#AskMediaStorm Answers Round 1: NGOs, Building Story Arc, and Don’t Forget the Room Tone!

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This is the first in an ongoing series of question and answers with the MediaStorm staff. To ask a question for the next roundup use the twitter hashtag #AskMediaStorm or use the comment section below. We can’t promise we’ll answer every question (hey, we’ve got films to produce!). But if your question wasn’t answered this round there’s a chance you’ll be included next time. Stay tuned. 

This week’s questions are answered by Eric Maierson and Tim McLaughlin.

Working with NGOs: Do you have your own people looking for characters, or do you trust the local NGO staff? #AskMediaStorm –@tatublomqvist

Eric: It’s actually a bit of both. Sometimes organizations are very specific about who they’d like us to interview and sometimes they know the story they’d like to tell but don’t have a specific person in mind. In the latter case, our Director of Photography Rick Gershon will talk with people in the community and then decide who best embraces the NGO’s goals. It’s important to remain flexible and open when making these decisions.

Tim: I’ll add that Rick often interviews dozens of potential subjects before choosing someone. These short “pre-interviews” give him a greater sense of who might best represent the story of the NGO, or more importantly, who has the best story to tell.

Using (or not using) panning/zooming on stills: When, why and how much? – @colinelphick

Eric: The writer Elmore Leonard once wrote in regards to exclamation points, “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

I think of pans and zooms similarly. Two or three times per piece is plenty, generally speaking.

Tim: I wholeheartedly agree with Eric on this. But that being said, when I do use these techniques, I use them for a reason. If I zoom in on an image, it’s often because I want the viewer to both listen to what’s being said in the interview (not changing visuals allows the viewer more opportunity to listen to the narrative), or I want them to spend time with a specific image. Panning, for me, is used to slowly reveal new information visually, or to continue the flow of a visual sequence. If, for instance, the camera is moving from left to right in the preceding video clip, I might use a pan moving from left to right in the next shot to continue the visual flow. This isn’t a rule (there aren’t any rules really), but it’s something I do from time to time.

What is the most important thing to remember when editing a multimedia? – @TorsteinBoe 

Eric: I think the most important thing to remember when editing is that your subjects are real people with real lives. The choices you make in the editing room have consequences for them. Sometimes it easy to forget this if you’re the editor on a project and have never actually met your subjects in person.

When it comes to story structure, what never gets old and what do you try to avoid (or avoid repeating)? – Stan Alcorn

Eric: Here’s something that took me a long time to learn: it’s hard to talk about story structure in the abstract. The truth is, every story is unique in its specificity and every story creates its own rules. Something that works in one will feel ham-fisted when used in another. Having said that, the one thing that never gets old is a surprise. If your story takes a surprise turn that is both shocking and inevitable, that’s money in the bank.

Tim: When it comes to structure, and editing in general, empathy with your subjects is an amazing creative tool. Most of the creative ideas I’ve come up with in terms of story structure and editing techniques have come from trying to think about what it would be like to be the people in my stories.

Do you try to write the stories before filming and interviews, or do you trust in finding the story arc later? – @tatublomqvist

Eric: Using our Storytelling Workshops as an example, we generally look for stories where we know the beats, or what is likely to happen, but we don’t know exactly how those events will unfold. In the case of Remember These Days, we knew that Walter Backerman was passionate about seltzer bottles and that we’d follow him on his route, but we didn’t know that this would be a story about the connection between father and son. I think the trick is to find a story that has dramatic potential and then be present to what unfolds.

Tim: The ideal, I think, is to know the beats of a story beforehand, but to be open to events as they unfold. As you gain a stronger grasp on the story having spent time with the subject, be more specific and intentional about how to shoot the story.

Would love to hear your thoughts on if/when to use music tracks, how to select good royalty free tracks, working with a composer, etc. -Leslie

Eric: Music should be used when it enhances the emotion that already exists in your footage, not as an aid to create feeling that is not present. Rarely do we “needle drop,” which is playing a piece of music end-to-end. For more information on using music see, MediaStorm’s Ten Tips for Working With Music in Multimedia.

Working with a composer is a rare treat. The benefit is obvious: music specifically tailored for the rhythms of your project. The downside is that a composer is more expensive than royalty free music and it usually takes some back-and-forth to get things right. Like most decisions, it comes down to time and money.

Tim: Don’t expect music to save your piece. If the piece isn’t emotional, music won’t make it emotional. If your piece isn’t funny, music won’t make it funny. Music should underscore and enhance the emotional notes already present in the footage. If those notes aren’t there, music will make your piece feel disingenuous.

In editing, what’s the most common gap in stills / footage / audio you have to work around? – Stan Alcorn

Eric: Surprisingly, I most often need to work around a lack of room tone, which is the ambient sound of the interview environment. We use that sound to fill the gaps between interview bites so the sound doesn’t completely fall out. Somehow room tone always seems to be missing so I have to “create” it by stringing together assorted breaks in the interview. That never sounds as good as simply recording 30 seconds of silence.

A trick I learned when working in TV is to write the word “tone” on the back of my hand. That way, if I forgot to record it, I’d invariably find the reminder when packing up gear.

Tim: Lack of vision or purpose when shooting video. I want to see more work that’s shot with intention. If you’re going to shoot something on a tripod, have a reason that relates to the story as to why it should be shot on a tripod. If you’re going to shoot everything off a tripod, have a reason that relates to the story as to why is should be shot off a tripod. Think about what you want to say with your videography and then execute on that. Don’t just react passively to the situation you’re in, be thinking actively about what visually you can bring to the story.

And ditto on the room tone.

In Adobe Premiere Pro, I have been unsuccessful in exporting a sequence with audio and still images in such a way that preserves the quality of the still images. What is the best codec to use when exporting still image sequences? –Matt Glen Burkhartt

We usually use the DSLR sequence setting in Premiere Pro, which exports as an mpeg codec. But it sounds like you may not be using the correct color space on your images. Tone your images in RAW, but then export to sRGB in order to maintain the truest color. For more information, see our Aperture guide which is included in the MediaStorm Post-production Workflow.

Thanks for the great questions. Keep ’em coming. (Use the twitter hashtag #AskMediaStorm or the comments below.)