Video Narrative Roundup

Well, that video narrative was…something, let me tell you. This was my very first video project, and I definitely got in over my head with the whole “let’s hand-draw and also write the music for this assignment!” thing. I could have made this a heck of a lot easier if I’d used stock images and Creative Commons music, but I wanted to experiment a little, and while this was way more time-consuming than it needed, I am pretty proud of the end result. I learned to use three new online programs for this assignment, and a couple of new life skills — namely, how to storyboard effectively, how to write a soundtrack that matches the action in a story appropriately, and how to get comfortable with the sound of my own recorded voice.

I think the most interesting part of this assignment was the part that wasn’t actually required — I got so frustrated trying to find music that fit my story that I gave up and just wrote some myself. I knew there were online programs that would let you build pre-recorded loops and turn them into songs, and I found one called MusicShake that worked out fairly well. The track for my video is nothing particularly great on its own, but I think I did a fairly good job of matching the music to the scene transitions and getting the tone right. It was certainly a neat experiment!

Anyway, the final video is here:

MusicShake is here. Play around on there if you like, but if you want to download tracks, including your own, you’ll need a subscription. I impulse-bought a month-long one for five bucks and will be writing and downloading a bunch more music to make good use of it, but I do wish it was free!

And Pixlr is here for all your off-brand Photoshop needs. Most folks use it like Instagram, but it is pretty decent for heavier photo editing, and for actual sketches and coloring if you’ve got a tablet on hand but no spare cash for the Adobe suite.

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Feedback (literal and metaphorical)

For a rough, rough cut, my video project went over surprisingly well. The secret, I think, was decent audio: I used the recording booth at the Innovation Space and was pleasantly surprised at how my voice sounded when I played my narrative back. Most folks seem weirded out by how their voice sounds in recordings, but I suggest that the phenomenon may have to do with microphone quality. The audio I got actually sounded like me this time around — at a lower pitch and less resonant than it usually sounds bouncing around in my own skull, but definitely me. This was the first time I’d used a sound booth, and was glad I’d practiced my script several times before recording — I had no idea how to set up the equipment at first, but luckily it was pretty easy to adjust and the end result was definitely worthwhile.

Getting solid feedback from my classmates was a pleasant surprise as well. Workshop sessions are always a bit awkward, but the forms really helped everyone focus their critiques, and I came away reassured that I was headed in the right direction. I was also excited to see previews of everyone else’s narratives. I’ve always loved behind-the-scenes specials, and it was particularly interesting to see the different approaches that folks had taken when assembling their stories. The finished pieces are sure to be lovely, but there’s something about seeing all these projects in their awkward, half-assembled glory that makes me strangely happy. There’s something particularly honest about the mess, and as much as I’m looking forward to our Sundance-style film festival next Wednesday, I’m glad we got to see one another’s works in progress first.

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Multimodal Roundup

Thought I’d start a new post series in which I link to Neat Stuff Tangentially Relevant To Class Discussions. This week’s series deals with multimodality, or in terribly oversimplified terms, mixed media, so here are some links that might pique your interest if you’re into that kind of thing.

+ Our discussion of the essay written on ballet shoes reminded me of this pretty remarkable piece of performance art, in which a ballet dancer with knives attached to the tips of her pointe shoes dances atop a grand piano. Challenging, uncomfortable, and awe-inspiring.

+ Seaquence, a very cool blend of music, art, and a little bit of science. Make your own song in an unconventional way by building instrumentation modeled off sea creatures, which then swim around and play back your tune. It’s oddly calming and definitely a pleasant way to waste some time.

+ Finally, a video that talks about the desire for communication between members of an audience and how it impacts online fan communities. If you’re involved with fandom or curious about multimedia, interactive elements of storytelling, you’ll really want to watch The Audience Has An Audience.


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Video Narrative Progress, or “holy jeez, what have I gotten myself into”

The story I picked for my video narrative posed a unique challenge for this assignment: I don’t actually have any pictures to accompany it, so I’m drawing them myself with a tablet and a somewhat dubious but free Photoshop-like program online. This is my very first video assignment, and I figured it would be fun to animate my story with sketches rather than rely on stock images to illustrate it. Fun, right?

Turns out this may have been an, er, ambitious undertaking. I might need to tinker with my storyboarding a little to prevent my hand from falling off my wrist after all these sketches. Things are starting to shape up, but man, I don’t know how actual animators do this!

I’m also puzzling over how I’ll be able to work on this project during class on Monday, as my laptop’s abysmal battery life means it’s really more of a desktop computer. I’ve got a neat drawing app called Paper on my iPad that could be handy for roughing in the illustrations, and I may wind up using that as an intermediate device, but we’ll see. If I can use class time to commandeer a recording booth, that would be fabulous — I’m pretty happy with my script, and I’ll be able to work out the number of drawings I need a little better if I have a recording to construct them around.

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Mixed media

“That we live in a fragmented world is not news. That textuality has pluralized is, likewise, not news. What we make of these observations pedagogically is news — and still, as they say, under construction.” — Jody Shipka, Towards a Composition Made Whole

You can tell a lot about a person by looking at the contents of their sketchbook. Some folks carry neat hardcover journals around with them and fill them with precise drawings in graphite and ink, working front to back and making sure nothing bleeds through onto the next page. That’s never been me, I’m afraid — the cork-bound book I’m currently overloading is filled not only with detailed, carefully-referenced pieces, but with frantic scrawls in highlighter and sharpie, post-it note doodles taped onto the pages, class notes, weather diagrams, a stray fortune cookie slip or two, and an occasional stained ring from a misplaced coffee mug. The art is colored indiscriminately with everything from expensive Prismacolor pencils to Crayola crayon to cattle markers — the thick neon oil paint used to draw stock numbers on the sides of, yes, cows. It’s impossible for me to choose a favorite medium, so more often or not I go for as many as possible at the same time. It’s more than a little chaotic, but it keeps things interesting, I think.

I’ve always been intrigued by remixes, mashups, crossovers that refuse to slot neatly into one genre and instead bleed in several directions at once — my default setting, it seems, is actively multimodal. While the aesthetic certainly works for me, this kind of thing often makes folks uncomfortable, as evidenced in Shipka’s anecdote about a research essay transcribed onto ballet shoes and the peculiar reaction the slippers elicited. The shoes were an innovative project, but the students weren’t entirely sure how to approach them, or even if they were a valid response to an assignment. Interesting reaction — the same, amusingly enough, as the one I’ve gotten from a couple of folks when describing the setup of this Writing and Digital Media course.

Instead of traditional essays, Dr. Warnick’s told us, we’ll spend this semester creating multimedia narratives, learning to build stories in various web apps, and blogging for a grade. This is unfamiliar territory for many of us in this class, and I for one don’t know how I’ll approach many of these assignments quite yet. But I am excited to try these new forms of pluralized text — the chance to tinker with and deconstruct academic responses sounds pretty neat to me. In a world growing increasingly fragmented, the pursuit of multimodal storytelling might just be the best way to jump between those shards and start putting it back together again.

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Aaaand we’re back!

After a semester abroad and a summer of science adventures on the coast of Virginia, it’s time for this blog to get its systems back online. Between the HRCS blog posts and Dr. Warnick’s assignments from ENGL 3844, there’s gonna be a fair amount going on here in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

For now I’ll use this post to jot down a couple of ideas for my digital narrative, a video project in which we get to tell a story about ourselves. I’m currently fluctuating between:

1. The snake in the Christmas tree
2. Zooropa in Berlin
3. The Great Poison Ivy Debacle of Summer 2013

I love telling all these stories, but for now I am leaning towards the first: it’s funny, fairly concise, and I could do some fun things with the visuals. The Berlin thing is way more esoteric and I think it might work better in another medium, perhaps something without narration read aloud, like Twine or some multimedia web thing with the narrative in text rather than audio. The Poison Ivy Debacle is hilarious and actually a really important experience I had this summer (it helped me get over a lifelong fear, which was pretty awesome), but it involves some low-grade but slightly gory medical stuff, talk of anxiety, and questionable decisions regarding urban exploration, and so is perhaps not the best choice for public consumption for a class project. But we’ll see!

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Semester goals: a retrospective

I’ve got a piece of paper sitting in front of me that feels like it was written a lifetime ago. It is my old “Semester Goals” assignment for PGS, and it’s a study in changed plans.

My original travel goals were comprised almost entirely of places I did not get to visit. I did not spend Easter at the Vatican. I didn’t see the cliff monastaries of Meteora, take an overnight train anywhere, or order mint tea in Morocco as planned. I certainly didn’t become proficient in Italian, as my grammatically oblivious past self had hoped. If I’d based the success of this program off these original goals, this trip could easily have been classified as a failure.

However, I know, going in, that a loose outline of travel goals that were more “oh, that’d be nice” than “if I don’t go here I will cry” were actually more likely to lead to success.  I do not regret missing any of these places, because I substituted in an entirely different selection of amazing experiences for them instead. Who knew, for instance, that I’d find myself traveling through Eastern Europe for spring break? Or that I’d walk through a rainforest canopy in Ghana? Or that I’d tour a nuclear power plant — an impossible experience in the US due to security restrictions — that was the oldest facility of its kind in the world? I would never have been able to predict that I’d hike Mount Vesuvius, visit the LHC at CERN, or tour a Cold War fallout shelter in Budapest? A willingness to play along and be flexible with my plans did nothing but serve me well this semester.

Of the two things that were most important on this old list, I had a 50% success rate. I did make it back to Berlin, which I’d promised myself I’d do since my first visit two years ago. Come hell or high water, I was going to spend some time there again — and I did. (It was every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped, although perhaps a little colder than anticipated.) I did not, to my thorough disappointment, make it up to Augsburg to see some of my relatives. It wasn’t for lack of effort. End-of-the-semester chaos and an illness meant that a trip that was already late in the term couldn’t be pushed back any further, and with a flight schedule that can’t be altered (thanks, StudentUniverse) I’ll have to head home before I get the chance to see them. There’s always next time. I certainly hope that next time will mean soon.

Here’s the thing about travel with PGS. No matter what you go in expecting, you will probably be wrong. And that’s okay. You’re gonna go places you couldn’t even dream about. It sounds hyperbolic, but whether it’s standing on the porch of your apartment watching the clouds roll down Mt. Tamoro, eating the best pizza of your life in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the shadow of a volcano, or watching a squadron of flying foxes take to the air and blot out the African sun, you’ve got a surreal and distinctly awesome time coming your way. To anyone looking to join this program in the future, try not to sweat the altered plans. They’re a necessary part of the process, and they’ll take you to amazing places too. Wherever it is that you wind up on your journey, , it is going to be the adventure of a lifetime.


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Rock Nerds in Space

…otherwise known as “that time I got to write a sci-fi short for my module essay.” This piece was written for Dr. Bodner’s assignment, but I had enough fun with it that I figured I’d go ahead and post it here, too. The assignment was to write a first-person narrative detailing some element of human/environmental interaction, using information we learned from our own volcanic adventures in Naples. So of course, being me, I had to figure out how to work space into the equation.


My name is Marta Camino, and I am having a somewhat disorienting morning. My comlink just woke me up with a news alert: Mount Vesuvius is in the middle of a spectacular eruption, and because I’m more than 140 million miles away, there’s even less that I can do about it than usual.

On any other day, I’d tell you I was living the dream – though the dream in question is a little peculiar. I’m currently working at the Tharsis Montes research station on Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano in the solar system. Never thought I’d go for a job posting on Mars, but the new antimatter drives they came out with a few years back have cut travel time to less than a week, and adjusting to work in a spacesuit isn’t so difficult when you’re already used to the heavy protective gear you need to take lava samples back on Earth. I was accustomed to extreme environments, having worked on high-altitude sites in the Andes and cold-weather conditions on Mt. Erebus in Antarctica, and when I was offered the chance to be part of the first Martian volcanological survey, how could I say no?

The main difference between the volcanoes on Mars and Earth is their size. Volcanoes here in the Tharsis region are 10 to 100 times larger than those anywhere on Earth. Olympus Mons in particular is a study in mind-boggling scale: its shield-like base is the size of Arizona, and it could comfortably fit Mauna Loa, Earth’s largest volcano, inside itself more than 100 times. Olympus Mons is not active at the moment, which is good news for us. Martian lava flows are long-lasting and infinitely larger than anything found on Earth, due to their higher eruption rates and the planet’s lower surface gravity. One lava field in this region is roughly the size of Oregon, and was created over the course of only a few weeks!

Another reason for the massive size of Martian volcanoes is because plate tectonics on Mars don’t match those on Earth. Hot spots on Earth remain stationary while crustal plates are constantly on the move above them, leading to chains of volcanic activity like the one that formed the Hawaiian Islands. As the plate moves over the hotspot, old volcanoes become extinct while new ones are formed in front of them. This means the lava is distributed between a number of volcanoes rather than just one. Here on Mars, however, the planet’s crust remains stationary, which means that the lava has a chance to pile up on itself to form a single, unbelievably huge volcano. Olympus Mons is so big that it’s impossible to see its whole form from the planet’s surface, even from beyond the horizon. The best way to appreciate it is from orbit: here on its flank the gradual slope is deceptive, and seems like a shallow but somehow endless hill rising steadily into the orange sky.

We’ve spent close to a year taking measurements and collecting data on the volcano’s massive slopes. It’s thrilling to be among the first people to geologically date the basalt deposits and map the flow patterns of lava channels on another world, but it’s also exhausting work. After months of recycled air and freeze-dried protein bars and fine red dust that gets into everything, I have to confess that I’m about ready to head home. Everybody is, to be honest. Living and working with the same group in close quarters and a high-stress environment is enough to
drain even the most enthusiastic scientist, given enough time. Our shuttle will get here in two weeks, and here’s the funny thing: I’d planned on taking a vacation in Naples upon my return.

My grandparents were Neapolitan, and I spent quite a few summers in my childhood hiking near Mount Somma with my nonna, a retired geologist herself. She lived well outside the Red Zone around Vesuvius, but always cautioned me to keep an eye on the activity level for future visits.

You don’t want to be here when the mountain finally goes up again, cara mia, she used to tell me, only half-joking. If the pyroclastic flow doesn’t get you, the traffic here certainly will.

I wasn’t so sure. So long as I was observing from a safe distance, there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to see a genuine Plinian-style eruption at the site that gave it its name. The atomic-looking ash cloud would have been a sight to behold. And now that regulations were stricter (and actually enforced – a genuine miracle in Italy) regarding construction near the volcano’s base, many of my moral qualms had been rendered obsolete. Far fewer people were likely to get caught in the inevitable blast of boiling ash and gases than in the infamous eruption that froze Pompeii and Hercolano in time.

Nonetheless, any eruption will mean the possibility of serious damage in Naples all the same. I’m torn between distress over the thought of all the property damage and personal injury that is undoubtedly happening right now, and a peculiar breed of warped, giddy glee only volcanologists and demolition experts can truly understand. It looks like I’m going to have to figure out some new travel plans very shortly: trying to clean up an entire city post- volcano is going to take a while.

I’m jerked out of my thoughts by a frantic knocking at the door. I lean out of my bunk and whack the button beside the doorframe to allow entry. My partner Jackson barrels in, grinning and out of breath.

“Oh, good, you’re awake. Did you hear?”

“Yeah. I can’t even believe –”

“Come on, a bunch of us have got a feed going in the common room. There’s the usual transmission delay, but it’s as close to a livestream as we can get.”

I pull on a jacket and follow Jackson down the hall. The team has a projection grid set up in the common area, and nearly a dozen of my colleagues are piled on the couches and floor, watching a three-dimensional rendering of the exploding mountain overlaid by data streams provided by the Pan-European Geological Survey. The ash cloud is still rising, a dark atmospheric plume now the height of the volcano itself and continuing to grow before our eyes.

“I’m trying not to take this personally,” one of my teammates says, “but did this thing really have to erupt when some of Earth’s leading volcanologists are literally as far away from it as we could possibly get?”

The group laughs. We’ve all been varying degrees of homesick for the past several weeks, and tensions have nearly reached their breaking point on several occasions. What’s funny is that this international crew would be scrambling over one another if we’d been back on Earth today, probably offering contradictory advice and vying for the greatest number of sound bites in the media spotlight. But here, insulated from the point of interest by millions of miles of space, what would have normally resulted in months of academic sniping is bringing us together.

The newsfeed has reported zero casualties so far. As luck would have it, prevailing winds have pushed the ash fall towards the side of the mountain with the lowest population density. The evacuation routes installed two decades ago have proved to be remarkably efficient, and the engineers and scientific advisors will be receiving commendations for their work. A round of applause goes up from the team when one of Tanaka’s postdoc mentors is referenced as a hero whose foresight helped save many lives across the city.

“Hang on,” says Jackson. “I’ll go make us some popcorn.”

I’ll rearrange those travel plans later. I might be tired, far from home, and still covered in a layer of red dust, but for now I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.

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[Content warning: talk of the events in Boston.]


You’re curled in a heavy duvet in a clean white hotel room, watching history play out under your hands as you refresh the page again. It is not a conscious decision. Your fingers drift towards the f5 button like iron filings to a magnet, and the screen of the tablet goes blank for a moment as the page tries again to load.

The hotel room is in northern Switzerland, but it could just as easily be in Budapest or Shanghai or on a lunar colony. The entire room is neutral-toned: dark wooden furniture, pale walls, the sheets and pillows a snowfall of pristine white. Nothing about it indicates a sense of place: there’s a deliberate, soothing anonymity to these surroundings. With the rain drumming steadily against the skylights and obscuring telltale architecture outside, you could imagine this was anywhere. Well, anywhere except America.

The tablet in your hands displays a dozen different tabs of news reports, transcribed conversations from police scanners, and live feeds. An entire city has gone on lockdown. This is the world’s first crowdsourced manhunt, sources say. The internet has banded together in the wake of the Marathon to sift through countless photos, looking for white hats and black jackets and duffel bags where duffel bags should not be. Twitter users post pictures of armored vehicles rolling past their living room windows. The police have asked the people transcribing their conversations if they would please stop giving away the officers’ positions.

If this were one of your action movies, it would be very exciting. You deliberately sidestep another conversation with yourself about blurring lines between reality and fiction. Now is not the time.

It’s just that you’ve never been so far from home during a disaster before. America is reeling and you’re all the way across the Atlantic in a comfortable, safe place. You feel simultaneously homesick and guiltily grateful that you’re somewhere else. Hitting F5 is the least you can do.

You’ve been at this for a while. Your eyes have started to ache a little from the bright screen in the otherwise softly lit room, and your head has started to ache from the information. There may have been reports of a jumper. There may have been reports of a woman taken hostage. There may have been reports of an old guy with a dead man’s switch. The sources are not entirely sure. You recall an article you read just the other day about news being bad for you, and perhaps it’s no wonder you feel like you’re starting to come down with something. Most of the talk online right now is sick.

In a little while, you tell yourself, you’ll get up to take a walk. You’ll go down to the fourth floor where the electric kettle is and make yourself a cup of tea. You’ll go explore the rest of the hotel with its weight room and pool table and infrared sauna. You’ll go find somebody to talk to and maybe watch a movie with. You’ll power down the tablet for the night and put it somewhere out of reach.

In a moment. First, refresh the page.

The rain continues to fall.

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(and a pharmaceutical addendum)

Even the most reportedly benign malaria drugs may have unexpected side effects. Remember this while you are taking them. The entire universe will suddenly get spectacularly more irritating, but keep in mind that it’s your perception of it, not the universe itself, that has changed. Except for the parts of the universe that consist of your companions who are also on malaria meds, because they are experiencing the same thing. Pissing matches and some shouting may occur. Don’t take it personally. Remember that it’s the drugs talking. Remind one another of this periodically.

Quarantining yourself when you are feeling particularly aggressive is a good option and will be appreciated by the group as well. Again, don’t take it personally. You may have non-scary but very vivid, exceptionally detail-oriented dreams. Try bonding with your companions over them instead of snarling at each other over literally the most irrelevant things imaginable. It’s better for morale.

Thank your lucky stars that tomorrow is everyone’s last dose of Malarone, and you’ll be back to your regularly scheduled programming shortly.

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