RIP, Multimedia Composition

The University of Colorado Denver Multimedia Composition course began its busy, interesting life on June 6, 2011 and for eight weeks it educated, inspired, and challenged so many of us.  On July 29, it met its final end. 

What can I say about Multimedia Composition?  It taught me how to create a blog, to develop a multi-sensory narrative–even to create my own documentary.  In its short life, it inspired me to meet new technologies: CyberLink Powerdirector, Audacity, YouTube Downloader, MP3 Splitter, and Freemake Video Converter to name just a few.  And these are just the technologies I ended up using in my projects.  Multimedia Composition was never content with a simple essay; it always demanded the best, the most immersive, the most engaging work I could produce. 

When I chose to make my visual narrative with Prezi, Multimedia Composition encouraged me to add an unprecedented audio component.  When I complained about how difficult such a task was, it sent me straight to the FAQs and tutorials and told me not to come back until I found a way to make it happen.  I did. 

Multimedia Composition changed my life. I will never watch a documentary the same way again.  It showed me how even such a small project can take so long to create.  It gave me perfect shots I couldn’t use, great shots that eluded me, excellent segments that were too long, powerful segments that were too short.  I could go on for much longer, but I won’t.  The point is that this Multimedia Composition course taught me that creating a concise, informative, and engaging documentary is not as simple as slapping a few clips together and adding a soundtrack.  Because of its inspiration, I hope to make more projects like this in the future, and I know that with the skills I’ve gained because of it, those projects will be far less intimidating, and hopefully of an even higher quality.

So, today we lay this course to rest.  It has selflessly served so many of us well.  Rest in peace, Multimedia Composition.  You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten.


Addressing Research Obstacles

For the purposes of this documentary assignment I have researched as an “outsider.”   I am not privy to any information that is not freely available to anyone else, save for those who do not have access to databases like JSTOR for relevant journal articles.   I suppose with some creative thinking I could count myself as an “insider” just based on the amount of research I have done regarding this topic and the diverse source material in which I’ve immersed myself over the past two years.  Even still, I consider my knowledge on this topic to be at best elementary, with much more to learn ahead.    

Given the depth of the research I have done, I feel comfortable laying out the basic framework of Terror Management Theory (TMT) for my audience.    As a result, the tone of my documentary is confident.   I’m not merely advocating a philosophy or some wishy-washy theoretical gymnastics.  TMT produces empirical evidence that demands consideration, and I have found that Ernest Becker’s ideas provide the most reasonable explanation for the data.

No one has been threatened by my research, but I do know that some will feel threatened by the material I present.  TMT has the unique capability to cut deeply into its own subject matter.  For many, Becker’s ideas will fundamentally contradict their most deeply held beliefs, and in doing so will cause them to respond in terror.   I hope that some will recognize that terror in the context of its inspiration and perhaps use that as a reason to further examine Becker’s ideas.   I have found Becker can be very sneaky in that way.

Preparing for the Documentary

My documentary uses Terror Management Theory (TMT) and the ideas of Ernest Becker to explain why despite thousands of years on this planet, humans still can’t find a way to get along with each other.  It’s an interesting topic because, if TMT is correct, it both explains the underlying existential underpinnings of human conflict and provides a solution to, at the very least, minimize that conflict. 

My audience is quite broad because this topic is relevant to everyone.  I do not expect everyone to take particular interest in this topic, however.  I expect my primary audience will be the 60 Minutes, Unsolved Mysteries, PBS Frontline crowd.  They will find it interesting because human conflict is the ultimate mystery.  No one has ever been able to eliminate it, despite many explanations and attempts.

I know a good deal about TMT and Ernest Becker.  I’ve been reading Becker’s works, and the works of those who inspired him (Rank, Freud, Kierkegaard, Tillich) for a couple years now.  I have also read most of the TMT journal articles and the articles of those who criticize TMT.  I do believe that outside of basic political motives (land value, etc.) TMT offers the best explanation for why we continue to saturate our planet in the blood of our fellow humans.

My guiding question in this documentary goes one further than Rodney King’s: “Why can’t we all just get along?”  It will address this question from several perspectives.  This project features the philosophical (we are creatures torn between boundless creative capabilities and animal physicality, or as Becker called Homo sapiens, “the god who shits.”), the psychological (we repress our fears of death to function and survive), the sociological and anthropological (we build cultures of meaning to stave off the terror of utter annihilation and meaninglessness and go to war to defend those conceptions). It even presents the empirical side of scientific study to these effects.  Thankfully, having read so much of the literature surrounding TMT, I will not require too much in-depth research; I will just need to refresh my understanding.  I think it is important in any presentation of material to have a much more thorough understanding of a topic than one presents.

Making Documentaries

This genre of documentary uses various types of multimedia to explore a story from an omniscient point of view, connecting an audience to a subject and inspiring them to action of some sort.   By profiling an individual, an idea, or a social movement through this expressive and creative medium, we can actually affect change in the real world. 

 Bill Nichols, a Professor of Cinema at San Francisco State University said that, particularly in film, “rhetoric swings us in the direction of particularity. It invites theorization that begins with immediate experience before it moves to abstract generalization.” If done well, this type of documentary turns typical information processing on its head.  Audiences can experience something in the confines of a 16:4 window, connect to it, feel the conflict, respond to the conflict in the context of the specific, and then extend that response to the general, the abstract, the every day.  In our case, a five minute documentary can, if done well, affect the way people view and respond to something in the world for the rest of their lives. 

This type of media offers us an incredible multi-sensory venue to explore our topics.  It combines the best of communication methods.  I hope my documentary is as powerful and informative as an end product as it is as a concept floating around in my head.

Constructing My Visual Narrative

I created my visual narrative with Prezi because my story’s tone is reminiscent, and its contents are scrapbook/photo-album worthy.  Prezi also offers structural options that align with the themes of the narrative; readers can either follow the path of the story exactly or wander off a bit and explore.  In either case, my point gets across and my story gets told. 

I decided to structure my narrative in a circle because the plot is circular.  I start off hoping to change the world, and I end up changing the world (albeit unknowingly).  I kept the body font a simple serif, with the exceptions of the tile and section subheadings.  With the parchment backing and all the other images, I think any other font choices would have been overwhelming.  I didn’t include the subheadings on the path because I don’t think such a short story necessarily warrants a dedicated focus onto its separate sections, but if I were to put this story on a canvas without a designated path, I would add the section headings to give it a broader sense of structure. 

I spent a lot of time working with sound in this presentation.  Outside of making Youtube videos, I had never used sound in a Prezi before, so I made it my mission to try something new this time.  I kept an ambient jungle track looping throughout the entire presentation to bring readers into the environment.  I also added sounds to certain images (e.g., the river under the bridge, the clucking chickens near the village boys, the children playing soccer, etc.) and balanced the volume and intensity of sound effects with the jungle track to make them work together.  I think the addition of sound adds an effective dimension to this narrative that people don’t frequently encounter when reading stories. 

The tension in my narrative lies between youthful expectations and reality.  In literary terms, this would probably fit in as man vs. self, with a bit of nature thrown in for good measure.  I went to Thailand as a cocky malcontent hoping to do something important and discovered with some well-earned humility that importance is relative.

Why a Visual Narrative?

They say a picture says a thousand words, and it often does.  But sometimes a picture only says ten words, or it says a thousand words it’s not supposed to.  Pictures are not entirely  unpredictable, though.  Their effects are evident with a little research and an artist’s eye.  By altering color, contrast, and even placement, we can change the whole effect of any given image on an audience. 

Pairing images with text gives us multi-dimensional opportunities to tell our stories.  People love photography for a reason; photos often say things that text can’t.  And people love reading for a reason; text often says things that photos can’t.  When we combine text and images to tell a story, we take advantage of an opportunity to showcase both of their strengths, combined into one cohesive narrative. 

Images can strengthen readers’ associations with the subject matter, but they can also enhance a piece’s rhetorical power.  Allowing the audience to look into the eyes of that child is a far superior pathetic appeal than trying to simply describe the child’s circumstances.  The pictures we select, and their composition, can instantly boost or destroy an ethical appeal.  While images are not the best for logical appeals (at least in the sense of a narrative) they can tie in well to textual arguments. 

Even slight changes in the way we pair and modify pictures and text can have dramatic effects on what our audiences take away from our stories.  For example:

This man is preparing for a role as Santa Claus in a Christmas play at his church.


This man just killed three children he met on the internet. 

Isn’t it amazing how much a story can change with a few simple alterations? 

Brainstorming for My Visual Narrative

In 2006, at nineteen years old, I left America for the first time to save the world. When I came back home, I discovered the world had saved me. My visual narrative will tell the story of my connection to the profound and inexplicable joy in some of the Third World’s poorest communities. As the photo essay follows my experiences as a tsunami relief worker and English teacher in Thailand, my audience will catch a glimpse of the incredible personalities I encountered along the way. I hope it will challenge my audience to both appreciate what they have and consider what they can give to others.

While researching possibilities for this essay’s presentation, I discovered Magnum in Motion’s brilliant online photo essays. While my photography skills aren’t great, and I did not intend to make a photo essay while documenting my experiences in Thailand, I would like my essay to have a feel and presentation similar to those posted on Magnum in Motion. I hope to use a program like Soundslides to create this essay, but I am not yet sure how much text I can include in a Soundslides presentation. If Soundslides falls through, Prezi is a safe bet for this kind of project, and I am fairly confident in my abilities to create a compelling photo essay with it.

They say a picture says a thousand words. Since I only have a thousand actual words to use in this project, I hope I can gather a bunch of great pictures.