Best practices: Thirst in the Mojave

The Las Vegas Sun’s Thirst in the Mojave project has earned well-deserved accolades for its seemless blend of satellite photography, video, GPS mapping,  ambient sound and data. Perhaps less recognized is the skillful way designer Zach Wise used music in the piece.

Zach chose several different passages of music, sometimes running it under narration, other times helping with transitions or under changing images. While never distracting, the music keeps the pace even. He chose clips that have a similar feel, but offered enough variety to keep the viewer/listener engaged.

I decided to ask Zach, who moved to The New York Times last August, about how he created the music. Here’s what he said in an email exchange:

Q|: How did you choose the music? Was it created for the project or did you pick material “off the shelf”?

A: For this project, it was off the shelf. Sort of. It was created from a themed group of loop libraries. I went with that option because of the length of the piece and I wanted it to have some signature tones that could be brought back in.

Q: What sort of guidelines do you use when deciding when and how to place music in your narrative?

A: For me, it’s a matter of pacing and viewer attention. Audio/Visual stories should have a rhythm to the edits, which dictates the pacing. The pacing should reflect the nature of the content. If a scene is youthful and energetic, the edit should reflect that by maybe using fast cuts and lots of motion etc. If it’s somber and reflective or intimate, the edit should probably be much more subtle, not jarring and tasteful. If you select music for these scenes it should keep that pace in mind and bring it through. Music is also very useful as a segue. This American Life uses that device a lot. It signifies a slight shift in conversation, or topic.

Q: Do you have a regular source of music for your projects?

A: Not really. I have a pretty large loop library I’ve built up over the last 10 years. I mainly draw from that. I have used friends who are musicians to compose music before and I have also bought pre-composed music from vendors before.

Q:. Does your move to the Times last year change the way you think about using music?

A: It does, mainly because I generally don’t have the level of creative control or the ability to shoot video at the Times. The few video pieces I’ve edited, we did use music in the mix courtesy of Amy O’Leary.

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