A creativity crisis

Today I am having a creativity crisis. Last night I watched and judged all the videos entered in this month’s NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest. My crisis stems from the feeling of déjà vu. My entries looked and sounded like everyone else’s. So off I went for inspiration over to B-Roll.net TV. There are some really strong stories here. But after an hour of browsing TV news videos, I left feeling disheartened. To me, the television reporter driven voice-overs were all started to sound the same. 

Someone once described the TV news narrative as sounding plastic. I’d like to add the word cookie cutter to that. TV news shooters must cringe when their well-shot stories are chopped up with frantic one sentence reporter narration that intrudes between almost every video clip. Watching this style of video just confuses me as to what is the best way to tell an effective video story.

I was raised on the Platypus Workshop model of storytelling. A-roll + B-roll = Story. This is the traditional way to tell video story. Do your talking head interview, then cover it with b-roll of whatever the subject talks about. After several years of telling stories this way, I feel like I am in the movie Groundhog Day. I just keep telling the same formula story over and over.

I don’t know what my reprieve from this loop will be. Some photojournalist-turned-videojournalists have found a stylized storytelling niche for themselves such a Dai Sugano at the San Jose Mercury News. Many have emulated his work. When I watch one of these time-lapse or stop-action stories, the visual sensation delights me, but not always the substance of the message. Often, when I get to the end of these push the creative envelope presentations, I ask: “What did this story really tell me?” Other than being a cool creative exercise to watch, I am often left feeling unfulfilled.

Part of my dilemma is that I am sensitive to the fact viewership for my own video stories has a broad range of ages and visual literacy. Get too creative and you get the “huh?” factor from viewers who just hit the back button. Get too literal and the over-simulated younger set gets bored fast. Somewhere, there’s got to be a happy medium. It is tough trying to be all things to all viewers and maybe I shouldn’t worry about such matters.

My ultimate goal every time I produce a video is to tell a compelling and informative story. Sometimes I fail. Unfortunately, not all stories are barnburners. After four years of shooting news video, I reflectively have to ask: “What am I missing in my storytelling toolbox that could help me be a better storyteller?” There are not many resources to help me in my quest. So what to do?

I sometimes forget that most everyone who shoots video for newspapers is new to the craft. We’re all looking for mentors. The reality is there are only a few with experience to lean on. I think the one thing newspaper video shooters have all agreed on is we should break free of the TV news model. We will tell our video stories in a different way thank you. But one has to wonder– is tossing out the fundamentals of good video storytelling and production that has been refined for decades on TV news the way to go? I hope not. So for now, I wait.

It will be interesting to see how video storytelling at newspapers will define and refine itself over time. There are lots of smart and creative people entering the newspaper video arena. Once they master the fundamentals, hopefully a fresh approach to video storytelling will soon take shape. Until then, there is old reliable– A + B = Story.

How to make your audio slideshows better

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When Joe Weiss released his audio slideshow production tool called Soundslides in August of 2005, I quickly produced my first slideshow of a grand entrance at a Native American powwow. I was amazed at how easy it was to put together. I didn’t need to know Flash or have programming skills. I had a feeling back then that this little program was going to change photojournalism forever, and it did.

Now two and a half years later, I think it’s time to take a constructive look at audio slideshows and review ways to make them better. One of the raps on audio slideshows is that they can be boring and predictable. I agree. I’ve watched hundreds of audio slideshows and it can be painful at times. But then I hit one that just nails it and my faith in the genre is restored. I have probably produced 75 or so audio slideshows. I understand the challenge of making a compelling narrative resonate with viewers. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over time:

  • I shoot the photographs for my slideshow like I  shoot a video sequence–by taking wide, medium and lots of tight shots. This gives my shows visual variety and allows me to cover my audio by opening with a wide shot, then transitioning to a tight shot of the same scene.
  • It’s best to open your show with a bit of natural sound rather than with a subject talking. The ramp up into your story is important. If you don’t pull the viewer in fast they will bolt. Natural sound eases the viewer into your story without jolting them with dialogue.
  • Stop having the subjects introduce themselves. Really, stop it! The biggest cliché in audio slideshows is the “Hi, my name is…” intro. Instead, use a lower thirds title.
  • Use passionate subjects for the narrative of your story. If your subject has a boring monotone voice, then maybe you should write and voice some narrative bridges yourself to help move the story along.
  • Like video, try to match up photos to what the narrator is talking about. The same goes for the natural sound.  When you do this, your story will really start to crackle.
  • Get yourself a decent flash card recorder. The cheap one makes your show sound amateurish. You use a  $3000.00 digital camera to shoot the pictures. A $200.00 recorder is a small price to pay for decent sound quality.
  • When you record an interview, make sure to do it in a quiet spot. Then add your natural sounds (at a reduced level) under the narrative to give it sound depth.
  • Record a minute of room tone wherever you are taking photographs. Use it to cover the sound gaps between or under the narration.
  • Never, I mean NEVER have dead air sound gaps in your audio narrative. Cross-fade your audio between clips or add room tone to prevent this at all costs.
  • Use a multi-track sound editor to do your audio edit. It allows you to add the layers of sound that helps you create a soundscape that rocks the viewer of your show.
  • Your final audio edit should be as smooth as butter. Nothing should take you out of the moment. I like to close my eyes and just listen to my edit without looking at the timeline. Hit stop when you hit a bump and fix it. The difference between a great edit and a poor edit is in how you do your final audio tweaks. Make sure to normalize your audio so that there are not low and high dropouts in the mix.
  • Make sure your show is paced correctly. Too fast and you make the viewer mad, too slow and you bore them visually.
  • Use music for a reason, and not because you need to make a boring show more interesting. Don’t use music to manipulate emotion. If it is not in the narrative or photos, don’t force it with music.
  • Finally, create what I call a nat/narrative weave with your audio edits. Start your show with natural sound, and then weave your narration and ambient sound in and out. The worse thing you can do is have one subject drone on for three minutes without stopping.
  • Other suggestions? Let’s hear them. 

 

The Crabby Journalist

Update Two: Looks like the comments on AngryJournalist are being moderated now. Disregard update one. 

Update: Well, it seems the non-journalists have found this blog and trashed it with inappropriate comments. So never mind. I guess we will have to keep our stress bottled up.

 I found a link to this new blog called the AngryJournalist.com over at MultimediaShooter.com. It is a place for journalists to anonymously vent about their jobs toiling at newspapers. Man, they’re some crabby journalists out there. It’s true we like to bitch about our jobs, but hearing some of these stories just makes me cringe.

A sample of what’s posted:

” Editors who micro-manage the hell out of your beat and drink coffee with your sources and then give you tips from “little birdies” that always turn out to be bogus.”

Sequencing: The foundation of video storytelling

After judging several regional multimedia contests recently, I’m mildly discouraged by what I saw being entered in the video categories. I believe the people who shot these videos tried their best. Yet, entry after entry suffered one fatal flaw– They lacked the basic sequencing of video clips.

The sequence is the foundation of all video storytelling. Sequences compress time in a video story. Without this compression, what you’re left with are long video clips that visually bore viewers to death.

Proper sequencing gives the video editor a better way to pace a story by using a variety of wide, medium and tight shots. This helps move the viewer through a story efficiently. Unfortunately, it seems, the sequencing lesson did not stick with people after whatever training (if any) they might have had.

You can’t be great basketball player like Michael Jordan if you don’t master the fundamentals of ball handling. The same goes for video storytelling. You have to drill the fundamentals of sequencing into your head or you won’t be able to tell an effective video story.

So let’s review the basics.

Sequencing helps compress time in a video. If you videotape someone leaving their house, walking down a path, getting on their motorcycle and driving off, it might take a minute or more to show all the action in real-time. We don’t have that amount of time for our video, so we shoot a shot of the subject coming out of the house, a t tight shot of his feet walking into and out of frame. A shot from behind the subject walking up the bike. Then a shot of the subject sitting on the bike, cut to a tight shot of his foot kick-starting the engine. Then another tight shot of his hand revving the throttle. Finally, we get a shot of the subject riding off in the sunrise. Whew. That was hard work. But you know what? Edited together, you can compress that one-minute real-time clip into 20 seconds or less. The cool thing is the viewer understands this sequence and buys into your compression of time. Why? Because they see time compression everyday when they watch TV or a movie.

When shooting a sequence you have to anticipate the action. Still photojournalists are skilled at this. But if you are a word person, it might be a bit foreign to you. When I’m shooting, I’m always running scenarios through my mind. I’m asking myself: Where’s the action headed? Where do I need to position myself to be in the right spot? What shots do I need to get me from point A to point B?

Try to remember to shoot a variety shots. Shoot the action and then the reaction. It’s most important to hold your shots for about 10 seconds each. Don’t pan or zoom; just let the action enter or leave the frame. I had a video editor once tell me that if a cameraperson shoots a wide, medium and tight shot of every composition, then he could edit anything.

As I have incorporated more sequencing into my video, I’ve found that I have cut down my editing time considerably. The other thing you should remember is to weight your shots to the tight and super tight end of the shooting spectrum. Tight shots make great transitions between two wide shots or two medium shots. They prevent the infamous jump cut (two shots that look the same) that annoy and confuse people viewing your video.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals of sequencing, you can begin to tell a more effective video story. The master video sequencers are our brothers in TV news. Time is tight for their stories. They compress time until it squeals.

Now for your homework assignment. Check out some of the sequencing done over at B-roll.net TV. Dissect the sequences. Look for the wide, medium and tight shots and how they move you through the story.

Google Maps: Answers to your questions

After buiding our Storm Stories and Help Your Neighbors maps, I’ve heard from a few people wondering about how they might build a mapping app for their own sites. I’m by no means an expert on this — but that’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed this project so much. I learned a ton while doing it. So I’m more than happy to share what I do know.
 
Our approach at the Spokesman was to use our own database and do everything ourselves, but not everyone has the server access and/or development time to tackle a mapping project that way. The nice thing is, there are definitely other ways to get the job done. Here are three:
 
You could use Google’s MyMaps feature
I’ve played around with this myself for use on a couple simple projects, and it’s a pretty slick way to allow non-technical people to get data onto a Google Map, which you can then embed on your own site. You need to have a Google account, and then when you go to maps.google.com, you’ll see a “My Maps” selection in the menu at left. This lets you create a custom map, clicking or entering addresses to add points, and typing in the description text for each. Once you save the map, you can grab the link to the KML file (which is XML describing the points you’ve created), and call that data into a simple map template on your own site. There’s a really good writeup on doing this type of project at PostNeo.
 
The downside is that this really isn’t open to the public to add their own points to the map. But it’s pretty darn easy if you’re just looking to map some information that you already have. The nice thing is, once you’ve embedded the map on a page on your own site, the KML information you’re calling in is dynamic. So if you log into Google Maps and add new points to the MyMap you’re working from, they’re automatically pulled into the map on your site.
 
You could use a combination of Google Spreadsheets and Google Maps
I don’t know how much you’ve played with Google docs, but within the past week or so, they added submit-by-form functionality to Google Spreadsheets. So you could go in, create a new spreadsheet with the fields for a mapping app (i.e. Name, Description, Street Address, City, State, ZIP, lat, lng), and then use the share via form functionality to create a web form to collect data from your reporters, users or whomever. Once the data is in, you need to 1) geocode the addresses in each record, and 2) get the data from the spreadsheet into the map. Basically if you walk through the 3-4 steps described here, you’ll see how that could work:
 
The advantage here over MyMaps is that you get the opportunity to collect data from your users. You’re adding some time and complexity to the project, definitely, and you’re signing up for some maintenance on the data (you’d end up needing to run the geocoder regularly to catch new input, for example). But depending on the product you’re shooting for, it might be worth it.
 
You could build your own database-driven map
Although we’re in the process of moving to a new framework, our current site runs on ASP and SQL Server, so that’s what our Storm Stories mapping app was built on. Getting it up and running required:
 
- building the data model and database table in SQL Server
- creating the forms for internal admin of the submissions
- creating the forms for people to submit posts to the map
- incorporating geocoding on the fly via javascript
- building map pages that pull records out of the database and plot them via the Google Maps API
 
There are plenty of scripting languages you could use to do something like this, if you have access to a server that will run a database and can write some PHP, Django, etc. Personally, I like the control you get with doing a project from beginning to end, without having to rely on external services.
 
And I’m also aware that there are a ton of people out there who are better at this mapping thing than I am, so I looked at this particular project as a good excuse to build a few skills. And I learned a TON about mapping over those couple of days. Describing the forms/admin/database work is probably beyond the scope of this writeup, but at its most basic, you need an admin page to list published/unpublished records, an admin form that displays the detail information on any given record, and a set of SQL statements to pass the form data through to handle the traditional Create-Read-Update-Delete functions. And you need a form for users to Create a new record.
 
As for the mapping, here are a couple tabs I kept open pretty much all the time:
 
Google Maps API documentation
 
Google Maps API tutorial
 
Between those two resources, you’ve got all you need to get the mapping working. But when you get stuck, the classic “view source” on a similar implementation (like this Detroit driving map for example) is also a lot of help.

Team Multimedia

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 One thing I’ve learned from my early forays into video journalism is that there are a lot of talented writers in my newsroom that can help make my videos more compelling than if I produced them alone.

Some of my first videos I shot included Spokesman-Review police reporter Thomas Clouse doing stand-ups from the scenes of breaking news events. Yes, they were rough. I hadn’t quite figured out that I didn’t need to be like TV and show the reporter on camera. Clouse would be the first to admit he didn’t have that certain blow-dry helmet hair look that is needed to be considered in same league as our TV reporter comrades. 

Voice-over work scared me early on. Like most people, I hated the sound of my recorded voice ( I got over that quickly). Writing a script was also unfamiliar to me, so I turned to people who could help me out. I was amazed at how open print reporters were to doing voice-over and script writing for a video or audio slideshow that I was working on. Only a few times did I have to twist an arm gently.

Everyone in the Spokesman-Review newsroom knows they need to eventually have multimedia skills. Most reporters are most open to the idea of doing multimedia, yet they seem lost as to what skills they should be acquiring.

When I look at the big picture, I see that multimedia production doesn’t have to be an island unto itself. We can use the traditional newsroom structure of: A reporter writes and photographer handles the visuals. Except now it is: The reporter writes scripts and does voiceovers, and photographer (or multimedia producer) shoots and edits the video. In the end, the production has more depth because it plays to the strengths of each person’s talent.

I watch a lot of newspaper-produced video from around the country. I’m surprised how few people use the writing talents of their newsrooms to add objective narration in their videos.

I have my favorite writer in the S-R newsroom. Kevin Graman is the most open to working with me as team. He can bang out a script in a short amount of time. Best of all, he has a killer low voice that resonates confidence and truthfulness. Over time, we have worked on a half dozen or so videos, many of which I consider my best work.

We go to a story together, like a traditional reporter/photographer would. He gathers information like normal for the story he’ll write for the newspaper. I do my thing, interviewing subjects, gathering b-roll. We talk a lot about defining the video story so that it does not go off on a tangent.

Back at the office, Graman takes the time in his normal story writing workflow to come and see how my video edit is shaping up. We have a conversation about the voice-overs I need and what they should say. Usually it is something to the effect of: “I need a 20 second opener that defines what this story is about. And, “I need a lead-in to this subject’s interview.” Or my favorite: “Get me out of this video. I need an ender that sums up the story.” About twenty to thirty minutes later, with a well-written script in hand, Graman is ready to record his voiceover. It usually takes about three or four takes for him to get his cadence right. When I drop the recorded voice-overs onto the timeline in Final Cut , my video just comes to life.

My advice is to find your own Kevin Graman in your newsroom. It will instantly raise the bar in your video storytelling. Just remember, newsroom reporters don’t need to be in front of your camera. We’ll save that spot for the pretty people of broadcast news. 

Finding the Frame

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Here’s another easy way to add multimedia to your newspaper website. 

Shortly after the program Soundslides came out in August of 2005, I looked for an interesting way to use this Flash-based audio slideshow tool to tell different kinds of stories. One day in the photo department, as I passed the intern’s desk, I spotted a cool print of a guy reading a fashion magazine in a coffee shop. The way the top of the subject’s head matched up with the head on the magazine cover was eye-catching.  I asked photographer Kathryn Stevens how she got the shot. She launched into this passionate narrative about seeing this great moment lining up in front of her. How she rushed up to the subject and fired off a few frames on her digital camera just before the fleeting moment passed.

That’s when the light bulb went on above my head. I asked Kathryn to come into editing cave where I sat her down and recorded her telling me the story behind her photo. I edited the audio into a thirty-second clip. I then uploaded it and the photo into Soundslides and voilà - a great little piece of multimedia that took less than one hour to produce.

I called this audio slideshow feature Finding the Frame. It got an instant response from viewers who wanted more. Since then, when I see a great photo produced by the Spokesman-Review photo staff, I whip up a Finding the Frame. They have gotten a little more advanced over time as I’ve added other photos and a .pdf of the newspaper page that the photo ran on.

My other ulterior motive for doing these was that I wanted to educate readers and viewers about the creative process that a photojournalist goes through when making an exceptional image. Too many of our readers, in this age of Photoshop, think photographers alter the pictures that appear in the paper. This is my way of helping change that perspective. Finding the frames also go a long way in helping non-visual people understand that newspaper photojournalists are not button pushers as some have called them, but skilled journalists and storytellers who have a unique view of the world around them. 

Here are some of my favorite Finding the Frames:

Looff Carrousel, Chasing a Comet, Airmen Return, Tired Fireman, Demolition 

Your photo archives can make great multimedia content

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Here’s a quick way web producers can add multimedia content to their newspaper websites. I recently teamed up with Spokesman-Review writer Jim Kershner and together we have produced a half a dozen historical multimedia videos made up of photos from our in-house photo archive. Themes such as: The Evolution of Transportation in the Inland NorthwestHobo History and  Felts Field: A High Flying History were put together with local archive photos. This is really a no-brainer when it comes to creating visual driven multimedia content for your website.

Most papers have extensive photo archives that could really be put to better use. We have so many great pictures that have not been published since the Great Depression. I have found from feedback that viewers really like these historic video slideshows. It is important to note that this type of content has a long tail. The videos continue to gather hits over time– as long as people can access them on your site.

A recent blog comment on a historic show called “Remembering the Snow,” produced by Brian Immel, our new multimedia producer here at the Spokesman summed it up nicely:

“Great video feature for us Internet readers of the Spokesman Review. It’s features and stories like this, I believe, will define the future of local Internet printed news in the future. Is there any question where the future lies for the Spokesman-Review. Keep up the good work Spokesman.”

Getting comments like these puts a smile on my face; knowing that our viewers are finally starting to notice the changes we are making in the way we deliver multimedia content.

The workflow on these video slideshows is fairly simple. Our newspaper photo archive dates back to the turn of the century. When Kershner has an historical story idea, we research the archive and select the photos he feels he can write to. If we need other photos, we’ll make a trip to a local museum that has a huge archive of regional historic photos. I use my digital camera to photocopy each print thus creating a digital file that I can tone in Photoshop. Kershner then writes a whimsical script and I record him voicing it. Total turn around is about a day or less. I produce it in Final Cut Pro, adding motion to the photos where needed. Sometimes I will add a music soundtrack.

Producing these videos is a great way to learn Final Cut Pro. Arrange your photos on the timeline, add motion to the pictures where needed, then add audio narration and music. Post it prominently on your website and watch the hits roll in.