November 16, 2012

Judging hundreds of multimedia stories in 2 days

Young photographers push the envelope much more than their professional peers.

So I was excited to be a judge for the multimedia categories of the College Photographer of the Year.

I looked at a lot of stories. I saw a lot of profoundly mediocre work. But the final selects, roughly 5-7 pieces in every category, were very strong, compelling stories, often with surprises, often with unfolding action and very often with an emotional hook.


Here’s some of what I learned…
Surprise me and I’m yours

Once there was a surprise in a story, I was usually hooked and watched until the end.

Several times I was reminded of a great quote from Ira Glass that is something like: “Even stories of life changing events can lack surprise.”…hence, might not be a story worth doing.


What makes me keep watching?

Try to think of the start of your story like the opening sentence (or sentences) of a great book. You need to hook the viewer quickly , no matter how long your piece will be. Posing an “unanswered question” helps make me stay connected to your story also.

I looked at several hundred multimedia stories over the past two days. I didn’t watch very many to the end but I did feel obliged to give them a fair shot. When I started to get bored I’d watch a little bit longer and when I couldn’t bear it anymore, I’d look at the play bar

Most of the time, I had watched the first 50 seconds to 90 seconds before I bailed. Online, people have a much shorter attention span. So make sure you have something very interesting happen in the first 20 seconds to keep me watching.

A typical strategy is to start with something compelling or a surprise then establish the character.

Put some strong material upfront. As writers would say, don’t bury the lede. I heard a lot of statements that would have been great opening lines in the middle of a piece. That’s usually too late.

As film maker Lucy Walker said, “Try to hold off the first talking head for as long as possible.”


The best multimedia is “present tense storytelling”

Events should unfold in front of our eyes, allowing us to experience them in real time the same way our subjects are experiencing them. If a story is all in the past, video might not be the best form to tell the story. “Show, don’t Tell.” If we can see it, we can feel it, live it, be a part of it.”


Winner !

Sound rules

Bad sound means a bad story no matter how wonderful the images or story structure. Make sure you have great sound.

Always mic the interview subject using a lavaliere or a boom. The interview audio should be clean and the quality good enough for a network radio story.

You have two ears and you use them both. Be extra careful that the audio is panned to both channels. (Audio that played in only the left or right channel was the most unnecessary mistake I experienced during the contest.)

Less is more when filters are involved. If you have background noise, be very careful with the noise reduction filter. Too much noise reduction gives the audio a squirelly undertone. To avoid this, make very sure to record interviews in a place with no background noise.

Don’t let your audio peak. It sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard, even if you lower the volume, it sounds like slightly quieter fingernails on a chalkboard.

Music is a double-edged sword. Great music can really help but bad music can kill your story. Be careful.


The thumbnail is crucial.

The thumbnail is the cover of your book, the poster for your movie.
If you make it compelling, the thumbnail sets the tone for your story and entices the reader to “click on me” . Put the headline on it too. It helps people remember what your story was about and helps people to find it again and share it.



Words, words, words

If you must have a text slide, make the lines flush left because it makes them a quicker read than centered text.
If you’re using subtitles, be sure the font is readable with adequate leading.
Why do text slides have to be on black? Why not put your text over an image to give the quick reader something else to look at?
If you story starts with a few screens of text on black, you should probably go all the way and tell it as a text story.


Sometimes it’s good to work in a team to play to your strength

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect was a small subset of stories that were
a) beautifully shot stories but lacking a compelling story or compelling storytelling
b) amazing stories of great characters that were badly shot without scenes or sequences or with poor audio.

I wish I could have paired those people into teams.


Using still photographs

if you’d like to use stills, be sure the subject of your story is best told in stills. Video is great for motion and emotion so stories about active things like running, football, baseball, mixed martial arts & quiddich are not great candidates for audio slideshows .
If you’re mixing stills and video, think in terms of putting your stills into a scene and not just dropping a single image into your story.
Try to think why a certain scene would be best told in a series of stills



Random thoughts:

  • If your story has no narrator and no on-camera correspondent, who are the subjects looking at when they look offscreen during the interview?
  • Don’t ever interview the Executive director, President, Head of house, CEO, etc. unless they’re compelling storytellers. You might make those people happy but you’ll pretty much be assured that no one will watch your video.
  • Narration can work, especially to stitch scenes together or as a transition between scenes. For narration, less is more. Think of narration as your text slides. If you have more than a few lines of narration, you probably should convert it into a radio story.
  • Issue stories need to have a universal hook to keep everyone interested. Issues are better dealt with as the secondary focus of a story unless you’re writing a white paper for a think tank or your Ph.D.
  • Use a tripod as much as you can. If the subject is not moving (a building, a book on a table) always use a tripod.
  • You breathe ( I hope). Make sure your story has space to breathe also.
  • Make character and story your mantra.


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