Stillmotion: Visual Storytelling Instruction

Stillmotion recently came out with the first 2 of 4 instructional videos on visual storytelling:

1. The Four P’s of Storytelling
2. How to Use Keywords to Pick the Perfect People, Places & Plot

I highly recommend these short, 10-12 minute instructional videos. They present worthwhile information in an engaging, easy-to-understand style. In addition, they preview an upcoming competition where budding filmmakers can employ some of the presented techniques in a short film.

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.

Vexed By The Poet

Norman Chichester, a local poet, presents an interesting challenge. My goal is to create a multimedia portrait of Norman using still images and audio recordings of his voice. We met one evening to record Norman reading some of his poems and discussing their origin and source.

What I’m finding is that while Norman is a very interesting guy, he is essentially a content man who has lived a full life and relishes his memories. Creating a stimulating story about a quiet, content man is surprisingly difficult. I took a number of photos of him from a variety of angles – but despite the variation of angles and perspectives, at the end of the day what I now hold are quite similar-looking images of a man sitting in a chair reading. Norman’s vocal intonations are great, but you can only do so much… It’s anything but dynamic.

The fundamental problem is the lack of story. There’s no beginning, middle, and end — just an end: a vignette of Norman as he is today.

So I went back to Norman’s place this weekend to get something of his history — how this poetry thing came to be. It turns out Norman has a very interesting story. He was always interested in language, even in childhood. But a physical limitation (a tremor in his hands) prevented Norman from living the life of a poet. Norman’s writing was so poor, he told me, that it was virtually indeciperable to read. Instead of the life of a writer, Norman pursued a career for 35 years as a square dance caller and teacher. “A square dance teacher,” he told me, “is something of a bard. He creates poetry in the moment in the great tradition of the storyteller.” He has to create rhymes at the spur of the moment, directing his dancers around the floor. Norman’s 35 years of square dance calling served as his school for meter, rhyme and performance.

In his 50s, Norman acquired a word processing computer which served to liberate him from his physical limitation. “I was finally able to write poetry,” he said. And he’s continued to do so well into his 70s.

I’m now embedding some audio clips and still images within this larger story of how Norman overcame his physical limitations to write poetry after decades of frustration.

What Do You Care About?

This weekend I attended a workshop with Ed Kashi, a well-known and very talented photojournalist. The workshop format included a review of several of Ed’s projects (still photography and multimedia), followed by Ed’s review and critique of participant portfolios.

As Ed critiqued portfolios he repeatedly asked the photographer, “What do you care about?” In the context of a portfolio review, Ed wants to know what motivates the photographer — because that provides the fuel to drive that photographer to improve his or her skills. Ed explained his approach in a photo project: he becomes “maniacal” in getting his shots (and/or video or sound, as he also works with multimedia). “It’s mentally exhausting,” he says, to produce work at the quality necessary to succeed at Agency VII and National Geographic. You’ve got to commit to your project — sometimes for years — and employ all your skills and concentration to realize your vision. “You’ve got to focus, focus, focus,” he says. “Find an area of passion, and then do whatever you need to do to complete your project. If it means raising money, figure out how to get the money. If it means gaining access, tap into your resources to get that access.”

After I left the workshop, I reflected on a project I worked on in 2010: Deer Creek to Columbine. I’ve never been satisfied with the completed project, but I care deeply about the topic. In 2010 a man entered a local Junior High School and shot two students. The school is close to our neighborhood and the students are peers of one of my sons. Coincidently, the school is just 2 1/4 miles from Columbine High School, site of another school shooting a decade earlier. In addition, in 2006 there was a 3rd school shooting in a high school just 30 miles away. Three school shootings in the span of 11 years — all within a close distance. What was going on?

My idea was to walk the 2 1/4 miles between the two schools, interviewing people along the way to see if anyone could make sense or draw any connections between these events. I interviewed a Deer Creek school administrator. I also interviewed the father of a Columbine student who was killed at that school.

The project faltered because no one in that journey wanted to discuss the Columbine or Deer Creek shootings. I trekked back and forth between the schools several times. I spoke with numerous people on route, but all declined to be interviewed. Doors shut; people turned away. I managed to get some interviews at the Columbine memorial (erected in memory of the 13 students killed at the school). I pulled together a piece — but it’s never seemed complete. All questions, no answers.

Based on Ed’s advice, I’ve decided to revisit this topic this year. I’m not sure exactly how I’ll frame the piece, because there is inherent ambiguity about these events and what, if anything, may connect them. But these events share one very obvious thing in common: guns. Guns — and especially gun control — is a raw topic (especially here in Colorado), but there it is. That’s the core of this situation, and I care about this situation.

It Came From Above

Check out this article written by Shane Hurlbut, a seasoned cinematographer now working with DSLR video cameras. Hurlbut chronicles his work with a Erica Tremblay, a friend who was filming a documentary about a tornado that killed 160 people and destroyed much of Joplin, MO.

Hurlbut’s article features discussion of the tools used, the production schedule, and a trailer called “It Came From Above“.

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.

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