Short Workshop Prep

I. Intro to Digital Storytelling

Digital Storytelling is a methodology for creating short videos developed by a Berkeley group in the 1990s, and ultimately formalized under the “Digital Storytelling” name (it would’ve been trademarked, had they been corporate). That group formed a teaching center, The Center for Digital Storytelling (or CDS), that continues to spread the word to this day.

The CDS methodology is aimed at *anybody*, regardless of technological ability.  If you can move a mouse around a screen, you’re good to go. How does this work, given the complexity of video?  By focusing on storytelling. Every person connects with stories, at some level, and can tell something from their lives. Indeed, the CDS prefers that participants create personal stories. (For the record, as your facilitators, we are happy if your work is personal, impersonal, or somewhere in between.) The curriculum only teaches enough “tech” to be dangerous (!) useful in the service of conveying a story. This means basic manipulation of images, how to use a digital video editor, basic audio recording, and how to share your videos online.  It also means non-tech stuff, like writing a very short voiceover, focusing a story into about three minutes, and perhaps a smidge of copyright and its liberating alternative, Creative Commons.

What do these digital stories look like?  The classic form is about three minutes long, and includes images, a voiceover, and some subtitles. Some include video, and some effects, like closing in on an image, or fading from one to another.  Many include a music track and sound effects.

Here’s a digital story Doug Reilly made, reflecting back on his study abroad experience in college:

II. Preparing for the Workshop

You should arrive with a story in mind to tell and some images to go along with it. Here’s three steps to get you there.

1. Brainstorming Story Ideas

Digital stories are typically short, yet powerful. They often work best when focused on an object, place, person or single event that is important to the storyteller. Digital stories aim to capture the essence of experience, not every nuance or detail.They often focus on something small in order to tell a much larger story. Just as often, they focus on something large but with simple language, the details distilled down to, again, the essence. Many digital stories have a “turn” in them, a point at which the storyteller, or the audience, or both, come to understand something differently. It’s not quite the same thing as a “climax” in classical story form.

What story do you want to tell? It can be about anything. We recommend that you choose a topic that is important to you, whether it be personal, academic or a mix of both. Brainstorm several ideas for a digital story. Tom’s brainstorming went like this:

  • My grandparents’ experience emigrating from a small village in southern Italy to Upstate New York in the early 1920s
  • The harrowing climb I made up Putukusi and seeing Machu Picchu for the first time
  • My love of baseball and the annual baseball road trips my best friend and I take with our sons
  • Visiting Berlin and imagining what life must have been like there when the Wall was built
  • What I’ve learned through my travels
  • What would my 2 Labrador Retrievers say if they could talk?

These are all digital stories Tom very much wants to make, but hasn’t yet had the time!

2. Choose a story to tell. Once you have your list, read it over; one story might stick out. That’s likely the story you need to tell, at least at this moment. Save the others for future digital stories. Now, jot down some ideas on paper to develop your story idea a little bit. Is there a “turning point”? What images come to mind at different parts of your story? What sounds or music does it make you think of? Why is this story important to you? What do you want your audience to understand from it?

3. Collect some images.

Now you need to gather some images to illustrate your story. You might have digital images on your computer already, or you might just have photographs in an album. Those you will have to scan; perhaps your campus IT people can help if you don’t have access to a scanner. Save the scans to a thumb drive along with any digital images you may have already had, and bring them with you to the workshop.

Don’t have any images? No worries. We’ll show you where you can find droves of images that are available for use under Creative Commons licenses (like copyright, but nicer) during the workshop. We have even had participants draw pictures to tell their story, either on a computer or free-hand and scanned. Those stories came out great.

To summarize, you should arrive at the workshop with a story idea, somewhat sketched out, and some images. 

III. For the overachiever. More information:

Digital stories like the example above are often very personal. Here’s a slightly more academic digital story, as Professor Craig Jacobson tries to explain the passion for his field, science fiction. Watch it here, then hurry back!

Kyla Stanford, a graduate student at the University of Houston, created this digital story about how she found her passion for art. Watch how she transitions from a personal story to an argument about the relevance of art and artists in today’s world.

Life is a Cabaret is a more personal digital story, which is a great illustration of how tone of voice can be used to underline the story arc. It’s by Eric Holm, produced in the Kino Weed and Seed program in Tuscon, Arizona.

For more academic examples of digital storytelling, consider those from the University of Houston’s very impressive digital storytelling project. Also see the projects run by Hamilton College, , Williams College, the Maricopa system, and UMBC.

And the Wikipedia page on digital storytelling has actually become pretty good.

See you all at the workshop!


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