Song Spinner: Braiden Sunshine

I met Braiden Sunshine a few years ago when his band Madison Red performed on The Day’s Live Lunch Break music series, and have run into him a few times since then, performing around the area, and in his chorus class at Lyme-Old Lyme High School.

Braiden has achieved a bit of fame after appearing on NBC’s The Voice, and is now embarking on his own music career, releasing his first single “Reality.” He sat down recently with Rick Koster and me to tell us the story of how the song came to him in the middle of the night.

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When is it ok to use music in a news video?

When I was first learning video storytelling, and when I was first teaching it to my co-workers, I would have told you it is never a good idea to use music in your news video. I was a stickler for natural sound, and adding music is fraught with ethical and legal issues that are better avoided. Both of these are still true for me, but I have softened my stance somewhat for some types of videos. My rule used to be only include music that was part of the natural sound and relevant to the story. This piece about a composer and a high school choir made use of music in a natural sound context.

I think the reason so many people want to include music when they are learning video storytelling is that musical scores are so ubiquitous in the film and television that we watch. A movie scene without its score can seem dry, as evidenced by this scene from Star Wars that someone removed the musical score from.

Music sets the tone for movie scenes, even when you don’t notice that it’s there. In fact, the type of music used can completely change our perception of the scene we are watching. A YouTube user added three different musical scores to a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, giving it three completely different feels.

You could see how this could be a problem in a journalistic context. Heavy-handed use of music in a journalistic piece risks adding a mood that wasn’t there, or telling the viewers how they should feel instead of allowing them to experience the story on their own. Copyright is the other reason to avoid adding a musical soundtrack. There is no rule of fair use that allows you to use a certain amount of a song. Musical compositions and recordings are copyrighted materials, and you need to pay the rights holder for the right to use them.

I still think that for straightforward news pieces, like the kind of video you would see on a television newscast, you should avoid adding music. But for more feature-type pieces, I’ve been taking more inspiration from documentaries and from radio storytelling like This American Life. The video at the top was shot in about an hour, with an interview and a few drawings done just for me. We had almost no natural sound, so I wanted some subtle music to add some pace and feel. I used a track from some friends of the reporter who were nice enough to let us use it for free. This, I feel, is the best way around the issue of copyright: find a musician you know or who is local to you and work out an agreement. This also avoids another issue that I see from time to time with royalty-free music.

There are many royalty-free music sources out there, the easiest of which is the folder of music that comes installed with Apple software like GarageBand or SoundTrack Pro. If you work with these enough, you will start to notice them in PowerPoint presentations, low-budget advertisements, and other online videos. A composer named Kevin McLeod has a great royalty-free music site, but I’ve even started to recognize some of his pieces in multiple places around the web.

The best option, in my opinion, is to find someone who can compose a simple musical score for you. There are lots of musical hobbyists out there, and there is probably even someone in your own newsroom who plays the guitar or piano. Rick Koster, The Day’s arts writer, used to be a bass player in a band, and he has played acoustic guitar to score several of my video projects. Below are two longer historical pieces that were based mostly on interviews, with no natural sound footage.

The most recent piece was a story about migrating swallows that blended poetry and music.

Adding music means a significant increase in production time, so you need to make sure that the end result will be worth it. If you’re going to use a royalty-free piece, it can mean hours looking for the right piece. If someone is going to compose a piece for you, they need the time to see your video and compose something, and then you need to record it. Music also adds another layer of complexity to the sound mixing process. The great thing about the online publishing space is it allows for more creativity in storytelling, including the use of music. Creators just need to make good choices in selecting music, because a bad selection will stand out as heavy-handed, and can be worse than no music at all.

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Making three cameras look like six

Song Spinner is an occasional series that I produce for The Day with music writer Rick Koster. The concept is simple – shoot a musical performance, interview the songwriter, combine the two pieces. The problem with being a one-man-band video journalist and shooting a musical performance for editing is it’s difficult to get the variety of shots necessary to have an edit every three to five seconds. These pieces are about the music and the story behind the song, but in order to keep the viewer visually interested it’s best not to linger on a single shot for too long.

To get around this, I started bringing multiple cameras to these shoots, first two, and then adding a third. Almost every time we shot one of these, the musician or band asked to do a second take. I realized that I could use this second take as a chance to switch up camera angles and double the number of angles I have to edit from.

Usually, the performers have been happier with the second take, so I use the first take for a lot of the close-ups: hands strumming guitars, isolated camera on the drummer, etc. I also keep an eye out for details that I want to catch the second tie around with an eye toward where I will make the edits: the guitar player’s foot on the pedal board right before the solo, or the place where the bass starts in the opening of the song.

For this shoot, I used a Sony EX1R, a Sony PMW 200, and a GoPro Hero 4. The GoPro is nice because it can fit into small places, like right next to a drum kit, and also because it is wide enough to get the whole band in a small room.

Synching up the video clips during the edit can be tricky. We chose to make these live performances, instead of lip-synching to a playback track the way you would do in a music video. It just seems more authentic that way. But because it’s live, the tempos of the two takes are almost never exactly the same. It’s not too hard to synch up the three cameras from an individual take. I either clap at the start of the recording to imitate a film slate, or use something like the waveform of the drumbeat to synch clips on the timeline. You could also use software like PluralEyes.

I synch the two takes separately, and then determine which one I will use for the audio track. I then start matching up the other take to the chosen audio track. This involves cutting the clips every measure or two to get them in synch with the others. This leaves gaps on the timeline, but having six angles to choose from makes it easy to cover the gaps. When I get to choosing which angles to use when, there is always a little bit of sliding left and right on the timeline to get the vocals and drum beats to match exactly. The result is a video that looks like it was shot with six cameras, but requires bringing far less gear along.

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