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|| News Item: Posted 2006-07-30

Sound Advice
There's a new dimension in visual storytelling on the horizon and it involves the 'theater of the mind.' The photographer now has an opportunity to 'illustrate' their photo with words.

By Kim Komenich, San Francisco Chronicle

Photo by Kim Komenich / San Francisco Chronicle

Photo by Kim Komenich / San Francisco Chronicle

Microphones stand poised to hear the family of slain hostage U.S. soldier Elmer Krause discuss his death at a press conference at the California National Guard Building outside Mather Air Force Base in Fairfield California on April 24, 2004.
Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem "Mandalay" in 1892 and the other day I heard Frank Sinatra's big-band rendition of "On the Road to Mandalay" on a jazz station. Like a lot of things, it made me think about photography.

"On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin' fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China 'crost the bay."

--Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-Room Ballads (1892).

Try to photograph THAT!

In a way, I think we can. There's a new dimension in visual storytelling on the horizon and it involves the "theater of the mind." We've just got to discover our own way of putting the puzzle together.

When we listen to "This American Life" contributors tell well-crafted radio stories about senior citizen shoplifters or small-town heroes, or when we experience the hundreds of examples of cutting-edge multimedia presentations showcased on
we can see that new connections in storytelling are being made every day.

In their day, Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith were early adopters of new technology. In his early years, artist and filmmaker Cartier-Bresson was among the first to use the combination of the facile Leica camera and the latest, fastest 35mm film to establish a new dimension in what would be called street photography. A look at Smith's "Minamata" will show how he used newly available ultra-wide angle lenses to intensify some of his images.

In 2002, in a scene reminiscent of graduation day in "The Wizard of Oz," P.F. Bentley handed me a diploma certifying my completion of the Platypus Workshop. It said that I was now a "Producer." I carry that distinction into the way I work on video and multimedia projects. Now I don't merely "shoot" stories, I produce them.

This distinction can help empower the photojournalist who is entering the world of multimedia. As a producer, you call ALL the shots. If you are a newspaper shooter, this can profoundly change the way you pitch, shoot and present stories.

Will the story be told best with words published in a newspaper, or with words and pictures in a newspaper, or does the subject's situation have the elements necessary to use photos, audio and the "theater of the mind" on the web to give the viewer an experience they can't get in print?

Often our daily assignments are generated by beat reporters whose job it is to write stories, not come up with optimal photo shoots. The photos sometimes fall short because they amount to illustrations of a reporter's conclusions that were assigned on deadline.

That, unfortunately, is the newspaper business. A good assignment editor can evangelize and buy time for you, but a percentage of a daily newspaper photographer's day is always going to be spent fixing bad assignments that could have been great pictures.

In an age when newspapers are realizing the advertising potential of video and multimedia storytelling, photographers who take on the role of producer can begin taking a bit more control of their day.

As we already know, the reporter has the ability to write about the pleistoscene era and the results of the 2008 presidential election in the same sentence. The photographer has only the ability to photograph what's there when the photographer makes the image.

Which gets us back to the flying fish of Mandalay.

An audio track coupled with photos in a web slide show can add a dimension beyond traditional "words and pictures" storytelling currently practiced in print and on the web. You can "conjure" and make the hair on the viewer's neck stand up (which was always my standard for a successful photo) by engaging the viewer's eyes AND ears.

As we head into this cinematic aspect of visual storytelling, the print photographer's instincts about shooting a story (a beginning-middle-end picture story destined to be laid out as pictures of various sizes on a page) must change. Their instincts must expand to include the dimension of time. What made perfect sense on a page often looks amateurish on a timeline.

In his classic book "In the Blink of an Eye", film editor and sound designer Walter Murch ("Apocalypse Now," "The Conversation," "Cold Mountain") discusses the physiology of movie-watching and why a certain cut works.

"Discontinuity is King," Murch writes, "It is the central fact during the production phase of filmmaking and almost all decisions are directed to it in one way or another - how to overcome (discontinuity's) difficulties and/or how to best take advantage of its strengths."

In a nutshell, this is your college picture editing class on steroids. A slide show is "played" and not read. Its effect on the viewer is closer to that of film than print. How do we adapt to timeline-based editing? Do we follow the print tradition and eliminate redundancy and edit for impact, knowing that viewers aren't allowed to "graze" and dwell as they would if they were reading it in a newspaper?

Two of the print reporter's most important tools are discontinuity and juxtaposition. They write in "inverted pyramid" so they can prioritize and tell a meaningful story. Reporters can also incorporate intangible feelings and thoughts into their stories. Showing our viewers these intangibles is where photography, especially deadline newspaper photography, can easily become melodramatic. Too often we equate emotion with peak action, and in the process we miss the "little" pictures.

Slide show photography demands that we put ourselves in a state of anticipating sequences as well as moments. We'll find that in an important situation we are shooting "decisive sequences," each with its own anticipatory, peak and consequential moment. Slide show shooting can bring a level of subtlety and nuance to the moments we decide to publish with the print story.

The video or slide show soundtrack is created by editing layers of "A-roll" (the interview) and "B-roll" (supplementary natural sound) on a timeline, allowing photographers to juxtapose and "time-trip" like reporters do.

Photo by

This is a 13-track, two-minute, thirty-second mono Audacity timeline. The playhead starts at 0:00 and moves from left to right, playing multiple layers.
Due to the fact the photographer's interview with the subject is done separately from the reporter's interview (and it is done with the slide show in mind), the photographer has an opportunity to "illustrate their photo" with words. Reporters need not fear competition from the photographer-- the photographer is only seeking the right words to make a slide show work.

If we take on the role of producing our pictures and audio into stories, our questions will lead to soundtracks that will take our photos places they've never been before.

Fasten your seat belt. You're drivin'.


To start your new career as multimedia producer on the cheap, download a free MP3/WAV editing program such as Audacity from Sourceforge:

I use the more versatile Peak LE and Soundsoap programs from BIAS. These programs allow you to edit a wider range of audio formats and they come with plugins for video and audio programs such as Final Cut Pro:

and then get Soundslides from Joe Weiss

To learn more about producing audio for slide shows, here are some websites:
• "Sound in the Story" is essential reading for photographers who are learning audio for multimedia. It comes from MediaVia producer J. Carl Ganter
You can get a PDF of "Sound in the Story" from the lessons section of

• An online tutorial written by Brian Storm and Jim Seida. These guys were pivotal in establishing the direction of photography-based multimedia on the web from their days together at MSNB. Storm went on to found Mediastorm and Seida continues to do cutting-edge work at MSNBC.

• is a wonderful collection of the latest multimedia sites, techniques and software from Joe Weiss, inventor of the shareware slide show program "Soundslides."

• "This American Life" publishes an $5 comic book called "Radio:An Illustrated Guide", which details how to produce NPR-quality radio stories. It's available through the This American Life general store at:

• If you want to learn more about Final Cut Pro or Flash and are not able to get to a school or a workshop, try:

I highly recommend the Multimedia Bootcamp at UNC Chapel Hill.

As taught at UNC, there are three types of multimedia sites:

There's single media (think back to the early days of HTML- it looks like a PDF page). Then, there's multiple-media (like most newspaper sites- a non-interactive file cabinet). Finally, there's multimedia (like Mediastorm and MSNBC-- striving toward intuitive and interactive).

In the next decade the distinction between cable TV and web storytelling will blur, thanks to broadband video. The ad money for our stories will come in part from broadband. Note the ads in the Times and Post video reports:



A new Magnum slide show is posted every day at:

Flash Journalism: How to Create Multimedia News Packages
In the Blink of an Eye Revised 2nd Edition

I use the Marantz 660 for "big mic" XLR jobs
I use the Edirol R-09 for "little mic" jobs



Photo by Randy Olson

Photo by Randy Olson

"If we take on the role of producing our pictures and audio into stories, our questions will lead to soundtracks that will take our photos places they've never been before. Fasten your seat belt. You're drivin'." - Kim Komenich
(Kim Komenich is on the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle. He was the winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He recorded audio and video during three trips to Iraq in 2005 . He attended the 2002 Platypus Workshop, the 2003 Advanced Platypus Workshop and the UNC Multimedia Bootcamp in May of 2006. Kim wrote 'What is a good sports photo?' for the Sports Shooter Newsletter in 2002 He recently wrote about cinema verite and documentary still photography for the Digital Journalist He is co-founder of San Francisco Exposure Gallery and a founding board member of Fotovision

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