How best to approach a video story

Many beginning newspaper video producers tell me they feel overwhelmed by everything they have to learn. Audio, video sequencing, composition, keeping the camera steady, can drive a brain into overdrive during a shoot. But what about the storytelling? What happens to your creativity if you’re spending most of your brainpower on the technical aspects of videography?  Here are some tips I learned along the way (mostly through making mistakes) about how best to approach a video story:

  • Master the technology first. Your video camera needs to become your third eye. You should instinctively know how to operate it without a lot of fumbling. You can’t begin to tell an effective story if you don’t understand how your camera works. Read the manual. Then read it again. Don’t know what every button or menu setting on your camera does? Then you will be at a disadvantage when shooting in the field.
  • Next, master the fundamentals of shooting video. If you are lucky enough to attend a video workshop like the Multimedia Immersion, or Platypus Workshop, then listen closely and take lots notes. Review them often. When I am shooting, I am always reminding myself to look for sequences, hold the camera steady, monitor my audio, and look for action and reaction shots.
  • Watch a lot of news and feature video to learn what works and what doesn’t. There are tons of great resources and aggregators of newspaper produced video on the Web. Start with the NPPA Monthly Multimedia Contest winners. Check out Kobre Guide, Interactive Narratives and MediaStorm. Also, look at what the best of TV news does by viewing the five star stories on On videos you like, deconstruct the stories. Look at how the video starts. Does the story have surprises woven throughout to keep the viewer interested? Is there good use of natural sound? Did it have an effective ending? The more you watch, the more ideas you will generate later when you are shooting your own video.
  • Understand that video storytelling is different than telling a story in print or in a tightly edited picture story. Video is about sequencing images. You become the eyes for the viewer of your story. Take them on a journey. Long talking head narratives, with lots of fact and figures and little supporting b-roll video, will put the viewer to sleep. Video is visual. Learn to tell a story with sound and imagery that works together.
  • Respect the viewer’s time. Like a reporter that always writes long or a photographer that puts too many photos in a picture story, many videographers suffer the same fate with their video stories. Tell what is most important and get out. We’re talking 1-3 minutes for most stories, 4-5 minutes only if its really compelling stuff. Leave the long form documentaries for special projects or the film festival circuit.
  • Before you shoot, have an idea of what your story is. Sometimes I’m not sure what direction my video story should take until I get about a third of the way into shooting it. It is important to pause for a moment and define in your mind what your story is. Make a mental list of shots and interviews you’ll need to tell your story effectively. Look for shots that could be great openers or enders in your video. The bookends are the really important in video storytelling. Don’t pack up until you made the mental checklist of all the video you’ll need. Nothing is worse than being knee-deep in an edit and realizing you forgot to get a simple, but crucial shot.
  • I can’t stress enough the importance of defining your story early for the viewer. Viewers can be a fickle crowd. If they don’t know what your story is in the first 20 or 30 seconds, chances are they will bolt.
  • Pacing matters in video storytelling. Visuals for most stories should move along at a pretty good clip. This is where sequencing shots is important. Just keep reminding yourself to shoot: wide, medium and tight. I like to keep most of my video clips in my edited stories to about 1-5 seconds if I can. Don’t let the viewer have a chance to be bored.
  • Short form stories (one to five minutes) need to be tightly focused. Avoid tangents that lead the viewer into dead ends. Focus on a central idea and stick with that.
  • Strong central characters meshed with killer natural sound make the best video stories.
  • Visuals that connect to your narrative are important. When the fire chief says: “We gave mouth-to-mouth to six kittens”– I don’t want to see his face, I want to see the kittens. This is an import fundamental in video storytelling: Show the viewer what your video subjects are talking about.
  • Visual variety and shot selection keep eyeballs glued to your video. When I’m shooting, I remind myself to be more creative with my shots. Get your camera low or high. Shoot on a tripod and zoom in tight on something interesting. Do a slow pan, or a tilt, break some rules. Learn to manually control (master) the camera.
  • Understand light. Photojournalists already master this. If you are a word person, then you will need to learn to read the light in a scene. Ask yourself is it warm light or cool? Contrasty or flat? Learn to use quality light to your advantage.
  • Finally,  in whatever form, a good story is a good story. Conflict, twists, surprises, interesting characters, resolution all revealed in a dramatic structure  will captivate the viewers of your video story to the end.

Drumming my fingers as I try to figure it all out

As I sit on my back deck gazing out at the setting sun, I feel its warmth diminish as the golden glow slowly fades below the horizon. Sadly, I can think of nothing but bad “newspapers are dying” metaphors right now. I have struggled these last few weeks to find the inspiration to write something compelling about multimedia. Truth is, I’ve temporarily have lost my creative spark at work and here in print. I could blame it on my Sony EX-1 video camera being in the shop for the last couple of weeks, but that would  be scapegoating on my part.

Anyway, taking a break from being the multimedia evangelist at my paper is probably healthy for me. In my mental absence, other multimedia producers that I helped train have stepped up and continue to hold the torch for video and audio slideshows at my newspaper.

In my moment of reflection, I have come to realize that telling stories with video, or still photos and audio is hard. Damn hard. Yes, you can do it half-assed and call it good enough, but to do multimedia exceptionally well is creatively and technologically demanding, I’ve reached a point where I just need to do something outstanding with visual journalism. I’m just not sure what that is yet.

Last March, as part of my story “From stills to Video” for Digital Journalist Magazine, I was asked to put together a portfolio of my favorite still photographs I’ve taken over my 21-year career at The Spokesman-Review. I spent a few days digging through piles of yellowed special sections of projects I worked on in the ‘90s. It was depressing really. I had some incredible opportunities to tell intimate documentary-style stories back then. It seems like a distant memory now. My newspaper, like every other in the county, has turned the screws on space, staffing and design.  I can’t say I didn’t see this coming. When the first (of six) rounds of layoffs in came to in 2001, I knew the end of the golden age of photojournalism at the S-R was pretty much a done deal. Oh sure, we still produce great photojournalism from time-to-time, but most of that mojo has moved on.

During this transition, I tried to motivate our photo staff to turn to online as their creative salvation. “It is a blank canvas with no space limitations,” I would trumpet. I was usually met with: “Our site sucks for photos and nobody looks at it anyway.” They did have a point. Of course Soundslides helped change all of that. This one genius computer program gave rise to a new era of online visual storytelling at newspapers.

Still, I can’t help but see the missed opportunities that my and most newspapers made here. Visuals on the web have skyrocketed as broadband Internet connections grew. Problem is, most newspapers failed to capitalize on this transition from being a primarily text-based web to a more visual web. Most newspapers still cling to the notion that making their photos big will slow down page downloads or, heaven forbid, lead to people swiping images to pin on their office cubicle walls and home refrigerators. You just have to look at’s “Big Picture” blog to see what we all have been missing. Seeing powerful photos in all there 950 pixel-wide glory is inspiring. From what I’ve read the hits are staggering and reading the hundreds of comments that each photo gets, well, what’s everyone waiting for? Next month, The Spokesman-Review will join the growing legions of newspapers that have transitioned to the narrow web. One my co-workers duly noted that photos online will actually be bigger than in the print edition. While I’m drumming my fingers, trying to figure it all out, I hope the ebb in my flow of creativity will soon have an uptick. I’m getting mighty tired of feeling hopeless in an industry that can’t fix what ails it.