Multimedia storytelling


It’s called DUMBO – Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass. It’s a crowd of statuesque warehouses and fashionable shops. Here, you can buy a huge variety of attention-grabbing salads and 14 different kinds of bagels. There’s a range of baby shops and hardware stores. It’s gentrified New York under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn. And it’s here that MediaStorm has a multimedia workspace, on the 4th floor of 55 Washington Street.

It wouldn’t be New York without drama. Nearby the MediaStorm workspace, there’s a body lying in front of a small power station. It’s a man’s body. There’s no indication of how he might have died, but the cops are there in a huge stainless-steel Rescue Vehicle. They’ve put a stretcher on the ground, and they’re throwing rubber gloves and other paraphernalia into it in readiness to collect the body. I’m wondering if he was electrocuted. He looks fairly young and I speculate whether he has a family – maybe children. The cops are chatting. They’re just doing their job, and I walk back to the MediaStorm workspace feeling like we’re always on the edge of our mortality.

droppedImage_11 The MediaStorm space is a large open plan, with huge windows filled by the arch of the Manhattan Bridge. The work area is dominated by an enormous photograph of Jack Nicholson, a present to Brian Storm from German photographer Martin Schoeller – the subject of Storm’s documentary called Close Up.

According to the MediaStorm blurb, Close Up is: “A magnetic succession of stripped-down faces, straightforward portraits of the very famous and absolutely unknown. Close Up allows for a hypnotic exploration of the human face. Martin Schoeller’s portraits offer a study of characters rather than personalities while seeking to answer the basic question, what can you read in someone’s face?”

droppedImage_2 What can you read in someone’s face? Gathered in front of me are a small group of MediaStorm people – the Course Director, Jessica Stewart, Graphic Designer, Jacky Myint, Producers Bob Sacha and Eric Maierson, Intern Maisie Crow, and its President, Brian Storm. Brian launched MediaStorm in 2005, after two years as vice president of News, Multimedia & Assignment Services for Corbis, a digital media agency founded and owned by Bill Gates.

Brian gives little away with his face. At first glance he could be a boxer, or a football player. But he has a warm, engaging, infectious smile, and calls me “man” and “dude” a lot. His partner, Elodie Mailliet, is expecting their first child, and so he also seems to have that mysterious glow that seems to come with the expectation of bringing a new life into the world. MediaStorm’s principal aim, he says, is to usher in the next generation of multimedia storytelling by publishing social documentary projects incorporating photojournalism, interactivity, animation, audio and video for distribution across multiple media.

shapeimage_1 In 2007, MediaStorm won an Emmy for Broadband Documentaries, took first place in both the Best of Photojournalism Contest and Pictures of the Year, and won the Webby Award for the Magazine category.

There are six of us on this Advanced Multimedia Reporting workshop, split into two teams. I’m with Scott Lituchy, Multimedia Producer at West Virginia University, and Melissa Pracht, Publications & Content Developer at Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF), both very experienced multimedia professionals.

We are due to begin shooting our documentary project the next day, and so emails have been flying back and forth between us with several story suggestions. All three of us have been researching what we think might be a compelling story that we can complete in the seven-days and nights of the course.

droppedImage_1 In the end, we opt for Tic and Tac, twins who perform their acrobatic comedy show in Washington Square Park in the heart of New York’s famous Greenwich Village. But we all agree, if our film is to work, then it has to tell a better story than acrobatic twins performing a funny show – we really have to get under their skin. Our assigned producer is MediaStorm’s Bob Sacha, an award-winning multimedia authority with a Time, Life, and National Geographic background.

He tells us: “A strong story is more than 50% of the success of any multimedia piece. We’re looking for characters with compelling stories that have conflict and a narrative arc.”

This credo is reinforced by another award-winning MediaStorm producer, Eric Maierson, who says: “Every image you use, every video clip you include, must on some level advance the story – otherwise, it’s just technique, and showing off.”

droppedImage_3 Brian shows us some of MediaStorm’s work, including an award-winning video, Finding The Way Home, about a family reconstructing itself after Hurricane Katrina. “The video is not very well shot,” says Brian, who prefers imagery moving through a locked-off camera on a tripod to the cinéma vérité style of following each character with a hand-held moving camera. But even though some of the vision is shaky, the story is so compelling it almost brings me to tears. The point is well made. The story is so strong, and the images so powerful, that technique is an incidental conversation. Finding The Way Home – by Photojournalist Brenda Ann Kenneally.)

In every MediaStorm project I see, the mix of stills, video and audio is compelling. It works extraordinarily well. Why didn’t we always do it this way? Even though I take stills myself, I’ve always thought of photographs as being the things you put in a video when you don’t have archive footage, or when you don’t have video. Here, stills were being used in sequences, one after another, with strong visual impact

“Research tells us that people looking at the page of a newspaper or a webpage, will only look at a picture there for just 0.2 of a second,” says Brian. “In our work, we’re forcing them to look at a still for 4 or 5 seconds.”

droppedImage_10In Washington Square Park things are hotting up. It may be the end of Summer on the calendar, but no-one’s told the weather man because it’s 90 degrees (32 c) in the park, and kids are taking advantage of the fountain – Tic and Tac are preparing for their first show of the day.

Beside the fountain, the drums are rolling, and the the twins are calling the audience in. “It’s showtime!”

As promised, it’s a whirling, spinning, acrobatic display by the twins, interspersed with well-rehearsed one-liners. They’ve been performing since they were seven, when they bunked off school and danced for dollars on the trains. Back then, they made more than $50 from the passengers in one train alone. When you’re seven, $50 buys a lot of ice-cream. Now, they’re 34, and, by my reckoning, they’re making around $2000 a day from their very satisfied customers. But the future is finite – there’s only so long you can twirl your twin brother on your head when you’re 34.

droppedImage_9 So there’s the beginning of a story. My MediaStorm notes say: “Every story needs a beginning (set-up) a middle (conflict) and an end (resolution). Change is the key. The story must be compelling. The stories must have strong characters. How do they react in challenging circumstances?” I’m talking to Tic and Tac looking for the storyline… looking for the conflict and resolution. The setup is clear – they bunked off school and busked on trains to set themselves on the road to entertainment.

And then Tic tells me the story of how he went on the road for 10-months, and while he was away his long-time partner and mother of his kids got married to someone else. He tells me that story with incredible passion – what it was like to walk up the stairs to her house to be met by a man who says: “I’m married to Latoya now.” So this guy is a soldier, and while he’s away, fighting in Iraq, Tic steals Latoya back again. Well, that’s a strong story, and I share it with my colleagues. They all agree the Tic and Tac story is beginning to have “legs”.

droppedImage_8 Scott is shooting video on his Sony HVR Z7, and Melissa is recording audio on a Marantz PMD 660 solid state recorder with a Sennheiser shotgun microphone. They will both also edit the story. I’m shooting stills on a Nikon D3 and Bob’s shooting stills and video on his Canon EOS 5D. So impressive. It amazes me where technology is taking us. It’s so hard to believe it’s a great stills camera that is also shooting high-definition video. I’m enthralled by the beauty of his video imagery.

So we have the skeleton of a story, some video, some audio and some stills. For this story to work, we’re going to need a powerful interview.

The interview is where we’re going to put some flesh on this skeleton, because without it we only have a show. We have a team meeting and decide to interview Tic and Tac separately, so that we get some truth from our questions, instead of comedic patter.

droppedImage_12 I refer to my notes: “The interview is the central spine. Get close. Intimacy is key. Three things you are looking for – a story, a sequence of actions, emotion and reflection. What does it mean? Listen all the time. Having been a professional interviewer for a very long time now, I would add that you need to empathise (easier if you are sitting very close). Remember the questions are mostly being cut out of the finished product, and so every answer must have a self-contained beginning, middle and end. If the answers are strong and powerful you need say very little to keep it flowing. “And then what happened?” “That must have been awful for you?” “How did you feel about that?”

For two difficult hours we interviewed Tac at his home, his dog by his side. It was a struggle to get him to come out of his protective-performance shell. But his older brother (by two minutes) Tic was the opposite. He described events passionately as though they’d happened a few minutes earlier. He relived moments of great joy and great pain, and I’m thinking “Wonderful, we’ve got the story teller.” When he told us the story of how his partner had married someone else while he was on tour, the atmosphere was electric.

droppedImage_13 I came back and she was married and there was no phone call, no email, no text message … “I’m getting married, but not to you” – none of that. I can laugh about it now – I wasn’t laughing before. Matter of fact – I’m coming up the block, I’ve got my bags on my back – I’m coming in the house – I’m like “I’m home!” when this kid named Ryan Silverhead said “Oh ,what you doing over here?” I was like “I’m coming to see my family, see my little girl upstairs.” He said “What you talking about your girl – she’s married.” I said “Man if you don’t get out of my face I’ll slap you man” He’s like “You don’t know?” I’m like “I don’t know, what the hell you talking about? You better get out of my face. It’s bullcrap.” So I come upstairs – I see the ring I’m like… a world crumbling down – its like volcanoes and everything bursting. Tears fell down my eyes like the worst thing in my life that ever happened. But I sucked it up took it like a man went back up town and performed and that got it off my mind. In fact only things that saved me not being so depressed was what I do – performing, street performing.

You can see that it’s Tic’s powerful recollection of that event, and the word-for-word recollection of the conversation that he had with the man who’d married his partner while he was on tour that make this story so strong.”a world crumbling down – like volcanoes – everything bursting.”

droppedImage_15 My MediaStorm notes say: “An interview is like a portrait. You are in control. Three things to get from any interview – a story with a beginning, middle and end, emotion, and reflection. Get the interviewee in the memory space. The more personal the stories, the more emotional, the better. Remember, if you find it interesting, it is interesting. If you laugh, it’s funny. If you get emotional, it’s emotional.”

While we were out shooting, the word comes back from the other team that they’ve just shot a really nice interview with their main subject, but there’s no audio on tape. Nightmare. I’m feeling so sorry for them but I’m so glad it wasn’t us. One of the big keys to making sure that doesn’t happen is to wear decent headphones – ones that cover your ears, like the Sony MDR 7506 Pro Headphones. That way, the chances are much smaller that you are not recording sound because you are hearing almost exactly what you’ll hear when you get back to the studio.

droppedImage_16 A noise tip – Doing an interview in front of the fountain in Washington Square Park? Not a great location to hear every word clearly because the ambient noise from the fountain is so high. If you really must do an interview there, do it with your back to the fountain to mask the ambient noise, and hold the microphone close to the interviewee’s mouth. The same rule would apply to a train station, or a noisy construction area. And never interview anyone with music playing in the background; every edit will jump, and sound like a bad edit.

We finish the interviews well after midnight, and head with Tic and Tac to a Village diner for a late night snack before falling into our hotel beds for a few quick zeds.

The next morning at Mediastorm we’re furiously transcribing the four hours of interviews. MediaStorm makes great use of Google Docs where all of the work documents can be shared with the team. We are all allocated colours to use to mark up the transcripts of the interview. Brian’s colour is red – and he goes first. My colour is purple, and as I read through the transcripts I can see Brian has already picked the eyes out of the story. There are red marks not just through sentences, but through parts of sentences that join with other parts of sentences.

droppedImage_17 As we lay all of the cut pieces of printed transcript on a large table it’s obvious we’ve got far too much material. Now comes the hardest part of the job – what to leave out. As predicted, the Tac quotes are few, and the Tic interview fills the table. What we need now is to join the cuts together to make a story – what Brian calls “A Radio Cut.”

All of the video, stills, audio and music cuts have been ingested into Final Cut Pro – Apple’s pro editing software, that is used extensively in media editing. The software logs and captures video, stills and sound onto a hard drive (internal or external), where it can be edited and processed.

The Mac keyboard is to Brian what the piano keyboard must have been to Mozart. This ‘dude’ can paint pictures with his fingers and give them added dimension with a pair of flashing hands. Every day we’ve been on the course we’ve worked beyond 12 hours straight, but Brian is determined to cut our story into shape, and so, we are all gathered for the long haul around his Final Cut Pro cockpit, mesmerised by his editing skills.

droppedImage_21 Finding journalism as a profession is a gift. It’s not something that you go into because you say “I’m going to make a pile of money.” That’s a bad career choice if that’s what your goals are. In journalism we may not get rich, but we live a rich life. It’s a calling. I’m quite certain that accountants don’t get together and spend five days solid working 18 hours a day to really get their books straight” says Brian in an interview for a Behind The Scenes film of Workshop 4.

Well, not 18 hours – closer to 21. We finish our ‘rough-cut’, which now runs 21-minutes, at 0630 the following morning. Scott’s feeling great at not having missed this extraordinary demonstration of editing dexterity. “If I’d only experienced this night, I’d be happy.” he tells me, as we walk up Washington Street with the early morning sun warming our backs. We crash into our clean white-sheeted hotel beds and barely have time for a single “z” before we’re back at the workspace. It’s the final post production day, and it’s all hands on deck.

droppedImage_18 Bob’s already there, telling us the cut is still too long. He’s just dropped in a great looking piece of footage that he shot out of the window of a local train on his Canon EOS 5D, really lifting Tic and Tac’s story about busking on trains when they were seven. OK, so the man’s a great photographer, but this is 1080p High Definition video, and he’s shooting it on a stills camera.

This is the future, and I shouldn’t be so amazed. I bought a Panasonic Lumix FX35 stills and video point and shoot camera when they first came out for just 300 Euros, and the video on that is high def too, although not the quality of the Canon EOS 5D. But when Shell’s Head of Media Relations, Stuart Bruseth, went to Nigeria, I asked him to shoot some footage out of the helicopter with his Lumix, and the video was very useable and very useful.

At the end of the week, our story – now called ‘The Art of Attraction’ – has form, but, at 21-minutes, it still feels way too long. There are holes in it big enough for Tic and Tac to acrobat through, but it’s been an awesome experience just getting it to this level. The camaraderie has been amazing, and just soaking up the expertise in the hands-on MediaStorm Workshop has been incredibly valuable. Brian and Bob promise to tidy it up before posting it on the web.

On Friday, October 8, 2009, The Art of Attraction is posted on the MediaStorm website, along with the film made by the other team, Family Kocktail,and a Behind The Scenes film made by intern Maisie Crow.

droppedImage_21 The Art of Attraction now runs 11.45 so about 9 or 10 minutes (almost half of the previous cut) has gone. Brian has tweaked it. Now it’s a seamless story about Tic and Tac’s boyhood ambitions, their extraordinary show, and Tic’s hope that his baby son will grow up to become Toe. Gone are the powerful family dramas. I can see that they just didn’t fit. And it’s no worse a film for their demise. In fact, those whose noses were not glued to the grindstone have not missed what they never knew about. It’s been a lesson in editing and a lesson in length and sustaining the viewer’s attention, however much bloodletting has been necessary.

Shell’s VP of Internal Communications watched The Art of Attraction and sent me an email: “Nice one Paolo, just watched the first one. Nice mix of stills, close ups and mixture of styles. Punchy – and a good story too! Cheers, Michael.” So, it’s all very well to have this extraordinary experience at the cutting edge of multimedia, but how can it be integrated into day to day story-telling?

droppedImage_22 Well, for a start, I’ve been revisiting a project we did earlier in the year on Shell’s tight-gas project in Pinedale, Wyoming. Armed with my new multimedia knowledge, and a keener eye, I’ve been able to bring a much better sense of place to the narrative. The story now opens with a country music and stills sequence that takes us into the heart of Pinedale. There’s no question the changes lift the narrative and give it a setting.

I’ve had two meetings where I’ve shown senior Communications managers, and a group from our Editorial department, some of the MediaStorm workshop material. And I’ve shared my experiences of multimedia as a platform that will help us engage our audiences.

We’ve had a brainstorming session where staff have suggested ways that multimedia might be used in the future, and there were some excellent and enthusiastic ideas that I’ll embrace for future projects.

On there’s a section dedicated to the workshops, and it’s there that I left a quote which I hope sums up September’s course for me. It says: “I have just been given the most wonderful opportunity to become – for just seven days and nights – part of a far-sighted and committed multimedia workshop with MediaStorm producers. Their creativity and enthusiasm are an inspiration. Their compelling vision in anticipating the global changes in multimedia storytelling put them at the forefront of their craft. Their high quality product is thought-provoking independent journalism at its best. I’m very grateful to have worked among them, however briefly, and I will bring much learning back to my own multimedia storytelling. Oh, by the way… it was seriously great fun.”