough to field some questions about her recent multimedia work.

Q1. Somewhere I read that you’re devoting time to develop your video skills. Almost all of your Mamtaz story is video, whereas some of your earlier multimedia work combined more stills with a bit of video. Are you moving toward video on your own, or are your clients requesting more/all video?

Vitale: The medium I work in is changing and video is now playing a much bigger role in what we do. Cameras like the one I carry can shoot HD video and it can enhance our abilities as storytellers. This is already playing a big role in my future but I don’t think I would have had the courage to take the leap into shooting video without one small exaggeration, to Nikon, when they called and asked if I knew anything about making videos. “Yes of course”, I replied instantly, knowing nothing about moving images or how to even operate the camera. I assumed I’d have time to learn before the shoot but was surprised when they sent the D300s camera only the night before my trip to India began. I frantically studied the manual on the 28 hour long journey and arrived terrified and wondering if I had just made the biggest mistake of my life. The following is the film I made there, an homage to India.

If I had not had the opportunity, I probably never would have made the leap but I’m so grateful I did. In a time when media is struggling and searching for a new path, I’m finding that I am busier than ever telling meaningful stories in new ways for a variety of outlets. Last year, I went back to school to study film and created my first documentary film which just premeired at the Jackson Hole Film Festival. I also am doing a variety of short films for new clients. It’s an exciting time to be a photographer and journalist and this new skill can create more opportunity for all of us. The old models of business are in crisis, but opportunities lie ahead. We must redefine ourselves as technolgies create more opportunities. I’ve moved into video on my own and my clients are definitely excited when I can offer this. I shoot both stills and videos on most assignments.

Q2. What type of gear are you using to capture video and audio in the field?

Vitale: Nikon D7000, a couple of lenses, the 24-70 and sometimes the 24mm tilt and shift perspective lens, I use a preamp made by Juicedlink, a Rodemic and lavs for interviews. I also use a tripod and sometimes take Goalzero Solar panels since I’m often in remote places without electricity.

Q3. How rigidly are you planning out your pieces? (For example, do you map out all the stills, video & audio you need and then methodically work off this “shot list”? Or do you collect images & sounds first, and then compose them into a story based on what you’ve collected? Or some combination of both?)

Vitale: I do create a story board and make a shot list but its not rigid. If I see something in the field I had not thought of, I’ll shoot it and make changes to the final script. Its very important to know what and why you are shooting. If you approach film making like a stills photographer, it does not work.

Q4. Do you tend to work solo or collaboratively – and which do you prefer?

Vitale: I tend to work on my own but my film on climate change was a collaboration and I was grateful for it. I prefer shooting on my own to gain intimacy and trust with my subjects but I like collaborating in the editing.

Q5. What are you finding most difficult and most interesting in multimedia?

Vitale: Audio is the most difficult piece for me and the most interesting because I have a lot to learn.

Q6. How do you want to distinguish your multimedia stories from run-of-the-mill work?

Vitale: I hope there is a sensitivity and artful sensibility that will set these films apart.

Andrew Hida Interview

In an earlier post, I profiled “The Dividing Line” by Andrew Hida, a Seattle-based multimedia producer. I tracked Andrew down and asked him some questions about his origins, style and goals.

Q1. From your website it looks like you started off doing still photography, but have moved into multimedia (incorporating stills, audio and video). What’s prompting that move into audio and motion/video?

Hida: I began taking photographs about 4-5 years ago. For about a year I was shooting film as many people moved into digital. After a trip to Cuba in 2007, I met Tim Matsui, a photojournalist from Seattle, who quickly became a mentor. He forced into my hands an Edirol audio recorder and an omni microphone, and asked me why I was still shooting film. Reluctantly, I purchased a Canon 30D and forced myself to shoot digital. In the end, I made the jump into multimedia all in one plunge, incorporating digital photography and audio to create audio slideshows.

I began to realize the potential of multimedia storytelling. I was shooting a lot of sequential frames to create the illusion of video using crossfades. Paired with audio, the stories began to jump out of the screen. I had a screening of my first audio slideshow at the Center of Contemporary Art in Seattle. It left a tremendous impression on the audience. I realized that the viewers’ interaction with still photographs, complimented by audio, and incorporated into a video, produced a visceral experience for the viewer that I could not achieve through still photography. At that point that I looked to multimedia as a medium that has continued to grow in my favor.

I still struggle to capture moments and tell stories in a single frame. My eyes see the world in motion, and my brain understands the language of video much better than stills. Personally, I see more creative freedom in video than in stills. In the end, audio becomes the backbone of any great multimedia piece. Within that audio, you can bring in any captured element to create a complete experience for the viewer, whether it’s the water dripping from a coffee maker, or a quiet cry of reflection. The audio will transport them into the subject’s world creating an intense empathetic and emotional response unique from that elicited from a still image.

Q2. How has using audio and motion/video changed your work?

Hida: Audio has transformed my storytelling from, let’s say, a 2-dimensional plane to a 3-dimensional space. Audio almost creates an interactive experience for the viewer. I can construct an experiential story for the viewer and more effectively tap into a universal emotional response.

Through video and audio I can essentially tell two stories at the same time: one through the video, and another through the audio. The audio is the backbone of any compelling multimedia story. However, as taught to me by Bruce Strong, professor at Syracuse University, the audio can take you from point A to point B, similar to that of the path of a road. However, the visuals can take a meandering path as long as it leaves from point A and ends at point B, similar to that of a winding river. Maybe that sounds new age or too abstract, though this metaphor itself has helped me tremendously in multimedia production. Multiple mediums, controlled well, can tell a multi-layered, 3-dimensional story providing visual and aural cues to the viewer otherwise absent through a still image.

Q3. Coming from a still photography background, what multimedia capabilities have you found most interesting & powerful? And what has given you the most trouble?

Hida: I find sequencing and non-linear editing as the most interesting elements of multimedia storytelling. Sequencing is a concept that I think many still photographers struggle with when they start to shoot video. As still photographers we are trained to look for single moments, and have a tendency to shoot video the same way. We have a tremendous advantage as photographers when composing, organizing, and exposing a frame for video. However, we have a tendency to hold that frame, and hold it, and keep holding it. It becomes visually boring. Photographers need to change their thought process when approaching video, and look for sequencing. Wes Pope pounded into my head the jingle, “Wide. Medium. Tight. Shoot. Move. Shoot. Move. Wide. Medium. Tight. Shoot. Move. Shoot. Move.” This is the single most important theory that every photographer should embrace, which by itself will make their video a thousand times better. If you can shoot sequences, you have the ability to push your viewer in and out of a three-dimensional space, providing visual variety, and a much more dynamic overall experience.

Related to sequencing is a style of editing, which I have come to enjoy and find tremendously powerful. I tend to shoot for and edit for matched action. For example, if the subject is smoking a cigarette, the sequence may start with a wide shot of him smoking in his house to establish the scene. Once he moves his hand from his mouth to the ashtray, the sequence will cut to a tight shot of his hand entering the frame and ashing his cigarette into the ashtray, and then resolve on a medium shot of his hand in the same position hovering over the ashtray. Matched action is challenging to shoot, but so rewarding to edit. If you are able to edit a sequence in such a way that the viewer doesn’t notice the cuts, then you have succeeded both behind the lens and in front of the monitor.

Some of the greatest challenges that I have overcome in the past year are the logistical difficulties of shooting video with these fancy-shmancy HDSLRs. The image produced by these cameras are hands-down, without question, BEAUTIFUL! The cameras are affordable, but the issues are daunting. Audio recording is a disaster. Recording time limits are frustrating. Ergonomics are painful. And interface can be a challenge. With that said, there are many solutions out there such as dual-audio recording and the plethora of support systems. So why do we go through the pain of shooting video with these cameras? I think it’s because we’re familiar with the format. It doesn’t intimidate us, and we already have the lenses. However, that doesn’t mean that we’re immune to the millions of bells and whistles necessary to make the car move.

Q4. It looks like you spent the better part of 2008 working on the “Slow Healing” project. What was the origin of that project and why did you devote so much time to it?

Hida: I took a documentary photography class at the Photographic Center Northwest; my first foray into documentary photography or photojournalism. As part of the class we were to execute a documentary project, which I decided would be an exploration of the visually impaired community in Seattle. I reached out to many organizations only to be shut down by most, except by the Visually Impaired Services Team at the Puget Sound VA Hospital. I connected with a woman, who will remain anonymous, who was so passionately involved with the care of her clients that she immediately introduced me to two OIF and OEF veterans who had both lost eyes as a result of the wars. I started first by taking portraits of the two soldiers and soon hit a wall. I lost my direction, and had no idea how to proceed. I was dealing with personal issues like access, compassion, and sensitivity to these soldiers’ lives, and had no idea how to overcome these obstacles. I let the project rest for a while, until it dawned upon me that the real story wasn’t the loss of their vision, but rather the impact of traumatic brain injuries on returning soldiers. As a result, I returned to the project, which evolved into Slow Healing.

The project took so long to develop most likely because I approached it with little guidance, which resulted in a lot of stumbling, fumbling, and mistakes in the field. But, how else do you learn? Coincidentally, at the same time I had applied to a number of grants–my first foray into grant writing–and to my surprised received a large grant from the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs to fund the production of this project. I then had one year to complete it in Washington, and travelled to Wisconsin and Hawaii to work with two other subjects. In the end, I realized that as a first project, I had set my sights too high. The responsibilities on my end were tremendous, beyond the scope of just shooting the stories. I was on the administrative, marketing, financial, and creative sides all at the same time. It was taxing, and as a result took much more than a year to complete.

Q5. In the Slow Healing project you managed to capture very intimate conversations with your subjects (e.g., Jason). How did you gain that access?

Hida: My girlfriend recently told me that I’m a good reporter (she’s a magazine writer). I had no idea what she meant. I don’t know what reporters do. I never learned reporting skills. I don’t even know if I follow the ethical guidelines. I’m not saying I fabricate my reporting, or anything like that, but I do accept meals from my subjects, and I do nurture personal relationships with them. I remember an assignment for the Oregonian, where I was teamed up with a writer. She would refuse to eat even a cashew that was offered to her because it would compromise policy. Maybe it’s internal policy of her company, but I just remember thinking how odd that was. I usually gauge the rapport between my subject and I by an invitation to a meal. If they invite me to dinner, or ask me to put the camera down and sit down for lunch with them, then I know that we are developing the type of relationship that will allow me to capture very intimate moments that otherwise are inaccessible.

My girlfriend later explained to me what she meant by a good reporter. She said that I have the unique ability to make people relaxed and very comfortable with my presence. One of the first things I always do when I arrive at a subject’s house for the first time is ask for a cup of water, or ask to use the restroom. It’s a small act like this that helps to put the subject at ease. I think it communicates to them that ultimately I’m just as much human as they are. Working with subjects in sensitive settings requires a certain amount of trust building. I always make myself vulnerable to their questioning, and share equally intimate details of my life as I hope they will share with me. Breaking down those barriers and being myself opens doors that otherwise will never open. Half of this work is relationship building, from which I have developed great friendships over the years with subjects who to this day I still remain in contact with.

Q6. What gear do you use for your productions?

Hida: I shoot with a Canon 5D MKII for both stills and video.

I always record on a dual-audio system: recording externally on a Marantz PMD620 and feeding that audio track into my camera using a Sescom LN2MIC-PMD620 attenuation cable (it is very important to use an attenuation cable to feed any audio signals into the 5D MKII so you don’t fry the internal audio circuitry). I use a Rode VideoMicPro mounted in my hot shoe, fed into the right channel of a y-splitter cable that feeds into my audio recorder. I then feed in the audio signal of a Sennheiser ew100 G1 wireless lavalier microphone. I will then set the recording level of my Marantz to fall between -12 and -6 db, and set my internal recording level of the 5D MKII to mimic the exact same levels as my audio recorder. This results in very clean audio in the recorder, and a clean audio signal to the camera. However, bear in mind that the audio signal of the 5D MKII will inevitably have more hiss than that of your external recorder given the internal circuitry of the camera. In post production, when necessary (eg. for clean interview audio), I will sync the audio track from the recorder with the footage from the camera using PluralEyes. I also use a Rode NTG-2 microphone to collect ambient audio when necessary (using the same Marantz recorder), and to boom my interviews.

As far as rigging is concerned, I have bought a couple of solutions over the past year, including the Jag35 DSLR cage, and a Cavision shoulder rig (the cheapest shoulder rig I could find on the market). I would recommend playing around with a variety of rigging solutions in order to find something that works for you. It all depends on the style of your shooting, and in most cases one solution will not be the end-all-be-all solution. Luckily, all support systems are standard across the industry, which allows for interchangeability of parts between systems. In my case, I’ve disassembled both of those rigs to create my own low-profile rig that allows me to attach all of the equipment onto a single mount without a shoulder stock. I like to carry as little equipment with me as possible, and also prefer to shoot hand-held most of the time even though it yields less-than-steady results. However, I’ve come to embrace this style of shooting and found ways to brace myself and steady the camera. My workhorse lens is the Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens, which has image stabilization that provides additional stabilization necessary without the shoulder rig. I also use a Glidetrack LCDVF viewfinder, which adds an additional point of contact and stabilization of the camera.

Finally, I use the 755 XB Manfrotto tripod with a 701 HDV head, which is probably the the best tripod ever made for video. The head is smooth as butter, but the greatest feature is the leveling head built into the tripod.

Q7. Have you developed your multimedia capabilities on your own – or have you tapped into any particularly good training resources?

Hida: I would love to say that I’ve developed my multimedia skills all by myself, but that would be a blatant lie. Tim Matsui introduced me to the audio tools and the digital realm. Video technique, sequencing, and editing was learned through a lot of practice in grad school at Syracuse University. Professor Bruce Strong is probably the most gifted teacher in visual journalism, and has been a tremendous influence and resource to help me build this skill set.

Visually, just watch TV, look at Vimeo, and learn from your peers and colleagues who are kicking butt. Learn to light by doing it. Learn to sequence, and edit by watching TV. There are definitely some set rules in traditional film making to follow (such as the 180 rule, and jump cuts) that can be learned from books. However, there is always a time and a place to break these rules.

I have been fortunate in grad school to be presented with a multitude of opportunities that have provided me with the chance to produce, produce, and produce. I easily become obsessive with my work, dedicating countless days, weeks, and months to shooting. But without this kind of determination and discipline, you will never push yourself to succeed. If you ever reach the point where you are satisfied with your work, you have reached a very dangerous tipping point in your career.

Q8. Where are you going from here?

Hida: Once I finish up my graduate work in December, I will be moving to New York City. My dream and goal for the past 4 years is to intern at Mediastorm. I have my sights set on this, though understand the competitive nature of this internship. Mediastorm, in my eyes, is defining multimedia storytelling in its practice, product, and viability as a business. However, if this does not work out, I will be looking to other positions both internships and jobs, where I can work for a smaller production house as a content gatherer and/or an editor. I hope to continue working on documentary work to tell compelling stories through–as best described by Mediastorm–cinematic narratives.

SAME Cafe – Project Notes

I’m starting a project to profile two owners of SAME Cafe in Denver, Colorado. SAME Cafe stands for “So All May Eat”, and offers high-quality, nutritious food on a “pay what you can” basis. Brad and Libby started SAME Cafe 5 years ago and are passionate about their restaurant and the community that they’ve built around that restaurant.

Jennifer at my day job lead me to the SAME Cafe when I enquired about interesting people working in the non-profit sector who might be interested in posing for a photographic portrait. Jennfier told me a little about SAME Cafe and suggested that I contact the owners. Brad and Libby were very accessible and willing to pose for a portrait; we had a great time one afternoon punching out a couple of versions where I could test some strobe lights.

I was intrigued enough with Brad and Libby’s restaurant to contact them again to see if they’d be up for a “video portrait”. I want to try out some editing techniques that Ed McNichol outlined in CreativeLIVE’s online workshop “Vincent Laforet: Introduction to HDDLSR Video.” Doing a quick profile of the SAME Cafe sounded like a good subject for that test. McNichol has developed a methodology to efficiently edit an interview video. I’ll describe the process in more detail in a later post, but basically it involves first building a “radio cut” of video sequences, focusing exclusively on the audio storyline, flow and pace, and then overlaying visuals on top of that audio foundation to build up the visual quality of the final production.

Step one was to record some interview segments. I scheduled an appointment with Brad and Libby to record audio and video interviews about the origins and motive behind setting up SAME Cafe. I used my Canon T2i to capture video (I was really only looking for an introductory head shot to introduce both Brad and Libby as narrators), and my Marantz PD661 with a lav mic to record separate audio. In this first session I recorded about 35 minutes total audio recording.

I’ve just submitted the transcription job out for bid on Elance. Although transcribing 30 minutes of recorded audio wouldn’t take too long, it would be just another thing to do. I also want to line up a transcriber who can help with future jobs and take that element off my plate.

Next up: Ed McNichol’s approach to building a “radio cut” as an audio foundation.

Todd Heisler: The Moment Before, and After

Todd Heisler presents an interesting piece for the Columbia Center for Oral History on the impact of 9/11. I’ll be honest – I’m not 100% on this. But Heisler’s work is unique and worth viewing. He does some things very, very well. His visual treatment, in particular, struck me. Architectural elements, reflections, flashes of light, video clips and snapshots — rather than “direct” photos of narrators — play across the screen as narrators recall some horrific experiences and sights from 9/11. The indirectness and loneliness of Heisler’s New York images are very striking.

There’s also a weird audio hum that underlies the video, almost a sacred audio intonation or modern-day fugue.

Pascal Garnier: Putting His Canon T2i Through Paces

How ‘Bout that Canon T2i? Last year Pascal Garnier shot his 45-minute documentary Hasta La Vista in Spain, France and Belgium on a Canon T2i. This film is in Dutch and French, without subtitles, but the footage is amazing. Remember: the Canon T2i runs less than $800.

Garnier could bring limited filmmaking gear for this project as he needed to travel between locations throughout Europe. He slapped a Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 lens on the T2i for most “run & gun” shots. He used a 55mm 1.4 Mamiya-Sekor lens on the T2i for interviews, b-roll footage and close ups of people. He recorded sound with a Rode Video mic piped directly into the T2i; for interviews he used an Audio Technica lav mic piped into a Zoom H2 recorder.

Garnier reports that he rarely used his small tripod, mainly relying on his Manfrotto monopod or a small foldable shouldermount.

Time Lapse

Here’s an interesting video created using time lapse photography and camera motion in an out-of-the-ordinary setting. Gives you some idea of the possibilities of these techniques, especially when combined.

There are some intriguing, subtle camera moves that the creators set up using an auto drive to move the camera across a Kessler slider. Compare the few seconds following 5:25 vs the few seconds following 0:11 in the video. The 0:11 sequence is really mesmerizing in comparison.

D’Evelyn School Video

I’ve been working on a multimedia project that describes a lottery-based-admission public school in the Denver area. The school wants a video to embed into its website that explains what the school offers and how it differs from other public and private schools. Interested parents and students, after watching the video, will be encouraged to attend one of several live events where teachers and administrators present more detailed information and answer questions. Students routinely score at the top of Colorado’s SAT and ACT scores, by school, but the lottery acceptance rate is about 25% of those who apply. So there’s fairly high demand for information about the school and the lottery process from interested parents.

We began this project by forming a steering committee composed of parents, administrators, teachers and board members from the school’s educational foundation. At our first meeting we tossed ideas around about what information we wanted to present, and the best way to present that information in a video or slideshow. After discussion, we settled on a general structure to propel the presentation forward: describe what the school is and describe what the school is not. I used as a reference a website of an outdoor wilderness program, Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS). BOSS’ website describes its programs (teaching skills once widely known by native peoples that allowed them to thrive in various environments) and, in addition, describes what it does not offer (military survival programs, troubled youth therapy programs, etc). BOSS does a great job of defining itself by highlighting what it is not. We agreed to use that structure as our model.

Next, we collectively built a series of statements about the school (what we are, what we aren’t) that served as an inventory of ideas to capture and present in the course of production. That list served as my guide as I planned shoots and recorded audio. The Committee also used the list as a checklist to confirm we were including enough core material within the constraints of 3-5 minutes over several versions (6 actually) that I submitted for review.

The project is nearing completion. I’ll post it here as an example when complete.