Multimedia: the Rule of 40-30-20-10

The best benefit of teaching IMHO is the fact that you learn yourself so much. And when trying to pass this information further, one naturally tries to formulate one’s thoughts as clearly as one can.

Doing linear storytelling thru images – and trying to teach it – I have come up with  a half a dozen rules – or call them maxims, if you like – just to help my thinking, to make life easier for me and the students. A sort of a check list.

One of the most important is the 40-30-20-10 -principle.

Simply put, it reads as follows: when creating a linear multimedia – stills or video – the story is 40%, sound is 30%, images are 20% and technical presentation 10%.

Two personal observations are related to this: when I am asked to teach eg. audioslideshows, it is somehow assumed that I’ll be talking about the last 10% – as everything else is felt to be self-evident and come sort of automatically.  “What program(s) do you use, what brand of a recorder do you have?” are the most common questions. I understand, but those questions should not be the first ones asked.

Second: when talking to people whose background is in photography, they concentrate on the 20% – which is sort of their field  proper – and typically totally underestimate the rest.

I was reminded of this during the past week, when I saw three different pieces of linear “multimedia” in our Finnish media. Curiously enough, all of these were from Afganistan, all from the Helmand province. All done by excellent photographers (and I should add: all good friends of mine and whose work I admire and respect) – and all published by the most prestigious printed media in the country (HS, SK and HBL).

Now, viewing them thru the 40-30-20-10 -principle:

  • Technically: ok; not brilliant, but definitely ok. 10% – check.
  • Images: good, excellent in some cases (e.g. Sami’s images were among the best I’ve ever seen from Afganistan). 20% -check.
  • Sound: bad, irrelevant or non-existent. 30% -fail.
  • Story: what story? I could not find any. 40% – fail.

The thing all of them had in common (apart from being from the same place) was the lack of a solid storyline – or you can call it journalistic content – and any concept of continuous audio. I remember quoting Henrik Kastenskov in Sundsvall saying “This is about storytelling” – and this is what these three pieces were lacking: there was no story. I could not figure out what they were about. Yes, they were from Afganistan and they were collections of images. And?

Great images –  in some cases, I’ll give you that – but still, just collections of images. Maybe it’s me – but after 10 seconds, I got bored.

Because they were 70% totally off.

I mentioned Henrik, so I give you an example what a multimedia from Afganistan could be: The Afgan Diaries. I’ve said it before but I say it again: this is one of the best pieces I have ever seen. Sure, it takes lots of work, 18 months if I remember correcly in this case. It might involve several people, although – again if I remember correctly – Henrik did this practically himself.

Sometimes a large collaboration is a necessity: see the Pulizer winner Craig Walker and his multimedia: Ian Fisher: American Soldier (from Iraq).  27 months of work on photography alone, 12 people  in the credits for post. But it shows: this is a real story – an epic, somebody might say. Too huge, somebody might even argue. But point being: it’s true multimedia, all 40-30-20-10 pushed to the limit.

Why Afganistan, why Iraq?

Sometimes I feel one tends to go too far to look for a story worth running.  A great multimedia does not have to be from Iraq or Afganistan. It does not have to be technically out of this world either to touch you. But you need a narrative which just pulls you with it. A path you just have to see to the end. Otherwise: click…

Two examples (thanks to Adam Westbrook) – also from the past week – to illustrate this: simple yet very powerful.

These are both straight video, but could have been shot in stills as well. First one is by  Guardian Video, directed by Sonali Fernando, called Soulmate Stories: We feel like teenagers again. Two retired persons talking about each other and about their present lives. But instead of using talking heads, she has the other painting the other… A very visual approach. And a poignant story.

The second example is 16:moments by  RadioLab and directed by William Hoffman. Idea: simply a single moment in life. Verbal narrative is limited to the very first 25 seconds – but what a story does he build. Totally mesmerising. Audio mixed with music contributes and supports beautifully the strong visual narrative. I seriously recommmend seeing both of these.

Soulmate Stories and 16:moments - both worth seeing

And as I realize, I started to make recommendations (the teacher in me… ;-)), so let me do it one more time: a totally amazing full lenght documentary  called Miesten vuoro (Steam of Life). A simple concept: bunch of guys sitting in sauna, talking about their lives. Collection of stories – and a story in itself. And what a story it is.  Here is a link to the  trailer.

"Miesten vuoro" - full length documentary absolutely worth seeing.

You have to see it yourself to understand – sorry, there is no way I can even try to describe it.  But: if – no, WHEN – you do see it, think what I said about the story and it’s importance. Not complexity, but importance. And think about the sound. Especially in the end.

And when the lights come on, make sure you wipe your eyes. Because tough guys don’t cry, right?

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