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Issue No. 16 - Chaos

Interview with Brian Storm

Portrait by Andrea Blanch
 
 

MediaStorm launched in 2005 and is now considered the leader of the industry. What do you attribute to MediaStorm’s success? We've assembled the right people to go after the opportunities that exists in the digital space for storytellers. We've had the chance to collaborate with some of the best contributors in the world, and we have a super talented team with a diverse set of skills whether it’s production, motion graphics, design, web development, partnership development or social media. We've got a team in place that can execute on the vision. The fact that we're independent means we can operate in a way that is about purpose and not always about profit, which is really unique to our publication.

Your main approach is to compile photographs with voiceovers, why do you prefer this over the typical video format? 

That's certainly how we got started. It's still core to our philosophy of storytelling, but today we're using a lot more video. We remain committed to the power of still photography and to the incredible work that documentary still photographers are doing. And I remain hopeful that still photographers will add video and audio to their storytelling process. I don't want to ever stop using powerful still photography in our work, but we've certainly migrated more towards the documentary film space in the last few years.

Do you see this format being utilized in the fine art photography world?

We had an amazing experience working with Lisa Robinson on a film called Snowbound. Lisa's a world class fine art photographer who makes these elegant images. Wendy Watriss of Fotofest commissioned us to produce the film. It was a unique challenge, different than something that's purely documentary. The feature presentation is really conceptual, and then the epilogue is more our approach, giving a narrative to what the project is about. In fine art, a lot of artists don't want to to talk about what the art is. They don't want to hold your hand and say this is what you should think or feel or see. So we separated the feature, where you can still have your own perception of what the work is about. But then I always want the information that an artist or a photographer can provide, and that ‘s what the epilogue does.

 

Snowbound explores the mystery of a winter landscape. This journey may lead one to discover a sense of peace in an often uncharted world. See the project at http://mediastorm.com/clients/snowbound-for-fotofest

 

What part do you play in creating the videos? Do you have a hand in every project?

I do. I can't help myself. I don't want to just be on the business side. I want to scratch that creative itch everyday. The edit suite is one of my favorite places to be. Just sitting in front of the raw material and trying to work with the producer to shape it into a story is one of my favorite things to do. So I'm pretty heavily involved in every area of what we're doing. At the same time I feel like I've been able to hire people who are better than me in each of the areas that we work in. So now my job is to work under them and support them in the process.

What other forms of multimedia storytelling do you see developing in the journalism world?

Obviously there’s a huge focus on mobile right now, and that's really about being responsive in your design so your product works across multiple devices you publish once and it works on many platforms. There’s a lot of experimentation happening around data which is really exciting. From my perspective that's the ultimate collision, when the data meets intimate storytelling. People don't tend to care about numbers. People care about other human beings. If you can take the big data numbers and humanize that data through the kind of storytelling we do, I think that's a really powerful combination.

A huge thing that's been happening in photojournalism are the interactive scrolling stories in the New York Times. Things like Snowfall or Game of Shark and Minnow. What does this mean for the future of journalism?

I don't know if it means much for the future, I think it’s a chapter along the way. It’s an evolution of the user experience. It’s doesn’t change whether a video is good or bad. It doesn't change whether the data is right or wrong. It doesn't change whether the writing is poetic or dry. You still have to execute on the core tenants of storytelling. What we're talking about here is merely presentation. You want to make it easy for people to consume the information that you're putting together. I think the evolution of the design experience is just starting to happen. If you think about it, the medium we're working in is 20 years old. It's pretty young as a presentation form. So I don't think it’s the future. I think it’s a chapter in the evolution and the future is going to continue to surprise us.

MediaStorm focuses on narratives about the human condition and heavy political and cultural topics. How do you decide which stories to report on?

We look at a lot of work, and we find projects that we think are going to matter and are worth investing in. Then we find the right partners and make it happen. I didn’t wake up one day and decided to go do a project on the genocide in Rwanda twelve years after. There's no issue that I'm really looking to cover. A lot of it is what contributors and clients bring to us. Client work involves the client coming to us with an idea and we decide if it’s a fit or not. The Publication has a different editorial approach. We're always looking for work that we think is timeless. We want to do a film that’s universal, that’s going to matter over a long period of time. We don't really have a central theme. We just want our work to matter. We want it to be something that makes people think, that gives them a better understanding of what's happening in the world, and that gives a voice to the common man.

Describe your process of piecing the photographs together.

This is something we've spent years refining. We have a workflow that we've used for over one hundred films now. It's 265 step process that's all about creating efficiencies and organization so that you can be creative. We made it available to the public so people could build on top of it. Why should someone who's just starting out in this space have to figure out what we learned in the first seven years of postproduction? Why not make that accessible so people can have that as a starting point and then refine their own workflows?

Apart from instruction about technology and production, what do you teach in your training that cannot be found online or in other programs?

The entire genesis of our online training took this exact question into account. People don’t need another tool to teach them Final Cut or Premiere. There's a bunch of great places to go for that. We decided early on that our training would focus on the intention of storytelling: why do we do the things we do in the storytelling process. Our online training is really about how we find a story, why we make the edit the way we make it, how do you get access to a subject, how do you gain access and intimacy. I don’t think there's a lot of training like that out there. We're not suggesting our approach is the only approach, but it’s an approach that has worked well for the type of stories that we do. And people can build on top of what we’ve learned.

How have Instagram and social media affected the ethics of storytelling? Do you see them as useful tools, or threats?

Social media is gasoline on our fire. Social media is giving individuals the ability to amplify a message that we have created and engaging audiences in the conversation. I think it’s a great thing because everyone has a voice. Anybody can shout from the rooftop and say what they think about something. There's a democracy of access now. Anyone can sign up for a twitter account. We see it as an important element of what we do. We wouldn't have the reach that we have without social media. I think you get into murky waters of ethics when you start using social media as your source material, but we don't do that.

In your opinion, what are the greatest risks to photojournalism today?

The only real risk photojournalism is the lack of financial structures to support it. My entire 20year career I have read, seemingly on a monthly basis, a story entitled, “photojournalism is dead.” Yet for 20 years I've been in this profession. So it doesn't seem to want to die. Frankly, I don't think you can kill photojournalism because those who have decided to make it their craft are going to practice it whether we find a financial model around it or not. There's always going to be people who want to use photography to tell stories. I would argue that the ability to make a living at it, while certainly different than before, is actually expanding now. If you look at the power photography has in the evolution of technology and culture, it’s pretty amazing. People often talk about the fact that everybody is a photographer now and how it is hurting top tier photojournalism. I don't see that at all. I think it’s great that everyone is taking pictures. Now they understand how hard it is to do what we do. When they see a truly exceptional photograph, I think there’s a different level of respect. This is a craft that's well beyond the technical and mechanical elements that are associated with making a picture. It’s about being a great human being, building trust with your subject and being fair to someone. Those are things that you don’t get from your camera phone.

What exciting things are in store for the company or you personally? What are some upcoming projects you’re working on?

We've been relatively quiet over the past few months because we've been working on a bunch of projects that are going to come out this fall. I'm really excited about a film we've produced with Tim Matsui in partnership with the Alexia Foundation called The Long Night. It’s a powerful film, maybe one of the most important things I've worked on in my career in terms of the impact I think it can have when we release it. I'm also excited about a very experimental film we've done with Jeff Hutchens called Travel Anonymous. I’ve been trying to get this thing published for ten years. It’s just so different than anything else that we've done. Eric Maierson is a producer on that. Tim McLaughlin is working on a film called Hungry Horse. It’s is also very poetic and another film that we've been working for a long time with a photographer named Pieter Ten Hopen. We've got a couple good client projects with Neighborhood Centers and the Gaia Foundation in the works, too. The other thing I'm really excited about is what we're doing with our technology. It’s not something we talk a lot about. But we have built an impressive toolset, a storytelling platform that we're going to white label and license to other people. This should happen early next year. People will be able to license our technology and take advantage of the business model, the distribution strategy and the packaging approach that we've developed to run our own business.  

Hungry Horse captures the spirit of renewal, peace and serenity through stunning landscapes and intimate oral histories. See the project at http://mediastorm.com/publication/hungry-horse

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