The change: Video storytelling and the rise of the DSLR

It happened so fast. The change. One day, photojournalists were just doing their thing. Shooting daily photos for their newspapers. Maybe even an odd photo story or two. A lucky day was getting a page or a double truck on Sunday to showcase all their hard work.

Video at newspapers was out there on the fringes. A few staffers braved the online world and embraced a new way to tell a visual story. Except this time, it was on the World Wide Web. No space restrictions here. Most traditional still shooters shrugged their shoulders and continued on with the status quo. Video cameras were for “TV types,” they said.

Then the layoffs hit hard. In 2009 and onwards, photo departments at many newspapers were gutted. Hundreds of staff photographers were tossed onto the streets to fend for themselves. To freelance.

In the midst of all this chaos, a new type of still camera was quietly released by Canon. The 5D Mark II had a little secret– it could shoot kick-ass HD video. A few brave photojournalists used the new technology to produce stunning imagery. Images unlike anything ever seen in the video camera world. Shallow depth-of-field shots and cinematic looks that mimicked film dropped many jaws along the way. The smart ones ran with it. Reinvented themselves and in doing so, reinvented the genre of documentary filmmaking. Overnight the doc film industry changed. Shooting with Film stock was done. Former still photojournalists, once resistant to shooting video, now embraced it.

The commercial still photography market tanked as a “billion of photojournalists” raised their iPhones and posted their snaps on Flickr.

Because the DSLR camera was familiar, still photojournalists could buy in without judgment. The taint of video, hidden in a tiny package of a pro DSLR camera gave courage to those that once scoffed at the idea. It did not matter that the DSLR was much harder to shoot with than a traditional video camera. What did they know? They had never shot with a Sony or Panasonic video camera with built-in stabilization and pro audio inputs.

The aftermarket kicked in with a plethora of accessories to make the 5D Mark II easier to focus and improve the bad audio the camera outputted.

Soon the former photojournalists were now calling themselves filmmakers. The old ideas of us (still) vs. them (TV) dissipated. “Us” became “them,” but in a different way.

Video storytelling changed. The entry point into the documentary film world flattened. An army of new filmmakers, not confined by the limitations and cost of film, were unleashed. Stories, some short, some long (most too long,) gave rise to publishing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. No longer did you need a TV to showcase your vision. Shoot and edit your story yourself, then post it to the Web. Maybe even enter a film festival or two.

Former photojournalists, the ones newspapers turned their backs on, were the most creative with the new DSLR video medium. They brought a keen sense of composition, moment and storytelling to the table. But sometimes that was not enough. They needed to understand that great imagery did not a great story make. Each failure was a learning opportunity.

The unfortunate ones were the Nikon shooters. The Nikon D90 was the first DSLR to have video capabilities. But Nikon took a nap after that release. Canon became the de facto standard for DSLR video. The release of the Nikon D800 and D4 played catch up and now a lost generation of Nikon users are joining the fray of filmmaking.

I sit here now stewing, one of the first still photojournalists that embraced digital video storytelling at a newspaper. I was a change agent; embracing the idea that video was an important path to enhancing our online content. In those early days of 2004, our website was mostly text-based with a few postage stamp-sized photos sprinkled about.  I evangelized, I shared, and I taught video sequencing to anyone who wanted to learn. I produced hundreds of video and multimedia stories. I even survived 11 rounds of layoffs at my newspaper. But now I feel like the old man talking about the good old days. Many of my photojournalists friends who left newspapers unwillingly are doing incredible documentary video stories now.

Video storytelling is hard. It takes commitment to keep learning. To keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible with the tools available.

In the blink of an eye, things change. It comes down to how you respond to that change. Give up and you stagnate. Embrace and you risk failure. Fear is the great equalizer. I keep telling myself  “no fear, no fear.”

I really love video storytelling. Though now I feel the cool kids have taken the torch and somehow passed me by. I tell myself I still have knowledge and experience on my side.

Inside me is a storytelling machine waiting to be unleashed. My Nikon D4 beckons. The world is full of stories. The only one that keeps me from telling them is fear.  No fear. No fear. No fear.

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.