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.

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.

Soundslides goes full screen!

 

As I was finishing up producing an audio slideshow for Spokesman-Review photojournalist, Brian Plonka, I came across this new beta version of Soundslides Plus today.I see Joe Weiss has been busy updating the program. One bad-ass feature is a new full screen mode. I have been waiting for this since he released this ground breaking audio slideshow production tool in 2005. I downloaded the beta and I converted Plonka’s project to the new version without any problems. The scrubber bar now sports a small icon to go full screen, which is actually more like triple the normal 600-pixel size. The picture quality holds up great and my show plays smoothly on my cable modem. Weiss says he has made over 50 changes to this ever-evolving program.

Some of the highlights:

  • Full screen playback (Plus only)

  • Multiple jpeg image import now available under the Slides tab’s “Add image” button
  • Re-importing shorter duration audio no longer resets timing points.  All timings are preserved now.
  • Application now correctly reads the EXIF image rotation data from imported JPEG files and rotates accordingly on import

  • Application now creates a .ssproj project file, this file will launch the associated project in Soundslides or Soundslides Plus when double clicked or dragged to the application icon
  • Application displays a warning dialog if quit with unsaved changes

  • “Clear recent menu” item added to the File menu

  • Project folder name now appears in title bar.
  • Fixed potential compatibility issue with the video plug-in on OS X Leopard

  • Improved error handling when importing images and audio


There are more than 50 changes, feature additions and fixes in 1.9. The full changelog will be posted with the final release.


Thanks Joe. Can’t wait for the final release.

 

NPPA BOP winners!

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The web video winners in the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contest have been announced. Washingtonpost.com video master Travis Fox, kicked butt as well as Getty Images Rick Gershon. You can view the winner’s list and videos here. Also check out the BOP TV winners. Lots of great video storytelling by our brothers and sisters in TV news. Congrats and high-fives to Angela Grant over at Newsvideographer.com for her honorable mention in the New Feature Web category. Way to go Angela! 

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.