Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Inside the Story: setting up your story

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on April 19, 2012

First of all, an exciting announcement.

After three months of work, Inside The Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best is ready to launch, and will go on sale one-week-today: Thursday 26th April 2012 at 0800 BST. It’s now more important than ever that you’re a fan of the Facebook page or subscribed to the mailing list to make sure you get your copy!

The English version will be available first, with editions in German, Spanish and Catalans on the way in May. This is totally a fundraising exercise, with every penny from each sale being donated to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity.

But what’s in the book?

I’m really confident you’re going to love Inside The Story. For a start, there’s no other book, or website, like it. It’s a real masterclass in what it takes to create high quality, remarkable stories for the web. If you’re making films, designing graphics, animations, websites or podcasts and struggling to make it as good as you know it can be, you’ll find this book incredibly useful.

The contributors are almost all award-winners, and are behind some of the most popular productions on the web – you can get a sneak at some of the names here. And all their advice is ridiculously practical. To give you a taster, for the next week, I’ll be releasing short previews of some of the contributions.

How to set up your story like a pro

Let’s start at the beginning. How do you set up, research and prepare your stories to give them the best shot at being remarkable? The resounding thought from all our contributors is that preparation is key – and so are people.

Drea Cooper is one half of the team responsible for the quite extraordinary California Is A Place web series, which portrays fascinating characters from the US west coast with beautiful heart-breaking flair. Their latest film, Aquadettes, which tells the story of a group of elderly synchronised swimmers will get an airing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Drea gives some great advice about finding the right people in Inside The Story, and for him, finding characters is key:

Whether it’s fact or fiction, dynamic people and characters bring stories to life.  Any film, short or long, should have a dynamic person at its center.

But, Drea warns, it’s really not as easy at all. California Is A Place is celebrated for the incredible characters it features – and in Inside the Story Drea reveals how he, and partner Zachary Canepari go about finding them.

A sneak preview at some of the pages in Inside The Story

Once you’ve found the right person you need to make sure your research is up to scratch, says producer Ben Samuel who makes documentaries and history programmes for the BBC, on his page.

“Whatever field of human endeavour your story focuses on, there are experts who – more often than not – will be happy to give you an excellent grounding in the topic. And secondly, if your research isn’t quite up to scratch, there will be people who will clock your mistake, no matter how obscure your subject matter is.”

If you’re stuck for where to start researching, Ben gives some brilliant advice about where to start with your research, and a clue to the best research source of them all (and no, it’s not the internet).

Finally, some great practical advice from Guardian photojournalist and film maker Dan Chung, based in China. Dan’s covered everything from the Japanese Tsunami aftermath to life inside North Korea, stories you can’t just stroll into.

“Prepare yourself physically and mentally if the story requires. Think about the possible scenarios that will unfold and make contingency plans for them – both journalistically and technically.”

He outlines his preparations for each story in more detail in Inside The Story, one of more than two-dozen hand crafted chapters by some of the best digital storytellers on the planet.

So here’s the drill: find out more on the website….join the Facebook group…and tweet out loud: #insidethestory! There’ll be another sneak preview on Monday.

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Has the DSLR come of age?

Posted in Journalism, Online Video, studio .fu by Adam Westbrook on November 3, 2010

*Apologies to email subscribers who may have received an unfinished draft version of this article when I published it by mistake!

DSLR cameras with HD video capabilities have been on the market for a couple of years and have been making a significant impression for pretty much as long.

I spent part of last week nerding out big time at the annual Canon Expo in London (my write up of last years event is right here).

It’s mostly targeting stills photographers, with the majority of demos, products and talks aimed at the traditional DSLR user. But this year, there was a significantly higher number of videographers attending, and more and more products designed for their needs.

For example, the Steadicam Merlin (a lightweight stabiliser that gives you steadicam smoothness on moving shots) was one of the most popular items. There was more paraphernalia including handheld rigs, LCD monitors, matte boxes and ring lights – all designed for the filmmaker. You can now even rig up DSLR cameras to shoot in 3D!

So, has the DSLR come of age?

That’s what Dan Chung, one of the real pioneers in the cinematic aesthetic of video journalism, told attendees on Tuesday.

He says DSLR cameras offer a flexibility and portability that a camcorder alternative just can’t. For him, the most important thing is being able to fit all of his gear into a backpack, and the size of DSLRs means he can bring as many as four cameras with him, plus lenses, filters and the like, on any assignment.

That’s a huge amount more video power than one, more expensive camcorder.

Why you should think about the Canon 550D

Currently the cheapest popular version of the video DSLR is the Canon 550D. I have been shooting with it since the spring, and have made films for editorial and commercial clients.

At £600 it is a sliver of the cost of its daddy, the 5D Mark II, and because of that, you would imagine – less good.

But here’s what I really took away from the Canon Expo: the 550D was getting applause from many quarters – as a better alternative to the more expensive 5D Mark II.

For example, James Tonkin, head of the multimedia production company Hangman said he would choose the 550D over a 5D, and Dan said if he could buy 1 5D Mark II, or 3 550D cameras, he would choose the 550D. Their affordability means he’s prepared to take risks with them to get more unique and dramatic shots.

The only other cameras in this price range are realistically, the Canon Legria camcorder, which has no aperture or focus control, the Lumix FZ100 or a much older camera. Either side you could pay £100 for a flip cam, or £2,000 for a broadcast camera.

I’m sure we’ll start to see more remarkable stuff being shot on the 550D entering the mainstream soon.

‘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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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.

Journalism posts: a summary IV

Posted in Fresh eyes series, Ideas for the future of news, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 31, 2010

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.

Three remarkable films shot on a Digital SLR

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 3, 2010

If you occasionally peer out of your journalism cocoon and hang out with camera operators, directors and film makers, you might have overheard some buzz about the potential of digital SLR’s for shooting video.

In particular I’m talking about the Canon 5D Mk II and the Canon 7D: both capable of shooting High Definition video as well as taking photographs.

So what?

Well these cameras beat even some of the best video-only cameras in several places:

  • they’ve got bigger and better lenses, allowing for beautiful images
  • they’ve got detachable and therefore interchangable lenses, meaning you can shoot wide angle and telephoto with the same camera
  • they’ve got bigger apertures allowing for extraordinary depth of field
  • they’re smaller, lighter and allow a photojournalist to shoot video without changing cameras

…essentially what I’m talking about is in 1 second of video you have 25 individually beautiful images which could be photographs in their own right. It’s seeing the the dawn of an exciting new aesthetic – wouldn’t it be great if documentaries and TV news looked more like these?

Three remarkable films shot on DLSR

Sri Lanka Tamils by Mark Allard

At the Races in Singapore by Dan Chung

Battle for Hearts and Minds by Danfung Dennis

For more great examples of the potential of the DLSR check out DSLR News Shooter. And I got to see some of these great cameras in action at the Canon Expo in London last autumn – the details are right here.