Know your story

A friend of mine asked me to read the first 200 pages of a novel he is writing and give him some feedback. I’m not a wordsmith (as you can tell) but I gave it a shot.

On critique day, I took a big sigh and gave him the bad news.

“I have no idea what your story is, nor do I care about your main character,” I told him. “You’ve written in so many dead ends into the plot that I’m not emotionally invested in the storytelling. I don’t think you know the story you want to tell,” I said.

Several weeks later we got together for breakfast and he told me my advice of know your story changed everything in how he approached writing his novel. He admitted that he was creating the plot as he was putting pen to paper. This, he realized, produced a lot of dead ends for the characters’ and storyline.

Know your story is fundamental to video storytelling too. Yet, time after time, video stories I review or judge in contests (and some of my own) are filled with meandering plotlines, too many characters, and failed endings.

Know your story

Before you shoot, it is important to have in your head, a solid framework of the story you want to tell.  Identify what the conflict in your story is,  then shoot it. Ask yourself: What is my opener? What do I need to shoot for the guts of my story? What’s my ender or resolution? You might not have all these worked out before shooting, but you better have by the time you finish pushing the record button. Few great stories are found in the edit afterwards.

Editing

Know your story. It will make editing a breeze. Focus on telling a story where you set up questions for the viewer, but then make sure you answer them. Intimacy and emotion rules with video, so edit those in not out. Keep focused. Tangents and redundancy are death in a short video.

It’s easy to get lost in all the small edits on the timeline. Make sure you always have a big picture of how your story is unfolding on the timeline.  When you’re done, ask several people to watch your video and tell them to be honest as to whether it holds their interest.  If your story does not work for them, then it probably won’t work for most viewers.

Part 2: DSLR camera accessories-image stabilization

In this part two examination of DSLR accessories, I look ways to outfit your camera to ensure stability of your video (see part one on the Juicedlink audio interface.)

I shoot primarily news video for my newspaper’s website using a Nikon D3s as a video camera. It captures only 720p HD video, not 1080p of the newer models, but it’s resolution perfect for most online delivery.

One of the issues I’ve had as I transitioned from shooting with a Sony EX1 video camera to now using a DSLR, was the stability of my video. When handholding a DSLR during a shoot, I founds it almost impossible to capture stable video. Because I couldn’t put the camera up to my eye when shooting in live view, the shaky-cam effect from holding the camera unsupported out in front of me was really pronounced. It made me realize  how much the optical stabilization on most traditional video cameras work to minimize camera vibration.

In putting my DSLR video camera kit together, I looked for the best lens I could find that would not only give me the zoom focal lengths I needed, but would also have built-in image stabilization. My final choice was the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR lens.

VR (vibration reduction) is Nikon’s version of the Canon’s IS (Image Stabilization.) Vibration Reduction (VR) systems in DSLR camera lenses compensate for image blur caused by small, involuntary movements from unsupported cameras.

I can attest that VR works. I’ve seen and shot a lot of handheld DSLR video that was so shaky it was unwatchable. Switching VR on will not make your footage look like it was shot on a tripod, but it will smooth it out considerably. In my video below, I used the Nikon 24-120mm with VR for the first time. I was pleased with the results. VR  allowed to  move with my subjects without encountering the jarring shake of typical handheld footage. I was most impressed with the clip of me running with the subject. No way would this look this smooth without VR.

The next accessory I use for stabilizing my DSLR video is the wonderful  Zacuto Z-Finder optical viewfinder that I attach to my camera’s rear viewing monitor. This allows me to press the eyepiece against the bridge of my shootin’ eye, which helps stabilize the camera–especially the up and down movement you get when holding the camera out in front of you. This, paired with the lens VR, really makes for some excellent looking handheld footage.

Finally, I can’t stress enough about having a solid tripod handy on EVERY shoot. I always try to use a tripod for long interviews. This allows me to spend time looking my subject in the eye, rather than hiding behind the camera monitor.

The best video tripods are ones that have a fluid head, which allows you to do smooth pan and tilt movements. I have three that I have access to, from small (light) to large (heavy.) The one thing that I have come to love about shooting with a tripod is that I can frame a shot and then shoot a three-shot sequence of wide, medium and tight ten second clips. When I edit, I have three different views to choose from—and best of all, they are all rock steady.

I could go on about camera rigs and such, but in my type of work, they are a bit much for what I do. As a one-man band, I find keeping it simple is the best hedge against missing shots and moments. One of the things that I don’t want to do is create the three-headed monster camera rig that would draw too much attention to myself.

In part three, I will look at the Zacuto Finder up close and a round-up of the other necessary accessories to outfit your DSLR to make it a bad ass video camera.

What I learned shooting my first two DSLR video stories

A PETA protest video story shot with a Nikon D3s

In the past 24 hours I have produced two news videos that I shot for the first time with my Nikon D3s. The transition for me shooting DSLR video has been slow. I have been quite comfortable with my Sony XDCAM EX1. But as more photographers embrace shooting video with a DSLR, I figured it was time to jump in. Here are some issues I encountered while shooting my stories.

Workflow
When I first started shooting with a traditional video camera, I was challenged by the workflow. Having to monitor audio, think in sequences and deal with a dozen other simultaneous details was overwhelming at times. I feel like that now shooting video with my DSLR camera. The workflow is a house of cards. Mess up one thing and your story is hosed. Forget to turn on the mic? Without being able to monitor your audio like a video camera, you’ll end up with a bunch of clips with no audio. I live in fear of this.

Mics
I’m shooting with a Sennheiser MKE 400 mic mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. I’m used to shooting with a full-sized Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun. This mini mic is definitely not in the same class as its big ME66 brother. It is important to get the mic close to the subject, and watch out for wind noise. Get a dead cat windscreen for this mic. The little one that came with mine fell off into the abyss within 15 minutes of ownership.

Stability
Using a DSLR makes me fully understand how much the optical stabilization on a video camera really works. Without some type of support, DSLRs are damn hard to hold steady. I’ve downsized to a smaller and lighter tripod that works pretty well. I can shorten it up and use it as a brace in a pinch. Monopods, I’ve found, stop the up and down camera movements, but not the side-to-side.

Focus
Focus really sucks with the DSLR. I am manually focusing every shot. I have remapped the back of my D3s to zoom the monitor 50% using the rear toggle button. To record, I use the front function button next to the grip on the front of the camera. This allows me to quickly zoom in on my subject, focus and zoom out. Without the feature my clips would be a blurry mess. I have a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro on order, which should really help my aging eyes.

A candlelight vigil video story shot at 4000 ISO on a Nikon D3s

Lenses
I’m used to having a wide to telephoto lens with my video camera. On my DSLR, I constantly have to change lenses. The only cool thing about this is the ability to use specialty glass like my 60 mm macro lens and my 85mm f/1.4. Shallow DOF rocks with a DSLR, but it makes focus all the more critical.

ND filter
I need a neutral density filter. Last night, shooting a candlelight vigil was not a problem, but today during a PETA protest in bright sunlight, I had a hard time keeping my f-stops low enough. With DSLRs you want keep your shutter speed between a 30th to no more that 125th of a second. Go higher than that, and your video will start to look funky. An ND filter blocks the light, but not the image quality. They are pricey. I have one on order for a hundred bucks and that’s a cheap one.

Editing
I have been a Final Cut Pro fan boy for seven years, but when Apple reinvented the wheel with Final Cut X, I decided to explore other options. I purchased a copy of Adobe Production Premium for my home computer. This suite of programs is topnotch and includes Premiere Pro CS5.5. My two videos were both edited in Premiere. This modern program edits my DSLR video without transcoding. It didn’t take much effort to jump right in and start editing. It’s not as intuitive as Final Cut. Some things like track heights and how the timeline functions are driving me crazy, but all in all, I settled in just fine.

I feel I’m over the hump. Shooting and editing two quick stories showed me I could do this without losing the quality of my storytelling.

Video at newspapers needs to improve

I was disappointed after this year’s NPPA Best of Photojournalism Multimedia Contest results were posted . In the News Video category, I won an honorable mention. Great! That’s until I realized  my video was the only award given in the category. What gives? This is the second year in a row I’ve placed in this News Video category. Last year I received a second place, but no third was given.  This troubles  me. Not because I didn’t place higher, but because the judges didn’t see a video that reached a high enough level of excellence to place.

During an online chat on the Poynter Institute’s website, I asked the judges:

“Why didn’t you award first through third in news video?”

The Response:

1:27 theresa: @Colin – this was a real struggle for us. Many were full of technical errors and ignored the basic principles of photojournalism. We saw lots of evidence of urgency, however we really couldn’t award anything that had technical or fundamental errors.

I stewed about this for a time. Then after helping judge the NPPA’s Monthly Multimedia Contest last week, I began to understand the BOP judge’s dilemma.

Bottom line: Video at newspapers needs to improve. Dramatically.

The problems I continually see:

Storytelling

Many still photographers have not transitioned their storytelling skills effectively to video. Editing a video story is different from editing still photos for a newspaper picture story. With video, you have to master the fundamentals of sequencing and audio before you can tell an effective story in video. Too many still photojournalists have dipped their toes in the video world with limited training and it shows.

Bland Videos

Many newspaper-produced video stories are boring. The best stories have surprises sprinkled throughout the timeline, which helps keep the viewer engaged. This is mature storytelling that most newspaper video producers have failed to master.

Structure

A great video story is one that pulls you in from the opening sequence and never let’s go of your attention until it fades out at the end. Weak video jars you out of the moment, whether it’s from a technical issue like distorted audio, or from a narrative that fails to captivate the viewer. So many things can go wrong with a video story. Understanding these pitfalls is the first step to avoiding them.

Editing

You can have great raw video, but fail miserably in the edit. Pacing, narration, use of transitions, sequencing, layering and mixing audio all have to come together like an orchestra to make a  video story work. Fail at any one of these and your house of cards comes a tumblin’ down.

Journalism

Lots of newspaper-produced video is weak in basic journalism. Many videos I’ve watched only have one person as the subject. How many print news stories would get past an editor with only one source?

Narration

For the longest time I told myself that I didn’t want my videos to be like TV. I worked hard at telling a story by using only the subjects as my narrative spine. What you risk, doing it this way, is a story that rambles along and is not defined until long after the viewer has hit the back button. Get past the idea that narration is a bad thing. Good scripting moves a story along and serves as an objective voice for facts.

Collaboration

So you say you hate the sound of your voice and you don’t feel comfortable writing a script. Then get out into your newsroom and find a writer with a great voice and collaborate. I like to voice my own videos, but I also know my limitations. Some of my best work has been when I’ve worked with a reporter on a video story. I shoot and edit the story; he or she scripts and does the voiceover. We play to each other strengths. The final product, in the end, is better than if I tried to do it all myself.

Solutions?

When I started this blog, I wrote a post called “What we can learn from TV news shooters.” The crux of that post : TV news shooters have done video storytelling decades longer than us newbie’s in the newspaper biz, and we can learn a lot from their successes. If you are lucky enough to go to a TV video workshop, you’ll get the fundamentals drilled into your head–Shoot wide, medium tight, super tight. Shoot action, then reaction. Get that camera on sticks! Use a wireless mic. Gather natural sound. What’s your opener? Closer? And, for Christ sake, white balance your video!

These are the just the basics of video news production. Yet many newspaper video producers are still unaware of these fundamentals.

If you can, my advise is enroll in a video production workshop like the Platypus, or the NPPA’s Multimedia Immersion Workshop that is coming in May. Until you know what you are doing wrong you can’t improve your video storytelling.

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

A young girl’s death brings a community together

Candlelight vigil

There was something about the short news brief on our website that caught my eye.  A teenage girl had died in a two-vehicle accident on a state highway the previous day. Friends were organizing a last minute candlelight vigil in the girl’s honor. Lorissa Green, a 16-years-old Cheney, Washington resident died when the car she was driving collided with a pickup truck as she crossed a busy highway.

Usually, candlelight vigils do not interest me much. But that little voice in my head was going off: “You need to be there Colin, you need to be there.”  It was my day off, and weekends are not good for web traffic at my newspaper I countered. Still, I fidgeted about going out in the cold night air. My 13-year-old daughter Brenna finally told me to, “just go Dad”. “You need to be there with your camera,” she said. Maybe having two teenage daughters of my own was the reason I was drawn to this tragedy. They will be driving soon, which ages me to think about it.  The thought of them making a fleeting mistake–like not watching for oncoming traffic–is bone chilling.

I thought a lot on my drive to the vigil how I was going to cover this. I first thought about themes.

  • Loss
  • Community coming together
  • Shock and grief

About 100 fellow students, parents, friends and family of Lorissa Green gathered in a parking lot near where the accident occurred. I started out getting b-roll of candles being handed out.  There was emotion everywhere.  Visual moments came easy. People seemed ok with me shooting them as tears flowed and candles flickered in cold hands. The sister of the Lorissa gave a tearful thank you to the crowd gathered. I put my video  camera on a tripod and did some interviews with friends of Lorissa. 

Then something happened that made this vigil different than the dozen or so I’ve covered as a still shooter. Small groups walked the down the dark road to the intersection where Lorissa’s accident occurred. A Washington State Patrol Trooper escorted them across the highway to the median where they placed flowers and lit candles in the snow bank. It was emotional, haunting and just plain sad. These flickering lights in the median must have startled drivers as they passed the dark intersection.

As I returned to the vigil, Lorissa’s mother arrived. She lit a candle. I asked her for an interview, but her daughter said she’d rather I speak to her. I got my ender sound bite from her talking about how incredible it was to have all these people come and honor her sister.

Community.

That’s what this story was really about I decided.  On the drive home I started to write some narrative in my head. I didn’t have much of a hard news story. That had already been reported anyway. I find video storytelling is so different than the type of print stories we do at newspapers. The “just the facts” journalism that feeds the daily beast rings hollow to me sometimes. Video, many times, lacks the hard facts, but plays instead to the emotion and humanity of a person or event. In this case Lorissa Green, age sixteen, died the day before in a tragic car crash.  She is gone. But it’s the friends and family she left behind that matter now. Connecting to their grief, their loss was, I think, why I came to this vigil on my day off. I wasn’t being paid to tell their story. I guess I just wanted to honor the memory of a young girl whose time on this earth ending tragically in an intersection median now covered with melted remnants of candles and fading flowers.

 

Cool video shot with the Canon 5D Mark II

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Update: David shares his experience shooting with the Canon 5D MKII

Photojournalist David Stephenson with the Lexington Herald-Leader got a hold of a Canon 5D Mark II and shot a wonderful video with it. Said Stephenson on a Facebook post:

Here’s a first edit of a video shot with the new 5DMKII DSLR from Canon. It was a good test – crappy, low light, wireless mic. Mostly handheld (but tripod on the interviews) and shot all with the kit lens, 24-105mm f/4 IS. I’m sold. Goodbye XH-A1.

What I want  know David is how easy was it to edit the files? Was framing and handling easy? How about focusing? I really like the shallow depth-of-field–it gives the video a film-like feel. Nice work! Also kudos to the narrator Amy Wilson.

Canon HF-10 performs stellar during training

Last week’s two-day video storytelling workshop for six journalists from The Spokesman-Review newsroom went well.  On day one I pounded into them the fundamentals of shooting, sequencing and storytelling.  I then turned them lose to shoot the rest of the afternoon. This was a highly motivated group. All in the class wanted to learn how to shoot and edit video. There was no arm-twisting by their editors.

On day two, I demonstrated Final Cut Express and how to capture video from camera to computer.  Out of six journalists, three received the new flash drive based Canon HF-10 video camera. Two others had standard def. Sony SR-200 hard drive cameras and one photographer inherited my prized Sony HVR-Z1U.

Come capture time, I was a little nervous. Other than some quick tests, I hadn’t really given the Canon HF-10’s a real field test. The moment of truth came when the three cameras were connected to the laptops through Final Cut’s new Log and Transfer feature.  Two of the three camera’s video clips showed up in the clip pane immediately. The third camera crashed Final Cut. A quick look at the computer found the reporter had a half-dozen other programs open at the same time. After a restart, all was well.

The workflow with the HF-10 is really simple. Just after Log and Transfer is opened, all the video clips on the camera’s flash drive show up quickly in a window. In order for Final Cut Express to be able to read and edit these files, it needs to transcode them from AVCHD into something it can read and edit. In this case, it is Apple’s Intermediate codec (Final Cut Pro 6 uses the better ProRes 422 codec.)

The transferred files are large, but with today’s massive hard drives and fast processors, it really isn’t a problem. With my old Log and Capture workflow, I would bring in all my video as one large clip, then break it up once it was in Final Cut. Instead, Log and Transfer allows you to scrub each video clip quickly, setting  in and out points of only what you need. After giving the clip a descriptive label, you drag it to the transfer window.  While that clip is converting, you start on the next. By the time you are ready to start editing, you will have reviewed everything you had shot and the clips will waiting for you already be labeled in the browser.

I think this is a much faster workflow then spending countless minutes scrubbing through unlabeled clips. Editing is faster because you don’t have a bunch of crap video to wade through. The three reporters who shot with the Canon HF-10s were all pleased with the camera and workflow. The HD video is stunning compared with standard def. and the camera handled low light amazingly well.

Part of their final assignment was to shoot an interview using their new Sennheiser G-2 wireless mic. All came back with stellar audio. Editing time was about four hours for about a minute and half of edited video. Not bad for the first time editing in Final Cut. Music reporter Som Jordan shot and edited this piece, which is now posted on The Spokesman-Review’s website. Business reporter, Parker Howell shot this video that was a companion to a story he wrote. Howell already had some experience with Final Cut so he cranked out this video quickly.

At the end of the day I gave a final critique of the finished projects. I was pleased by what I saw. Many used techniques that took me a year to finally grasp. I kept my feedback positive. One of the last projects I critiqued was by photojournalist Rajah Bose on Mutton Bustin’ at the county fair. You could tell a photographer shot this video. The visuals stood out from the rest of the stories.  I was really impressed, considering this was only the second video Bose had ever edited in Final Cut.

My plan is get together every so often and hold critique sessions of videos these new VJ’s produce. I will also do more advanced training in Final Cut during some brown bag sessions. They all will have a hill to climb. There is so much I was not able to teach in such a short amount of time–but will get there together.

On the other end of video experience spectrum in our newsroom, my co-worker Dan Pelle today shot edited this incredible visual story on ultralight trike aircraft. It has excellent sequencing and each clip is framed like it was shot with a still camera. This is definitely not the Spokesman-Review newsroom of a just few years ago.

Get creative with your video camera

As newspaper still photographers transition to shooting more video, they can get overwhelmed by all the non-creative tasks they have to do. With white balancing, audio monitoring and sequencing chores at hand, many new videographers forget to be creative with their video cameras. Here are some of the techniques I use to add a little visual variety to my videos:

  • Get on your knees or climb a tree. Take the viewer to a place they wouldn’t normally go. I love putting the camera on the ground to get that unique perspective. The ground also serves as a decent tripod. Shooting high will give you that overall establishing shot that you know you need, but like me, sometimes forget.
  • Don’t just shoot a tight shot. Instead, go super tight–as tight as your lens can focus tight. These shots are gold because they are as visually jarring as they are visually interesting. They also make for excellent transitions between scenes. I learned this from master TV news shooter Dave Werthelmer. His favorite line is: “Don’t shoot the donut, shoot the donut hole.” I try to remember that line each time I start shooting.
  • Look for that subject perspective shot. An example of this would be a shot following the feet of a mailman trudging through snow, or following a toddler around from their low perspective. I think too much of what we shoot tends to be tripod or eye-level. You just have to anticipate when to drop the pod and move with the action.
  • Which brings me to rule number 134 from the manual of good video shooting. Let the action leave or enter your frame. Doing so allows you to compress time in your video.  You can quickly transition to a different scene after the subject leaves the frame. It also helps you with sequencing, allowing you to edit together a wide, medium and tight shot of your action.
  • Turn off your autofocus and try a manual shift-focus shot. Try starting with a blurry shot, and then quickly bring your subject into focus. Or try racking your focus from a foreground subject to a background subject. It is pretty effective when done right. Just make sure you are rock solid on a tripod!
  • Layer your shots with foreground elements, just like you would as a still shooter. They are more complex to see, but done well, they  really ratchet up the visual variety of your video.
  • I don’t do this often, but at times it can be effective. Use a slow shutter speed to blur movement. I’ve used it on people dancing and it gave the video clip an interesting romantic look, especially if I followed the action in time like a pan shot with a still camera.
  • Try speeding up the action or slowing it down either in camera or in your video editing program. Here, I am careful how I use this. Like the slow shutter shot, it has to be done for a reason. Don’t speed up the action just because it is cool. Do it because it adds something to your story such as compressing time. Over and under cranking your video is already overused, so be selective.
  • Shoot more telephoto shots. One thing I’ve learned since I got the tripod religion is that a solid, tight telephoto shot will fill your frame with intimacy. Because video cameras have so much depth of field, anytime you can make the background go soft so that our subject pops, you should do it. While tight on your subject, don’t forget to pull out and shoot a medium and wide shot. It’s an instant three shot sequence.

What do you do to get creative with your video camera? Please share.

Going old school

Yesterday, after driving 280 miles round trip to shoot a video on some maggot farmers—yes maggot farmers, I spotted a plum of smoke in the hills along Interstate 90.  It wasn’t much, but the winds had really kicked up. I called it in and by the time I got back to the newspaper twenty minutes later the small brush fire had bloomed into a raging wild fire. I had already put in 12 hours on the maggot story, but that little voice told me this wildfire was going to be big news.

Because it was so late in the day, I left my video camera at the office and just went old school with my dusty still cameras. Thank god I’ve kept the batteries charged up.  I quickly went home and changed into my fire resistant gear and headed to the front lines of the fire, which was now threatening a large sub division.  Dressed like a wild land firefighter, I pretty much walked past the police roadblocks.

The fire was about a mile walk away. I could hear the propane tanks exploding and gun ammunition popping from one of the 13 homes that burned to the ground that day.

I ran across an elderly man whose house had become a raging inferno. He was searching for his missing blind and deaf dog. I walked with him and as he approached his burning house, two firefighters ran up and asked him to leave because of the ammo was still popping off. Just then, a neighbor lady came and gently walked him back to his car. I made photos of the moment and headed back to the paper to move the pictures on deadline.

The fire had taken out several cell phone towers, which disrupted my and other photographer’s ability to transmit photos from the scene. My photo of the man and neighbor ran six columns across the front page. Today for online, I produced a Finding the Frame multimedia look at the story behind the photo.

Having long ago transitioned to doing mostly video storytelling and multimedia editing, I had almost forgotten that spot news rush, which comes from covering a rapidly developing story with still cameras. It is hard for online to compete visually with a six column monster photo on page one. Even my mother called me when she saw it. I miss seeing your photos in the paper,” she said.  My only response I could give her was, “So do I, so do I…”

Here is a link to other Finding the Frames that I have produced.