Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Improving online video journalism with layers

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 31, 2011

Mozilla Jam at Guardian HQ

I had a brief rest from thinking about creating online video this weekend and thought about how we consume it instead.

I spent Saturday at the Guardian HQ taking part in an ideas-jam organised by Mozilla (yes, those guys who make the web browser) in London.

Mozilla have teamed up with the Knight Foundation in the US to offer year long fellowships at big news organisations to some innovative journalists, developers and designers. Their idea-jams, taking place worldwide, invited hacks and hackers to  get together and come up with ways to make journalism better:  in particular, how do we make online video more awesome, and how to we make comments better?

It was a great chance to throw ideas around with non-journalists (very few journalists turned up, actually), and meet the other types of people innovating journalism.

Get in line

The challenge set up for online video was an interesting one: almost all other types of journalism (from articles, to data visualisations, to interactive timelines to games) are non-linear: you can jump in at any paragraph, any statistic, any year, any level and explore the story in your own way. And that’s very exciting.

But video can’t be like that can it? With its predetermined flow of 24 still pictures passing our eyes every second, video is inherently linear. You can’t jump in halfway through a documentary, then skip to the beginning, and then to the end.

I thought about whether that linearisation can be broken, but then remembered the crafting of a linear narrative is one of the most satisfying things about making video. Why lose that?

From lines to layers

The discussion in our group turned to layers instead. Can we improve video by, rather than messing with the video itself, adding translucent layers above it? It’s a bit like augmented reality, but also (in my mind) like putting sheets of OHP paper together on an overhead projector.

The idea we put together was for a layer called ‘Transparency’ which tells viewers how the video story they are watching has been made, as they are watching it. It tells you whether the video you’re watching has come from an agency, or from an in-house camera team; it also tells you where the facts you’re seeing/hearing have come from.

This diagram I drew at the event explains it a bit better.

Drawing: Adam Westbrook Photo: Henrick Mitsch

We submitted the idea to Mozilla at the end of the day (you can read more here) and there are lots of other interesting ideas up there too. I think the layers idea can be developed more though. Those of you who shoot film, photography or animate motion graphics as I do, will know the importance of building layers upon layers to create complex images.

Can we do the same to make video more useful for people?

If you have an idea for improving online video, commenting, or people-powered news and are interested in entering the Knight Mozilla News Technology Partnership, you have until June 6th 2011 to enter your ideas. 

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What Blackadder can teach you about video journalism

Posted in Journalism, Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on November 24, 2010

Some films are just a struggle to bring into this world.

I’ve found you can spot them early on: you can’t quite nail the story, or your character’s not willing to really get involved; or it starts to get runaway-complicated. These problem films affect novice video journalists and film makers more often. It damages morale and we think: ‘this film-making malarky isn’t nearly as fun as it looks.’

What do you do in those situations? 90% of people give up.

But the actual solution, to borrow from the brilliant Steven Pressfield, is to ‘shut up and keep humping’. Keep working away at that film, regardless of how miserable the trench warfare is. Turn up every day until it’s done. It isn’t fun. It’s hard. But don’t you dare give up.

And every film can be rescued. If you don’t believe me, take inspiration from one of the most famous scenes in British television history – which very nearly never happened.

The original footage shot, the producers realised they had a flop on their hands….but through creative thinking, team work and sheer bloody minded determination they worked this last scene until it came kicking and screaming into the world.

And it came out as an iconic piece of television.

‘Digital Cinema’: a new way of looking at video journalism?

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 1, 2010


This month I had the privilege of joining top film makers Dan Chung and Rodney Charters ASC in judging the Digital Cinema category of of the Press Photographer’s Year awards.

The PPY is different from, say, the Concentra Video Journalism Awards because it’s aimed at photographers, and still asks for film work rooted within photojournalism.

It’s extremely exciting to see new film makers, photographers and journalists experimenting with different styles – and the winners we chose really reflected that trend. The PPY called the category we judged ‘digital cinema’ a term which I think sums up the notion of the cinematic aesthetic quite well.

The first and second prize films were both shot on Canon 5d MKII digital SLR camera – another increasing trend.

I’ve just summed up our thoughts on the winners over at the DSLR Newsshooter blog – check it out here.

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Video Journalism: are two heads better than one?

Posted in Freelance, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 8, 2010

Video Journalism has become intrinsically connected with terms like Solo VJ, One Man Band and Backpack Journalist. A video journalist, as we understand, works alone, exploiting the benefits of being light on the feet: a small, nimble unit.

With more photojournalists experimenting with video, this idea of the VJ as a solo-worker is being accentuated.

But what if this isn’t the best way?

A cinematographer friend of mine got me thinking about this last week. We were talking about the merits of the new range of small digital SLRs, shooting HD video – the Canon 5D, 550D and Nikon D5000.

“My only worry” he said, “is you become more preoccupied with the video and not the journalism. When you look back on your day do you say: ‘I’ve spent most of my time thinking about the journalism’, or ‘have I spent most of it thinking about depth-of-field?'”

Now don’t get me wrong, I usually prefer solo working, and I have long been a proponent of the solo video journalist being far more efficient, fast and value-for-money than larger crews. I don’t think the journalism suffers necessarily with a One Man Band (well, it depends on the journalist of course); but…could it be better if there are two people on a story?

Lois & Clark

Let’s imagine for a second a Lane/Kent type scenario. Instead of working alone finding, researching, treating, shooting and editing stories, the solo video journalist finds a talented partner.

Perhaps a print journalist with some but not much experience in video, they are good at the researching, the phone bashing, the setting up and asking the tough questions. That leaves the video journalist to focus on the shooting & editing and together they work to craft an engaging visual narrative.

This is how some newspapers already work with video – pairing a reporter with a video producer, and papers like the New York Times and the Guardian have produced some of their best results this way. What if independent freelance video journalists teamed up on a regular basis to work like this?

Two heads of course reduce the chances of mistakes, factual errors and clouded judgement.

But it’s all about the pairing. As a veteran of long backpacking tours gone horribly sour when two ill matched travelers inevitably fall out, it often isn’t pretty. The pairs would need similar interests, similar backgrounds maybe, and similar ambitions. They would both need the determination and the resolve to carry on through the hard times.

The duo could go beyond and market themselves together as a brand – you work with one, you get the other.

I’ve talked a lot this year about collaboration, and I have the privilege of working with quite a few talented producers, reporters and presenters already. The idea of a talented pair of multimedia journalists seems to me to be very tempting; what you do you think?

Why video journalism is ALL about the story

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 12, 2010

Last year I blogged about the winner of the Concentra Video Journalism Award, an international prize for excellent self-shot films.

The winner in 2009 was the superb Alexandra Garcia (currently producing a gorgeous fashion series for the Washington Post) with her film the Healing Fields.

I’ve used it lots of times to teach storytelling and sequences to my students.

Well, last week the 2010 awards were held and there’s a new winner: Adam Ellick from the New York Times.

So what makes this an award winning piece of journalism?

For me, it shows one thing and one thing alone: video journalism is about the story. The buck stops there.

Adam has an amazing story: two entrepreneurial brothers, in the middle of Pakistan, supplying a large part of the world’s gimp masks and fetish wear. And he has access to it all: he has the brothers opening up, being frank and revealing on camera. He has the company’s designer, saying she’s partial to a bit of leather in the bedroom.

And he has the surprise. Watch the film and you get a rare “no way!” moment when you find out what’s going on.

Lesson: it’s the story and the story alone.

My first video journalism shoot with the Canon550D

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 7, 2010

I was recently commissioned to produce a five minute video package ahead of this week’s General Election in the UK, on the controversial ban on prisoners being able to vote.

It was a commission for the VJ Movement, and has since been featured on Radio Netherlands Worldwide.

It was also the first test for my new Canon 550D DSLR camera and related paraphernalia which I introduced here.

Click here to watch it.

The story

We spent a fair amount of time thrashing out the story arc for the piece, something VJ Movement take very seriously.

Together we’re trying to produce video journalism which doesn’t conform to the old rules of a TV news piece. This first commission doesn’t quite go the whole way with that, but the opening sequences and the atmospheric introduction of the main character attempt to try a few different things.

We used John as the main character to drive the narrative forward, rather than flipping between talking heads, which works well, and he lent himself well to colourful soundbites and nice sequences.

The story is limited though by its complex and legal nature; there’s a lot of elements to it not just John’s personal story which all need to be included – a challenge to both shoot and write to.

The gear

For the most part the 550D performed well, and produced some excellent images. I have the most basic 18-55mm lens but it’s a good all-rounded for most shots. Importantly it performs very well in low light, which helped in the darker locations I was filming in for this piece.

It also produces a nice colour for the images. Some limitations with recording time though: you can only record for a maximum of 12 minutes at a time, regardless of the size of your SD card (I have absolutely no idea why). You might also spot a couple of out of focus shots too, a result of not being able to focus properly on the LCD screen.

The rough edit contained a few handheld shots but we removed them as they were too shaky. Being an SLR it’s not an easy camera to keep steady…more support, if anything, for always using a tripod where you can.

The biggest challenge, as with all the DSLRs is audio. As well as a Rode VideoMic attached to the camera, I recorded all the interviews separately onto a Tascam DR-07 and synched it in Final Cut Pro.

I am very happy with the quality of the audio – but ran into trouble with frame rates. If, for example, I changed the shutter speed down to 25fps to brighten the image, the audio recording was not recorded at the same speed.

All minor problems to iron out with more practice, and I personally don’t find it too much of a hassle to sync the audio in post – if it means the sound is good quality.

No grading was done to this film – more out of a lack of time rather than anything else. I’m hoping to get more aquainted with Apple’s Color in later edits.

The DSLR debate

I’ve enjoyed working the 550D: very happy with what I got for the price and also glad to have the flexibility to take photographs and produce audio slideshows with a single camera.

Meanwhile the debate over whether video journalists should use DSLR cameras continues; the detractors – for example Cliff Etzel in this post – label it a “fad” and accuse users of a “lazy” obsession with shallow depth-of-field:

There are many who have become enamoured with the so called uber cool extreme shallow depth of field flavor of the moment, equating it to creative license and thus making it their top priority, and in the process, losing sight of the first rule of solo video journalism:  It’s the story, not the gear.

And of course Cliff is right, it’s the story not how the pictures look…but personally, I think it’s possible to care about both.

What do you think?

Getting kitted up (again) for video journalism

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 28, 2010

For the first time since I wrote this article in 2008, I have been able to invest in some new kit.

Although my £500 all-in film making gear has given me a great start and helped me produce films in difficult environments, including Baghdad and Basra, I felt it was limiting me in some of the bigger projects I have planned for this year.

Meanwhile the fast moving camera market and an increased interest in audio slideshows have made video capable DSLRs a very practical option in the last year – and I’ve been desperate to get my hands on one.

The camera

The moment to take the plunge came as soon as Canon announced the release of the EOS 550D: a digital SLR camera from the same family as the revolutionary 5D MKII and 7D – but at a fraction of the price.

For between £600-800 you can pick up a 550D and it comes with many of the same features as its more upmarket siblings. Photographically, it does everything the majority of professional DSLRs can do, with high quality RAW images, a range of manual settings, a large sensor and a good LCD screen.

With video it gets interesting: it is more limited than the MKII or 7D but still powerful enough to work for professional video journalism. It shoots in 1080i High Definition at 24fps, and can get up to 50fps at 720 definition. You have full control over aperture, exposure and shutter speed.

The main reason to enter the DSLR market, as well as the fact it enables me to shoot images too, is the potential of the lens. At the moment I have the basic 18-55mm EF lens which will do your basic shots, but I hope to invest in a fast lens before the year is out.

The audio rig

The big  let down with DSLRs (even the best ones) is the poor audio quality. The 550D has an on-board microphone, but I wouldn’t use it to make a phone call, let alone record an interview. It comes with an external 3.5mm audio input, to which I have connected a Rode Videomic, a high quality camera microphone, (£80) as well as my cabled lapel microphone for interviews (£20).

Like all DSLRs this camera has only automatic gain control, so it’ll be interesting to see what the quality is like. You also can’t monitor your sound levels on the camera which is an issue.

As a back up, and for the production of audio slideshows, I have also invested in the Tascam DR-07, a portable audio recorder first recommended by David Stone at BroadcastJournalism.co.uk.

Many DSLR shooters are using audio recorders to record their audio in high quality separately and then syncing it in post production. Software like PluralEyes (www.singularsoftware.com/pluraleyes.html)  makes this possible, but it’s also nothing a simple clap when filming can’t solve.

I have yet to give these a good test yet, but it’ll be interesting to see whether audio becomes a deal breaker.

The extras

I’m recording onto a Class6 SD card, and I also needed a new tripod. Manfrotto’s Modo is both affordable (£40) and very light and small – but exceptionally versatile. With fully flexible legs and a good quality ball cam head it’s a big improvement on my previous rig.

I’m also keeping my Kodak Zi8 with me and for the time being I still have the handy Panasonic NVDX100, although probably not for much longer.

The Workflow

The one thing I’ve learned from experimenting with lots of different kit over the years is the importance of researching a workflow. That means the step-by-step process it would take to shoot footage and get it edited.

For example, did you know although the Canon 550D shoots in .mov format, it needs to be transcoded through Pro-Res before it can be used in Final Cut Pro? Experts like Dan Chung and Philip Bloom are good stops to find stuff like this out as well as all the forums out there.

I’m currently shooting my first commission with the new kit ahead of the General Election; as soon  as a finished product is available I’ll post it up.

DSLRs which shoot video remain a controversial topic, with some offering high praise, others critical of the set up. Personally I think they offer huge potential, if you’re prepared to work around some of the early problems. Sure, I never thought I’d have to sync audio from two different devices, but it really doesn’t add much to my time in the edit.

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.

Why the DSLR is changing video journalism

Posted in Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 15, 2010

Photo: Dan Chung

This isn’t the first time I’ve harped on about the need for video journalism to break away from the rules and conventions of TV news. Other, smarter, people have done it too.

Thing is, where are we seeing this happen? Video journalists working with traditional (albeit smaller) cameras are generally producing “TV” news, solo.

Flipcams, like the Kodak Zi8, are proving they can compete with the big boys in some instances…although still mimicking the old guard.

One camera is threatening to give the rules the rewriting they deserve.

A new range of digital SLR cameras are now capable of shooting HD video, through the most awesome quality photographic lenses. And it’s getting photographers and videographers very excited.

At the top of the pile is Canon’s 5D MkII which comes in at a hefty £2,5000. Cheaper, but still very high quality is the Canon 7D, roughly just over £1,000. And now Canon have brought out their cheapest one yet – the 550D. It shoots HD video at either 25 frames per second or up to 60 frames per second at a lower quality. It’s got an external microphone input, so you’ll get good quality sound, and you can attach any Canon lens onto it to get a wide range of gorgeous images…it’ll set you back £700.

In the right hands these cameras are bringing a cinematic feel to video journalism. There are no hands better than Beijing based photojournalist and VJ Dan Chung. Check out this film he shot for the Guardian. He trialled the 550D, and put it on some cheap movable rigs to add motion to the shots. Used subtly it doesn’t distract from the story, but adds a wonderful texture to it.

I am hoping to invest in the 550D in the very near future. I hope DSLRs, in whatever form or price inspire a real visual revolution. It’s about time.

Video Journalism: small cameras used well

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 9, 2010

Last year I put together a short video recommending Kodak’s Zi8 camera as a cheap, but high quality alternative for video journalists and film makers on a small budget.

It’s external mic input and HD capability give it the edge over its rival the FlipCam, and I really think if it’s used properly it can create professional looking footage. Well I’m glad to say someone has gone out and proved that point.

Markham Nolan shot this piece for the Irish Sailing Association. In particular look out for the interview clips which appear about 01’07” in. Well framed, well lit, with an external microphone used, you wouldn’t think this had been shot on a camera the size of a Blackberry. As Markham says:

On the whole, this was low-budget, low-tech. Rory was sitting on a kitchen chair in my garden shed office. I hung a black sheet behind him and sat him with a window on his left (camera right) so we had nice soft, natural light.  On advice from Adam Westbrook, I had splashed out on a Kodak Zi8 HD Pocket Video Camera to record the interviews with Rory (a whopping €130). The Zi8 has a microphone line in, so I nabbed a cheap lapel mic, and the sound quality is great as a result.

And here’s my original review of the Zi8 from back in December.

Some great video journalism from Afghanistan

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 19, 2010

Quite a few of you have been asking for more examples of top quality video journalism to be showcased on this blog.

I’m happy to oblige with this excellent study in calm, authoritative video journalism from one of the most experienced professionals in the game, Vaughan Smith.

After a month with soldiers from the Royal Anglicans in Afghanistan, Smith self shot and edited this 11 minute report, which was broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4 News last weekend.

Click here to watch it on Vaughan’s blog.

Why is it good video journalism? Well it does what good video journalism should: it gets close and intimate to the action. Vaughan’s small camera means he can go on patrol with the soldiers. His shooting skills enable him to capture sequences even though he’s filming on his own.

There is some voice over in this report, but it is infrequent and Vaughan’s calm voice only appears to explain the technicalities of what we are seeing on screen. The rest of it is just pure reality unfolding on screen often in extended sequences. For similar excellent Solo Video Journalism, check out the work of John D McHugh, who is also currently back in Afghanistan.

After more than a decade going where mainstream TV crews wouldn’t go, Vaughan now runs the popular Frontline Club in central London, a watering hole for journalists and debate about the industry.

Meanwhile, Ciara Leeming, writing on the Duckrabbit Blog has highlighted a good audio slideshow from the BBC, again reflecting on time in Afghanistan.

Kodak Zi8: the tool to change video journalism?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 20, 2009


Broadcast quality video cameras are only doing one thing: getting smaller.

But the smallest one, the Mini-HD camera, has so far been largely shunned by professional video journalists, chiefly because of their shaky footage and poor on-board audio.

Now though, there’s a new camera on the scene which threatens to change all that- and it weighs just 110 grams. It’s Kodak’s latest MiniHD cam, the Zi8, and now has an external microphone input for high quality sound recording.

I’ve put together a quick run through explaining its features…

Now I think if used creatively, it’s possible to produce a high quality film with the Zi8. If so, the potential for citizen journalism, hyper-locals and other smaller news enterprises could be profound. Michael Rosenblum has already written about the potential of giving cameras like these to large numbers of people.

And you just have to watch this film by PNW Local (previously featured on this blog) to see the potential. It was shot entirely on the Zi8’s predecessor the Zi6. Elsewhere Cisco are now promising wi-fi with their next FlipCam model, but unless its’ got better audio I think it won’t rival the Zi8 for professional use.

I’m going to keep filming and experimenting – all the results will appear right here!