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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
“Why didn’t you award first through third in news video?”
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.
Bottom line: Video at newspapers needs to improve. Dramatically.
The problems I continually see:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Many of may old posts that deal with tips about how to do video storytelling and audio slideshows get linked on a lot of blogs used by college professors who teach digital media classes. Most of these posts are buried amongst my pontifications about the changes facing the newspaper industry. So for anyone interested, here is a roundup of my best multimedia suggestions and useful tip posts in one place…
It has been a relaxing summer and as you can see by my lack of posts, I’ve been taking a break from blogging. When I haven’t been on vacation or furlough, I’ve been shooting both stills and video. My most recent project “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon,” is yet another collaboration with Spokesman-Review reporter Kevin Graman. We spent a couple of days at a retreat for local wounded war veterans. It was (as usual) a rush to get the edit done.
Local TV news (KXLY) showed up just after we did. They grabbed a few interviews, shot some b-roll and were gone in 30 minutes. We stayed 48 hours and shot a dozen interviews. When I watched the TV version of the story, I was actually impressed. see: Local veterans getting much needed retreat.
They defined the story quickly, gave viewers the pertinent information with context from the injured soldiers. The writing was brisk, and snappy. But as I sit here seven days later, I have not much recollection of their story. It didn’t really stick with me.
I think the narrative, from both the veterans and the reporter voiceover in my video, go much deeper. I tried to keep the pace moving by editing in strong sequences of action between the talking heads. In the end, I can’t say my edit is any better—it’s just a different way to tell the same story.
One technical note here.
I used the tiny Canon HF-10 for some of the b- roll footage. I had it on a monopod, which made it easy to do high angle shots. I recorded everything in 1920p x 1080p, so it meshed perfect on the timeline with my Sony XDCAM EX-1 footage. I am hard pressed to tell the difference between video clips from the $900.00 HF 10 and the $8000.00 XDCAM.
Things I learned on this shoot.
If you’re doing a lot of interviews, mix it up some. I shot mostly tight. Having a wireless mic on the subject frees you up to move the camera to a more interesting angle. Try the side or a wideshot, then move in later in the interview. The opening shot in my video (a side wide shot,) which was my last interview, was an inspiration that came to late. If you have a second camera, shoot a different angle of the interview, which you can edit in as a cutaway later. Also remember to change up the direction the interviewees are facing. You don’t want everyone right facing into the frame like I did. For some reason, all my left facing interviews I didn’t use.
Finally, remembering to get some b-roll of each subject you interview makes life in the edit suite go so much smoother. The one sequence of the veteran Chris Carver on the high ropes course worked out great because I had him talking about how challenging that moment had been in the interview. I would have kicked myself if I had missed shooting that b-roll!
Sunday’s Spokesman-Review was a bit like the newspaper of old. Writer, Kevin Graman’s story and my photos of the Fairy and Human Relation Congress, took up most of the front-page as well as two color pages inside. What was different about this story for us two veterans—one visual and one word oriented—was how we each stretched into the new roles of being modern newspaper journalists.
Graman moved out of his traditional role of being a print reporter to now stretching into the multimedia world of writing words for video and doing voice-over work.
When I heard about this story of 200 people gathering in the wilds to worship fairies, I could think of no better journalist than Graman to do the story with. We have worked on several other videos together. His innate ability to write to my video brings an authentic voice the story.
Most times I am fine with doing my own voiceover work. But on great stories like this one, having someone that can write and voice powerful words (check out the last minute of the fairy video) just makes all the difference.
In the end, I think we hit a grand slam. We gave the readers of our newspaper a great print story, with strong photos—and we gave our online viewers all that and more with the added value of the video that told a different story than print. This, to me, is the future of newspaper journalism, where traditional roles are stretched but not devalued.
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 B-roll.net. 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.
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.
I received an email from Texas State journalism student Lesley Ornelas today with an odd request:
My name is Lesley Ornelas and I am currently a journalism student at Texas State University in San Marcos,TX.
John Goheen recently spoke to one of my journalism classes and asked that we help him find the boy in his Lemonade Kid news story. He would like to do a follow up on him.
I found a post about the video on your web site.
I see that you have a large following and was hoping you could post something on the site to help in the search.
This is the basic information I have so far about the boy.
The video was shot in 88′ or 89′.
His name is either Sean or Shane and the video was shot by Lake Washington in a suburb of Seattle, Washington.
If anyone has info on this kid–now an adult– let me know and I will pass it on. The “Lemonade Kid” is one of may all-time favorite nat sound pieces and one the my early inspirations for doing video at my newspaper.
Here is my original post on The Lemonade Kid:
In my “What can we learn from TV news shooter’s” post, I asked if anybody had a link to The Lemonade Kidnat sound piece I’d seen years ago. Thankfully “Thom4” came through for me and found it, and other classic videos shot by master video storyteller John Goheen. TheLemonade Kid really peaked my interest in video storytelling early in my still photojournalism career. I believe I saw it at a NPPA Flying Short Course way back in the early 90’s. It just blew me away. Watching the Nat sound package back then, I had no concept of how it was edited together. All I knew was that it just worked brilliantly as a story. I watched it again today for the first time since I gained some video editing knowledge. What I saw was a master class in video sequencing. This is not a hard news story, or some barnburner with action. It is just a slice-of-life story, with a precocious kid as the star attraction of a street corner lemonade stand. “Thom4” writes:
“Thanks for the respect and a chance to provide you with the link to one of my favorite TV nat sound packages “The Lemonade Kid.” It was shot by photographer John C.P. Goheen and you can watch it by going to Terranova Pictures under the television projects tab. I heard John speak and show his work at a seminar more than 12 years ago in Atlanta. I had never seen this type non-narrated story before. John does some of the most amazing television photography I’ve ever seen. I would jump at a chance to spend more time learning from him. I steal all my best ideas. By the way, I’m a TV news photographer working in Orlando, FL. I’ve been shooting video for 13 years now.”
Play it through once and just enjoy it. Then play it again and watch the edits carefully. Look at how they flow. Watch how effectively Goheen uses his detail shots and the sequencing of wide, medium and tight shots. The other thing that works in the piece the way the narrative is gathered. A wireless mic was all that was needed to capture the sound of the kid and the customers. This allowed Goheen to pull back and get nice long shots without missing a beat in the audio. After checking out The Lemonade Kid, click on Keith’s Lunch, yet another Goheen classic. I wish the compressions on both were better, but I am just grateful as hell to see these stories again. Truly inspirational.