Video editing breakdown: “Everyone needs a painting”

It’s not often a video story comes knocking at my door. A few weeks ago, Pat Adams, my next-door neighbor, came over to my house to ask me how she could get in contact with Dan Pelle, a co-worker of mine at The Spokesman-Review. Adams told me she had painted a picture of Pelle’s dog Koko, who died in a vicious pit bull attack last year, and wanted give the painting to him.

I learned Adams has been churning out dozens of oil paintings of people’s pets that have died, and that most of the painting recipients had never met her. When she told me she did the paintings free of charge, I knew I had a story.

I spent a few mornings shooting Adams as she painted. As you watch the video, take note of some of the production and editing techniques I used:

I start the story with a video title card with music. This short opener allows web viewers to adjust their audio. It also makes a great thumbnail for Vimeo, if that is where you upload to.

slate_mm

I open the video with Adams painting at her kitchen saying: “I love to paint…”  I use a camera slider to add movement in the first two shots. It gives the video a cinematic feel and helps reveal my subject for the first time.

At 0.24 I introduce Adams with my opening narration. “For the past thirty years, artist Pat Adams has set up a painting easel and palette on her kitchen table…”  Yes, I could have told this story without narration, but I don’t think the storytelling would have been as efficient. In this video, I only narrate in places where the story needs definition or a transition of time or place.

When I started shooting with my Nikon D4 DSLR–a great low-light camera–I didn’t think I needed to light Adam’s kitchen. But the cool window light mixed with the warm incandescent light made it tough to get a clean white balance. Thankfully, I had a light kit at my house next door, and a few minutes later, I had two quartz halogen lights set up to bounce off the white kitchen ceiling. The white balance improved dramatically with the added warmer, softer light.

Audio. I love using a wireless mic on subjects. The audio is clean and dynamically full compared to using just a shotgun mic. It has one other huge benefit—it allows the subject to be more natural without having a big microphone pointed at them from a foot away. I can be across the room shooting wide shots and still be getting wonderful soundbites to use later in the edit. Where the wireless mic paid off in this story is when Adams would talk to the painting. Those parts were emotional gold when I assembled this story later in Final Cut Pro X.

In the first minute of the video, Adams reveals, as a young mother of a Down syndrome child, she had a small stroke. Her cardiologist told her she had to paint to relieve the stress. This is the first gold coin in the video. I don’t reveal the true direction of the story yet because I want to pull the viewer in and surprise them with the next revealing moment.

At 1.06, I say: “Adams put her brush to canvas. At this point in the video I use a super-tight shot of her brush dabbing the canvas with paint. This is one of my favorite clips in the video. I shot it with a 60mm macro lens. It helps hold viewer interest in the story because I am showing them something they can’t normally see.

The interview. I waited to do the interview until the second time I shot Adams painting. This allowed me to ask better questions. I kept a mental list to things Adams told me during the first shoot, which then helped me formulate better questions to ask her in the formal interview.

The next big gold coin comes at 1.47. Adams says: “I think the first animal I painted was Sage…” This is where the first emotional tug in the story comes. It reveals what the story is really about, and hopefully, keeps the viewer engaged in where the story is going.

Music. I learned a valuable lesson about how to use music after I posted the video asking for feedback on a Final Cut Pro X forum site. Professional editor Jeff Bartsch gave me this advice:

“Big sloppy rule of thumb: in much doc/reality/verite TV, you’ll find that most cues of music run between 30-60 seconds. Anything longer runs the risk of saying the same thing too many times or getting old. At the moment, the piece is 6 minutes and has only 2 cues of music that are pretty much the same, though the piece has multiple sections of exposition and progression of thought.”

What Bartsch helped me understand was I needed to use music as a transitional element. As the scenes, or tone of the story changed, so too should the music. I added in three more music tracks, each to fit the different tones of the story. It was a huge improvement (Thanks Jeff.)

At 2.15, I start showing some of Adam’s animal paintings. I used an out of focus photo of a painting palette as a colorful background. I use a drop shadow on the paintings to set them off a bit from the background.

dog_mm

The one thing I kept telling myself as I shot Adams as she painted was to, “shoot wide, medium, tight, tight, tight.” The variety of the tight shots really made the editing job easier because I could use those shots as transitions between scenes.

The next story gold coin comes at 3.07 when Adams says: “What’s the scariest thing in handing someone a painting”? I cut to Adams walking out of her kitchen with a dog painting and giving it to a young couple in the living room. Adams voice over continues to talk about her fear of rejection, but at the same time, the couple tells her they love and are amazed by her generous gift. This is where understanding the power of the edit—how you can weave different threads of narrative and have it all work together to advance the story–is so important.

At 4.00 I take Adams out of the house and into her car to deliver the painting to Dan Pelle. Other than knowing that she is bringing him a painting of his dog Koko, they had not met until he opens his door. I just told Dan I was going to be there and to just ignore me during their interaction.

I shot some driving scenes on the way, and then a shot of Adam’s pulling into the driveway. This is where it starts to get technically messy. I switched to a traditional video camera for these scenes, because in run-and-gun situations, I find a DSLR is too slow to focus and make auto balance corrections on the fly. And because my video camera has two channels of audio (shotgun on the camera and a wireless on Adams) it gave me backup audio if one of the audio channels failed.

My favorite edit comes as Adams exits her car and shuts the door. I straight cut directly to Pelle opening his front door and greeting Adams. In one simple edit, I cut a whole bunch of time out of getting Adams from her car to the front door. I think it works, but it is a bit jarring.

At 4.30, Adams is invited into the house. It is technically challenging to go from outside daylight to inside incandescent mixed light. I put the camera into full-auto mode and hoped for the best. As I headed into the house, the camera was recording Adams and the Pelle’s as they introduced themselves. I can’t really shoot any cut-aways to cover the weird transition of white balance and exposure shift. Later, as I was editing this scene, I added a still photograph of the dog painting to cover of some of bad color shift. I always strive for perfection, but sometimes it just out of reach.

The next gold coin is the interaction between Dan Pelle and Adams during the painting hand off. It is emotional (for her) and yet what Dan Pelle tells Adams is heartfelt.

pelle_mm

So how to get out of this story? Ira Glass, producer of “This American Life” says that a good story has to have a moment of reflection to remind the viewer why it was worth spending their time watching your story. As I was reviewing my footage, I came across this audio gem: “Its wonderful to see them. It’s like having your pet back home. Everyone needs a painting,” said Adams. I knew this clip was going to be my ender, my moment of reflection in the story.

“Everyone needs a painting” has gotten a lot of positive feedback from viewers. “I’m bawling in front of my computer,” is one common comment on Facebook. Knowing that my edit instilled an emotional response, makes me feel confident I told a compelling story.

 

Time to move to DSLR video

Being a Nikon shooter in a multimedia world has some disadvantages. In 2008, Nikon launched the D90, which was the first DSLR with the ability to shoot video as well as stills. The camera was rife with limitations. Without an audio mic jack, you could not use an external microphone to gather quality sound.  The Motion JPEG codec the D90 recorded in was a nightmare for Final Cut Pro to deal with. My newspaper bought two of these cameras on release. I played around with one, shrugged my shoulders, and went back to my Sony XDCAM EX1.

Then the shockwave hit a short time later when Canon released the 5D Mk II. With its full-frame sensor, 1920 x 1280p resolution and, hallelujah, a mic jack, photojournalists who resisted shooting video, were now intrigued. Shooters like Vincent LaForet have since built their careers promoting filmmaking with the 5D Mk II. Whole ecosystems of accessories to outfit the camera have blossomed. So what happened to Nikon’s response? Did their engineers shrug their shoulders like I did and move on to only service the consumer market? Over time, Nikon has added video capabilities to many of their cameras, but none have been able to meet or exceed the specifications of the Canon 5D Mk II.
During the last several years, I have sat on the sidelines, preferring to use my traditional video camera.  I kept telling myself that I would jump in when Nikon launched its 5D killer. I’m still waiting. Last year, I talked my editor into buying me the Nikon D3s. This amazing camera is unfortunately saddled with the same video 720 x 1280p resolution and Motion JPEG codec of the D90 and the Nikon D300s.

I have stewed as the newspaper photojournalism world embraced the entire Canon line with its superior video capabilities. Last year, Brian Immel and I founded Finding the Frame, a video critique website for multimedia storytellers. I started noticing something right away. Most of the videos uploaded had been shot with Canon DSLRs. I’ve noticed something else. The visual storytelling is way better than it was just two or three years ago. I attribute that to talented still photographers taking their composition, moment, and visual creativity with them in to the realm of DSLR video storytelling.

When I started this blog in January of 2008, video storytelling at newspapers was in full swing. It was a time when video cameras were being handed out to newsroom staff like candy. Little training and cameras in the hands of non-visual word folk led to some sad results.

The implosion at newspaper newsrooms over the last three years has showcased new realities when it comes to video. I think management finally understood that video storytelling takes time; so most of the consumer-level cameras given to reporters have gone into some drawer never to be seen again.  Photo staffs have been decimated too, but not the amount of work expected from them.  Video is still alive and well at newspapers. The transition from videotape cameras to DSLR based video has upped the expectations for photojournalists. One camera that can do it all has made the job of visual storytelling more exciting, but infinitely more complicated and challenging.

My time to stew is over. My time to wait for Nikon to up its game is over too. No, I’m not jumping to Canon. What I plan to do is to make the DSLR technology I do have work for me. Yesterday I put in a request that was approved to purchase accessories to will allow my Nikon D3s it function as a video camera better.  In the coming weeks and months I will explore on this blog my experiences as I make this transition to shooting video with a DSLR. Stayed Tuned!

Big picture galleries gaining acceptance at newspapers

Newspaper websites historically have never been photo friendly. In the first five years of the active Internet, most photos were compressed to a postage-stamped size of around 15k -30k. They had to in those promising days of 28K modems, where one oversized graphic element would bring a homepage to a screeching halt.

I think many photojournalists gave the early Web a big thumbs down as a place to display their work. At my newspaper, us photojournalists’ collectively shrugged our shoulders when the “web guy” would say that he posted one of our photos online.  Later requests on my part, to up the size on our online pictures, was met by one photo manager’s insistence that the images would be downloaded (stolen) or mass-produced across the internet. At that moment I gave up trying and, instead, embraced video as my online medium of choice.

Then, several years ago, Boston.com’s The Big Picture blog rocked my world when it launched.  Here, finally, was a large format online gallery that showcased photojournalism the way it should be. The images were displayed in a format that also didn’t frustrate the viewer with slow page loads. The minute I saw it, I knew we had to have something like it for Spokesman.com. Unfortunately our web team was in middle of developing a ground-up overhaul of our CMS, and it never made the priority list.

While I waited, other newspapers around the country embraced the idea of increasing the format size of their photo galleries. The New York Times Lens Blog, Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and many others started big picture galleries.

A few months ago, Ryan Pitts, Spokesman.com’s online director, who was damned tired of my whining, came to me with a surprise. “ I built you a big picture gallery,” he said. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I took a look at what he built.

I was nothin’ but smiles the rest of the day. He gave me the keys, so to speak, to a beautiful Corvette. Behind the scenes, the gallery is really nothing more than a tool that I can access through our web-based Django admin page. I just upload my photos, paste in the captions, add some intro text and a headline, hit save and, drum roll please, instant big picture gallery. The nice thing is, because it is a web-based tool, I can create a gallery from anywhere in the field.

What I like best about our gallery is its clean design. For a long time I pushed the idea of a black background for photos, but our gallery is white and I am fine with that. In fact, I think it is easier on the eyes. I also like how I can pop in drop quotes in between the photos. I am pushing to have commenting on the gallery, which I hope will be enabled soon.

Update: here is some more  links to big picture galleries: Tampabay.com’s All Eyes, SacBee’s The Frame Any more? Send links my way…

Update Two: KobreChannel blog take on this post.

When Mount St. Helens came to (my) town

Thirty years ago on May 18, 1980, I was a senior in high school in Spokane, Washington. It was Sunday afternoon and I was still feeling the pain from a beer-induced hangover, you know, the only kind you can get when your best friend Russ throws an  “End of High School” party for the senior class.

I grabbed a cup of coffee and went out on Russ’s front porch.  Glancing up at the sky, I was perplexed by what I saw. Instead of blue sky, it was brown with a pillow texture to it. “ Must be a dust storm coming,” said my friend’s father who also had no answer for weird brown sky. Suddenly, a robin came fluttering in front of us. It dove hard, landing dead on impact at my feet. I gingerly picked the bird up and when I shook it, a small cloud of dust came off its wings.  What the…

I would soon find out that Mount St. Helens, 290 miles away, had literally exploded in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. The best part? A dark cloud of ash would soon turn daylight into darkness. It rained ash overnight and part of the next day. For the next week communities in Central and Eastern Washington banded together to clean up the mess. Ask anyone who experienced the ash fall and I’ll guarantee they’ll have a story to tell.

A week ago, it was politely suggested to me that I should do a multimedia piece for the Mount St. Helens 30th anniversary coming up.

“I can do that,” I said. “I’m sure we have tons of photos in the digital archive.”

A quick look showed only a few pictures from that time, many of which had been used over and over. A trip to the basement print photo archive left me nowhere. It was as if Mount St. Helens ash never came to Spokane. “ Where the hell were all the photos”?

When searching the negative archive, I found a week’s worth of volcano negatives missing from the box. About to give up, I walked to the far dark corner of the neg room on a hunch. I found a shelf of orphan negative boxes labeled with old projects I was hard pressed to remember.  Running my finger down the labels, I stopped on the three words: “Mount St. Helens. “

Bingo!

I think over the years and many volcano anniversaries later, long gone photo editors found that putting all the prints and negs in one box was a good idea. If I hadn’t made that turn into a dark corner, this audio slideshow would have been pretty lame.

My next chore was to find someone willing to write and voice a narrative that would reflect the content of the photos I had edited together.  My go-to guy for historical narratives is staff writer Jim Kershner.

“You wanna do a Looking Back piece for St. Helen 30th”? I asked Kershner.

Kershner had that “I’m swamped ,” look in his eyes, but he said he could probably crank something out by the next afternoon.  I asked him  just to just write the story of the first week in Spokane and I would match the photos up with whatever he wrote.  The next day as I was pawing through old unlabeled negative sheets, Kershner arrived with a killer script in hand. Only two takes later, I was ready to start assembling our St. Helens story.  I like to use Final Cut Pro as I find it gives me the most flexibility with photos. I can color correct, put motion on the photo, create multi-photo windows where I can time the show to the beat of the music.

The fun part of this story for me was being like a detective, where I had to find a photo that would match the narrative. When Kershner said “Soon taverns and golf courses began to reopen,” I was lucky enough to find a photo from that week showing rednecks covered in ash drinking tavern beer and a group of  golfers walking an ash-laden course.

For music, our company has an extensive Digital Juice music library I can use for multimedia projects such as this. I also used a couple of Garage Band stingers– short mood building clips–that helped set the ominous tone of the ash cloud coming our way.

All in all, it was a fun project to do in such a short amount of time.

Feedback website “Finding the Frame” launches

Finding the Frame, a website dedicated to giving feedback to newspaper multimedia producers and video journalists has launched.

My post in Mastering Multimedia last month,  “Video at newspapers needs to improve,” resonated with many people. I received lots emails from producers who vented their frustration at not being able to get feedback on their multimedia stories.

After a brainstorming session over a few beers, Brian Immel, a former multimedia producer and programmer at The Spokesman-Review, graciously agreed to build a website for the sole purpose of connecting those who need feedback on their multimedia, to professionals willing to share some time and knowledge.

Here’s how it works

The plan is to have onboard as many “expert” volunteers as possible that have solid foundations in video storytelling, audio slide shows or Flash projects. This pool of reviewers will peruse the submitted links of multimedia in the “Story Pool”. If they decide to comment on a story, it will then become public on the Finding the Frame home page where anyone else is free to give added feedback.

So why do this?

While most publications have driven head first into the online world, multimedia storytelling is still in its infancy at many newspapers. Unfortunately, not all people tasked with producing multimedia received adequate training or had the financial ability to attend a multimedia storytelling workshop. Many multimedia producers are self-taught, having picked up bit and pieces of knowledge along the way.

When I judge a multimedia contest, I often get frustrated at seeing the same problems in the execution of basic video and audio production fundamentals. Many photojournalists are struggling with how to tell an effective video or audio slideshow story that is different from the traditional still picture story.

Our hope is that Finding the Frame will begin to address the need for feedback and in turn, help multimedia producers improve their storytelling. Just read some of the comments by reviewers so far–you’ll be impressed. The professionals that have signed on as reviewers are the some of the top in the industry. If they critique your story, please thank them for giving up some of their precious time to help out a fellow visual journalist.

What we need

What we need is for enough producers, multimedia editors and photojournalists who have a solid experience with multimedia storytelling to step forward and share some of their knowledge with those that are looking for constructive, honest feedback.

So if you feel you have something to offer, we would really like you to join the pool of reviewers on Finding the Frame.

So go check it out and give Brian and me some feedback. Create an account. Upload a link to a video, audio slide show or Flash project. Be patient, as it might take some time for your story to get reviewed

I am not sure how many people will upload stories, so let’s take this slow at first. It would also be helpful if non-reviewers could give some feedback to others by commenting on their work.

If you would like to be added to the reviewer pool, register your account, making sure you create a profile and upload a photo of yourself or avatar, then email me at cmulvany@findingtheframe.com with the request.

This website is for you. We would really appreciate your support and feedback.

Mastering Multimedia useful tips roundup

Many of may old posts that deal with tips about how to do video storytelling and audio slideshows get linked on a lot of blogs used by college professors who teach digital media classes. Most of these posts are buried amongst my pontifications about the changes facing the newspaper industry. So for anyone interested,  here is a roundup of my best multimedia suggestions and useful tip posts in one place…

How to make your audio slideshows better

Great audio starts in the field

How best to approach a video story

Sequencing: The foundation of video storytelling

How to make your video editing easier

Get creative with your video camera

Opening your video: How not to lose viewers

Random Final Cut tip: Lower thirds titles

What we can learn from TV new shooters