Archive for the Category »W2: Digital Story «

Joan Giampa

Digital storytelling is a method of telling a story utilizing multimedia technology as the medium.  Multimedia can include, voice, music, text, photography and video.  The stories are generally short and powerful emotional messages written and narrated by the person or situation in process.

Digital storytelling can also convey different kinds of messages such as stories about survival, memoriam, adventure and accomplishment.  There are seven elements to a digital story:

  1. Point of view
  2. example
  3. Emotional content
  4. Voice
  5. Pacing
  6. Economy
  7. soundtrack

The most important element is point of view as it should answer the dramatic question which threads throughout the content of the storyline.

The most important issue with digital storytelling is the quality of the script.  The script should be written with the phrase in mind that less is more.  The story is carefully planned and crafted and then like all art forms becomes a public statement no longer in ownership of the maker and takes on a life of its own.  The content is important, but the process of making the film is equally important.  Good craftsmanship can make or break a digital story and when done properly, allows the viewer to engage without the technological medium impairing the story.

In short this method of storytelling has many advantages to the educational system of our society as a whole.  New technologies and websites such as You Tube are great ways to promote you story and there is free software available for anyone to be able to capture their story and digitize it for the world.

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Having missed the first class, and thus not quite having the same shared understanding of what this term “digital storytelling” means, I have to admit that, while many of the videos I saw here on the blog were quite interesting and well-done, and some where quite thought-provoking and evocative, they felt a little… old media?

One of the really fascinating things about new media technology is the interactivity of it. If you use the internet in 2010, you are almost certainly not just a media consumer. You are a producer. The most successful sites on the internet– from Youtube to Facebook to Twitter to Google itself– are not content creators. They are frameworks that host user-generated content, sort it, make it manageable, encourage discovery. From the moment Tim Berners-Lee began to conceptualize the World Wide Web as something interlaced, hypertextual, navigated by users, the web has challenged models of passive viewership. The web is interactive. New media is interactive.

So where’s the interactivity in digital storytelling? Well, it seems to be coming. Though it is still pretty primitive in its application.

A sidebar of sorts:

Is it still storytelling if it’s interactive? If the author relinquishes some degree of control to the audience, is it still his or her story?

I would argue that it absolutely is. While a was a voracious and omnivorous reader as a child, one of my sisters’ and my favorite series of books was Bantam’s Choose Your Own Adventure series. Essentially bound hypertext, the book would take a forking narrative format, where the reader was, at key moments, presented with choices. The reader’s choices determined the outcome, but the author’s vision remained at the center. Forked stories could fork back into themselves at time– especially in a time-travel story.

While most video games are admittedly thin on narrative, some of the best follow a similar course– allowing player decisions to influence the chain of events within several forked narrative outcomes.

That digression over, I have to say, I haven’t found exactly what I was looking for. I haven’t found any single example that illustrates well how exciting this possibility is. But let me run through a couple examples– all imperfect in some way– that illustrate what kind of thinking I’m talking about. All of these take advantage of Youtube’s fairly recent annotation feature.

B-Boy Joker is very well-implemented, though it’s more of a game than a story. Even by game standards, there’s not much narrative: The Joker and Batman are having a dance battle. You have to match your opponent’s moves or he will defeat you. Not really a story at all. But the action is compelling, the use of annotations is highly effective, and the stop-motion animation is top-notch. One could imagine making a project that was more narrative along similar lines.

Similarly, “Youtube’s first weekly game show” Truth or Fail, is pretty lacking as a narrative, being more of a game. But while B-Boy Joker was more like a video game, Truth or Fail resembles a (highly eccentric) quiz show. Nevertheless, there is a beginning, middle, and end, and since many of us if not all of us are interested in the informative and pedagogical uses of digital storytelling, I thought it bore mentioning because it’s pretty easy to see how such a framework could be used educationally.

Finally, I found two more traditionally narrative interactive videos that unfortunately seem to be experiencing technical difficulties. Annnotations on some of the videos in these series seem to be broken, so clicking on the screen doesn’t always work. But go and check out The Time Machine: An Interactive Adventure and Choose Your Path: Find Sparta! and try to imagine them actually working.

At any rate, it seems obvious to me that interactivity is a pretty exciting possibility in digital storytelling. And that, unfortunately, we might not be quite there yet.

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A Nisei’s Fight for Freedom

From the series Stories of Service at the Digital Clubhouse, I found the story A Nisei’s Fight for Freedom compelling and well told. It was produced and narrated by the subject of the story, a Japanese American named Rudy Tokiwa. In a scant 4:46 minutes, mostly against a simple piano background, Rudy tells the story of his life after Pearl Harbor, to the internment camp, volunteering for a segregated  Japanese unit in the US military. The 442nd was ultimately the most highly decorated unit in US history, though the decorations were not all realized in a timely manner.

The format of the story is very simple and linear. The images move in a linear manner, closely matched to the details of the narrative. The style of the story is spare, yet smooth and powerful. There is nothing extraneous or gimmicky. Even the images are unvaried landscapes rather than close-ups or varied-angled shots. The power of the narrative to reveal its significance–heroism against a background of discrimination and mistrust–and takes its emotional impact from the direct way in which it is told. The digital storyteller did nothing to enhance the emotional impact. The voice of the narrator–the main character in the story himself–takes its power from its clarity, its maturity and unwavering tone.

Tracking Theory, Terminal Time, and Closer

Note:  Links to the first two projects are completely optional views.

My favorite digital story is Eric Faden’s Tracking Theory:  The Synthetic Philosophy of the Glance, published in the Perception Issue of Vectors Journal:

The Synthetic Philosophy of The Glance derives from a quote by 19th century French writer Benjamin Gastineau describing a new type of perception initiated by rail travel.

Scholar Wolfgang Schivelsbusch noted this new perception–what he called “Panoramic Perception”–was especially suited to new visual technologies like cinema that could effortlessly and instantly move across space and time with a simple cut. The film explores how the railroad and cinema changed human perception in the late 19th century.

This work is what Faden calls a “media stylo”.  It works like a historical documentary, but puts a fairly unique spin on reenactment and archival footage, which is documented in a ‘Behind the Scenes’ section:

The Synthetic Philosophy of The Glance plays with the idea that early cinema had numerous functions beyond storytelling and imagines what an early “essay” film might be like. Rather than exclusively repurposing original early films, we simulated early cinema’s look and texture by compositing live action video with vintage photographs.

But…this work is 12 minutes long, so I went searching for another digital story for my blog post.  During my search, I found the Terminal Time project from 1999-2000:

Terminal Time is a cutting edge, audience-powered history engine combining mass participation, reel-time documentary graphics and artificial intelligence to bring you the history you deserve.  Each half-hour cinematic experience is custom-made to YOUR values, biases and desires and covers one thousand years of human history.

This project, however, was a live action experience and the content is not saved on the site.  Furthermore, the user driven products were thirty minutes.  Still, I couldn’t resist linking to it and thought this was as good a time as any.

I looked at some other academic type works, but decided to post on a fairly widely seen video, at almost a million and a half youtube views. Since it was a featured selection at last year’s 24/7 a DIY Video Summit at USC, I’ve deemed this pop culture artifact a digital story worth analyzing. I’m sure most of you have seen this sort of “vid” or “fanvid” on youtube.  They are basically music videos which reassemble or mash up source material to provide an alternate take on a movie or television show’s plot or characterization. This one is called Closer.

It uses clips from an episode, or perhaps a couple of episodes, of Star Trek to suggest sexual tension and unrequited desire between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. From my understanding, this love affair is a long standing practice in written fan fiction, which uses characters from popular television, often Star Trek, as the basis for new, fan generated stories. Through visual juxtaposition of shots and provocative soundtrack, the story is laid out quickly. The video is made to fit the length of the song, and goes on a little longer than the story probably needs. For an entire three and a half minute video, a little more of a story might have been developed, but Closer serves as a good, clear, example of how “fanvids” tell stories.

First, the video begins with a prompt.: “What if they hadn’t made it to Vulcan in time?” This sets up the video as an exercise in counter-factual thinking, if we suspend our idea of facts/past actions to include the events which occurred in the original episode. In this context, we can assume that’s fair. I find this interesting because one of the lauded abilities of documentary film is its ability to provide a counter-history, primarily by introducing new evidence. Closer does not provide any new evidence, but instead calls attention to the more overarching power of any filmic product, the assembly of shots.

In this case, the same source material is rearranged to tell an alternate story. The original is also altered by video effects, which pull the images slightly out of context and give them a tone more aligned with the soundtrack. The sepia tone and shutter flashes also give the video a somewhat archival or dreamlike quality, which adds to the overall tone. Finally, the video works because it uses characters which are extremely familiar in popular culture, Kirk and Spock, but a theme that is a little less common, male homosexual love affairs. If the story-tellers had assembled a series of shots with Kirk and his numerous female love interests, that would be cliche and fairly uninteresting. A buddy song with Kirk and Spock would be an equal bore.

By using images and characters with which viewers would be familiar and perhaps identify with in some ways and putting them off-axis the videomakers create drama without having to create their own characters, film their own scenes, or even provide their own score.  This exercise might seem fairly simple, but there are many examples of fanvids of this sort that completely miss the mark.

Inconsequential Moments

This story stuck out to me because it was less narrative and more reflective than any of the other DST samples I found in my first exploration through the genre.  Like many other digital stories I’ve seen, this is basically composed of photos and voiceover, but the almost abstract photos and dead-serious voice tone immediately told me that I was seeing something more cerebral than the  other DST clips I had been finding.

Okay, maybe this story is a little pretentious.  The meaning is not immediately apparent, and took me several views to understand.  The narration is essentially a story about thinking you understand something that appears on the wall – a footprint left by someone relaxing against it – but not really understanding its true meaning until later.  At least, that is my interpretation.  I’m not sure how exactly the lessons of Inconsequential Moments extends to my life, because the tale is simultaneously dense and sparse.  In any case, I just enjoy the fact that Burns cared to record a few thoughts – the thoughts that come out of being in a certain place in a certain time and reading and seeing certain things.

Technically, I also really like the way that the film is assembled.  Beginning at the credits, I like the layout of title and author and the chosen font.  The fade-in and fade-out of each photo give the piece a sense of symmetry.  In the last few seconds, the pace of this fading is increased to create a sense of accelerating tension.  But that soon ceases at a quickly arrived-at climax.  The story is over in about 100 seconds – quite economic.  My main technical complaint is that the voiceover volume level dips about 2/3 of the way through.  This makes it especially difficult for the viewer, who is busy making sense of the story without having to turn up the volume or rewind.

Inconsequential Moments

Beautiful Yosemite…

It is really easy to get lost looking through digital stories, I went around and around for several hours searching for many different things that interested me.  This particular story jumped out at me, I had the opportunity to tour Yosemite not quite a year ago and found it incredibly beautiful.  Seeing El Capitan and Half Dome rising from the valley floor is something that everyone should get a chance to see!  This digital story is a fourth grade class’s joint project telling the story of the formation of Yosemite and how environmental factors came together to form what is today Yosemite Valley.  I found the video charming in its presentation and surprisingly well assembled for a fourth grade class.

The video walks the viewer through the history of Yosemite from about 80 million years to present and there are a number of graphics to illustrate the various glaciers, mountains, etc.  The graphics seem to be deliberately and deceptively unsophisticated, they resemble child’s drawings, but it is clear that the story uses a lot of them and that careful thought (and not a little talent) has gone into all of them.  The other thing that is really ingenious is the use of songs to narrate the story.  The students have come up with two distinctly different songs to act as the narration for their story.  I think it is the songs that really make the video, they are hilarious to listen to as the kids attempt to rhyme and even rap about the glacier that carved out Yosemite Valley, leaving El Capitan and Half Dome in their wake.  This rap and the drawings are interspersed with pictures of some of these memorable sites from Yosemite Valley and the students go back and review the story a second and third time to give the viewer a more complete picture.  They impart a good bit of information and for anyone who hadn’t known anything about Yosemite previously, or anyone who is interested in geology, this video would be particularly relevant.  For me, this is a good example of a successful digital story because it is informative while being entertaining.  Its clearly an amateur work, but done with panache and shows a great deal of dedication and thought.  The story uses several different types of media in its presentation as well.  Perhaps most importantly for me, it conveys a sense of fun along with the information that is crucial to engaging others in their product.

Analysis of a DST: The Reality of Television

The Digital Story I chose for this assignment is titled, “The Reality of Television.” It is from the University of Houston website on Educational Uses for Digital Storytelling. The website offers many examples of DST that range in length and theme. I chose “The Reality of Television” from the page featuring Pop Culture digital stories. The DST in this group were created by graduates students enrolled in a course covering the educational uses of digital photography which was being taught in conjunction with a course on Popular Culture in education. I found these digital stories to be compelling since they were being made by students in a class make-up similar to ours.

“The Reality of Television” is a commentary piece that asks the viewer to take a critical look at what television means to its audience, as well as the ‘reality’ of the content that is being viewed. It is comprised of a combination of slides, voice over narrative, and background music. The content of the transitioning slides coincides with the content of the narration. A female voice is the narrator for this digital story. She lists the types of images and subject matter she is able to view when watching television, ranging from information programming to entertainment value shows. She then quotes mainstream opinions on the value of television. Next, she asks the question, “Why is television important to you?” A series of short sound clips that feature individuals giving opinion based answers are voiced over images that correlate to their responses. Finally, the female narrator sums up her story with a final commentary on the content of television as it relates to modern day society.

Technically, the movie put together well. The voice over narration is easy to understand, and the sounds clips between the different speakers are transitioned smoothly. The visual transitions of the slides fit nicely with the timing of the narration, and the pacing of the slide images/transitions are good as well. The content of the images make sense with the topic being discussed and all the parts fit smoothly together as a whole. Both the content of the narration and visual imagery make for a compelling digital story.

why we’re here

or maybe just me…but I find that digital storytelling works best when you see firsthand the possibilities of successful stories in the hands of a 10th grader. One of the great pleasures I experienced as a teacher was the unexpected surprises in student projects that could humble even the more accomplished educators.  Craig’s story is from western Australia, a rather remote area from the country’s more populated eastern and northeastern shores, but he is able to do a great job…which should give all of us hope that we can achieve meaningful success in our final products this semester.

update: (upon realizing the length requirement for this week’s blog…oops!) I actually began looking at compelling tales first, but found too many of the projects too self-indulgent. Based on this week’s readings, perhaps the personal nature of DST eventually leads to a certain amount of “me-ism”, or as I heard recently: the “I” generation: ipod, iphone, itunes, facebook, twitter–all eventually scream: “look at me!” in the world of LifeCaching.

So I moved away from compelling stories and looked at humor. Last semester, Mills Kelly showed us clips from a humorous spoof of Ken Burns-style tales about fictitious African-American astronauts. Then I thought better of it when I saw it again recently and realized that Mills wisely left out the vulgar parts of the video. But I was still intrigued with the idea of humor in DST. Finally, I reverted back to what I know best: education. I was happy to see a project outside of the US, as different sensibilities are always refreshing. Yet, Craig’s tale is one we can all relate to: a triumphalist story of someone overcoming poverty to help others in need. The fact that a 10th-year student created such a professional and compelling tale, was just a plus. And with that…I eventually realized that the compelling story I initially set out to find, found me.

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Y.O.U.T.H Training Project: Nicky’s Story

After perusing some digital storytelling sites, I came across Stories for Change.  I found a moving and interesting area that focused on the struggles of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Youth.  This project is through National Center for Lesbian Rights. They conducted a four-day workshop organized by the Y.O.U.T.H Training Project of San Francisco State’s Bay Area Academy and the Center for Digital Storytelling. In the workshop ten former foster youth shared their stories and learned to edit them into personal videos.

In these three minute videos each addressed the following:

  • What it was like for them to come out in the system
  • How important it was for them to find supportive allies
  • How they have come to understand their multiple identities
  • The effects of rejection by family and foster parents
  • The challenges of transitioning gender while in state custody
  • What providers need to know about LGBTQ youth
  • Why they are activists working for social change


There are ten videos chronicling the lives of these young men and women and are each compelling.  These stories cover the 7 elements of digital storytelling (Point of View, A Dramatic Question, Emotional Content, Gift of Your Voice, Power of the Soundtrack, Economy,  and Pacing from the Digital Storytelling site of the University of Houston (source:

I watched all of the videos and they are especially heartfelt and use their personal story to provide a compelling story that highlights the difficulties of coming out.  One example that I found to be interesting and well designed was “Nicky’s Story”. It details the difficulty the daughter of a wealthy Asian businessman has to reach her parents academic expectations and the shame she is made to feel after coming out. Nicky has been able to use her difficult experience as a means to help others through her activism and advocacy. She did well to incorporate images of her life.  Her unique cultural background is represented through the use of Asian phrases (translated on the screen) and a video of her (we presume) writing characters in her language (perhaps kanji- but it is never made clear). This is an interesting narrative choice.  It shows how important her culture and family is to her, even through the rejection of her sexuality.

This type of digital storytelling can be a useful and powerful tool in helping LGBTQ teens who are dealing with the difficulties of coming out to their families.

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Professor Michael Wesch groks* Web 2.0

You might remember one of his videos last week, “The Machine is Us/ing Us.” Professor Petrik introduced me to that video in Cleo II, and it’s an understatement to call it a game-changer in my own professional life. I built a lecture introducing Web 2.0 tools to instructional designers around that video, and I have delivered it so far at two professional conferences and four webinars. With it, I challenged educators to embrace Web 2.0 and reexamine their design, their format, their pedagogy, their assumptions about how we learn. I have seen countless light bulbs go on as I watched people watching this video.

“A Vision of Students Today” is another winner from Professor Wesch’s website. In this digital story, Professor Wesch describes the characteristics of students in the 21st century. The video starts in an empty lecture hall with a 1967 quote from Marshall McLuhan: “Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the 19th century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects, and schedules.” Scary to think that 43 years later that is still a valid description of the academy.

Professor Wesch then frames the point of the video with graffiti questions written on the walls and backs of the lecture hall seats: “If students learn what they do, what are they learning sitting here?” He then shows how he collaborated with 200 students to get an understanding of what it means to be a student today. What follows is a staging of bullet points describing students today in the written words of his own students. Things like “18% of my teachers know my name,” and “I will read 8 books this year, and 2300 web pages and 1281 Facebook Profiles.” The culmination of the statistics is the message “When I graduate I will probably have a job that does not exist today,” followed by “Filling this out won’t help me get there” written on the back of a Scantron form.

The capstone of the video is another quote, this time from 1841, praising the chalkboard as one of the best contributions to learning and science. We’re. Still. Using. Chalkboards. The message is that the educational system is letting kids down today because the reality of their life is so different than the world for which the system was made.

He takes what is essentially a PowerPoint presentation’s worth of facts and delivers it in a meaningful and memorable way. This demonstrates both the genius of Professor Wesch and the power of digital storytelling. By connecting what was essentially a static (and potentially boring) set of statistics to actual faces of those directly affected by the idea with a Web 2.0 framework, Professor Wesch creates an instructional, persuasive, reflective and ultimately memorable message. Which is, after all, the whole point of digital storytelling, right?

* Grok: (v.) to understand profoundly and intuitively. Coined by Robert Heinlein in Stranger In A Strange Land (1961).