Photo Finish: The 4EVER Group's Photomontage Challenge
Posted Jul 6, 2005

When Tim Ryan and Steve Wernick launched the 4EVER Group's first Videographer Challenge in late 2004, the concept was a familiar one. The battleground was familiar, too: photo montages, an area in which most personal event videographers have at least some experience. How Ryan and Wernick hoped to distinguish this Battle (and successive installments) from other similar contests was how they went about it, hoping to glean as much educational value as possible through the way they structured the competition.

First, they took a real-world project—a retrospective photo montage for a Long Island man named Jim Cox on his 50th birthday—and invited a half-dozen videographers to participate in the battle, with a $500 cash prize at stake. They gave the contestants a four-week window preceding a set-in-stone delivery date of December 4, 2004—the date of Jim Cox's birthday party. "This is what it is," Tim says he told them, "and this is when it has to be done." The Cox family then got to choose their own winner and show that montage at the party.

Of course, one problem with pitching a real-world battle (as opposed to, say, giving contestants three hours to turn around a project with manufactured time-pressure at a conference) is that some videographers have conflicts and can't participate, which happened with four of the candidates they contacted, leaving them with two hardy videographers, Lucy Galbraith of Nevada City, Nevada-based Visions Multimedia Group and Josh Fozzard of Bourbonnais, Illinois-based Moonlight Memory Video Productions, to face off in the actual battle. They gave the videographers a CD including a vast array of scanned photographs (scanned by Tim Ryan himself), and allowed them to select the ones to include. Fozzard says the differences between the structure of this battle and a photo-montage competition he'd participated in at WEVA Expo were evident from the beginning: "There was a real client, a real deadline, and a whole lot more photos."

JURY SELECTION

With the contestants in place, the 4EVER Group then selected four judges from various walks of videography life, including three leading event videographers—Digital Dream's Merrill Moore, David Robin of EventDV Main Event fame and Boulevard Video fame, and the Fast Forward Club's Mike Martin. They invited me to sign on as the fourth judge, and promised EventDV an exclusive story on the Battle and the opportunity to announce the judges' selection in these pages first.

They supplied the judges with the original scanned-image source disc (so we could see which pics the entrants did and didn't use) and a MiniDV tape including the two submitted montages. In the event that the judges deadlocked—which we did—Ryan and Wernick decided that the fifth and deciding vote would be cast by the clients, the Cox family themselves.

PITCHING THE BATTLE

The road to the Photomontage Challenge began in late 2004 when Renée Cox approached Tim Ryan and his Treasured Memories studio about doing a montage for Jim Cox's 50th birthday using photos gleaned from many years of family photo albums. Ryan asked Renée if she would be willing to have Jim's montage serve as the testing ground for the 4EVER Group's first Battle of the Videographers in exchange for having their pick of the submitted montages, and getting the job done for free. "I told her she could suggest some songs, but I would give the videographers the freedom to do what they want. She was very intrigued," Ryan says. "The bottom line for her was, ‘Will I have this in time for my husband's party?'"

The two videographers who participated in the Challenge submitted entries that couldn't have been more different, visually, but were fairly similar, in terms of audio. While some of the music selections (such as the Beatles' ubiquitous "In My Life") were selected by the Cox family, both entrants stuck close to equally tried-and-true audio material. But the visuals diverged sharply: Visions Multimedia ("Montage #1") took a straightforward approach, relying on basic titles and simple, in-out zooms and dissolves that kept the source material front and center. Moonlight Memory ("Montage #2"), meanwhile, deployed a dazzling array of effects and techniques, ranging from an opening mosaic to a panning-across-a-scrapbook sequence and animated puzzle-piece maneuvers.

Of the two, only Josh Fozzard of Moonlight Memory exercised the option of contacting the family to talk about the montage as he was planning how to do it. As Ryan says, the major difference between the videographers' experience in the Battle and the way a "real" photo-montage project goes is that he had most of the preliminary conversations with the clients about what they were looking for, leafing through photo albums and helping to choose the pool of images from which to draw.

In addition to the photo selection, he came out of these discussions with some audio recordings that he supplied to the videographers on a MiniDV tape (including some suggested narration by Jim's son that neither videographer used and the Cox children singing "Happy Birthday," which was used at the end of Montage #2 but not at all in Montage #1) and a handful of music suggestions. "I had lots of photos, but nothing I could pull together as a story," Fozzard says. "I asked her about Jim's hobbies, and found out he liked baseball, and that his father had been a minor league pitcher." Fozzard used this information to help populate a scrapbook he used as the motif for the first section of his montage with pictures of pitchers who would have been stars in Jim's youth. "It wasn't the main focus," he explains, "but it made it look more personal. I was trying to build a story from his life."

JUDGMENT DAY

The judges' responses to the two montages were at least as interesting for the commentary as for their ultimate selections (especially since we ended up cancelling each other out). In keeping with the 4EVER Group's educational goals for the battles, it was the comments that proved most revealing about what should and shouldn't happen in photo montages, at least as far as these judges are concerned.

Two judges picked Montage #1 as the winner, although both had mixed responses to both entries. One commented, "At first I did like the second video, but after a while the effects became tiresome. I think if the project was to create a short intro of just a few photos, the fancier one would have had my vote. But 80 photos were just too many to watch doing all these different effects with. The more simple video actually showed more of each photo, giving the viewer more time to enjoy them."

The other judge who picked Montage #1 reflected on similar issues. Asserting that Montage #1 was "certainly the less innovative and varied of the two" and that "the closing titles were amateurish and weak," the judge explained the choice as follows: "Even though the videography is less sophisticated than in Montage #2, the titles aren't quite what they should be, and the song selections are equally obvious, the aesthetic is warmer and more tasteful, with fewer outright red flags. This is the one I'd rather watch with my family and have as a keepsake of my life."

The judge's main complaint about Montage #2 was a sense that the emphasis of the montage had been misplaced, from the montage's lengthy opening branding segment to the unceasing onslaught of motion effects throughout: "If I were to rank their intended audiences based on the approach they took, it would go like this: 1, contest judges; 2, future clients; 3, current client." The judge did admit, however, to being "floored" by the opening segment of the montage proper, combining a created newspaper image and zooming photo mosaic over a lovely wash of Celtic-sounding strings; it really has to be seen to be believed.

The two judges who picked Montage #2 took somewhat different routes to the same conclusion. One called Montage #1 "average work," while giving it credit for "a cute and nicely thought-out beginning" and "good use of cuts and dissolves to the beat of the music." This judge also noted some technical problems with the first montage: "Too many photos were vibrating in places from not being digitized correctly. Far too many of the photos needed sharpening. The ‘Old Movie' effect either needed to be removed or applied with better adjustment of the parameters."

This judge also had some of the same concerns with Montage #2 as the judges who picked the first montage as the winner. "Midway through I'm starting to get the idea that whoever is editing this has just got to use as many ‘effects' as they can muster for the 100 or so photos—just so they can! My senses got bombarded! We should always have a reason for what we do in editing and shooting."

The fourth judge was unequivocal: "The second one wins hands down." Although Montage #1 was "clean and professional, it started with a very weak opening sequence which then went on to more predictable fare. The pacing was painfully slow, and generally unimaginative overall." Montage #2, by contrast, was praised for its "lovely camera motion throughout. My only complaints were that the cool special effects sequences just went on too long. It became very repetitive. I think this videographer found some really cool plugins and inadvertently overused them. The technique started to take away from the emotional content very quickly."

Three of the four judges took issue with the music selections. One judge dismissed them entirely on legal grounds: "The use of copyrighted material is illegal." Two others complained more specifically about the choice of songs. One described Montage #1 as having "a soundtrack I have heard a million times over from every other montage I have seen in the history of montages." (Warhorse selections used in one or both montages included the Beatles' "In My Life," Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Teach Your Children," Frank Sinatra's "Love and Marriage," Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)," and the Carpenters' "Close to You.") A third judge had a similar reaction to the music used in both entries: "There are thousands of songs out there! Why must we always go with the defaults?"

Regarding the opening song of Montage #2, Josh Groban's mawkish "You Raise Me Up," this judge commented, "The music, which begins with a stirring instrumental section, works right up until the vocals begin. After that it reminds me of a story Pete Hamill tells about one of his first editors at the New York Post, who had this to say about reporters who write too emotionally: ‘If you're crying, your readers won't be.' That pretty much sums up my reaction to music that's this over-the-top. Let the material speak for itself, and don't tell the audience what to feel before they have a chance to respond on their own." (According to Fozzard, he used the Groban song because Renée Cox told him that it was her husband's "favorite song to sing along to from the radio," which pretty much trumps any judge's objection, save the copyright issue.)

With the voting knotted at 2-2, the final decision was left up to the Cox family, and judges' valuable commentary aside, it was really their selection that mattered after all. They chose Montage #2, citing its greater entertainment value, making Josh Fozzard and Moonlight Memory Video Productions the winner of the 4EVER Group's first Battle of the Videographers.

In part, Ryan says, Renée Cox preferred Montage #2 because "there was more visual eye candy. She also liked the way he separated it into categories; she found it very orderly, with a better sense of the chronology." When Ryan presented Montage #2 at the birthday party in December at the Cox home, Jim's response showed she had chosen wisely. "The reaction was overwhelming," he says. "When I saw the honoree's tears well up in his eyes, that was inspiring."

BEHIND THE SCENES, BEYOND THE BATTLE

When I spoke to Fozzard for this article, he outlined the choices and techniques he used in his montage and how he matched the visual themes with the "storyline" as he developed it from his conversation with Renée Cox. He ended up dividing his montage into sections, he says, each with signature effects mostly achieved in After Effects. He arranged the older, faded photos with their rough edges clipped and pinned into a scrapbook that the "camera" passes over in the first section.

He then used photos of Jim Cox as a young man, before his marriage, with a stock-footage effect called "film clutter" used between cuts in the second section. He captured Renée and Jim's courtship and marriage in the third section using "a pile of photos flying in" and assembling like puzzle pieces, all done in After Effects; and he showcased their children in the fourth section using a 3D sphere effect from the 3D Assistants plugin from Digital Anarchy. In the final section, he resorted to more traditional pans and zooms, ratcheting down the intensity of the effects as the montage pushed past the 10-minute mark.

Fozzard will be discussing his photo-montage techniques at greater length in the summer, Ryan says, in tutorials at 4EVER Group Video Summits. "We're going to take Josh Fozzard on the road, to teach people how he does these things."

Lucy Galbraith has a different take on photo montages, one that's reflected in her entry, and one that also reflects the type of work she does regularly: memorial-service photo montages that are by their nature stately, respectful, and straightforward, with a minimum of flash. "I like keeping my montages simple," she says. "I want people to get into the photo, and get a feeling for the lives of the people in it. Primarily I do not so much weddings and birthdays, but memorials, where lots of flipping is not really appropriate." Galbraith says she "put movement to the photos" in Canopus Imaginate, and compiled the montage in Adobe Premiere. She says she also spent a great deal of time on the preliminary work of cleaning and repairing the scanned photos using Ulead's PhotoImpact; "There was lots of dust and artifacts in the images, and I really want pristine photos," she says, since they are the focal points of the piece.

Beyond that, she emphasizes the real-world restrictions of the project in the strategy she took with the montage: "This was a real job with a time limit, and I gave it as much time as I could afford," she says. "It all boils down to the participants having the time to really play versus the demands of your career. I treated it like a job, and wanted it done."

Ryan notes that Galbraith will also be a part of the Video Summits, although she will be teaching on different topics ("She does a lot more than photo montages," he says). "We'll be showing the montages at the Summits and presenting the judges' comments with a panel of videographers and brides and grooms," Ryan says. "We'll have our panel discuss the montages and the judges' comments so the education and commentary will continue throughout. There are many more opinions out there, and videographers should hear them all."

The 4EVER Group plans to stage multiple Challenges each year, pending resolution of some legal issues with the name (see sidebar). Likely future topics include Love Stories, editing styles, ceremonies, and receptions. With with each topic, Ryan says, "we're considering how to implement them" for the best educational effect.

To stream both montages and discuss the material with the judges and entrants in the 4EVER Group's online forum, visit www.4evergroup.org.