Combining photos and location audio: “Palio di Siena: L’Atmosfera”

In an earlier post, I put together a quick-and-dirty Flash-based slide show of photographs from Il Palio in Siena, Italy just to give you an idea of what kind of work came out of that trip. But I didn’t want to leave it at that. I wanted to convey a more complete sense of what it felt like to be in Siena during Il Palio, so I created a two-minute video focused on the atmosphere of the Palio.

Note: If you view this video full screen (which you really should), be sure to change the resolution at the bottom of the full-screen view to 720p or the highest resolution your internet speed can handle.

I think of this video as like a movie preview trailer for this personal photo project, generating interest and setting expectations for the larger project in progress. The video helps communicate why I went there, as well as the tone of the place, time, and culture.

And I’m happy with it. Read on if you’re interested in the decisions I made and things I learned while planning, capturing, organizing, and editing the media for this piece.

Putting it together

While researching the Palio, it was clear that still images would communicate only a slice of the complete experience. I got interested in bringing back a more complete representation of the event than a silent wall of pictures or a book. As I am primarily a still photographer, this multimedia project was a bit of an experiment for me. But it’s nothing new in photojournalism, where multimedia slide shows have become common on news web sites.

Planning and capturing

While it’s free to stand inside the track at Il Palio, it’s also a free-for-all. Even if you’re fortunate enough to get to the fence, there are still other arms creeping into your frame, as you see in the video. The photojournalists sitting on the track have better views…as long as they can avoid being trampled.

At the fence, everybody's a photographer

I thought about shooting a significant amount of HD video at the track, but the more I researched what I would need in order to do it well, I backed off from that idea. I wanted to travel very light because the crowd would be tightly packed, it would be hot, I would have no crew, and in the chaos, consistently finding enough good video angles on the action was not a sure thing.

Instead, I decided to shoot stills as I always have, but record audio at the same time, and use all that to create a video. I was still open to shooting actual video clips, but only if the conditions were favorable. And that’s what I ended up doing, as you see by the proportions of stills to motion in the video. If you’re serious about getting better-than-YouTube video during the race itself, either get a press pass so you can be on the track in front of everybody else, or pay the several hundred Euros for a prime seat in the bleachers.

I wanted the slide show soundtrack to consist completely of sounds captured on location, instead of dropping in some random background music. To do that right, I brought a Zoom H4N stereo digital audio recorder because I wanted better audio than the cameras’ built-in mics could provide. I left the recorder running in an outside pocket of my bag while shooting stills, and that worked well. Not being an audio guy, though, I sometimes forgot to watch the recording levels, so there’s a fair amount of clipping in the video above, and some other audio was too distorted to use. But there was no question that the H4N’s hardware and X/Y stereo mics gave me much better audio than the cameras could have.

When I was able to get right up to the fence during the less crowded test races, I put the H4N in the outer pocket of my shoulder bag and slid that through the fence. That got its stereo mics as close as possible to the track sounds while sort of shielding them from the random chatter around me. In the black bag, the recorder is somewhat stealthy with its black windscreen (which I secured with gaffer’s tape, because it comes off much too easily).
Zoom H4N through the track fence

The Pause button would sometimes get hit when the mic was jostled in a crowd, and that would stop the recording unintentionally. You can prevent this by using the Hold switch on the H4N.

Organizing

I brought my laptop on the trip and imported my camera cards into it using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3. I kept the H4N files in their own folder because Lightroom doesn’t import standalone audio files. After importing the laptop Lightroom catalog into the main catalog on my studio desktop computer, I filtered the catalog to show just videos, and dragged all of those straight into the Project window of an Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5 project.

Although the full size of the video displayed here is 1280 by 720 pixels, I usually exported the stills at their original resolution because animating (panning) the images requires making them bigger than the frame. I wanted to make sure there were enough pixels to keep them looking sharp in a 1080p version of the video. If I had a vertical still and planned to animate it only vertically, I exported it at 1920 pixels wide, because it simply didn’t need any more width for 1080p video.

I set up the Target Collection feature of Lightroom so that when I saw an image I wanted to use in the video, I could press one key to kick that image into the stills collection for the video. I then dragged those stills from Lightroom directly into the Premiere Pro project window, dropping them into their own folder that I named “Stills”. In Premiere Pro, Stills were animated using keyframes with motion that was typically eased in and out, a subtle edit that improves the feel of the presentation considerably.

After listening to the audio files and giving them more descriptive filenames, such as “snare drum flag practice,” I dragged those from the desktop into their own folder named “Audio” in the Premiere Pro project. I tried to enter metadata for the videos but Adobe Bridge kept giving me write errors. I’ve since read that I should try purging the Bridge cache for that folder, but I haven’t tried that yet.

At this point, all the assets I might use for the video were in Premiere Pro. I planned to use that one Premiere Pro project for all motion content related to Il Palio, because I could create multiple sequences inside the project while drawing from the same master pool of assets.

Editing

While a visually oriented person (which I am) might normally sequence the visuals first, I decided that the emotional impact of the audio was so strong that it should be the backbone of the presentation, so using Adobe Premiere Pro, I laid down the audio before choosing any photos. I also wanted to limit the video to about two minutes, so by editing the audio first I locked the length of the sequence. After assembling the sound, I finally started experimenting with the sequence of the still images by laying them out on a video track, edited to follow the rhythm of the audio. I then looked through the few good video clips I had, and in some places I decided to replace one or more stills with a video clip.

Editing the slide show in an Adobe Premiere Pro sequence

After the sequence was roughed out, it was all about fine-tuning the edits. While I’m not a professional video or audio editor, I know some of the techniques that save a lot of time, such as rolling, ripple, and slip edits. I also found myself tuning crossfade times to relax or tighten the pace as needed. Some audio needed more touching up than Premiere Pro could perform, but it’s easy to pop open a clip straight into Adobe Audition for more serious edits.

Premiere Pro CS5.5 performed surprisingly well with native DSLR footage on my 5-year-old Mac Pro—I never had to transcode, and I rarely stop to render previews. Just throw everything in and start editing. However, if I added effects, to keep the clips playing back with minimal stuttering I had to drop the playback resolution to 1/4.

For more details

I’m not going into any more detail here because this post is long enough already. But I’m happy to answer any questions you might have. Just ask ‘em in the comments!

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