Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Visual Storytelling as Interpretive Technique

We can all take a minute and appreciate the fact that we don't need this to produce films anymore:

Bonus points if you can identify this building.
Audio and visual production has been around for a while. These past few years, however, technological evolution has provided the means for everyday folk to create and produce their own films. Those little computers we now carry around in our pockets that we often refer to as "phones" have the capability of capturing and sharing the world from our hands. From our hands!

You have the tools (or at least access to the tools). So how do you tell a story? If you are an interpreter, you've been doing this already. Delivering a formal program is a tool, just like a film is a tool. They each have their own positives and should be treated differently. When delivering a program, words (often connected to a space or a thing) drive the story. Film, however, utilizes more than just words. In film, we go beyond telling a story to showing a story.

Here is one way (of all my favorite ways) to show a story. As you watch, make note of all the various visual, audio, and audio visual ways he shows his story:

We are a visual society, inundated with images. Some of these images are still and some move. When thinking about your program or video, what message do you desire to convey? That will help you plan what images you can use. Initially, it might seem images are limited. But let's brainstorm; you might be underestimating your resources.

No, not those kind of stills. You are working at a historic site, right? Surely, you have historic pictures? Nothing says "historic" like a sepia-colored image. Maybe the pictures are hanging on the wall (a painted portrait, perhaps?). Film it or snap a shot of it. If you don't think it will look good just inserted as an image, think like Ken Burns. There are techniques now built into most editing programs that allow you to slowly zoom in or out or pan across photos for a visual effect. Maybe they are in your collections and need to be scanned. Have you checked local university collections? Maybe county or state archives? How about the Library of Congress? They've got some pretty good stuff, too. The idea here is to convey a scene that your story discusses, whether it be a person, place, or thing. Plenty of historic images from various eras do that.

Video Footage
This can be acquired from modern day cameras and archival footage. Modern shots can capture scenes of places and landscapes. Even a few seconds of live footage from a still shot can allow your viewer to process the place you are talking about. How about the tricks of visual interpretation that modern documentaries use? Maybe it is just the filming of the hemline of a hoop skirt walking around an historic ballroom? Maybe a soldier dressed in blue wool holding a tin cup? Maybe the passing train wheels along a train track? These few seconds of footage do not demand a face, but provide enough imagery for the audience to continue following the story. Never underestimate the powers of archival footage. One of the best places for archival footage is Their "Wayback Machine" search engine provides a variety of sources that you can download and use for free; even historic film. Just a few seconds of historic film may help complete your video story.

Audio Sources
The narrator of your film (if you have one) is just one audio source. Think of sounds: birds chirping to indicate nature, firing of weapons to indicate battle, cars to indicate traffic, the hum of a crowded room to indicate many voices. While video is a visual way to tell your story, audio sources complete this endeavor. Old radio broadcasts provide content, various people reading aloud quotes or script provide content, old recordings of oral histories provide content, and even other sources of film can provide content. Many audio bites are available through free websites. As you develop your story, don't forget how sounds provide imagery through the mind's eye.

A quote against a black screen can introduce an idea well. Let it sit a bit and simmer with your audience. Sometimes, you can insert a quote mid-video for a mindful pause. Let your audience read and absorb. Never be afraid of pauses. Pictures of newspaper articles or advertisements or posters provide visual material AND a place for the mind to rest while listening. What headlines share the statements from the narrative? Can you film text from a monument or memorial to capture the ideas you are conveying?

While text encompasses a broad range of content, don't forget the primary source documents you have been using for research as a form of visual aid. Letters handwritten show a different era (or sentiment) than those that are type-written). Scan documents to include as a visual aid. Various records may convey different ideas: census records, diary entries, personal letters, tax records, government documents, letterhead, advertisements, even graffiti. Visualizing the words spoken help reinforce the idea.

Modern Scenes
Capture the scene. Maybe you are telling a story about natives using the desert to survive; let your camera film a scene of the desert with the wind gently moving the brush. The audience will process what they hear while watching the twitch of desert grass. Film just the feet of people walking in front of an historic site or a sidewalk: use your visual to convey a story that words cannot capture. Even a shot of an historic building helps tell your story; the movement may just be the wind gently rustling the nearby trees, but it gives your audience something to view as they process your story.

Never underestimate the value of a "talking head." Maybe you can talk to one of your staff. Maybe a nearby scholar. Maybe a "history buff" or even a local visitor. These voices can contribute to your film in ways that still pictures or filmed landscapes cannot. They provide a human voice for your audience to connect to.

I may disagree about who he defines as "genius,"
but Shelby Foote helped "make" Ken Burns' Civil War. 

While crafting your script, don't foget how much your audio content will tell. Use words that provide or accompany visual aids. "The soldier fought" may not convey the same as "The soldier's brow poured forth sweat as he pushed forward on a muddy battlefield." Again, never fear a thoughtful pause. Every moment of your film does not need words: let the visual tell the story.

Have I included all the visuals? Not by a long stretch. But one of the most fascinating things about film is that it provides freedom of creativity. What do you have that makes your site or your story unique? How can you convey that on film? It can be done well and with a limited budget. Thanks, Mr. Edison. But now, the Black Maria can be filmed and revealed rather than being the one that produces film.

*The Black Maria was Thomas Edison's moving picture studio. [Image credit: Library of Congress]

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