Mullen Football – Revised

I’ve updated the original “sound piece” I posted a couple of weeks ago to include a character who guides us through the piece, providing a personal perspective through which viewers can experience high school football. In addition, since the purpose of this short film is to generate enthusiasm for the upcoming season (amidst players, students and fans), I wanted a player to share his views on where the team stands at this point in time. There’s been a lot of disruptive activity in the program that the boys are trying to set aside to focus on the upcoming season.

Jesse plays offensive line for the team. I asked him if he’d be up to a short video interview that I could use for the piece. He asked what the purpose of the film was; I told him I wanted a character to “make sense” out of the original footage I’ve gathered — someone to describe what the summer’s preparation was like and what the upcoming season means from a personal, participant level.

Jesse was great. He shared his thoughts on the team and on himself and what this upcoming year means for him. He’s looking to play football in college and this is an important season for recruiting. Mullen is also in a state of transition: the school administration fired Dave Logan (a 12-year NFL veteran who had taken the school to 4 Colorado state championships, 3 of them back-to-back in undefeated seasons) in late 2011, shaking up the football program and laying in a new coaching staff for the upcoming year. (The school administrators who made these decisions were, in turn, let go in the first 6 months of 2012.) All of this change was extremely distracting for players, particularly upcoming seniors like Jesse, who saw their program unravel before their eyes. Suddenly all the college recruiting expertise and connections to college scouts were gone. The new coaching staff brought in a new offensive strategy — something that typically takes a season or two to establish — so the advantage of working Dave Logan’s offensive scheme for a 4th season in front of college scouts was replaced with the disadvantage of learning and performing a new offensive playbook.

But Jesse’s attitude was positive and upbeat. He refers to Dave Logan’s firing, but didn’t dwell on it. He’s positive and optimistic about the season (which includes a very, very tough schedule including an out-of-state trip to California to play perennial powerhouse De La Salle High School outside of San Francisco).

I think adding a character significantly enhances the story, converting it from a simple (but relatively boring) “sound piece” to a character profile about a kid and his upcoming adventures.

Jordan Wolfson – Painter

Here’s the second in a series of portraits of artists and creatives. Jordan Wolfson is a painter who lives and works in Boulder, Colorado.

I had a great time speaking with Jordan. We both had intense experiences to share about living in Israel and working on Kibbutzim as young men.  I also started my artistic career painting and drawing, so Jordan’s experiences resonate with me.

In terms of a project, I arranged to meet and interview Jordan via a cold call.  He was very friendly and supportive.  We met at his studio and talked for awhile as I picked up audio of the interview with my shotgun mic mounted on a stand, piped into a Marantz 661 digital audio recorder.  After we spoke, I wandered around his studio taking stills as he worked and we chatted.  In retrospect I wish I had used my macro lens on the small pictures of roses that Jordan discusses in the film.  During post production I wanted a better visual illustration to Jordan’s voice when he says, “You can see the brushstrokes and the viscosity of the paint.”  I think I could also have picked up some different types of shots — 20/20 hindsight.  On the whole I’m pleased with the piece.  It captures our conversation (sans mention of Israel), and it includes a sense of Jordan’s anxiety as he pushes his painting forward.

The only thing I don’t like is how YouTube froze an image in the middle of the film and automatically used that as the “thumbnail” for display purposes.  More accurately, YouTube’s capture distorts the color of that image.  I can’t find a way to override the auto-select/auto-correct of that image.  Yuck.


Put the Gear Down

I’ve been focused recently on some outside projects – one of which was a trip with my son and some other boys in his Boy Scout troop to Moab, Utah for a canyoneering trip. As I was packing for the trip, I thought how wonderful this experience would be to capture in multimedia. It has all the attributes of a great multimedia story: characters, amazing location, exciting action, drama, etc.

There are times when doing multimedia can get in the way of the experience itself. This trip was really about exposing some boys to a great experience. To clutter that up with audio recorders, microphones, too many cameras, etc. would detract from the primary experience which was to … experience the canyons, not record the experience of the canyons. Even just taking photos I had to restrain myself and find that balance between memorializing the activity and disrupting the activity.

Once in awhile you have to put all the gear down. Just enjoy.

More Interesting Stuff

As Joe McNally says in his book The Moment It Clicks, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”

There’s no reason that McNally’s advice shouldn’t equally apply to multimedia.

I took this photo of Ian Robert McKown, a Denver-based tattoo artist. Ian is a very… interesting guy.

Go out there and find some unique stories. There are plenty.

Denver School of Rock

Recently I had the opportunity to do a short piece on the Denver School of Rock “Psychadellic 60s” concert. I looked at it as an opportunity to (a) test out my new Canon XA10 video cam in about as bad a lighting condition as I’m likely to find, and (b) focus on telling the story through individual characters.

I chose Erica as the center of my story. Erica is one of the School of Rock bassists, and quite an accomplished musician. Even though she’s shy, Erica’s personality lit up when we spoke about the School of Rock and the upcoming concert. It was fun to film that enthusiasm and passion. I used Erica’s narration to pull the viewer through the story (although not exclusively – I also added a 2nd narrator), hoping to convey some of her enthusiasm. I also asked Erica to play a bit of the bass line to a song that she would play in the concert, with the plan to use that solo base line as a transition from interview to concert setting.

At about the same time I did this School of Rock video I was also doing a separate photo shoot. Oddly, I found that I really enjoyed the photo shoot and found the School of Rock production slightly, well, more like … work. I thought about that. The specific drag relating to film/video fell into 3 categories:

  • Spontaneity – the beauty of still photography is that, in many cases, you can “wing it” in a shoot and come out with some very satisfying results. In fact I’ve done shoots where I carefully planned out most of the shots, then did a burst or two of some new seat-of-the-pants stuff which far surpassed all the careful planning. It’s often very enjoyable to just grab a camera and see what you can come up with. Film doesn’t lend itself to “winging it”. Film requires much more planning and pre-production effort. And that can start to feel like, well, work.
  • Post-production – rendering my video files, in particular, was painfully slow. I would lay a few selections in Final Cut and then launch a render cycle which would often take 20-25 minutes. Ouch. That really extended the time I needed to put this film together.
  • Volume/quality trade-off – I didn’t notice this as much in this production, but when stringing stills (vs. video footage) together with audio into a 3-4 minute film, it’s frankly difficult to come up with enough still photographs that are both high-quality and also move the storyline forward. There’s a struggle between dropping in enough images to retain the viewer’s attention and maintaining the variety and quality of those images (i.e., avoiding less-interesting photographs as fill)

Bottom line: there are some inherent trade-offs when using different media. Film requires more planning, more discipline, longer post-production time — but may have the inherent value of facilitating a richer, deeper, more complex story. It also has the inherent weakness of requiring time to consume (and the consequent requirement of maintaining an intriguing flow of images and sound to keep the viewer engaged).

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.

Living Galapagos

Living Galapagos multimedia project

Here’s a well-crafted multimedia project about the people living on the Galapagos Islands – and how the influx of tourism has created issues for them.

The introductory “splash screen” provides a blend of video, audio and still photography. Despite dual languages, the creators make an effort to capture good, crisp audio. The main multimedia page displays an interactive map of the Galapagos Islands, with links to individual stories and data. Each story is, in itself, a blend of video, audio and still photography, each done by different authors.

This is an example of how multimedia was originaly designed for the web: interactive graphics providing links to data, accented by imagery and audio stories that “brought to life” the factual information. Major newspapers were building things like this as they introduced digital versions of their papers. These types of large-scale interactive multimedia projects on the web have faded. They’re too expensive and too slow to produce.

How Important Is Good Sound?

Here’s an example of an interesting story brought down by poor audio. Ben Watson’s “Plastic Fantastic” Soundslides project is decent, the images are solid, but the narrator’s voice is poorly recorded. The listener strains to follow along. This is particularly true because the narrator speaks English with a strong accent. The audio is further undermined by background music that sometimes overshelms the narrator’s voice.

Plastic Bag Recycling in Cambodia

Contrast the first Soundslides project above with Kelly Creedon’s “We Shall Not Be Moved” project created using the same Soundslides software. Creedon profiles Ken Tilton’s struggle to maintain his home in light of massive medical bills encurred by his partner. The audio is crystal clear. The audio clarity allows the listener to pick up emotional nuance in Ken’s voice that, along with the images, supports the storyline.

Audio Critique

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


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).


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.