Using sound to tell the story

In their November 2014 issue, Photo District News magazine published an interview with me. In their Gear & Techniques section, to which I don’t belong by any other means, I explain how I use the sound to tell the story. A video I shot and, with a friend’s help, edited from Fukushima was used as an example of what I do. You can click this link to read the interview or scroll down for my original answers from which PDN extracted what they needed for magazine.

PDN Interview Scan

I fell in love with audio, totally unexpectedly, years ago while experimenting with early multimedia. My first sound recordings were flat and confusing and actually really poor. They didn’t add anything to pictures and all seemed like a waste of time. Like a lot of people, I have that aggressive consumer mentality, so I bought a more expensive recorder thinking that would help. It didn’t – the files were just bigger. I was about to drop it all.

A few months after, I decided to give another chance to my recordings and ambition. I opened an old project in editing software and all the different tracks of sounds and visuals were there. Then I realised what my original mistake was – I hadn’t seen the sound before. I was, practically, both blind and deaf to it. Visualisation of tracks in editing software helped me to see it and to start treating it the way I treat pictures—in layers.  The composition is all so similar – different elements, background, action, and important detail.

I loved it and I still love it. Now when I enter the scene, besides the visuals I also recognise different layers and shapes of the sound – what is in the background, the ugly noise or beautiful colour, or a dominant voice.

So I learned it the hard way. I should have asked an expert perhaps to make it all easier. But every time I asked the question, the answers were not what I wanted – they were too technical. I obviously asked wrong people because they were basically retelling me in a nicer way what was written in user manuals of sound decoders. I didn’t need that. I needed to see the sound.

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The Fukushima project was the real challenge – how to record the sound of emptiness, of loneliness. What does the horror of a haunted place sounds like? I spent days looking for adequate sound. Something that would, with waves from the ocean and wind that blows through broken windows, be the background for the main story. Sounds of insect fit the picture perfect – the nature was taking over what humans left in a hurry. And it went wild.

Before I went to Fukushima for the third anniversary, I had done some serious research. I always do serious research – a big part of what you see in my pictures or multimedia is research. I do believe in a reporter’s instincts and his abilities to recognise important things in the field and react to them. But I believe those are enhanced by serious research.

For me, research means information, lots of information. On any given story I’m trying to find out much more than what will be visible in the final edit. A friend of mine who is probably the most brutal magazine editor I know, keeps saying “before you write anything, you have to know everything.” Well, everything is probably bit too extreme but as much as possible, I would say.

I followed Fukushima story from the beginning and knew the numbers of evacuation related deaths as they grew. They were usually buried many paragraphs down, hidden behind different Fukushima problems. I brought them up to the top for my story when they equaled the number of those killed in the original disaster. Reuters supported me in choosing that angle, which was extremely important.

While preparing, I also try to get the feeling of the place and of the story. I will stop at a single photograph, or a paragraph of text, and try to figure out what is the world around it—what that world looks like and what it sounds like. Is it calm? Who controls it? Will I be alone? How long can I stay?

The story can get the tone before I even record a thing. I get into the mood early because it’s what I can often control well on non-breaking news stories. I choose accommodation that will fit that mood; I wear the clothes that fit that mood; and I read the books to fit that mood.

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When I work on a story like this one from Fukushima I don’t focus only on what makes strong photography (although that remains my absolute priority; no sound will compensate for weak visuals). I meet as many people as I can. I listen to what they have to say. Somewhere in a corner of an evacuation centre or on an empty beach there is always someone who has a strong story to tell.

In Fukushima, I worked with few Japanese friends with great knowledge of the place and passion for the story. And patience. We visited many places and spoke to many people until we found what proved to be a perfect “subject.”

I spent two days with Mr. Masakura mostly listening to his sad story. He liked to have someone who would just sit face to face and listen. Then his story opened up. I only recorded the most interesting parts in the silence of evacuee’s temporary accommodation. Before we left, he told us he had written a song about his tragedy and asked if I want to hear it. I came even closer with my little Roland recorder to capture the audio. I did not understand a single word, but I perfectly understood what he had to say.

It is very important to be as unobtrusive as possible and for my equipment not to be too big and imposing. I usually use a very small sound recorder without an external microphone so I can get very close to the subject. It’s really important to be close to the subject.  To paraphrase Capa’s famous quote here “If your sound is not good enough you were not close enough.”

I know my cameras, recorders and accessories very well. That’s important because I don’t want to miss any of what is happening in front of me. If a man whispers I need to hear it clearly in my earphones, so eventually you can hear it on your computer later.

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I edit my own videos. But for this one from Fukushima, and a few others, I’ve asked an expert friend to help with some technical things like video formats or smoothing out the video. However, most of it is scripted and pre-edited in my head before I even sit at the computer.

The attention span of viewers is short, so I don’t have a lot of time to tell a story. A friend of mine who is a master of TV business, gave me this advice once: “Imagine a short ride, in a bus, elevator, or taxi, lasting just a few minutes. You want to tell your story to a person travelling with you in the time it takes to reach your destination. You want to tell the whole story without missing an important part and you do not want to be boring.”

And the internet is an even bigger challenge than an elevator – it’s interactive and your audience can always click away if it’s boring, or just bad.

I often open videos with an establishing screen where I give some basic information, in writing. With storytelling videos, I like to give it that introduction. Then the story comes, its drama unfolds and all culminates at the end.It is a classical storytelling, just like in documentaries, in movies, in books. It helps if it has “a hero”, a main protagonist of the story, and I choose him/her carefully.

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While shooting and editing, I use colours and shapes a lot. In a story like Mr. Masakura’s, the outside is cold and alien so hues are green or blue. That is just off-black, variations of the darkness. When we move inside colours turn into warmer, into reds and orange. That is off-white, where the life is.

The outside is wild with open horizon. Look at the shapes in these pictures – roads and rails go nowhere. There would be maybe just a broken house or a stranded ship in the distance. It’s balanced and central, it has great depth. It goes far but never arrives.

When we go back inside, it all becomes flat and a bit claustrophobic. I don’t use very wide lenses inside because I don’t want to make it look more spacious. There are only two dimensions inside and no depth with nowhere to go. The subject is pinned against the wall. There are no background sounds, maybe just an echo or a clock ticking.

And then windows – I used pictures of windows every time the story leaves the house or comes back from outside. Windows almost always work – visually to frame a picture of the world we see though them. Psychologically, windows divide cold from warm, dark from bright. Life from the absence of it.

Using these elements and setting such rules really helps me editing. A photograph in time and in sequence that lasts a certain number of seconds, is an alien and new concept to an old(er) school photographer, to someone whose main target is/was to make his picture appear printed on the paper. Now, all of a sudden, I have to decide how long the viewer should spend on a particular frame.

It all has to have great timing, rhythm and pace. Since I’m not very musical person, I need assistance with rhythm, like a metronome that sets the speed. I use the background sounds for it, something repetitive but not too aggressive – waves, subtle monk chanting, rain against window, bells ringing…

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How do I put it all together and what comes first – pictures, video or sound – it changes from project to project. The foundation stone is the story itself and that comes first. What carries that story is the skeleton of a project – sometimes it can be a strong visual element, sometimes spoken words as in this Fukushima piece. Nothing is more important than the story. Once I build such a skeletal structure, the easier part comes. I add other important elements and then some more nice, decorative ones to help digest the story, to make is more pleasant, attractive. However, a single picture, or sound, can be very beautiful but if they don’t fit the story I cut them out with no regrets.

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When do I record video? I don’t shoot action on video, TV does that. I sometimes shoot moving pictures, and that is often just a still picture with flickering lights on an empty street, waves hitting rocks, a twisted clock swaying. These little but important movements I can’t get on still pictures and then I switch to video.

Since there is no or little action in my clips, I pay more attention to sounds while recording. I use a miniature but good microphone that is attached to hot shoe of my camera so I can easily switch between photo and video without losing time on equipment. Recording high quality sound with video helps in editing – I may use only the audio track from that clip and discard video.

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I don’t record too much material, take too many photos, or too many video clips. I spend more time looking for a close-to-perfect scene and then sticking to it. If I have time, I will shoot what I think is relevant and strong again and again rather than looking for variations of it. I’m not out there for quantity of footage or to search for that non-existent perfect shot. I’m realistic and I think I can recognise when something is good enough. In edit, the context I put the shot in can make it even work better.

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