Writing for the ear

I’ve always been a visual learner. In my life, this has always gone hand in hand with accusations of being a bad listener. Yep, it’s true. I need insane amounts of sleep and/or coffee for my mind to be graced with the virtue of undivided attention. The rare occurrence where I could see myself uttering cliché phrases like:

“I’m hanging on your every word”

or

“what purple dinosaur in the corner?

If you are anything like me (average attention span of ~2 nanoseconds) then you need as much help as you can get when it comes to listening. Not listening for appearance sake, I mean really listening.

Radio programs, podcasts, television news reports, etc. all attempt to write and speak in a way that will help the listeners understand the message. Take for example, a busy mother who is preparing dinner while the 5 o’clock news plays in the background. If the reporters are writing for the ear, the multi-tasking mother should have no problem understanding what the report is about …even though she is not receiving the visuals.

Courtesy of Mr.Media.com , we have a few sentences to compare. Can you tell which of these sentences is written “for the ear” and which sentence is not?

“This multi-lateral agreement, and its steady progress forward, is critical because it will  protect Americans who could otherwise be maimed or killed should they consume – knowingly or unknowingly – unapproved imported meats, unpasteurized dairy products, or dangerous unregulated alcoholic beverages.”

or

“We need to sign this agreement quickly to protect Americans from unregulated and dangerous meats, dairy products, and alcoholic beverages.”

Take a look at the following article, 5 Ways To Write For The Ear, Not For The Eye  for more tips.

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Wiki-ethics.

In ethics, openness and transparency are certainly the goals, however, they are not the only values that need consideration in ethical decision-making. In fact, pursuing some ethical principles while neglecting others is inherently unethical.

For example, seeking transparency and openness above other values, creates a lopsided and perhaps unintended, “ethical hierarchy.” One where transparency and openness are placed at the top, giving them an authoritative position over other values that should have equal consideration. In ethical decision-making, neglecting certain values – such as minimizing harm, or maximizing the greater good – is a mistake. Without considering these factors, the decision becomes reckless and endangering rather than ethical.

On July 12, 2007 the US performed an airstrike in Baghdad. The event was recorded on video, which showed US soldiers using machine guns killing people who turned out to be innocent civilians. Two of the victims were journalists, whose cameras were mistaken for weapons. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the recording was the soldier’s cavalier attitude towards the killings. Phrases such as “light ‘em up” are things I’d expect to hear from a video gamer, not from a person who is actually taking someone’s life. The fact the U.S. was at war at the time of the recording is irrelevant to me. I don’t think that there is ever an excuse for this type of disrespect for human life.The video recording the airstrike, dubbed “collateral murder,” was leaked to the internet via the website WikiLeaks.

Created by Julian Assange, WikiLeaks is a website that provides a safe haven for whistleblowers (civilian or journalist) to shed light upon corruption or reveal information to the public. Although Wikileaks tries to keep the “leakers” anonymous, in this case, U.S. Private Bradley Manning was identified as the one who leaked the information. Following his arrest, Manning has been kept in military detention, reportedly enduring inhumane treatment.

It is difficult to determine the exact effect that releasing secure information has had on the war effort and on the attitudes of Americans towards their government. It is essential to democracy for people to be aware of these issues. However, at the same time, to maintain peace and public order, it is essential for certain military secrets be kept secure.

In the debate surrounding Wikileaks, it seems like there are two opposing priorities: are you on the side of liberty and freedom of the press? Or on the side of national and domestic security? I think Benjamin Franklin spoke eloquently when he said ‘those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ That being said, there is always a middle ground. I believe that while it is important for people have access to news that hasn’t been moderated by the government or filtered by regulation. It is also the responsibility of the source of that information to consider ethical principles before releasing it.

I am highly intrigued by hearing the different opinions regarding WikiLeaks and ethics. Some call Julian Assange a modern-day hero, and others think that he is an evil-doer who must be held accountable.

For me, the question that trumps all: have the actions of Assange and Manning make the world a better place?

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“For a writer, its a word. For a composer or a musician its a note. For an editor or a filmmaker, its a frame.” (Quentin Tarantino)

The topic of this week’s lecture was Video: it’s multitasking. The lecture was definitely deserving of the name after a busy week of shooting and editing.

It’s amazing (and sometimes frustrating) how music, natural sound, ambient sound, narration and images need to work together to create a cohesive and powerful piece. If a film is edited in a way that clashes with the videographer’s intended message (imagine a home video of your sweet grandmother’s 80th birthday paired with the jaws theme song in the background) the result is jarring and ineffective piece.

Here are some examples in which editing can compliment the subject matter: 

If you have ever seen the film “Sunshine” then you probably remember that the visuals are incredible. The film’s final scene,  (where a nuclear bomb makes contact with the sun) is a great example of how music and natural sound can work together to give the audience the feeling of ‘being in the moment.’

As the bomb speeds towards the sun, it’s force is apparent with an ever-increasing, pulsing hum. The natural sound, the buzzing, snapping, popping become louder and more frequent as the sun’s radiation reacts violently with nuclear atoms.

In the final seconds, there is a magical silence that takes over. Time slows,  and each atom appears to explode into whimsical, beautiful, star-like bursts.

Without warning, the scene switches back real-time, a wave of fire engulfs everything in it’s reach.

The film’s music sounds the way  that the images look – incredibly powerful, yet soft and understated- almost passes by without notice.

When sun and the bomb finally collide, a blanket of the brightest, purest white you can imagine covers everything. I don’t know how they do it, but if I closed my eyes, the music sounded as blinding as my TV screen looked. It was beautiful. It was moving. It was effective.

Another example of effective video editing is the boat tour scene in The Life Aquatic with Steve ZissouWes Anderson, the film’s director, chose to familiarize the audience with the submarine’s layout in a way that compliments the character of the movie whilst setting a precedent of unconventional storytelling.

Like a child’s dollhouse, the boat has been sliced in half, exposing each room. As the camera pans from one room to the next, the main character, Mr. Zissou, acts as a tour guide, traveling seamlessly with the audience throughout the ship.  

A big portion of Monday’s lecture focused on “rules” to follow when shooting video.However… I am a big fan of the phrase “rules are meant to be broken.” That is why I have included this last example.  I feel that it breaks some of these rules, albeit in a very effective way.

 

This clip is a scene from the film Requiem for a Dream. A couple is lying in bed, talking face-to-face and caressing each other. The screen is split between two tight shots of each person. Here is where it breaks the rules: many of the split shots don’t line up perfectly. This technique makes the shots look like a jump cut.

But… instead of taking away from the effectiveness of the scene (like jump cuts usually do) it adds to it. The split screen allows the viewer to observe the intimacy and emotion that exists between the characters. And the two tight shots, lined up side by side, allow the audience to focus closely on a part of each character, but at the same time.

I think that sometimes talented filmmakers know when to break them. Knowing when and how is something that I’ll gain with experience. However, at the moment I am thankful for guidelines.  Without some rule in place, newbies like me would probably be lost.

I’m looking forward to the day when I can break the rules and the result will be refreshing one opposed to a jarring one for my audience. After all I’ve learned this week, I think it’s safe to say that when in good taste, rules are made to be… edited.

 

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Journalism on social media: A One-man band contest?

This week’s lecture was really interesting. It featured a guest speaker, Nancy Loo, who works as a reporter for a news channel in Chicago. It’s always great to hear a fresh perspective on something you are learning about, but there was one thing from Nancy Loo’s guest appearance that really brought something new. Although Loo was speaking to my class directly, she was not actually there in person. Loo spoke to us from her home via webcam.

Nancy Loo has embraced social media and has found it an invaluable resource for journalism. She spoke to us about the different social media sites that we as journalists should utilize. She emphasized how our “online presence” is an investment in ourselves and about how building our online “brand” will increase the amount of “google hits” our name will get, as well as increase traffic to our blogs, websites, and social media pages. This is important because the more you are involved online, the more opportunities you have to engage with the community and the world.

As the lecture went on, I began to feel intimidated. First of all, because I have never used, or even heard of many of the sites she mentioned. Secondly: I’m no computer geek, although I wish I was. And to be honest, the internet is one of those things that I use daily but don’t understand fully.

Finding success in journalism was beginning to sound like a highly competitive one-man band contest. It may sound strange but maybe this Pixar Short will help to illustrate my analogy.

In order to become successful you need to be current. For example, who would have thought McDonald’s would ever start advertising for health food? If that’s what the market dictates then so be it. Maybe starting this blog is like picking up a guitar for the first time. There are a lot more instruments to learn, but it always starts with one.

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With today’s advances in technology, can the “decisive moment” be created instead of captured?

I recently stumbled upon  a video  produced in time-lapse format demonstrating the tools and techniques used by a brilliant Photoshop artist. I say brilliant because he can essentially create an incredibly detailed and beautiful picture from scratch through Photoshop. I watched him compose the background from nothing, create a visual story, and infuse it with emotion. As he decides what is in in his picture, his composition is near perfect.

The fleeting and elusive “decisive moment” that photographers strive to capture is a non-issue for him. His angle, focus, and shutter don’t work together to create his image. Instead, like many other artists, he works from a blank canvas and can create whatever he wants with it.

As this artist worked, I felt amazed and threatened at the same time. Maybe this surge of worry is premature or unwarranted altogether, but I couldn’t help but wonder… Since the very first photograph, taken in approximately 1816, the capturing of still images has been something that fascinated humans across the planet. Now, with the accessibility of cameras, has the medium lost some of its allure? Does this artists enhanced drawing mark a resurgence of the more traditional art forms, albeit with a digital twist? This an ancient battle, from sculpture to tapestry, oil painting to engraving, Each new medium challenges the previous to reinvent itself to stay current. Photography challenged the traditional methods of painting and illustration. Now, it appears that the tables have turned.  Traditional photography is facing challenges as technologically based computer art forms continue to develop.

Obviously, there are ethics and standards that journalists should adhere to as far as photo and video editing goes. In the past, some journalists have not followed the values and ethics that people trust, and when they are found out, their actions taint the entire profession. However, what if some unethical journalists “create” images through Photoshop but never get caught? The motivation for certain unethical edits is perhaps tied to the accessibility and user-friendliness of digital cameras.  Photographers may feel more pressure than ever to capture that decisive moment. Furthermore, as images from artists and citizens photographers (who may not be familiar with the ethics and values of journalism) flood into the marketplace of ideas, the public then must sift through images and decide which are truth and which are fabrication.

I hope that the public will always favor and demand truth from journalism, even when a truthful image has a less than perfect composition. As much as I respect the talent that artists use to bring beauty and creativity to our lives, I hope that journalism and art never merge to an undecipherable point; because if that were to happen then  truthfulness – journalism’s greatest asset – may be lost among a sea of beautiful creations.

Below is a collection of some of Henri Cartier Bresson’s photographs. Bresson is known as the “father of modern photojournalism.”

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“The caged bird sings of freedom.”

“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.”

This is the poem that journalist Laura Ling recited to herself everyday while she was held captive in a North Korean Prison. Ling was allowed to return to the US after her sister Lisa Ling and former President Bill Clinton negotiated her release with Kim Jong-il. She described her experience being imprisoned in North Korea as “the most terrifying time in my life… [I was] a prisoner in one of the most isolated countries in the world, one that views our own as its enemy. I didn’t know if I’d see my family again, I didn’t know if I’d survive until the next day.” Before she was captured, she was working on a story surrounding the North Korean regime.

English: Locator map of North Korea.

English: Locator map of North Korea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Laura Ling recently visited the University of Missouri campus to speak at the Missouri Theatre. On Thursday, September 6, 2012, Ling spoke to a packed audience, many of them journalism students.

“I was drilled for hour after hour, day after day. Anytime my interrogator would ask me ‘what are the names of the people you interviewed?’ I didn’t know if I was sealing my own fate because I would say to him ‘I don’t know their names.’ But I also knew that if I didn’t approach that situation with integrity and try to safeguard [the interviewees] to the best of my ability, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

She paused for a moment, the theatre was silent except for the bustling sounds of scribbled note taking. If all the other note takers were like me, we were trying to record her powerful words in our notebooks as quickly as our pencils would allow. I sat on the edge of my chair, completely riveted. Ling went on to describe in vivid detail how she was captured, interrogated, and sentenced to a dismal prison in North Korea. Shortly after she and her journalist partner were captured, they had a few moments where they were left alone with their belongings. Immediately they rushed to destroy the personal information of the people they interviewed.

“We knew that we had things in our possession that would not be looked upon favorably by the north korean authorities …including notes that I had written down in my notebook asking [questions] about the regime…we immediately went to work trying to just destroy some of the things we had. We ripped up notes and swallowed them…we deleted pictures…we tore up ribbons of videotape. For this story our biggest concern was for the people that we had been interviewing.”

With every passing minute, my respect for Mrs. Ling just grew exponentially. Her journalistic values and her personal ethics are such a tremendous example of what all journalists should strive for. Ling went on to speak about the issues that impassion her to report on:

“I have written about extensively is the struggle for freedom in different parts of the world, as well as with the battles we struggle with within ourselves that make us feel in prison. I never truly understood the luxury that our freedom is until I went out into the world and met people who had risked their lives for greater freedom, and … until I lost my own.”

While Ling’s account of her traumatic experience in North Korea was unbelievable and inspiring, there were other parts of her speech that were just as moving. For example, she played a clip from Narco War Next Door, a news-style documentary that she was part of. The piece focused on the Mexican drug cartel and the killings associated with it. At one point during the footage (47:40 warning: graphic) she and her team were at the scene of a drug-related double murder, just minutes after it happened. In-fact, police had yet to block off the scene when the camera crew arrived. Ling’s crew was able to capture footage of the family’s reaction. With cameras rolling, the victim’s mother received news of her son’s murder. In a frantic state of disbelief and shock,  she cried and screamed in spanish. Although I did not understand what she said, her pain transcended language.  As I watched, tears filled my eyes and my heart felt heavy with compassion.

I became very aware of just how powerful multimedia can be. Combining images, audio, and video with news gives the events an immersive quality that is hard to obtain with words alone. These mediums don’t give you the option to distance yourself from the experience in  the way that text does. Our primitive instincts direct us away from pain, to repress traumatic experience, and to seek what is comfortable. While these instincts helped us to survive and evolve, when it comes to news, it’s detrimental. Why? Because we may end up sheltering ourselves from the gritty, uncomfortable, emotional things that are reality. Over time,  becoming immune and callous to certain events happening in places around the world. After all, they are often places that are far away the freedom, comfort, and safety we enjoy. While certain stories are uncomfortable to experience, they are real and they are true. In order for anything to change, people must connect with it and be affected by it on a personal level. That is the first step.

“Journalists know that certain stories contain risks, but we also know that leaving certain issues ignored can be more detrimental to us as a society.”

Ling spoke of the importance of multimedia, telling us of a time when she traveled to Myanmar, a country formerly known as Burma. In Myanmar, “the internet was censored and it cost 3,000 dollars to purchase a cell phone.” The government had devised these methods in order to keep citizens disconnected and therefore under control. In-fact, much of the success of the recent Jasmine Revolution has been attributed to social media, which allowed the movement to organize and assemble. Similarly, against the odds, the Burmese people found ways to utilize the power of multimedia in their search for democracy and freedom.

“Despite the fact that the government was controlling the media and censoring the internet, people were still finding ways to take pictures… and upload them onto the internet so that the whole world could see. And it really sparked an international online campaign bringing attention to what was happening there. Even though the people there didn’t have guns to protect themselves, they had a different kind of weapon: the internet, which proved to be quite powerful.”

Being able to hear the desperation in another’s voice, their pain, or their laughter, has the potential to unite us as human beings. Allowing us to have compassion and empathy for people whose cultures we may not understand. Intrinsically we all understand humanity. I believe this is a key component to journalism. Fostering a better understanding of our world and the people living in it. Ling’s speech helped me appreciate the importance of multimedia and the role it plays in journalism.

Laura Ling at the Missouri Theatre

September 6, 2012, journalism student Jennifer Marks and journalist Laura Ling at the Missouri Theatre, Columbia, Mo. Ling wrote a New York Times bestseller on her experience where she was captured and held captive in North Korea back in 2009.

The Maneater wrote about Laura Ling’s speech at the Missouri Theatre as well.

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Capturing (authentic) Emotion on Film

People love movies. In fact, according to the National Organization of Theatre Owners (NOTO), theaters in the US and Canada sold 1.2 billion tickets in 2011. http://www.mpaa.org/resources/5bec4ac9-a95e-443b-987b-bff6fb5455a9.pdf
 
But what makes a good movie? It’s a billion dollar question in a billion dollar industry. Everyone hates that feeling: walking out of the theatre 9 dollars and 3 hours poorer (15 dollars if you buy a small popcorn) feeling like you should have listened to your date and will never trust another Keanu Reeves flick again… regardless of how amazing the trailer may have looked. 
 

So, I’m back to the first question: what makes a GOOD film? I am talking about documentaries. There are many reason why people enjoy movies. They can be funny, they can be action-packed, they can be scary… but documentaries, I believe, are different. Documentaries educate, they inspire, they seek to make the world a better place, at the very heart of every documentary lies the desire to convey a message. In monday’s class we watched A Thousand More, the documentary-style profile of Philly Mayer, a young boy who suffers from a rare disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. The short, 13 minute film was very powerful.

The rule of thumb for a good film is one that makes you cry, but also makes you laugh. Right? I think we have all heard that one before, not sure from where, but we have all heard it. Enabling your audience to feel something is the unofficial mark of a successful movie. Why? Perhaps because authentic emotion is so difficult to capture.  Emotions, by their nature, are fleeting. They rush in, they ebb, they flow. 

Transforming raw emotion into  something “watchable” (i.e. entertaining) is challenging. The filmmaker’s who made A Thousand More used subtle, and complimentary devices and techniques to accomplish this. For example, (@ 11:26) the screen goes dark during the father’s monologue. The absence of visual stimulation directed focus on the words alone: giving them a greater impact. The directors ‘fly on the wall’ approach to filming is a device that forces the viewer into the world of the family. In this film, the use of any traditional, interview style sit-downs and probing questions would only serve as a barrier to separate audience from subject. Additionally, as my multimedia project looms, I will have to make editing decisions. In Monday’s class I learned that one of the most vital components of conveying emotion are moments of silence. Previously, I may have been eager to edit out those moments, in an attempt to avoid awkward silence. After analyzing this documentary, I understand that these moments of silence allow the viewer to experience the emotion, to sit with it, to let it sink in.

The way in which films of this nature really get to the heart of the audience is by making them ask questions about themselves. It is every parent’s worst nightmare to have your child slowly fall ill and be told he has 7 years to live. How would I handle this situation? Am I capable of the courage and grace that these parents demonstrate? These are important questions and if you can answer them… Well, the best thing you can ask for in a film is walking out of the cinema feeling like you know yourself a little better.

I was curious to see what some of the filmmakers had to say about what makes a documentary “good.” This blog what-makes-a-great-documentary/ had some great quotes from filmmakers some of my favorites are listed below:

“A great documentary crafts a compelling cinematic portrait of the heart and soul of people’s lives and inspires us to see the world with greater clarity and compassion. Great documentaries remind us that our lives are complex, tragic, funny and magnificent and that it’s always worth waking up for another kick at the can.”

-Garry Beitel, director (The Socalled Movie, Nothing Sacred)

“Take me somewhere I have never been, show me something I have never seen, let me meet people I would never have a chance to meet and show me the world from their perspective.”

-Adam Symansky, producer (Reel Injun, Roadsworth: Crossing the Line).

“The story stays with you for days on end …and you continue to reflect on what you learned, why you laughed, why you cried and what you need to change in your own life or perhaps there’s just that one small action that you need to take.  A good documentary raises the stakes in ethical accountability and you are compelled to seek out and to create stories that are even more thoughtful,  even more considerate,  highly original and creative.    When you watch a good doc you know that the artist is telling a story that she wants to tell and has to tell and not a story that she thinks she’s supposed to tell.”

-Ravida Din, producer (Nollywood Babylon, Payback)

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