Archives for October 2012

Simple Storytelling Tool: Soundslides

Here’s an example of a simple, but very effective, storytelling tool called Soundslides. Soundslides allows photographers to present their visual work in a sequence (i.e., a slideshow) accompanied by an audio track. Soundslides automates the sequencing of images (users just adjust the duration of each image as it flashes across the screen. Soundslides also makes adding an audio file very simple. In fact, that’s the whole premise of Soundslides: ridiculously simple storytelling. And that’s a great concept.

Brian Vander Brug of the Los Angeles Times strings together short profiles of Las Vegas residents, each telling their stories, in his Soundslides multimedia piece entitled “Chasing the Dream“.

Soundslides can be purchased online for $39.95 (basic version) or $69.95 (Pro version). I’d get the Pro version.

Marc Maurice – the Interview

In an earlier post I introduced Marc Maurice and his short film, “The Soundtrack of My Life.” I contacted Marc and he agreed to provide some additional background on his work.

Q1. Can you tell me something about your storytelling planning process? You mention using the iPhone to hold your preplanned shot list. Do you also use a storyboard — or is your planning mainly text?

Maurice: I start with a brainstorming, collecting my creative and technical ideas in one simple spreadsheet as text (I use APPLE NUMBERS) that ultimately builds the script. Here’s a small demo how it looks (click image for a larger version):

One minute you may have a voice over text idea, the next a camera movement idea, then you think of a location… it all goes into the spreadsheet. It will often need refinements: say you found a nice voice over sentence and connected a shot idea. Then you imagine an additional picture, split the voice over sentence over 2 lines and add the new picture idea etc. In this stage I tend to read the dialogue / voice over sentences over and over again and imagine the pictures for it. This helps to build the timing of the story at an early stage. I always try to visualize the finshed film as I would like to see it as a viewer.

Usually I start in a linear (storytelling) order and divide the lines in story-chapters. Once you finish the story you want to see different views of the sheet: for example beside the chronological order you want a version that shows all the scenes sorted by location or by actors. For this reason I copy the locations / names etc. to every line. Then I just mark the column I’m looking for (for example “Location”) and sort the column alphabetically, which rearranges to whole sheet. Before I do this I make sure that I filled the first column at the left with incremental line-numbers (can be done by marking two fields and dragging down with your mouse…). By this I can always sort back to my chonological order of the story. Of course you need to update the “story-order” numbers if you change the script.

During the shooting you might use a printed version of the sheet to check off the scenes you already shot. I like to use my iPhone with the the mobile version of NUMBERS to be able to edit the document: 1st for last-minute changes and 2nd for an additional column in which I enter “X”, to check off the finished scenes. I recommend an iPhone clamp to attach it on your rig. If your need to get the phone out of your pocket all the time its likely that you aren’t checking back often enough. If I work with a team, I prefer to use the iPad (if somebody else holds it).

SOUNDTRACK OF MY LIFE was shot under crazy time pressure… I was astonished that I could (well… almost) finish and edit the film in such a short timeframe: I believe a major reason was this way of planning details in advance. I would like to see the workflow of other producers… maybe they have better workflows. I guess my story planning is working best if you work either alone or in a small team that understands your “roughly described scenes”. I use my sheets for commercial projects as well, though I might show clients a filtered version with just the basic columns. I present the spreadsheets by reading and explaining them in a meeting. Instead of a storyboard I might just bring along some reference photos for important scenes. My clients might not be able to visualize the finished film in their mind in this presentation this, as we do as film-makers, but they usually can follow far enough to make sure that our vision is synchronized and approve the script.

Additional storyboard pictures for each / some lines of the spreadsheet are nice for bigger teams / projects. Instead of sketching a storyboard I like to use reference-photos I shoot by myself when I check the location. Sometimes I also use some photos I find with Google or at stock photo services etc. as a reference.

For less complex projects I started to use the shotlist tool in SMAPP, the terrific iPhone app for film-makers.

Q2. How did you develop your storytelling / preplanning skills?

Maurice: I admire great storytelling in all artforms (words, music, movies, photographs) and I have enjoyed telling stories by myself from an early age. So I was always curious how to keep up the attention of “the audience” (catch interest, build excitment, suprise, have the right timing,…). A big influence was songwriting. Songs — as little stories — need a dramatic strucuture. You follow rules that are very comparable to a filmscript: a song has an intro that wants to attract attention and maybe curiosity, than you develop the story (verse), calm down or increase the tension (bridge) and accel to a climax (chorus / middle section) etc.

I think the more stories you write the more you indirectly train your planning skills. You kind of have to learn to structure your ideas somehow. You might do this intuitively or –like me — more in a considered way, depending on your personality.

Q3. What were your thoughts as you searched for and incorporated the soundtrack into this piece?

Maurice: The song was part of the contest and caught my attention first. I guess without the inspiring song I wouldn’t have joined. While listening to the song my theme and the first pictures came to my mind. Regarding the sounds: I sorted my script sheet (see above) by the column SoundFX, prepared all the props and recorded them after the shooting with a TASCAM DR 100 recorder (just a few were ambient noise or came from samples libraries). Actually I planned to use quite a few more sounds but I coulnd’t make it in the short time I had.

Q4. You created this film for a contest. Was that valuable for you — did it change the way you work or planned for this film?

Maurice: I can’t express how valuable it was as a personal reflection and motivation to go for “my voice”! I started with film when the 5DII hit the market – films were one additional service next to music and photography. Since then I actually went for payed jobs only. Far too long I failed to reserve some time for creative freedom and to remember what emotionally connected me with film. STILLMOTION’s BIG SHORT contest was my first personal movie and it certainly infuenced my approach for upcoming commercial projects: instead of adapting my style to the project I’ll adapt the project to style I want to pursue…

It was also the first time I ever put something on VIMEO for a public discussion (yeah, I know – embarrassing…). I enjoy the interaction that arises from this a lot. STILLMOTION is so kind to to show the shortfilm on their workshop tour KNOW… I appreaciate the feedback a lot. Whatever come out from a contest: I’m sure it will somehow get you further… even if it is just for the fun and experience of it.

Q5. Are there any other filmmakers or multimedia artists that you’re following or can recommend?

Maurice: I find the best school are your favorite “big screen” movies / tv-dramas and documentations. I like national originalities as well: for example french and english movies can have very unique and inspiring atmospheres for me. In the DSLR / documentation world I follow a couple of websites: the Stillmotion Blog, Philip Bloom, Vincent Laforet, Shane Hurlbut, dsrlnewsshooter, and lately Audibleyeball :-), … and find all the insight and work samples you find there very inspiring.

New Project: The IRC in Tucson

I’m starting a new project about the International Rescue Committee (the “IRC”) in Tucson, Arizona. The project is a documentary on the work that the IRC does, and will involve filming a Bhutanese refugee who now lives in Tucson.

Here’s a concept board that I put together after speaking with the IRC last week (click image for a larger version):

In an introductory meeting with the IRC, we spent some time discussing the project, what points were important to highlight and which elements we could omit or minimize. I resorted to my low-tech method of writing ideas on post-its as we spoke, and then slapping them on a large foam-core board. We then moved the post-its around, took them off, grouped them together, rearranged, etc as we homed in on our ideas. It’s low-tech, but effective. To bring things back to the Twenty-First Century, I snapped a photo of the final post-it arrangement on my iPhone.

The above sketch is what I developed after looking back over the final post-it arrangement. Interpretation:

  • The story will span past, present and future
  • Much of the drama occurred in the past: the 2 “journeys” that our protagonist experienced (from home to a refugee camp, and then after some years in the camp, from the refugee camp to Tucson, AZ). But these journeys will not be the focus of the project.
  • The focal point of this project will be the protagonist’s 3rd journey, which is more of an emotional journey than a physical journey. The protagonist has arrived in a foreign land (the desert vs. the mountains of Bhutan), amidst a new culture, surrounded by a new language, strange people and new customs. His challenge is to adapt to his new homeland.
  • In effect, the final journey is his effort to “return” to the comfort and familiarity of his old home — by building a new home in Tucson, AZ. The protagonist will need to replace strange things with familiar things, piece-by-piece, as he moves from the present into the future. The IRC tells me that many refugees find this final step of replacing their old lives with new lives the most traumatic of the three journeys that refugees take. The IRC’s program that I’ll profile helps in that effort by “returning” the refugees to their identity as farmers working the land together as a community, growing food.
  • At the bottom I’ve began laying in ideas about how I’ll communicate the storyline in imagery and sound. More on this later.

Marc Maurice: The Soundtrack

Marc Maurice has created an intriguing short film to submit to StillMotion for a contest. The StillMotion contest theme was __. Marc, who has been shooting weddings and “corporate films for companies without the budget / room for storytelling,” knocked one out of the park with this gem.

I’ve contacted Marc and we’re swapping messages about a conversation as time permits. In the mean time here’s a bit of backstory that Marc provided:

“The story-background of SOUNDTRACK OF MY LIFE was following the recommendation “to look for stories in your own life first”… it was about some of my own memories. The basic idea was coming out quickly after reading about the STILLMOTION contest, but then I invested quite some time into the script-details, working it out very similar to a song (intro, verse, chorus, bridge…), planning the scenes, gear, camera moves, equipment, props, sounds, etc., in a big spreadsheet (with NUMBERS so that I had it on the iPhone while shooting). Nicely prepared the reality turned out differently: we shot most of the film in a crazy time pressure due to the contest time-schedule. I believe people with their head on straight (incl. a part of myself) would have give the project up more than one time.

“I shot 50% of the film 7 hours before the edit was finished, because my lovely little actors arrived late from their holidays… no way to find others.

“Since we shot in our holidays in the homeland of my girlfriend, Portugal, we had good and bad points: we knew we’ll have beautiful places, but I could only take along a minimum of gear (7D, Glidecam, photo tripod, table dolly). Instead of my slider I just used the table dolly on a wooden board that I bought at a local store jn Portugal: I fixed it with a studioclamp on a photo-tripod! Sounds like MacGyver? No, no, in reality it didn’t work that cool, but in emergency situations…

“I finsighed the film 30 minutes before the deadline … no sleep, 6 a.m. in the morning, 2 hours(!!) before our flight back home… and guess what… the internet connection failed in our apartment! Uploading via iPhone? No chance! So we had 2 options: missing the flight and uploading from a friend or flying home, missing the contest deadline! We flew… Back home, a few hours later, I sent Patrick Moreau the film (and let him know what happened) just for their “possible personal enjoyment”. I didn’t expect to be listed … but he wrote me back and presented the film at the contest site while noting it won’t qualify for the main prizes… which was of course no problem at all… I was just happy to “somehow complete the project” and maybe get some constructive feedback!

“I learned so much at this point from the little SOUNDTRACK OF MY LIFE production:

– how fulfilling and motivating it is to work on something you really love
– don’t care about gear too much (actually I am known as the opposite)
– even wildly improvised scenes can work out beautifully
– better be fast with kids and entertain them well :-) GET TOYS / PRESENTS BEFORE!!
– you can work out so much in NO TIME if you stick to it
– preparing a very detailed script helps SO MUCH to put the puzzle pieces together in the end
– left out ideas (and I had to leave out quite a few because of the schedule) are not necessarily a problem
– show your personal work in the internet, socialize and enjoy critics and compliments
– go for the films you really want to do and go the clients who fit to your films.”

MediaStorm – Online Training

MediaStorm offers web-based multimedia training. I’m going through the 1-year “all access” subscription for all existing training modules (plus any additional modules they put out within the next 12 months). Obviously there’s some risk (maybe they won’t post any additional training), but based on the reputation of MediaStorm and the multimedia stories that I’ve seen them produce, I took that risk. I felt additional modules would be gravy; I gambled that $199 is worth what’s already out there.

I’m so-so on the products so far.

The MediaStorm online training is broken into modules. There is a “Reporting Track” (covering audio, stills and video for multimedia) that was, frankly, not particularly insightful. Most of that information is already available online or through other sources. I don’t think the content in that one “Reporting Track” module warrants the separate $99 price tag (if you buy it alone).

In addition to the “Reporting Track” there is a “Post-Production” track. I haven’t gone through that module.

I did, however, listen to “The Making Of: Surviving the Peace” which was flat-out outstanding. That module is a steal at $50 (if you buy it separately). Rick Gershon and Brian Storm take viewers through the 18-minute “Surviving the Peace” film, dissecting the structure and techniques employed in capture and editing. It is really, really interesting to see all the decisions made in the course of building this film. Get this!

The online subscription also entitles subscribers to two additional “The Making Of” modules:

  • The Making Of: A Thousand More, and
  • The Making Of: The Amazing Amy

I’ve started “The Making Of: A Thousand More” and I’m not as impressed with it yet as with “Surviving the Peace.” I have a way to go, so I don’t want to judge the quality prematurely, but it looks to me as if MediaStorm launched this “A Thousand More” module before the “Surviving the Peace” module — and they improved the training module in the second round. The earlier module isn’t divided into logical segments, and I don’t find the exhange between the producers as crisp and insightful. But as I said, I’m just starting so I’m still hopeful.

I’ll keep you posted.