Thinking in Two Senses

“When I was working on my very first film, ‘Brooklyn Bridge,’ I had before me, on an easel of our own design, the photos of the construction of the bridge. It was very low-tech. We had a couple of umbrella lights, and we had this piece of metal onto which we’d affix, with magnet, the photos of whatever archive we were at, and I’d move my camera back and forth over the photo to get a detail. Each photo, I might take 10 different shots – pans, tilts, reveals – all filmed with a movie camera. I remember realizing early in the process that I had to listen to the photos, not just see them. Are the waves of the East River lapping? Are the workers hammering? I can remember not wanting to break the spell, not wanting to move my eye from the eyepiece, but to live in that world. It gave me a kind of key to unlock what has been, for the past 35 years, the way i’ve tried to wake the dead.”

From an interview with Ken Burns by Jessica Gross, published in The New York Times Magazine on  September 30, 2012.

Since this website is concerned with multimedia storytelling, this quote from Ken Burns, who has made bringing historic still pictures to live an art form, has much to say about the creative process and actually thinking in more than one sense. As he studied the visuals of bridge, he also was thinking in sounds.

The more of our senses, the storyteller can engage, the more engaging the story. And engaging stories have more potential to hold the audience to the end.

I remember the first time I saw cartoons in historic issues of Puck Magazine. They were very complex and required study to find all the visual elements that were there.

A Joseph Keppler Puck Magazine cartoon.

This cartoon, typical of Puck Magazine, was not intended to be “read” in a few seconds. To interpret such cartoons one had to be well read and tuned into the politics of the day (see for the interpretation). The English language Puck was published in this country from 1977 to 1918. By comparison, Gary Varvel, the editorial cartoonist for The Indianapolis Star, knows he has only three to five seconds to capture a reader’s interest. I have heard scholars say that it was not unusual to spend 30 minutes with a Puck cartoon.

Given that our attention spans have dropped to nil over the last 100 years, what does grab our attention today? From my perspective pictures with sound is a pretty good start.

In the late 1800s, George Eastman gave us the Kodak camera and an easy way to record family history in pictures. When Eastman figured out how to put a film emulsion on a flexible base (glass was the standard at the time), Thomas Edison and his assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson gave us motion pictures. Sound was added in the movie The Jazz Singer in 1927. Motion pictures have become more and more sophisticated since.

Many storytellers now are using a synchronized sound track using natural sounds and interviews with their still pictures. This also is a very effective medium.

The important new element that still photographers have not been used to in the past is sound. Effective sound can layer more information onto the still picture and the communication is more effective.

As you practice your multimedia skills it is important to think with two senses, sight and sound, just as Ken Burns does so effectively. As you are making a picture think of what sound you could gather to help bring the picture alive. As you are gathering sound, think of what pictures you need to cover the sounds.

If you shoot it record it; if you record it shoot it.