I Hate ‘Multimedia’

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Nothing in this profession irks me so much as the word “multimedia.” Not only is it linguistically confusing–“media” is itself already plural–in terms of describing our work, the label does us all a disservice.

Multimedia is the combining of several forms of media. OK, so the combining of photography and video is multimedia. But what about the combination of text and photography in a book? Or a website for that matter? The point is, “multimedia” can mean anything. It just depends on whom you ask.

With all due respect, I believe “multimedia” is the word we’ve come to use when describing photographers who make documentaries. It’s a word that belongs to journalists, not the audience we want to reach.

This is not a new conversation at MediaStorm. It’s an issue we’ve wrestled with in innumerable conversations and one Brian Storm and I have had almost from day one of my tenure.

But it’s not just about nomenclature. The real issue is that “multimedia” is too small. It distracts and limits the possibilities we should be embracing. There are 120 years of film history ready to be pillaged. We should steal without mercy. And we should start today.

I’m talking about short docs like Eva Weber’s “Reindeer Wrangling” or Alan Spearman’s magnificent “As I Am.” These are projects that embrace the aesthetics and grammar of cinema, where video is not a second-class citizen.

Astute observers will recognize the current trend at MediaStorm. We’re using far fewer images than we once did. Other than Lucas Oleniuk’s 2010 “Airsick,” which uses photography to emulate video, our last publication piece that relied solely on photography was Jessica Dimmock’s 2007 “The Ninth Floor,” more than five years ago.

Rest assured, we’re every bit as passionate about photography, and it will remain a signature part of our work. As testament to this, we are currently in production on several projects that rely heavily on the power of still photography. But working with video allows one to be more precise about pictures. You no longer need 15 photographs to cover a single minute of audio. You can use 5, 10, 15 images in an entire project, all A-frames, all stellar.

Photography is not going away. But a new wave of cinematic storytelling is coming from our peers. We see it on the Web and we see it in today’s students, who draw no fine line between photography and video.

As we tell our workshop participants and ourselves, the best way to prepare for these changes is to start making films.

Learn the Language

Making films means understanding a new language. In order to be articulate, one needs to understand film’s grammar–its pacing, rhythm, and perhaps most importantly, visual sequencing. Visual sequences are the “to be” verb of filmmaking.

We are not learning from scratch, though. There are ample resources available online, in workshops, and in books. Two great print resources are Making Movies Work: Thinking Like a Filmmaker by Jon Boorstin and On Directing Film by David Mamet.


Our company operates on the belief that it is extraordinarily difficult for just one person to shoot video, record audio, make pictures, and edit a single project. I can name maybe a half-dozen people who have mastered all four skills. Maybe. And I certainly don’t include myself among them. Moviemaking is a collaborative art, and to truly do our best work we need to work together. I believe that’s one of the many reasons that early attempts to give staff photographers video cameras had such mixed results.

Minding the Gap

Remember that new skills take not only time to learn but also patience. Ira Glass, in his excellent video series on storytelling, describes the tension between students’ unmastered new skills and their loftier aesthetic tastes. He calls this “the gap”:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners; I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Finally, an excellent book on creativity and inspiration is Austin Kleon’s short book Steal Like an Artist.

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject in the comments below.