Simplicity

It’s been ages. Ah, Christmas activity…

I listened to an audio program recently and mention was made of a challenge put to Ernest Hemmingway by some of his buddies: “I bet you can’t write a story in just 6 words.” He took the bait. Here’s his story: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.”

How crisp and poignant that is. An entire story in 6 words. It may make a stronger impression as an audio statement (you need to pause between phrases to pull out the pathos). But it proves the point that storytelling can be simple. As simple as 6 ordinary words.

A Future Reset

James Dao and Todd Heisler at the NYTimes created a 3-minute multimedia piece covering difficulties faced by a war vet who lost a limb in combat.

Some observations:

  • Dao & Heisler split their start: audio is strong out of the shoots with the narrator Cpl. Sebastian Gallegos telling us that he lived but someone else died. But the imagery starts slow with scenes of suburban America. I’m not sure why Dao & Heisler send these mixed messages.
  • Character: Dao & Heisler introduce us to Gallegos, a character with a physical disabilities who is struggling to adjust to his disfigurment. I see Gallego’s pain, but I guess I don’t know enough about him to get emotionally invested. Maybe that’s unrealistic in a 3 minute short, but I think the reporters could have given us a little more info about the main character. At apx. 1:00, Gallegos remarks that his war injury “has changed they way way I think; it cuts me off from conversations.” Wow, how ’bout some more on that? That clip hints at Gallego’s internal needs for human contact and acceptance – but I don’t hear more about it. Later, Gallego’s wife is shown in the background. How about a 10-sec soundbite from her, reflecting on her husband’s character or emotional state?
  • Structure: Gallegos struggles to adjust to his artificial arm, but it’s not clear is whether he has changed (positively or negatively) through the course of that struggle. Personally, I want to know about Gallegos’ transformation: what’s happened (past tense), not what’s happening (present tense). I’m not sure this story was ripe enough for documentation.
  • Information: Dao & Heisler show information about Gallego’s prosethetic arm, but I don’t have the sense that this visual information is necessary. It seems extra. Interesting, but disconnected from the narration.

Kate Holt: Effective Audio Slideshows

In an earlier post I wrote about Soundslides, a software package that helps photographers move into multimedia by automating slideshow transitions and incorporating sound. Soundslides also has a blog, and I found this recent post entitled “Kate Holt’s Digital Storytelling Insights – Part 1“.

This is the first of several Soundslide blog posts, each covering Holt’s storytelling process. Holt prefers audio slideshows because of their simplicity. But she describes her not-so-simple preparation and workflow in putting an audio slideshow together.

Kate Holt is a freelance journalist based in the Nairobe. After spending time with the BBC, Holt undertook a project to document refugees fleeing from Bosnia into Albania in 1999. Following that endeavor, Holt spent several years documenting human sex-trafficing in Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine, followed by a similar expose in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2003. Holt has been nominated 3 times for the Amnesty Award for Humanitarian reporting; she’s also been nominated for the Prix Pictet Photographic Award.

Click image below to view an example of one of Holt’s audio slideshows:


http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-19060390

Philip Bloom’s Advice

Philip Bloom, a filmmaker who has been extensively involved in the DLSR-as-filmmaking-tool world, has some interesting advice. Keep it simple. Work hard. Perfect your craft and learn what you can on simple gear. And don’t let gear selection be your sole focus.

Here’s a short film Bloom posted on his blog. He made the film with simple gear (NEX 5n). He says it remains one of his favorite projects.

I found the film simple but well-crafted. I’m pulled through the story and not overwhelmed by glitzy angles or technique. The surprise information about his character that Bloom drops in toward the end of the film gave me just the right boost to keep going through the 9 minute film.

Not to minimize Philip Bloom’s expertise, but this is a very do-able style of film that inspires and motivates me to carry on.

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.

Multimedia as Grant Documentation

Chance Multimedia, a denver-based multimedia firm, produces videos and photography for foundations, nonprofit organizations and businesses. Here, Chance did a video highlighting a non-profit organization to communicate the group’s message, document the group’s activities and (presumably) bolster the group’s image for future grants.

 

Thoughts?

My initial reaction is that despite some distractions (e.g., lip synch problems, background noise in some portions), the piece works to communicate the group’s message and impact in the community. Emotionally it’s neutral, but I get information. I contrast that with another multimedia piece (shown below) covering the work of MAG, a non-profit organization dedicated to removal of landmines in former conflict areas, done by MediaStorm in 2011. The Chance documentary communicates information; the MediaStorm piece connects emotionally. You judge: which makes a greater impact?

Surviving the Peace takes an intimate look at the impact of unexploded bombs left over from the Vietnam war in Laos and profiles the dangerous, yet life saving work, that MAG has undertaken in the country. See the project at http://mediastorm.com/clients/surviving-the-peace-for-mag

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.”