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Archive for the 'digital storytelling' Category

Summer Cinema #2: Paperclip Challenge

Paperclip Challenge from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

I've moved nearly a dozen times since I broke this record in 2004 and the tapes have followed me everywhere: 24 hours of non-stop monotonous paper clipping minus twelve gaps where one of my friends (probably Steve) changed the reels. Five minutes of this footage will make you sorry you ever spoke an unkind word about grass growing or paint drying, which are each several orders of magnitude more exciting than this.

So I compressed those 24 hours into three minutes, which meant transferring the footage from Hi-8 tapes to DV tapes (time cost: 24 hours) and then importing the DV tapes to Final Cut Pro (time cost: 24 hours). There were no shortcuts. The project took weeks.

I have only one creative note worth mentioning here, a footnote to my previous post, Don't Let Your Students Use Music In Their Video Projects: the soundtrack is entirely ambient noise.

I worry about video teachers who would encourage the student to mute the ambient noise — the chaos, the laughter, the occasional grim silence, all of which is essential documentary detail — and instead apply a thick lacquer of Creative-Commons-licensed pop electronica. Something chosen carefully, no doubt. Something propulsive to match what passes for content here. But I'll point out, again, that a) controlling ambient noise is its own necessary kind of skill, and b) laying a music track beneath a video track without worrying about how the two tracks play with each other — how the aural ebbs and flows with the visual — will strike certain segments of your audience as, artistically speaking, soulless.

This particular case is easy. If your audio track doesn't shift gears or climax or do something at exactly one minute and 21 seconds into this video — when the sun rises — you've missed the moment and essentially filed for divorce on behalf of your audio and video track, citing irreconcilable differences.

[The next two posts discuss some of my technical notes from two video projects I completed this summer — one professional, one personal. If these are too far off the beaten path for your tastes, please check back in next week.]

Ponderosa Lodge 40th Anniversary Montage from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.

My first video project this summer was a montage celebrating the fortieth anniversary of a local camp. This was complicated. No video existed from the 1970s. I thought, initially, to interweave older photos and newer video but, instead, went strictly with photography.

This was also challenging. There is only so much you can do with still photos. You can cross fade them. You can apply filters. You can edit them to music. You can go the Animoto route. You can go the Ken Burns route. But those techniques do very little to enrich the content. Ken Burns enriches his photos, for instance, with research, narration, and editing. Without those, the motion across the screen would grow tiresome.

I took a familiar path. Several years ago I posted a photo montage that exists somewhere between 2D and 3D. The technique is straightforward.

You take as many photos of the scene as you need plates (or layers). You keep your camera in manual mode so that when you move subjects out of the way (to get an unobstructed shot of the background) the aperture doesn't change.

In this case, I wanted a layer for each of the brothers and the background. You use the pen tool in Photoshop to cut out each plate from the background and then import the composited file (with three total layers, in this case) into Adobe AfterEffects where you tell your computer, this layer is closer to the camera, this one is farther away, here's how to move the 3D camera around the scene. Once you outline your scenes, it's only a question of how much free time you have for the digital carving.

This project was different. I couldn't go back in time to shoot the two brothers separate from each other and from the background. I spent four hours scanning slides from the 1970s. After I masked the subject from the photo there was … nothing. Just white space. I had to guess at and then recreate the background.

So I got cozy with the clone tool, which is exceptionally easy to use poorly. As often as I could, I set myself up with subjects standing in front of solid colors or simple textures, which are easy to clone.

These two were especially difficult. The sandy ridge behind the campers is almost entirely fake. If you look closely at the pool photo, you'll notice I had to clone an onlooker's entire face.

I thought sand would be easier to clone but the light fell across it unevenly and had me pulling out tufts of hair trying to compensate. Stay away from sand.

It's difficult to stretch a single technique across an entire film. It gets tired. So I waited to deploy that one until the bridge of the audio track kicked in. Beforehand and afterwards, I went for a ghostly, melancholy vibe with subjects drawn into the campground at the start and then drawn out at the end.

Which, again, required a lot of digital carving.

This is how you make a music video. Watch the video and if the greatness isn't immediately apparent, I have composed a 2.5-minute explanation.

Click through to view embedded content.

This is one of the most thought-provoking comments this blog has ever seen, one which was posted weeks ago but which still messes with me:

David Cox: What percentage of the population do you think has the eyes and/or ears to know the difference [between soundtracks done well and done poorly]? When I watch a movie or listen to a song, I don’t see the things that you see. I try, but I don’t understand why certain shots are done certain ways or why a particular piece of music was or wasn’t used. Can I learn that? I don’t know. But if my audience won’t know the difference, should I take the time to learn it?

Two incomplete thoughts:

1. The software programmer should not write your lesson plan.

The programmer cares about consumers, not students. The programmer's job is to make as many features accessible to as many consumers as easily as possible, without glutting the program. Your job is to challenge your students. Your job is very, very different. So don't feel weird telling kids not to use a) bullet points in PowerPoint, b) filters in Audacity, and c) the "Add Track From iTunes" button in iMovie. The existence of the button does not make good pedagogy out of the button.

2. To put students in a place to care about the difference between good and bad production and not to equip them is wrong.

Which is to say, if you don't know why those closing montages at the end of Grey's Anatomy and Lost are insipid shortcuts to genuine emotional interaction with a story, then you should have the humility to recuse yourself and say, "Maybe I'm the wrong person to teach students to make movies."

This isn't about amateurs and experts. That fight is over. The amateurs have won and I wouldn't reverse that ruling if I could. But it's extremely important to understand where teachers fit into the new creative structure, a structure which has seen the quantity of published media increase at the same pace as its median quality has declined.

We must act as bulwarks against that decline, not accelerants of it.

I'm mixed. On the one hand, YouCube is a pretty interesting way to compare remixes of a thing (ie. David After Dentist) to the thing itself.

On the other hand, this strikes me as just another one of those tool that depends entirely on a teacher's pre-existing digital storytelling skills but which also distracts her from developing those skills. (ie. Why learn how to make one video really well when you can put six average videos on a cube!)

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