Inspiration: Liz Baylen’s “Waiting for Death”

Wow. I really love this audio soundslide project by Liz O. Baylen. Hat’s off to Liz for putting this simple, elegant, thoughtful collection of images and audio together.

It opens with an image of an elderly man – and the hand of a woman reaching across our field of view toward the man’s forehead.  Fade to black and the photo is replaced with sounds of breathing and a brief line of text.  The man starts a 30-second introductory dialogue.  You quickly realize this is the voice of intelligence and articulation.  He is thoughtful.  He is refined.  He is old.  He tells us he is about to die, perhaps within a year.  Perhaps he even yearns for death.

As the narration continues, images bring us through the details of this man’s life.  Simple details of home, of books, of activity and space.  To me, these images perfectly frame the narrative.  They don’t lead us through from point A to point B to point C.  The narration takes that lead.  The images instead work to fill in details unexpressed by words.  The imagery allows us, as listeners, to visually scan this man’s world and piece together his past, his passions, his loves.  Liz Baylen could have inserted the backstory of this man’s life: he married X person and lived in Y town, working in Z career, etc.  Instead, Liz provided images of the remnants of such a life (framed photo of a young woman), close-ups of books and reading materials, etc. that allow us to build up an understanding of this man’s history and personality.  Liz reveals the backstory via clues.

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

Concept

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).

Realization

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.

 

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

Introduction

The Audible Eyeball blog will cover the tools and techniques needed to create vibrant multimedia presentations, in addition to showcasing examples of outstanding multimedia presentations for inspiration.

Tools: the blog will discuss equipment options for audio capture (e.g., digital recorders, microphones), image capture (e.g., still and video cameras, lenses, lighting & light modifiers), and software to edit both audio and images for multimedia, as well as software to blend those audio files and images together into a coherent whole.

Techniques: it’s not enough to understand the equipment.  This blog will also discuss techniques for using that equipment to gather high-quality audio and images for multimedia (e.g., optimal placement of microphones for clean audio).

Inspiring Ideas: The blog will also seek out interesting & effective examples of multimedia today.  More than anything, this blog will strive to be a source of inspiration and ideas for people who want to learn and improve their ability to combine images, sound and graphic elements into a single package to communicate ideas and emotional experiences.

I hope you enjoy and contribute to the conversation.

John Walthier