How to Make Your Multimedia Better: Lessons From Judging College Photographer Of The Year

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of judging College Photographer of the Year’s multimedia division.

Some of the work was stunning. Uwa Iduozee’s first place A Part of Mom is well worth watching.

But I want to briefly discuss some of the more frequent shortcomings I saw in the multimedia films I watched.

(Though I partiuclarly dislike the term multimedia, for the purposes of this essay, I define the term as short nonfiction video that is based around a seated, formal interview that’s accompanied by visuals that usually act in service to the narration, trying to visualize a story that has generally already occurred.)

One of my biggest pet peeves is multimedia that starts with text. With so much competition for your viewers’ attention, you need to capture your audience almost immediately. By beginning with text, a filmmaker not only risks losing the audience, they also signal that they do not have enough information to make the story understandable without supplemental information. It’s a breach of trust. If you must use text, use it after you’ve hooked the audience and then use it sparingly.

And speaking of beginnings, I saw a lot of work that started immediately with voice-over. Personally, I have a hard time comprehending important information right out of the gate. I much prefer at least a second or two of visuals in order to get better acclimated.

There were also lots of stories on Big Topics. Multimedia on important social issues like autism or immigration generally need an individual’s personal story to hook the audience. Otherwise these ideas will likely remain an abstraction. At the risk of quoting a tyrant, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

If your story focuses on a person with a special physical challenge, please let that person speak for him or herself if it’s possible. Nothing objectifies characters quicker than not allowing them to talk.

As I mentioned above, most multimedia is constructed in such a way that the interviews are often about events that have already happened. Then visuals are used to illustrate or suggest these ideas. But I saw a lot of videos with completely unrelated visuals. This creates a cognitive dissonance between what is said and heard. Also, learning to properly sequence a scene is key to successful filmmaking. It’s hard to describe how to do this without examples, but think of movies. If you’re watching a film and a character walks into a bar, generally the visuals stay in the bar. You won’t see a close-up of the bar interrupted by a picture of a horse followed by another bar shot and then a field. Generally, you stay within the bar. Learning to properly sequence a scene is essential.

Finally, in the name of all that is sacred, can we as a community please stop using melancholic piano music? I’m guilty of this, too, of course. I think we all are. But at this point, watching multimedia that’s accompanied by sad piano has just about reached the point of being unbearable.

Of course there are exceptions to all of these “rules.” And many of my suggestions are just a matter of taste. And tastes are like opinions. Everyone’s got one and they’re always changing.

Congratulations to all the winners. And to all who entered, please keep at it. We need you.