Sing Me A Story – Jason & Catherine’s Labor of Love

We get some amazing stories posted on our Facebook page. I’m very grateful that so many of you think of our Facebook page and our website as a valuable resource. As I tell my students, we are simply your guides on this journey to become better storytellers. There are many storytellers you can learn from here.

I’m going to focus on two very talented storytellers for this post. Jason Lamb and Catherine Steward of NewsChannel 5 in Nashville Tennessee recently posted a labor of love. They heard about the Sing Me a Story Foundation. What you’re about to watch is what they put together over the course of 5 months.

I watched this story over and over. I painstakingly listened  to Jason’s writing. I watched, meticulously, Catherine’s editing. I asked myself about each shot in the story. Then the thought occurred to me. Why waist all this evaluation on myself. Why not share with you.   So, let’s break down some of the story together, shall we?

I asked Jason and Catherine a series of questions about this story. I hope it helps you, as it has helped me, understand their though process in putting together this story.  I’m excited to share the process of how this story came to be.

Catherine, why is your opening shot of the guitar coming out of the case?

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“When we started editing the story, all but one shoot was complete, so we already knew the outline of how we wanted the story to begin.  We discussed ahead of time doing a back-and-forth between the two artists.  The shots were designed to not give anything specific away, but signal to the viewer that something is starting.  So the guitar coming out of the case as a first shot establishes that a musician is about to play.  People will already begin making the connection that playing a guitar naturally follows taking it out of its case.” – Catherine

Why is your second shot a tight shot of a book?

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“Similarly to the first shot, opening up a book leads to what is (or will be) inside of it.  The third shot of Amelia picking the marker up establishes that she will be writing or coloring.  So by the end of just the first three shots, the viewers have already seen the basic tools that the two artists will use to create the rest of the story.” – Catherine

Why did you run parallel edits for the first 45 seconds of the story?03 Treva

“The entire story consisted of five separate shoots, and Catherine and I discussed all the different ways we could go about telling it.  Instead of a completely linear style, we thought the best way — a way that would keep people engaged — would be to introduce two of the scenes right away, pointing out not only their similarities (in how Catherine edited similar shots together), but also the fact that they are two very different people.”  – Jason

“We talked about ways we could get similar shots of both Amelia and Treva ahead of the shoot at Treva’s home.  The scene ends with the promise to the viewer in a voice track that these two seemingly different people, creating different projects will eventually combine, giving the viewer something to look forward to.” – Jason

Jason, did you write all the nat breaks?

“In my scripts I write in most of the specific nat breaks, (for example, since we had discussed doing the comparison/contrast between the two artists at the beginning, I specifically found the nat where Amelia takes markers off the table [:22] and scripted it next to the nat where Treva takes the pick off the table.  However, because Catherine and I work together a lot, I can also give her the space to put in other nat breaks that she thinks will work well with the sequencing and editing.” – Jason

At 1:02, why did you use the shot of Amelia’s feet?

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“If I need to use cutaways in a sequence, I try really hard to not have it be a static shot.  I added the nat of her saying “some more glue” and she was in a completely different position than the shot before, on a different side of the coffee table actually.  So, that feet shot got me out of a jarring cut of her switching where she was sitting.”  – Catherine

“I also liked that shot because it’s definitive of a child to be sitting like that on the floor.  It’s a cutaway that can be used to remind viewers of the innocence of this girl.” – Catherine

Why did you use the shot of Annabelle’s hand at 1:07 to reveal her?

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“I cut to the shot of her hand right as Jason says ‘someone’ – at this point we’re not quite ready to let viewers know who that someone is, but that tiny hand gives viewers a heads up that it’s a child, even younger than Amelia.” – Catherine

At 1:10 do you feel you left her breathing up long enough?

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“We think so?  This was hard for me, because at this point I had watched this first minute of the story so many times, I was having a hard time telling if the pacing felt ok.  Even though Jason had written 3/4 of the script by this point, he came in and watched it whenever I needed fresher eyes to say if he agreed with how it felt.” – Catherine

 “This part was especially important because we wanted this fast-paced story to come to a halt at this reveal so people could really let it sink in, that this child is not doing well. Most people know that a child shouldn’t be breathing that loudly or heavily.  Jason doesn’t have to point that out with writing, but we need the shot to be up long enough for that to sink in.”   – Catherine

The sequence that’s written to up the point at 1:41 of Annabelle having trouble holding a doll.  Did you two work together to get that timing right?

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 “In writing the script, I knew we wanted to lead up to the moment where Annabel struggles with the paper doll, in addition to revealing that the disease will eventually kill her.  I think this sequence was a good example of teamwork, because originally, my script didn’t mention that the disease had taken her speech — I only said it had taken her eyesight and most of her movement.”  Jason

“Catherine then brought to my attention the moment of Casey speaking for Annabel in the video: ‘thank you for making my doll!’  So I changed my script to ‘It’s taken her speech and most of her movement,’ because we had two specific moments in the video to backup the words I say.” – Jason

Why did you just show her chest up and down at 1:44?

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“Jason & I were sort of bothered in the field by Annabel’s breathing…we just thought it was sad that it was so heavy and fast.  Jason asked me to shoot just her chest because it felt like a powerful shot after viewers would have already been introduced to the sound of her breathing — they would already know what they were seeing (hopefully). And because of that logic, we figured that was a good image to show while he said ‘It will eventually take her life.'” – Catherine

“We already showed viewers that the disease has taken her speech and movement, so showing her breathing is an indication that the very little she can still do — the simple act of breathing — will soon end too.” – Catherine

For interviews like the one happening during the story at 1:56, were you ever tempted to zoom in?  What kept you staying wide?

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“I actually noticed Annabel whimpering while I was tight on the mom talking, so I zoomed out quick because I assumed the parents would react to her.  It was the first sound we heard out of Annabel, so I figured it would be a good moment.  I was honestly probably frozen on the wide shot because I was surprised she was making noise and didn’t want to mess up capturing the moment..haha” – Catherine

I really enjoyed the writing up.  I specifically enjoy from “helping a 5 year old [2:07],”

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to “through the sing me a foundation [2:23].”  Tell me about the process of that section of the story.  It’s so simple but brilliant.

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I knew this was going to be a critical section to write.  Viewers just finished experiencing the emotional moment of the two parents reacting to Annabel’s whimpering and the reality that the parents will never know exactly what Annabel is thinking.  That has got to be such a helpless, horrible feeling as parents, who also have to help their 5-year-old through everything as well.”  – Jason

“So as a writer, my job was to transition from this heartbreaking reality to one of the main points of the story — that there’s a program that can make things a little easier for Amelia.  In writing the line, ‘And helping a 5-year old deal with such a harsh reality? That can be even harder, but maybe it doesn’t have to be,’ I was trying my best to make simple, meaningful observations.  You’d think that going through something like this could be even worse for a child who may not understand everything.  But the reality is, this program is helping her cope while she still gets to do things that a typical, happy five-year-old would do, like drawing and writing in a book.  That’s pretty cool.” – Jason

Catherine, you got a very keen eye for capturing tight shots.  Tell me about some of these and how long you just rolled on a tight shot to capture something.

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” I love tight shots!  They help me with editing so much and I knew with so many shoots and scene changes I would need a lot of them to prevent jarring cuts.  But even more importantly, I love how much detail they can show — they can even reveal genuine emotion which I think is the case for the tight shot of Treva’s eyes at 3:03.”  – Catherine

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“You don’t have to see her mouth to know she is smiling, because her eyes are doing that for her.  That shows pure joy in that moment.  I zoomed out of that shot right after she laughed because I knew I would want it for just that: her eyes smiling.  Showing emotion is one thing, but I think showing it with a tight shot allows viewers to empathize even more because it’s right there in their faces”.  – Catherine

“With a lot of the tights with Amelia I rolled for a long time waiting for her to do things, like pick up markers, as soon as the action leaves the frame, I change the shot because I know I’ve got what I need and the action will be somewhere else now.  Another reason for all the tight shots was because the scenes we shot in were pretty basic, small rooms.  I could have been way more limited on shots without a lot of tights to use.” – Catherine

Catherine.  Tell me about the logic of the interview at 3:20.  Why the low angle?

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“I don’t have a great reason for the composition of this shot.  We never formally interviewed Treva, I just shot her writing and practicing her song and when I felt I was in a good enough position and Jason felt it was an ok time to take her away from her work for a second, we would make sure we were both on the same page and then throw a quick question out there.  This shot is just an instance of both of those things timing out for that question.” – Catherine

The shots at 3:34

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& 3:35 are cut wide to wide.  Why?  Logic would say cut to a shot with different composition.

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“This was the part where we decided to bring the parallel shots back into the story to reintroduce the theme of the two artists in two places and bring the pacing back up to allow for the impact of the song reveal to be even bigger (Again…hopefully). So, like the beginning where the contrasting shots were similarly composed, we wanted to do that again.  Which is why it goes wide/wide, tight/tight one last time.” – Catherine

Jason, did you write in to the shot at 4:09, where Amelia is happy running into kitchen?

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“Absolutely!  For all the unique challenges this family faces, Amelia is such a typical five-year old! There were so many moments we shot with Amelia over our different shoots of her just being a complete goofball.  We tried to incorporate a little of that in the beginning of the story when she was putting together her paper doll, and we wanted to show a little more of Amelia’s personality leading into the day where everyone gets to hear her song.”  – Jason

“It’s such a big day for the whole family, but at the same time, Amelia is acting like a typical, energetic five-year-old.  I think there’s such innocent truth in that shot: it’s real life.  During the shoot, we were simply trying to get a wider shot at the time, but when Amelia ran through it, Catherine and I immediately talked about it being a great shot to transition back into the lives of the Pounds family.” – Jason

At 4:24 the nats of closing the CD door is simple.  Very nice.  Did you ever have that nat louder?

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“The guy that was putting the CD into the CD player was actually talking over most of that shot, for like 5 frames he was quiet as the nat popped but then started talking again, so it was a really quick nat.  I tried it louder but didn’t like how it sounded.  I kind of don’t like that shot of him putting the CD in there because he was moving so slow, it almost looks staged (I swear it’s not! haha) so that was part of my thoughts on keeping the nat a little more subtle.” – Catherine

At 4:28 you stay on Amelia for till 4:43.  Any thought about a sequence there?

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“No way! haha. We were so thrilled with her reaction — once again: pure emotion.  We wanted that to last as long as possible.  Unfortunately because they were going to only react to the song once, I had to move on once I thought the shot was going to be long enough.” – Catherine

Why did you let the song play so long?

“We thought about how to do this section for a long time.  Usually we wouldn’t put that long of a nat break in a package, but Treva’s song and Amelia’s book were the central parts of our entire story.  Not letting the viewers see what Amelia actually wrote, or hear what Treva composed, wouldn’t be fair to them, especially after spending four minutes building up to it.” – Jason

How did you come of with the idea for the singing sequence and the book?

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“During the last shoot with the family we were getting some extra shots of the book pages but knew after getting those great reaction moments, we wouldn’t have time to show viewers the whole book.  In the field we decided to shoot the book blank because we had PDF files of the pages and we would come up with a way to make seeing the book more engaging with graphics.”  – Catherine

“Initially we wanted the pages to come out of the book, but found that it didn’t look organic enough.  (I stink at using effects) So with some help from the awesome graphics department at our station we decided to dissolve between the most important pages while the song played.  We wanted the song AND the book to be the payoff because up until then, you only get bits and pieces of both.” – Catherine

How the hell you get the shot at 5:44 of the tear?

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“I noticed Tommy crying and a tear dropped but I was wide..!  I zoomed in and waited for another, luckily it happened because I didn’t have much longer to wait — I had so much more to try and get before the song ended.” – Catherine

Tell me about some of the revisions that really made the story better?

“For a story that was about six minutes long, we went over the timeline again and again to make sure everything that was included in the story needed to be there.  In the end, we tightened up the section in the recording studio a bit, bringing elements of it in sooner and blending it in with the scenes of Amelia at her kitchen table.  Our original version was a bit more linear, with the kitchen table scene ending and then the recording studio scene beginning.  After showing that first version to some of our managers at the station, they said it felt like one story was ending and another was beginning at that point.  Because that wasn’t the feel we wanted, we decided to change that section to what you see in the final version.  I think it was a good choice; the story was stronger and it took less time to tell because of it.” – Jason

“We also changed a track in our first version after showing it to some friends, because after watching it, they told us they were expecting Treva to meet the Pounds family at the end. Because we didn’t want to get the audience hoping for something wasn’t going to happen, we changed an earlier track to include ‘Treva’s last stop is here…’ “ – Jason

“We had to weigh a lot of suggestions for changes and there were some we agreed we didn’t feel we should make.  But showing people before it aired and getting a variety of opinions is something we would do again because it ultimately made the story much better.” – Catherine

What was biggest writing challenge?

“After Catherine and I knew the powerful moments we’d be incorporating into the story, my biggest challenge as a writer was to simply show restraint.  I know in the past I’ve sometimes been guilty of using flowery language to try and elevate the significance of a story, but in putting this story together, it was clear that the writing didn’t need any of that.  There is nothing I can say as a writer that would have more impact than seeing Amelia’s smile when she hears her song.  My challenge was to simply let the moments speak for themselves, while offering some observations where I could, like the parallel-parked line about ‘a song with limitless value for a family with limitless love,’ leading up to Casey saying to Annabel, ‘Isn’t that right?’ And then Annabel whimpers.  That is an authentic, beautiful moment, and I hope that restraint with the writing helped it shine through.” – Jason

What was biggest shooting challenge?

“While there was a lot of shooting that was easy because of repetition (Amelia writing, Treva practicing), there were also a lot of things that we knew would only happen once.  Amelia giving Annabel the doll she made, Annabel whimpering during the interview and the family finally listening to their song were all things that we knew could be powerful moments, but could never repeat themselves.  So the biggest challenge for me was trusting myself — in the moment — to be where I thought I had to be to capture these things that would only happen one time. And then once I was where I thought I had to be, trusting myself when to move or not move.  I knew I couldn’t budge once Annabel whimpered during the interview because I couldn’t risk losing the parents reaction.  On the other hand, I didn’t want to move off of Amelia’s wonderful smile during the song but I knew I only had the rest of the song to get everyone else’s reactions, so I had to trust that we had enough.  In the field I’m always worried that I made the wrong decision.” – Catherine

What was biggest editing challenge?

“On the technical side of things, the book graphics were really hard for me.  I knew what I wanted it to look like but kept striking out when I watched what I had put together.  I don’t use effects very often so I struggled making it look organic. And we weren’t OK with it looking anything but organic because it wouldn’t flow with the rest of the story otherwise.  I had help from my chief Mike Rose and our graphics department — getting me on the right path to execute what we wanted for that shot.  I never expected the vision we had to be so complicated haha!” – Catherine

“Another big challenge Jason and I ran into with editing was becoming desensitized to the emotion.  I think editors everywhere have to deal with getting so close to the video that they lose sight of its impact.  This was the case more than ever because it was such a long project/edit.  In the beginning I would ask Jason to watch what I had and to let me know if he agreed whether the pacing felt right.  But after a while, we had seen the moments and emotional parts so much, we both started questioning whether they were powerful anymore and whether we were telling the story right.  We started showing it to colleagues, even when the story wasn’t complete to make sure fresh eyes could “feel” for the story and felt that it was worth the 6 minutes.” ­­- Catherine

I would like to thank Jason and Catherine for answering my questions so quickly.  I’m honored they’ve allowed us into their minds and see how they crafted this story as a team.  I encourage you to read through this post a few times.  Please watch Sing Me A Story a few more times as well.  I know I’ve learned a thing or two about shooting, writing and editing from these two master storytellers.

Shawn Montano