Know your story

A friend of mine asked me to read the first 200 pages of a novel he is writing and give him some feedback. I’m not a wordsmith (as you can tell) but I gave it a shot.

On critique day, I took a big sigh and gave him the bad news.

“I have no idea what your story is, nor do I care about your main character,” I told him. “You’ve written in so many dead ends into the plot that I’m not emotionally invested in the storytelling. I don’t think you know the story you want to tell,” I said.

Several weeks later we got together for breakfast and he told me my advice of know your story changed everything in how he approached writing his novel. He admitted that he was creating the plot as he was putting pen to paper. This, he realized, produced a lot of dead ends for the characters’ and storyline.

Know your story is fundamental to video storytelling too. Yet, time after time, video stories I review or judge in contests (and some of my own) are filled with meandering plotlines, too many characters, and failed endings.

Know your story

Before you shoot, it is important to have in your head, a solid framework of the story you want to tell.  Identify what the conflict in your story is,  then shoot it. Ask yourself: What is my opener? What do I need to shoot for the guts of my story? What’s my ender or resolution? You might not have all these worked out before shooting, but you better have by the time you finish pushing the record button. Few great stories are found in the edit afterwards.

Editing

Know your story. It will make editing a breeze. Focus on telling a story where you set up questions for the viewer, but then make sure you answer them. Intimacy and emotion rules with video, so edit those in not out. Keep focused. Tangents and redundancy are death in a short video.

It’s easy to get lost in all the small edits on the timeline. Make sure you always have a big picture of how your story is unfolding on the timeline.  When you’re done, ask several people to watch your video and tell them to be honest as to whether it holds their interest.  If your story does not work for them, then it probably won’t work for most viewers.

Producing Audio Slideshows with Final Cut Pro

One of a Kind in the World Museum

In 2005, Joe Weiss released Soundslides, a killer audio slideshow production program that helped transition many newspaper photojournalists into the world of online multimedia. Audio slideshows soon flooded newspaper websites. Its simple interface and even simpler learning curve proved a perfect match for anyone wanting to add an audio narrative to their online picture stories.

But times have changed. Many of those same photojournalists moved on to add video to their storytelling toolboxes. As they began to master video editing programs like Apple’s Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro, it seemed like a no brainer to use them to produce audioslide shows. I cannot say building an audio slideshow is easier with a video editing program, but it does afford you some added features that are hard, if not impossible, to replicate in Soundslides.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned when making an audio slideshow using Apple’s Final Cut Pro:

  • Soundslides is great at taking all the tedious production out of the process. It grabs all your photos in a file and automatically sizes them for the web. When producing in a video editor, you have to do all this image prep yourself. But it’s not too bad if you create a Photoshop action to automate the process.  I create a one-click action to reduce the image dpi to 72 and size to each photo to a width of 2500 pixels. This size makes the images large enough to use motion on later if needed.
  • Before you start to edit, it is important to set up your timeline as an HD project. It makes the photos look so much better, even after you compress the hell out of them later for the web. I generally pick Apple Intermediate Codec 720p30 from the “Easy Setup” menu. I think progressive timelines without the interlacing work best for photos. I’ve even used the XDCAM 1080p30 setting with great results.
  • As I assemble my story, I tend to build as I go. I start editing at the beginning with audio, then layer on my photos. I use the voiceover tool in Final Cut Pro to record my script narrative direct to the timeline. This is just how I do it. There are many ways to edit. You may like to have the whole project storyboarded out before you start your edit. Do whatever works best for you.
  • I try to scale up each photo to fill my Canvas viewer. This looks so much better than having black bars showing above and below the image.
  • One of the nice things about producing audio slideshows in a video editor is the ability to display multiple photos at once in the Canvas viewer. This solves the vertical photo issue of trying fill a horizontal space with a vertical rectangle. I like to fade in my vertical photos on the far left or right of my frame then fade in another image to fill the rest of the frame. Click image below to see and example of using multiple photos in one window.

 

Mount St. Helens comes to town

  • In Soundslides the default is to add a cross-fade to every image. I see a trend away from this as more people edit in video programs.  Most of the time I just use quick cut between photos. It took me awhile to break the cross fade habit, but now I see how much better a show flows without all that cross fading. It also makes it easier to edit to a beat in the audio.
  • I tend to edit an audio slide show like I edit a video story. I try to use sequences of images that help move the story through time and place. I try to mix up the photo selection by using a mix of wide, medium and tight shots just like I do with video.
  • Use motion on photos with caution. Most of the time, slower is better. You don’t want to make the viewer seasick. Try not to zigzag all over the place. Use motion on a photo to reveal or isolate something that pertains to the story. I like to put a very slow pull or push on a photo that is almost not noticeable. It adds just a little kick to a static photo. One last suggestion on using motion with photos; If you are pulling out on a photo and your next image has motion too, make that one zoom in; otherwise it makes the viewer feel like they are heading through a tunnel.
  • Finally, the other added benefit of producing audio slide shows in a video editor is that it brings all your multimedia under one player for your website. If your video player has embed ability, it makes it easier for viewers to share your story and make it go viral.

When Mount St. Helens came to (my) town

Thirty years ago on May 18, 1980, I was a senior in high school in Spokane, Washington. It was Sunday afternoon and I was still feeling the pain from a beer-induced hangover, you know, the only kind you can get when your best friend Russ throws an  “End of High School” party for the senior class.

I grabbed a cup of coffee and went out on Russ’s front porch.  Glancing up at the sky, I was perplexed by what I saw. Instead of blue sky, it was brown with a pillow texture to it. “ Must be a dust storm coming,” said my friend’s father who also had no answer for weird brown sky. Suddenly, a robin came fluttering in front of us. It dove hard, landing dead on impact at my feet. I gingerly picked the bird up and when I shook it, a small cloud of dust came off its wings.  What the…

I would soon find out that Mount St. Helens, 290 miles away, had literally exploded in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. The best part? A dark cloud of ash would soon turn daylight into darkness. It rained ash overnight and part of the next day. For the next week communities in Central and Eastern Washington banded together to clean up the mess. Ask anyone who experienced the ash fall and I’ll guarantee they’ll have a story to tell.

A week ago, it was politely suggested to me that I should do a multimedia piece for the Mount St. Helens 30th anniversary coming up.

“I can do that,” I said. “I’m sure we have tons of photos in the digital archive.”

A quick look showed only a few pictures from that time, many of which had been used over and over. A trip to the basement print photo archive left me nowhere. It was as if Mount St. Helens ash never came to Spokane. “ Where the hell were all the photos”?

When searching the negative archive, I found a week’s worth of volcano negatives missing from the box. About to give up, I walked to the far dark corner of the neg room on a hunch. I found a shelf of orphan negative boxes labeled with old projects I was hard pressed to remember.  Running my finger down the labels, I stopped on the three words: “Mount St. Helens. “

Bingo!

I think over the years and many volcano anniversaries later, long gone photo editors found that putting all the prints and negs in one box was a good idea. If I hadn’t made that turn into a dark corner, this audio slideshow would have been pretty lame.

My next chore was to find someone willing to write and voice a narrative that would reflect the content of the photos I had edited together.  My go-to guy for historical narratives is staff writer Jim Kershner.

“You wanna do a Looking Back piece for St. Helen 30th”? I asked Kershner.

Kershner had that “I’m swamped ,” look in his eyes, but he said he could probably crank something out by the next afternoon.  I asked him  just to just write the story of the first week in Spokane and I would match the photos up with whatever he wrote.  The next day as I was pawing through old unlabeled negative sheets, Kershner arrived with a killer script in hand. Only two takes later, I was ready to start assembling our St. Helens story.  I like to use Final Cut Pro as I find it gives me the most flexibility with photos. I can color correct, put motion on the photo, create multi-photo windows where I can time the show to the beat of the music.

The fun part of this story for me was being like a detective, where I had to find a photo that would match the narrative. When Kershner said “Soon taverns and golf courses began to reopen,” I was lucky enough to find a photo from that week showing rednecks covered in ash drinking tavern beer and a group of  golfers walking an ash-laden course.

For music, our company has an extensive Digital Juice music library I can use for multimedia projects such as this. I also used a couple of Garage Band stingers– short mood building clips–that helped set the ominous tone of the ash cloud coming our way.

All in all, it was a fun project to do in such a short amount of time.

Feedback website “Finding the Frame” launches

Finding the Frame, a website dedicated to giving feedback to newspaper multimedia producers and video journalists has launched.

My post in Mastering Multimedia last month,  “Video at newspapers needs to improve,” resonated with many people. I received lots emails from producers who vented their frustration at not being able to get feedback on their multimedia stories.

After a brainstorming session over a few beers, Brian Immel, a former multimedia producer and programmer at The Spokesman-Review, graciously agreed to build a website for the sole purpose of connecting those who need feedback on their multimedia, to professionals willing to share some time and knowledge.

Here’s how it works

The plan is to have onboard as many “expert” volunteers as possible that have solid foundations in video storytelling, audio slide shows or Flash projects. This pool of reviewers will peruse the submitted links of multimedia in the “Story Pool”. If they decide to comment on a story, it will then become public on the Finding the Frame home page where anyone else is free to give added feedback.

So why do this?

While most publications have driven head first into the online world, multimedia storytelling is still in its infancy at many newspapers. Unfortunately, not all people tasked with producing multimedia received adequate training or had the financial ability to attend a multimedia storytelling workshop. Many multimedia producers are self-taught, having picked up bit and pieces of knowledge along the way.

When I judge a multimedia contest, I often get frustrated at seeing the same problems in the execution of basic video and audio production fundamentals. Many photojournalists are struggling with how to tell an effective video or audio slideshow story that is different from the traditional still picture story.

Our hope is that Finding the Frame will begin to address the need for feedback and in turn, help multimedia producers improve their storytelling. Just read some of the comments by reviewers so far–you’ll be impressed. The professionals that have signed on as reviewers are the some of the top in the industry. If they critique your story, please thank them for giving up some of their precious time to help out a fellow visual journalist.

What we need

What we need is for enough producers, multimedia editors and photojournalists who have a solid experience with multimedia storytelling to step forward and share some of their knowledge with those that are looking for constructive, honest feedback.

So if you feel you have something to offer, we would really like you to join the pool of reviewers on Finding the Frame.

So go check it out and give Brian and me some feedback. Create an account. Upload a link to a video, audio slide show or Flash project. Be patient, as it might take some time for your story to get reviewed

I am not sure how many people will upload stories, so let’s take this slow at first. It would also be helpful if non-reviewers could give some feedback to others by commenting on their work.

If you would like to be added to the reviewer pool, register your account, making sure you create a profile and upload a photo of yourself or avatar, then email me at cmulvany@findingtheframe.com with the request.

This website is for you. We would really appreciate your support and feedback.

I do have the coolest job ever!

A slap upside the head always comes when you least expect it.

“You have the coolest job ever,” said a hockey fan standing behind me admiring one of my photos at the Spokane Arena last night.  I was on deadline preparing to transmit my pictures of a blowout Spokane Chiefs hockey game back to the paper when those six words stopped me cold.

“You have the coolest job ever.”

Up until that utterance, I’d beg to differ.  It had been a long 14-hour day and I was tired. I started in the morning shooting a freelance job. I take extra work now whenever I can.  It helps make up for the furlough days and pay cuts I have endured over the past year.

The economic trauma and turmoil facing my and every other newspaper in the country weighs heavily on my shoulders at times. When someone asks me why I entered the newspaper biz, I tell them it’s because I have a passion for telling stories.  Like any good photojournalist, I see the world a bit differently from most people. There is a creative energy that burns inside me.  When I put a camera up to my eye, life becomes my palette.  I felt it when I bought my first professional camera in high school and I still feel it today…well most days.

“You have the coolest job ever.”

As I sat there hunched over my laptop, awareness washed over me. Here I was at a hockey game that I didn’t have to pay to get in, surrounded by the best cameras, lenses and laptop that I didn’t have to buy. The only thing missing was a cold beer by my side.

Looking back over the past seven days at some of what I have produced for the readers of my newspaper and viewers of our website, I realize that I can’t let the uncertainty of the future kill my creativity. Today, I put a sticky note on my computer monitor that simply says, “Try Harder.” It is my little reminder  that  (slap upside the head)  I do have the coolest job ever!

These are some of the highlights of my past week– a mix of multimedia and stills.

Several dozen great blue herons were perched on pilings in the Pend Oreille River at Usk, Washington Tuesday, March 2, 2010. Area birding enthusiasts said this is the time of year large groups of the giant birds can be seen migrating and resting in certain areas, such as the Pack River Delta along Lake Pend Oreille. Soon they will disperse in smaller groups to nesting rookeries in cottonwoods or other woodlands near water.COLIN MULVANY colinm@spokesman.com

Tim Michaels, who lost part of his leg in a grain elevator accident holds a wooden foot carving a relative brought him during his stay at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash.

Videos: Click image to view.

The king of Cat Tales Zoological Training Center gets a root canal.

In the Kalispel Tribal Language Program, new Salish speakers immerse themselves in daily conversation with elders and then teach what they have learned in nearby public schools.

Photojournalism in the age of the Internet

I’ve been working on a presentation I will give next month called “Photojournalism in the age of the Internet.” In the process, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much photojournalism has changed for newspaper photojournalists.

With the rise of the  Internet, traditional photojournalists have been faced with a dilemma. Stay a purist to the craft by clinging to their still cameras or embrace the change by venturing out into the online world by adding video and audio to their storytelling toolboxes.

Back in 2006, I was invited to speak about newspaper multimedia at The Southern Short Course in News Photography conference. During some free time, I dropped in on a panel discussion about the future of photojournalism. The panel was made up of a stellar group of veteran, but mostly old-school photojournalists.  The room was packed, so I stood in the side-shadows taking in the conversation.

An audience member asked whether video was something she needed to learn. After a pause, one panel member said, “I don’t know, why don’t you ask Colin? He’s standing over there.”  All 200 heads turned and looked at me.

My answer made many people squirm in their seats. “Yes,” I said. “You need to learn video. You need to add audio to your pictures and yes you’ll need to embrace change.”

I felt a little uneasy as the questions kept coming at me and not the panel. I could sense that many people thought I was crazy. I started to see the panic in some people’s eyes. One woman volunteered that her editor at a small newspaper was requiring her on a single story to write it, take the photographs and produce a video. An uneasy murmur rose in the room. I could tell, my belief that video was important to the future of online journalism, was  a tough sell in this room of die-hard  photojournalists.

Flash-forward some four years. Whereas, in 2006 I was an anomaly, now most newspaper photojournalists produce some sort of multimedia, be it  audio slideshows or video. J-school programs have finally stopped wallowing in the past and are junking old curriculums for new ones that are multimedia focused.

Looking at the troubling position newspapers are in, one must wonder if all this talk of multimedia storytelling really matters. After all the rounds of layoffs, who has time to shoot video?

There are some days I wonder myself, but I quickly shake off the feeling. I have to remind myself that newspapers are awash in transition. As we near rock bottom, the economy is starting to show some life. I can only hope for some stability to return to the newspaper industry.

Today, if I faced a similar crowd like the one in 2006, I would say the same thing. Learn video storytelling, master audio gathering and editing. Embrace change. The future, I would tell them, is not in the printed-paper, but in the digital delivery that will eventually replace it.

Photojournalists are a curious lot. They are independent, visual thinkers. Most take photographs because they love to shoot and share their work. They know they’ll never get rich on this career choice, but instead find happiness in the people they meet and photograph along the way.

The disruption that online journalism has placed on the photojournalist, whose career choice was based solely on taking still photos for newspapers, has been gut wrenching. “That’s not what I signed up for,” is what I often see posted in forums dealing with the changes facing photojournalists today.

The technology being deployed is slowly changing the definition of what photojournalism is. Newspaper photojournalists are becoming multifaceted visual journalists who can now use a variety of formats to tell a story.

As lean as newspapers are running these days, I think we’re about to get a dose of “oh shit” real soon. Circulation is not coming back. Just look at the downward trend of the last forty years as proof of that. Our readership is dying off and screenagers are just not interested in buying the dead trees we’re selling. I think the last transition will be the messiest. More talented journalists will leave the profession. More photojournalists will become freelance wedding photographers.

What awaits those few who make it across the proverbial burning bridge is anyone’s guess. If I could flash forward four years, I can visualize in my crystal ball a world where newspapers have transitioned most of their subscriber base to the touch screen tablet platform that has suddenly gone white-hot with advertisers.  I predict these multimedia centric devices will need a steady stream of visual content.  And guess what?  Visual journalists, who honed their multimedia skills during newspapers darkest hours, will be there to gladly step up and help feed the daily digital beast.

Mastering Multimedia useful tips roundup

Many of may old posts that deal with tips about how to do video storytelling and audio slideshows get linked on a lot of blogs used by college professors who teach digital media classes. Most of these posts are buried amongst my pontifications about the changes facing the newspaper industry. So for anyone interested,  here is a roundup of my best multimedia suggestions and useful tip posts in one place…

How to make your audio slideshows better

Great audio starts in the field

How best to approach a video story

Sequencing: The foundation of video storytelling

How to make your video editing easier

Get creative with your video camera

Opening your video: How not to lose viewers

Random Final Cut tip: Lower thirds titles

What we can learn from TV new shooters