Even though I’m not a technical person by nature, I am always on the lookout for new techniques that could be deployed to advance Christian documentary photography. Last week I had the opportunity to attend two workshops put on by Brian Storm of MediaStorm, as a part of the growing, annual festival called Footweek DC. As you may know, MediaStorm, based in New York, is one of the leading producers of multimedia content in the world.
The specific format for which they are best known, and for which they’ve received many awards, is a blend of still photography, audio and video. For a good example of that, check out above the presentation of Intended Consequences by Photojournalist Jonathan Torgovnik.
In this post, I’d like to share at least some of highlights I picked up over the roughly 10 hours of Brian’s lecture. If you ever have the opportunity to attend the program yourself, I highly recommend it. He explains these issues far better than I can, and seems quite happy to do so.
Brian’s fundamental point, which he makes over and over again, is that multimedia opens up a whole new market for still photography, but photographers must gather the content with the intention of creating multimedia, and not simply try to create multimedia presentations as an afterthought. He continually speaks of “working with intent”, which means always thinking about the anticipated multimedia product when you’re in the field making photographs and hopefully collecting audio and/or video.
As explained more fully below, there are many differences in the way the photographer collects content for a multimedia project, and it is very difficult to take a photo essay done for traditional media and create a multimedia story out of it. In this post, I will share some of Brian’s thoughts regarding how still photography, audio, and video should be collected, how someone like Brian pulls it all together, and finally how Brian presents the final work product on the web.
To punctuate the difference between still photography done for traditional media and that done for multimedia, Brian explained that when he turned the work of photojournalist Danny Wilcox Frazier into a multimedia presentation on “Driftless: Stories from Iowa”, in the 5:25 minute clip we studied Brian only used two of the still photographs from Mr. Fraser’s acclaimed book on that subject. The rest of the material—including dozens of photographs– came from original but unused images and new content collected specifically for the multimedia project.
One of the biggest differences is sheer volume. Brian creates the image portion of the multimedia work to move very quickly, not lingering for long on any particular still photograph. That means if a multimedia presentation is say 10 minutes long, which would not be unusual for a MediaStorm creation, hundreds of still photographs might be necessary.
Beyond volume, though, the nature of the photographs changes. Brian is guided by principles of cinematography as he lays out the order in which he wants the still photographs to be presented. So he cares much more about transitions than a curator would in laying out a traditional photo essay. In a related vein, he also seeks out the photographs leading up to and following the decisive moment. His projects likewise make use of rack focus sequences, where the photographer deliberately changes his focus over a series of shots.
Other images that already find a home in traditional photo essays simply need to be done in increased volumes. Brian makes liberal use of photographs that establish a sense of place, as well as those focused on the details. He uses portraits profusely, including sub-characters. Beyond environmental portraits, Brian likes to insert tight, clean portraits during certain audio portions that I’ll talk about below.
Brian, only half jokingly, explains that when a photographer comes to him with a project, and asks him to consider creating a multimedia presentation, Brian’s first question is whether the photographer captured audio. Unfortunately, the vast majority don’t. Without audio, the project never gets off the ground.
Audio comes in at least two flavors: (1) interviews and (2) ambient sounds. Brian makes use of other audio such as music, but that comes later. I have to admit I am really intrigued by this element because I truly enjoy interviewing people. It’s what I do in my paying job. At the same time, I realize some photographers are more comfortable being a fly on the wall that doesn’t directly interact with their subjects, but rather seeks to photograph intimate, unguarded moments. While that strategy is still necessary to produce multimedia product, the audio piece simply requires that you set aside time for a more formal and at the same time intimate discussion.
Essentially there are two different skills necessary for collecting useful audio: (1) technical recording skills and (2) interpersonal Interviewing skills. While we spent a couple hours talking about this during the program, I’m not going to capture much of it here because Brian has already written a well-explained summary of these skills on his own website.
The technical stuff seems pretty easy to pick up because frankly it’s a lot like photography. Positioning the microphone is key, just as positioning the lens to gain the right perspective creates the best photograph. Controlling ambient noise is like finding lighting conditions that allow you to use a low ISO and avoid visual noise.
The actual interviewing skills are not difficult to learn: doing so requires gaining a bit of confidence. The goal is to conduct an interview so the editors can use only the voice of the subject, and not the voice of the interviewer. There are some simple tricks that Brian recommends for interviewers to ensure the answers they receive can stand on their own. This includes such simple techniques at asking compound questions that require the subject to restate the questions in answering them.
In addition to collecting audio interviews, the photographer should from time-to-time collect ambient sounds. That’s just a fancy way of saying we need the noise that goes with the pictures. Every once in a while, the photographer needs to put the camera down to collect the background sounds that accompany the images.
One obstacle to collecting audio is that it requires its own set of equipment. Brian’s recommendations here are pretty specific: he does not recommend skimping. If you follow all of Brian’s gear recommendations, you’ll need to spend perhaps $1000 or more. Unfortunately, this venture of photography does require capital.
Even before attending the program, I have tried to adopt many of Brian’s written recommendations for collecting audio, and I have found them relatively easy to learn. For me, that stands in sharp contrast to the video collection.
This stuff intimidates me. With time, I’m sure I could figure out how to work a video camera. But the other required skills seem to involve a greater learning curve. Composition is still composition, but when you need to move the camera, you have to think about transitions in a way quite unfamiliar to me as a still photographer.
Brian talks about basically two uses of video: (1) video portraiture and (2) storyline shots. Here it may be necessary, if you are like me, to recruit a colleague to help you. Of course he talked about the new SLR’s with video capability, but also cautioned that the audio portion of those devices simply doesn’t measure up.
Brian’s idea of video portraits involves two cameras: (1) one focused on a environmental shot and (2) the other with a much tighter frame. For the environmental shot, an interviewer could probably set up the camera and leave it. For the tight shot, however, a cameraman really needs to be present to stay focused on the subject as he or she shifts around. The interviewer really can’t handle that by himself, because the interviewer needs to be psychologically more accessible to the subject than a mysterious guy behind the camera.
For the storyline shots, Brian tried to teach basic elements of cinematography in an hour or two. Unfortunately, much of it went over my head, not because of Brian but rather because I simply felt overwhelmed by the differences. It was like shifting from French to German. I picked up some very basic advice such as, don’t feel as though you have to follow the action: fix the shot in one spot using a tripod and let the action come to you. I guess I could do that. But in general, I concluded at least I would need to partner with someone else who has experience in video for the resulting work product to be good enough for publication.
Collecting Still Photography, Audio and Video All At Once
Of the fieldwork, juggling all the tasks involved in collecting still photography, audio and video is perhaps the most daunting. And frankly, this is where I believe the body of Christ comes in. The Lord gave us all different gifts, and I think this is an area where multiple people need to come together, each bringing their different gifts, that will make the whole of the effort truly outstanding. That said, I think it is possible, for example, to do the still photography and also to do separate audio interviews.
The order in which you do them, or indeed how you integrate these activities, obviously depends on the circumstances of what’s going around you. Personally I’ve felt that doing some audio interviewing first allows me to spend time with the subject to get to know them, and that time invested in discussion gives me all sorts of ideas when it comes to the photography. For long-term projects, I’ve done interviewing at the outset, then spent months photographing, and finally done supplemental interviews using topics I’ve picked up over the intervening months. Obviously this is difficult to do profitably, because time is money, but I find the extra time really improves the product.
The ambient sounds are much more difficult for me because I have to go in and out of my photography state of mind. When photographing, I tend to get into a visual zone where I am not paying attention to much else. That’s why in the past I’ve brought my son with me to gather some of the ambient sounds while I’m photographing. I just find that easier than trying to juggle the two.
I’m not embarrassed to say I couldn’t do what Brian does. Pulling all of this together is both a monumental task, and one that requires keen artistic skill. Brian and his team at MediaStorm obviously have a lot of talent.
Brian is very open to sharing his approach, but obviously what I’m capturing here is simply the structure of the work rather than the creative inspiration they bring to the equation. While some time in the future he plans to post on his website the well over 260 steps they take in postproduction, here are the 10 basic elements of his workflow:
1. Review all the images– he wants everything the photographer shot, and pares that down in a rough edit by perhaps half.
2. Review all of the audio and video — again just a rough edit.
3. Transcribe the text of the interviews.
4. Conduct a “radio edit,” which is organizing the story around the available audio/video words. The purpose here is to get the basic storyline right.
5. Conduct a team screening, where he asks everyone and their mothers to listen and comment on the flow of the story.
6. Find music to complement the story and fill the gaps.
7. Make the visual edit where he takes the video and still photography and lays it on top of the audio storyline.
8. Do the mix, where he combines the audio and visual elements.
9. Conduct another team screening that includes the audio and visual components.
10. Correct the color and other technical improvements.
Depending on the amount of content collected in the field, this can take weeks if not months to do. I thank the Lord we have people like Brian and his team who can do it so well.
Brian has put a tremendous amount of thought into how these multimedia presentations can best be displayed on the Internet. After years of experimentation with the available tools, he concluded that no existing media player did an adequate job for his purpose, so he created his own.
If you study the presentation on Intended Consequences above, you will see it has built-in a number of features you won’t find elsewhere. Brian’s player is especially well-suited to living in a social media environment. It has easy-to-use mechanisms for commenting, and indeed the player allows others like me to post the clip on our websites, while still allowing Brian to keep track of where all it is deployed. Further, the player can be completely integrated with websites like Facebook and twitter.
Beyond the features that allow people to share the content easily, what I find particularly exciting from the standpoint of Christian documentary photography is that he has built-in a mechanism for the viewer to get involved. And after all, isn’t that why we are doing this?
When I left the seminar last week, my head was spinning, but in a good way. I found the program enormously thought-provoking and inspiring. It launched me in the direction of thinking about how multimedia might best be deployed to advance Christian documentary photography. It seems to me this medium has tremendous potential to reach many people who might not be reached any other way, or at least not nearly as effectively. Of course while the technology changes, the message stays the same.
The challenge is to figure out exactly how to advance Christian documentary photography in multimedia, in a sustainable way. There was much discussion last week among the photographers present, most of them professional or students about to enter the profession, concerning the future of the business. In my next post, I will tackle the question of how multimedia can affect the business model used to produce and disseminate Christian documentary photography. In yet another post, I also plan to review at least one of Brian’s projects to specifically comment on the elements I think make them so effective.
In the meantime, I just thank God that Brian is so willing to be open about the work behind his work, and that he cares so much about the people in front of the lens who need help. He puts those people first. God bless him.