Teaching Examples

Three ideas to improve your motion video
June 22, 2007, 7:41 pm
Filed under: photography, storytelling, video

A really nice column by my friend Regina McCombs: Meaning in Motion: Ken Burns and His “Effect.”

Burns believes the photograph is still the core of visual storytelling, that “the still image is still the essential building block, the DNA, at least photographically speaking, of visual creation.” From that foundation emerge three concepts to consider when working with movement and photography.

Yes, she interviewed Ken Burns about the Ken Burns Effect!

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An instant classic in online journalism
June 8, 2007, 1:34 am
Filed under: design, journalism, online, storytelling, video

Destined to be one of the great online projects —

6 Billion Others

The site has a very beautiful design. What a pleasure it is to explore.

(Link poached from Fabian Mohr.)

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Visual literacy in multimedia journalism
May 25, 2007, 2:43 pm
Filed under: education, graphics, ideas, storytelling

Building on my earlier post: How do we tell stories visually?

Let me begin with still photos. I know that many photographers like to put up a photo as a stand-alone, a work that answers to itself. In an art gallery, I can appreciate that. But it’s not a story, any more than a painting is a story all by itself. There’s a story in it, but it’s not told by the image alone. (You can infer a story from a single image, but that’s usually as far as it can go.)

Move on to the photo story, an established story form in journalism (Kenneth Kobré traces its origin to Life magazine in 1936 and the form we know today to 1948). Page layout contributes much to the print photo story, but it must also have words. Not necessarily a lot of words — but it’s just not a story if we don’t understand what’s going on in the images.

I’d like to ask you to think about comic strips, comic books, manga and graphic novels. In their more detailed sequences (more detailed, that is, than a photo story), they do occasionally tell a complete story without using any words at all. But only occasionally. (Manga do this especially well.)

My point: It’s hard to tell a story without words. The visuals do a lot of the work in storytelling, but rarely can they carry the full weight of the story without help.

When we add motion, however, some of our reliance on words can be eliminated.

I was thinking about this last night as I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. The early scenes are so short, with so few words — it’s the kind of opening that leaves you totally lost when you’re a kid. (You ask your parents, “What’s happening?” and they say “Shh!”) But as you learn the grammar of film, you get more out of such terse scenes.

Then I went back to the list of seven visualization types (sketches, diagrams, images, maps, objects, interactive visualizations, stories) and started mulling over each one of them. I was thinking, for example, “When is an interactive visualization not a story?” I was thinking, “Doesn’t a diagram tell a story?”

That’s when I arrived at this idea about completeness, or fullness, of a story. Go back to a single photograph, alone on a wall, without any caption. There’s probably a story there. But I don’t know what it is.

This brings me to maps. A map alone doesn’t tell a story. Some words are needed. But an animated map can tell a story — with very few words, or maybe no words at all.

A chart or graph can tell a story with very few words. An animated graphic can sometimes tell the story more effectively. Why? It leads you through a sequence of events (Update: That link needed to be replaced). It begins with a small amount of information and builds on that. It can end with an obvious climactic event (such as a steep plunge in the stock market, or a large increase in toxic gases) that illustrates a result, a conclusion. (Learn more from one of the great online infografistas, Alberto Cairo, in an OJR interview.)

I arrived at some questions we can ask when we are planning to tell a story:

  1. Can I use any kind of images or graphics to tell this story?
  2. Can motion help tell this story? Does any kind of motion — in space, or in time — play a part in the story?
  3. How many words are really necessary? (Let’s cut out as many words as possible without losing clarity.)

Do not underestimate the role of motion in visual storytelling. Do not overestimate the role of words, whether in text or in audio.

Let’s work on editing our multimedia the way we edit a text story: Omit unnecessary words. Get to the point. If establishing a mood or a scene helps advance the story, then do it. Anything that doesn’t contribute to the actual story you’re telling right now — cut it out.

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Visual literacy: Do you have it?
May 25, 2007, 4:27 am
Filed under: education, graphics, ideas, storytelling

There are seven visualization types, according to a demo tutorial at the Visual-Literacy.org e-learning course:

  1. Sketches
  2. Diagrams
  3. Images
  4. Maps
  5. Objects
  6. Interactive visualizations
  7. Stories

I found this interesting because I am fond of telling people there are five online media types:

  1. Text
  2. Photos
  3. Graphics
  4. Audio
  5. Video
  6. User interaction

(Yes, I know that’s six, but user interaction might include any or all of the others, while any of the others might exist without any significant interaction. So, um, call it five plus one.)

From my point of view, graphics can be either animated or static. Video and animation are not in the same class, as I see it. Neither do video and still photography overlap — you might disagree, but I find them to be opposites. Video is moving and alive, immersive, fluid; photography is a way of freezing the world, stopping time, making us appreciate a single instant that otherwise we might never see.

As I continued poking around at Visual-Literacy.org, I found a Breeze presentation (how I hate those!) in which a lecturer listed six “static” visualization fields:

  1. Art
  2. Advertising
  3. Graphic design
  4. Visual communication
  5. Information design
  6. Film

He went on later to list “interactive” visualization fields:

  1. Interaction design
  2. Game design
  3. Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
  4. Medical visualization
  5. Scientific visualization
  6. Computer graphics
  7. Information visualization
  8. Human-computer interaction (HCI)
  9. Virtual reality
  10. Augmented reality
  11. Storytelling
  12. Knowledge visualization

As you might imagine, the presentation degraded after this list. Having two lists is one thing, and not a bad idea. Having 12 things on one list is not going to help people learn very well. (Talk about a need for good information design!)

In an online text called Literacy in the Digital Age, I found this —

Students who are visually literate:

1. Have working knowledge of visuals produced or displayed through electronic media

  • Understand basic elements of visual design, technique, and media.
  • Are aware of emotional, psychological, physiological, and cognitive influences in perceptions of visuals.
  • Comprehend representational, explanatory, abstract, and symbolic images.

2. Apply knowledge of visuals in electronic media

  • Are informed viewers, critics, and consumers of visual information.
  • Are knowledgeable designers, composers, and producers of visual information.
  • Are effective visual communicators.
  • Are expressive, innovative visual thinkers and successful problem-solvers.

If you’re wondering where all this is leading — so am I. But I can tell you, it’s those last three I’m very concerned about. I think the college students I see every day are pretty savvy visual consumers, but they’re not the producers I’d like them to be. They can stick things on a MySpace page, but they can’t necessarily conceive and execute a visual project. They write, but they don’t sketch.

You may want to tell me this is my job — as a journalism educator, I need to get them up to speed on this visual stuff. I won’t say you’re wrong. But they can’t even sketch.

I have no solutions yet. I’m thinking about it. Any ideas?

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Photojournalism: American Diversity Project
May 22, 2007, 3:02 pm
Filed under: Flash, journalism, multimedia, online, photojournalism, storytelling

The 2007 American Diversity Project is set in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It’s a photojournalism package with audio, multimedia, and traditional (silent) photo stories that documents a place.

2007 American Diversity Project
The photo work is excellent, well worth a look.

The Flash package has some very good points and a few unfortunate bits.

Good points: Single-screen interface, no pop-up windows, no scrolling. Easy to use, consistent. The interface does not interfere with the stories or your experience of viewing, listening and reading. SEPARATE HTML PAGES: This is AWESOME. It means you can bookmark, for example, Stories or Multimedia or Photographers. Each segment has its own unique URL. Too cool!

2007 American Diversity Project
Unfortunate bits: The package design is too tall for 1024 x 768 (but the width is perfect). It is only just barely too tall — but the menu and navigation for almost everything in the package is at the BOTTOM. This became increasingly frustrating for me the longer I spent in the package. The tiny overflow in height would not have been a real problem except that I had to scroll to navigate on every single segment.

The maximum dimensions my screen can accommodate at 1024 x 768: 1005 pixels in width, 588 pixels in height. According to recent stats at Browser News, about 81 percent of today’s Web page accesses show a monitor resolution of 1024 x 768. PLEASE convey this information to your designers and multimedia producers!

2007 American Diversity Project
The text has that slightly blurry problem that Flash text is prone to if you don’t make the proper choices while authoring in Flash. In other words, you don’t need to settle for fuzzy fonts in Flash! But you have to know what to do to ensure that the text is sharp and clear.

For me, the site menu had too many items on it. I would rather have seen section pages that clustered the photo work, the “about” materials, and the backgrounders.

Also, what about a map, folks? Where is Clarksdale, Mississippi?

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Video storytelling tips from a veteran reporter
May 21, 2007, 1:31 pm
Filed under: journalism, storytelling, training, video

When Ken Speake was a young TV reporter, he received a bit of criticism from an older, wiser journalist: “You don’t have a style.” To improve, he was told to choose two reporters he really liked, then watch and analyze everything they did for two weeks.

At the end of the two weeks, he reported back to his mentor, who gave him his next task: “Now copy them.”

In this way, young grasshopper, you too can improve.

I was introduced to the work of Ken Speake in a column written by Al Tompkins a few months ago. What I didn’t learn from the column was how humble — and how sincere — Speake is. What’s more, he’s a natural teacher. If you get the chance to see him, go.

Preparation. Everyone tells us about the importance of luck and hard work in journalism. A veteran such as Speake adds that it’s vital also to prepare yourself — so you know how to make the most of your good luck when you find it. Learn, study, think about options. Not prepared? All the good luck in the world won’t help you.

Curiosity. After years and years on the job, a journalist can think, “Ho hum, another state fair, another this, another that.” Speake advises you to find something in the story about which you can be curious. Work at it. No matter how boring the story is, instead of plodding through it with your mind on finishing it and getting rid of it, think hard and come up with an angle that makes you ask questions for which you don’t already know the answers.

“Everybody sees the ‘normal’ story,” Speake said. “I don’t want to do the normal story.”

Details. After showing a story about a crime scene investigation in an open outdoor area, Speake answered some questions about the variety of shots showing, for example, a police officer finding a bloody leaf and placing it in an evidence container; a checkered cloth stuffed inside a brown paper bag. These gave an unusual behind-the-scenes feel to the story.

“Detail makes all the difference in the world,” he said. Details not only allow the viewer to feel like an insider; they also add to the reporter’s credentials. That is, you are more believable when you supply important details.

Awareness. “Be aware of your surroundings,” Speake said. This means using not only your eyes but also your ears. “The best photographers shoot with their ears,” he said. The real story might not be where the camera is pointing — what you hear can tip you off to that.

I was struck by Speake’s obvious enthusiasm for the work he did for three decades. “Sound is so cool,” he said gleefully. He showed the same enthusiasm for a change in his job requirements — when he was asked to write his stories for the KARE-11 Web site. Instead of looking at it as a chore, he said, “I was excited to be able to add so much detail.”

Many in the audience seemed to be inspired by the examples Speake showed us. There were several questions about how he managed to produce such interesting stories.

One technique that came out was a real spirit of collaboration. “It’s important, when you start [at the scene], to talk it over with your photographer.” Speake gave a lot of credit to the photographers who shot the stories he showed (he didn’t shoot any of the examples he showed us), but he also made it clear that he didn’t expect a reporter and a photographer to go their separate ways. Sometimes one of the two must explain to the other exactly what he’s going after — and sometimes it won’t be completely clear until after the script is written. He also did not expect his photographer to be a slave to the reporter. It sounded to me like they were equal partners.

One of the most telling details Speake shared was this:

“I never know how I’m going to be able to tell the story until I go over the tape.” This might happen in the car, driving back to the office; he’s replaying the footage and watching it on the camera’s little monitor. What struck me about this statement was the openness, the flexibility, that it revealed. When he was out on the scene, interviewing people, discussing options with the photographer, Speake surely had a lot of ideas about the potential for this story. But in the end, he must defer to the visuals. He has to consider what the pictures show before he writes, before he thinks about what to write.

I’ve never had any broadcast journalism training. Luckily I had a good dose of film studies, so I know a little about framing shots and advancing the action visually. But this partnership between the audio and the visual, this mutuality of word and image, this way of choosing how to tell the story — it’s new to me, and very challenging. But it’s so cool.

Listening to Ken Speake, I had a series of tiny breakthroughs. Some things about video storytelling make more sense to me now, thanks to him.

One of the best things I gained from his talk was a new appreciation for how standard practices and “following the rules” might be responsible for some of the things that are so annoying about so much broadcast news video. Apart from the endless stories about crime and highway accidents on the local TV news, there’s that awful tone of voice so many reporters use. They “punch out” certain words in such an artificial, mechanical way, it seems as if they don’t even know what they’re saying. They sound inhuman.

Speake’s narrations had none of that. He stressed that video is more intimate than print, and you must “write the way people talk” in a broadcast script. He also emphasized the need to make a connection between what’s in the video and the viewer’s real life.

I don’t get that from most TV news stories. But Speake’s stories showed us that it is possible.

(Ken Speake spoke at the National Writers Workshop in Wichita, Kansas, on May 19, 2007.)

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Telling the story: When you don’t have it easy
May 16, 2007, 4:48 am
Filed under: audio, journalism, multimedia, storytelling

I finally got my hands on a copy of “Telling the Story: The National Public Radio Guide to Radio Journalism,” published in 1983.

In general, the more powerful the event, the easier it will be to do a story, because strong stories tell themselves. If you are working on a story about prison conditions and a riot breaks out, your only problems are getting to the riot, recording the right sounds, asking the right questions of the right people and getting out in one piece. But if the prison is quiet, you will have to look for the events that evoke prison life — perhaps the slow movement of a new prisoner through a tough entry procedure, or the sounds of the night lock-up, or the sermon at Sunday chapel, or the conversations of guards and prisoners about past events. (Chris Koch, p. 3)

It’s hard to teach this stuff. You can go out and interview one or two people, edit the audio nicely, and put it together with some photos — but have you told a story? I’m teaching a new course in the fall and I want to make sure we are continually reminding ourselves that the ultimate goal is to tell a story.

While we want to prepare students to cover real breaking news well, I think it’s important to admit that the bulk of daily journalism is NOT breaking news. If it’s breaking, like Koch says, you have to hustle your butt to the scene, try to see and hear everything, gather as much video, audio, photos and notes as possible, and get out in time to post to the Web, edit tape, write a story for tomorrow’s print edition.

But most stories are harder than that — even though they are easier in the sense that the reporter is not under the same pressure.

You can waste time trying to do news stories on vague ideas…. [P]ieces about poverty, poor education, crime in the streets, corruption, inflation, freedom of speech and other abstractions…. If journalists are interested in these things and want to do stories about them, then they will look for events. (Koch, p. 3)

In contrast to trying to tell a story without any events, sometimes we settle for relating events without telling a story.

I see this both with students’ work and in regular daily journalism. The subject might be interesting, but at the end, the reader or viewer is left with a kind of “So what?” feeling.

To combat that, we’ve got to be able to summarize the story and also why it matters. Okay, here’s a person who does an interesting job. You photograph, you gather audio, you have an interesting two minutes. About what? If all you can say is, “It’s about these two furniture makers and what they do,” I think you should admit that that’s not really a story. If it’s about how they quit their stockbroker jobs in the big city to move out to the countryside and pursue a dream — then THAT might make a story.

I say “might” and not “would” because it all depends how you tell it. If the heart and emotion can be seen and heard, then it’s a story. But if it’s flat and matter-of-fact, it may all come to nothing.

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