Police funeral video: A video storytelling challenge

 

My assignment was to cover a police officer’s funeral.

Ok. I think about how a funeral unfolds. I arrive at the high school gym an hour early and score a decent parking spot. I set up my Nikon D4 DSLR camera on the mezzanine level of a high school gym with a 200-400mm f/4 lens and a wireless mic to capture video of the speakers. I also shoot b-roll of the mourners and crowd shots. Now what?

This is what I faced as I formulated my plan to cover the funeral service of Coeur d’Alene Police Officer Greg Moore who was killed in the line of duty in May.

And this is where three local TV news stations covering the funeral and my newspaper produced video diverged. We had two still photojournalists, Dan Pelle and Kathy Plonka, covering the funeral. I decided ( at the last minute)  my job was to find the gold coins from the speakers and then create a narrative spine to hang the still photos on. I also made sure to shoot video b-roll of the police car procession mixed with citizens lining the funeral route.

An hour after the event was over,  I was staring at a blank timeline with a ton of raw video in my Final Cut Pro X browser waiting to be edited. I began to panic. How can I tell this story in a short amount of time, but still connect emotionally to what was happening?  Where do I start?

It took me a few minutes, but my simple solution was to start with a music track.  I headed over to Preminumbeat.com and purchased a simple piano-based track that had a slow beat. Once I laid the music down in the Final Cut Pro X timeline, it was just a matter of meshing the one speaker, who defined the communities response to the tragedy, with the still photos, which I edited the beat of the music. I realize this not the type of video story TV news could or would want to tell (stand ups and anchor tosses are the norm.) The newspaper benefited from also having a wonderfully fact-filled print story for online readers, but this video allowed them to feel the emotion of the event in ways the printed word can rarely do.

Video storytelling is a wide-open genre. I’ve learned over time there is no right or wrong way to approach a story. I just try to make sure to connect with the emotion of my subjects. If I do, I know my video story will be good as gold.

Just because a news photo makes you feel uncomfortable, does it mean it shouldn’t be published?

 

Sara Lavigne, right, and her mother, cancer patient Jana Lavigne, leave Deaconess Health and Education Center after witnessing a domestic shooting in the Rockwood Cancer Clinic, Tuesday, July 8, 2014, in Spokane, Wash. Initial reports indicate the gunman opened fire inside the clinic, killing his wife, then turned the weapon on himself. The wife reportedly worked at the clinic. Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review

Sara Lavigne, right, and her mother, cancer patient Jana Lavigne, leave Deaconess Health and Education Center after witnessing a domestic shooting in the Rockwood Cancer Clinic, Tuesday, July 8, 2014, in Spokane, Wash. Initial reports indicate the gunman opened fire inside the clinic, killing his wife, then turned the weapon on himself. The wife reportedly worked at the clinic. Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review

“EDITORS, TAKE THIS PHOTO DOWN NOW!” posted an online commenter after this image led our home page for most of the day.

Earlier, a police scanner call had come into the newsroom saying two people were shot in the Rockwood Cancer Treatment Center at Deaconess Hospital. I ran to my car and arrived at the scene a few minutes later.

Emergency personnel  scurryed about; ambulances stacked up outside the building.  I made as many overall scene shots as I could.

I spotted a TV cameraman interviewing two women in a car. As I walked up, S-R reporter Kip Hill joined me. With the TV interview completed, we tried to ask some questions about what happened and were meet by a panicked narrative of shots being fired, of fleeing, of disbelief of what had just occurred so close to them in another room. It was a one-minute interaction as a buildup of vehicles behind their car forcing them to move on. They quickly gave us their names and the passenger confirmed to me she was a cancer patient at the clinic.

I shot a dozen or so frames of the women. Soon after, the fire trucks and ambulances left and a press conference was called. It turned out to be a domestic murder-suicide. A man shot and killed his wife who worked in the cancer clinic. So why publish this dramatic photo?

Photojournalists sometimes take a lot of heat for the images they make. Capturing fleeting moments of life and people in my community is my job. Most days, my photography is mundane– an environmental portrait of an artist, a shot of a high school basketball game or a slice of life feature picture. Other days, photos, like this one, standout. They can make readers and viewers react negatively because of their shock value. Many times online commenters will use the word “sensationalism” when posting about a photo.

So why did we choose this one to publish? Because it best illustrates the shooting aftermath of what happened inside the clinic. It tells an emotional story without words– the panicked look on the driver’s face, her cancer patient mother in the passenger seat, distraught and uncomfortable. My other frames of police and firemen standing around could not illustrate what happened inside the building. So the editing choice: mundane or more storytelling. Storytelling wins every time, even if it makes you the reader feel someone else’s pain and discomfort.

Video editing breakdown: “Everyone needs a painting”

It’s not often a video story comes knocking at my door. A few weeks ago, Pat Adams, my next-door neighbor, came over to my house to ask me how she could get in contact with Dan Pelle, a co-worker of mine at The Spokesman-Review. Adams told me she had painted a picture of Pelle’s dog Koko, who died in a vicious pit bull attack last year, and wanted give the painting to him.

I learned Adams has been churning out dozens of oil paintings of people’s pets that have died, and that most of the painting recipients had never met her. When she told me she did the paintings free of charge, I knew I had a story.

I spent a few mornings shooting Adams as she painted. As you watch the video, take note of some of the production and editing techniques I used:

I start the story with a video title card with music. This short opener allows web viewers to adjust their audio. It also makes a great thumbnail for Vimeo, if that is where you upload to.

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I open the video with Adams painting at her kitchen saying: “I love to paint…”  I use a camera slider to add movement in the first two shots. It gives the video a cinematic feel and helps reveal my subject for the first time.

At 0.24 I introduce Adams with my opening narration. “For the past thirty years, artist Pat Adams has set up a painting easel and palette on her kitchen table…”  Yes, I could have told this story without narration, but I don’t think the storytelling would have been as efficient. In this video, I only narrate in places where the story needs definition or a transition of time or place.

When I started shooting with my Nikon D4 DSLR–a great low-light camera–I didn’t think I needed to light Adam’s kitchen. But the cool window light mixed with the warm incandescent light made it tough to get a clean white balance. Thankfully, I had a light kit at my house next door, and a few minutes later, I had two quartz halogen lights set up to bounce off the white kitchen ceiling. The white balance improved dramatically with the added warmer, softer light.

Audio. I love using a wireless mic on subjects. The audio is clean and dynamically full compared to using just a shotgun mic. It has one other huge benefit—it allows the subject to be more natural without having a big microphone pointed at them from a foot away. I can be across the room shooting wide shots and still be getting wonderful soundbites to use later in the edit. Where the wireless mic paid off in this story is when Adams would talk to the painting. Those parts were emotional gold when I assembled this story later in Final Cut Pro X.

In the first minute of the video, Adams reveals, as a young mother of a Down syndrome child, she had a small stroke. Her cardiologist told her she had to paint to relieve the stress. This is the first gold coin in the video. I don’t reveal the true direction of the story yet because I want to pull the viewer in and surprise them with the next revealing moment.

At 1.06, I say: “Adams put her brush to canvas. At this point in the video I use a super-tight shot of her brush dabbing the canvas with paint. This is one of my favorite clips in the video. I shot it with a 60mm macro lens. It helps hold viewer interest in the story because I am showing them something they can’t normally see.

The interview. I waited to do the interview until the second time I shot Adams painting. This allowed me to ask better questions. I kept a mental list to things Adams told me during the first shoot, which then helped me formulate better questions to ask her in the formal interview.

The next big gold coin comes at 1.47. Adams says: “I think the first animal I painted was Sage…” This is where the first emotional tug in the story comes. It reveals what the story is really about, and hopefully, keeps the viewer engaged in where the story is going.

Music. I learned a valuable lesson about how to use music after I posted the video asking for feedback on a Final Cut Pro X forum site. Professional editor Jeff Bartsch gave me this advice:

“Big sloppy rule of thumb: in much doc/reality/verite TV, you’ll find that most cues of music run between 30-60 seconds. Anything longer runs the risk of saying the same thing too many times or getting old. At the moment, the piece is 6 minutes and has only 2 cues of music that are pretty much the same, though the piece has multiple sections of exposition and progression of thought.”

What Bartsch helped me understand was I needed to use music as a transitional element. As the scenes, or tone of the story changed, so too should the music. I added in three more music tracks, each to fit the different tones of the story. It was a huge improvement (Thanks Jeff.)

At 2.15, I start showing some of Adam’s animal paintings. I used an out of focus photo of a painting palette as a colorful background. I use a drop shadow on the paintings to set them off a bit from the background.

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The one thing I kept telling myself as I shot Adams as she painted was to, “shoot wide, medium, tight, tight, tight.” The variety of the tight shots really made the editing job easier because I could use those shots as transitions between scenes.

The next story gold coin comes at 3.07 when Adams says: “What’s the scariest thing in handing someone a painting”? I cut to Adams walking out of her kitchen with a dog painting and giving it to a young couple in the living room. Adams voice over continues to talk about her fear of rejection, but at the same time, the couple tells her they love and are amazed by her generous gift. This is where understanding the power of the edit—how you can weave different threads of narrative and have it all work together to advance the story–is so important.

At 4.00 I take Adams out of the house and into her car to deliver the painting to Dan Pelle. Other than knowing that she is bringing him a painting of his dog Koko, they had not met until he opens his door. I just told Dan I was going to be there and to just ignore me during their interaction.

I shot some driving scenes on the way, and then a shot of Adam’s pulling into the driveway. This is where it starts to get technically messy. I switched to a traditional video camera for these scenes, because in run-and-gun situations, I find a DSLR is too slow to focus and make auto balance corrections on the fly. And because my video camera has two channels of audio (shotgun on the camera and a wireless on Adams) it gave me backup audio if one of the audio channels failed.

My favorite edit comes as Adams exits her car and shuts the door. I straight cut directly to Pelle opening his front door and greeting Adams. In one simple edit, I cut a whole bunch of time out of getting Adams from her car to the front door. I think it works, but it is a bit jarring.

At 4.30, Adams is invited into the house. It is technically challenging to go from outside daylight to inside incandescent mixed light. I put the camera into full-auto mode and hoped for the best. As I headed into the house, the camera was recording Adams and the Pelle’s as they introduced themselves. I can’t really shoot any cut-aways to cover the weird transition of white balance and exposure shift. Later, as I was editing this scene, I added a still photograph of the dog painting to cover of some of bad color shift. I always strive for perfection, but sometimes it just out of reach.

The next gold coin is the interaction between Dan Pelle and Adams during the painting hand off. It is emotional (for her) and yet what Dan Pelle tells Adams is heartfelt.

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So how to get out of this story? Ira Glass, producer of “This American Life” says that a good story has to have a moment of reflection to remind the viewer why it was worth spending their time watching your story. As I was reviewing my footage, I came across this audio gem: “Its wonderful to see them. It’s like having your pet back home. Everyone needs a painting,” said Adams. I knew this clip was going to be my ender, my moment of reflection in the story.

“Everyone needs a painting” has gotten a lot of positive feedback from viewers. “I’m bawling in front of my computer,” is one common comment on Facebook. Knowing that my edit instilled an emotional response, makes me feel confident I told a compelling story.

 

My final choice of video editing program: Final Cut Pro X

The cries were fierce and seething. What did Apple do to my Final Cut Pro? It has been a little over two years since Apple software engineers upended the video-editing universe with the release of an “all new” Final Cut Pro X version of the proverbial video-editing program. Not long after the initial discussions as to whether it is called “X” or “Ten” subsided, did the bitchin’ and moaning among the ranks start.

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Me? Well, I just dove in with gusto. Unfortunately, many fine editors made one big mistake. They tried to use the program without investing the time to learn how to use the new features—many of which were either a totally new way to edit (magnetic timeline) or ran counter to the way they worked in FCP 7 (dual viewers, bins etc.)  They complained. Then they complained some more. Change was tough, especially for editors that lived in the old FCP paradigm since version 1.0

Before I even tried to edit my first project, my first stop was IzzyVideo’s excellent free FCPX video tutorials. I watched each several times until I began to grasp all the new concepts–connected clips, skimming, magnetic and secondary timelines, keywording and so on . I  made sure I knew what each button in the interface did.

My first story edit went off without much fanfare. Still, I wasn’t totally convinced FCPX was better than my beloved FCP 7. The magnetic timeline drove me nuts, the single view monitor was strange and all that skimming took some time to get used to. I soldiered on and by the end of my third or fourth project, I started to jell with the program. Having to edit something in FCP7 now felt foreign. I kept wanting to skim clips in the browser.

My foray into FCPX was not without a hiccup that almost gave me a heart attack. Since its release, Apple has moved quickly to restore some of the lost features in the previous version. Multi-cam editing, XML export and dual viewers to name a few. But with all this updating, some versions became show-stopping unstable. Discussion boards were full of “FCPX didn’t save my project and now it is gone” type posts, which drove many editors over to the Adobe Premiere or Avid camps for good.

I was just completing a week-long editing project in version 10.05 when I started to trim a black slug at the tail end of my video. All of a sudden, poof, my entire project timeline turned gray. All the clips just vanished. A trip to the Apple discussion boards turned up many angry folks in the same boat as me. In typical Apple fashion, they shrugged their shoulders with silence and it took a user to figure out a convoluted solution to restore corrupted projects.

It made me realize at the time how much more FCPX needed to germinate before it was ready for real world work. That was a year ago and things seem to have smoothed out. My editing speed has accelerated dramatically the more I use FCPX.  I feel much more comfortable and trusting of the program. I taught a video storytelling and production class at a community college and I found the students learned the basics much faster than they did in Final Cut Express.

So for now, Adobe Premiere sits in my applications folder unused. I have chosen FCPX as my video editing program. I continue to suck up as much information on how to use the program as I can. Lynda.com has really stepped up and provided some of the best FCPX tutorials around. If you invest the time, I believe you will become much more comfortable with FCPX. It truly is video editing reimagined. I look forward to what future upgrades bring.

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 .

What I learned shooting my first two DSLR video stories

A PETA protest video story shot with a Nikon D3s

In the past 24 hours I have produced two news videos that I shot for the first time with my Nikon D3s. The transition for me shooting DSLR video has been slow. I have been quite comfortable with my Sony XDCAM EX1. But as more photographers embrace shooting video with a DSLR, I figured it was time to jump in. Here are some issues I encountered while shooting my stories.

Workflow
When I first started shooting with a traditional video camera, I was challenged by the workflow. Having to monitor audio, think in sequences and deal with a dozen other simultaneous details was overwhelming at times. I feel like that now shooting video with my DSLR camera. The workflow is a house of cards. Mess up one thing and your story is hosed. Forget to turn on the mic? Without being able to monitor your audio like a video camera, you’ll end up with a bunch of clips with no audio. I live in fear of this.

Mics
I’m shooting with a Sennheiser MKE 400 mic mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. I’m used to shooting with a full-sized Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun. This mini mic is definitely not in the same class as its big ME66 brother. It is important to get the mic close to the subject, and watch out for wind noise. Get a dead cat windscreen for this mic. The little one that came with mine fell off into the abyss within 15 minutes of ownership.

Stability
Using a DSLR makes me fully understand how much the optical stabilization on a video camera really works. Without some type of support, DSLRs are damn hard to hold steady. I’ve downsized to a smaller and lighter tripod that works pretty well. I can shorten it up and use it as a brace in a pinch. Monopods, I’ve found, stop the up and down camera movements, but not the side-to-side.

Focus
Focus really sucks with the DSLR. I am manually focusing every shot. I have remapped the back of my D3s to zoom the monitor 50% using the rear toggle button. To record, I use the front function button next to the grip on the front of the camera. This allows me to quickly zoom in on my subject, focus and zoom out. Without the feature my clips would be a blurry mess. I have a Zacuto Z-Finder Pro on order, which should really help my aging eyes.

A candlelight vigil video story shot at 4000 ISO on a Nikon D3s

Lenses
I’m used to having a wide to telephoto lens with my video camera. On my DSLR, I constantly have to change lenses. The only cool thing about this is the ability to use specialty glass like my 60 mm macro lens and my 85mm f/1.4. Shallow DOF rocks with a DSLR, but it makes focus all the more critical.

ND filter
I need a neutral density filter. Last night, shooting a candlelight vigil was not a problem, but today during a PETA protest in bright sunlight, I had a hard time keeping my f-stops low enough. With DSLRs you want keep your shutter speed between a 30th to no more that 125th of a second. Go higher than that, and your video will start to look funky. An ND filter blocks the light, but not the image quality. They are pricey. I have one on order for a hundred bucks and that’s a cheap one.

Editing
I have been a Final Cut Pro fan boy for seven years, but when Apple reinvented the wheel with Final Cut X, I decided to explore other options. I purchased a copy of Adobe Production Premium for my home computer. This suite of programs is topnotch and includes Premiere Pro CS5.5. My two videos were both edited in Premiere. This modern program edits my DSLR video without transcoding. It didn’t take much effort to jump right in and start editing. It’s not as intuitive as Final Cut. Some things like track heights and how the timeline functions are driving me crazy, but all in all, I settled in just fine.

I feel I’m over the hump. Shooting and editing two quick stories showed me I could do this without losing the quality of my storytelling.