In his short video “Open Lanes,” photographer Stephen M. Keller captures an honest, revealing portrait of a bowling alley owner struggling to keep his business alive. The video, with audio and visuals that are equally compelling, was one of several noteworthy projects by participants at the 2013 NPPA Multimedia Immersion workshop at Syracuse University last month. The five-day workshop was a hands-on course in multimedia story telling and production. Participants were given names of subjects and contact information, then turned loose to figure out the subject’s story, and gather the audio and video required to tell it. Coaches with experience in multimedia production helped the workshop participants shape and edit their stories. (PDN editor David Walker participated in the workshop at the invitation of organizers).
PDN: What was the assignment you got at the workshop?
Stephen Keller: It wasn’t detailed at all. It just said, Solvay Recreation Alleys and it gave a phone number. I called and talked to the [owner] for 20 or 30 minutes about the bowling alley, and what was going on with it. He seemed like a good guy who loved bowling, and the bowling industry, but he was also in tough times and I thought [the bowling alley] might be in some financial trouble. But he was a normal guy who you want to see succeed.
PDN: How in-depth was your pre-production interview?
SK: I was trying to get as much information as I could, to get an idea where I wanted to go with the story. I wanted to have idea what I might want to look for, what I might want to shoot, what I might want to ask in the interview. I like to preview [stories], to see if they will be worthwhile. It’s also a way to build rapport and get [the subject] familiar with me, even before the camera is there.
PDN: Were you concerned he might tell you the whole story in the pre-production interview, and then be less enthusiastic about telling it on tape because he’d already told you his story?
SK: Not really, because he was a guy who seemed like he liked to talk. I think pre-production interviews are a good thing. I usually do the regular [recorded] interview after all the footage is shot. So I’m familiar with the subject and the story, and I’m going to ask the same questions multiple times in different parts of the interview so I get it clean.
PDN: Did you have a clear idea of the story narrative in your head before you got there, and if so, what was it?
SK: A little bit–it was kind of like an economy story. I wanted to go in that direction because everyone can kind of relate to that. When I got there, it looked pretty much the way I imagined, but I was wondering: how do I shoot an empty bowling alley? That’s boring, so how do I make it visually interesting?
During the pre-production interview I got information about when there were likely to be customers, but when I arrived there was just nobody there. For the three hours that I was there, there has nothing happening, so I went back the next day to [film] some actual customers. I ended up shooting with people there, and without people there, and I tried to get the same angles, somewhat. I should have put marks on the floor to put the tripod in the same spot, to make jump cuts between those shots [with and without people]. I [also] showed that the clientele is [disappearing] by filming the senior citizens who bowl there.
PDN: Did you do the interview after all the shooting was finished?
SK: We did the interview at the end of the first day [after] nobody came in. We were in the same room together for three or four hours, just us. [Your subject] kind of gets familiar with the camera that way.
PDN: What were the biggest challenges you had?
SK: With this piece, because I’m more experienced shooter, I wanted to focus on the parts of my skill set that aren’t the best. My main thing was to focus on getting best interview I’ve ever gotten.
PDN: Your subject’s struggle and sense of resignation comes across so well in the interview. How did you get him to let his guard down?
SK: It was just being around each other. It was being up front, and building that rapport. He opened up, and was the kind of guy who wouldn’t hide anything [anyway]. I also noted his responses to the questions, and returned to some of them to get him to elaborate more.
[Workshop coach] Evan [Vucci’s] “dumb dog” technique really helped. When the subject finished up a sentence, I would give him the “dumb dog” look and he would keep going, and elaborate further without [my] even having to [ask a follow-up question]. [Editor’s note: With the “dumb dog” technique, an interviewer tilts his head and raises his eyebrows inquisitively as soon as the subject finishes responding to a question. The key is to make the gesture without saying a word. The purpose is to prompt the subject to continue talking, and it often leads the subject to give an unguarded response to the question at hand.]
PDN: Was it a challenge to edit the story?
SK: There were so may great quotes. The hardest part was cutting [them]. As Evan said to me, “You have to kill your babies” [i.e., the quotes that you love the most] to tell a great story about this guy. One thing [the subject] said that didn’t make it into the film was that he was an avid bowler, but he’s had a knee injury and hasn’t been able to bowl for a few years.
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