Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How to feed your journalism cow

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 22, 2011

Image: cheeseslave on Flickr

Here’s a question I bet you don’t get often: do you feed your cow?

In the early days of my freelance career, back in January 2010, I spent a couple of weeks working on a film with video journalism supremo David Dunkley-Gyimah at the Southbank Centre in London.

We were interviewing artists from around the world, and every discipline imaginable: poets, musicians, film makers, painters and violinists. Among them was the architect Shumon Basar. Off camera he was the most interesting and relaxed, and while we were talking he said something that’s stuck with me since.

He said whatever type of art you do, it’s vital you keep consuming ideas and information. He likened the brain to a cow: ‘you want the cow to produce milk [ideas] but to do that you must feed it well.’

Journalism, and its periphery disciplines (writing, film making, photography, design) consume ideas like we consume petrol. If you’ve worked on a magazine, 24-hour news channel or even run a blog, you’ll know just how ideas hungry these things are.

So, no matter how busy you are, make time to take Betsy out for a big lunch. As always, I’d love your own personal recommendations too – stick ‘em in the comments box!

Six things to feed the cow

.01 A good newsletter

Sign up some inspiring, idea-laden, newsletters, that pop into your inbox without you having to do anything. If it’s sitting in your inbox it’s harder to ignore, and you can still save it for later on.

I’m personally loving two particular newsletters right now: BrainPickings, a weekly collection of great design and ideas curated by Maria Popova in New York. Her Twitter feed is really worth following too. Secondly the Do Lectures (think TED lectures but on a Welsh farm) send out a weekly newsletter called Kindling, which does just that: it sets off little sparks of inspiration and lets them catch hold.

.02 TED Lectures

If you can make time, even once a week, to watch an 18 minute TED lecture, you’ll be a more informed and inspired person. As well as good talks on productivity, ideas and the like, the best TED talks are about something completely off the wall, like whaling or painting.

The success of the format relies on the focus on new ideas (rather than a soap box for criticism) and on the 18 minute slot: too short for an expert to waffle on for hours, but too long to just scramble a powerpoint together at the last minute. This one on the future of online video has inspired my ideas throughout 2011.

.03 Kickstarter

Never mind cool ideas, what about being inspired by what people are actually doing? That’s why I love visiting KickStarter. It started as a platform to raise funds for cool projects, but has a secondary role as a hub for inspiring ideas people are trying to get off the ground. If you’re a film maker, it’s a useful watering hole to see what documentary projects people are trying to get off the ground.

I’m living in patient wait for KickStarter to become available to those outside the US (at the moment only US citizens can fundraise). Oh and if you see one you like, don’t forget to donate a dollar or two to the cause.

.04 Video .fu library

Speaking of films, I couldn’t miss off the video .fu library from this list. I’ve been curating a collection of epic, cinematic, memorable video storytelling all year. There are more than 30 films in the library so far, and dozens of subscribers.

In particular, I look for factual stories which take a cinematic approach to how they’re made, focusing on compelling characters and strong narrative arcs. Many appear on this blog but not until some time after they’re in the library so get an early peek. If you’re looking for inspiration for characters, styles or story structure, this is a good place to start.

.05 This American Life

This American Life is a wonderful way to feed the cow when you’re on a long journey or even just commuting to work. The hour-long weekly podcast is a finely crafted nugget of great stories well told, by Ira Glass and his team. If you want to learn how to tell better stories you must listen to TAL.

As it’s a podcast it’s something you can drop onto your iPod, iPhone or just the laptop, and listen when you’re travelling. A word of warning about This American Life: each episode demands (and rewards) your concentration. Don’t listen while you’re doing emails or writing a blog post – give it your full attention.

.06 beta620

A new product from the New York Times, beta620 is a platform for experimental projects being tried about by developers, journalists and co at the paper. They include apps and mashups – worth a visit to see what some of the smartest people in journalism are up to. They also have some great hacking events going on, if you’re NYC based.

Of course, I should add visits to museums, galleries and exhibitions to this list, plus who knows how many countless books. But at least this digital selection is something you can dive into right away. Please add your own suggestions below!

How to achieve the new look in Video Journalism

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 6, 2010

There’s a lot of interesting talk about a new aesthetic for video journalism. New cameras, but more importantly, new ideas are breathing new life into video storytelling, and starting to break those rusty screws which so far have bolted video journalism to it’s televisual parent.

VJs  like Dan Chung, David Dunkley-Gyimah and Cliff Etzel are experimenting with new looks, and writing about them too. It goes without saying video on the web is not television and shouldn’t be bound by the same conventions. But how do you break the rules? Here’s three films working on doing just that.

Three examples of the new look video journalism

Haiti Earthquake Aftermath Montage, Khalid Mohtaseb

NOTE: there’s a fair bit of debate around this piece dealing with whether this piece is journalism or not. Here I’m more interested in how the visual style was achieved; to join the other debates have a look at DSLR Newshooter and Solo Video Journalist.

This short montage of high quality images were shot by Khalid Mohtaseb while on assignment in Haiti. The  beauty of these images relies partly on the use of the Canon 5D MKII, the top of the range digital SLR camera capable of  shooting HD video. Notice how Khalid also uses slow movement, long held shots and music to acheive his look.

  • Khalid shoots with a high shutter speed (1/60) – which means he can slow the images right down in the edit, and keep a smooth slow motion
  • He uses the Kessler Pocket Dolly, a small portable glider which creates the slow elegant tracking shots
  • He opens up the aperture to create a shallow depth of field in his close ups of people
  • He holds many of the shots for 6 or more seconds, which adds a slow, almost elegant pace to the final montage
  • Images are cut to the music, scenes changing with changes in the key
  • In post production, Khalid uses Magic Bullet and Apple Colour to grade the images, increasing the contrast and adding a subtle vignette – you can see the results of just a few examples here:

Image credit: DSLR Newshooter

Image credit: DSLR Newshooter

(For a more detailed technical breakdown of this piece, by Khalid himself, checkout the excellent DLSR Newshooter)

And then they danced, David Dunkley-Gyimah

I have had the pleasure of working with David at the Southbank Centre in London, where he is experimenting with the new cinematic aesthetic. In this film, shot for the Southbank, he uses a range of different effects and styles – a veritable toolkit for VJs to take from.

  • For some of the shots of the rehearsals, David uses a wide angle lens to create a “fishbowl” effect
  • Around 1’10” David uses post production to add a flare to the pictures of the farm building; note the filter and vignette on the picture too
  • He cleverly cuts the shots of the guitarist, drummer and tuba player, creating a stylised jump-cut effect
  • He plays with speed, slowing down and speeding up footage
  • In terms of creating a narrative, note the absence of a  voice over – this story is told solely with the voices of the contributers: they are sometimes only captioned off screen. Does this affect your understanding of the story?

What if..?, Adam Westbrook, Dominique Van Heerden, Alex Wood

In this short film for the London Future of News Meetup we experimented with the cinematic aesthetic. We wanted to get a feel of urban decay and abandonment which we achieved partly by choosing a great location and partly with some tricks with the camera and in post production:

  • We shot on a south London estate early in the morning, to make sure it was quiet
  • We shot with the JVC GY-HM100 which has a really nice grain to the image
  • I opened the aperture to create a shallow depth of field, and layered certain shots
  • We cut in lots of fast moving close ups of buildings and objects to add a sense of movement to the piece
  • Annoyingly, our day of shooting happened to be the first day of spring, so the location was bathed in sunlight. Not great for our moody aesthetic, so we used the camera’s ND filter to take out some of the light.
  • In post production we desaturated most of the images, to remove some of the colour, and increased the contrast
  • We also put a very subtle vignette over most of the shots, which adds a vintage/off colour feel to the image
  • The whole piece is cut to the rhythm and pace of the music, the final “what if?” reveal happening as the music crescendos.

All three pieces manipulate shutter speed, aperture and filters, as well as grading in post production to create their aesthetic. They also all use music effectively – another tool which shouldn’t be an afterthought (check out Christopher Ave’s contribution to the Fresh Eyes series for more).

Importantly, although they all experiment with new visual styles for video journalism, they still obey the old rules from the first days of cinema: the rule of thirds and sequences in particular.

You can use these tricks too!

All of these are tricks any video journalist can experiment with. They can all be achieved with the cameras mentioned and in most standard video editing suites. Small changes can really add oomph to the message you are trying to convey or the story you are trying to tell.

Is manipulating camera and edit manipulating the viewer? I don’t think so: what are recording should still be true to life. But like a writer has different ways of manipulating language, and a photojournalist has different ways of manipulating their stills, so it is for video journalists.

Up until now most camera people have left these powerful tools untouched. It’s like a writer refusing to use similes, metaphors or alliteration to tell their stories.

Five simple tricks to spice up your storytelling

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 2, 2010

Storytelling: the most ancient of arts, under appreciated, and often overshadowed by technological advances.

We talk a lot about how a new piece of kit, or smaller camera will make journalism better – but then ignore how to tell the stories in the first place. Storytelling is a science as well as an art with rules and formulas, honed over centuries: every journalist should make it their business to understand the secrets.

A classic (non-journalism) example is James Cameron’s Avatar: celebrated for its use of the latest technology, but undermined by a crap, hackneyed, unoriginal story. Storytelling costs a percentage of what special effects do…but guess where Hollywood spends the big bucks?

The good news for you and me is good storytelling is free if you know how to do it. And sometimes it’s even quick. Next time you’re shooting a video story, audio slideshow, radio piece, interactive — whatever…try one of these simple tricks to make sure your story packs a punch.

Five simple tricks to spice up your storytelling

01. bookend

A classic of the television current affairs documentary but still pretty effective. It simply means returning at the end of your story to where you began. Maybe the same location to see how it’s changed or the same interviewee reflecting on what’s just happened.

It can be more subtle than that: gently bring in the music you opened your piece with to close it; or even bring up the same sound effects or natural sound if that’s what you used. It is a personal favourite of mine: I bookend with music in this audio slideshow about the prison campaigner John Hirst, and bookend with location in this 30 minute documentary about the 2007 UK floods.

Bookending gives the audience a real sense of time passed and reflection.

02. flashbacks

Not every story needs to be told in a linear way, despite the linear nature of the media we work with. Mess around with the chronology of your storytelling.

Sometimes it works really well to start with the powerful climax of the story and then work your audience back to that point through your story. You can use flashbacks literally to show events from the past in real time.

03. share media

Here’s an old rule of storytelling: “show don’t tell” (maybe it should be called story-showing); so start by really listening to whether you are telling a story or showing it. Stuck for a good way to get your subjects to show their stories? Give them the media to do it!

Veteran broadcast journalist Penny Marshall used this to great effect when she gave children in refugee camps in Chad pieces of paper and crayons to draw what they were too distressed to say. Film critic and director Mark Cousins built an entire film around the premise of giving Iraqi children a flip cam.

Just because you have the training doesn’t mean others can’t astound you with their abilities with a simple camera.

04. reflection

It is an accepted wisdom that when we hear someone talking and see them on screen, we see their lips moving. That is using video to document a persons thoughts in its simplest form. But you can mess around with this too.

Once you’ve finished an interview – especially if it has packed emotional punch – just keep filming, stop talking and let your interviewee look into your eyes or the lens. See how long you can get them to hold that look – usually somewhere between 5 and 10 seconds. If you want an example, check out this quickly cut promo by David Dunkley-Gyimah at the Southbank Centre.

Now you have an amazing reflective shot to introduce your interviewee; it gives the impression we are hearing their thoughts not just their words. Powerful indeed.

05. take your character back to their past

The best stories have a central character. Often they tell their story for us in the form of an interview, usually somewhere ‘contemporary’ to them, such as their living room. If they’re talking about a past experience, something is lost in translation.

Make the past live again for your character by returning them to the place where their amazing story took place (within the means of taste and decency of course). Not only will it make your character’s recollection far more vivid, it also gives you more interesting pictures. Click here to see how ESPN took a troubled wrestler back through his dark past – with great effect.

What’s the point of narrative?

Why bother with all this then? Telling a good story is what we’re all about. Your aim as a storyteller is simple: suck ‘em in and spit ‘em out. You need to hook your audience into your story quickly and ruthlessly, don’t let go for a second (they’ll try to wriggle free); and then spit them out in the other side. If you’ve done your job they’ll sit, astonished, covered in phlegm, trying to comprehend what just happened…but grateful to you for taking them on that journey.

Want more storytelling tips? Have you checked out “6×6 Skills for Next Generation Journalists“? It’s got a special chapter on storytelling.

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Note: Several people have been in touch in the comments in the last week requesting more examples of great multimedia journalism and film making. I’ve tried to provide good examples in this post and will stick as many more up in the future as possible – thanks for your comments!

Best of the blogs: 2009

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on December 18, 2009

My Google Reader probably trebled in size in 2009. It’s where I get at least 50% of information, gossip, inspiration and ideas on multimedia,  journalism and the future of news. As a Christmas treat, I thought I’d share some of the best blogs of 2009 with you….

Digital Journalism

10,000 words: Mark Luckie’s site is a goldmine of beautifully presented practical advice for digital journalists. His posts have become less frequent since he became re-employed, but each one is still as valuable.

Journalism 2.0: Mark Briggs is bringing out a new book for digital journalists in 2010 – expect it to become a core text on all journalism course reading lists.

Video Journalism

Advancing the Story: Deborah Potter’s blog on video journalism serves the local American market best of all, but it still has useful advice on shooting video and interviews.

Rosenblum TV: Michael Rosenblum’s blog isn’t your standard VJ fare. As the father of the medium, he is determined to see it revolutionised, and is a vocal herald of the death of traditional TV news. He has pitched for funding on an ambitious plan to give out 1,000 Flipcams in New Jersey, and launches a new video academy in New York in 2010.

The Outernet: David Dunkley-Gyimah’s single handedly pioneered the space between video journalism and cinema; his work resembles multi-million dollar Hollywood flicks. As artist-in-residence at the South Bank Centre in London, expect more news/art mashups in 2010.

Video Journalist: Glen Canning’s site offers some great practical tips for video journalists.

Bob Kaplitz: Bob Kaplitz’s blog is a must for anyone trying to get to grips with the basics of video journalism. He’s done what no-one’s really thought to do up until now – use video to teach video journalism. Clever, huh?

Radio

David Stone: a young news editor by anyone’s standards, David’s posts on practical radio journalism are useful for any radio journalist, especially in the UK.

NewsLeader: Justin King has used Twitter very effectively this year to share advice and tips for radio journalists in the UK and elsewhere. There’s more good stuff on his blog.

James Cridland: just returned from a round-the-world tour of radio, Radio Futurologist James has posted from Canada and the US, where he’s been meeting radio producers everywhere and sharing the future of radio with the rest of us.

Photojournalism

RESOLVE, Livebooks: not just a blog, RESOLVE, managed by Miki Johnson, is also a community of photojournalists all seeking the future for their craft. The After Staff series from summer 2009 is a superb library for anyone who’s been laid off and wants to make it in the scary new freelance world.

The Travel Photographer: Tewfic El- Sawy niftily picks up the best photojournalism from around the world and showcases it. A forward thinking blog, the Travel Photographer also presents new multimedia from photogs.

Lens Blog: The New York Times’ home for photojournalism is a beautiful resource of the best images from the around the world, plus occasional advice from the experts. Great for inspiration.

Writing, Blogging & Thinking

CopyBlogger: possibly the most famous blogger in the world, Brian Clark’s Copyblogger is vital for anyone who wants to understand how to build an audience and avoid boring them with dull words.

Steven Pressfield: a recent discovery for me, Steven’s Wednesday Writing tips not only cover the art of storytelling, but also shares advice on dealing with your own mental resistance and the limiting mind.

Freelance Switch: the ultimate resource for freelancers in all disciplines,  this site has regular articles on writing, getting and keeping clients.

Lateral Action: I have referred to Mark McGuinness’ work several times in the last year, not least because it’s so damn inspiring. If you’re a creative entrepreneur, and want help staying motivated, managing your time or pushing creative boundaries head to Mark. Lateral Action is particularly special because he’s teamed up with Brian Clark from Copyblogger (above) – a dynamic duo if ever there was one.

Career Renegade: also high up on the inspiration chart is Jonathan Fields site Career Renegade. If you’re a journalist thinking of launching your own startup, and creating your own “renegade career”, for Gods sake, read his book first.

The News Business & entrepreneurship

Directors Blog: since setting up POLIS at the London School of Economics, Charlie Beckett has held conferences and given countless conferences on the future of journalism. He has also influenced the future with his ideas of “networked journalism”; his blog today provides academic insight into journalism in the brave new world.

Headlines and Deadlines: blogging from the frontline of regional press in the UK Alison Gow’s blog has insight surrounded by lots of good links.

Killer Startups: every day 15 new internet startups are posted and critiqued. You won’t find any news ones on here, at least not yet, but it’s a fantastic inspiring resource for anyone thinking of going entrepreneurial.

News Innovation: with the banner “new business models for news” you know this blog is asking the right questions; follow it and you might get the answer. In the meantime, its posted some excellent videos of Jeff Jarvis (see below) explaining why the future of news is entrepreneurship.

BuzzMachine: Jeff Jarvis has emerged as the key proponent of “entrepreneurial journalism” and is leading the way in the classroom with his work at CUNY. His blog explains with passion why the future of news is entrepreneurship. Expect more pioneering ideas from Jeff in 2010.

Online Journalism Blog: one of the best sites for analysis on all things digital, Paul Bradshaw’s blog leans towards the often ignored arena of uncovering, analysing and producing data.

Paul Balcerak: from the US, Paul Balcerak sees the future, and then writes about. He shared some of the most creative uses of video journalism earlier this year, and expertly slams down anyone who is stupid enough to resist the future.

Mashable: in the TechCrunch v Mashable war, I am (after trialling both) firmly with the latter. Techcrunchers slate Mashable for just sharing funny Youtube videos, but it covers the revolution in journalism far better and with a much more positive outlook.

The Media Business: Richard G Picard’s blogs are more like essays, but their insight into business models for journalism is profound, and should be on the reading list of anyone thinking of going entrepreneurial. His articles  in 2009 have been shared on countless blogs.

Design

Design Reviver: unless you’re solely a radio journalist you should really exploit the internet’s fantastic resources for visual inspiration. Design Reviver is one of them, featuring among other things, great wordpress themes and photoshop tutorials.

ISO50: Scott Hansen is not only a talented musician but an exceptional graphic designer who shares his own work and those that inspire him. His retro colours and collages are perfect inspiration, and his taste in music is on the ball.

FFFFound: a must for visual journalists of any kind seeking inspiration. A warning though – you’ll struggle to click through the 100+ marvelous designs and photographs from around the world which will filter into your reader.

Multimedia

4iP: it’s always worth following the latest developments from 4iP towers; they are one of the major funders of public service startups in the UK, and their blog provides a good idea of what the latest developments are – and what they fund.

Duckrabbit’s Blog: Ben Chesterton and David White have shown the rest of us how to do multimedia, especially for non-profit clients. When not producing powerful stories for those without a voice, Ben and David passionately blog about the good, the bad and the ugly of multimedia journalism.

Bombay Flying Club: meanwhile in warmer climes, the three talents of Poul Madsen, Henrik Kastenskov and Brent Foster are producing equally gorgeous content for non-profits all over the world. Their blog acts as a showcase of their beautiful work, and is a great inspiration for anyone.

Innovative Interactivity: Tracy Boyer’s seriously on the ball when it comes to using multimedia and interactivity to tell news stories. Subscribe to her blog and you’ll get thoughtful critiques of some quite amazing work which is paving the way towards the future.

A daily dose of all these blogs have filled my mind with things I never thought possible, and work of superb quality. And there’s already room for more…what blogs do you recommend?

The future of journalism is out there (what’s stopping you?)

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 9, 2009

Journalism has a lot of hurdles to overcome if it’s to not only survive, but thrive for the next 100 years.

Money is a big one. So is citizen journalism. And yes, the decline of audience and the death of print are pretty massive too.

But the biggest hurdle, the one we must all overcome; the one which will guarantee a great future for news, has nothing to do with ink and paper.

I’m talking about attitude. Journalism is not going anywhere because hardly anyone’s got the right attitude.

And what attitude is that, I hear you cry?

It hasn’t got a name, but we know Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page have it. And Evan Williams has it to. Jonathan Fields and Jonathan Mead definitely have it. By the looks of things journalists like David Dunkley-Gyimah, Michael Rosenblum and Jeff Jarvis possess it too.

There are some bloggers, like Lisa Williams, Hannah Waldram and Hermione Way who got some.

It’s obvious William Kamkwamba from Malawi is bursting with it.

Important people at the Times, Independent, New York Times, Telegraph, ITN, Sky and the Boston Globe don’t have it, which is why they’ll eventually fail. And across the West, in Britain, the US, Canada and Australia, not enough journalists have it. It’s why we’re getting busy going nowhere.

It can be summed up in truisms like these:

Some truisms about attitude

And pretty much boils down to:

It’s the attitude which gets inventors, artists…and yes, even entrepreneurs out of bed in the morning.

And it is the attitude which delivers the key to the future of journalism.

If we’re not careful the future of news, belongs to them, and not the journalists...no wait, hang on. If we ARE careful, it belongs to them. The whole point is we have to stop being careful! Take some  risks, get your hands dirty!

Wanna be a journalist? Get writing!

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on October 5, 2009

It’s a call that’s been made many times before, so I’ll keep it brief.

calendar

If you’re a journalism student, or thinking about becoming a journalist one day in the distant future, don’t wait for the work to come to you: get writing. Now.

Video Journalism pioneer David Dunkley-Gyimah‘s been urging J-students to get writing again, listing 12 reasons why blogging is so important:

1. The blog gives you visibility
2. Your blog allows you to hone your writing
3. Your blog allows you to try out new ideas
4. Your blog demonstrates your power of research
5. Your blog tells an editor how serious you are at writing
6. Your blog is a marketing tool. Your de facto CV
7. Your blog is a forum. Less a magic wand, but a space to experiment
8. Your blog revolves around ideas such as crowd sourcing, twitter, social networking et al
9. Your blog allows you to blog
10. Your blog could, at that interview, be the difference between getting that job.
11. Your blog says things about you not immediately apparent: time management, critical analyses and prioritising.
12 Your blog is you. It is the identikit used to judged you, form an opinion of yourself. Use it; keep it and nurture it wisely.

I know people who have been offered work, just because they run a decent blog.

The look of ‘eugh’ on the faces of some journalists-to-be when I try and implore the importance of blogging suggests it’s still seen as a chore.

But it should be pleasure: your chance to write, publish, research, connect, tell a story…if you consider any of those five things a chore, maybe it’s time to ask yourself what you really want.

6×6: video

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on August 19, 2009

6x6 advice for multimedia journalists

The second in a series of 6 blogs, each with 6 tips for the next generation of freelance multimedia journalists.

video

Video has by far and away become the most popular medium for the multimedia journalist – to the extent it almost seems many won’t consider it a truly multimedia project unless its got a bit of video in it. The thing is, video is a tricky medium and must be treated differently in the world of online journalism.

01. video doesn’t need to be expensive

Don’t be fooled into thinking you can’t do video just because you haven’t  got any cash. Sure, if you want to go right to the top range, say a Sony EX3, Final Cut Pro and After Effects yes, it’s going to set you back about £3,000 ($5,000). But high quality can be achieved on lower budgets.

Check out my article on how I put together an entire film making kit for £500 ($800).

02. shoot for the edit

If there’s one piece of advice for multimedia journalists making films – it comes from Harris Watts, in a book he published 20 years ago. In Directing on Camera he describes exactly what shooting footage is:

“Shooting is collecting pictures and sound for editing…so when you shoot, shoot for editing. Take your shots in a way that keeps your options open”

Filming with the final piece firmly in mind will keep your shooting focussed and short. So when you start filming, start looking for close ups and sequences. The latter is the hardest: an action which tells your story, told over 2 or more shots.

Sequences are vital to storytelling and must be thought through.

A simple sequence: shot 1, soldiers feet walking from behind

A simple sequence: shot 1, soldiers feet walking from behind

Then to a wide shot of the same action...

Then to a wide shot of the same action...

...and then to a wide reverse showing more detail

...and then to a wide reverse showing more detail

03. master depth of field

In online video, close ups matter. The most effective way to hold close ups – especially of a person – is to master depth of field. Put simply the depth of field how much of your shot in front of and behind your subject is kept in focus. It is controlled by the aperture on your camera – so you’ll need a camera with a manual iris setting.

Your aim – especially with closeups – is to have your subject in clear focus, and everything behind them blurred: Alexandra Garcia does it very well in her Washington Post In-Scene series. (HT: Innovative Interactivity)

Screenshot: Innovative Interactivity

Screenshot: Innovative Interactivity

Here’s a quick guide to getting to grips with depth of field:

  1. you need a good distance between the camera and subject
  2. a good distance between the subject and the background
  3. and a low f-stop on your iris – around f2.8, depending on how much light there is in your scene. A short focal length does this too.
  4. You may need to zoom in on your subject from a distance

04. never wallpaper

If there was ever an example of the phrase “easier said than done” this would be it. It’s a simple tip on first read: make sure every shot in your film is there for a reason. But with pressures of time or bad planning you can often find yourself “wallpapering” shots just to fill a gap.

In his excellent book The Television News Handbook Vin Ray says following this rule will help you out no end:

“One simple rule will dramatically improve your television packaging: never use a shot – any shot – as ‘wallpaper’. Never just write across pictures as though they weren’t there, leaving the viewer wondering what they’re looking at. Never ever.”

05. look for the detail and the telling shot

Broadcast Journalists are taught to look for the “telling shot”, and more often than not make it the first image. If your story is about a fire at a school, the first thing the audience need to see is the school on fire. If it’s about a woman with cancer, we must see her in shot immediately.

But the telling shot extends further: you can enhance your storytelling by looking for little details which really bring your story to life.

Vin Ray says looking for the little details are what set great camera operators apart from the rest:

“Small details make a big difference. Nervous hands; pictures on a mantelpiece; someone whispering into an ear; a hand clutching a toy; details of a life.”

I’m midway through shooting a short documentary about a former prisoner turned lawyer. One of the first things I noticed when I met him was a copy of the Shawshank Redemption on his coffee table – a great little vignette to help understand the character.

06. break the rules

The worst thing a multimedia journalist can do when producing video for the web is to replicate television – unless that’s your commission of course. TV is full of rules and formulas, all designed to hide edits, look good to the eye, and sometimes decieve. Fact is, online video journalism provides the chance to escape all that.

Sure it must look good, but be prepared to experiment – you’ll be amazed what people will put up with online:

  • Cutaways are often used to cover over edits in interviews; why not be honest and use a simple flash-dissolve instead. Your audience deserve to know where you’ve edited right?
  • TV packages can’t operate without being leaden with voice over, but your online films don’t need to be
  • Piece to cameras don’t need to be woodenly delivered with the camera on a tripod

The final word…

Here’s VJ pioneer David Dunkley-Gyimah speaking at this year’s SxSW event in the US:

““When it comes to the net, there is no code yet as I believe that is set in stone….we’ve all been taking TV’s language and applying that and it hasn’t quite worked. Video journalism needs a more cinematic- hightened visual base.”

Next: storytelling for multimedia journalists!

The Journalist of the Future: your reaction

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 28, 2009

Thanks to you if you commented on, shared, retweeted or blogged about my last post – Introducing: the Journalist of the Future. Thousands of hits later and your comments have been enlightening.

Here’s a summary of what you guys have been saying:

Alexandre Gamela kicked it off, and wondered whether knowledge of a specific subject is a becoming more of an advantage for journalists.

Great post, it’s great to see that some ideas i have are shared by others.I wrote about the same here, but i missed the specialist part. It’s true, a strong knowledge about a specific subject is an advantage, now more than ever.

Michele added an excellent point which I admit I overlooked:

The one area I would add to this is to say that the future journalist should also be a skilled data-miner. I think we (industry and educators) have focused heavily on multimedia storytelling (Flash and video) as the future of news, but also need to direct our attention to the wealth of information that can be had from the organization and presentation of data in the form of searchable databases and mashups.

Agreed – news gathering is as important as how it’s produced. I touched on it in a fashion, when I wrote about the importance of crowd sourcing news. And arguably – as this find by Cyberjournalist shows – it’s the ones who develop a niche for finding cool stuff who will get a headstart.

On twitter ElleAmeno wondered the same thing – “there’s a ‘driven’ quality to great reporters that’s more about ‘finding out’ than ‘telling’.” I agree : “I was wondering are there 2 types of journo? The one who loves digging stuff up and one who loves putting it out?……not wise to generalise I know, but could be a useful divide. As much as I’d love to be the former, I am prob the latter!”

Back on the blog and VJ pioneer David Dunkley-Gyimah pondered the unknown – both here and on his own blog. You can read his fascinating response here.

And could it be that if The Media Standard Trust et al work through a trusted-kite mark system to acknowledge journalists who meet the new “standard”, it’s likely they’ll be further fragmentation, such that old style journalism will persist, new will hold its own and then there’s the unknown?

The legal implications got Mark N wondering:

who pays the legal fees for the journalist of the future if some corporate entity doesn’t like what she wrote and tries to sue her to silence her?

The reason why traditional news media are important and cannot be replaced without a loss to civic life is that only salaried employees backed by the legal staff of a news organization can take the risk to do real investigative journalism. It is too easy for anyone in power to sue a freelancer.

So if you are correct, we will live in a world where one of the essential checks against corporate and government corruption will be gone. It’s a shame, but that’s where we are heading.

Quite the opposite Mark N! I think the future of journalism is a positive thing not  a negative one! He makes a good point about how freelancers (and I suppose smaller niche publications) could become easy targets for corporate lawyers, something Elle picks up on:

If lawsuits and government suppression attempt to dictate coverage, then news breaks anonymously. In current media, credibility is earned through an appearance of a professional process to guarantee accuracy and objectivity.

Emerging media have broken that appearance down to expose its very human flaws – inescapable bias, human error, vanity, fear, concentrated into small organizations. In emerging media, credibility comes from publishing the evidence directly, and context is presented through the persistently streaming nature of the media; fear, bias, subjectivity and error exist, as they always will, but are dispersed among the broad group of active participants in the news, as opposed to the broad group of passive consumers in current mass media.

Tom Matrullo wants the future journalist to be more aware of the past:

So, before the entrepreneur and the guy who plays well with others, how about the analyst? the people who remember some history? the people who study economics? the people with imagination?

And photographer Lisa Hogben get’s  back onto the money question:

And while I believe I actually fall into the category of the ‘Future Journalist’, BUT and this is the big one, I am struggling to find decently paid markets for my work and while many of us have adapted to the new skill sets necessary to produce vibrant, intelligent, well researched and critically thinking pieces, who is gonna pay for it?

Perhaps there is one very important category that can be added to the position of ‘Future Journalist’ -Salesperson.

I think “entrepreneur” covers the salesperson arena. This time you are selling yourself and your skills. It will require dogged sales skills as the market gets more competitive. But certainly the issue of funding journalism is still an unknown. Some are getting grants from charities, others being savvy with advertising.

The point of this type of future-journalist though is as a freelancer they don’t have to worry about meeting ad targets: they work alone getting a grant from here, doing a corporate gig there, selling some photography there etc…they will have to think outside the traditional realms of journalism.

But that’s what this is all about right?

Footnotes for new journalism

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 15, 2009

A couple of good bits on the  future of journalism have popped up in the last week-mostly through discussions at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Texas.

First up, check out  a good summary of  a talk by David Dunkley-Gyimah of Viewmagazine.tv at the SXTXState blog.  It gives a very good overview of video journalism as a practice, including:

  • how it was pioneered in the mid 90s in the UK and US, with hope it was the way forward, but died out  when “we realized that TV is not dead.”
  • but how the internet has given VJing a new life with the rise of online video
  • assertion that the form is driven by a ‘visual narrative’ with pictures telling the story, as with traditional broadcast news
  • but David points out current VJing follows the old conventions and just sticks them on the web
  • instead, it needs to discover its own style, which he says is more cinematic: “When it comes to the net, there is no code yet as I believe that is set in stone….we’ve all been taking TV’s language and applying that and it hasn’t quite worked. Video journalism needs a more cinematic- hightened visual base.”

Secondly Michael Rosenblum’s puts up a very fluent argument on how to run a financially sound newsroom – by not actually having a newsroom.

  • he’s setting up a second cable VJ news network-but won’t be renting a newsroom
  • all his VJs work from home or in the field on laptops
  • that saves a huge amount of money and makes the operation more likely to make a profit
  • some executives rubbish the idea saying ‘you can’t run a news operation without a newsroom’
  • but he says “‘Facebook now has 170 million members. It seems to function quite well as a nexus of information, both text and increasingly video. It gets information, processes it and distributes it. It has a net value of $15 billion last time I looked. They don’t.”

The ultimate budget film making kit

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 23, 2009

Last year I wrote a post about my ideas for the future of TV news. It’s been one of the most read articles on my blog and solicited a lot of nice comments.

One comment, by blogger Thoroughly Good, made a (thoroughly good) point:

“Grab a camera or a microphone and go make the stuff *you* want to make. Stick it on the web.  If no-one consumes it then satisfy yourself with the thought you’ve satisfied yourself making something which satisfies you not the audience .. That’s the most important thing of all,” he said.

“So, when exactly can we see something?”

Good question. The prize is out there for those who go for it. Another media blogger, Dave Lee reckons 2009 will be the year Video Journalism ‘arrives’.

And I hope to be in the welcome party when it does; but the problem is cost. As great as it is to “grab a camera and a microphone”, it’s not cheap.

Sure, there’s lots of talk about how cameras are a fraction of the cost they used to be ‘and no-longer prohibitively expensive’. But if you want a decent filmmaker hallmark – say the Sony Z1 – you’re talking £2,000 ($3-4,000).

Here’s a good example: in Andy Glynne’s (excellent) book “Documentaries…and how to make them” he details the different set up costs for filmmakers. His “basic kit” is this:

  • Camera: Sony HDR-Z1E –> £3,000 + VAT
  • Batteries x 2: £99 each
  • Microphone: Sennheiser ME66 + shotgun –> £400
  • Headphones: Sennheiser HD201 –> £15
  • Mic grip: –> £77
  • Camera bag: Portabrace –> £180
  • Tripod: Manfretto MN755 –> £148
  • XLR cables, raincover etc: –> £80

TOTAL: ~£4,000

And that’s before you get to editing. The upper range kit he suggests, reaches £7,000 and beyond.

For me – and many other young independents – that IS prohibitively expensive.

But I haven’t let that deter me. Over the last five months I have been compiling my own VJ kit, for a fraction of the cost. In fact, I believe I have managed it for just over £500.

I’ve decided to publish how I did it- maybe it’ll inspire some other budget filmmakers to give it a go.

The ultimate budget film making kit

I’ve learned there are two secrets to getting a kit together on the cheap:

  1. What you don’t spend in money, you must spend in time – that’s time looking around, not rushing into deals, properly exploring the options.
  2. Know exactly what you need each piece of kit to do: a £600 HD cam is no good, if it doesn’t have anywhere to plug in an external microphone, for example.

The camera

For a professional/semi-professional film maker a camera MUST have the following elements: manual focus, manual white balance, external mic option, hot shoe for attaching a mic, manual sound control. And ideally: 3CCD (for broadcast), manuel iris/shutter control and 16:9 widescreen, although these are by no means compulsory.

That immediately wipes out a lot of the consumer models, regardless of how light, cheap or flashy they are.

The budget filmmaker must be content with 2nd hand models as well. Often on ebay these are auctioned at cheaper rates. Ebay also has a healthy selection of 2nd hand Canon XM1s, XM2s and even XL2s – but these will eventually sell for at least £700.

Some of the manuel settings on the NVDX100

Some of the manuel settings on the NVDX100

In my searches I discovered two reliable options that remained cheap: the Canon MVX250i and the Panasonic NVDX100. I was outbid in the former at the last second, but I snapped up the latter for a David Dickensian £189. It retailed at £2,000 when it first went on the market so a good buy by my reckoning.

It runs on MiniDV and being old is a tadge cumbersum, but it has 3CCD and more manual options than you care to mention. It came with three batteries, and a camera bag.

The microphone

A brief search round the internet brought me to Pro Audio Systems, a UK company specialising in professional audio. There I picked up a mic, with hot shoe attachment for £42. It has it’s own battery and a wind cover.

The tripod

Some VJ’s argue a tripod is an option rather than a rule, especially if you want to really push the envelope with creative filming. I would still argue it’s necessary for close ups, and long interviews. But you don’t really need it to perform amazing pans or tilts, so don’t overspend on a flashy Manfretto/Vinten. I picked one up for £15.99 on Ebay. It has a quick-release head to get the camera off quick which is good, and it’s very light.

The edit machine

Here I have had to make one of the biggest compromises. A VJ doesn’t look like a VJ unless they’ve got a laptop for portable editing. And ideally a Macbook. But that’s way out of my league, and instead I’ve opted for the best power v cost ratio.

And that means a desktop. Old school, I know. But editing won’t work without the following key elements: 160GB harddrive (minimum), 2GB of ram, 3ghz processer, and firewire port. We’re talking near the £1,000 mark for that in Apple form, but with a desktop that is within reach of £200 on Ebay.

After literally months of patient stalking in the Ebay jungle, I snapped up a surplus order from Ireland, for a meagre £150. With 250GB of diskspace, a 2.8ghz processor and 2GB of RAM it’s a bargain – and worth the wait.

The other crucial thing for editing is a good monitor. I picked up a 24” flatscreen from Play.com for £120 with free delivery.

The editing software adobe-screenshot

And of course without a Macbook, you are without Final Cut Pro, the staple of video editors everywhere. But even if I had been given a Macbook, FCP is prohibitively expensive. But there are other options: AVID are still a professional catchall, and Adobe’s Creative Suite are breaking new ground in the pro-sumer market.

In the end it was Adobe which caught my attention. Their software Adobe Premiere (currently on edition CS4) is well received. But best of all for the budget filmmaker, they produce a budget version – Adobe Premiere Elements (currently on version 7) , which retails close to £70.

There are some good bargains on ebay, but surprisingly it was Amazon who won this round – flogging it for £52 including free delivery. Cha-ching!

But what do you lose with the Elements version? Well, this is where knowing what requirements you need comes in. I’m a trained bi-media journalist, and after hours on Final Cut Pro, and in the classroom learning the craft of writing to pictures, I think a VJ really only needs a few basic requirements from their editor: the ability to separate audio from video, and a large number of audio/video tracks on which to multitrack. Without those, no matter how great the special effects or “upload straight to Youtube” functions, you can’t perform basic edits.

I spent a long time researching Adobe Premiere Elements, and eventually got a confirmation it is capable of those key functions. And having messed around with it on my own too, I can confirm it’s very similar to Apple’s Final Cut Pro in terms of usability. Click here to check out what it can do for yourself.

Straight to checkout…

  • Camera: Panasonic NVDX100 :: Ebay :: £189.00
  • Microphone: Audio Technica ATR25 :: Pro Audio Systems :: £42.00
  • Tripod: Camlink TP-2100 :: Ebay :: 15.99
  • Edit hardware:  Dell Optiplex 745 :: Ebay :: 150.00
  • Edit monitor: Acer 24” flatscreen :: Play.com :: £120.00
  • Edit software: Adobe Premiere Elements 7 :: Amazon :: £52.10

TOTAL:£569.09

So that’s the full kit – for just a smidgen over £500. I hope any other young journalists/filmmakers who feel it’s all out of their range will read this and see it is possible.

And if you’ve got great ideas and some creativity, you can make great content with the most basic of items.

“So, when exactly can we see something?”

Hopefully, very soon.

The new paradigm of video journalism

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on December 3, 2008

Great video linked by the Solo Video Journalist – on a project in the US called Camp VJ, teaching newspaper journos and more the essence of video journalism.

As well as really summing up the flavour of what VJing is all about, it’s also shot VJ-stylee and is all the more engaging because of it.

It’s all about aggressive film making techniques, getting video to web fast, good use of music and gfx, and breaking the rules. As one student says:

“I think it’s going to change the way I shoot video…I’m so used to this formulaic broadcast style approach, but because we’re online we can break all those rules…we have the ability to just mix it up”

Damn straight.

It even features ViewMagazine‘s  David Dunkley-Gyimah sporting a dapper hat/scarf combo!

Go check it out, it’s worth 5 minutes.

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End of BBC Local TV…is it problem solved for local newspapers?

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on November 22, 2008

The Newspaper Society hailed the cancelling of BBC Local TV plans as a great victory yesterday for local newpapers who’d foreseen their ruin if the Beeb popped up in their area.

The RadioCentre, representing local commercial radio stations, called it a “sensible decision.”

Ofcom had reckoned local newspapers and radio stations could have seen their revenue fall by 4% if BBC Local had happened.

So is it problem solved? No way.

According to an article in today’s Guardian:

While newspapers have seen off the threat of the BBC’s £68m local video websites, their problems remain immense. Against a backdrop of falling advertising revenues and economic downturn, dozens of local papers have closed this year and many more are vulnerable. The BBC’s plans were a concern – the Newspaper Society said the 65 proposed sites would have competed with about 100 websites of some of the UK’s best-known papers. However, Richard Hitchcock, an analyst at Numis, said publishers were not as worried about the BBC plan as they were about the “bigger picture” of a “sustained cyclical consumer downturn on top of the major structural problems of the online migration of audiences and advertising”. Enders Analysis estimates that UK newspaper ad revenues could fall by up to 21% next year and remain in decline for the “foreseeable future”.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere:

Dave Lee issues a challenge for the papers to up their game and match the quality of the BBC threat. Quite rightly he says the papers were just scared – really – that the BBC might be better than them.

David Dunkley Gyimah agrees – and says they must do it soon – because the next threat might not be so easy to fend off. Or, even, from the BBC.

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