Living with Art: The Moving Picture Show

When we think about storytelling, we are thinking about our story first. Our story may come out in a few pieces, each of them adding something special and different to make a more complete picture. When we communicate Oberlin’s stories, even the simplest of concepts or ideas, we have to think about how people received and digest what we make, and where folks can get all those pieces the best way for them (and for what we’re making). And that takes some work to do it right.

In December, I wrote a behind-the-scenes blog post about making our winter video, and I talked a bit about alternative forms of social packaging and the long tail of content production and distribution. With each new time-consuming piece of content that hits the public parts of our sites, we need to have a plan for getting that content to the right people. If we don’t have a distribution plan, what’s the point of making stuff in the first place?

We have our basic storytelling media pieces in mind already: words and visuals, but it’s more in what you do with them. We’ve been experimenting a lot with gifs in distribution, and while gifs aren’t the magical answer to everything (they’re old internet meets new internet), on Tumblr, they’re an amazing method of storysharing within the scroll. For those of you who don’t use Tumblr, there’s an outside look which essentially looks like a personal blog — that’s a good way to see everything that is posted by a single person and is generally the way to consume Tumblr content if you’re not a Tumblr user, and an inside look where Tumblr users consume most of their content. The inside look is a dashboard with a never-ending scroll, and if you choose to follow someone on Tumblr, ALL their posted content will show up on your Tumblr dashboard (no algorithms here, ya hear, Facebook?). This may sound overwhelming and confusing, and it really can be, even to the most interested or savvy of Tumblr users. Which is where gifs fit in on Tumblr: these small moving images cause folks to stop for a second and actually take in the content, and ultimately, the story.

If you read back in the webteam blog archives, you will notice a lot of blogging about Tumblr here at Oberlin. Our mindset related to Tumblr changed this past year — along with ALL our other social media sites, not just Tumblr — which helped streamline thinking and time spent on sourcing content for distribution. It let us take more time to think about good things about we do and then we figure out how to present it to all our audiences the best way we can for each of them. This may sound complicated at first, but it’s actually very useful: if an Obie is an Obie, then we know they should care about our content the whole way through their relationship with us, but they might want to receive it in a slightly different form in a slightly different space as time goes on.

Tumblr’s an amazing testing ground for content distribution, though, and I keep on talking about it because it’s the most content-centric place we deal with on a regular basis. You have to think about what your content is and how you’re going to share it before you even think about posting. That’s a useful thing for a social media platform: when the structure makes you think more about what you do and how you share it. It makes us into smarter users! YAY LEARNING! (Yes, I know other social media platforms think about kinds of content too, but I think Tumblr makes us more conscious of the relationship of content and storytelling than the rest of them.)

Tumblr gush over. Here we are right now, in February 2014. Last semester, Zach connected with a handful of Obies who participated in art rental (only the COOLEST program ever: rent original pieces of artwork by famous artists from the art museum to adorn your dorm room for a semester AND it’s only $5 per piece) to create some video stories about what it’s like to live with art. Part of the reasoning behind the program’s existence comes straight from the founder, Professor of Art History Ellen Johnson, “The best way to learn to like something is to live with it.”

Ellen Johnson on Art Rental from Allen Memorial Art Museum on Vimeo.

Ellen Johnson being SUPER AWESOME and describing art rental. The coolest thing.

We’ve documented the events surrounding the process of art rental pretty extensively — there’s a giant line and you camp out overnight! — we’ve yet to talk to students directly about how they feel about the personal parts of the program, the whole reason Professor Ellen Johnson started it in the first place. It was the new (really, the old turned new) angle, and it was captured perfectly in Zach’s quartet of episodic videos entitled Living With Art.

This video project marked the beginning of one new experiment and an iteration of a past one. First off, if you started watching the videos above, you might have noticed that after the first one, you were automatically directed to the second. That’s us taking advantage of the playlist option on YouTube, which allows you to group videos. This is a new thing for us, because short video tends to veer toward 3-5 minute pieces, but we might not sustain viewers through the whole piece, which is a problem. If the point of the piece is to get people to take in the whole story and they aren’t watching past the first minute, did we actually tell the story right by them? I think not.

So, Zach tried something new. He made four bite-sized pieces of awesome that can stand on their own but that would also benefit from a full watchthrough. With episodes in a playlist, if you like one, it’ll be like a Pringle: betcha can’t watch just one. When you add up the views on all four videos, they’re comparable to some of our more watched videos of late (pretty cool!) and while we can’t tell if it’s one person who watched all four or four people who each watched just one video, that’s varying levels of information being shared and consumed by our audiences. Some folks might have gotten a taste, some might have been there for the whole entree, and both those groups are more in the loop about our art rental program. And that’s the whole point.

The experiment 2.0 for this project was a part of our content distribution. We featured a homepage image feature on Wednesday, February 12th, a few days before art rental (lines started forming on Friday afternoon) and we featured the videos as the expanded content beyond the caption. Like we do, we featured the homepage content on social media to broaden the reach of the story, but for each platform we did things a little differently based on how the social platform best distributes content, which means that for Tumblr, Zach created short looping video snippets from all four of the videos.

For those of you curious about how gifs happen here at Oberlin, here’s a quick crash course from Zach, our video2gif-maker-in-residence.

When I’m finished with a video, I take individual clips from my timeline (whether that is in Premiere or Final Cut Pro) and make them into new sequences themselves. At this point, I generally decide the general aspect ratio of what the end gif will be and make the sequence that size to fit accordingly. I have noticed square gifs tend to easier to set in their final application. So for square gifs, I make the sequence 500x500px and change the frame rate to 8 frames a second.

From here, I scale the initial clip to the “most interesting” part of the frame and export it as a QuickTime movie. Upon completing, I import the clip into Photoshop (File>Import>Video Frames to Layers). All of the individual frames will show up as individual layers in your layers panel. To finalize the gif, go to File>Save for Web and a new window will pop up. Make sure GIF is selected on the top right dropdown menu as the file type. Look at the bottom left and it will give you an estimate of size. The goal is to keep your file under 1.5mbs if possible. If it is higher than that, different parameters in the panel can be adjusted (size percentage, quality, number of colors, etc) and this will drastically take down the end size. Lastly, hit save and place the file wherever you desire and enjoy.

A few things worth noting surrounding our video release and distribution:

  • We hit it right with the timing of releasing the video and feature on the homepage. It was the perfect timespan for the art museum to pick up on our story (they’re one of the most active Tumblr presences we have here at Oberlin, and since they’re featured in the Museum spotlight on Tumblr, they have several thousand more followers than we do to amplify their content to) and build upon it with the additional information about this semester’s art rental event. Anything we can do to help elevate the awesomeness that others are doing around campus is a Great Thing. But! Art rental is a semesterly thing: don’t be surprised if this story pops back into our lives again next fall, next spring, and so forth because the beautiful evergreen nature of the story we captured and shared.

  • Tumblr is a pretty finicky space. Gaining followers on Tumblr is a harder task than most social networking sites: savvy users track tags rather than specific blogs, unless they love everything that comes from a Tumblr blog, which usually warrants a follow. Because you get ALL the content that someone posts to their Tumblr blog on your Tumblr dashboard, you can’t (and shouldn’t) follow everyone, but when someone decides to, it’s out of a genuine interest in you and a trust in what you have do and will do next. A follower on Tumblr is a valuable one, indeed. We’ve gained 10 new followers in the last week, which I can’t attribute only to our cool gif post, but maybe we can attribute it to a cool gif post sandwiched between some other pretty awesome visual content. (Protip: when you have a track record of cool stuff, people are more likely to follow you for more cool stuff. SURPRISE. Cool stuff.)

  • Art rental sparks such amazing stories. Up until 2012, asking question like “What’s your art rental story?” was a part of our engagement strategy. There are a few problems with this: it assumes that all our audience is an Obie that did art rental (not all Obies do… hangs head) or that our audience actually feels like answering a question (not all Obies do… but I do!). If you present a good conversation starter, people will join in, whether we asked them to directly or not. I find this to be a more respectful approach to our audience: you can chat with us if you want, but no pressure. It’ll make our day if you do, though! At this point, if we wanted to do a followup story simply based on the responses we’ve received to posting about art rental on social media for the past three years, we definitely could. That’s content we now have because creating an incredible and original story will prompt the sharing of others without much effort. (And now we have our new-old angle for next year’s video!)

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