Audio Storytelling Workshop

Transom.org, an organization that I would characterize as an “audio thinktank”, has just announced a 3-week “traveling” workshop to be held in New York Aug 12-30, 2013. Applications to this workshop will be accepted up to April 30th. A website with additional information is: http://transom.org/?p=33839, or by clicking the image below:

This 3-week documentary workshop will be co-sponsored by Transom.org, The Bronx Documentary Center and the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. The class format will be:

Week 1: Participants will be introduced to folklore and oral history approaches. They will also identify potential story ideas for the following weeks.

Week 2: Audio Boot Camp. Participants will learn basic audio skills such as: using field recording gear, approaching and interviewing strangers, writing for radio, voicing narration, digital editing basics. Each student will produce a vox pop and a promo. Audio Boot Camp will be taught be Sarah P. Reynolds (an independent producer and regular Transom instructor).

Week 3: Audio Narrative. This week will build on the audio skills learned in Boot Camp and will focus on storytelling as well as field recording, interview techniques, multitrack editing, and script writing. Participants will produce a short broadcast-quality piece about a creative person. The Audio Narrative portion of the workshop will be taught by Rob Rosenthal (founder of Transom.org).

Transom’s intensive “boot camp” workshops typically run for 2 months, so this 3-week format is somewhat unusual. But the organization is experimenting with some shorter-format classes (such as two 1-week workshops for which, unfortunately, the registration deadlines have already past).

Elements of Story

Here’s a short film clip by Liam Thomson that illustrates how images alone can tell a story.
 


 

It’s interesting to dissect the piece.  In the first sequence (0:00-0:45), we have a character,  a setting, and emotion (some unidentified tension & conflict) — but we don’t yet have a story.  Only the second sequence (at around 1:25) — the backstory color section — do we have enough information to establish story.

Interestingly, the ending sequence reverts back to B&W (2:10) to continue the original sequence — but now we have enough information (character, setting and emotion plus backstory) to have a rudimentary story.  A full story?  No.  But just enough to have some story.

And importantly, the cinematographer Thomson has created one other element: questions.  You can’t watch this sequence without wondering more about the context of the struggle between these two characters.  We see how the given situation is resolved, and the resolution (death and mourning over that death) suggests a connection between those characters that would pull us forward into the next sequence.

One final note: above I said “images alone” tell the story.  But that’s not quite true, is it?  There’s also a soundtrack.  Ask yourself, what if Thomson eliminated the sound?  Or replaced it with an upbeat, chipper soundtrack?

 

Aaron Huey and Cowbird.com

Aaron Huey is a photojournalist that I’ve followed for several years. He originally caught my attention with images he took of a journey through the Republic of Georgia (formerly part of Russia). His images were staggering; his ability to immerse himself into different cultures was impressive. Huey’s images from Georgia aren’t easy to find on his website, but I’m including a link below (unfortunately, this takes forever to load; but it’s worth the wait):

Recently, Huey has collaborated with Jonathan Harris, the creator of Cowbird.com, to build a community multimedia storytelling program that would give Huey and people from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota a platform to aggregate text, images and audio as a communal story in a single place.

The project, much of which is posted on the National Geographic website, is funded by a grant from the John and James L. Knight Foundation.  Huey, from what I can tell, is currently a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.  I’m interested in this project for 3 reasons:

  1. Why would Huey, who has access to the entire world (he’s currently back in the Georgian Republic doing something) devote so much time to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation? What attracts Huey to this subject? (He’s been photographing at Pine Ridge for 7 years.)
  2. Why would Huey, the photojournalist, cede “control” over his story to his subjects? The essence of Cowbird seems to be collaborative storytelling – or what I would call story sharing. How does Huey as a photojournalist see collaborative story sharing developing?
  3. What interest does Stanford, National Geographic, and the John and James L. Knight Foundation have in this type of collaborative storytelling / story sharing?

Cowbird.com claims to a free platform for people to share stories using online tools. Cowbird’s purported mission is to “build a public library of human experience, so the knowledge and wisdom we accumulate as individuals may live on as a part of the commons.”  I contacted Cowbird to ask more about their product and the community of storytellers that they’re building.  They’ve responded with some info – I’ve got some research to do and I’ll fill you in on Cowbird.com with a subsequent post.

I’ve also emailed Aaron Huey to get his perspective, but as I mentioned he’s on the road (and for him that probably means completely off the grid) in the Georgian Republic.  I’ll keep you posted on what I learn.

Kate Holt – Interview

Kate Holt is a freelance photojournalist who has covered Bosnian refugees, the sex slave trade and human trafficking from Eastern Europe and the Congo, and conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia. Ms. Holt reported for the BBC and The Independent Newspaper prior to establishing herself as a freelance photographer. She has been nominated 3 times for the Amnesty Aware for Humanitarian Reporting, as well as the Prix Pictet Photographic Award. Ms. Holt currently photographs for the international media, NGOs, and corporate clients and provides consulting services and media training for NGOs and governmental agencies. Ms. Holt’s website is www.kateholt.com.


Ms. Holt has incorporated various multimedia techniques into her professional work. I asked her about the market for that work product, and how incorporating audio and video with photography has affected her work.

Q1.  First, I saw somewhere that you grew up in Newfoundland (where my family originated). Can you tell me a little about your background?

Holt:  I was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) where my father was working as a doctor for the military and my mother was a journalist. As the civil war worsened they decided to leave – travelling first to Cape town in South africa and then on to Newfoundland.

My father had been offered a job working in Intensive care units and helping on the oil rigs. We inititally lived in ST Anthony and then moved down to St. Johns until I was 11. So yes, 6 years of my childhood was spent in Newfoundland – surrounded by a lot of open space and the sea!

Q2.  Coming from the still photography photojournalism world, how interested are you in multimedia? Are you seeing a pull from your clients for multimedia? And if so, would you characterize this as strong demand, or just some demand? Is your multimedia work primarily a personal interest or a professional “necessity”?

Holt:  I still believe firmly in the power of still photography – and think it still hasn’t a hugely important role to play in the media and as a communication tool in other areas eg internal marketting. I am actually starting to encourage a lot of my clients to start experimenting with multi media – by multi media I mean putting audio with still photogrpahy and creating short 3 – 4 minute packages. Some are showing an interest – some prefer to stick to stills.

I would say that some of the clients I work with two or three years ago were turning to film – but are now turning back to still photography and the use of multi media instead. Reasons being:

1. it is more economical
2. means they get the best of both worlds – eg a short photo film – but still able to use the photos individually
3. in some countries where internet is slower – multi media uses less bandwidth so is more accessible than films.

  

Q3.  I browsed through the Mogadishu project on your website, where you incorporate still photography and recorded audio into the final product. How did you approach the sequencing of images for this project?

Holt:  I try to tie in images with the audio – eg make the images relevant to the text.

Q4.  In Mogadishu, did you start with a collection of images and then build out the audio? Or start with audio and build up the images to support that audio? Or did you start with a blank slate and build images and audio simultaneously?

Holt: Start with a blank slate. Working in Mogadishu last July – time was very limited on the ground because of security. So we had limited material to start with! Sometimes content is never quite what you thought it would be so you have to be creative and keep an open mind.

Q5.  For your work, how beneficial is the addition of audio to your still photography?

Holt:  I think it adds hugely to the story telling process – and can be so much more powerful than film. One can say a lot more in a four minute photo film than you can in a traditional film.

 
Q6.   I also looked at your project called Fairtrade Tea, where you’re using video and some time-series still images. How did you find working with video different from working with still photography?

Holt:  Very – but I prefer stills! Although this was a fun project to work on and because of the interviews we needed, video/film was the only option.

Q7.  Did your thought processes change when you incorporated video vs. still photography?

Holt:  Yes, because you are having to work in sequences and think about interviews.

Q8.  Did you separately collect audio for this project?

Holt:  No – the audio came from the video.

Q9.  Are there any particular applications or situations that lend themselves toward multimedia (esp. in relation to still photography)?

Holt:  Yes – Soundslides is a great and very simple programme to use. Final Cut Pro — if you know how to use it — can create some lovely photo films too.

Q10. Do you have any new multimedia projects on the horizon?

Holt:  Currently working on two – one from Haiti with the Guaridan and another one about water exploration in Turkana, Kenya. Both are very different but I am using the same techniques and programmes for both.

The Art of Storytelling (audio course)

I’m listening in to an audio course entitled The Art of Storytelling, offered through the online company The Great Courses (www.thegreatcourses.com).

The Art of Storytelling consists of 24 lectures, each 30 minutes, which I listen to during my commute. The instructor is Hannah B. Harvey, a professional storyteller and performance artist. Dr. Harvey holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies/Communication Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and she is now an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State University.

As a performance ethnographer, Professor Harvey develops oral histories into theatrical and solo storytelling works. Her stories highlight the experiences of contemporary Appalachian people. More important to me, Dr. Harvey is an engaging, fun speaker to listen to. While The Art of Storytelling course is primarily directed at oral storytelling, I’m finding applications to multimedia storytelling.

Yesterday’s lecture, for example, walked through the ways to use time in storytelling to focus the audience on specific elements of the teller’s story. In addition to using just “scene time” (where time in storytelling approximates actual time), Dr. Harvey described techniques to slow time & accelerate time for dramatic effect. Dr. Harvey also illustrated ways to mix past tense, present tense and future tense in storytelling for creative purposes. I’m finding the lectures interesting: they bring up topics that I don’t normally think about.

Today’s lecture focused on the narrator’s role and tools available to the narrator such as switching between “closed focus” (the story’s details in the “then and there”) and “open focus” (the narrator’s connection with the audience in the “here and now”). Again, this discussion was interesting because I wasn’t conscious of how “closed focus”/”open focus” could be used creatively – but as soon as Dr. Harvey mentioned it I thought of Woody Allen’s opening sequence in Annie Hall. In Annie Hall, Woody first speaks directly to the audience (“open focus”) about the characters, setting and background of his film, and then Woody flips himself into a character (“closed focus”) for most of the film. Occasionally we hear Woody as narrator addressing the audience directly. It’s a nice illustration of Dr. Harvey’s “closed focus”/”open focus” narration technique.

I recommend this course, particularly if you have long hours to kill (like during a commute). You can get a sample of the product on the course website page. I also recommend that you wait for the course on sale. I paid $35 for the audio download during one of their periodic sales, but I see that right now that same audio download version costs $130. Finally, I got the audio download but there are a few spots in the lectures where video would be beneficial.

Documentary Arts Asia – Revisited

Back in August 2012, I encountered Documentary Arts Asia (“DAA”) on the web and was interested in the breadth of this organization’s offerings. I connected with Ryan Libre, DAA’s Founder and Director, and in an earlier interview he outlined some of DAA’s activities, including an artist-in-residence program located in Chaing Mai, Thailand.

Returning to the DAA website recently, I see some new activities, including the Chain Mai Documentary Arts Festival 2013 (running from Feb 8 – 14, 2013) and the first of what may be multiple Podcasts. I asked Ryan for an update on DAA.

Q1. Ryan, this is the 2nd Chaing Mai film festival, correct? Will the format (exhibitions by photographers, film screenings, and workshops) be the same as in 2012? And can you give us some highlights?

Libre: Yes, second installment. This year is different in that we have one of the best galleries in SE Asia booked for the festival and 5 partner exhibitions in additions to our 10 major exhibitions. We also have a proper theater booked for the films, a photobook showcase, and a great key note speaker, Shahidul Alam.

Q2. When we last spoke you had just launched your DAA Artist in Residence program, with the first artist (Sitthixay Ditthavong) having been selected. How did Sitthixay’s project work out? Do you have plans to bring in another artist this year?

Libre: This project is unfortunately on hold for right now. We have had no real funding in the last year and have managed to keep all our programs running but this. However im sure very soon someone will support this and we have have 1 – 4 AIR programs a year.

Q3. I also see DAA has begun a Podcast series. What’s on the horizon for the Podcast series?

Libre: Lots of in depth multimedia interviews with established and rising Asian photographers and others influential in the field.

Q4. You’re also seeking a sponsor for the Podcast series. What will that sponsorship involve?

Libre: Sure, it takes time and resources to do these justice. I’m hapy to give good PR and credit to any company or individual who can cover our basic costs to produce them. Win-Win situation.

Q5. Any other plans — either for DAA or for yourself — for 2013?

Libre: In 2013 DAA and I will finish a feature length Documentary on the Kachin Independence organization. (www.when-will-it-be.com) We’re also planing to get our center in Kachin State running full time.

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.