Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

A multimedia journalism gear guide (on the cheap)

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 23, 2010

The excellent US multimedia producers MediaStorm published a very useful multimedia gear guide this week, outlining some of the kit you’ll need to get started as a video journalist or online film maker.

It includes the popular Canon 5D MKII, Sennheiser mics, and Marantz audio recorder.

Now I’d love to use the Canon 5D MkII, and some top of the range Sennheiser mics, but they have always been a bit out of my budget range. The 5D, for example, will set you back around £2,200 ($4000), a difficult investment for a recently graduated journalist or someone bootstrapping a business. There are however a few alternatives for the multimedia journalist on a lower budget – I thought I’d share them here as a complement to the MediaStorm list.

All prices & currency conversions are approximate and based on a brief scout online. Definitely search around for good deals.

HDSLRs

Depending on where you read, Canon have upset some photographers who were waiting for a firmware upgrade to their 5D or had just shelled out for a 7D – by releasing the 550D for a fraction of both prices. It shoots in 1080i HD and in 720 at higher frame rates and apparently its LCD display is better than the more expensive options. I have been using this camera for about four months and have very few complaints so far. It is very small & light, but has a less sturdy body. You’re unable to adjust or monitor sound levels and are limited to 12 minute video recording sessions.  All problems you can work around however.

Below that the 7D is more expensive and has a slightly nicer sensor from what I can tell, although I have not used it myself. The Kodak Zi8, perfectly capable of good footage if used correctly has now slipped below the £100 mark – a really realistic option for the journalist on the very low budget, or even as a backup camera.

Canon 550D (+ 18-55mm lens) ~£600/$900

Canon 7D ~£1100/$1700

Kodak Zi8 ~£100/$150

Lenses

I use a bog-standard 18-55mm lens for most of my shooting at the moment. However there are an array of affordable lenses out there too, even those with a wider aperture. For the lower price you’ll have to accept a plastic body, and probably lower quality glass – but it’ll still be good enough for most shoots. Note I have not used any of the following lenses myself.

If you’re doing any extreme close-up filming, another cheap option is an extension tube macro ring. I found one for just a few pounds -it is essentially a plastic tube you attach in between your camera body and lens, and it creates a macro zoom effect. The cheaper ones don’t have contact rings though, and the camera won’t be able to automatically adjust exposure or white balance. For filming this is usually OK.

Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II (known among photographers as the thrifty fifty!) ~£60/$99

Canon EF 50mm f3.4 USM ~£290/$440

Canon EF 100mm f2 USM ~£350/$530

Extension Tube Macro Ring ~£15/$25

For a fuller list of cheap Canon & Nikon lenses check out this post on PhotoTuts.

Audio Recording

To get around my camera’s poor audio settings I, like many DSLR shooters, use a dual audio system – I record the audio completely separately to the video and sync it up in post production. I recently invested in the budget Tascam DR-07, certainly the cheapest option. You loose any XLR inputs and just rely on a 35mm jack, but you have full control over the audio levels and settings. For the low price you also get a crappy plastic case, which does rattle if held incorrectly, but otherwise the quality is just fine.

I attach a Rode VideoMic to the top of my camera to collect ambient sound and to sync the audio later. It is a very good mic on its own however, and I find it works fine as an onboard camera when a tie-microphone won’t do. For the tie-mic itself, I went proper budget and spent just £20 on a tie mic about a year ago. 12 months on and it still works great alongside the Tascam. It is not a wireless mic though, so your interviewee cannot be at a distance!

Tascam DR-07 ~£130/$200

Zoom H4 ~£220/$330

RodeVideoMic ~£80/$120

EM102 Condenser Tie Mic ~£20/$30

Accessories

Manfrotto’s Modo tripod is designed for both stills and video cameras. It’s tiny and extremely light, and it has sticks which can be moved into a practically horizontal position, meaning you can have a steady shot at floor level. I recently bought a couple of cheap filters from Amazon, which work fine. Play.com got me a 32GB SD card for around £30 – make sure you get a Class6 card if you’re shooting in HD!

Manfrotto Modo Tripod ~£39/$60

35mm Filters ~£15

16GB Class 6 SD Card

Post Production

For post, Final Cut Studio is now around £250 but it’s quite a bargain when you consider you get Apple Motion, Color and Soundtrack, plus a library of sound effects, licence free music and graphics with that too. If it really is out of  your budget, I still swear by Adobe’s Premiere Elements for Windows which I have used until very recently. Rumour has it the latest version of iMovie 9 now allows you to separate your audio and video tracks giving you almost professional editing flexibility for free.

Audacity is a good enough audio editor considering its free (open source) and Pluraleyes has made the job of syncing your video and audio tracks a lot easier. That’s just under £100 to download, or there’s a free trial.

Final Cut Studio (Final Cut Pro, Apple Motion, Color, ProRes) ~£250/$380 (as an upgrade, or with a new Mac; approx £400-600 elsewhere)

iMovie free

Adobe Premiere Elements

Audacity Free

Pluraleyes ~£97/$149 (free month trial)

All images licenced under Creative Commons. Image credits (from top to bottom):Dave Dugdale, visual.dichotomy, Stephend9 & D’Arcy Norman

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5 video rules you can break (and 5 rules you can’t)

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 1, 2009

Some people didn’t like my recent suggestion that one thing for multimedia journalists to do with their video was “break the rules”.

Offering advice like ‘Break the Rules’ doesn’t do anything to help online video journalists to improve their work” said one. “Frankly, it’s nonsense. If convergence is going to work content is key. In other words, videos have to be produced to the same exacting standards that are demanded in television, because viewers and readers are not going to make allowances for the fact they have been produced cheaply for the internet.

At one level they’re right: content is the watch word and the quality must remain high. We just need to be more specific when we say “break the rules”.

Why break the rules?

Simply: because with all the change in the media landscape, with films easier to shoot and edit than ever before, available to more people than ever before, and able to be watched by more people than ever before, it would be such a crying shame if – stylistically – the video journalism we all produce is as formulaic as what the mainstream media produce today.

And because some of the best pieces I’ve seen over the last year have trodden over all the rules.

5 rules you can break

01. vomit voice-over: if there’s one thing I’d be glad to see got rid of, it’s the overbearing reporter voice over telling us what we can already see. It is in effect telling us how to feel and we should be able to do that for ourselves. Voice overs are really only used because they’re an efficient way of pasting over the narrative cracks in a deadline driven newsroom.

02. tell your story in a linear way: your typical news story moves  from intro-to-case study-to-interview-to-context-to-other side of the story-to-look ahead/wrap up pretty seamlessly. Again it’s quick and helps beat deadline. The result? Every story looks the same.

03. use cutaways and noddies:they’re used to paste over edits in interviews, but  most of us are media savvy enough to recognise they were shot after the interview (a la Broadcast News). Why mislead your viewer? A simple flash dissolve retains some honesty in your editing while looking OK.

04. do standup piece-to-cameras: I have no problem with stand-ups when there’s some action or walk through involved: when the journalist is showing us something. But although a standup outside a building solves practical problems for mainstream news reporters, the multimedia journalist should be asking whether they are really necessary.

05. open with GVs/telling shot: again this is a technique which has remained for its ease. You can open your film with any shot, interview, graphic you chose. Be imaginative!

5 rules you can’t break

01. shoot sequences: sequences are vital to visual storytelling. They are the demonstration of an action over a series of 3 or more shots and (if used well) tell us more about the subject or story than words can. Our brains piece sequences together and engage us with the story.

02. do your white balance: and sort your focus. Even online there’s no excuse for badly framed, badly lit, badly focused shots. You should aim to be technically as good as TV but more creative.

03. don’t cut on pans or zooms: our eyes will always be distracted by a jump cut or a cut on movement. Unless it’s for a reason, you don’t want to detract your viewers from your story by having them wonder ‘why that shot didn’t look right’. Having said that, these kind of unsettling edits do create an effect you may wish to use.

04.treat audio with respect: bad audio is bad video. The hallmark of poorly produced video for the web is bad audio.

05. don’t  go overboard with your transitions: video editing software offers hundreds of different ways to move from one shot to another. In multimedia journalism as in television journalism you need but two: cut and dissolve. Even think about using some kind of rotating 3D cube? Go take a bath.

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!

Multimedia shooting: more lessons learned

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 19, 2009

My post on the challenges of shooting multimedia during a visit to Iraq this month proved a popular one (thank you!). A week of furious editing in both radio studios and on my own video edit software later and I’ve learned a load more. Here are the highlights…


8 more lessons learned in shooting multimedia

01. different mediums, different audiences

I wrote on a previous post how a difficulty of shooting for different mediums was juggling all the kit. Well, since coming back I’ve really come to realise how you also have to juggle different audiences some times. I went out primarily for my local radio station; the brief: meet local soldiers, find out about their life on the front line, get some good home references (like supporting local football teams) and messages back home to loved ones. Your typical local young house-wifey type content.

In taking out a camera though, I gave myself  a second agenda – an audience on the web very different from my radio one. Now the challenge before me is to produce content for two different audiences with the same raw material. So something fun – like this; and something a bit more serious – like this.

02. different mediums – helpful sometimes

OK, so holding a mic and a camera ain’t easy but it can cover your back too. The external mic on my camera failed me on one interview, but luckily I had the same interview in mp3 from my Marantz recorder. A bit of tricky synch work and you’ve fixed the problem.

As wide a wideshot as I could get!

As wide a wideshot as I could get!

03. interviews

Self-shooting without a tripod made interviews a bit of a challenge. I had to be close enough to my subjects to pick up audio on my Marantz recorder, but far enough away to get a wide enough head shot. The result: most interviews were in extreme close up! Although close ups are often recommended for online video in its smaller 720×526 screens.

04. get to know your camera

I didn’t have enough time to really practice with my camera before I used it for the first time. I meant a lot of wasted tape as I tried to ride the iris or adjust the manual focus.

05. keep it manual

I don’t regret keeping all my settings – but namely white balance, focus and iris – completely manual.

Scribbles and notes

Scribbles and notes

06. log it

I logged everything as I shot, which has saved time in the edit. Also my logbook provided a great home for memes, sketches and ideas.

07. be prepared…

…for technical hitches. I was very positive about my budget film making kit earlier this year, but remember, pay peanuts and you get monkeys. Adobe Premiere Elements is great value for money, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why it crashes every time I try to capture video. And the image recorded is shifted ever so slightly to the left. And when I recorded video with my external mic plugged in but not switched on I got a nice blast of Iraqi radio on the soundtrack instead.

08. oh and one bit of advice to anyone else who takes  recording equipment to a military theatre…

…don’t record anywhere near a military radio kit. Number of interviews lost: 2. Number of amazing pieces to camera on top of a moving vehicle lost: all of them

A piece to camera which will never see the light of day due to radio interference

A piece to camera which will never see the light of day due to radio interference

All the radio content has been broadcast this week on 96.9 Viking FM in the UK. Lots of content including interviews, audio slideshows and video is online – click here. I will put up all my audio shortly. And more video coming soon!

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.