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|| News Item: Posted 2007-11-11

It's All About The Audio
By Susánica Tam

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / Sports Shooter

Photo by Robert Hanashiro / Sports Shooter

Susánica Tam records audio of Fullerton College cheerleaders for her multimedia project at the Sports Shooter Academy Multimedia Boot Camp.
(Editor's Note: The Sports Shooter Newsletter asked three participants in the SSA Multimedia Boot Camp to relate their experiences and how the new wave of visual story-telling will affect their careers in photojournalism.)

I first heard the mantra from my friend Chuck when I hitched a ride down from a day of shooting at Rocky Mountain National Park this summer. I was exhausted, bedraggled from dragging gear up to 13,000' and dehydrated from dismissing water as too heavy to carry and therefore not a necessity. Chuck is a filmmaker who is finishing school with a specialization in audio technology, a concentration that few people I know have focused on. As he drove, we discussed our work.

"Audio without the video = radio. Video without the audio = a surveillance camera," he explained. It took a few minutes to sink in until I got the point: who wants to sit around and watch silent footage of surveillance tape? That has a certain creepy connotation. On the other hand, listening to those people on NPR? Well, not only does everyone assume all those reporters are smart, but their storytelling and use of natural sound is so good that listeners can rehash it convincingly enough to come across as well-informed.

So, it was on that long drive home that I realized, with a sinking feeling, it was time to be gettin' some skillz.

I grew up in the digital world. I'm young enough to be a part of the "convergence," stage of media, a word used to describe our journalism curriculum meaning that we had better be as glib in front of a TV camera as we are blogging on the Information Superhighway. A typical week of class meant a newspaper deadline on Monday, hours in the AVID bay on Wednesday, and wrestling with Dreamweaver not uploading properly on Friday.

These days I check my e-mail if I wake up at night to go to the bathroom, I scan my feed reader before breakfast, and I absolutely, without a doubt, don't know what a film camera is. Despite all that preparation, I was sent out in the world after graduation without a clear definition of what I would be doing, yet with the vague threat that we would be expected to know it all.

Nevertheless, for a long time, I skirted away from Multimedia. I felt that I had to concentrate on one thing at a time; my career as a still photographer needed to be established before I could focus on operating a one-man-video band. When I heard I was a confirmed attendee at SSA Multimedia Boot Camp, what I felt was with a mixture of anticipation and resignation. I was excited to be joining the ranks, but worried that I'd be behind, and worse still, that I was somehow selling out just to get in line with all the others who would be out of a job if they didn't learn Final Cut Pro in a weekend.

So there I was on my Friday night, listening to KFI News Radio's Eric Leonard, whose presentation put a lot of things in perspective. His demo, in which we all closed our eyes and listened to a feature about an attempted suicide, showed me just how powerful a piece could be and led me to understand that good audio could only aid me in storytelling. As I didn't have all the equipment he did, I applied what I could, gleaning his tips about getting close, about reporting, and realized that I actually knew all this. I just needed the hardware. It was all the things that I love doing--talking to people, getting them to open up and share part of their lives--and in this case, I could literally lend them a voice to tell their story.

Photo by Jordan Murph / Sports Shooter

Photo by Jordan Murph / Sports Shooter

KFI News Radio's Eric Leonard teaches audio techniques at the Sports Shooter Academy Multimedia Boot Camp.
The audio clip I made that was singled out at SSA Boot Camp was recorded before the football game using the same journalistic approach that I use when I get to know a subject I'm shooting.

When I saw a small group of cheerleaders preparing for the game, I thought of two things that had been stressed the day before. The first was Leonard's warning not to interview people in groups. The second was Bert Hanashiro's reminder that everything relied on having good access.

Well, I knew the chances of isolating a single cheerleader to talk on recorded audio was going to be next to impossible, so I zeroed in on chatting with one girl and a few of her friends. I told them why I was there, asked if I could record, and just tried to have a relaxed conversation and tried to think of their nervous laughter as natural sound rather than detracting from audio quality.

As soon as the girls started talking to me, I knew I was in. Just like those moments when I know I've nailed a shot, I knew the second I heard it that I had captured personality and color to open my presentation with. From there on, it would just be a matter of building the layers to illustrate a more complete story, and getting the visuals to go along with it.

One last thing. By trying lots of things, I also found what worked and what didn't. Everyone heard the bright sound that I'd recorded from the cheerleaders, but no one heard the failure I had trying to interview the high school football team who showed up to watch the game. (You thought cheerleaders were inarticulate, but at least they form sentences). And definitely no one, including me, heard the post-game interview I did with one of the Fullerton players, because I guess I didn't hit the "rec" button like I thought I had, and all I got was silence when I went to edit.

SSA Boot Camp awakened a respect for visual storytelling with the added element of audio, timing, and pacing. It's thinking in a different dimension. It's more to learn, but in return, it's more versatile. I now want to be a super-savvy multimedia go-to-girl. I envied those guys at the workshop who nonchalantly made their own music, or deftly created star wipes with two clicks of a mouse. Still, I take solace in the fact that no matter what I do, it will be better than the last time I tried it, and I can't wait to get started. As soon as I can afford my new software, that is.

(Susánica Tam is a freelance photojournalist based in Southern California. She is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California.)

Related Links:
Tam's member page

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