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.


27 Responses

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  1. Cliff Etzel said, on April 6, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Great post mate! Having been one who ascribed to not manipulating the content as it was recorded (either still or moving) I’ve made time to digest this issue more and realized that there is room for both aesthetics – it’s the measure it’s applied that now seems to be the root of this debate – at least from the various heated posts I’ve seen on the topic.

    Thanks for adding your insights to what’s going to be a hot topic for some time.


    Cliff Etzel
    Solo Video Journalist

  2. tladb said, on April 7, 2010 at 12:48 am

    I think the colour grading on the Haitian man or any dark skinned people has the potential to change the attitudes to the people. In this example I think it can be argued that the colour is shifted to a greener, darker and more ominous tone then the redder original.

  3. […] Mohtaseb’s video above was part of a blog post by Adam Westbrook titled “How to achieve the new look in Video Journalism.” In the post, Westbrook notes that some have debated whether or not the video should be considered […]

    • gry internetowe said, on August 6, 2012 at 11:45 am

      Really enjoyed this article

  4. Brandon Tompkins said, on April 8, 2010 at 7:43 am

    I know as a future Solo VJ I should be willing to adapt to new changes or perish. I just wonder in the past 10 or so years in the realm of digital still photojournalism. Why did a lot of photojournalist lose their jobs due to them only doing what they did in the days of developing film but digitally? Such as burning, dodging, and the use of various filters. At what point do we say is too much or not ethical??

    Case in point:
    In 2006: Reuters admitted that one of its photographers, Adnan Hajj, used software to distort an image of smoke billowing from buildings in Beirut in order to create the effect of more smoke and damage that photographer was then fired.
    March 2003: During Gulf War II, the Los Angeles Times ran the photo on top on its front page. It was a composite of the two lower photos. Photographer Brian Walski was dismissed two days later.
    1994: The image of OJ Simpson’s Mug shot Newsweek had a normal unaltered image and Time Magazine made it darker more sinister of the same photograph.
    February 1982: The pyramids were moved closer together to accommodate this vertical National Geographic cover.
    I know all of these are extreme examples but, we the viewers would never have known the difference if the facts behind the images was not revealed.
    I feel that news videos should report the truth as is with out any fancy effects. If we lose this and go overboard to be more like Hollywood, we will lose creditability for the truthfulness of the story. After all I was always told content is king.

  5. […] here’s Adam Westerbrook’s take on the piece. Westerbrook is a proponent of using more stylistic techniques in online video […]

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  7. […] How to achieve the cinematic aesthetic in video journalism […]

  8. […] we can all learn from. You can see previous write ups on really good video storytelling here and here and here! Here’s three more well executed examples; I’ve tried to put as much practical […]

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