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.

“Easy Release” iPhone App

“Easy Release – Model Release App” for the iPhone or iPad ($9.99 on iTunes) is a nifty little application that helps you overcome this tedious element of the modern world. The software replaces paper-based model release forms, allowing the user to collect all information and model signatures on your iPhone or iPad, then email a version of the final release to the model (as well as store the release on your mobile device for you own records). The software comes with an industry-standard release verbage (acceptable as-is by Getty Images, Alamy and other photo agencies, or modifiable if you want). Features include:

  • Ability to take an iPhone photo of model and attach that image to the release
  • Email copy of release to model
  • Date stamp applied to the release
  • Photographer and model signatures captured
  • Space for Witness info

I like this App. It works well. It’s always with you (well, always with me since I always carry my iPhone). The only shortcoming is that you have to take a couple of minutes to set up the basic info (ie., shoot info like date, location, model name & contact info, etc) by typing it in, and I type into my iPhone fairly slowly. It’s faster to haul out a paper model release and ask the model to fill all that stuff in. But this App is slick if you get over that hump. And like everything, if you take the time to organize the info digitally, your releases will be accessible and in a form to distribute quickly later on.

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.

T.J. Kirkpatrick – Interview

Earlier, I posted a quick note about T.J. Kirkpatrick’s “Fly Away” short. Here’s the backstory.

Q1. How did you come up with this idea?
Kirkpatrick: I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind ever since seeing one of Richard Koci Hernandez’s “On the Road” pieces a couple years ago. He’s got a short section in that video where a cutout plane flies around his seat. So, it’s borrowed to a point, not unlike many other good ideas. I liked the thought of a plane breaking free from its confines, on a magazine page or pamphlet cover, and doing what planes are meant to do–to fly away. Going on to the flight I had an idea of finding a plane I could cut out easily, which happened to be from a magazine, and then just play around with where it went and what it encountered along the way. I’m a Monty Python fan and I like that oddball sense of humor, not to mention the stop action cut out sequences in the show itself, so that certainly helped inspire what happens in the course of the video. Everything was shot on a cross country flight between DC and Seattle last Christmas. It took the entire five hour flight to do everything, and I was actually shooting the last frames as we were preparing to land. That was probably the quickest cross-country flight I’ve ever taken.

Q2. Looks like you did props and took photos during a single flight — did you have this all planned out before boarding?
Kirkpatrick: Any props were found once I was on the plane. I had a small multi-tool on my keychain that looks like another key, but it opens up to a couple screwdrivers and tiny little knife blade (in case anyone is concerned about safety, this thing is really, really tiny: the blade is less than an inch long, and it’s all the size of an actual key. You stand a greater chance of being injured by the plastic spork that comes with a hot meal). That’s what I used to cut out the plane and everything else. I have a little bit of gaffer’s tape in all my bags (’cause you never know when you’ll need that stuff) and used it to help stick the plane to the back of the seat for those shots. There wasn’t much planning to do, since I was relying on finding a little plane I could cut out of an actual magazine on the flight. I had some ideas of what I wanted the plane to do–fly around the back of the seat, travel through the magazine itself, and ultimately fly away from the magazine. But I figured out the details as I was going along. I couldn’t have predicted getting a magazine with Shaun White to use as a monster, or an ad pitting a businessman against a sumo wrestler, but I was happy to discover them.

Q3. What equipment did you use? (Camera and software)
Kirkpatrick: Everything was shot with a Lumix LX5 (the camera that happened to be most accessible) and processed with Lightroom for basic toning, black and white conversion and output to a manageable file size. In all, there were about 500 images that went in to FCP to make the final video, though with some sections cut that total is probably closer to 350 or 400 in the final piece. Thinking back, my usual gear (Canon 5D mark II) probably would have been too cumbersome in the tight space of a coach seat to be of much use for this piece.

Q4. What’s the trick to successful time lapse photography?
Kirkpatrick: This is the first time lapse or stop motion piece I’ve brought to completion, so my advice is limited. There are some sections I wish I had shot more of, and I wish I had done a bit more planning for the transitions between sections. It might have been beneficial to have more photos for each of the sections, allowing the option for smoother motion, but I like the jumpiness of the final piece. I don’t think this piece would be improved with smoother motion, since the rest of it was done pretty roughly anyway. But the time lapse pieces that I find I like are pretty smooth, so this rough approach probably wouldn’t work so well again.

Q5. Do you find adding audio significantly adds to your work?
Kirkpatrick: Audio certainly can be beneficial to a project. Hearing the subject’s voice describing the story I’m trying to illustrate adds a very powerful layer to the storytelling. It’s allows for a very personal connection that is tough to achieve with just photos, and that helps me to convey a better story. I find it also helps me in the shooting process, because I have to be more focused to get good audio and more aware of where the story is going to be able to pair the audio with the photos or video that I’m gathering.
For this piece, the music sets the tone and does much of the heavy lifting for keeping that whimsical feeling going throughout the video. In essence, it does exactly what music can do in multimedia: directly influence the emotions of the viewer.

Q6. What type of equipment do you use? (Audio recording gear and software)
Kirkpatrick: I’ve used different gear for different projects, mostly depending on what I have available at the time. I’ve had a handful of little flash audio recorders, used some of the bigger Marantz gear, or just recorded with a mic straight into a 5D mark II (praying the whole time that the audio is actually useable). I’m in the market for a new recorder and I’ve liked the Marantz 661 that I’ve borrowed from friends a few times. As for software, I’ve used FCP and Soundtrack Pro for most projects, though neither of these are great for interview audio. In the past I’ve used Audacity, but lately I’ve been testing Hindenburg (http://hindenburgsystems.com/) and am liking how the software works.

Q7. I see some images in your stills section that area also incorporated in your multimedia slideshows. Do you shoot a project with the intention to images as both stand-alone items as well as parts of a larger project? Does working this way create any issues/problems?
Kirkpatrick: I work on projects as a whole, and the images that exist in both the still and multimedia sections on my site are the best images from a project that may have been developed as a multimedia piece. My hope would be that people see some of the still images, get curious and head over to the multimedia piece. Since a bulk of the assignment work that I do is solely still images, I need to have a representation of my projects in both a multimedia and still image gallery format. If an image, or a series, is good enough, I think it can certainly exist outside of the multimedia presentation. But beyond just happening to make good images, if I’m shooting a big project with a multimedia end in mind I still need to approach it like I would a story with no multimedia component. The multimedia side requires some more work and more material, but I still need to have the variety of images, key moments, and sense of vision that I would be trying to make for a project that consists of only still images. So, chances are I’m going to have work that I can present outside of the multimedia package. I’ve encountered problems in not doing enough work on the multimedia end, getting too caught up in the still photo side and neglecting to get enough b-roll audio or video, or shooting enough variety of still images to cover all the audio. And that goes back to what I mentioned earlier about just being aware of where the story is going to ensure you’re covered for stills as well as meeting any multimedia needs before you move on to the next part of a project.

Q8. Do you have any additional multimedia projects planned?
Kirkpatrick: I’m developing a multimedia project to go with the Tea Party work I started in 2011 (link: http://tjkphoto.com/#/Essays/Tea%20Party:%20the%20Movement/1/), and I’m creating some more of the fun little pieces like “Fly Away”.

Q9. Are you finding a lot of interest in multimedia work amongst your clients?
Kirkpatrick: I’ve been hired for a bit of multimedia and video work, but on the whole my clients are from the still photo world. What I find though is that my still photo clients are really interested in seeing the multimedia work that I do. It may just be a place to start a conversation about storytelling and some of my personal work, and it may be a spark for a new project or collaboration. Wherever the conversation goes, clients are always interested in seeing a project that goes beyond the still photos.

T.J. Kirkpatrick — Fly Away

Just have some fun with this one — an innovative use of time lapse photography. And maybe one or two many drinks on the plane?

(Note: you may have to drill into the “Multimedia” section of the website.)

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.

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“.

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.