Center for Digital Storytelling helps people hold up a lens to their own lives
This column originally appeared in the Online Journalism Review on Oct. 8, 2002.
Technology, which has already helped spawn a class of amateur journalists through text-based weblogs and niche news sites, is about to blast into oblivion another largely artificial distinction: the gap between professional and amateur visualists.
In the past few years, the cost of creating personal documentary works has fallen so dramatically that the tools are no longer available only to a specialized class. People from all walks of life are now picking up the tools and telling their own stories, with the help of training facilities like the Center for Digital Storytelling.
On a recent Thursday morning, Kiok Gruttend, an emergency room nurse at Kaiser Permanente, sat nervously at the pockmarked table as a dozen strangers sat and waited. “Pardon,” she said, “my English not too good.” Her fingers trembled slightly as she began reading her two-minute script.
Gruttend told of her upbringing in South Korea, of her marriage to a Swiss man, of her yearning for a diploma, of the frailties of an immigrant family in Marin County. By the time she finished, more than a few eyes were moist.
“Good, good. Now let’s hear some ideas on how to refine Kiok’s script.” Joe Lambert, director of the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, Calif., scanned the room.
To Kiok’s right, Ruby Wilson had signed up for the workshop to create a piece honoring the life of a 96-year-old friend. M.K. Bryant, a self-described retired parent, came to document the stories we tell each other over meals at funerals, weddings, celebrations. Don Jones, who works for a Toronto company that creates simulated learning environments, clutched the lyrics of “Moon River” and would later tell how he sang the song as a lullaby to his now-grown children when they were very young.
The premise of the center is simple: We all have a powerful story to tell. And so these 12 individuals gathered for the three-day workshop to put together short, personal films from a point of view not often permitted in the field of journalism: first-person singular.
The folks who sign up for the digital storytelling workshops each month come from all walks of life: educator, cop, homemaker. Few think of themselves as amateur filmmakers or wannabe visual journalists.
But consider this: In the past few years, the cost of creating personal documentary works has fallen so dramatically that the tools are no longer available only to a specialized class. As on the Web, where a new breed of webloggers has taken up residence alongside the journaling class, so too is the gap closing between professional and amateur visualists.
“We sense that digital storytelling is beginning to spread like wildfire across the land,” says Lambert, 45, who runs the 8-year-old center with his wife, Nina Mullen, plus a staff member and a posse of associates and technical volunteers. So far the non-profit project has trained more than 4,000 people in the use of digital media to tell meaningful stories from their lives.
Lambert would like to see digital storytelling help television evolve. “I want television to be different from what we’re fed now. I want it to become more rooted in the real stories told by the people who live those stories as opposed to people who’ve been given the keys to the kingdom as our storytellers. Jane Pauley or Geraldo can’t tell everyone’s story.”
Once a storyteller creates a piece, she can share it on the Internet via pointcast (sending it to her mother), narrowcast (to a circle of classmates) or broadcast (a story so powerful it will command a broader audience virally). “We imagine that communities of people sharing stories will emerge,” he says. “We are confident that this work is already creating filmmakers, it’s already creating people whose voices deserve to be heard because they’ve nailed a question that needs to be addressed.”
I think Lambert’s right about that. Either through our computers or broadband television sets, we’ll want to participate in this emerging shared experience. But this clearly is a medium that complements rather than subsumes the mass media entertainment beast.
The most essential tool: a script
How is it all done? Think story, not technology.
“We’re trying to discourage the notion that film production is a worrisome, monumental undertaking, dealing with lighting, sound, characters, setting,” Lambert says. “We believe there’s a better way, that you don’t need all the fancy apparatus as long as you’ve got a really effective narrative.”
Students who take the workshop are asked to bring in photos, video, scrapbooks, heirlooms, emotional touchstones — anything that can convey the essence of the story in a few visual elements. Most often, they raid old photo albums in the attic or garage. Once they arrive, they don’t need to go out and shoot footage because they already have a story in hand.
“We say, Use what you’ve got,” Lambert says. “Find the stories that are already there.”
After students discuss their scripts in a group setting, they learn the basics of Photoshop and Adobe Premiere — the only multimedia software they’ll need. Then they review the seven elements of digital storytelling, all part of “The Digital Storytelling Cookbook.” By the end of the three-day workshop, the students often emerge with a personal, often emotionally gripping narrative that consists of perhaps three photos or images, a short video clip (or not), text, perhaps a musical overlay, and the narrator’s voice.
Few of the people who pass through the center’s doors are professional writers. But one needn’t be an accomplished writer, skilled photographer or gifted videographer to create a compelling digital story. All you need is a voice and something to say.
And ultimately, like good writers, the storytellers find that less is more, that the piece emerges stronger with spare words and fewer visual elements.
The first time through, the film short may look like a slide show. By the second or third time through the re-editing process, it may begin to resemble a Ken Burns film. “If you stay with it, you can make it into an effective documentary or narrative piece of film work,” Lambert says.
“This is all about creative self-discovery. There’s something about the mix of photography and voice and music and words in this process that leads to the real breakthrough: the self-awareness that emerges through story.”
A journalist who took the plunge might find he must unlearn many of the axioms that the journalism texts claim are fundamental to our craft.
“Is what we’re doing amateur journalism?” Lambert says. “It’s an interesting question. There’s certainly an aspect of that, because the process can involve witnessing or reflecting on events or experiences and using tools to quickly turn it around and get it out the door. Certainly, we’ve had our share of social activists who’ve come in to learn the mechanics of the multimedia production process.
“But fundamental to our curriculum is a personal, first-person writing style, which neither the journalist nor the social activist easily embraces. What we teach is completely contrary to everything I was taught in my journalism classes in college: ‘If you want to write about the news, you can’t have yourself anywhere inside of the story.’ Writing in third-person, authoritative, neutral language turns off a certain part of our hearing. By creating a safe place for writers, we can help people who feel they don’t have those media literacy skills, who feel they don’t have the tools to communicate.”
A multimedia future for young journalists
Occasionally, the Center for Digital Storytelling has worked in tandem with professional journalists. Jane Ellen Stevens, one of the top multimedia journalists in the land (see Backpack Journalism Is Here to Stay), collaborated with the center on two multimedia projects. Twelve members of the Northern California Science Writers Association created film shorts of an accelerator project at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, learning how to edit video, create graphics, incorporate text and upload it to the Web. The center and Stevens sponsored another practice documentary for journalists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on the California coast.
“The idea is that, instead of a journalist showing up and writing the text and a film crew filming the scenes, increasingly those skills are expected to be combined,” Lambert says. “So you’ve got to be a little bit of a photographer and videographer and sound person and you have to understand how to cut, edit and assemble media in a multimedia environment like the Web. That’s a tall order for the average print journalist, but we can imagine a whole field of younger journalists who’ll be expected to carry all of those skills with them into an assignment in the field.”
As for other news applications of digital storytelling, Lambert says, “I’ve followed Israeli and Palestinian news sites over the last two years, and it’s so easy for me to imagine digital stories on top of the text and graphics approach. Imagine the power. This could be a next step for Web journalism — both professional and amateur sites — in much the same way that we’ve seen first-hand witnessing and journaling on the Web.”
It’s a new space. Call it participatory visual journalism insofar as the stories transcend the purely personal and emerge as something that resonates on a larger societal scale.
Burn your own movie
Lambert, whose parents were union organizers in Texas, has a background not in the visual arts but in raising social consciousness through political theater. As director of the People’s Theater Coalition in the early ’80s in San Francisco — Spaulding Gray and Eric Bogosian are among those who performed at its Solo Mio Festival — Lambert hooked up with the late Dana Atchley, a storyteller who created 60 to 70 short video vignettes of people’s lives.
“As you watched Dana’s show,” Lambert recalls, “you went, ‘I’ve got a story like that out of my background or family album, and I want to do that.’ It was a revelatory moment for me. As a theater producer and community activist, mostly what I was trying to do was give voice to people. I’d thought theater was a pretty cheap way to do that compared to filmmaking or television. Then I saw in these little pieces the potential for people to be able to capture their story in a really powerful way in a relatively short amount of time for a relatively small amount of money. The power of that was just immeasurable.”
A few years out, Lambert believes — and he’s right about this — these video creation techniques will become as commonplace as VCR technology. DVD burners are exploding in popularity, DVD players are already in 25 million households, DVD software is improving all the time, and fatter broadband pipes will make swapping personal video files over the Net a breeze (barring some foolishness by Congress or the FCC). Cable and DSL connections will be a two-way street, not merely a conduit for downloading the latest big media dreck.
We’ll burn and swap our stories online.
The conversation won’t be limited to the United States. The Center for Digital Storytelling (motto: “Listen Deeply. Tell Stories.”) not only has visual media counterparts at learning centers throughout the U.S. but also the world. Some of the schools, community organizations and businesses involved with digital storytelling include:
• IDidaMovie, run by the Alaska Center for Excellence in Schools
• Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne
• (e)-vision, a media center that runs digital storytelling classes in Wellington, New Zealand
• A center in Malmo, Sweden, that runs community digital storytelling classes.
Lesson plans for the road
The Center for Digital Storytelling also takes its lesson plan on the road, sponsoring workshops around the country, such as last spring’s >Aloha Dude Internet Hut in Kauai. Joint ventures between the center and other organizations include:
• Managing Information in Rural America, a multi-year program that assisted grassroots community activists and organizations.
• Future Visions, a collaboration with the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif., in which the center helped a group of residents in eastside San Diego share stories about the proper role of technology in their community.
Back in Berkeley, it’s the final day of the workshop, and the dozen students have finished their assignments. Ruby Wilson has completed her tribute to a senior, M.K. Bryant has a filmic short in hand that celebrates the rite of food at seminal events, Don Jones has his “Moon River” memoir on CD-ROM. And Kiok Gruttend has the story of her multicultural voyage on disc, ready to pass along to her children, or to whomever else along the digital riverbank is ready to share and listen.
“We need these stories like food,” Lambert says simply.