A note to Multimedia Immersion Program participants

Beginning Tuesday in Louisville, Kentucky, 50 people will be empowered to produce video for their publications websites. This is the second year that I have been a coach at the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Program. I’d like to take a moment to tell those lucky 50 boot campers what they can expect.

If you have never shot and edited video, this will be your chance to dive head first into the world of Final Cut Pro, HDV, audio, video sequencing, microphones, tripods, and much more. Having attended the 2005 Platypus Workshop, I know that overwhelmed feeling you will face on day one. Your senses will be blasted with so much information you’ll think your brain will explode. Long hours will be spent shooting and editing your video. You will listen to a parade of speakers who will enlighten you to different ways to tell a visual story. You will be challenged. A lot. Time is too short for egos to get in the way. Coaches will be blunt. We’ll tell you what you did wrong on your shoot so you will know what not to do the next time you pick up your video camera.

You will be given an Apple Macbook Pro and a Canon HDV camera to use. For those coming from a still photography background, the video camera will seem huge at first. But make no mistake; this is a powerful piece of storytelling technology. Spend some time with the manual; learn what each button does. Have a basic understanding of the camera before you shoot. It will prevent a lot of headaches later.

You will shoot a video story in the Louisville community. Remember, you are not shooting an epic. Keep it simple and focused. Define your story in one sentence and then shoot that story. Don’t go off on tangents.

Keep your fingers off the zoom button and try not to pan the camera unless absolutely necessary. Shoot as much as you can with a tripod. Your video will look better (professional) and will allow you to shoot rock-steady tight shots.

Planning and time management goes a long way in a workshop like this.  Storyboard your video story in your head, Think about what shots you will need. Write them down in a notebook. Remind yourself to shoot establishing wide shots. They are easily forgotten. Because your days will be long, it is best to get a good night’s sleep.

Finally, the most important thing to do is have fun. This workshop could open up a whole new world for you. Use this time wisely.

See you soon.

Get thee to Convergence ’08

Next week, I am heading to Louisville, Kentucky to be a coach at the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Program. This is the second year that I have participated in the four-day video boot camp. A lot has changed in the newspaper industry in the past year, and I am stoked to be able to hang with the best and brightest in the multimedia world. The Immersion Program is full, but the weekend companion program called Convergence ‘08 is still open for registrants.

Seth Gitner, who is directing the video workshop, asked me to let everyone know that this year’s Convergence ‘08 program is the bomb and if you’re a bit interested in the converging mediums of newspapers and TV news, then you best not miss it. They have a killer lineup of speakers and workshops planned May 30 and 31. This is not your daddy’s Flying Short Course, but a first class ticket to all the convergence you can handle in a weekend. If you come, track me down and say hi…

Great audio starts in the field

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times before–viewers will forgive you for bad video, but they’ll bolt if forced to listen to bad audio. Wind noise and distorted audio hurts the ears.  Have a video where the subject can’t be heard over distracting ambient nosie? I, like most people, just hit the back button on my browser. Here are some audio tips I’ve learned from my time behind a video camera:

  • I’ve watched too many videos and audio slideshows where wind noise has ruined an interview or mucked up the ambient sound. It is important to use a quality microphone with a windscreen to minimize this horrible sound. A couple of years ago, I climbed windy Mount St. Helens with my video camera. I bought one of those fuzzy windscreens that looks like a tribble (yes that is a Star Trek reference.) It worked brilliantly. For reporters stuck with a point and shoot cameras, good luck. Your audio is at risk every time the wind blows.
  • If you use a lapel or wireless mic on a subject, the rule of thumb is to place it at the second button on a dress shirt. Don’t place the mic inside the shirt or against skin, as that will add a rustling noise every time the subject moves. Listen closely with headphones for noisy clothing like ski jackets or jingly jewelry. You will beat your head against your keyboard trying to edit around these distractions.
  • Nothing screams amateur like a dangling mic cord on the outside of a subject’s clothing. Take the time and run it up inside the subject’s shirt or top. If it is a tee shirt, run the mic out the collar, and down a couple of inches. Pinch the shirt and clip the mic so that it is facing up. It doesn’t always look the best, but will give you better audio quality than if you just clipped it to the collar. Also, take charge of placing the mic. The subject usually has no clue of how to clip it correctly. Stringing it under their shirt, well, I’ll leave that to my subject.
  • If you are using a wireless mic, make sure to turn off all cell phones near the transmitter and receiver. Our company’s Palm Treos interfere with our Sennheiser G-2 wireless kits. This random interference will happen only when the subject says something profound.
  • When I shoot interviews with a wireless mic,  I record in two channels of audio ( I use a Sony Z1U with two XLR inputs.) One channel is the wireless mic and one channel is my on-camera shotgun microphone. That way if I get interference or distortion, I can use the other channel in a pinch. This has saved me countless times. This also works well for stories where you have one subject that you need to wire up. I have that channel always recording, even if I’m just shooting b-roll of something else. I can always drop that channel when I’m editing. Great things are said when the camera is not in the subjects face. Just remember to turn off the receiver if your subject heads to the restroom…
  • Get a curly cord extension for your on-camera shotgun mic. That way when you do a quick on tripod interview with someone, you won’t have to stick the camera so close to his or her face. A TV news shooter once told me that sound falls, so place that shotgun mic about a foot out and below the subject’s mouth. In other words, let the sound fall into the mic.
  • Always wear headphones to monitor your audio. Everybody that shoots video knows that, but not everyone does it. Nothing is worse then realizing you captured crappy audio and then having to spend way too much time trying to make lamb chops out of ground beef. Ok, I admit  it. I hate wearing headphones. Sometimes I get lazy, but one thing I don’t ever compromise on is wearing them during an interview. You can always fudge your b-roll audio by lowering levels, but rarely can you do this with your a-roll audio.
  • If you’re doing an interview with a subject outside, turn them away from noise like traffic. Shotgun mics tend to amplify the noise from behind the subject.
  • Nothing is worse than trying to edit a sequence with music playing in the background of several clips. The ambient music will jump around like a goldfish on a carpet. Which brings me to the first thing you should do when walking into a room you’re going to record in. Listen. Listen for hums, clock tics (my favorite), traffic noise, music etc. Try to minimize these distractions if you can.
  • Record a minute of room tone. You’d be surprised at how handy it comes in when you’re editing. Need a bit of breathing room between two clips of someone speaking? Room tone to the rescue. 

Got an audio gathering or editing tip. Share it here!

Soundslides goes full screen!

 

As I was finishing up producing an audio slideshow for Spokesman-Review photojournalist, Brian Plonka, I came across this new beta version of Soundslides Plus today.I see Joe Weiss has been busy updating the program. One bad-ass feature is a new full screen mode. I have been waiting for this since he released this ground breaking audio slideshow production tool in 2005. I downloaded the beta and I converted Plonka’s project to the new version without any problems. The scrubber bar now sports a small icon to go full screen, which is actually more like triple the normal 600-pixel size. The picture quality holds up great and my show plays smoothly on my cable modem. Weiss says he has made over 50 changes to this ever-evolving program.

Some of the highlights:

  • Full screen playback (Plus only)

  • Multiple jpeg image import now available under the Slides tab’s “Add image” button
  • Re-importing shorter duration audio no longer resets timing points.  All timings are preserved now.
  • Application now correctly reads the EXIF image rotation data from imported JPEG files and rotates accordingly on import

  • Application now creates a .ssproj project file, this file will launch the associated project in Soundslides or Soundslides Plus when double clicked or dragged to the application icon
  • Application displays a warning dialog if quit with unsaved changes

  • “Clear recent menu” item added to the File menu

  • Project folder name now appears in title bar.
  • Fixed potential compatibility issue with the video plug-in on OS X Leopard

  • Improved error handling when importing images and audio


There are more than 50 changes, feature additions and fixes in 1.9. The full changelog will be posted with the final release.


Thanks Joe. Can’t wait for the final release.

 

Nothin’ but blue skies from now on…

I just got done reading the Newspaper Association of America’s report on newspaper video. What struck me most is how many newspapers are making video storytelling a priority on their websites. Four years ago, when I started shooting video for my newspaper’s website, I felt like actor Will Smith in the movie “I am Legend”—alone in the world, with no one to talk to. There were few resources for newspaper video journalists like me to turn to in those early days. I spent a good parcel of my time with my nose in Final Cut Pro manuals. I look back on those days with fondness. It was just me and my video camera looking for interesting stories to shoot.

I had been getting away with that gig for about three years when suddenly everything changed. A queasy feeling hit me the day Gary Graham, my managing editor showed up in the doorway of my photo department video editing cave. He asked if I could come to his office for a chat. My first thought was, “oh god, what did I do?” As I headed to my fate, I kind of knew what I was going to be asked to do. Long story short, I moved out of the photo department and became my newspapers first multimedia editor. 

Last year, multimedia was really starting to expand in the Spokesman’s newsroom. Former multimedia producer, Joe Barrentine had been training newsroom reporters to shoot video with point and shoot cameras. There became a urgent need to manage this sudden surge of multimedia. Word editors had begun assigning video without really understanding what made a good video story. To them, press conferences and talking head interviews were fair game. Also, a lack of understanding of how much time a video takes to produce, created tension with the visual staff.

It was all a bit daunting for the first few months I was a manager. I had never managed anyone, let alone wanted to manage anyone. I was assigned a desk on what is called the Death Star– a pentagon of desks filled with assignment editors and online producers.

What struck me first about my new desk was how bright it was where I sat. Two large florescent grids of light reflected off my desk, through my eyeballs and directly into the dark corners of my brain. You have to understand; I came from four years in a darkened editing cave. I felt like I had entered cubical hell—and then the layoffs hit.

Like most newspapers across the U.S., downsizing came to the Spokesman last October. I had two online producers move on to other jobs, and a third was laid off. For about two months I had no one to manage. The newsroom was an emotional wreck and I, for a just a moment, wanted to ask if I could PLEASE HAVE MY OLD JOB BACK!

Twenty-Six people took buyouts or were laid off. When things calmed down, I was quietly told to be patient. As senior management started to reconfigure the newsroom, the online department came back to life in a big way. Andrew Zahler, a former copy editor, moved into one of the online producer positions. Laid off online producer Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen, was called back to work. I got to make my first hire for a multimedia producer. I only had to look south of Spokane about ninety miles to find Brian Immel, a wiz-kid who just happened to graduate from Washington State University the week we offered him the job.

Because our newsroom shrank, in personnel,  an office with a two windows opened up. Immel and I moved in before anyone else could lay claim to it. Since January 1st of this year, things have pretty much settled down. Our newsroom is becoming more focused on what is important. There is not a lot of room for fluff and filler, so every story and photo has to be good. The same goes for multimedia. I slowly moved away from the idea that every reporter in the newsroom needed to learn how to shoot video. The early results of reporter driven video were not very pretty. Instead, I started to move to a model of finding people that really wanted to learn to shoot video, then give them the proper tools and training to be successful. We have a ways to go, but I am beginning to see the video seeds begin to germinate around the newsroom.

The next big push is figuring out how to spend a sizeable amount of capital money to equip mobile journalists and online producers with the best tools to do their jobs. Hi-def tapeless cameras, that allow faster edit times are first on my list to deploy. Training is next with a continuing strengthening of core video shooting and editing skills. The one great thing I’ve noticed lately is that photojournalist Dan Pelle is starting to train some of his fellow photographers how to shoot and edit video. Pelle, like me, is a graduate of the Platypus Video Workshop. He’s a hell of a video storyteller and a great teacher. I find when you allow people to share what they know it is a morale booster for everyone.

The next half of this year is going to be great. I have learned to stop looking back over my shoulder at the way things used to be. Instead it is nothing but blue skies and a video camera in front of me now.

 

Radio from the newsroom

Ok, here’s an unusual way to use multimedia in your newsroom. Recently my newspaper The Spokesman-Review, signed a deal with Los Angeles-based Mapleton to produce hourly radio newscasts. These two-minute long newscasts are now being broadcast on a local news talk radio station as well as on Spokesmanreview.com. (Listen to a broadcast here.)

Two veteran news radio broadcasters were hired and a state of the art radio news production studio was built  in the newsroom. Our “radio guys” as they are affectingly called, have settled in without too many cultural adjustments. The workflow changes for people in the newsroom have been pretty minimal. Reporters are being asked to record audio sound bites from some of their stories. Occasionally they are interviewed for broadcast about stories they’ve reported on.

The paper purchased 12 of the Samson Zoom H-2 audio recorders that are being doled out to reporters who are showing a willingness to help make the radio initiative successful. The headline news content being broadcast comes from stories written by newsroom reporters and from the radio broadcasters themselves.

So what’s the benefit for the newspaper to be on the radio? Brand promotion mostly and bit of ad revenue sharing. The radio studio was built to seat three additional people for live interviews. Future plans call for adding additional programming such as a public affairs and call-in type shows. It’s an experiment that has a lot of potential. We are rapidly moving away from being just a newspaper. The Spokesman-Review is now a multi-platform media company that is increasing its brand penetration into new markets. This is what I love about working for a family owned newspaper willing to take risks. Radio from the newsroom seems a bit wacky. I just figure you can’t succeed at something if you don’t take some creative risks to see what works. Time will tell on this venture.

 

Canadian video journalist John Lehmann’s star is rising

I first met John Lehmann in Vancouver, Canada after he invited me to speak about multimedia at last year’s Western Canadian Photojournalism Conference. Lehmann works for the Globe and Mail newspaper and is the consummate photojournalist. A sharp eye for visuals and a keen sense of story, Lehmann ranks up there with the best shooters in Canada. When I showed my video work to the gathered hoard of Canadian photojournalists, the new world of multimedia was still pretty foreign to most in attendance. My talk was well received. I know this because I never bought another beer while I was across the border.

Flash forward three months later and Lehmann was visiting my town of  Spokane, Wash. to shoot a story on the oldest living Canadian World War I veteran. That month he had received a 1st place in the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest with an incredible video documentary on conjoined twin babies. The meat of his video was shot mostly in stunning stills. His video and editing skills were still in their infancy.

After his Spokane shoot, Lehmann spent a day hanging out in my video-editing cave at The Spokesman-Review. He asked a lot of questions about how video is sequenced. I showed him my Loose Moose video and told him how I edited it. He was still having a hard time grasping what I did. “Show me your raw video,” said Lehmann. After viewing the 30-minute tape and then replaying the 2 minute edited story he just smiled. “I get it now, he said.

Flash-forward again to last months 1st place win in the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest. His video, Flowers for Food, is a wonderful story that connects to the viewer emotionally. I was amazed at how far Lehmann had come in his video production and editing abilities. The depth of his storytelling and the thoughtful editing are truly inspiring. Now I see two more strong videos he’s produced in the last few months—this guy is on a roll.  Check out his story on nude bowling (a hoot) and this somber Katrina aftermath story.

The one thing I noticed about John is that he treats his video camera like he does his still camera. Lehman’s videos should be a reminder to all of us still shooters making the transition to new media–not to forget our visual roots. Many first time video shooters are overwhelmed by all the distractions. Remembering to monitor your audio (yes with headphones), to sequencing your video (wide, medium, tight) and to keep the bloody tripod out of your shots (try using it). My advice: Take a breath when you are shooting a story and remind yourself to be creative. Thanks John for reminding me think and see like a still shooter again.

The Digital Journalist puts newspaper video in perspective

There is a great editorial on video storytelling in this month’s TheDigitalJouranlist.org that echos everything I believe in. If you shoot video for a newspaper, you’ll want to  pass this editoral on to your supervisors. A snippet of wisdom:

Newspaper video should carry the imprint of the parent. It should represent the editorial image of the newspaper. Remember, any piece of shoddy, amateurish video on your site is how the audience will think of the paper. Would you have photographers with no experience replace your staff? Would you have high school students writing your editorials? Video should carry the same weight of competence and professionalism as anything else in the paper.

Creatures from the Heart

 

I posted this project in Video Journal  called Creatures from the Heart. It is about sculpture artist Bill Sanders whose failing heart is preventing him from doing his art. During the interview, I asked the question, “Is it hard for you to not to be able to do your art?” He paused; his chin started to quiver and then he abruptly ended the interview. “I have to go lie down,” said Sanders.

Bill Sanders is somewhat of a recluse who has not granted many interviews. He had a heart transplant 10 years ago, which has progressively slowed him down. Realizing that Sanders may not be around much longer, a friend talked him into letting the newspaper come and interview him about his art. I usually schedule a video interview separate from the print interview, but because of the nature of the story, reporter Paula Davenport and I teamed up. Everything during the 40-minute interview was fine until I asked the “how do you feel?” question.

I hung around Sander’s farm for a while taking b-roll of the dozens of animal sculptures displayed in his yard. Back at the paper, I downloaded my clips thinking I had enough to put something together. In the end, I just didn’t have it. I went home that night depressed about how I made Sanders feel. That question weighed heavily in my thoughts. I also wondered how I could tell this story better. What I had was video of a 40 minute interview and a bunch of disconnected b-roll shots of sculptures in a farmyard.

The next morning I made a call to see If Sanders wouldn’t mind me coming back for a few minutes to get a still photo of him for the print story. What I was really hoping is that he would take me on a tour of his art. He agreed to let me come over.

When I met him on his porch, he looked better than the day before. We walked the farm field, stopping for me to get cutaways and mini interviews of him with sculptures he was most proud of. In the barn, he showed me his final large sculpture, a 500 pound silverback gorilla, which he was putting the finishing touches on. He worked on it with a grinder that threw a cascade of sparks into my lens. After I said goodby, I spent another hour shooting everything I could think of that Sanders had mentioned in the interview or showed me on our tour. As I shot, I repeated in my head, “wide, medium, tight.” I used my tripod on almost everything I shot ( thanks Lenslinger). I was driven to do this shoot right. I wanted to make sure I had everything I needed to assemble a video that was complete.

I spent Thursday doing the edit and voiceover work. I am not one that feels comfortable writing a script yet. I would much rather edit sections of the video first, then write and record narrative bridges. I’m sure there is a better way to do this, but when I’m producing something on such a tight deadline, I do what works for me.

When I viewed the almost finished piece, I felt something was missing. I rarely use music in any of my feature pieces. My newspaper recently bought the entire 25-volume Digital Juice music library. I found several tracks that I ended up editing into my timeline. I was shocked at how it changed the feel of my video. Having decent music that doesn’t sound like a cheesy Garage Band loop, makes all the difference. When I watch other newspaper producer’s videos, I rarely like how the music is used. Many times the soundtrack overpowers the narrative. For my video, I tried to keep the music levels as low as possible. I found when I listened to my timeline in headphones the music seemed louder, but not so when played on my reference speakers. Hopefully I set the levels correctly.

There is a lot of discussion about the role of music soundtracks in news video. Some call it manipulating the viewer by enhancing the drama when none is present. In this case, I felt the music made my video livelier and helped me tell a better story. What do you think?

Random Final Cut tip #2–Lower thirds

I think it’s time for everyone to banish that ugly black bar used to display lower thirds titles in Final Cut Pro/Express. For the longest time, I struggled with what to do with white text on a light background. I usually ended up using the standard black bar, which is so wide it usually lands across the speakers chin.

Experimenting, I learned to change the bar’s color by using the color sampler. I also tried lowering the bar’s opacity until it was almost transparent. That lipstick didn’t help. It was still an ugly bar mucking up my shot. I’m not a fan of motion titles—they’re distracting and look too much like the snappy graphics in TV. So what to do?

I finally discovered that by clicking the motion tab when my lower thirds title generator is loaded in the viewer, I could add a drop shadow to my text. It was one of those “duh” moments, that I just couldn’t believe I didn’t connect the dots earlier, Now my lower thirds text floats and are much more readable. Make sure you click the drop shadow check box and click the triangle for more settings. Here’s the numbers I use —1.5 to 2 for inset. Softness, 20-30 and opacity 90.