Me, create a multimedia piece?

This was the nerve center for the NPPA's Multimedia Immersion Workshop, at Newhouse School on the campus of Syracuse University.

In the put up or shut up realm, I chose to put up.

To explain: I wrote in this space a while back that I think most multimedia pieces are uninteresting. OK, I actually said most of them suck, because most of them follow an interview-the-subject formula that lays supporting-role video over the interview - essentially making visuals adhere to words, which I’ve fought for decades.

A lot of people responded to that post, some agreeing, some not. Among them was Seth Gitner, who teaches multimedia at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and runs the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Workshop with Will Sullivan.

Seth suggested I take the workshop to find out for myself what it takes to produce a piece. Seth didn’t exactly suggest that I put up or shut up on multimedia, that’s my inference and it became a personal challenge going into the workshop.

The workshop is designed to take multimedia novices - that’s me - and make them capable of producing at least a basic piece. Sign me up, Seth, I said. And thank you for suggesting it.

Time passed, the workshop came and went, last week. It’s a great workshop. Among its strengths is the coach to student ratio: 1:2. One student on our team of four couldn’t make it so I essentially got to work directly with University of Oregon Professor Sung Park the whole time. I’ve always thought that a good editor’s voice in a project could make the result twice as good as it would be without that voice. That was true in working with Sung.

The Workshop: Things began on Tuesday with an outline of the week, picking a story topic from a box, a series of how-to lectures and a practice video within each team. Field time started Wednesday with a Thursday follow up if needed - it was - and production was Friday, into the wee hours for most people. Saturday we got to see all the pieces done during the week.

Many of the 20 coaches also gave talks that were informational and enlightening, though I missed several of them while working on my piece. All of the coaches worked tirelessly and with great verve to help everyone learn and produce the best piece they could during the week.

We learned Final Cut Pro X, which I found to be fairly intuitive, in the same way that sitting in front of space shuttle controls would be.

What did I learn? Tons. About sound and moving pictures and considerations that are different from still photos and silence. And equipment. Oiy. Equipment out the wazoo. I learned this word: Frankencamera. Wes Pope turned my 5D Mark III into a sound gathering machine with two mics and a preamp somehow adhered to it. And I bought a video head for my tripod the second day of shooting after spending half of the first day’s shooting time adjusting the ball head.

In the end, I made a piece that I was happy with. Ironically the workshop uses the interview formula that I so despise, because it’s the most efficient way to teach the greatest range of skills, and produce a piece by week’s end.

My piece: Here's my piece and a link to all the other pieces done during the week.

I tried, in spite of the formula and limited time frame and lack of experience in the medium, to do a piece that met my standards for story telling and visuals.

Story is such a vague term that almost any approach can be called a story. People often use narrative as a synonym but it’s no more specific. My expectation is that the story, or narrative, creates an experience for the viewer; it’s not just a presentation of facts. Or, as in the case of interviews, the re-presentation of facts or experiences - that’s why interview based pieces generally aren’t engaging, I think. The narrative should elicit an emotional response, engage the viewer viscerally. And we should use whatever form achieves that response.

Making the visuals adhere to the audio often forces a compromise in what you see. If the interview-as-narrative talks about something that happened in the past, the only choice is to visually infer to that past, similar to an illustration, portrait or still life in the still photo world. Or worse, you have to show something that isn’t related to the words, because that’s all there is. Such visuals can be phenomenal, but not so often are they.

In the same way that still photographs of the moment are generally more engaging, so is video in the moment. Call it cinema vérité or documentary film or whatever, it’s life as it happens in front of the camera instead of being something created by the person behind the camera to go with a sound bite.

You can find scores of examples that contradict what I just said, of course. Time Magazine’s 9/11 piece is a good one. But such successful pieces are the exception rather than the rule.

Video should meet the same standard as compelling still photography - and audio. I reasoned that the medium is different but we should still strive to create appropriate compositions that feel three dimensional and use the whole frame. We should still strive to capture moments that can ebb and flow in front of the video camera. We should still see light and color and vary distance to the subject perspicaciously. No?

I tried.

B Roll? Coaches at the workshop told us to gather B Roll to support the narrative, which I translated to: Make the best video that you can to at least sort of show what people are talking about in your interviews.

The general practice in production was to edit the audio, lay it down on the primary track and then add video that went with the audio. And I guess that’s exactly the approach to use when teaching how to do this stuff. It works predictably well, especially when the goal is to learn processes.

For me, B Roll is A Roll. It is the story and you should do everything possible to create audio that works with the video, not the other way around. The goal should be to create a short film, not what is called multimedia.

After trying to put down audio first, I worked with Sung to instead create groups of video chapters, then moved those around to create a sequence, knowing which had native sound and which would work with the bits of interview that I did, regrettably, do. At the same time we crafted a transitional approach to link the chapters - quick bits of linked video. My interview lasted 8 minutes and 23 seconds and was the last thing I did with the subject. By then I knew what questions to ask to fill in blanks in the video/audio.

I missed Wes Pope’s talk during the workshop. But he had stayed with us a couple days before the workshop to edit his book on Route 66 so we got to talk at some length about telling stories with video. He mentioned five different forms that video story telling can take, including the interview and cinema vérité. (I wish I remembered the other three but they escape me.)

Strive to go beyond the interview form whenever possible. Please.

Did I succeed? Sort of. I doubt that my piece will be viewed by millions or go down in the annals of multimedia. But I did some of what I had hoped and there are some nice moments, a bit of good sound and it was a pleasure getting to know Musketeers Fencing Club. Will I ever produce another video piece? I don’t know. This one was fun and I’d definitely encourage you to take this workshop as a multimedia entrée.

Stay tuned.

Ahhh, Look3

How do you create long form visual narratives?