I’ve been putting a lot of thought into finding new ways to do historical documentary storytelling over the past two years.
As those who’ve spoken to me about it in the past will know, I think what we’re offered on television and radio is formulaic, sometimes crude, and almost always boring. The internet offers a fantastic platform to try new ways of doing things.
So here is a rare and refreshing example of a wonderful, short, historical documentary. But here’s the shock: it’s been made by Honda.
Yes, it seems even car companies are having a go at being film makers – and succeeding.
It’s part of a new campaign called Live Every Litre, and aims to make a documentary about the amazing journeys people take, or want to take, in their lives.
The wonderful treatment of this story (showing a veteran taking his granddaughter to see Normandy – why has the BBC never done that?!) and it’s subtle execution aside, this little film could be evidence of two things for visual journalists:
- that teaming up with companies wanting to use the power of storytelling to market their products could actually be an effective way of producing great video journalism (this series has Claudio Von Planta at the helm)
- that if we don’t pick up the baton soon, it’ll be Honda winning BAFTAs and Emmys in 5 years – while video journalists are busy working in their showrooms.
“We are completely unashamed of this, we want people to pay for the journalism”
Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist
Did you know the Times has an Ocean Correspondent? That’s right: a journalist dedicated to covering ocean news. He’s called Frank Pope and he was on the front page of yesterday’s print edition, diving into the Gulf of Mexico, an experience which must currently be akin to swimming through a gigantic jar of Marmite.
He’s a man whose beat is 70% of the earth’s surface, yet the position of Ocean Correspondent is a luxury not many papers or broadcasters would afford.
And that’s why the Times wants us to start paying for its online news, just like some pay for the paper. And this morning we see the launch of this – with thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk going live in the last few minutes.
Last night I joined a small group of bloggers and media/tech journalists at the headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s News International in Wapping, London to get a sneak preview of the site before the wall went up.
It’ll be something of a glass paywall at first with the content visible to all — then, after four weeks, the glass becomes brick and not even Google’s spiders will be able to crawl between the mortar cracks.
That’s right: articles on thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk will not be searchable on Google…if you see a story you like, you won’t be able to share it on Twitter or Facebook…it would seem, a massive own goal, but at least they’ll save money on SEO consultants.
Niche & experience
My two concerns for the Times paywall are these:
- the Times is not significantly niche enough (as, say, the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal are) to attract paying readers
- the experience of reading the Times online was not good enough to make it something to pay for
On point one, they have put thought into it. The websites will boast what the Times and Sunday Times do have – excellent columnists, good travel, review and culture. It won’t, we’re told, be a repository for breaking news “taken from PA”, insisting they won’t put a story up “if they can’t add value.”
That is a good step, although I am still not sure what the Times stands for: middle-of-the-road, middle-class, middle-aged Britain? As someone once the said, ‘the only thing in the middle of the road is white paint and dead animals.’
The Times and Sunday Times are to have two separate websites, each independently updated. This means even though the Sunday Times is printed only on a Sunday, it will be updating the web with new content throughout the week.
And what about the experience of reading the Times or the Sunday Times online?
Well, at first impressions I am not bowled over: black text on a white screen, size 12, serif font – just like every other news website out there (and even this blog!). A web page can be any colour and fully dynamic – a concept no major newsroom is yet to grasp.
I was taken to task on this though by Times Assistant Editor Tom Whitwell who insists they looked at different options. There are apparently fewer stories on the front page, leaving it less cluttered. The experience is also more visual with larger front page images, and a chance to explore the top news stories in pictures (a cue taken, perhaps, from the Independent’s NewsWall produced by UltraKnowledge).
The Sunday Times website is actually quite a pleasure to navigate with a large rolling ‘shop window’ carousel and multimedia galleries. Said the editor: “we’re expecting people to browse and enjoy the experience.” Is it distinct enough from the Guardian, Telegraph, New York Times or the BBC? That’s for you to decide.
Other cool bits include a culture planner to organise your week, and the rather neat ability to set your Sky+ box direct from the Times website, both giving the sites usability rather than just something to read. Interestingly if you wish to SpeEk You’re bRanes about the content, you’ll only be allowed to comment using your full name.
On video & multimedia
Now to the bit most readers of this blog are really interested in – the multimedia stuff.
The editor of the Sunday Times told us they’d “invested a lot of time and money in multimedia” including on a new video studio.
There’s to be a push on interactive infographics to rival the Financial Times, and multimedia photogalleries of the best images. They want to connect their journalists with their readers and there’ll be plenty of live webchats online.
But it seems there hasn’t been an investment in more multimedia staff, or a push for innovative video storytelling. Instead the investment has been in getting their current crop of journalists to create more stuff for the web, with pen still in hand. As if keeping tabs on all the news from 70% of the earth’s surface wasn’t enough, our Ocean man Frank Pope must also file video every time he goes diving.
Now that’s fine – and indeed, if the print journalists I have met in my time are anything to go by, not an easy pitch for the Times editors to have made.
But the Times or the Sunday Times won’t sew the seeds of innovation in multimedia. Tom Whitwell described having to ask columnist Caitlin Moran, who’s interview with Lady Gaga just went viral, to do some video on the story. The problem: Caitlin is on a ‘writer’s retreat’ in Brighton apparently.
Will any of their video journalists be treated to a ‘video retreat’?
Is it worth the money?
That was the one question everyone asked when I tweeted from last night’s preview. And I’ve needed to sleep on it to make my mind up.
Here’s the numbers: for a single day’s access it’ll cost you (in 4 weeks time) one of your English pounds. But you can get a whole week’s access for £2 – so if you’re interested, don’t bother paying by the day.
And actually…£2 for access to comment and analysis from a good newspaper – and topped off with access to the Sunday Times is almost, almost, worth paying for….
You can try speculating about whether Rupert’s paywall will work, but whatever your conclusion you’ll probably be wrong. So let’s bring on the wall …and see what happens.
Other commentary about the paywall…
- Rory Cellan-Jones: the Times paywall: an end to sharing
- Media Guardian: Times Online unveils new website
- Tim Bradshaw: behind the Times’ new paywall
- Malcolm Coles: the Times paywall: some questions to mull over
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:
(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.
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.
The last seven days has seen two big announcements from two of the world’s largest broadcasters.
Last week, American TV Network ABC announced a huge swathe of cuts in their newsrooms: more than 300 jobs in total. They’re cutting their technical staff back by using their control room suites more effectively…and bringing in multimedia journalists:
“In production, we will take the example set by Nightline of editorial staff who shoot and edit their own material and follow it throughout all of our programs, while recognizing that we will continue to rely upon our ENG crews and editors for most of our work”.
David Westin, memo to ABC staff
As Micheal Rosenblum rightly says: “Welcome, ABC News, to 1990”.
And this morning, the BBC in the UK have confirmed what some within the corporation had been suspecting for months, and fearing since Friday: a £600m series of cuts, which will halve the number of websites, and close two digital radio stations: 6music and the Asian Network.
“The reality for the BBC is that it faces increasingly difficult choices. Failure to make such choices would lead to limitless expansion, increasing demands for funding and corresponding impact on the wider market. That prospect is not one the Trust can accept.”
Sir Michael Lyons, BBC Chairman
There’s lots of concern and a fair bit of understandable anger about both cuts. Thing is, they’re both valid decisions in the financial and ever-changing digital climate. Two sad victims of the seismic shift we’re undergoing.
Chess piece or chess player?
It’s time for the broadcasters, journalists and creatives of the future to pick up the pieces. These cut backs are tragic, but they create new opportunities for us to exploit. For example, BBC 6music served a young niche audience extremely well with alternative music, documentaries and even radio plays. Who’d have thought that would work?
When it closes all those people will need a new home. Who will they go to?
According to the last UK census, 2% of the British population are Asian. Where will their news, music and community come from on a national level when the Asian Network is taken off air?
Radio futurologist James Cridland, speaking at February’s Future of News Meetup, just hours before the BBC cuts were first leaked, showed us how radio stations in Canada schedule 30 minute documentaries in the middle of their breakfast shows and make it work; how NPR in the US are combining pictures with their audio to reach audiences in new ways. There is still a huge amount of innovation to be done.
With these sad changes, new markets open up. It is now cheaper, faster and easier to become a publisher and broadcaster online than it ever has been. Will you exploit this new opportunity or pass it by? Your call.
…then look no further!
If you’re in the UK in April and looking to skill up on your video shooting, editing and radio skills then the Journalism Weekender will be perfect for you.
News agency Feature Story News have team up with Newsleader Consultancy to offer an awesome weekend of hands on training on professional camera and audio skills. And I’m happy to announce I’ve jumped on board to help out over the course of the weekend as well.
According to the site, you’ll get a lot out of it:
…sessions on writing and presenting as well as the skills of multi-media working, including using social media; Practical assignments in either TV or radio; One to one coaching including CV building; Final session on marketing yourself to the media market.
Tickets are on a 20% discount ’til end of play Friday so if you’re thinking about it, think quick!
On top of this, I’ve also been invited to join the KM Group of newspapers & radio stations in Kent later this month to share advice on multimedia, video journalism and making the most out of social media.
Photo Credit: vinodvv aka vcube on Flickr
Cleverly used audio (both natural sound and music) can tell a story – even when the pictures are as simple as…well, a Google Search screenshot.
Here’s how Google used it to great effect with their Superbowl halftime ad:
Give audio a chance!
65 years ago today, Russian scouts entered the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau near Krakow in Poland, and one of the darkest chapters in human history came to an end.
These days the end of the Holocaust is remembered with events around the world; this year multimedia is playing a big role in reminding a new generation about what happened. The Media Guardian reports on the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust‘s web 2.0 efforts, including a Facebook group and Twitter feed.
They’ve also commissioned a pretty extraordinary film. Anyone who’s met me in person may know about my personal pet project to reinvent how history is done for mass audiences. So much is dry and formulaic about the offerings of the mainstream TV networks I could be here all day talking about.
But telling stories from the past isn’t easy, which is why these cliches exist: depending on what period you’re talking about, many of your subjects will be dead; you are left with GVs, archive photographs and grainy footage…and at worst beardy talking head historians: the Times New Roman of interviewees.
I’m excited the internet & multimedia provide the potential for new styles, new stories and new audiences, and even more excited the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust have invested in that with this film.
OK, it’s narrated by Harry Potter, and OK, it is 10 minutes long…but it is beautifully shot, elevated by strong characters, amazing stories and a haunting soundtrack. And just wait until you see what they’ve done in After Effects (you’ll know when you see it). It’s good to see history being illuminated with innovative storytelling.
At the time of writing, it’s only had 552 views in 5 months which is a crying shame; it’s something the people at Chocolate Films should be very proud of.
With its external microphone input and double lens function it is (at the moment) better than the MinoHD Flip cam. But, as ever, there’s lots moving in the world of camera technology, and I’ve got three big improvements to share with you.
01. Get the Firmware upgrade for the Zi8
If you have a Kodak Zi8, they have a firmware upgrade which vastly improves the camera’s zooming capabilities, and audio recording quality, among other things. To find out if you need it, switch on your Zi8 and go to the settings menu; moving to the “i” sign will tell you the current version it is running. If it is anything less than version 1.06 then click here to upgrade it! You loose a little bit of recording space, but the optics are much improved.
02. A steadicam for minicams?
Yes it’s true, if you prefer the iPhone 3GS to a Flipcam, you’ll soon be able to buy your own rig to achieve the smooth shots Hollywood studios pay thousands for. Smaller steadicam rigs, including the Merlin, have been around for camcorders for some time, but aren’t able to carry something as small as an iPhone or Flipcam.
The Steadicam Smoothie is weighted to provide counterbalance for really small cameras. Check it out, if just for fun. No word yet on how much they’ll retail for.
(Thanks to @EdMoore for the tip)
03. Awesome vintage shots
Need a retro vintage feel to your footage? Well, it’s possible to do it in post production with most software, but someone’s gone and made a camera which does it for you. It’s called the Harinezumi Digital 2.0, (or Zumi for short) and it appears to have been designed to be less-good on purpose. It has no viewfinder, so you can’t really see what you’re filming, and it’s sensor is designed to produce faded pictures with a vignette edge. It also has a macro lens setting (like the Zi8) to create elegant depth-of-field.
I’d be dismissing it right away if the pictures didn’t look so fantastic, and if vintage/retro wasn’t a-la-mode in design circles. The latest version (Zumi 2.0) can now record sound.
I’ve written on more than one occasion about my concerns radio in the UK is settling in as a back-seat passenger in the digital revolution.
With print and TV and online finding new ways to innovate all the time, the radio bods have turned up the “hits and memories”, closed their eyes and pretended it was still the 1990s.
Some evidence radio is still a little hesitant to jump in, though, with one session entitled “Spotify: Friend or Foe?” (rule #1 of the internet: embrace or die) and “Why Radio Must Go Digital” (a debate threatening a schism in the industry).
It wraps up with what promises to be an entertaining Blackburn v Bacon.
Unfortunately the £300 ticket price is a bit beyond my means, but here are the things I would say if I were there…
Share your content – it adds to its value! With news Bauer is pulling its Kiss FM content from Absolute’s innovative Compare My Radio Player, it seems we’re a long way off this mindset with some companies.
Remember what the first pioneers of radio must have felt when they invented radio for the first time. The first time someone used it to create a package; the first time someone used it to read out letters from listeners. We are very lucky to live in the first age where it’s possible to reinvent radio. What a shame to waste it.
Outside the BBC, Absolute Radio so far seem the only ones even bothering to try. It’s paying off though. Their One Golden Square Labs have already brought out several innovative products, including Compare My Radio & Dabbl.
New platforms means new content
The top-ten-at-ten on a smart phone is exactly the same as the top-ten-at-ten on FM. Invest time (not necessarily always money) in new content. Surprise your listeners!
Remember what radio is good at…
…speech! Radio is such a powerful medium for getting across ideas and emotions, and yet here were are, with only a couple of totally speech stations in the entire UK. I know it’s expensive, and “risky”…but in this scary new world, fortune favours the brave. And no-one can put you down for trying. Radio 4’s 10 year high in listening figures proves the demand is there.
Radio At The Edge is on Monday 9th November at 9.30. Thanks to James Cridland for the hattip.