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.

Watch this: Using Compressor in FCPX

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you don’t already use the audio filter Compressor in your video or audio editing application, then you are missing out on the key ways to make your dialogue sound better in your productions. Here is an excellent video tutorial from MacBreak Studio’s Steve Martin and Mark Spencer who show you how to apply a compressor filter to a clip and adjust the parameters in Final Cut Pro X. The key thing to remember when applying the filter is the 4:1 ratio. It will make your dialogue clearer–much like applying a unsharp mask to a photograph .

Audio Recorder/Preamp Shootout

Robert Rozak, President of JuicedLink, compares and demonstrates the different preamps and digital recording devices for their low noise capabilities . The key information he stresses is that a preamps connected to a DSLR camera are just as good if not better that recording audio separately with say an Zoom H4n. Take a listen and judge for yourself.

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.

Teaching video storytelling

Having just finished teaching a community college Intro to Documentary DV Production class, I’d thought I would share with you my formula for instructing students on how to shoot a video story in a way that makes the editing process go smoothly.

I always tell my students that even Michael Jordan needed to learn the fundamentals of basketball and the same goes for video storytelling. Much of what I teach is based on what I learned at video storytelling workshops like the Platypus (class of 2005) where the language of TV was drilled into me with the rigors of a U.S. Marine boot camp.

I continue to practice what I preach by shooting and editing video stories for my newspaper’s website. I’ve taught these video fundamentals at a half-dozen video storytelling workshops I’ve coached at. It is battle-tested and works with students who have never shot video before. The textbook I use to reinforce what I teach is the just published “Videojournalism: Multimedia Storytelling” by Prof. Ken Kobre.

Baby steps…

I assign my students five shooting assignments over the course of an 11-week quarter. Each assignment builds onto the next.

VOX POPS 

The term “vox pop” comes from the Latin phrase vox populi, meaning “voice of the people”. The vox pop is a tool used in many forms of media to provide a snapshot of public opinion. Random subjects are asked to give their views on a particular topic and their responses are presented to the viewer/reader as a reflection of popular opinion.

This is a group assignment where the class comes up with one question that they will ask of their subjects. Each student has time behind the camera and asks the question of at least five strangers. In this case: “It is 2012 and knowing the world is about to end, what is the one thing you would want to do before you died?”

We shoot on campus and I float amongst the groups reminding them to get the camera and mic close enough to their subjects and to make sure to hold the camera steady as possible etc.

The process for students is messy and challenges them to face their fear of talking to random strangers. At the end of class, I gather all the tapes and take them home for the night where I quickly edit about and hour’s worth of footage into a 45 second video.

In the next class, I start the discussion about what could you do with all that raw footage? Could you tell a story with it? I then show the edited video of their work. Quick cuts, matched action shots, editing on motion are all in the video. I start to see the light bulbs over heads coming on.

They now get it: editing=storytelling. Now we’re off to the next assignment:

Cutting Carrots

The cutting carrots is a well-known video assignment given to new solo video journalists at the Video News International storytelling boot camps in the early 90s.

The premise of cutting carrots is to learn the basic foundations video sequencing by shooting something repetitious (like someone cutting up carrots.) The goal here is to shoot as many types of shots that you will later edit together into a montage.

This is a group assignment, where each student shoots another student at his or her class computer as they do some work. The key is to get them to move beyond shooting a scene with one long wide shot. This assignment introduces the concept of sequencing. By breaking down the long video clip into many different shots—wide, medium, tight, over-the-shoulder, shooting the action (fingers on the keyboard) then shooting the reaction (the face of the subject,) students learn the fundamental principle of video sequencing, which is the compression of time.

Students then use Final Cut Pro X to edit their footage into a short sequence of shots. For many it is their first time in a video editor. The editing assignment is not stressful because I have prepped the students with basic tutorials on how to edit in FCPX. I tell the students to make the edit as clean as possible. I then sit down with each them and enhance the edit. I find almost all the student sequences are too long. I start by trimming time from each clip to make the pacing faster. I find edit points where a matched edit would work, I show them why it is important to let the action come into a frame and then leave. To me this one-on-one is the best learning tool they have. Many students I’ve had who have basic video editing experience tell me, “why hasn’t somebody shown me this before?” We’re rolling now. On to:

Sequence A to B

Now let’s take sequencing to the next level by showing someone going from point A to point B. You must utilize enough shots so that a viewer of your finished video understands what is happening even though you have dramatically compressed time in the scene. When shooting a sequence like this, you have to anticipate the action.

In this assignment students really have to think about the shots they will need to complete a moving sequence showing a fellow student getting up from their desk, walking out of the building, getting on a bicycle and riding off. In real time this could take a few minutes, but by shooting wide, medium, tight, action, reaction, the final edited sequence is about 30 seconds. I stress to the students to anticipate the action, to let action come into and out of frame because it makes for natural edit points later. I make sure they understand that tight shots are great transitions between scenes. The editing process is the same. I let them struggle with it first and then I sit down and show them how to make the edit better. Again most student clips are too long. Some shots are redundant and need to be cut. We work together to find ways to match the action of the outgoing clip to match the incoming one. By the time the assignment is done most of my students are ready to actually tell a video story.

Widget Maker interview (A-roll + B roll = story)

Time to take what you have learned so far about sequencing and shot selection and produce a short video story about someone who does something interesting. It could be an artist, or someone who has an interesting job. How about a friend that has a cool hobby or sport? Just make sure to choose someone who does something visual.

Now students are tasked with finding, shooting and editing their first video story. These aren’t journalism students, so much what I teach about video journalism is foreign to them. I stress the ethics of truthfulness. That with documentary, they need to be truthful in how they shoot, and how they treat and portray their subjects. Between these shooting assignments students learn about audio gathering fundamentals, and how to conduct and light an interview.

I ask students to find a subject who does something visual—an artist, craftsmen etc. In the first year I taught the class I said I didn’t care about them creating a full story as much as I wanted a solid b-roll sequence that matched with what the subject was talking about. I was surprised that many students took the assignment further by crafting an actually story from their interviews and b-roll. This year I made storytelling a priority and the work was stronger because of it.

Final Documentary Project

Whereas the Widget Maker assignment was about telling a story with one subject, the students’ final documentary project expanded out to include multiple subjects, but with an eye on keeping the stories less than five minutes long. With only three weeks left in the quarter, this assignment is the most stressful and challenging for students.

Throughout the quarter I am pushing students to come up with ideas for their final documentary. Many stories fall through at the last-minute. Still, I’m pleased with much of the work, considering the level where the students were before they entered the class. For the final project, I really stress story and story construction. Many students struggle with how to open their docs. I steer them away from starting their video with a talking head. I push them to gather more natural sound b-roll so that they can weave it in and out of their interview clips. As deadline nears, the more time a student lets me work with them on their Final Cut Pro X timeline the better shape their story takes and the more, I believe, they learn. On the last day of class, I always wish there was more time to make the final doc projects better.

I created a class resource blog where all students were authors and could post content and comments and their projects. Check it out. All the above assignments are in the toolbar and you are free to download, change or adapt for your own use.