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Photographer and filmmaker Judah S. Harris shows you the steps to create a winning montage to screen  for your guests at your next family celebration



The ABC's of Montage Making  

I'd like to share some practical ideas with you that you can use to create a thoughtful and engaging screen presentation for your son’s bar mitzvah or daughter’s bas mitzvah, though
you can also make one for your own wedding too if you’re so inclined.  


A while back a mother told me that her daughter knows how to make great slideshows. They
teach them these things at school, a Jewish day school with a technology budget of close to
$100,000 a year.


You can use PowerPoint or any one of a number of available slideshow creation software
programs, or a video editing program. They are modest in cost, for the most part, and with a little practice (read the instructions, watch the tutorials, ask a friend) and a lot of patience you can combine photos, text, and whatever music you’d like. If your child is up to it, they can also be involved in creating the montage. If their school also has a nice technology budget, let them sit in the Director’s seat and you’ll handle other party planning details.


If it sounds easy so far, it can be. But here’s the tough part. Your daughter will attend 27,
37, 47 bas mitzvah parties this year (oh, I exaggerate, but by how much). She will have
danced the same dance, played “Coke and Pepsi” a few too many times, and sat through a
mountain of photos projected on screen, portraying each one of her very dear friends at
various stages in her life. So ask yourself: “Do we need one more photo montage in the
universe?” “Might we be damaging the ozone layer in some yet scientifically undocumented way?” “Where’s Al Gore!”


Believe me, I am all for photomontages. I make them. I like them. But if you want to create a
nice one you need to follow some rules of etiquette (and creativity).

Know your audience

If it’s geared for family members, fine. But if you are showing to a lot more people than just family, try to keep the entire audience in mind. Keep your length to 10 minutes, not 15, unless you are an award-winning producer. And keep things interesting by applying some of the practices below.

Structure your montage

It’s not as advisable to just put all the photos you’ve chosen in the show and play some music in the background. Any story (or speech for that matter) has a beginning, middle and an end. There may be two middles or three, but basically this is the structure of storytelling and one we all respond to best. When you arrange your photos, try to create a few or more “chapters” which are different in content or in pace. When you are chronicling someone’s life the chapters are sort of built in, but look for other ways to divide the montage into sections. Perhaps the family moved homes, cities, or a child took on a new interest. Change the music where the sections change to signal the audience (more on music in a moment).

Find good photos

As you wade your way through albums, shoeboxes and envelopes, or digital files in virtual folders, try to edit and choose the photos that look the best to you. “Best” is sometimes hard to define, and don’t choose all of the photos of your child from a year ago, just because they are in your estimation the best. You’d be leaving out too much of the story. Search for pictures that have good expressions, a captured moment, and a clarity that is discernable in the print or in the digital file. If pictures are slightly out of focus, even stained, they can be included if they are still able to impart a feeling. This public presentation is not meant to be perfect, only interesting.

Edit the photos

After you have found what you can of your child and your family experience (don’t include only photos of your child, this is about family, and also friends), try to edit it down to the photos that will best serve the montage. (By definition, editing is done in stages. It’s part of the creative process, allows us to reevaluate what we have in front of us, and can be very fulfilling.)

For a 10-minute presentation you’ll need at least 120 photos. Figure about four or five seconds on screen for each photograph. But since you want to vary the pace of the show, some photographs will be on screen for less time, maybe two to thee seconds. The music might dictate a quicker pace or you may be running through a series of images that can be digested quickly and don’t need to linger on screen to be absorbed by the audience. If you have shots with a lot of details, many things happening in the picture, leave it on longer. If you have many photos of faces, close-up, for instance, you can go through these at a quicker speed. Practice by putting a photograph in front of you or up on the monitor and then close your eyes. When you open them, look quickly at the second hand moving on your watch and then at the photo. Stay on the photo until you feel it’s time to look away, that you have had time to “read” it properly. You’ll have seen the pictures many times before, so be objective and pretend your one of the guests who has never seen this particular image. After you finish looking at the photo, immediately check your watch. This will give you an idea of how much time you need on a given photo. Please don’t do this with 120 photos. I didn’t mean that at all. This is just a quick exercise you can use to gage how much “airtime” certain types of photos need on screen. The reason for the longer five seconds is that you might be using a fade as a transition between images. The fade will occur during a portion of the allocated seconds, so the image will not be totally visible for, in this case, the full five seconds.   

One last note about editing is that you certainly can get a second or third opinion. Ask someone else to look at your “selects,” as we call them. Which ones would they keep? Ask them if they “like this one with his head “turned that way,” or that one where he is looking straight at the camera?

Take some new photographs for the montage – quick get out the camera!

Invariably, there are going to be photos (moments in life) missing that you’d like to have in the montage. What’s a parent to do? You can’t recreate yesterday (you could but that’s for a more elaborate cinematic production) but you can take new photos today of your child or an aspect of your child’s life to feature in the montage that you are making to show a couple of months down the road, or even next Sunday afternoon. (Is it that soon? Take a deep breath, get something to drink, you’ll make it.)

I feel strongly that a montage or any visual presentation of this genre should convey something unique about the person portrayed. How can you describe that person to the audience? What can you show (or say visually) about them other than that they grew some inches each year and adjusted their wardrobe in keeping with the changing seasons and changing times? You know your child best and a bar or bas mitzvah is a chance for you to introduce or reintroduce them to the guests assembled. The friends from school probably don’t need as much an introduction - though I’m certain most every child has interests and ideas that even friends won’t be privy to - but the adults may know little of how this young man or woman has matured. They still remember his bris a number of years back or the 9th birthday party you made for your daughter in August 2005, a BBQ out in the backyard, until the unexpected downpour brought everyone indoors.

If your daughter collects turtles, take pictures of the turtles. Photograph her playing with or feeding the turtles. If your son is involved with chesed, photograph him freeing the turtles, allowing them to find their way back to their natural surroundings… no longer cloistered in a sister’s room with its lacquered bookshelves, bright pastel painted walls, devoid of the attractive earth tones of the marsh (I’m getting carried away for sure, but making a montage is a creative endeavor, so it’s best to be in the spirit).

As a viewer, I want to meet your son or daughter in the montage. I’d like to know a bit of who they are today, how they spend their time, and what makes them tick. Choose some activities or upcoming family events.  Stage some things (realistically), and add the resulting photographs to the montage presentation. Have your son or daughter write down some of their feelings on becoming a bar or bas mitzvah. Choose some of the most meaningful words and expressions and make title slides to insert at later points in the montage. The audience will appreciate hearing from your child in his or her own words and the text on screen will provide an occasional alternative to the many photographs that are being shown.  

Sequencing the photographs

There are times in life when the music comes first, but in preparing a montage the photographs are the basis and the music the accompaniment. We mentioned earlier that the natural sequence is often the chronology. Generally you’d want to start off in the earlier years of your child’s life and progress from there till today. If you want to be clever you can start off today, to establish the present, which is most immediate and familiar to everybody, and then return to the earliest times in your child’s life and proceed forward, chronologically. There are some Hollywood films that you might have heard of that have mixed up chronology completely, and intentionally. You can experiment if you have a plan and the hours needed to make it work.

When we sequence photographs, we try to include different types of shots. Some are taken from further away and some closer up. There are ranges in between. We have available to us what are called “establishment shots,” which are basically images that establish the location or situation. You could show a photo of your child raking leaves in the yard, and then one of him taken real close up doing the same thing, but this time with his expression, and exertion, much more visible. Or you could do the converse: show the expression up close and then show a wider perspective image that provides a sense of the place where this activity is happening. Both can be effective.

Transitioning between photographs

Software applications used to create slideshows offer many types of effects and transitions. You can change the colors of your photos, turn them into paintings, flip them, flop them, brighten them, lighten them, overlay type, and do all sorts of fades and wipes. Some programs allow you to pan and zoom. I suggest you experiment with some of what’s available and see what you like and contemplate where the effect or the transition would be best suited. Many programs have a feature that applies random transitions between slides. It’s quicker than you choosing, but you lose the control and it can become more about the effect and less about the content.

My personal philosophy is to use effects minimally and transitions modestly. For a lot of us, fades are the more often used transition between slides (sometimes you don’t need any transition, you can just “cut” to the next slide). Of course, the flips and flops are more exciting and kids like them. There are also insets, where one image can be inserted into a larger image. Generally, you want to match the effect to the tone of the sequence. If it’s a more fun series of images, as opposed to serious or solemn, then by all means go for it. If it’s a more serious bunch of photographs, then tone down the flamboyant and choose “softer” transitions. Wipes (where an image will wipe on or off the screen) are stronger transitions than fades. I use them when I’m transitioning to a different chapter in my story, or conveying the passage of time. Fades can be used more freely and are good at blending a series of very similar photos and creating almost a flipbook effect.

Let’s say you have a sequence of 12 photographs of your child baking cookies or challah. It’s a complete story and you want to fade one image into the other. It still won’t have the seamless quality of a motion picture, but the progression will be clear and the fades can smooth the changes from one photo to another. Try it, you’ll like it.

Music

We are ready for music. Music makes the show, or at least makes it complete. Even during the silent film era, live music - piano and even more - accompanied the film. You can also have narration, if you’re set up to record digitally (if you own a camcorder, you are probably set).

Your best bet is to choose songs that you and your child (or at least your child) like a lot and that are appropriate for the content of the montage. Maybe there’s a favorite family song or two that belong in the slide show? Hebrew music, English music, Peruvian wind instrumentation… many choices exist.

Your job is to match the music to the images on screen. Sometimes the themes of the songs or feelings or styles of the melodies dictate where they are most appropriate. Don’t feel you have to use an entire track of a song. Songs can be long and might occupy even up to half your montage. Listen to the song, both instrumentation and vocals, and consider where to begin. I have, at times, started at a later point in the track and then gone back to an earlier part of the song. Sometimes I have “copied” a section of the song to allow it to repeat, if I needed the song to run longer.

In most montages of the length we are discussing, you should have three or four songs in mind. You’ll probably be able to use them all, or at least three, and can fade in and out at any point you’d like. If you feature different artists, as opposed to the same group, band, or singer, then you’ll have more variety in your montage. In one montage, I mixed a country folk singer together with a Carlebachesque rendition on acoustic guitar, and added the Yeshiva Boys Choir’s “Veahavta” at the end. If you want to end on an upbeat note, feature upbeat music. If you want to start that way, then pick the song or portion of the song that will provide the correct mood.

One of the important things you’ll need to do once you have the music down is adjust the pacing of the slides. You want to change on the beat, so it’s best to leave the transitions till a later stage, or at least realize that you will need to adjust the durations of the individual images (and effects and transitions) to match the music. This takes some practice and a decent ear, but when you are creating a montage, you’ll be watching the show so many times, that you’ll know the songs extremely well and probably will have difficulty getting them out of your head.

Edit out certain images at this stage, if they no longer fit. If you have two more photos left in a given section of the montage, but the song has ended, you need to be on to a new chapter in the montage. Either take out the two slides or change the durations of others in the chapter so that you can still squeeze in these two photos before the song concludes.

Are we done yet?

When your slide show is completed it’s time to rest. You have to accept the fact that it’s not going to be perfect and you will have possibly left out things you wanted to include (and maybe the photo of him looking “that way” was in fact the better choice).

I suggest you take a break for a couple of days and then come back to it with fresh eyes. With my own work, I let it sit sometimes so I can be more objective. This will be tough if you have left your montage till the last minute. Try, therefore, to allow time to complete it. You may discover changes, even subtle ones, which will improve the presentation. We didn’t talk about titles or credits, but they are going to be a part of your montage. You don’t have to have a title, but credits are nice. Credit the creators of the montage, the musical artists who sang or played in the background. You won’t have time in the montage for a blooper reel, but you can get creative with the credits if you’d like.

Check the specs of your particular slide show software for information about making DVDs of your finished montage. Some programs even let you upload directly to YouTube, iPods and Blackberrys.    

What I do

Slide shows can be very effective and very moving, but I also happen to like the idea of combining slides with video.

For one bas mitzvah girl, I made a 10-minute film that included lots of family photos, four handpicked songs that I liked (I try to include in my productions music that I personally enjoy and admire), and original video footage. I opened the film with a scene of the girl playing piano, and soon after we see her drawing, which she is quite good at. Later in the film, I showed a couple of minutes of her baking cookies with her brothers and her mom. Interspersed between these moments and the family photographs were a number of interview segments. I really wanted the audience to get to know the girl and to hear from her in her own words as she shared her interests in music, art, gymnastics, and her feelings about becoming a bas mitzvah. She speaks of taking on new mitzvos, of having even more in common with her mom, as she now becomes a Jewish woman.

This film was created for showing at the bas mitzvah celebration, which was scheduled for a Sunday. I had helped edit the photographs after being provided with an initial pile of photos that had been pulled from albums and removed from picture frames. A few days before the event, I showed the finished film to the girl’s mom at the family’s home. We watched on a laptop together, and though I had seen the film 18 or 20 times already, there is always an excitement I feel when presenting something to someone for the first time. After I hit Play, I watched both the screen and the mother almost simultaneously. The reaction was one that makes all of the hours that goes into these projects totally worthwhile. I experienced something similar with a bar mitzvah montage I made that was presented to more than 300 people on two large 65" plasma screens. All eyes were glued to the production, and later some people came up to me and said they had never seen anything like this before! 

Create a great montage for your event and you’ll be able to experience the same thing.

View examples of winning montages and slideshows by Judah S. Harris:


Judah S. Harris
is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and writer.
He photographs family celebrations and a wide range of corporate, organizational and editorial projects in the US, Israel and other countries. Judah's photography has appeared in museum exhibits, on the Op-Ed Pages of the NY Times, on the covers of more than 40 novels, and in advertising all over the world. His work can be seen in a frequent email newsletter that circulates to thousands of readers who repeatedly praise the quality of Judah's photography and writing. To learn more about Judah S. Harris, visit www.judahsharris.com/visit.
  

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