Step 1: Set Your Story Parameters
- I wanted to celebrate the achievements of an African-American hero
- I wanted to make a relatively short video, no longer than 3:15 (about the length of a traditional pop song)
- The finished graphic should tell the story on one “page” – like an infographic poster
- I wanted to include a video music performance that interacted with the graphics
Step 2: Choose Subject Matter That Is Intriguing To You
I chose Harriet Tubman because her story has fascinated me since I saw the miniseries, “A Woman Called Moses” starring Cicely Tyson
(and narrated by Orson Welles) when I was a kid. By the way, if you have never seen this miniseries then I highly recommend it! Ms. Tyson’s performance is nothing short of extraordinary and it is one of the most memorable event productions from that post-Roots era of television.
I also chose Harriet as a subject because even though I was aware of her historical importance I knew I would learn more in the process of creating this project.
Step 3: Write (and re-write) Your Script
The next step was to write a short script capturing the highlights of Ms. Tubman’s life. I ended up writing several versions of the script because I kept fighting against my second parameter, keeping the timing under the length of 03:15. When you choose a subject as rich as Harriet’s life the toughest thing is narrowing the story down to something that can be told in a short amount of time and still feel fulfilling. It’s for that reason I focused largely on only one aspect of her life – her work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, leaving out her many other accomplishments such as being a Union spy and an early leader in the women’s suffragette movement.
To estimate the length of my script I first used a script timing website found here to test how long my story was. Once I was close to a completed draft I then recorded myself narrating the script to more accurately gauge how long the video would be.
Step 4: Design Your “One Sheet” Visual Story
What I mean by designing a “one sheet” visual story is that I wanted to illustrate something that had no “cut scenes” and that could be depicted entirely on the same screen so that if it was printed out it would be a one sheet poster. That was another reason the script had to be concise because I had to fit a lot of data on the screen while also leaving enough room for the performer to interact with the visual material. I actually designed multiple versions of the story and for many drafts it was going to be a full-color representation.
The one constant though in the design was that I wanted to layout the illustration in a way that was indicative of my real-time graphic recording style. And that was to use a centralized branching technique where the main subject matter is at the center and then the subsequent ideas surround it clockwise like a mandala. This centralized format always keeps the main idea in the attention-getting spot (in graphic recording it's typically the organizing principle question such as “why are we here?” or “what insights did you hear?” etc.) while the other ideas branch off of it. It’s a basic “graphic recording101 technique” that has worked for me for close to 30 years now.
Step 5: Choosing the Right Song to Accompany Your Drawing
Initially I was going to perform the song myself and had practiced a week learning “A Change Is Gonna Come” on guitar. But there was one major obstacle I couldn’t get past – though I’m a huge enthusiast and love to play my guitar I can’t sing – not a damn lick really. So yeah, that was going to cause a problem. You have to know your limitations sometimes and stay in your lane bro. Hearing my GarageBand recordings at the time made me cringe realizing poor Sam Cooke must be rolling in his grave listening to my warbling. It seems that when the good Lord was handing out singing talent I must have been doubling down on the ability to memorize TV theme songs from my childhood.
So I had a script, a design and a song idea in mind but I sat on it in despair for a couple weeks because I realized I couldn’t do it all myself. It wasn’t until I went to my friend Sherida’s spoken word and group meditation session and heard her do a little of the Beatles’ tune, “Blackbird” that I had a couple of epiphanies. The first was that I needed to change the song from “A Change Is Gonna Come” to “Blackbird” and the second was that I had to ask her if she wanted to help me on this video project I was working on. Thankfully, she was intrigued by the idea and wanted to know more so I promised her I would send a video draft as soon as I could.
Once I heard Sherida’s rendition of “Blackbird” I knew I had to use it instead of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Though I consider “A Change Is Gonna Come” one of the greatest songs ever, a soul classic, and the most touching and poetic song of the Civil Rights era I realized that all those particulars that make it such a 60s soul classic also made it perhaps too specific to that era for what I wanted to do musically and visually. On the other hand, the word imagery in “Blackbird” was more abstract and married perfectly with my ideas. In addition to that I had also had read an article years ago where Paul McCartney stated that it was a song about Black liberation – especially addressing the plight of Black women.
Step 6: Redesign Your Illustration (if need be)
I knew that I had to change the design of the illustration now that I had switched song ideas. I closed my eyes and kept picturing the images appearing with “Blackbird” and suddenly a full-color drawing did not convey the mood and feel of the story I wanted to depict. The colors black, white, and red worked symbolically for this true story of overcoming race-based slavery, hatred, and oppression in a way that full-color simply did not. So I made an 11th hour design change and decided to throw out the full-color version in favor of black and white with red contrasts because I had been so impacted by Sherida’s version of “Blackbird”.
Another critical part of the design was the sequencing of the elements of the drawing so that it followed the script. After I finalized my new design I numbered each element so that I would draw the parts in the correct order as I screen-captured my work.
Step 7: Screen Capture Your Illustration for Production
There are a few ways to do this today (using an app with a built-in video capture layer is probably the easiest way to do it now) but 5 years ago the best way to capture yourself drawing was by recording your monitor movements with the video software Camtasia. I used the desktop version of Sketchbook Pro in conjunction with my 24-inch Wacom Cintiq Tablet in full-screen HD mode (1920x1080) to do the actual drawing and Camtasia to record my drawing “performance.” I remember having to do multiple takes to make sure I got the sequencing correct, to ensure there were no spelling errors, and most importantly to make sure I left enough room to add the musical performance that would interact with the drawing.
Step 8: Record the Musical Performance
Now that I had the screen capture video of my drawing completed I shared it with Sherida along with the script so that she could craft a version of the song that fit the timing. I recorded her audio of the song using GarageBand after we practiced it a few times and then played the audio track during the videotaping of her performance of the song like you would if you were producing a music video. I had post-it notes placed around my apartment that stood-in for different sections of what would be happening during the illustrated story in the video. I used the post-its to give her direction where to look to correspond with what would be happening in the video at the correct time. I suppose it was like when actors in an FX heavy movie are told to look at a tennis ball on an 8’ stick and imagine that it is the Hulk or something like that. I recall giving directions such as, “Okay Sherida, I need you to look over and above your right shoulder now because this is where we see her divine dream about becoming the Moses of her people.”
Step 9: Record the Narration
We recorded the narration after laying the music track using GarageBand going over each line in the script until we achieved the right amount of gravitas that was needed to tell the story.
Step 10: Editing – the Final Step
Once I had all the recorded elements together both audio and visual the final step was editing it all together. There are a ton of video editors to choose from but I used Camtasia, the same program I did to record the screen capture of my drawing to edit the finished product with graphics and music. I know it does not compete with the big professional programs like Premiere and Avid but what it lacks in bells and whistles it makes up for in simplicity.
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