The Art of Telling Stories is a series of posts designed to take a deeper look at what it means to tell a story. Writers tell stories constantly, but many other people in many other vocations tell their stories as well, in other, often more subtle, ways. Today's guest is Brendan Cahoon, a Production Assistant at the television station WMUR in Manchester, NH. He is also an Emmy-nominated editor for the news-magazine style show New Hampshire Chronicle.
Allow me to go back a bit and briefly explain my background. I've been involved in the technical side of entertainment for 30 years, I was just 15 when I worked my first professional job at an outdoor summer theater. I got a 2 year degree in Broadcasting, but ended up working for a laser show company right out of school. In 1989, I headed south and worked at Epcot at Walt Disney World, working on the nighttime effects show, IllumiNations. I was there for 8 years, then moved up the street to work at Sea World as their only laser technician. By 2003, I had finally grown tired of Florida and headed back home to NH where I was eventually hired at WMUR, the ABC affiliate television station in Manchester.
|Editing system similar to the one Brendan uses.|
Would you consider yourself to be a storyteller? Why or why not?
In his book How to Tell a Story, Mark Twain writes "I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told. I only claim to know how a story ought to be told." As an editor I sometimes think of myself as a storyteller by proxy. The process by which a story segment, or package as we call it, is finished, is a little different than what other stations do. A producer researches an idea, then takes a videographer and goes out and shoots the story. Once that's finished, The producer goes over the footage and writes a script, then hands off the footage and the script to the editor.
Here's where I come in.
As an editor on Chronicle, I often will get a script that's nothing more than dialog. Simply the interviews and the voice-overs that comprise the package. My job is now to take that audio, combine it with the visuals in a way that makes sense and makes it interesting, add music and turn it into something that looks effortless.
To me, this is my version of being a storyteller. When I edit a package I take ownership. Even though someone else wrote it, and someone else shot it, I take on the responsibility for bringing that story to life, for creating the feelings it makes and the emotions it brings forth. Often times this means moving parts around or even deleting some things that don't work. The executive producer on the show gives her editors a lot of leeway in that regard since the segment producers often aren't available during editing.
How would you define storytelling?
Director Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, Wall-E) said, "Make me care. Emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care." He goes on to say that a good story will make the audience think... though not too much. Give them 2+2, but not 4. Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor for the New Yorker, receives 1000 submissions a month, but as he says, the ones that make it into the magazine are the ones that make you think.
A few years ago I got to do some judging for the regional Emmys. I watched about half a dozen entries from the west coast and was, frankly, unimpressed with how some of the packages were done. But, the one I ended up rating the highest was a simple piece about school nurses. That was the one that I connected with the most emotionally. It kept my attention. It made me care.
How do you think the many pieces involved in television - such as types of camera, camera angles, lighting, audio, etc. - play a role in the way a story is told?
Obviously all those things have a part in the process of making TV, but one of my core beliefs is that all the technology that's available, those are only tools. They are only "things" which we use to tell a story. I had a professor in college who said that if you're watching a film or TV and at any time the viewer thinks "that was an interesting way they used that shot", then you have failed. You have allowed the viewer to step out of the story and notice something that wasn't important. I once worked on a student film where part of the plot took place in a sewer. Rather than shoot in a sewer... we built one. One of the things I remember about that set was the amount of detail the art department put in to it. The color of the walls, the amount of extra trash strewn around, and even a forced perspective set piece to make the set look longer than it really was. All of this was done so that the viewer wouldn't see it and think "set". It kept the viewer in the story.
Now that said, each tool can be used in ways to elicit a response as well. Using blue lighting will make a scene feel cold. Low camera angles are used to make someone look imposing. Music is the ultimate method of perpetuating emotion. Just about every movie trailer is meant to play to your emotions. Listen to the score from Star Wars and you can practically see every scene in your head. But again, these tools should only be used to advance a story and not be obvious.
Talk a little bit about the role of storytelling in editing. What is an editor's most important role in telling the story?
The word that comes to mind here is pacing. Each story has a different pace to it. If the package is about race cars, the shots are quick, and the story moves along fairly fast. If the piece is about an artist, then your pace will be slower, you linger on the shots longer to the viewer gets more information. For the type of editing I do, recognizing the differences is key. A story can feel "off" if the pacing isn't right.
Another big aspect as well is something I've already mentioned, music. As the editor, I'm responsible for choosing the music used in a package. This is a pretty big deal since the music has to match the pacing as well as the emotions that the producer wants. I have a pretty eclectic musical background, so I can usually choose music that suits a piece pretty well. I will also use several different pieces of music during a package to keep it sounding interesting and less repetitive, this moves a story and the pacing along as well.
What is your favorite project that you've worked on? Why?
As I mentioned previously, I was nominated a few years ago for a regional Emmy. The piece I was nominated for was about autistic kids learning surf and to be honest it was a rush job. I got handed the script on a Friday and the package aired on Monday. Besides the script, the only direction I got from the producer was "inspirational". I chose the music and started editing on Saturday and finished the piece Sunday night. It shows that even under a harsh deadline you still have to apply all the tricks of the trade to make a good story. While I admire the work I did, it's not one of my favorite pieces.
About 5 years ago I gave a story suggestion to Chronicle about a summer program at the University of New Hampshire that brings masters of violin repair and construction to the campus for a series of workshops. As it happened this piece was shot just before the show went on a summer break, so I found myself with 3 weeks to edit the story. I changed things around, spent one week alone just looking for music - a three-part violin concerto, added graphics, color corrected every shot, and tweaked every shot to within frames of where I thought it should be. The result ended up being a piece that may not have been exactly true to the original script, but... it was how I thought the story ought to be told. Because of the effort and energy that went into that package, it's still one of my favorites.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The phenomenal storyteller Geoffrey Lewis wrote:
"Not long ago, I was down in Marrakesh in North Africa. Every night I used to go out in the marketplace there. They had snake charmers and acrobats and magicians and dancers... all kinds of people entertaining. But the people who gathered the largest crowds were the storytellers. Some of them would come out of the desert in a loincloth, just talk for two hours, then disappear. I would sit and listen to them for hours. I was enthralled by what they were doing. Pretty soon, I began to pick up pictures of what they were saying, although I couldn't understand the words. And that's what we do... we tell stories."
Geoffrey is the narrator for a spoken word/musical group called Celestial Navigations and through listening to his work, I think I would like to be able to stand on a stage and tell stories someday. Right now though, I'm satisfied staying behind the scenes. As Neil Gaiman once said in a commencement speech "Do what only you can do... make good art!"
Thank you, Brendan, for taking the time to provide such an intriguing and fascinating look into the world of storytelling!
You can check out Brendan's Emmy-nominated piece, Surfing Through Autism on Youtube. Also, look at a cartoon of Neil Gaiman's commencement speech quote on making good art, and you can find Celestial Navigations here. Finally, if you're interested in storytelling, watch Andrew Stanton's TED Talk!