Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lessons from the MediaStorm Methodology Workshop: Day 3


Day 3 at the first MediaStorm methodology workshop got technical. Here are some lessons. If you missed previous installments in this series, here are links to Day 1 and Day 2.

The emphasis of the morning was on the importance of audio. Audio, Brian Storm told us, gives your subjects a voice. But he acknowledged that it’s difficult to do. It requires that journalists learn new skills. It’s “a craft.” But in his view, audio is more important to multimedia than visuals. Without audio you don’t have anything cinematic. Audio drives the whole process.

In building a multimedia story, you start with what they call “a radio cut.” It’s the sound track. Then you layer images onto the radio cut. One track for interviews. Another for ambient sound. Brian encouraged photographers to inverview the people they photograph for 10-15 minutes. Think of the audio interview as an environmental portrait. The journalist should control the situation. Get close to your subject. Lean forward. Place the microphone two inches off to the side of the subject’s mouth, in the shadow of the chin. Hold it with your fingers, not in the palm of your hand. That way you’ll get good sound. Brian emphasizes that audiences are more forgiving of weak visuals than they are of poor audio. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to audio. If you can, turn off the radio. Stay away from a fridge. Beware the electronics in an office. Turn off cell phones. Look for places with soft surfaces to do the interviews. Set your sound levels once and leave them.

Remember, with audio you’re going to cut out your questions when you build the story. So don’t ask questions that lead to single word answers. Ask double-barreled questions. Ask questions in pairs or series. You’ll be more likely to get usable results. For example, “What is your name, what do you do and how long have you been doing it?” While doing the interview, think about whether you’re getting sound that you could use to open or close the story. Listen and think like an editor. Do not respond audibly when people are talking. Keep quiet. Ask sense-related questions. Ask people to describe what they heard, saw, smelled, felt. Ask for memories. Ask process questions. How did you meet, for example. Remember to record room tone for 30 seconds at the start and end of the interview. Finally, always ask whether there’s anything you didn’t ask, but should have, and whether there's anybody else you should talk with.

Separate from the interview, look for natural sounds that provide texture, mood, context or emotion. Record at least 30 seconds of each type of sound. Then provide an audio caption so you’ll remember what it was when you begin editing.

Photographers should have a basic audio kit of a recorder, headphones and a microphone. You must always wear your headphones when doing an interview to know what your recording will sound like. (I’ll provide a link to recommended equipment as soon as possible.)

Learn how to use your equipment so well that you can work with it in the dark. You don’t want to remind the subject that he’s being interviewed by having to mess around with gear during a conversation.

You can’t shoot photos and record audio at the same time. You need to accept that you will miss sound when you do pictures and will miss pictures when you do sound. Why not just do video, where you can shoot and record at the same time? An audio interview is more intimate than a video interview.

Brian advises that people should learn audio first, before learning how to shoot video. “Sound is the hardest part of the process,” he said. “Great audio makes great video. Video can follow.” Once a photographer becomes comfortable with audio, he said, they’ll always want it with a story.

Shooting photographs for multimedia is also different, because a multimedia story needs so many more photographs than a newspaper or magazine story. Ten photos exceptional for a magazine or newspaper story. In multimedia, you can use 20 pictures in a minute. If you shoot video, it will raise the quality of the still photography in a piece because you won’t have to burn off so many pictures to cover sound. Think on average three seconds per picture. That could mean you need 100 photos for a five-minute project. That’s hard to do. When shooting stills for multimedia, shoot like a cinematographer. Shoot wide, medium, close up and extreme close up for every scene. Use sequencing techniques to capture motion. Use rack focus (switching focus so that in one frame the foreground is in focus and the background out of focus and in another the background is in focus and the foreground is out of focus). Verticals don’t work well in multimedia. (Of course you can use them, but just as a rule the frame is going to be horizontal.) Always try to get copies of personal photos to have them available to help a story.

Shoot video for action/movement/immediacy. Be in the moment with video. Shoot still images for the decisive moments.

Shoot tight clean portraits of everybody who speaks in a story. Shoot them with clean backgrounds. Shoot copies of pictures on the wall, on the refrigerator, in photo albums, wherever you can find them.

When shooting video, don’t chase the action as you would if you were shooting stills. Let the action happen through the shot. Wait for the action to come to you. Keep the stage still. Start recording before the subject enters the frame and don’t stop until the subject has exited the screen. Frame each shot carefully, as carefully as you would frame stills.

Use a tripod. Use a tripod. Use a tripod. When you’re not shooting with a tripod, shoot wide angle and stay totally focused on keeping your body stable.

Don’t use zoom. Use zoom to focus between shots. You’ll cut between a wide shot and a tight shot. You need to shoot wide, medium, close up and extreme close up for every scene. Each shot should be from a different angle. Think 30 degrees different from previous shot. A guide is that every situation needs four different angles, eight unique locations and each shot to hold for at least 12 seconds.

We also discussed typography. It might seem obvious, but it’s key to make sure viewers will be able read text. If in doubt, make type bigger. Good web site for typography: ilovetypography.com. Another good site to look at for typography, Good magazine.

One tool that seems critical to help people work together effectively is Googledocs. This allows mutliple people to work on the same document. You won’t have millions of different versions floating around. I can attest to its value from using it for RedBlueAmerica.com, a short-lived national Web site I developed for the E.W. Scripps Co.

Another topic was interactive design. Too much to describe and too technical. A good Web site for technical questions: kirupa.com.

Finally, two more interesting sites we heard about: thebrowser.com and headbutler.com. Both worth checking out.

Onward...

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