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.


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.

A better Final Cut lower thirds title generator

lowerthirds

 Final Cut Pro and Express users have long been frustrated with Apple’s lower thirds title generator for it lack of features. Many of the problems have been fixed in this free Final Cut plug-in by Alex Gollner.  It provides more typeface, position and design options for adding text to productions. Simply download it and drop it in your Final Cut plug-in folder here: Your Startup HD/Library/Application Support/Final Cut Pro System Support/Plug-ins. It’s not to fancy like a Motion template, but for quick lower thirds on deadline, this will to the trick. 

I haven’t really explored the many options for plug-ins for Final Cut. Anybody using a plug in that they can’t live without? Please share your comments…

Looking back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008

Looking back at this year’s highs and lows in newspaper multimedia, I find much to be excited about. My excitement is tempered by the growing layoffs that have affected many multimedia producers at U.S. newspapers– including my own. A year ago I would have said video storytellers were untouchable. In these challenging economic times, many newspapers have backtracked into full retrench mode as they prepare to make their final stand to save the traditional print product from extinction. This last year, online and photo departments got hit harder than expected. I lost seven of the 12 people I trained to shoot video. Other papers disbanded entire photo departments. For those left to carry on, I would say to hang tough. The need for quality multimedia storytelling is not going away. We will make it through this dark tunnel in time, so keep your video cameras and audio recorder held high. Here’s my look back at the state of newspaper multimedia in 2008.

  • Video at newspapers began to mature in 2008, as visual journalists became more proficient video storytellers. Though they’re beginning to master the basics of shooting and editing, there’s still much room for improvement. Tightening edits, writing better voiceovers and improving pacing and sequencing, should be on every newspaper video producer’s to-do list for the New Year.
  • Full screen video has finally arrived on many newspaper websites. Better compression algorithms (VP6 and H.264) and improved Internet bandwidth is allowing newspapers to provide decent looking full-screen video. At my newspaper, we built a video player that uses the latest Adobe Flash Player technology. Having hardware acceleration (player uses the computer’s GPU) and the ability to embed video anywhere on our new website adds up to a better user experience for all.
  • Video cameras are improving in both cost and features. Shooting HD video should be the norm now. It compresses better than standard def and looks stellar when played back on a hi-def monitor. But the big technology leap this year is the transition to shooting with tapeless video cameras. While most video producers are still shooting DV tape, a new breed of tapeless cameras is starting to make inroads. Canon’s entry level AVCHD format based HF-10 on the low end and the pro-based Sony XDCAM EX-1 on the high end, will soon make tape seem as dated a LP vinyl albums and Tri-X film.
  • Many newspaper websites have received redesigns that better showcase their multimedia. Unfortunately on many of these sites, multimedia is still considered an ugly stepchild to the word-driven content. Too many websites are not taking advantage of their growing video archives. Search on most newspaper websites is still an exercise in frustration.  Modern content management systems fix this by allowing tagging for all content. After a recent massive snowstorm last week in Spokane, we tagged all related content–stories, videos, photos and audio– with “Winter Storm 2008.” Click that tag on our Django based site and you’ll only get content related to that tag (way cool). On another front, most newspaper websites continue to be mostly shovelware sites for traditional newspaper stories. Their web-only content, like video and audio slideshows and database journalism is buried in a sea of links. Not getting the hits on multimedia? It’s probably because people can’t find it, and when they do, the player is crappy and the video compression sucks.
  • Audio slideshows have matured this year. Most newspaper photojournalists have become adept at gathering and editing audio. But many shows being produced seem lifeless and predicable. Deeper storytelling, better ambient audio, tighter photo and audio edits could help most audio slideshows. The Soundslides program went through a solid upgrade this year with the addition of a full-screen mode, but I am beginning to see people transition to producing audio slideshows in their video editing programs like Final Cut Pro.

Let’s hope 2009 has more highs then lows for you. I have had one hell of a year. I floated into and out of management, trained many in my newsroom to shoot and edit video, lived to see the long delayed Spokesman.com site launch. I said goodbye to two-dozen talented newsroom coworkers lost to layoffs. I found myself back behind a still camera for the first time in three years. Looking ahead, I have a strong set of multimedia goals I want to accomplish in 2009. I’m keeping my chin up–no matter what the future brings.

The Sony XDCAM EX-1 is bitchin’

ex-1

About two weeks before the massive layoffs at The Spokesman-Review, a box from B+H Camera and Video arrived in my office. My excitement was like that of a five-year-old opening a Christmas gift. I gingerly lifted my new video camera—a Sony PMW XDCAM EX-1—from the box. I had been pining for this camera since it was released last year. Thankfully the capital purchase gods favored me this year–or maybe as the dark layoff clouds gathered– they were  just foretelling my moving out of management and  back into the photo department.

I digress. This is one bitchin’ video camera. And it’s a camera that I think could be a game changer for larger newspapers producing advanced video storytelling. The EX-1 is about the size of my Sony Z1U. It is a bit heavier and has enough extra buttons on it to keep me reading the manual on a constant basis. This camera is more pro than consumer. It has a feature list that that you’ll find more on the boat anchor cameras that our TV news shooting brothers and sisters use. The EX-1 features:

  • An easy to use manual iris ring
  • Separate manual focus and zoom rings
  • Uncompressed audio capture
  • A high quality 14X lens
  • Three 1/2-inch CMOS sensors

But what is the game changer you say? Well, It’s in the cards. This camera is tapeless. It captures to SxS Pro   (S by S) memory cards. It’s a new Sony developed format that fits in the narrow V.34 slot in the MacBook Pros and in newer PC laptops. These cards are wicked fast. Pop a 16-gig card full of an hour’s worth of hi-def video into your laptop and use Final Cut Pro’s Log and Transfer feature to convert the video into and editable format (.mp4.) In about nine minutes you can have all your clips in your browser and start rocking your edit quickly. The best part about using Log and Transfer is that you can convert and start editing your a-roll interview file first. While you’re laying your a-roll on the timeline the other clips are converting in the background. That was something you couldn’t do with tape capture. What this means is that you can start editing a breaking news story in seconds.

Time has always been the stickler with video production. By minimizing the capture time your productivity goes way up. Editing EX-1 video is just like editing HDV. You should have an Intel Core Duo based laptop or multi-core desktop with at least 4 gigs of ram. But that is really becoming the standard on any new computer purchase now. Also, Adobe Premire and Avid video editing programs now support the XDCAM format.

The other benefits of the EX-1 are that it shoots in progressive mode. This is not the highly compressed interlaced video that is HDV. It is true HD 1920 X 1080 video. Its quality is stunning on a HD monitor. For the frame grab crowd, this camera captures great stills when you need it to. OK, granted video frames are not up the color depth standards of a Canon 1D Mark III, but for newspaper reproduction, I’d be amazed if you could really tell the difference.

The cost of this camera right now is steep. It will set you back about $6500 and comes with an 8-gig card. A 16-gig card will cost you $800 bucks more. (The camera has two SxS slots.) Add wireless and shotgun mics, an extra battery and your looking at $8700.00 to get you started. I am hoping Sony will let the XDCAM format trickle down into the prosumer cameras. The current AVCHD tapeless format is slow and cumbersome to work with at times.

The day after my EX-1 arrived, Canon announced the 5D Mark II. I will admit it gave me pause. After shooting video last week with a new Nikon D90, I am confident that a full-featured video camera is still needed—a least for advanced video storytellers.

Now that I am back in a producer roll, I am looking forward to time behind the EX-1. It is forcing me to shoot more like a Lenslinger would. From now on, autofocus is for the point and shoot set. And yes—the tripod is going to be my best friend.

Time to move on…

OK, it is time to move on…
I survived the last round of layoffs, but I will have to leave behind my grand vision and fancy job title—at least for now. I have been reassigned back to The Spokesman-Review photo department as a staff photographer. That department took a torpedo hit with two super-talented shooters being shown the door.

It’s time to get back to my roots. I was a still shooter for 18 years, so the transition will be fine. I am a bit rusty on the shutter, but I will get my rhythm back. But what of all the video and multimedia that was beginning to be unleashed at the S-R? Well, seven of the 12 people I trained to shoot and edit are gone now. The reality is three people, myself and staff photographers Dan Pelle, and Jesse Tinsley will pick up the video slack. Heaven knows there is enough gear to fill a camera store lining the supply closet shelves.

Ahh…the supply closet–my new workspace. I took one of the empty desks in the photo dept, but I haven’t spent much time there. I swear I must have some caveman gene in me, because I seem most comfortable in dark cramped spaces. Go figure. It is actually a decent space–twice the size of my last office—and I can’t complain about the lack of shelves now.

So what happen now? I am still a little fuzzy on what my newspaper wants from me other than to shoot great still photos and produce occasional videos. My new editor-in-chief has defined my job as being 60 percent shooting stills and 40 percent doing video. We’ll see how that translates in the real world of an increased still workload.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk in multimedia circles about what the true value video holds for newspapers. Questions have been raised about whether or not we are just wasting our time leaning a new craft that seems to take more resources then it gives back in hits (see Mindy McAdams excellent post.)

I believe video is still a young medium for newspapers. We have to give the people learning to shoot and edit time to master the craft. The frustrating thing for me is that I had all the parts in place. (Great) tools, ongoing training, talented motivated staff and a brand spankin’ new multimedia centric website that was ready to launch the day before the layoff announcement. I am disheartened by what happened, but somehow I think the pendulum will swing back eventually. There is this little thing called the mobile web that is about to unleash the video gods in ways we can only imagine. On the other end the spectrum is the delivery of high-def web video to the masses. I will quietly do my duty as a still shooter, but I will find ways to work at being a better video storyteller. My new Sony XDCAM EX-1 is staring at me from the supply closet shelve. That bad boy ain’t going to be collecting dust for long.