Contest season leaves an impression

In the last month or so I have judged four multimedia contests. After watching a bushel newspaper-produced video, I began to see a lot of patterns in the productions. Unfortunately, not all of it was good. From the entries, I could tell that a majority of the video producers were just starting their journey into multimedia storytelling, while others were veterans of the craft. Here are my overall impressions of what I judged:

  • Too many news videos are epics. If your story goes 5 or more minutes, it better be a barnburner. Most of these long videos could have been edited down by a third or half. Many video producers struggle with basic storytelling in this medium. Video is all about compressing time. Compare TV news video to newspaper produced video and you will see a wide gap in story pacing. TV news can be frantic, with clips of a second or two in length. Newspaper productions tend to be slow and more revealing, with longer clips and slower pace. I think there’s a happy medium here where a bit faster pacing would help many newspaper productions.
  • When watching a video, if I don’t understand what the story is about in less than 20 seconds, I lose interest fast. This is a huge problem with many newspaper videos I watched. The first thing you have to do when you start laying down video clips on the timeline is DEFINE YOUR STORY. That means using a voiceover, or a narrative sequence to pull the viewer into your story. When I work with video producers at my newspaper, defining the story is always the first thing I discuss with them.  The one thing Dirck Halstead taught me at the Platypus Workshop is to distill the story you want to tell down to one sentence. “Your story is not about an event, it is about a person,” says Halstead. Going off on tangents will kill your story, so stay on track.
  • Try to lead with your best or second best video clip. Too many video producers think way too linearly. It’s ok to lead with the middle or end of your story and then transition to a linear storyline. This is a classic storytelling device, so use it. Leading with strong video (visuals) will grab the attention of the viewer and keep them watching. Now don’t forget to define your story next!
  • Many videos I reviewed started with a talking head or voiceover in the first second. Instead, try letting natural sound be the first thing the viewer hears when opening your video–hence the “start you video with a strong video clip” suggestion.
  • There is too much zooming and panning going on out their in newspaper videoland. Stop. All that zooming and swishing is making me seasick. Say after me: “Wide, medium and tight, wide, medium and tight.”  Remember to hold each shot of at least ten seconds. Zoom with your feet, not your finger. If you shoot sequences correctly, you won’t need to use a zoom or a pan. Only occasionally will a zoom or pan be effective. Use it sparingly.
  • Start using your wireless mics. If you don’t have any, then get some. A wireless mic will improve the audio quality of your interviews. When you wire up a subject and turn them lose, audio magic can only happen.
  • I can’t stress this enough, so I will say it again. Create a nat/narrative weave in your videos. Many stories I viewed had just one person narrating the entire time with few breaks for natural sound. You should start your video with natural sound, then bring your narrative in for a time, then transition back to natural sound etc. In and out, in and out. Doing this will allow time for the viewer to process what the subject is saying. If you think about it, video asks a lot from the viewer. Listening to narrative and watching moving images at the same time can max out the brain– so give them a break.
  • Watch for wind noise. Nothing can kill a video production faster than hearing wind distortion during an interview or on your b-roll. Invest in good windscreens for your external and wireless mics.
  • Be as creative with your video camera as you are with a still camera. When I was first starting out in video, I was so consumed by all the other thing I was doing—monitoring my audio, white balancing, sequencing—that I mostly forgot the be creative in my shooting. The one thing I tell my Intro to Photojournalism students at a community college where I teach, is to get on your knees or climb a tree. Low and high angles give your video more visual variety. Your b-roll should be a creative exercise. You just have to remind yourself when shooting to try new angles and perspectives.
  • Edit surprises into your stories. Al Tompkins at Poynter calls these surprises gold coins. By sprinkling gold coins into your production, your viewer will stay with the story. It can be a great moment, or a turn in your story that is unexpected.
  • Finally, get out of your story in a way that makes the viewer feel fulfilled. Next to the opener, the ender in a video story is probably the hardest to conceive and execute. Don’t leave your viewer with that huh? feeling. A strong resolution to the storyline is best, but ending with a summary or powerful anecdote is effective too.

11 thoughts on “Contest season leaves an impression

  1. Pingback: Contest season leaves an impression « Mastering Multimedia | The Click

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  3. Fantastic advice, here’s hoping they’re listening.

    Remember, just because it’s unlike TV doesn’t mean it’s particularly good. Master the fundamentals, THEN rewrite the rule book.

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  5. Keep up the good work, Colin. You’re providing us with lots of really inspiring advices. Yep, I see the point of using your camera creatively. I’ll stick to your wise words.

  6. hey colin — great, concise list of basic video tips. i’m working on a video training manual for my newsroom, and am totally stealing these! (with attribution/credit, of course) i’ve been reading this blog for a couple months now, thought this was a good opportunity to pop in and say, thanks and keep up the good work 🙂

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