Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: NYT video

Ed Sheeran & Friends Shape a Song

Shaping the Creative Process

The creative process fascinates me – how artists and musicians can start with a blank slate and then make something out of nothing. Usually, all we get to see or hear is the finished piece and, if it’s good, it glows like a polished gem.

But creators shape their work bit by bit. As it flows, the creative process brings together many little moments of inspiration and discovery. Some pieces fit easily like hand in glove, others fall away to be replaced by something better. How it all comes together often remains a mystery.

So, I was excited to see a NYT video that takes us behind the scenes to explore how singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran and his music collaborators created what would become the biggest pop song of 2017.

Ed Sheeran performs “Shape of You” at the 2017 Grammy Awards (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

From a NYT article describing the Shape of You recording session:

“Shape of You” was written in a brainstorming session where ideas are developed or discarded fast, with computers and instruments close at hand and recorders running. “The best songs that I’ve ever written, I don’t really remember writing,” Mr. Sheeran said. “They take like 20 minutes and then they’re just done. And then you move on to the next thing.”

Visualizing Creativity

What makes the NYT video unusual is how it uses music, graphic imagery and text to enhance the interviews. It helps us visualize all the little moments of discovery and inspiration that were pieced together to create the song. The graphics not only give the video a unique look, they also help tie everything together.

As the musicians play a little music riff or talk about working together to build the song,  you’ll see visual representations of the music’s rhythm, its melodic ramblings and little word bubbles mirroring the birth of lyrics.

The graphic elements kick your understanding up to the next level, as the musicians’ sensitivity to each other, their creative energy and the music’s pulse all beat together in delicious harmony.

Here’s the video. I apologize for the ad at the beginning. When it finishes playing you’ll need to click the pause button or else it will continue playing other random videos. 

(If the video doesn’t display correctly, you can click on this link)

Putting the Pieces Together

On the face of it, the video seems fairly simple, like the song. Bring the musicians into the studio, interview them individually, shoot them in black and white against a white background, edit and shape their comments and, seemingly, you’re done. But, adding the music and graphics makes the presentation much more fun and engaging.

The music riffs in the background add energy and help illustrate and counterpoint the commentary. The graphic touches – a music bar that pulses with the beat, dots of melody or rhythm that come and go, little graphic grids to breakup the visual space, text bubbles with lyrics and comments, all hold up a mirror to the creative process.

from the NYT video

The result is a complex, carefully-timed and layered video inspired by a complex, carefully-timed and layered song.

I know from my own experience, when creativity flows, you’re totally present within the moments of inspiration. Time disappears, it’s an exhilarating, empowering feeling. It’s nice to see how much of that was captured in the video.

You can read the NYT article about the making of the song here. You can poke around animator Taylor Beldy’s site here.

So, did you like the video as much as I did? Is the creative process the same for a pop singer/songwriter as with any other artist? What’s your take away? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Intriguing Mystery+CrowdSourced Journalism = ?

I ran across a fascinating NYT video I’d like to share with you. The video centers on the mystery of “a life, or a fragment of a life” explored via social media and reported by New York Times journalist Deborah Acosta. What makes it unusual? Aside from the mystery, which was fascinating on its own, it was Deborah’s approach in presenting the story that caught my eye. She’s pushing forward a new form of crowdsourced journalism – first person and highly interactive – that I think we’ll see a lot more of.

It reminds me of video blogging, but more focused on content. But first, let me give you a little background.

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Deborah Acosta, from the NYT video

Deborah’s job title for the Times reads “Staff Editor, Social Video.” She previously worked at the Miami Herald and taught social media at the University of Miami. As she notes on her LinkedIn page: “Crowdsourcing is the name of my game,” and she’s been at the NYT since 2012.

On Sunday, May 15th, Deborah encountered her mystery in a New York neighborhood called Hells Kitchen. Previously, like an old fashioned street photographer, Deborah would stop to capture telling moments on video, using her cellphone and Facebook to share what she encountered. These posts were usually little slices of reality and served as self-contained pieces, perhaps more observations than investigations. This time would be different.

It was a blustery day that Sunday in New York. As Deborah strolled along a busy sidewalk she noticed the wind had scattered Kodachrome slides in her path. She picked up one, then another and another, following them like a bread crumb trail to discover thousands more stuffed into a black garbage bag abandoned on the corner. She opened the bag and took a look. She could see the slides were very high quality, obviously taken by a professional. What were they doing there? Who was the photographer? Who threw them in the garbage? As a journalist, Deborah saw a story in the making.

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from the NYT video

Now here’s where it gets interesting:  she used Facebook Live to record and transmit her activities as she encountered the mysterious slides, examined her discovery and searched for answers – as a way of sharing and telling the story and bringing others into the process, all in the style of crowdsourced journalism.

In this relatively new form of reporting, everything plays out in bits of real time as she responds to viewer comments, researches her story, asks her viewers/readers for leads and suggestions, makes phone calls, tries to identify the mysterious photographer and discover why the work was thrown in the trash. You are not only there aside Deborah as she launches into her quest for answers, you can also add a comment and become part of the story.

I found it at once engaging and off-putting. Engaging because it was such a fresh take on a traditional, well-established process and off-putting because, on Facebook, she left in all the boring parts and not all people make comments that are insightful, useful or even interesting. But she selects the best bits for the video, which works very well, as you’ll see.

You can go to Deborah’s Facebook page and scroll down to May 15th and May 18th to see her posts (the equivalent of raw, unedited footage). I suggest you just watch the video below, which gathers highlights of those moments, to see how she corrals social media to help the story unfold. Take a look and see what you think.

If the video doesn’t display well, you can find it here.

After watching the video I wanted to know a little more about its subject, Mariana Gosnell, and found these few lines from her obit:

Mariana Gosnell

Mariana Gosnell, from her obit


Mariana Gosnell, 79, of New York City and Treaty Island, died suddenly on March 23, 2012. She had been ill the past few months… She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University as a Phi Beta Kappa, worked for the foreign service in Norway, for the Museum of Modern Art, and for over 25 years at Newsweek, primarily as their medicine and science reporter. She then wrote two well-reviewed books, Zero Three Bravo, about traveling cross-country in her small plane and later ICE, which led her north of the Arctic Circle and to the South Pole.

Here are links to her two books, Ice and Zero3Bravo

I applaud Deborah Acosta for how she used crowdsourcing on social media to help report the story – Deborah’s approach and the content complement each other perfectly. She has an appealing, low-key style that works very well on camera, plus she knows how to make you feel welcome as part of the story. It’s easy to see that this style of crowdsourced reporting fits her personality very well. I do have a few comments, though.

I wish Deborah would have plunged more deeply into Mariana’s life, character and accomplishments to give us a greater appreciation of who Mariana was and the life she led. Just from the photo below I see a vibrant, engaged person who wasn’t well captured in Deborah’s video.

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Mariana Gosnell, from the NYT video

We exist in such an of-the-moment and disposable time, it would have been nice for Deborah to offer us a little more perspective. Given the circumstances, I would have appreciated a more meditative piece on impermanence and memory. Perhaps this reflects more on the differences in our ages, as I get older, these things matter more to me.

I think Deborah gave too much screen time to Mariana’s life companion Jamie Fenwick, who, despite their decades together, just tossed her work in the garbage. Many of the comments he made were self-centered, which served to turn the focus more on him and less on Mariana, especially given how the video ends. Jamie appears to be such a lifeless character even as Mariana seemed so spirited, curious and alive.

I don’t know why Deborah decided to go in that direction. Perhaps if the piece ended instead with a focus on Mariana’s imagery, it would have been more satisfying. After all, Mariana captured all these telling moments in her slides, it would be nice to be able to honor that and allow us to reflect on her images and her life’s work, and perhaps on the impermanence of all we behold.

Those are my thoughts. So, what’s your take? Did you like Deborah’s piece? Is this the future path for journalism and storytelling? Leave a comment and let me know.



Donna’s Diner: A Deep Dive Into America’s Heartland


Donna’s Diner by Nicole Bengiveno for the NYT

What happens when a journalist/poet and a photographer with a keen eye for storytelling  visit a small Ohio town to explore America’s Heartland?  The result is a series of five videos and articles created for the NYT’s This Land.  I want to share with you the first video, “Donna’s Diner,” as a focal point for exploring the connections that bind together the people of Elyira, Ohio.

Nicole Bengiveno

Nicole Bengiveno

For NYT photographer Nicole Bengiveno who saw the story potential in Donna’s diner, this was her first big plunge into video.  She strapped on still and video cameras and spent weeks hanging out at the diner.  As you’ll see, she artfully intermixes stills and live action to tell her story.


Dan Barry photo by Fred R. Conrad NYT

NYT journalist Dan Barry, her creative partner who writes This Land, certainly has a way with words.  Here’s how he describes Donna’s Diner:

“ From the vantage point of these booths and Formica countertops, the past improves with distance, the present keeps piling on, and a promising future is practically willed by the resilient patrons.”

As the video tells Donna’s story, it also begins to paint a portrait of the town.  Donna and her diner hover on the brink of their own fiscal cliff, which is why Dan titles the piece “At the Corner of Hope and Worry.”  I believe it’s his voice you hear as the writer/narrator.

If the video doesn’t play, click here.

I like the way Nicole uses her stills in the video to show telling moments.  Here’s how she describes her process:

I’m so used to being like a cat, you know, where you can just wander around. I like people to just go about their business, and I love being quiet and getting in and sort of capturing moments in between moments.

Her stills reveal those unguarded moments that bring the piece to life.  They seem almost more “real” than the video sections, as those tend to be more mechanical, simply showing some activity and lacking the delicacy of the photographs.  It’s the observant eye of the still photographer that captures those frozen moments that show so much.  Her informal portraits are compelling and filled with emotion.


Nicole Bengiveno

Her more abstract images, like the detail of the coffee cup, play well over Donna’s comments near the end of the video.  I also like the way Nicole runs her audio track over her stills.  As a photographer, she was very sensitive to sound and it’s key role in bringing the diner to life.  Nicole talks about what she was trying to accomplish and her experience shooting the piece here.


Nicole Bengiveno

Donna’s Diner puts a human face on abstract concepts like unemployment, the economy, small town life and middle-American values.  Which is why Donna’s Diner is so powerful in its simplicity.  It does what documentaries do best by inviting you into the moment.  It lets you feel Donna’s struggle to keep her diner open and shows you what it means to her and the town.

Donna embodies America’s entrepreneurial spirit.   And the challenges that confront her are familiar to others who try to forge their own path.


Nicole Bengiveno

She cooks because food connects her with the people she serves.  And that keeps her going, even when so many others have failed.  In that way she serves the town, too.  Places like Donna’s diner are really the heart and soul of a community.  It’s that coming together to share food and conversation that creates a sense of place and helps connect us to our neighbors.


We used to have a place like that back when we had a house in Sedgwick, Maine.  Fishermen would come in early for coffee and donuts, workmen would come by for lunch, we’d often wander over to pick up a treat, chat with the owner and friends who would happen by.  News was shared, stories swapped, gossip whispered.  When the Sedgwick Store closed, it really snatched the life out of the town.  Without it, all you had left was just a bunch of houses along a road.


Nicole Bengiveno

So I believe there’s an underlying optimism in the story of Donna and her diner.  After the piece was featured on the front page of the NYT, everyone could understand  that we were witnessing a story about the American character.  And viewing something quite special that can be found at the intersection of  worry and hope.


Jean Seberg and Alicia Keys

From Goddard’s Movie “Breathless”

When I saw the NYT headline for a slide show of images from 125 Years of the International Herald Tribune” I immediately thought of Actress Jean Seberg and Goddard’s movie “Breathless.” That frenetic film helped launch a new kind of cinema, the French New Wave, and I loved it. Here’s a little flavor:

If the trailer doesn’t play, click here

In the movie, Jean Seberg’s character was mesmerizing: at turns funny, fanciful, quixotic and deadly. Her gig? Hawking the  Herald Tribune. And she was there in the Herald Tribune slide show too, along with Mata Hari, Marie Curie, Leon Trotsky, and “people who shook the world in an era of mass movements, mass violence and the creation of ideas that changed the way we live.” 

Jean Seberg had a tortured life, but she filled that film with light. Much of the work was improvised and it had a freshness and almost documentary feel that seemed to herald a new way of telling a story.

Singer Alicia Keys was recently featured in a NYT Magazine piece talking about her creative process as she worked on the song “Girl on Fire.” And while she seems self-conscious for the first part of the video, if you can get past that, it provides an interesting insight into the creative process.

If the movie doesn’t play, click here

One key element of the creative process is timing. For Jean Seberg, that brief luminous moment that was the film “Breathless” captured a girl on fire. And for Alicia Keys, who knows?  Her work has sold over 30 million CDs. Even so, the next time she sits down to compose a song, she’ll have to hope that the fires of inspiration that fuel her work will continue to generate light and heat.