How to Tell a Story with Pictures
Video courtesy of StoryCorps
If there's one thing we've learned from our ability to instantly share the pictures and videos we record with our fancy-schmancy camera phones, it's that most of us aren't any better at photography than we were when the Instamatic camera and Super 8 film were considered cutting edge. The good news is creating the kinds of slide shows and movies other people want to look at is a skill anyone can master. For advice, we turned to animators Mike and Tim Rauch. The Rauch Brothers work with StoryCorps, the nonprofit that collects interviews with fascinating people from all over the country, to turn some of their already lovely NPR segments into hilarious and heartbreaking animated shorts (please watch all of them; they are amazing). Whether you have to create a montage for your parents' anniversary party or just want help handling a camera, these guidelines help you capture and assemble images like a pro.
Focus on the Story You Want to Tell
"With home movies, you are looking for a point of interest," Mike says. "Think of a small child opening presents on Christmas morning. What you really want to see is this kid's reaction. Make sure that you are shooting from a point where you can see his face front and center." Even if Aunt Sally's reindeer sweater and the perfectly decorated tree really complete the experience for you, keep the camera trained on the expression of joy and delight. The video will inspire the same feelings in you down the line.
Eye Level Is Only One Way to Look at the World
The biggest mistake rookies make, Tim says, is not thinking enough about where they are shooting from. "A lot of times, when beginning photographers and videographers pick up a camera, they stand and shoot from the height of their head because that is where their eyeball is located. That is sort of an arbitrary decision. It can be the right one, but maybe challenge yourself. Say, 'Hey, would this be more interesting to see if I was holding it low to the ground?' Or, say you are having a surprise party for somebody: what about putting the camera up on top of the balcony looking down at the scene? Adding another angle can often make the video more interesting."
Think Beyond Faces
We all know we're more than our appearances, so bust out of the portrait box when you're creating the photomontage for your sister's rehearsal dinner. Ask yourself, What are the things that make you think of her and how can you celebrate them? Mike and Tim suggest starting with clothing and accessories. In Miss Devine, the video above, James Ransom and Cherie Johnson describe their Sunday school teacher as a woman who wore summer dresses, big hats and a bandana. "It would have been really terrific to have a nice close-up of the bandana that she wore," Mike says, "to actually see the types of patterns, to see the things that were unique to her." Go into your sister's drawer, dig out the band T-shirt she sleeps in and snap a photo. Or consider cropping a picture of the hiking boots she invested in on her first trip out west. Those images will mean just as much to her—and to your future brother-in-law—as another smiling headshot.
There comes a moment in every woman's life when her friendships are tested, her family bonds are strained, and she is forced to reckon with a simple question: How many pictures from someone else's vacation can I endure before my eyes glaze over? That is usually followed by an even worse moment when the woman realizes she's guilty of the same crime. The problem is rarely the photography itself, rather it's an issue of volume: No one wants to see 28 photos of the same waterfall taken from virtually the same angle. If you're making a Facebook album from your own vacation and you're not sure which shots to include, Tim suggests aiming for range. "In a series of images, it's nice to see both close-up detail photographs as well as something shot from farther out," he says. "The details are as interesting as the big picture, and they help add rhythm." In other words, one wide shot of the waterfall, followed by a close-up picture of you at the top of the waterfall, and then, please, no more waterfalls.
Let a Picture Be Your Punch Line
When Mike and Tim decide which stories to animate, they look for ones where they can add a visual joke. Mike points to Miss Devine as an example. "It's already funny when they're talking about how much it would hurt when Miss Devine braided your hair, and you can hear them laughing, but we had an opportunity to add a joke by showing her pulling the hair back and the exaggerated response to the pain later on the pillow." Anyone can make an ordinary picture funnier by adding a caption. Say you're throwing a party to celebrate your brainy daughter's graduation; you could include a photo of The Collected Works of William Shakespeare and refer to it as her favorite childhood toy.
Expand Your Idea of a Kodak Moment
A few years ago, Tim and Mike were considering making an animated film about their own childhood, and Tim did some preliminary sketches. When he showed them to Mike, what stood out were the quotidian details. "One of our jobs in our house growing up was to set the table. There were these very ritual things about how we did it: where we put the fork and the knife, what kinds of napkin holders we had, things like that." The next time you dust off the camera to record a birthday party or the prom, leave it out when the event is over as a reminder to yourself to shoot the quieter family traditions, too, like dinnertime or movie night. "In 20 years," Tim says, "when the kids are grown up and have moved away, those are the everyday experiences that you'll want to have memories of."
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