Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

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.

The question every journalist must ask…

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 25, 2010

All the great innovations of the past, from the factory produced car, to the Apple computer all began by asking a simple question.

And now, in the grip of the digital revolution and the great upheaval in journalism, it is a question journalists must ask themselves if they’re to create some of the much needed innovations which will determine the future of news.

At last week’s Digital Storytelling Conference in London we showed a short film to get people asking this very question. The results, in the Future of News Meetup shortly afterwards, were really interesting.

What if…?” is a tried and tested Lateral Thinking exercise used by innovators for decades. Asking “What If..?” does some really important things:

  • it gets you to highlight the conventions and assumptions which dominate the news industry
  • it gets you to wonder what would happen if one or more of those just weren’t true
  • it engages your imagination to come up with new ideas
  • it guarantees your ideas will be more original and leftfield

If more journalists asked “what if..?“, we’d see more and more new ideas for the future of journalism emerge.  It’s a question we’ll ask every month at the Future of News Meetups in London: if you’d like to join and take part click here to sign up.

Ideas 003: event based reporting

Posted in Ideas for the future of news by Adam Westbrook on December 4, 2009

I’ve opened up a new category on the blog. It’s called Ideas for the future of news and here I’m  collating good, tangible, positive, innovative ideas on how journalism can move forward.

Previous articles:

Ideas 002: students as investigators

Ideas 001: the news aggregator

Idea: The Berlin Project

By: Alex Wood, Sheena Rossiter, Marcus Gilroy-Ware, Dominique Van Heerden, Marco Woldt

The five people behind the Berlin Project are the perfect example of young journalists refusing to be battered by economic storms, or waiting for journalism to sort itself out. When many recent graduates would have been preparing themselves for another 3-week unpaid internship at some dodgy music mag, or scouring the papers for PR jobs, these guys decided to go do some journalism instead.

It takes a fair bit of chutzpah to fly yourself out to Germany to cover the Berlin Wall anniversary with no real audience and not much financial backing. But they did, and you can see the results on their website.

Under the banner “journalism like you never thought possible” they went into Berlin under the radar covering the unofficial story. The site is a real multimedia mash too with audio, video packages, mobile video and photographs rolled into one.

Something lots of the big boys talk about all the time, but rarely produce themselves.

This aside, I’ve labelled the Berlin Project as an example of event-based reporting, a different angle on journalism, and one perhaps with commercial possibilities?

The Berlin Project was about one event, and offering in-depth coverage of that time defined moment. It is nothing new of course, we’re all used to ‘special coverage’ of the Olympics, elections, and remembrance services in the mainstream media.

But until now, they’ve been an extension of larger broadcasters or papers.

I think the advantage of the Berlin Project is its size (small, nimble) and therefore flexibility. They were also able to work cheaply, getting footage on iPhones and editing it quickly with iMovie. All told, a valuable alternative to mainstream coverage.

And I wonder for a second whether there’s a business model here too? Imagine being commissioned to cover all sorts of awesome events, because its what you do really well. It’s not a traditional niche, but hey- a niche is a niche right?

The Berlin Project team were able to get backing from Reuters  and do some business with smaller sites and Alex reckons they’ll break even, all told. Not bad for a pilot project. And there could be plans for more events coverage in 2010.

And even if you don’t like the idea, these guys have shown what’s possible when you just get off your ass and do something.

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