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.

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Fresh eyes: what can journalists learn from musicians?

Posted in Fresh eyes series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 1, 2010

What happens when you ask a film maker or a musician about the future of journalism? What skills can the next generation journalist learn from a branding expert? As part of Fresh Eyes experts in non-journalism fields cast their eye over the digital revolution and offer their wisdom.

Christopher Ave, musician

Christopher runs the excellent Music for Media blog where he profiles great examples of music being used in multimedia pieces and shares advice on how to do it. A life long musician himself, Christopher is also a journalist with the St Louis Post-Dispatch.

Music and Journalism

Many if not most of us journalists who create content for the web came from a print background. Naturally, we are most concerned with quotes and images — things we can see.

Things we can hear? Not so much.

So when I talk about using music in a journalistic multimedia project, I often get blank stares — or outright opposition:

Music? That’s…. manipulative! How dare we FORCE viewers to feel something!

It’s not surprising that so many journalists fear using music in multimedia storytelling – a reluctance expressed here by legendary writing coach Roy Peter Clark and again here by Poynter’s Regina McCombs. Many journalists who come from newspaper backgrounds are by nature suspicious of new storytelling tools — especially those used by radio or — gasp! — television.

But the very attraction of multimedia is that it can engage all the senses.Think about the great documentarians like Ken Burns, who used original music so effectively to help tell the story of the Civil War. Does anyone feel they were manipulated by the lovely, plaintive “Ashokan Farewell”?

In an increasingly fractured media world where we find ourselves competing for eardrums as well as eyeballs, I would argue that we ban such a powerful tool at our own peril.

Still, can’t overwrought music manipulate listeners’ emotions? Can’t jarring music detract from the story narrative? Of course – just as badly chosen words or images can distract viewers.

It’s just as manipulative to lard a narrative with mournful adjectives, or to quote sources from only one point of view, as it is to use music badly.

So the real issue, in my view, is this: We should use such tools properly.

Five tips on using music for journalists

But how can a journalist without significant musical skills do that? Here are some suggestions:

01.First, this is not about the music. It’s about the story you’re trying to tell. The music MUST fit within the tone established for the story (unlike, say, a music video, where the images serve the music).

02. Don’t imply that the music you’re adding is part of the scene you’re documenting (unless of course, it is). That’s like using Photoshop to add something to a news photo. This can be a fine line, and might seem to conflict with No. 1. If you’re in doubt as to whether you’re misleading the audience by choosing a piece of music, always leave it out. Go with something else. Risking your credibility isn’t worth it.

03. Don’t steal someone else’s music. This seems obvious, but in the cut-and-paste age, the temptation is there. Don’t yield to it. Do some research – know the law when it comes to fair use, trademarks and the like.

04. So where do you find just the right music for your project? There are scads of people selling pre-recorded music online (search “royalty-free music” for an idea.) If you’re looking for something in particular, find someone who can create it for you. MySpace, despite what you’ve read, is STILL full of bands and composers who are looking to distribute or license their music; perhaps you can find the creator of some music you like who will allow you to use it for free, in exchange for the exposure. Just make sure you get the agreement in writing. Or…..

05. Can’t find precisely the right music? Try creating your own. With tools like Garage Band and Acid, plus the plethora of free and low-cost loops out there, this might be easier than you think, especially if you have some time and the inclination to play around.

Here’s some music composition advice from Jon Patrick Fobes, a picture editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and a talented musician who often creates original music for the newspaper’s website:

Have a beginning, middle and end. Vary the instrument voices. Don’t be afraid to change gears. And don’t be afraid to go minimal. Let the music serve the visuals, not overpower them. Don’t be afraid of silence! Put in some drama.

And here’s some excellent advice from MediaStorm’s Eric Maierson, one of the most thoughtful users of music in the multimedia world.

Finally, there are many, many examples of the skillful, effective and ethical use of music in nonfiction multimedia projects. Watch, listen and study.

So yes, be careful when using music in any nonfiction project. But I believe we journalists should embrace music – that is, music used with skill and restraint. As we fight tooth and nail for viewers and readers,  I believe it’s a tool we can’t afford to do without.

Christopher Ave, who directs political and government coverage for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch/STLtoday.com, is a lifelong musician and career journalist. He blogs at christopherave.wordpress.com and creates music for a variety of uses at www.christopherave.com.

Tomorrow: what can journalists learn from a coding expert?