To tell a good story, you need a command of words, in all their complexity. Words are the primary ingredient of storytelling. To tell a good digital story, you need command of a whole lot more. And this is where the fun begins. The coolest quality about digital storytelling is the myriad of tools at one’s disposal to effectively communicate: sound, imagery, words, and music. When you apply all of these elements to a narrative about a poem or a physical force, a treaty or a planet, the content jumps off the page and into the world of sound and moving imagery, vocal language, and music. It’s living content. You don’t rely on the reader to bring the story to life, as in a book. You—the creator—bring it to life. And that is a critical part of the empowering experience of digital storytelling: ownership.
Sound, imagery, words, and music: these are the crossover elements between real life and digital life. In real life, they are laid out all around you, organized and random, shaping your every second. In digital life, they are tools that allow you to create stories for others to experience. Learning how to use sound to shape the narrative experience; learning how to use music to craft the emotional trajectory of the narrative; learning how to use words as active visual components and not just receptacles of meaning; and learning how imagery communicates, manipulates, evokes, horrifies, and soothes are all vital skills to effectively communicate and have your voice heard in this digital age.
If students can shift from being relatively passive receptors of these sensory elements to being hyperaware of them—to be on the lookout for beauty; to spot the trumpet riff in that song; to hear the loon call; and to comment upon a strange and funny-sounding word when they come across it (conundrum springs to mind)—then, in my mind, they will have surpassed any standards set out by external educational forces.
Digital storytelling is a true crossover experience between our biological and digital worlds. The more you are aware of and engage with the way the world communicates to you—through sound, imagery, words, and music—the better able you are to tap into these tools to communicate effectively with the world, both in real life and digitally.
Sound is, in my view, the key distinguishing element to any digital story. It is sound that is often in the lead in controlling the experience of the viewer—whether they know it or not. There are four different kinds of sounds in digital storytelling of which to be aware.
Did you know that at the end of every scene shot for a movie, they tell everyone to be quiet and they record one minute of “room tone,” or ambient sound? Why? Because silence sounds differently in different spaces. Just consider the silence of an empty classroom versus the silence of a small, closed-door conference room versus the silence of a soaring church space. Producers need these room tones to lay under scenes taking place in that room.
Whatever story students are telling, have them consider laying down an ambient track. This can be the quiet room tone, as previously mentioned, or the low hush of conversations at a café; the waiting room of a dentist’s office; or the blow-dryers and faucets at a salon. Rooms “speak,” whether deliberately or not.
When was the last time you sat in an empty park, the woods, by the beach, or in a field and closed your eyes and just listened? Nothing happens at first. And then, slowly, sounds reveal themselves to you. The wind, the squirrel, the wren, the distant highway, the dog bark, the basketball bouncing, and so on.
While the phrase ambient sound can apply to outdoor spaces as well, it is generally reserved for how interior walls, carpeting, and the actions and voices of people shape sound. With natural sounds, I am referring to sounds that emanate outside: both man-made and natural.
Arguably the most enjoyable piece of sound production is becoming a “Foley artist”: a creator of sound effects. For example, what if your mic didn’t pick up the sound of footsteps on gravel and you don’t have gravel lying around to help rerecord that sound? What do you do? Experiment! You could place potato chips in a tray and record crunching them with your hand. Does that sound like crunching gravel? Probably not. What else might replicate the sound of gravel? That’s the problem that needs to be solved and that’s what professional Foley artists do:
- Look at the video footage.
- Identify the missing sound—it could simply be the ruffling of clothing as two characters hug.
- Find a way to recreate that sound (the classic example is to create the sounds of a horse trotting with coconut shells).
- And finally, match the sound to the picture in the sound mix.
Students can do this for audio stories and podcasts as well.
Prerecorded Sound Effects
Prerecorded sound effects can be natural sounds, like bird sounds added to a park scene to increase the ambience, but they can also be unnatural, like a rim shot or a trombone slide or a thwack! These sounds are added to help create tone, as in comedies, satires, and parodies. They help guide the viewer as to the intended effect you want from a scene. Libraries of royalty-free sound effects abound on the internet and can often be useful to provide students with sounds that they had never even considered.