Instructor Reflection – Closer (2.1)

by Fred Johnson

Kyle Yong Kim was one of the first journalism students to sign up for Whitworth’s January term “Digital Storytelling” course after the English department began cross-listing it for journalism. He arrived as an experienced online reporter, having already produced a number of successful multimedia packages as a student journalist, and his passion for news and reporting informed all his work in the course. In creating the film featured here, Kyle wanted to explore how cinematography can be used for storytelling of all kinds, in hopes of enhancing his multimedia reporting with a clearer understanding of film art.

“Closer” is a response to the course’s last major project assignment, which is designed to encourage a variety of approaches from the different kinds of students who take the course. Earlier projects consider the joining of images and words, the ways that visual design conveys meaning, the capture and editing of audio, and basic cinematography. The challenge of the final assignment is to pull together as many of those strands as possible into one coherent package that will include, at least, images, sounds, and text.

Viewed in terms of the basic project requirements, “Closer” is undeniably excellent but—skewed as it is toward cinematography—might be called weak in its integration of text. That shortcoming vis-à-vis the basic instructions highlights the need for flexible requirements in multimedia assignments, which can move in unpredictable directions during production. In this case, Kyle talked with me about the project as he developed it, and I could see that what he had in mind would be both a suitable capstone for the course and a valuable exercise for Kyle as a journalist. Kyle thought (correctly) of his tasteful credits and titling as a way to include text, and the harmony of those texts with the other visual and aural elements here speaks to his grasp of visual design. He also included a shot of a novel by Ken Kesey (best known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and that strikes me as another thematically appropriate use of text. While the “perfect” response to this assignment would likely do more with text, the assignment’s parameters allow me to reward the learning, creativity, and labor behind a piece like “Closer,” and the rubric makes it possible for a project to be weak in one area and still score quite well overall.

In line with my goals for the assignment, “Closer” was an ambitious undertaking that kept Kyle constantly moving between generating ideas, crafting (and re-crafting) his script, and solving technical problems. The film is silent partly because capturing dialogue with our inexpensive equipment can be difficult, but avoiding dialogue also allowed Kyle to focus on gestures, movement, and facial expression as important tools for visual communication. Further, the silence of the characters forced him to pay close attention to the angle, distance, and pacing of his shots, all of which become crucial to making meaning in a film that conveys character and plot wordlessly. Kyle learned about basic cinematography during class, but the transition from story idea to storyboards helped him think practically about the way well-crafted, carefully sequenced images can contribute to a narrative’s meaning, and about how image design can become a generative part of the composition process. Capturing the images he had designed required patience, ingenuity, and compromise, all of which he supplied, balancing tripods on chairs on tables to get something like the look and feel he envisioned. While Kyle himself filled many different roles as the writer-director behind his project, his actors clearly became collaborators in the meaning-making process, too, adding their own nice touches to the completed film; the well-chosen music, similarly, contributes to the film’s success. The finished project is aesthetically unified and visually complex, the result of a complicated composing process that started with Kyle’s idea, was affected by the difficulties of production, was aided and abetted by the contributions of actors and musicians, and was not complete until Kyle stopped editing. It satisfied Kyle’s personal goals for the project as an exploration of cinematography, making use of multiple shot lengths and angles in ways that not only serve the action but also give insight into how the protagonist thinks. It is a fine example of both a desired product from the course and a desired process from the course, contributing to Kyle’s sophistication as a reader of multimedia compositions and to his expertise as a sophisticated, ethical maker of such compositions for the world of online journalism.