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.

What we can learn from TV news shooters

For the longest time, still photojournalists loved to talk smack about the TV lenslingers that would often get in our shots. But as newspaper photojournalists transition to shooting video, they should realize our TV brethren have something to teach us. The cultures of TV news and newspapers are finally starting to blend. We are both looking to achieve the same things– bring our viewers news and information in the quickest way (form) possible. For newspaper journalists, it means  changing newsroom workflows, where deadlines are now and not in the late afternoon.

When I first started shooting video, there weren’t a lot newspaper videojournalists working full-time. I looked for inspiration in TV news stories. I realize that most of what TV news does is not something I or any other newspaper video shooter would want to emulate. Stand-ups and live shots are not for us. But back in the early 90’s, lenslingers of old, were able to do some incredible nat sound pieces. That was before the insultants and producers got a hold of the newscasts and jammed Eleven-Stories-in-Eleven-Minutes into our collective eyeballs. I think too many of us believe, as we’re huddled in our supply closet video editing suites, that we’re actually inventing a new way to tell a video story. The fact is, the cream of the TV shooter crop, has done this for decades. Do a search on You Tube for of any of Charles Kuralt’s On the Road series. He was a master storyteller. In the hay-day of the TV nat sound piece, TV news shooters were able to roam their communities alone, looking for those small stories that rarely got told. The boy hawking lemonade (a classic– anybody have a link to this?) where a wireless mic and a young boy was all that was needed to create TV magic.

Last month, at the Northwest Video Workshop, my co-instructor Kurt Austin of KGW in Portland, Oregon, showed his recent nat-sound pieces. A story on how Nintendo Wii is being used by senior citizens for exercise, and a fun story of a guy who dresses like a clown, blowing a trumpet from a traffic island for morning commuters, reminded me of the nat stories I watched in my youth. Both these pieces connect to viewers in ways the new style of live-shot journalism doesn’t. The sad thing for a talented videojournalist like Austin, is that he only gets to do these type of stories rarely now.

Thankfully, newspapers are picking up the torch for the lost art of the natural sound piece. We are giving it our own spin. What we can learn from TV photojournalists, is how to tell a more effective story. One of the things I, and most every newspaper shooter needs to learn, is how to edit for pacing. Many of our stories wander around, never getting to the point. We fail to edit in the little magic moments and surprises that keep a viewer staying to the end of our masterpieces. We create epics, because we can. We are afraid to use are own voice to objectively narrate our stories. So where do we turn for help?

For me, I like to watch the masters work. Checkout the yearly BOP TV news winners, dissect the edits. Watch closely how a story is paced. Is it frantic or precise? Does it match what is going on in the story? Look at the sequencing of the video. Count how many seconds a b-roll clip stays up. How many of us have used a one-second video clip? Not many I bet. Look for the nat sound pops. That one or two seconds clip where a subject says something profound or the camera focuses on a tight shot with great audio. These make great transitions, but we on the newspaper side rarely use them. Does the narration work? Or does it get in the way?

For other inspiration, check out this Youtube like site for professional storytelling video. There are some gems to dissect and help you improve your editing and storytelling.