Volume 7/Issue 2
Radio and video maker Ben Shapiro offers a thoughtful guide, complete with plenty of examples and tips in our new Transom Manifesto. In the coming weeks, well feature some sound-driven stories with images to help us ponder this new media era in which radio is once again about to become obsolete.
Joining the A/V Club: Storytelling with Image and Sound
Film Storytelling vs. Radio Storytelling…an ExampleHere are two versions of the same piece that I produced some years back, in collaboration with Joe Richman, called The Starting Five. We did all the interviews on camera, cut the video, then pulled the audio off the master videotapes for the radio piece. Notice that the story is told with a series of chapters or scenes, only in the radio piece scenes are set-up by the narrator and in the film version the images tell the tale without narration. Listen to the radio first:
Then go to this videotape of “The Starting Five”:
I kind of love that first shot of the video piece where the old players are awkwardly standing on the court in their tuxedos. This is an example, I think, of how images are useful to tell story. This shot helps set up a theme of the piece: these players come from a time and world so removed that they’re uncomfortable even visiting the NBA court of today, let alone playing on it. We “read” their slightly hunched posture, their discomfort, the speed at which they are honored and then dispatched. The shot that follows, of the guy walking through the parking lot to the restaurant, returns them to their own world, that of the retired basketball players. They return to their context, the past and their memories. Without any voice-over we’ve already managed to set up the prolonged flashback that follows. Their Florida retirement clothes, their gestures and relationship to their environmentthese are described by the image, and they are just as much a part of the story, its themes and structure, as the simple facts of the situation.
What are facts after all? Documentaries are about how characters, with their own inner worlds, live through history. The “facts” are merely a frame which allows us to explore these issues of theme and character. Even if we are producing a “news” piece, we cannot ignore that as journalists we deal with human beings in particular historical circumstances. The expressive possibilities of sound and image allow us to tell that story.
Films Are Complicated, Get Used to It
An editor I know says “knowing how to use Final Cut or Avid and saying you can edit is like knowing Word and thinking you’re a novelist”. Harsh, but point taken. Crafting films is an art unto itself. Know that if you are coming from other fields, radio or print, many of your skills will be useful, but many formerly useful habits may just lead you down blind alleys. People spend years learning how to edit well, and even then spend months and months cutting a film. There are rules of thumb and techniques to cutting, but each film is a unique process to find specific solutions.
Creating a film or slideshow is like writing, with a syntax of sound and image instead of words. Like a well-crafted sentence, each image has a particular purpose and place in a sequence of images. Like sound cuts in a radio piece, each image should follow logically from the previous shot and set up the next. The whole thing is multi-dimensional, its complexity and possibilities make editing both exciting and daunting.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Television documentary pieces often are cut in standard, repeatable structures. Pieces are pre-scripted, and images are shot and cut based on the script. But these aren’t the kinds of films that interest me. Films have much more depth and impact if they are approached more openly and find their shape in the edit. Even “hard-hitting” current-affairs documentaries can be poetic and musical — look at “Darwin’s Nightmare” or “Iraq in Fragments.” I don’t see why slideshows should be any different. All the usual filmmaking challenges apply to still image sequences: choosing the right images, finding a clear and economical way to tell the story, etc.
For some filmmakers, each film is a journey to answer a question or come to some understanding. As one filmmaker (I cannot recall who) said “I don’t know how the film or even the story will turn out. Why make a film at all if I already know the answer?”
Building Meaning by Combining Images
We media-makers are in the business of providing the key bits of information that allow the audience to create the story. Here’s one approach I’ve suggested to students about how to think about delivering the key details of a scene to the audience. When you enter a room for the first time, how to do you experience the new surroundings? You take a moment to orient yourself by looking around, registering the pertinent details of a place and a situation. We as filmmakers make that choice for the viewer, since we sequence what they will see and hear. If we pick the right details, and present them compellingly and clearly with the fewest extraneous bits, then the audience will do the work of piecing together a coherent world of situations, characters, events. They will literally “make sense” of the story fragments we provide. In radio we do this with sounds and voice, in films or slideshows we add the image.
When we juxtapose two images, a third meaning is created. In his famous experiment, Russian filmmaker Kuleshov took a single image of an expressionless face and cut it against shots of a crying baby, the desert, a plate of food. When he showed these to audiences they described the face as having expressions of, respectively, concern, thirst and hunger. The syntax of films or slideshows involves the dynamic interactions between images.
Film stories are told in sequences of images. One might say that the most useful images for audio-visual storytelling are those that have both specificity and forward momentum. Like a good piece of writing, a series of strong images lead to the image that follows, like a bridge built of many pieces, one leading into the other.
Trust Your Images, and Know Them Well
Trust your images to deliver the story. Images are a wonderfully strong and economical storytelling tool. A sequence of a few shots can immediately set mood, introduce characters and a setting. But they have to be the right images.
Be deadly honest with yourself about every image in your piece. Here’s an example of what not to do. Years ago (all my examples of failures begin this way), I was hired to create a promotional video for a company that produced high-end artsy corporate events. I shot documentary footage of an awards dinner, celebs and donors in a carefully lit theater. In the middle of the piece, I put a shot of a steam table with food, fancy stuff, with chefs and tuxedoed waiters hovering around. But the client objected, and rightfully so. Sure it was a shot of food at a fancy event, but when you looked at, what you literally saw was dark unspecified food mass in a plain steel steam tray.
So when you’re building a piece look, really look at what is exactly in the frame — what will the viewer literally see? Is that an image of an angry mob, or of a meandering group of bystanders? Don’t talk yourself into hoping the image tells something that it doesn’t. Each image should express itself unambiguously, and if you’re not sure, the audience won’t be either.
Privilege the Images over Words…Or, put another way, if words and image are giving the same information, dump the words.
So what is the place of narration or voice in an audio-visual piece? How do we figure out what narration there should be, and what information can be conveyed solely by images? The answer, like so much about audio-visual storytelling, is through trial and error.
Here’s an example from a television documentary I made about the photographer Gregory Crewdson. I was trying to show the amazingly elaborate process he goes through to make a photograph, so on the morning of a shoot I did an interview where I had him list the events of the day, everything from testing the gas jets used to simulate a house burning, to working with the actors. Later in the cutting room, I made a narrated montage of the day. I began by assembling a string of the useful parts of Crewdson’s interview. Then I laid on top of this audio a sequence of shots of the events that he was describing, adjusting timing here and there as necessary to make it all fit. Pretty literal “explaining” filmmaking, but I wanted viewers to know the process step by step.
When I showed the cut to a friend, the problem was obvious: too much talk. It was frustrating to watch the images with a voice chatting continuously, describing actions that we could see perfectly well on the screen. In fact, the voice-over made it hard to focus on what we were seeing — one could listen or watch, but not both. To fix matters, I radically trimmed back the voice, leaving only the bare essentials that I felt were needed to guide the viewer through the images, and to maintain the feeling that Crewdson was narrating the sequence. Then, I adjusted the timing of the shots.
In a nutshell, I first used the audio to get him to say all I wanted, but when I added the images I found I didn’t need all the words because the images said it better.
The original rough cut of the sequence is lost to history, but here is the final version.
Timing of Voice and Image
Another thing to note about this bit of film is the timing between voice and image. Notice that when a shot hits, especially in a new setting, there is a beat before the voice starts. This gives the viewer a chance to register the image before having to pay attention to the voiceover. Again, like a person entering a room, the viewer needs a moment to orient themselves — otherwise they literally won’t hear what is being said to them. Often a relatively small adjustment of timing will fix the problem, sliding the voice or picture one way or another.
Here is another excerpt from near the end of that same film:
One thing I like about that bit is that it suggests that for Crewdson, the moment of creating an photograph takes on some of the quality of mystery and facination that he tries to imbue in the image itself.
It’s More than Radio with Pictures
The strongest moments of filmic or slideshow storytelling integrate the audio and visual elements to create a larger point. Rather than simply adding-on information, the sound and image work synergistically.
The filmmaker Chris Marker makes essay films that utilize a constant interplay between images and a voice track that often comments on the images. His films are poetic, stuffed with ideas, brilliantly edited. Even at their most dense, from a viewing standpoint they remain comprehensible and clear. His film La Jetee is made up entirely of still images. Below is the beginning of his film Sans Soleil. Watch the rhythm of the voiceover, where it starts and stops in relation to the cut points of the image, and also how the phrasing of spoken ideas works alongside sequences of shots, like that of the people sleeping on the ferry:
The very first images and sentences are a remarkable example of simple but powerful combining of sound and image. Here is the sequence in script form:
Narration: The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965.
Image of three kids walking on hill, backlit by sun.
Cut to BLACK
Narration: He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images…
CUT to Aircraft Carrier and Plane
Narration: …but it never worked. He wrote me…
Cut to BLACK
Narration: …one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.
This sequence does several things. As we know, beginnings are very important, and this one immediately draws us into the film. Its also sets up themes which play out in the rest of the piece: memory and the past, how images relate to our experience of time and space. It also establishes the form of the narration, which consists entirely of letters written to the narrator by an unknown filmmaker. Two shots and three sentences — it’s a model for economic audio/visual storytelling that works because it makes creative use of the relationships between voice, image, and the rhythms between the two.
Screening is a Must
Maybe because films are inherently complicated and hard to predict in their effects, screenings are a key part of the filmmaking process. It’s like playing a radio piece for others: you suddenly see it through their eyes, the parts that work well run smoothly, the parts that are awkward or just wrong make you sweat. Something you thought vaguely amusing gets a laugh. When it works, it seems a bit miraculous.
After you screen, always ask your test viewers some questions. Did specific key story points come across clearly? How did people feel about the situations and the characters? Were they ever bored or confused? You may get a bunch of different answers from different viewers, but if everyone tells you the same thing is a problem, they’re right.
An editor I know has this rule about screenings: “pay attention to peoples’ problems with a cut, but not to their ideas of how to fix them.” In other words, people can tell you what isn’t working, but it’s mostly up to you to find out why and fix it.
Why Make Slideshows?
I kind of wonder, as more and more print and radio folks pursue web-movies and slideshows, is this about healthy cross-media experimentation, or fear of getting left behind? What exactly is so creepy about the words “value added”? Are radio people in 2007 really concerned they’ll be out of the loop if they don’t jump on this television bandwagon? Didn’t that ship sail about 50 years ago? We as producers need to choose where to best spend our limited energies and resources.
But it is true, new production and distribution models are at hand. Maybe filmmaking is changing, so that it might have more of those qualities that attracted many of us to radio in the first place: widespread accessibility of cheap tools, a potential audience that is diverse geographically and in many other ways, a place where historically marginalized voices can find expression, a site for individual creative flexibility.
These attributes make radio and audio-visual storytelling rich with possibility — they don’t ensure success. The work we admire grows from individuals’ abilities and willingness to refine their craft, and develop their own storytelling language.
The main software tools for making audio-visual pieces fall into two camps. First are the video editing applications like AVID Xpress, Final Cut, or iMovie. Second are the more web related applications like Flash, and those designed especially for slideshows like SoundSlides.
Final Cut is remarkably flexible. Want an image to rotate while it pans to three different points on the image while it shifts colors? No problem! You can build pretty much any effect you can imagine by combining multiple effects and specifying each of their actions over time. I find AVID applications more user-friendly, and their media management more reliable, though they lack some nifty editing features of Final Cut.
iMovie may be good enough for most simple “slideshow” type pieces. It lacks the flexibility of AVID and Final Cut but it’s a good starting-off tool.
For any of these video applications, you’ll need to export the movie into a web-streamable file. Video compression for web streaming is a whole topic unto itself, with different codecs, sizes, and data rates. On a Mac this process is relatively simple, you can export a piece via QuickTime and use one of the “streaming for web” settings. The result is a movie that is compressed and small enough to stream. Try a setting and then view the exported file.
One thing to keep in mind when compressing video for streaming, fast moves and pans tend to make the image go soft, jitter, and just generally fall apart.
A Few Slideshow Notes
Don’t underestimate the sheer number and quality of images you will need. Think 2-5 seconds per (count it, five seconds is a long time), maybe 15-25 images/minute — and those are the selected images that you choose to best tell the story or illustrate your point. So pre-production planning to gather the right images, and enough of them, is essential.
Moves such as pans, zooms, tilts, are a valuable editing tool for stills sequences or slideshows. Moves make images feel less static and allow you to hold them longer. Moves also have a beginning, middle, and end, so cut points have to be adjusted in response to that “action”. They allow you to “direct” the still, zooming in on a specific detail or figure, or revealing information progressively by panning across to another element of a photo. They can also easily be overused, too many and the piece gets “swoopy”. Use a variety of directions and rhythms of zooms and pans.
In general moves should be, like anything else in your piece, motivated by the needs of your story.