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.

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

Looking back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008

Looking back at this year’s highs and lows in newspaper multimedia, I find much to be excited about. My excitement is tempered by the growing layoffs that have affected many multimedia producers at U.S. newspapers– including my own. A year ago I would have said video storytellers were untouchable. In these challenging economic times, many newspapers have backtracked into full retrench mode as they prepare to make their final stand to save the traditional print product from extinction. This last year, online and photo departments got hit harder than expected. I lost seven of the 12 people I trained to shoot video. Other papers disbanded entire photo departments. For those left to carry on, I would say to hang tough. The need for quality multimedia storytelling is not going away. We will make it through this dark tunnel in time, so keep your video cameras and audio recorder held high. Here’s my look back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008.

  • Video at newspapers began to mature in 2008, as visual journalists became more proficient video storytellers. Though they’re beginning to master the basics of shooting and editing, there’s still much room for improvement. Tightening edits, writing better voiceovers and improving pacing and sequencing, should be on every newspaper video producer’s to-do list for the New Year.
  • Full screen video has finally arrived on many newspaper websites. Better compression algorithms (VP6 and H.264) and improved Internet bandwidth is allowing newspapers to provide decent looking full-screen video. At my newspaper, we built a video player that uses the latest Adobe Flash Player technology. Having hardware acceleration (player uses the computer’s GPU) and the ability to embed video anywhere on our new website adds up to a better user experience for all.
  • Video cameras are improving in both cost and features. Shooting HD video should be the norm now. It compresses better than standard def and looks stellar when played back on a hi-def monitor. But the big technology leap this year is the transition to shooting with tapeless video cameras. While most video producers are still shooting DV tape, a new breed of tapeless cameras is starting to make inroads. Canon’s entry level AVCHD format based HF-10 on the low end and the pro-based Sony XDCAM EX-1 on the high end, will soon make tape seem as dated a LP vinyl albums and Tri-X film.
  • Many newspaper websites have received redesigns that better showcase their multimedia. Unfortunately on many of these sites, multimedia is still considered an ugly stepchild to the word-driven content. Too many websites are not taking advantage of their growing video archives. Search on most newspaper websites is still an exercise in frustration.  Modern content management systems fix this by allowing tagging for all content. After a recent massive snowstorm last week in Spokane, we tagged all related content–stories, videos, photos and audio– with “Winter Storm 2008.” Click that tag on our Django based site and you’ll only get content related to that tag (way cool). On another front, most newspaper websites continue to be mostly shovelware sites for traditional newspaper stories. Their web-only content, like video and audio slideshows and database journalism is buried in a sea of links. Not getting the hits on multimedia? It’s probably because people can’t find it, and when they do, the player is crappy and the video compression sucks.
  • Audio slideshows have matured this year. Most newspaper photojournalists have become adept at gathering and editing audio. But many shows being produced seem lifeless and predicable. Deeper storytelling, better ambient audio, tighter photo and audio edits could help most audio slideshows. The Soundslides program went through a solid upgrade this year with the addition of a full-screen mode, but I am beginning to see people transition to producing audio slideshows in their video editing programs like Final Cut Pro.

Let’s hope 2009 has more highs then lows for you. I have had one hell of a year. I floated into and out of management, trained many in my newsroom to shoot and edit video, lived to see the long delayed Spokesman.com site launch. I said goodbye to two-dozen talented newsroom coworkers lost to layoffs. I found myself back behind a still camera for the first time in three years. Looking ahead, I have a strong set of multimedia goals I want to accomplish in 2009. I’m keeping my chin up–no matter what the future brings.

Great audio starts in the field

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times before–viewers will forgive you for bad video, but they’ll bolt if forced to listen to bad audio. Wind noise and distorted audio hurts the ears.  Have a video where the subject can’t be heard over distracting ambient nosie? I, like most people, just hit the back button on my browser. Here are some audio tips I’ve learned from my time behind a video camera:

  • I’ve watched too many videos and audio slideshows where wind noise has ruined an interview or mucked up the ambient sound. It is important to use a quality microphone with a windscreen to minimize this horrible sound. A couple of years ago, I climbed windy Mount St. Helens with my video camera. I bought one of those fuzzy windscreens that looks like a tribble (yes that is a Star Trek reference.) It worked brilliantly. For reporters stuck with a point and shoot cameras, good luck. Your audio is at risk every time the wind blows.
  • If you use a lapel or wireless mic on a subject, the rule of thumb is to place it at the second button on a dress shirt. Don’t place the mic inside the shirt or against skin, as that will add a rustling noise every time the subject moves. Listen closely with headphones for noisy clothing like ski jackets or jingly jewelry. You will beat your head against your keyboard trying to edit around these distractions.
  • Nothing screams amateur like a dangling mic cord on the outside of a subject’s clothing. Take the time and run it up inside the subject’s shirt or top. If it is a tee shirt, run the mic out the collar, and down a couple of inches. Pinch the shirt and clip the mic so that it is facing up. It doesn’t always look the best, but will give you better audio quality than if you just clipped it to the collar. Also, take charge of placing the mic. The subject usually has no clue of how to clip it correctly. Stringing it under their shirt, well, I’ll leave that to my subject.
  • If you are using a wireless mic, make sure to turn off all cell phones near the transmitter and receiver. Our company’s smartphones interfere with our Sennheiser G-3 wireless kits. This random interference will happen only when the subject says something profound.
  • When I shoot interviews with a wireless mic,  I record in two channels of audio ( I use a Sony XDCAM EX-1 with two XLR inputs.) One channel is the wireless mic and one channel is my on-camera shotgun microphone. That way if I get interference or distortion, I can use the other channel in a pinch. This has saved me countless times. This also works well for stories where you have one subject that you need to wire up. I have that channel always recording, even if I’m just shooting b-roll of something else. I can always drop that channel when I’m editing. Great things are said when the camera is not in the subjects face. Just remember to turn off the receiver if your subject heads to the restroom…
  • Get a curly cord extension for your on-camera shotgun mic. That way when you do a quick on tripod interview with someone, you won’t have to stick the camera so close to his or her face. A TV news shooter once told me that sound falls, so place that shotgun mic about a foot out and below the subject’s mouth. In other words, let the sound fall into the mic.
  • Always wear headphones to monitor your audio. Everybody that shoots video knows that, but not everyone does it. Nothing is worse then realizing you captured crappy audio and then having to spend way too much time trying to make lamb chops out of ground beef. Ok, I admit  it. I hate wearing headphones. Sometimes I get lazy, but one thing I don’t ever compromise on is wearing them during an interview. You can always fudge your b-roll audio by lowering levels, but rarely can you do this with your a-roll audio.
  • If you’re doing an interview with a subject outside, turn them away from noise like traffic. Shotgun mics tend to amplify the noise from behind the subject.
  • Nothing is worse than trying to edit a sequence with music playing in the background of several clips. The ambient music will jump around like a goldfish on a carpet. Which brings me to the first thing you should do when walking into a room you’re going to record in. Listen. Listen for hums, clock tics (my favorite), traffic noise, music etc. Try to minimize these distractions if you can.
  • Record a minute of room tone. You’d be surprised at how handy it comes in when you’re editing. Need a bit of breathing room between two clips of someone speaking? Room tone to the rescue. 

Got an audio gathering or editing tip. Share it here!

How to make your audio slideshows better

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When Joe Weiss released his audio slideshow production tool called Soundslides in August of 2005, I quickly produced my first slideshow of a grand entrance at a Native American powwow. I was amazed at how easy it was to put together. I didn’t need to know Flash or have programming skills. I had a feeling back then that this little program was going to change photojournalism forever, and it did.

Now two and a half years later, I think it’s time to take a constructive look at audio slideshows and review ways to make them better. One of the raps on audio slideshows is that they can be boring and predictable. I agree. I’ve watched hundreds of audio slideshows and it can be painful at times. But then I hit one that just nails it and my faith in the genre is restored. I have probably produced 75 or so audio slideshows. I understand the challenge of making a compelling narrative resonate with viewers. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over time:

  • I shoot the photographs for my slideshow like I  shoot a video sequence–by taking wide, medium and lots of tight shots. This gives my shows visual variety and allows me to cover my audio by opening with a wide shot, then transitioning to a tight shot of the same scene.
  • It’s best to open your show with a bit of natural sound rather than with a subject talking. The ramp up into your story is important. If you don’t pull the viewer in fast they will bolt. Natural sound eases the viewer into your story without jolting them with dialogue.
  • Stop having the subjects introduce themselves. Really, stop it! The biggest cliché in audio slideshows is the “Hi, my name is…” intro. Instead, use a lower thirds title.
  • Use passionate subjects for the narrative of your story. If your subject has a boring monotone voice, then maybe you should write and voice some narrative bridges yourself to help move the story along.
  • Like video, try to match up photos to what the narrator is talking about. The same goes for the natural sound.  When you do this, your story will really start to crackle.
  • Get yourself a decent flash card recorder. The cheap one makes your show sound amateurish. You use a  $3000.00 digital camera to shoot the pictures. A $200.00 recorder is a small price to pay for decent sound quality.
  • When you record an interview, make sure to do it in a quiet spot. Then add your natural sounds (at a reduced level) under the narrative to give it sound depth.
  • Record a minute of room tone wherever you are taking photographs. Use it to cover the sound gaps between or under the narration.
  • Never, I mean NEVER have dead air sound gaps in your audio narrative. Cross-fade your audio between clips or add room tone to prevent this at all costs.
  • Use a multi-track sound editor to do your audio edit. It allows you to add the layers of sound that helps you create a soundscape that rocks the viewer of your show.
  • Your final audio edit should be as smooth as butter. Nothing should take you out of the moment. I like to close my eyes and just listen to my edit without looking at the timeline. Hit stop when you hit a bump and fix it. The difference between a great edit and a poor edit is in how you do your final audio tweaks. Make sure to normalize your audio so that there are not low and high dropouts in the mix.
  • Make sure your show is paced correctly. Too fast and you make the viewer mad, too slow and you bore them visually.
  • Use music for a reason, and not because you need to make a boring show more interesting. Don’t use music to manipulate emotion. If it is not in the narrative or photos, don’t force it with music.
  • Finally, create what I call a nat/narrative weave with your audio edits. Start your show with natural sound, and then weave your narration and ambient sound in and out. The worse thing you can do is have one subject drone on for three minutes without stopping.
  • Other suggestions? Let’s hear them.