8 Tips for Telling Beautiful Multimedia Stories
Grab your camera and experience the dizzying awe of an historic event. Zoom in close and see the passion, fear or anger of a group of people. Or, peer through your viewfinder to see someone in an everyday situation, all of her beauty blasting out at you in subtle, quiet ways.
Try to capture the moment in a photo — a photo that tells an entire story with all its shadows and lines and grays intact. While you’re at it, make it one that’s technically sound and well-composed. It’s hard, right?
Now, thanks to changing technologies, we have more tools and forms of expression to capture the reality and complexity of life. We can call it multimedia, or we can call it, simply, a new audio-visual language. It blends film, documentary, radio, music and photography into one, multi-sensory experience.
There are dizzying possibilities of blending of forms and styles, and as the journalism industry somersaults into the future, we have found a space that gives us the freedom to do what has always fascinated us — tell stories.
As we continue to experiment with ways to tell new audio-visual stories, here are eight tips that we’ve picked up along the way:
1. Surround Yourselves With the Best
The language of multimedia is complex. It unites various disciplines, and no one practitioner is an expert at them all. The key is not to be afraid or intimidated by what you don’t know. You can learn, little by little, as you work but most of us probably won’t become Hollywood directors after producing multimedia stories. Find colleagues who do what you can’t. Collaborate with them and form a team, so that the sum of your efforts make the work, the story that much grander.
2. It’s About Telling Stories, Not Using Technology
Know what your intentions are. At the end of the day, beyond the technologies and tools that we use, we’re here to tell stories. That’s to say, we’re here to tell people stories. Approach the story with fairness and honesty, and let the story dictate how it should be told and in what medium. Reality is far more interesting and profound than anything we can conjure up in our heads before leaving the house.
Multimedia is the most powerful tool to engage one’s senses, says Eric Maierson of Mediastorm. Empathize, don’t sympathize, with your characters. Be surprised by what you report. Take advantage of the enormous power that audio-visual narratives have to capture the essence of a story.
3. Find Your Main Character
Human beings have a limited capacity to synthesize abstract ideas and situations in a short period of time. Therefore, it’s important for stories to have characters. Choose characters that your viewers can relate to somehow, and play up that relatability. There must be something universal about them and/or their experience — people who are the examples, not the exceptions. Use their micro stories to talk about the macro topic.
(Emilio, the protagonist of "Time to Time," being interviewed.)
4. Without Emotion There Is No Communication
Stories should speak to people. They should touch their senses and elicit reactions. Capture with emotion with details — details can be close shots or subtle actions. Let the emotions of the situation guide your story, because that’s what your viewer will latch on to.
5. Photos or Video?
As each day passes, more and more multimedia stories are being filled with video rather than photos. Perhaps it’s because, traditionally, photography has been more accessible to most of us than fancy 35mm film cameras that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Now, with the evolution of video on DSLR cameras, it’s easier and cheaper to shoot high-end video. But don’t forget photography.
We try to constantly use photography in our stories and incorporate video when it contributes to the story. Photography captures moments, allows you to slow down and reflect. Video, on the other hand, is perfect for action and is capable of capturing the reality of that experience in a way that photography can’t.
(Script cutouts for the "Time to Time" project.)
Beware! Music is dangerous. Use music only if the story warrants it, such as in transitions between sequences or during montages. If you use music too much, you’re lost — it means your story isn’t strong enough on its own. Music has the power to reinforce a story or to recreate a feeling that wasn’t really there.
When you do use music, cut your shots to the rhythm of the beats, and be conscious of the highs and lows of the song and how they related to the emotions of the story.
7. Constantly Search for Inspiration
Don’t limit yourself to journalism. Look outside our industry’s box. Find inspiration everywhere you look — in films, radio, literature, the cafe by your house. Your career will be spent constantly learning, so embrace the amateur in you. Amateur and lover come from the same word in Latin, so love the stories and techniques around you. More than a professional, be someone who loves good stories.
Reporting, documenting, telling stories all have two phases: hunting and cooking. They’re equally important. Editing is the cooking. Don’t just haphazardly combined the ingredients you hunted and foraged for in the field. Lots of wonderful. Walter Murch, the editor of Apocalypse Now!, used to say that editing wasn’t simply the act of putting things together. It is the process of discovering a path; it is a journey.
Be deliberate about how you edit. Transcribe your interviews and create a storyboard and structure four story. Then experiment with that structure until you find something that works. Let yourself be surprised by how your footage unfolds on your editing timeline.
It’s an exciting time to work in multimedia. It is a space that isn’t yet filled with dogma, rules etched in stone or restrictions. More importantly, it’s a space to truly document the people and stories that we as storytellers have the privilege to experience. You can experiment, obsess over details and emotions. It’s a space to create — a space inhabited by truth and beauty that embodies the transcendent power of this profession.