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.

Irfan Khan: The House of Allah

According to his official LA Times biography, Khan started his photography career in 1973 in Pakistan. While in Pakistan he also studied political science and international relations. Khan opened a Dubai-based photo studio affiliated with an advertising agency in Dubai and worked as a photojournalist for the Khaleej Times in the Middle East prior to moving to New York in 1988.

Irfan Khan arrived in New York City in 1988 with his wife, 3 daughters and dreams of providing his children a good education and furthering his career as a photojournalist. Khan was hired at the LA Times as a freelancer, and later as a full-time staff photographer in 1996.

Khan covered the pilgrimage to Mecca (or “Hajj”) in this multimedia slideshow combining some stunning still photographs with audio recordings and interviews.

Khan employs some interesting aerial time lapse photography showing pilgrims swirling around. He also brings the viewer along this story in an interesting way by using a female narrator. I was intrigued, probably because in my ignorance I thought women were excluded from the Hajj.

Miranda Harple: “My Grandma’s Tattoo”

I’ve never actually been to the AARP YouTube website before, but I stumbled into this short piece by Miranda Harple and was impressed. Nice storytelling. I like the characters. You really see how these women from different generations interact and connect with each other. Each individual, telling her own story, pulls the storyline forward.

I also like the way Harple blends text, video and still photographs together seamlessly. Interesting, also, to note that many of the photographs she incorporates into the piece are old and clearly faded family snapshots. That really gives this video warmpth and intimacy.

The audio quality was good except for the first few seconds. In fact the first few seconds was the only part of this piece that I found a bit distracting. I didn’t get the connection of the initial images of water washing over stones to the storyline until I viewed the video a second time. In retrospect I see the connection, but I definitely didn’t at first viewing. That’s a mere quibble, however, to this really nice, pleasant story about a close family and an activity that bound them together.

Sure-handedness

How Sound’s 10/19/11 podcast covers the concept of “sure-handedness” to enhance the quality of an audio story. The term refers to one of 3 key points that John Biewen (Audio Program Director at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies) gives to students of his audio storytelling clinics. Basically, the idea is to follow a clear, logical progression of ideas that move your listener through the story line. Biewen says his advice is not designed as a formula, but rather it should serve as a gut-level guideline that keeps stories interesting and moving but still allows for surprises and and twists along the way.

The strongest point in this Podcast was How Sound’s dissection of an audio story to demonstrate the points discussed. In addition, How Sound’s Rob Rosenthal describes his own organizational techniques in producing his audio stories.

This is good stuff – applicable to many forms of storytelling.

Tony Schwartz – Audio Artist

In 1999, Kitchen Sisters produced an amazing radio story for NPR called Tony Schwartz – 30,000 Recordings Later. A replay of this radio story is re-presented in Saltcast’s 7/14/08 Podcast entitled “Knocking the Rust Out” (available on iTunes – I can’t link to the Podcast here).

Tony Schwartz was an agoraphobiac (one who has an abnormal fear of being in open spaces) who lived his life in a very small section of New York City: basically a few blocks neart his mid-town apartment. Schwartz recorded sounds all around him, chronicling such things as taxi drivers, children playing games, salesmen, city sounds — whatever interested him (and it seemed most things did interest him). Some of the sound pieces Schwartz recorded, rebroadcast in this 1999 essay, are absolutely amazing. For example, Schwartz recorded a two-minute “time series” of his niece from birth to age 14 when she died, and this two minute portrait takes the listener from sounds of the girl crying as a baby thorough learning the alphabet to growing into young adulthood. I was captivated with these sounds: I felt I was reliving the everyday experiences that Schwartz captured so simply. I really felt I was listening to someone from the grave. I listened to this recording twice, back-to-back. You may too.

Schwartz developed a global network of people also interested in sound recordings, and he exchanged audio recordings with his friends around the world. Schwartz’s audio collection came to hold 15,000 recordings collected from around the world. He said, “Voices and music of the world came into my apartment in New York City, and I travelled no further than my mailbox.”

This is an astounding audio portrait. I would highly recommend the 24 minutes to listen to it completely. You will be struck by the humanity and curiosity of a man who, despite his personal limitations, built a world out of his intense passion.

Mission Guatemala’s Use of Multimedia

Mission Guatemala is a nonprofit United Methodist organization helping the poor of Guatemala. I noticed that they are incorporating some photography and video on their website, so I asked Tom Heaton, who founded Mission Guatemala in 2009, for some background information on how they’re working with multimedia to communicate information about their operations.

Q1. You have a “featured video” posted on your website. Did you create that yourselves or did you work with an external videographer/photographer?

Heaton: The featured videos change. Some of the videos were produced by a friend who has some professional skills using an hd camera and I-movie. Sometimes we do simple home videos with people sharing about their mission trips here. They too are edited with I-movie. Finally, we sometimes produce slideshow type videos using a service called ANIMOTO.

Q2. If you worked with a external videographer/photographer, how did you go about defining the project?

Heaton: The more professional looking videos were shot using an HD camera. The person who shot the video was told that we wanted to convey a positive hopeful image about the work we are doing in Guatemala. We had seen too many videos of ministries working in developing countries that seemed to make the situation seem hopeless. They felt a little manipulative. We did want that. We wanted to create a positive and hopeful image of our work in hopes that people would want to be a part of that work. Many of the videos were actually edited by a University of Evansville senior majoring in radio-tv.

Q3. Were you actively involved in the production of the video?

Heaton: Yes, we were with the person who shot the video and suggested people to interview and B roll.

Q4. What prompted you to create the video?

Heaton: Well… nothing is really more powerful than telling a positive story with video.

Q5. What did you hope to achieve with the video? (And did that happen?)

Heaton: We are still in the process of editing the videos. We were hoping that it would encourage more churches to support our work. We also hoped that they could be used within congregations to share the story of the work they are helping support. We are in the process of trying to compress the videos to actually make them downloadable from our website. That would make it easier to share within the local church.

Q6. Have you seen much interest in the video? Has it sparked better understanding or increased fundraising or anything like that?

Heaton: Yes, we put them on You Tube and on our Facebook page. People love them. They help tell our story well.

Q7. Do you have plans to add additional multimedia pieces (combined photos, videos, audio and/or web graphics) to your website?

Heaton: The animoto videos I mentioned above.

Q8. In an ideal world, what would you like multimedia to be able to do for your organization?

Heaton: Help us tell our story and our work in a compelling way.

“Splash” by Rich Halten

I really enjoyed Rich Halten’s audio story “Splash” – the story of a suicide bridge jumper who survived his ordeal. It’s well worth your time to listen to this recording, originally produced for Public Radio.

Rich was kind enough to answer some questions I posed about his work.

Q1. On your website I see 2 pieces on Vietnam and 2 pieces on Latin/Spanish themes, plus some other stuff. How do you come up with ideas for your stories and is there any underlying connection between them all?

Halten: While I always have my antenna up for stories, there aren’t that many that stick — that make my socks roll up and down. But when a story does, it usually doesn’t let go — even if it takes months or even years to complete. Usually an obsession with a story comes from a personal connection. For example, the two pieces about Viet Nam are probably due to the fact that I was in the service during the war there — though not in Nam itself (I was lucky enough to be stationed at American Forces Radio in Germany). As for the Latin/Spanish flavored pieces, that’s simply because my wife is a college prof of Spanish and I usually tag along when she travels to Spain or Latin America, using the opportunity to produce some kind of audio

Q2. It looks like it takes 6-8 months to put together an audio story. How does that break down between dreaming up a story, planning, recording and editing?

Halten: Well, all I can say is it takes as long as it takes. For example, the piece called “Splash” that was featured on the Transom site. The inspiration came in 2007 when a chum from college told me about a mutual friend who was murdered by his ex-wife. She then drove to The Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay, jumped and survived. I’d seen plenty of coverage of people who died jumping from that bridge, but little about those who leaped and lived to tell about it. That got me started trying to track down a small group of survivors. Zero results. I finally found one guy who would tell his story. Fortunately he told it brilliantly and with nothing held back. Then it was contacting and recording counterpoints to his story in the form of people who deal with Skyway Bridge jumpers — fire/rescue EMT’s, suicide hotline counselors and a guy who publishes a web site chronicling jumps from the bridge. Working off and on — including editing and mixing — it took three years from the initial idea to finished product.

Other stories take far less time, so there’s no real time frame to produce one.

Q3. Can you describe your production process?

Halten: I don’t start the textbook way. That is, after recording all my interviews and location ambiences, I don’t make a detailed transcript, like radio courses teach. I have pretty good memory of the interviews I’ve recorded, including the best comments and what would make a good opening or closing statement. So I just jump in, doing what I imagine a sculptor does: chipping away at the material until a shape begins to emerge. As it does, two important parts of the post production process come into play.

First, I prefer a piece to be self-narrated — meaning the characters I’ve interviewed tell the story instead of the traditional voice of a narrator. That format takes longer because you’ve got to assemble all the pieces so that it makes sense without using a narrator for transitions and to move the story along. Second, because strong sound design usually plays a big part, I spend lots of time searching for music, sound effects and archival audio that will enhance a piece.

Q4. You’ve produced work for AARP, public radio and other venues. Do you line up a place to air your work prior to beginning? Or do you produce the piece and then contact various places to see if they’re interested? (Sorry – I know nothing about radio production and how that all happens.)

Halten: Here again, I’m kind of a renegade. The traditional route for independent public radio producers is to pitch an idea to a program. If the program gives a green light to start, the producer works closely with a show’s editor right up until completion.

I’ve tried that and didn’t have much success. Which is why I just decided to produce pieces my way and then try to find an audience. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant. It’s because I’m older and don’t have the time, or patience, to take baby steps up the ladder like somebody in their 20’s.

Of course, this pretty much excludes me from mainstream NPR shows. But I’d rather produce the stories I like the way I want, even if means they’re exposed to fewer ears.

Okay, in the name of full disclosure, I confess I’m able to work like this only because I’m semi-retired. And while I do make some money from work that airs, I don’t rely on it to make a living. For me, first and foremost, it’s a labor of love.

Q5. What type of gear do you use for your audio stories?

Halten: Various digital recorders with flash memory, such as the Sony PCM-10, which isn’t much bigger than a deck of cards. I put everything together using Pro Tools software on a Mac.

The affordability of equipment is one of the reasons I love working in radio. I always had a fantasy of directing and editing a film. With radio I don’t need a truck full of expensive equipment, a crew and deep pockets. I can fund it and do it all myself.

Besides, I started in radio at age 16, working after school and weekends as a DJ at my hometown station. Now, after a long career in advertising, I see what I’m doing as coming full circle. A return to my radio roots.

Q6. Plans for future audio stories?

Halten: I’ve got some germs of ideas, but nothing that’s going anywhere at the moment. However, if anybody you know has had a bad experience with the prescription sleep med Ambien, please email me at ambiendreams11@gmail.com

Are You Ready?

I’m covering two high school football teams this year. Both are entering the playoffs for the Colorado state championship. Football is an amazing sport to photograph because the energy level runs so high. There’s nothing like being on the sidelines in a big game – you can almost touch the excitement and smell the passion. I tried to capture a bit of that experience in this 30-second short for one team — designed to energize the team on their journey. Good luck guys! Go Mustangs!

Kelly Creedon: We Shall Not Be Moved

Kelly Creedon is a documentary storyteller based in the Boston area. She has a strong interest in community organizations and has combined that interest with photography. Examples of her work can be found at We Shall Not Be Moved, a multimedia collaboration with City Life/Vida Urbana, a community group that helps people organize and fight back against banks when their houses are in or nearing foreclosure. One of Creedon’s stories on the site profiles Marshall Cooper, a 75-year-old man facing eviction from his home after falling behind on mortgage payments after paying the medical expenses of his aging parents.

Kelly agreed to provide some background information about her work on We Shall Not Be Moved.

Q1. Tell me about the documentary projects that you’re doing for nonprofits.

Creedon: I studied print journalism as an undergraduate, but spent a lot of time during college learning about issues of social justice, privilege, and inequality. When I graduated, I was more interested in community organizing and grassroots movements than straight journalism, so I started working in community media, organizing, and education. I’ve always felt drawn to photography and am always captured by the human stories behind any issue, so I ultimately went back to school at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in 2008 to study documentary photography and become a better storyteller.

Now, I’m focusing on using my skills as a visual storyteller in support of organizations and movements doing important work for social justice. My projects range from straight still photography to audio slideshows and, more recently, multimedia work that incorporates some video as well. I work with my nonprofit and grassroots clients and partners to develop stories that will help their audiences connect on a human level to the issues and projects they’re working on. My goal is to strike the balance between being a sustainable small business owner and making this kind of work available and accessible to organizations with limited means.

Q2. What’s the origin of your project entitled We Shall Not Be Moved?

Creedon: I began the We Shall Not Be Moved project in early 2009. I had collaborated on a story about a man who was facing eviction after being foreclosed on when his wife died of cancer and he could no longer keep up with the mortgage. He was part of a group called City Life/Vida Urbana that was helping people organize and fight back against the banks. After the story was done, I approached them to learn more about their work and was really moved by some of the stories of people within the movement. I asked the organization if they would be open to me doing some sort of more in-depth project that really told the stories of some of their members as they unfolded over time, and we developed a partnership that has evolved over the past two and a half years.

When I began the project, I spent a lot of time just showing up to meetings, listening, and talking to people. I needed to educate myself about the situation and to gain people’s trust. Foreclosure is an issue that brings with it a lot of guilt and shame, so it was challenging to find people who were willing to share their story so publicly. But most of the people I’ve interviewed over the course of the project have become leaders within this movement, and that process became the part of the story that was most interesting to me. I find it really fascinating and inspiring to see how people, through the act of confronting a devastating moment like foreclosure, find the courage to speak out, tell their story, and become advocates for themselves and their communities.

This project is a partnership with the nonprofit group, City Life/Vida Urbana, but I’ve been fortunate to be able to fund it primarily through grants from Mass Humanities and the Puffin Foundation. In that way, it’s more of an independent project than many of my collaborations with nonprofit clients. City Life/Vida Urbana has been a great and supportive project partner, but I’ve made all of the editorial decisions on the project.

Q3. How did your connection with PBS happen? What was that experience like?

Creedon: PBS Newshour was doing a piece on City Life/Vida Urbana and came to film at one of the weekly member meetings. I introduced myself and told them about my project, and we exchanged contact information. They reviewed my work and decided to run some of it on the web as a complement to their TV broadcast piece. I was glad to have that kind of national exposure from such a well-respected outlet.

Q4. On a technical front – what type of gear do you use? Are there any tools that you regard as absolutely essential to your type of work? What do you rely on the most for your productions?

Creedon: Currently I shoot a Nikon D90 with a few different lenses, mostly in the wide to normal range. I like to be in the middle of whatever is going on and shoot up close whenever I can. For audio, I use a Marantz PMD660 recorder, with either a standard omni microphone or a shotgun, depending on the situation. For software, I do audio editing in the free Audacity program, and most of my audio slideshows are done in Soundslides. I’ve been transitioning to Final Cut Pro recently, which opens up a lot of different options, but I still think Soundslides is a great piece of software and really lowers the learning curve for people who are new to this kind of work.

In general, I try to keep things technically pretty simple. Because I focus on working with nonprofits and grassroots organizations, I don’t have much of a budget to be upgrading my gear and software. But I also believe that good work can be produced with minimal equipment, so I try to focus on creating the best work I can with the limited gear I have, rather than relying on new gear to solve my technical and creative problems.