Monday, March 30, 2009

Wanderlust and other diseases that perpetual travelers suffer from

The 'perpetual traveler'. A term I first came across when my London roommates designed a hotel room for jet-setting business types who have the option of re-ordering the same room all over the world via an online portal. It was one of the many master's projects they did for their degree in 'Creative Practice for Narrative Environments.'

Only later did I find out that the term 'perpetual traveler' applies to people who travel for tax evasion. People that reside in Hong Kong or Switzerland without a proper visa status in any country. An ever changing residency, so fleeting it's hard to call it permanent.

'Perpetual traveler.' Strangely enough, I always thought it had a positive ring to it. As the internet envelopes the globe and mobility becomes more of a life style than a luxury, I had come to accept constant wanderlust as a state of life. My oxygen was instability; my dream was marriage, a PhD during pregnancy, a house in a place where people around me speak a language I don't.

And now I am once more confronted with just that mundane definition of the perpetual traveler. I will have to do my taxes, admittedly/ashamedly for the first time. 'File as a non-permanent resident,' I remember being told on the phone by an accountant.

My New York driver's license says I'm a temporary visitor. My vacation plans remain unknown depending on my visa status. And my mind wanders off to memories of singing in Berlin, cooking in London, learning how to play the guitar in Houston. And my mind wanders off to goals of a correspondence in Hong Kong, a humanitarian post in Africa, a happy hippie life in Cuba.

I have never been told so often as in New York that I'm young.
'The world is your oyster.'
Even my far-away mother has adopted that view, realized that her children, who both moved out in their mid-teens, won't stay put in one place for very long.

A residue of teenage restlessness is amplified every single day by the cups of black coffee I consume. I feel part of a generation so willing to seek, so unwilling to procreate, so ... as New Yorkers would tell me... young. But by that I don't just mean the physical age. The chronology of life no longer applies, fuck biological compulsions.

And yet, I wish for settlement. Is that still tied to geography?

And I wonder, wander, wonder.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Filmic storytelling and journalism

A colleague of mine recommended a book to me about editing, Walter Murch's "In the Blink of an Eye" (Walter Murch edited Apocalypse Now, The Godfather II & III and The Unbearable Lightness of Being among other movies). My colleague raved about the book because the author looks at editing in a more philosophical/conceptual way, rather than as a mechanical process that is needed to bring 3 hours of footage down to 2 minutes.

I'm about half way through the book, which is pathetic considering the large print and the lofty language in which it is written. But what I've read so far really spells out some of the most valuable advice I've been getting in shorter conversations from my colleagues. Visual storytelling is so much more akin to film than I thought.

I always saw fictional storytelling as somewhat divorced from journalism because of the infinite freedoms that the fantastic realms of film offer. But a few things still ring true when cutting a journalistic piece that seem to work so well in film. Kind of a d'oh moment, but a purist who likes to think that style should only be employed in both non-fiction and fiction, when it serves a story-driving purpose, I had a natural aversion to applying filmic theories/methods to journalistic pieces.

Which brings me to the heart of this post. How can we learn from film in journalistic endeavors and how much storytelling is and can be in the editing?

Choosing a shot

In some ways, Murch says, choosing what material you use is also choosing what not to use. Murch's theory is to use the following criteria, in order of importance and with weight in the decision making:
1.) Emotion (51%)
2.) Story (23%)
3.) Rhythm (10%)
4.) Eye-Trace (7%) --> what my eye wants to look at in large frame
5.) Two-dimensional plane on screen (5%) -- > so no funky angles
6.) Three-dimensional space of action (4%) --> where ppl are placed in relation to oe another

[Murch, Walter. In the Blink of an Eye. 2nd Edition. Los Angeles: Silman James Press, 2001. p. 18]
I particularly find the last four points rather interesting, small stylistic devices that I would otherwise not have thought of. The eye-trace, "the concern with the location and movement of the audience's focus of interest within the frame", for instance, gives me an idea of what I should shoot. If my interviewee is speaking of his job as an apple picker, I will continue to follow her/him while apple picking and start out from far away, get a medium shot, a shot of the person's face and then finally focus on the apple, the main subject of the interviewee's sound bite.

This hierarchy seems very reasonable and akin to some of our purposes. But to him the most import criterion seems to be emotion of a shot, which trumps over every other aspect combined. So he'd still go for the shot that encapsulates the right emotion, even if it might not further the story. And as useful as this guideline is, I'd think that this would be a classic case of "drowning your kittens," i.e. abandoning parts of your reporting that you fall in love with but have nothing to do with your story.

Since delivering information surrounding a main hypothesis (aka your nut graf) - and by that I mean not just facts but also aural, visual and emotional information - is imperative in journalism, I'd like to extend Murch's theory for my own purposes. Only if the emotions is imperative in enhancing the story, then I'd choose the shot accordingly. Because video is so powerful in highlighting the individual in a story, that, as contextualiazed in the nut graf, shows how the story applies to a large number of people and is the reason why we should care about the story, we can think of the material we choose as both a vehicle of factual information but also a constant reminder of the human and relatable side of a story. So in some ways, I'd like to think that if you go for emotion, it also has to have some relation to the story.

Yes, it is photography and video material that is a medium that is particularly good at delivering emotions. But I consider it one of various types of information (like a context, historical background, expert opinion, etc.) that make for a well-reported story. The photograph/moving image is like the anecdotal lede, the quote, or as some editors call it, the color of the piece.


Something else I've learned to appreciate is pacing and rhythm, Murch's #3 concern. An audio-visual story is bound to linearity, unlike an article or a graphic that allows for panning, scanning and skimming, and I firmly believe that rhythm is essential in delivering information in a digestable form but also enhance a piece's emotional value. There are natural rhythms that we set by choosing certain shots and - more importantly even - sounds for the introduction of a video. Above all, video is a medium that allows for emotional reflection within a verbal informational skeleton, built by the accounts of interviewees and narrators.

Pauses in narration and purely audio-visual periods in a video not only serve the purpose of punctuating a story; they separate ideas as mentioned above but also give the viewer time to take in the ideas that s/he has just been presented with and add another layer of information, mostly an emotional impression, that enhances, contradicts or extends the verbal information they follow. All that means for an editor is: don't cut so tightly to the script. Let the broll run by itself for a few seconds, let the visual be the punchline to the idea you're presenting.

Blinking - deciding where to make the cut

One of the most interesting things that I discovered in this book, is Murch's theory that:

"[...] the blink is either something that helps an internal separation of thought to take place, or it is an involuntary reflex accompanying the mental separation that is taking place anyway.

We must render visual reality discontinuous, otherwise perceived reality would resemble an almost incomprehensible stirng of letters without word separation or punctuation."

[Murch, Walter. In the Blink of an Eye. 2nd Edition. Los Angeles: Silman James Press, 2001. pp. 62-63]
He then moves on to say that often, imagining the blinking of a person can help the editor decide on how to cut a piece. Someone who is in a fight, he says, might blink more often and if we look at sports videos, say a boxing video, then you can see how quick cuts can mimick the blinking and the pace of the sport and add an additional layer of information to a journalistic piece. Same with employing blackness (shut eyes) in combination with sound.

This method is probably best employed when doing video profiles of people. It seems like the cutting then places the viewer into the shoes of the person portrayed. Mimicking her or his gaze, their blinking pattern, can be very effective.

Anyhow, I hope this was as helpful to some as Walter Murch is inspiring to me. It's a good and quick read (if you're not me, who has too short a commute to get more than 10 pages of reading done each day).

Peru Travel Log

Peru travel log from Lam Thuy Vo on Vimeo.

This video is dedicated to the lovely Beckey Bright who told me wondrous stories about this country's potatoes, in such an enticing way, I wanted to tell her about our experiences.

Also massive thank yous to Daniel Cavero, Alejandra Costa, Matthias Bernold and all the other lovely people who showed us around and connected us.

Music by Nattapoom


10 hours of torturous butt-clenching trickled on
as B-movies flickered through shut eyelids
to ruin an overnight flight
but then we crawled
out of our pretentious new york minds


A citiscape lies flat before us,
only to grow, eventually,
in the gentrified ways of a metropolis.

A citiscape, a third world country,
a path to yuppie dreams of jungle.
A mountain Lima wall, where villages are growing,
to hint at the bought adventure to come.

A mountain city, the second part
of for us predictable intinerists.
A posed-for picture, so lonely planet,
and for the cost of a Manhattan coffee.

The smiles of vendors,
patting our conscience,
but still we're struck.
The city beams,
the mountain air so thin
we sleep in the afternoon,
the morning
and the night.

Then choo-chooing
and zig-zagging,
we make it all come true
The yuppie dream of real jungle
is whiffing through
our train window.

And then the climax,
so pre-written,
as beautiful can be.
with tourists spotting our view.
Some push-me pull-yous
Some mountain rabbits
Some nature,
pure and good,
pure and good,
some nature,
pure and good.

A Macchu Picchu (bless you)
a crowded ugly, pretty place.
Some ruins, history, culture, blah,
some ruins,
pure and good.

I have to say.
I am.
A tourist,
stupidly in awe.