Video brings new opportunities for documentary filmmakers

As the recession ambles along and my ability to do sustained video storytelling slows, I think it is time for me to start broadening my visual horizons.  A couple of weeks ago I was asked to sit on a panel discussion with local Spokane filmmakers. It is a newly formed organization that plans to gather monthly to share ideas and  work of people invested in the art of documentary filmmaking.

Talk about a domestic duck trapped in a sea of wild mallards. Here I sat with folks whose medium is film– the 16 mm kind.  We had an interesting conversation and I really enjoyed the evening. The filmmakers discussed the challenges of finding funding and distribution for their documentary work. I learned many spend years writing grants to raise the money to buy film stock, processing and to fund post-production costs.

Ok, I admit I am totally out of my league here. Documentary filmmakers are a passionate, diverse group.  Anyone who can stay invested in telling a story, which can take years to see a final project projected at a film festival or ultimately broadcast to a wide audience on PBS, is all right by me.

Still I had to wonder why so many filmmakers stick to using film when high def video is available for next to nothing.  When I asked: “Why not chuck expensive film stock and just go video?” The response was almost universally: “Its the look we like, its the tradition.” Funny, that’s the same thing I heard when still photographers were transitioning to digital.  I can honestly say now that my images look way better than anything I shot in my early years shooting Tri-X  black and white film or, God forbid, Kodak  high-speed 400 iso negative film.

A good many filmmakers have already made the transition from film to video. High definition video is opening up new opportunities for documentary filmmakers that would otherwise be missed if someone were waiting years to get grant funding to produce it on film. I understand there are still costs, but wow, what one person with decent video camera skills, a laptop and Final Cut Pro can do now.  When I look at all the credits on a documentary film, I have to wonder if three fourths of the names are really needed. Who needs a colorist when Final Cut Pro’s  “Color” program will give you the look you want with just few mouse clicks.”  And what about having to hire an editor and cameraperson to shoot and stitch your story together?  I would rather be in control of all the elements of my story.  I realize the big projects are best made with a dedicated team of editors, producers and camera people. But what if the team was smaller and everyone had more than one skill?

As newspapers shed their talented visual staffs, one must wonder what all the folks with video storytelling training are going to do with their new skills? These are creative people trained to shoot, edit, and produce quality storytelling on a deadline. One must wonder if a new wave of documentary filmmakers, freed from the legacy of film and film schools, will focus their small video cameras on stories deemed too risky financially for traditional documentary producers to bother with. I think the film festival circuit is about to get a fresh shot of creativity from a growing legion of former newspapers video journalists.

The Digital Journalist dedicates issue to video journalism

This month’s issue of The Digital Journalist is dedicated to newspaper video journalism. Publisher Dirck Halstead called me a month ago and asked me to write a story about how I transitioned from being a still photographer to becoming a multimedia producer at my newspaper. Writing about my journey, I’ve found, has been mildly therapeutic.  My last five years as a visual journalist have been an intense and challenging. Through it all, I remain confident that video storytelling at newspapers will survive and flourish.

hallway

This issue was guest edited by Ken Kobre and Jerry Lazar, who did  fantastic job of touching on all the video journalism bases. Stories include:  “How to Build an Emmy-Winning Videojournalism Department” by Kathy Kieliszewski of the Detroit Free Press, to a look at how Erik Olsen, a former ABC TV cameraman, transitioned to being a one-man band video journalist for The New York Times. Also check out “Ken Kobre’s 10 Tips for Dramatically Improving Your Videojournalism Stories.” Halstead also wanted me to upload about 30 of my favorite still photos I’ve taken over my career. You can check out that gallery here. This is one Digital Journalist issue you won’t want to miss.

Video storytelling: We simply must do better

Second Place News Video 2009 BOP contest

Second Place News Video 2009 BOP contest

The other day I found out  I’d won second place in the News Video category in the NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism contest. My excitement at winning was tempered in that a third place was not awarded in my category. This left me befuddled. Judges twitters’ and Facebook posts had trickled out over the week saying they were not impressed by what had been entered. Having judged a lot of multimedia contests, I felt their pain. Weak stories dominate most multimedia contests. The cream rises fast. But for BOP judges to feel there was not enough cream to award a third place in the news video category just makes me sad. Sad because it simply says we need to do a better job with our video storytelling.

I think there are several reasons in play for all this weak newspaper video being produced:

Not enough training.

Too many newspapers, chasing a trend, handed out video cameras like candy to photojournalists and reporters. With little training, the results have been cringe-worthy. Many of these new video producers do not understand even the basic fundamentals of video storytelling and editing. They are flailing around in the dark trying to make it work. One-day training seminars just don’t cut it. Unfortunately, most newspapers are too cheap to actually send their people to real video training workshops like the nine-day Platypus or the NPPA’s five-day Multimedia Immersion workshop.

Lack of mentors

There are not enough mentors and coaches to help people improve. Most newspapers started from scratch when it came to video production. Unlike TV news, which mastered the art of video storytelling over decades, newspapers had no institutional knowledge when it came to video production. There are few video-masters in place at newspapers that can help train and mentor video storytellers.

Video storytelling basics

Many newspaper videographers are struggling with the medium. So much of what I see entered in contests are void of any storytelling arc. The videos meander along, failing to define early to the viewer what the story is about. What’s the conflict? Where’s the resolution? Why no surprises built in to keep viewers engaged in the story? Too many newspaper-produced videos are just plain boring and uninspiring.

I am hoping these early growing pains will work themselves out. In the meantime, I hope successful video producers will continue to share their knowledge with others that are learning. If we work together, we can all improve our video storytelling. Maybe then, the BOP judges will feel comfortable enough to give out third place awards.

JVC GY-HM100U and Final Cut Pro–A match made in heaven

JVC GY-HM100

JVC GY-HM100

While most still photojournalists are fawning over the wonderful DSLR/video hybrid Canon 5D Mk. II, JVC quietly unveiled a new tapeless ProHD camcorder that shakes things up a bit in the news-video world. The soon to be released (April 2009) JVC GY-HM100U has some killer features that I have been waiting years for.

First and foremost, JVC built this camera to record in native Final Cut Pro’s QuickTime file format. Its files need no ingesting/transcoding like an AVCHD files do. Nor does it re-wrap the file to an editable format like my Sony XDCAM EX-1. What this means is you can start editing video from the camera  immediately. The GY-HM100U is built to work seamlessly with Final Cut Pro 6. I’m not sure if Final Cut Express 4 is supported with this camera yet.

Second, it records to cheap SDHC media cards. Instead of having to buy Sony $800 dollar 16 gig SxS cards or Panasonic’s P2 media, 40 bucks will get you a 16 gig SDHC card for the GY-HM100. It has two card slots for a combined total 64 gigs of storage space.

Third, the GY-HM100U  has a small form factor. It weighs just three pounds. My wrist sometimes hurts when I shoot with my much heavier Sony XDCAM EX-1, so this full-featured, but light weight camera would be a welcome relief.

The GY-HM100U seems to have all the bells and whistles I’d expect from a pro camera:  A decent HD lens, dual channel balanced audio inputs, full manual controls, for focus, white balance, shutter, iris etc.

Finally cost. JVC says it will be priced below $4000.00. That is right in the price point of the popular tape-based Canon XH A1.

High fives to the JVC engineering team for listening to their customers. This is a shot fired over the bow of Canon who has yet to produce a tapeless pro camcorder. Codec’s like AVCHD are fine for consumers who have the time wait for the files to be converted, but not so in deadline environments newspapers work in. Lets hope this is the beginning of a new generation of video cameras that will make transcoding and file rewrapping a thing of the past.

Here a couple of links for more  info on the JVC GY-HM100U:

GY-HM100U product video

JVC GY-HM100U Info page

Cool video shot with the Canon 5D Mark II

boxing1

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.

Peter Huoppi video’s are a slice of heaven

I recently ran across this blog by multimedia journalist Peter Huoppi who works at the newspaper The Day in New London, Connecticut. Two of Huoppi’s more recent video stories show where I believe the best in newspaper video storytelling is heading. The videos “Vampires in Connecticut” and “Mystic Pizza” are based in solid journalism and feature a strong use of voice-overs. The video editing is well-paced and you can tell the b-roll was shot by someone with a photographer’s eye.

What I like best about these two stories is that they are told well. Both are a bit long by newspaper website standards, but I found I watched them to the end because they were compelling. I think what works best in both of these pieces is the use of voice-overs that help move the story along. This is where I feel newspaper videographers need to start developing more.

Last week, a post in the B-roll.net forum, showcased my last blog post about the video meltdown at my newspaper. The tone of some of the comments said basically that newspapers shouldn’t do video because we suck at it. All I have to say to that is look at what Peter Huoppi is producing. His stories are better produced than most of the ambulance chasing stories I see on my local TV news each day. And he didn’t need a fleet of reporters, producers, video editors and engineers to publish it. Newspaper video storytelling on the web will only improve with time.  Having video storytellers like Peter Huoppi to inspire us will only make us better.