Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: editing

Ken Burns on Story

Sarah Klein
Tom Mason

Okay, you’re a filmmaking team and you have this really cool idea. Do a passion project and make a video about a subject you really care about. Story-telling. It’s a lot harder than it looks – we’re talking non-fiction here – and something you and a lot of other creatives struggle with all the time.  So who do you know who’s a good storyteller? How about Ken Burns?  Okay, you do an interview and ask him to tell you all about it.  

So you get it done. Then back home and look at what you have. It’s 90 minutes of Ken Burns talking. Well, he may be a documentary superstar, but it’s not a film and it’s certainly not a story. So now what? Make it happen in post. And you do. Here’s the very effective result:

If the video doesn’t play, click here.  

The production is the work of cameraman/editor Tom Mason and producer Sarah Klein, aka Redglass Pictures. Their piece is graceful, spare and intimate. I like how the music draws you in and creates flow. And the pacing – the pauses help you connect with what’s being said and also build a quiet tension. The Tom and Sarah introduce a film projector metaphor to help bridge the ideas and treat the stills to give them more depth literally and figuratively.    

The length feels right – long enough to explore a few ideas, delve into the personal side, leave an impact and be done.  It helps you see the creative challenges we all face as we bring shape and meaning to our work. And a little insight into what motivates Ken Burns, too.

Atlantic Magazine has a short interview with the filmmakers here.  If you want to know more about them you can visit their website. If you do, check out their video “Miracle on 22nd Street.” And if you want to learn how this project came to be, there’s a podcast interview that’s very informative here.

Tom Mason described their creative process as “stumbling in the dark.”  Perhaps.  But as their work reveals, with enough care and time you’ll find a way to let your light shine.

Space and Timing

Working on a short video celebrating the contribution Planning Director Amanda Burden makes to the City of New York has me thinking about space in more ways than one. I’ve been editing and interweaving the comments of five people (architects, planners, innovators, etc) describing the impact she’s made on the city. I organized their dialogue thematically, added pauses between their thoughts and selected music to bind everything together and create an emotional arc.  I’ve found that designing video this way makes it easier to absorb their thoughts.   So all of this had to be accomplished before adding images of a revitalized New York.  

And while they’re all talking about Amanda Burden, creating a livable city, urban design, space and sustainability, I’m thinking about how to create a different kind of space within the boundaries of this short three to four minute video.
First, some background:
Editing what people say is quite a different experience than editing their words on paper. Most people tend to speak quickly; their thoughts tumble out a melange of phrases, repetitions, with stops, restarts, stutters and an often twisted sentence structure.  Reading allows you to stop and consider.  But video keeps on rollin’ by, so if you’re not careful with the words, music and images, it’s easy to bombard, overwhelm or simply bore your audience.  So how one fills up the space in a three to four minute video is the difference between ho hum and wow.

And what makes it more complicated is this:
When we speak face-to-face we can usually decode what someone is saying by paying attention to their tone of voice, emotional cues, hand gestures, facial expression and body language. But making a video, we usually try to avoid “talking heads,” so all those comprehension cues get thrown out the window as we cover up their visual insights with images.   Which makes the ability to carefully edit and place spoken comments all the more important.
And you have to do it invisibly, making it seem and sound like the words weren’t edited at all.
Once you’ve mastered that skill, you need to orchestrate how the words are delivered for maximum impact. Any seasoned public speaker knows that timing is the riverbed through which the words flow. It’s what comedians and actors live for:  Timing.  And that’s also crucial when editing and structuring someone’s words.
And no, I don’t change their meaning.   I use editing to enhance what they’re saying, making their remarks succinct and crystal clear.  And then I surgically add space between the phrases, sometimes even adding full stops, to create, with the music, an internal rhythm.   Giving greater weight and impact to the words that remain.  And giving the viewer the space to process what’s being said.
It’s a little like a poem,
where the visual space
on the page
gives the words
greater meaning.
Ultimately, it’s more like designing than editing, with each moment constructed as a brief embrace and then sending them on to the next.

What You See What You Get

Is what you see inevitably what you get? Well not necessarily. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Working on a video for the US Conference of Mayors about JFK and the Call to Public Service. Using still images from his presidency and moments from his speeches to capture that sense of who he was and how he inspired others. And opening the piece with just a few comments from mayors talking about how he inspired them and the nation.
Since this was to be an introduction to the video, I wanted to keep the comments short and succinct. So I chopped up their statements to pare down their thoughts and organized them to get the flow I wanted. So far, so good. But then the question: what images should I use? It would have to be something to visually play off what was being said.
Since this video is being created for the 50th anniversary of his presidency, I wanted something dreamy and nostalgic for starters. That, plus the right kind of music, would give more emotional weight to the opening and more power to the comments. When I saw this photo, I decided to shape the introduction around it. This photo is a great example of the difference between seeing and perceiving. What do you “see” when you look at this image and how do you perceive or take in what you are “seeing?” In considering the creative process, each question gets a different answer. Here’s what I mean:
Objectively speaking, the photo above shows President Kennedy consulting with his brother Robert, who was then Attorney General. Their body language shows a personal and “private” moment and reflects the seriousness of what they are discussing. The president is obviously distracted by something or someone. Probably the photographer. He is looking away from his brother, and facing the camera. That’s the first thing I “saw.” But I perceived something else. If the photo was cropped to focus just on the President, it would give the image a totally different context. Still a serious moment, but more abstract. And now you can read much more into the photo. The President’s gaze seem as if he was looking right at the viewer, as if sending a message. Which makes it very engaging.

And look at the background. You can see leaves, but they’re white. Meaning it was a sunny day and the Kennedy brothers were in shadow, probably standing under a portico at the White House. Also, the photographer was some distance away, using a telephoto lens, which flattens the image. Now the background is out of focus, making the image a little less “real” and more abstract. If the photo was exposed for the sun striking the leaves, the President would be in darkness. But printing the photo so you can clearly see his face also gives it a grainy quality. Again helping make the image more abstract. And that abstraction takes you out of the “reality” of the moment and makes it easier for you to add in someone’s thoughts or feelings. The bottom line? You get a dreamy, almost ghostly quality to the image. Perfect for a representation of nostalgic memory.