Storytelling Comparisons

Here’s an interesting question that Bob Sacha raised: what is the best way to communicate a story? Print, multimedia, TV broadcast or radio? Bob noted that in December 2011, four media outlets (NYTimes – print, NYTimes – multimedia, NPR – radio and Buffalo TV News – TV) ran the same story about an 82-year-old jazz pianist from Buffalo, NY. Bob provides links in his blog post. He also asks the questions:

  • Which worked well?
  • What did each version leave out?
  • How did each version start and finish?

But, ahem, Bob didn’t answer his own questions. So here’s my take on the strengths of two of the four forms:

PRINT
Strengths:

  • Imagination and visualization: because you don’t have images, you form (mental) images. I can picture a young, lythe Adelaide down in North Carolina…
  • Information and backstory: Print can easily include tid-bits about Mr. Dunlop’s arrival at the nursing home 4 years ago, how he played in the Army and at nightclubs, etc.

Weaknesses:

  • Slow to get through. This is particularly a problem on the web. I do a lot of my web reading when I’m in front of a screen, like, for instance when I’m (ahem) at work. Can’t dilly-dally too long there.

MULTIMEDIA
Strengths:

  • Audio – both narration and ambient sound enrich the experience. Hearing Mr. Dunlop’s voice adds character, richness and a closeness you just don’t pick up in the print version.
  • Visuals – same. Well-crafted images here are a joy to behold. Warm colors. Great lighting. Wow.
  • Information and backstory: I also pick up information about Mr. Dunlop, particularly throught some images of him getting medical attention from a nurse and the sound of his voice. It’s not as “factual”, but it is backstory and information about the qualities of this man.

Weaknesses:

  • Slow to get through. This may be even a bigger a problem than print. People do a lot of browsing at work, and it’s probably easier to explain reading a story than watching a slideshow if the boss walks up. Makes me kinda’ nervous as I watch it.

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.

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.

Sound Piece

Gearing up for football season is always an exciting time around our house. 2012 is no different. We have 2 boys, both play football but at different high schools. The programs are different – in some ways like night and day – so it’s an interesting contrast in styles, personalities and perspectives. But, hey, underneath it all at any football program is a lot of hard work. Sweat. Frustration. Exhaustion. Commeraderie. Competition. All that stuff which makes it such a fertile environment for honing multimedia skills. There’s a lot of action, a lot of passion and emotion, and if you stuff your camera in there some fantastic imagery.

There’s also wind, distracting noise, 250 lb. guys smashing into each other at full speed (with potential camera/audio gear collateral damage), swearing (high audio recording spikes), coaches who don’t know what you’re doing in their practice, and all kinds of additional impediments to a good multimedia story. Perfect!

Here’s a little “sound piece” that I put together during practice. Later in the season I’ll add some narration layers across the top of shorts like this to build up more of a story. And this year – my resolution each season – I want to find a kid who will serve as a central character through whom we can all experience this football thing.

Stills captured with Nikon D700 and D300 using a 17-35 f/2.8 lens. Video capture with (new) GoPro HERO2 (I’m lovin’ this thing!) Audio capture with Audio Technica AT8035 shotgun mic mounted on a monopod (serving as a multi-use boom pole), pumped into Marantz 661 digital recorder. I dropped in one audio track (the “swoosh” sound) purchased off Pond5. Project edited in Final Cut.

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.

 

Norman Chichester, Poet (Reworked)

I revised this multimedia “portrait” of Norman Chichester, the poet that I introduced several posts ago. I think I’ve improved the storyline by restructuring some elements and introducing an opening question: how did this man overcome his physical impediment to write poetry?

I’m also testing out embedding video from YouTube instead of Vimeo.

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).

HowSound’s “Kohn”

The HowSound 11/2/11 podcast “Kohn” is a story within a story. At its core is Andy Mills’ original radio story about his friend Kohn, who as a boy severed his spinal column after being struck by a car. After waking from 5 months in a coma, Kohn’s speech was damaged. He vocalizes everything very, very slowly – but oddly, he hears his own voice at the same rate of speech as everyone else. Andy Mills tells Kohn’s story, using music and the making of music to reveal Kohn’s strength of character.

Rob Rosenthal tells Andy Mills’ story — how Andy migrated from recording music and adding stories into those musical pieces to creating audio stories and adding music. Rosenthal, interviewing Andy Mills, discusses Mill’s evolving style. Rosenthal also asks Mills about the techniques he used when he hired musicians to score the story of Kohn. The musicians had to work around Kohn’s very slow, drawn-out speech pattern which isn’t inherently musical or even pleasant to listen to.

I loved Andy Mills’ underlying story of Kohn. It is honest, inspiring and heartwarming. I like the characters – and how the characters evolve and learn about each other through recorded audio interactions. The pace is perfect.

I also love Rob Rosenthal’s efforts to dive into the production process and understand the techniques and tools used in good storytelling.

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“.