When Mount St. Helens came to (my) town

Thirty years ago on May 18, 1980, I was a senior in high school in Spokane, Washington. It was Sunday afternoon and I was still feeling the pain from a beer-induced hangover, you know, the only kind you can get when your best friend Russ throws an  “End of High School” party for the senior class.

I grabbed a cup of coffee and went out on Russ’s front porch.  Glancing up at the sky, I was perplexed by what I saw. Instead of blue sky, it was brown with a pillow texture to it. “ Must be a dust storm coming,” said my friend’s father who also had no answer for weird brown sky. Suddenly, a robin came fluttering in front of us. It dove hard, landing dead on impact at my feet. I gingerly picked the bird up and when I shook it, a small cloud of dust came off its wings.  What the…

I would soon find out that Mount St. Helens, 290 miles away, had literally exploded in a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. The best part? A dark cloud of ash would soon turn daylight into darkness. It rained ash overnight and part of the next day. For the next week communities in Central and Eastern Washington banded together to clean up the mess. Ask anyone who experienced the ash fall and I’ll guarantee they’ll have a story to tell.

A week ago, it was politely suggested to me that I should do a multimedia piece for the Mount St. Helens 30th anniversary coming up.

“I can do that,” I said. “I’m sure we have tons of photos in the digital archive.”

A quick look showed only a few pictures from that time, many of which had been used over and over. A trip to the basement print photo archive left me nowhere. It was as if Mount St. Helens ash never came to Spokane. “ Where the hell were all the photos”?

When searching the negative archive, I found a week’s worth of volcano negatives missing from the box. About to give up, I walked to the far dark corner of the neg room on a hunch. I found a shelf of orphan negative boxes labeled with old projects I was hard pressed to remember.  Running my finger down the labels, I stopped on the three words: “Mount St. Helens. “

Bingo!

I think over the years and many volcano anniversaries later, long gone photo editors found that putting all the prints and negs in one box was a good idea. If I hadn’t made that turn into a dark corner, this audio slideshow would have been pretty lame.

My next chore was to find someone willing to write and voice a narrative that would reflect the content of the photos I had edited together.  My go-to guy for historical narratives is staff writer Jim Kershner.

“You wanna do a Looking Back piece for St. Helen 30th”? I asked Kershner.

Kershner had that “I’m swamped ,” look in his eyes, but he said he could probably crank something out by the next afternoon.  I asked him  just to just write the story of the first week in Spokane and I would match the photos up with whatever he wrote.  The next day as I was pawing through old unlabeled negative sheets, Kershner arrived with a killer script in hand. Only two takes later, I was ready to start assembling our St. Helens story.  I like to use Final Cut Pro as I find it gives me the most flexibility with photos. I can color correct, put motion on the photo, create multi-photo windows where I can time the show to the beat of the music.

The fun part of this story for me was being like a detective, where I had to find a photo that would match the narrative. When Kershner said “Soon taverns and golf courses began to reopen,” I was lucky enough to find a photo from that week showing rednecks covered in ash drinking tavern beer and a group of  golfers walking an ash-laden course.

For music, our company has an extensive Digital Juice music library I can use for multimedia projects such as this. I also used a couple of Garage Band stingers– short mood building clips–that helped set the ominous tone of the ash cloud coming our way.

All in all, it was a fun project to do in such a short amount of time.

Stretching the roles of traditional journalists

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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.

My visual multitasking role has been pretty much set in stone for some time. On this story, I not only shot the still photos for the newspaper, but I captured, edited and produced a video for online.

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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.

A young girl’s death brings a community together

Candlelight vigil

There was something about the short news brief on our website that caught my eye.  A teenage girl had died in a two-vehicle accident on a state highway the previous day. Friends were organizing a last minute candlelight vigil in the girl’s honor. Lorissa Green, a 16-years-old Cheney, Washington resident died when the car she was driving collided with a pickup truck as she crossed a busy highway.

Usually, candlelight vigils do not interest me much. But that little voice in my head was going off: “You need to be there Colin, you need to be there.”  It was my day off, and weekends are not good for web traffic at my newspaper I countered. Still, I fidgeted about going out in the cold night air. My 13-year-old daughter Brenna finally told me to, “just go Dad”. “You need to be there with your camera,” she said. Maybe having two teenage daughters of my own was the reason I was drawn to this tragedy. They will be driving soon, which ages me to think about it.  The thought of them making a fleeting mistake–like not watching for oncoming traffic–is bone chilling.

I thought a lot on my drive to the vigil how I was going to cover this. I first thought about themes.

  • Loss
  • Community coming together
  • Shock and grief

About 100 fellow students, parents, friends and family of Lorissa Green gathered in a parking lot near where the accident occurred. I started out getting b-roll of candles being handed out.  There was emotion everywhere.  Visual moments came easy. People seemed ok with me shooting them as tears flowed and candles flickered in cold hands. The sister of the Lorissa gave a tearful thank you to the crowd gathered. I put my video  camera on a tripod and did some interviews with friends of Lorissa. 

Then something happened that made this vigil different than the dozen or so I’ve covered as a still shooter. Small groups walked the down the dark road to the intersection where Lorissa’s accident occurred. A Washington State Patrol Trooper escorted them across the highway to the median where they placed flowers and lit candles in the snow bank. It was emotional, haunting and just plain sad. These flickering lights in the median must have startled drivers as they passed the dark intersection.

As I returned to the vigil, Lorissa’s mother arrived. She lit a candle. I asked her for an interview, but her daughter said she’d rather I speak to her. I got my ender sound bite from her talking about how incredible it was to have all these people come and honor her sister.

Community.

That’s what this story was really about I decided.  On the drive home I started to write some narrative in my head. I didn’t have much of a hard news story. That had already been reported anyway. I find video storytelling is so different than the type of print stories we do at newspapers. The “just the facts” journalism that feeds the daily beast rings hollow to me sometimes. Video, many times, lacks the hard facts, but plays instead to the emotion and humanity of a person or event. In this case Lorissa Green, age sixteen, died the day before in a tragic car crash.  She is gone. But it’s the friends and family she left behind that matter now. Connecting to their grief, their loss was, I think, why I came to this vigil on my day off. I wasn’t being paid to tell their story. I guess I just wanted to honor the memory of a young girl whose time on this earth ending tragically in an intersection median now covered with melted remnants of candles and fading flowers.

 

The Edit Foundry

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One of my great frustrations as self-taught newspaper video storyteller is that I have not been able to find much help in taking my editing beyond the fundamentals. Sure, I’ve mastered the skill of editing wide, medium and tight shots into basic sequences. But when it comes to really understanding the “why” of a video edit, I still feel a bit unsure as I blade and trim on my timeline. Terms like matched edits, pacing, writing to my video, are skills I sort of understand, but know I really need to improve on.

I stumbled upon this blog called The Edit Foundry tonight as I was cruising through the forums on B-roll.net. The Edit Foundry is written by two-time National Press Photographers Editor of the Year, Shawn Montano. Montano, who has edited news video for most of the TV stations is the Denver area, is a master editor. At last year’s NPPA national convention, I heard him speak and was impressed at how he is able assemble someone else’s video into a well-paced engaging story.

In his blog, Montano takes a story he has edited and deconstructs it by breaking down the sound bites, narration, transitions and sequences. His finished stories are linked on YouTube. I can’t tell you how helpful it is to see it the edits visually. More important, Montano tells why he made an edit, or added a transition etc. to his story.

I have said for a long time that newspaper videographers can learn a lot from TV news shooters and editors. Sometimes we ink-stained types strive so hard to be different, that we never learn the fundamentals of shooting and editing a good video story. The old adage holds true here: You can’t break the rules until you know what they are. For the hundreds of struggling newspaper videographers who could use a kick of editing inspiration, then go visit The Edit Foundry and get schooled.