Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

How I develop my online video projects

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 23, 2011

I’ve been making films on-and-off, collaboratively and on my own, for around six or so years. Over that time I’ve developed my own workflow: a way of thinking about how to tell a story and assemble all the crucial elements in my head.

I thought it would be useful to share my basic process to see how it differs from other people, and hopefully, to help other film makers too. This is also a process I teach my video journalism students at Kingston University.

I should point out that every film-maker has their own ways of doing things – and there’s also standard practice/terminology for those working in industry. The terminology and techniques below work well for me.

I start with a blank sheet of paper, put the title/subject of the film in the middle, and then draw out the five categories below to come up with ideas. It’s nice and quick and means I spend more time filming and less time planning.

An example of a mind map I might draw out while planning a film

.01 Interviews

If you’re going to tell a narrative through the words of a character, then the interview is a core part of your film. This is where you get most of the story in audio, as well some visuals: although the interview may appear on screen occasionally, most of the time it provides a voice track.

When to do the interview? Again, it’s horses for courses and depends very much on the restraints of the character and story. Michael Rosenblum makes a good argument for doing it last; I usually prefer to shoot my interview early on. Listening to it you can form a sketchy narrative in your head and get ideas for scenes and sequences (see below); it also comforting to know you have got something substantial in the bag early on.

.02 Scenes

Scenes are my shorthand word for what other people might call ‘action’ or (in radio) ‘actuality’. It’s basically something happening uninterrupted on camera – an event you are observing as a film maker and capturing as it happens. The scene below from The Sartorialist when the photographer stops two women in the street is an example of a scene.

An example of a scene from The Sartorialist.

To me, scenes are the spices in a good meal. Without them, you’re left with something bland: just your interview with some footage floated over the top. Scenes draw us further into a story because we’re watching real-life unfold before our eyes. The change in mood, audio and picture style also piques our interest.

I never shoot a story without drawing up ideas for possible scenes to bring it to life.

.03 Sequences

Sequences form an equally important structure to your online video stories. I’m talking about sequences in the television news sense: that is, a single action occurring over three or more shots. Continuity between each shot is vital to maintain the illusion of continuous movement.

Sequences are vital because they draw our attention as we watch an event unfold on screen. In a story about a teenager learning to drive, we’re more engaged watching a sequence of them driving, than by static shots of different angles of a stationary car – or even worse, a series of juxtaposing shots of a moving and stationary car.

I aim to shoot as many sequences as possible when filming. A warning though: it is possible to get sequences wrong, in so many ways – as this attempt by a local newspaper in Norwich shows.

.04 Visual Flair

You could make a decent, engaging well produced piece with just interviews, scenes and sequences – especially if the story is short and you’re on a deadline. If I have time though, I try to think of ideas of how to use these next two elements.

The first is visual flair – and you can divide it into two categories: which I call porn and imagery.

Yes, I said porn, and what I mean by that is lots of beautiful juicy close ups, or grand wide-shots, or elegant tracking shots. For some stories this is essential: if you’re shooting a story about a chocolate factory I want to see a sweeping wide shot of the factory in action – and then lots (and lots!) of closeups showing chocolate oozing of pipes. This film about the chocolatiers The Mast Brothers packed with visual porn.

Shots like this one (from Mast Brothers) a great visual porn

Imagery is my way of thinking about using pictures to tell a story in a more visual way – as I describe in more detail in this blog post. It could involve using symbolism, repeated motifs, colours, shot sizes and much more to convey the meaning of a story without dialogue.

.05 Theme

Finally – and this is only on rare projects – do I get to think more about a theme for the story: something deeper, more significant that it trying to say. The theme is never expressed outright, but implicitly revealed in the story itself. How do you find the theme? Usually by asking “what is this story really about?

Director Brennan Stasiewicz makes some great points about theme in this interview for studio .fu.

Regular day-to-day journalism rarely has or needs a theme – but longer documentary, or online video feature pieces are built on solid foundations when they have a theme.

So there you go: as I say it’s a very personal way of developing a film, and unique in that I don’t always work with others, sometimes developing, shooting, editing and publishing  a film entirely on my own. How do you make your films?

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.

Kurt Lancaster: an important voice

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on June 29, 2009

I just discovered the blog of documentary video journalist and lecturer Kurt Lancaster. And this guy’s right on the ball when it comes to knowing TV style film making is dead.

In Kurt’s own words:

No narration provided by a reporter. No heavy-handed production telling the audience how to think or feel.

By placing himself into the short documentary, Kristof thankfully eschews the tired style and omniscient voice of the broadcast journalist who typically stands with microphone in hand, almost pleading with an audience to emotionally engage their sensationalized, “must-see” story. “Look at me and what I have to say!”, seems to me the pervading style of the news broadcast journalist.

In an interview with doc filmmaker Ellen Spiro (Body of War 2007), she told me that a lot of broadcast news sets up the classic confrontation of one side versus another side. But she feels there are as many sides to a story as there are people experiencing or witnessing the event

Broadcast news tends to give us a snapshot of either a victim or an overly-cute feel-good subject, as seen on the outside looking in. Documentary filmmakers build trust and take us into a slice of life of their characters…And this is one of the core differences between broadcast news and documentary filmmaking — the building of that trust in order to get the subject to open up.

So…he’s a film maker, a documentary maker, a video journalist. But he hates opening GVs, he hates overwritten voice overs and pleading pieces to camera. In fact, all the things which make standard TV packages so repetitive and unimaginative.

Like I say, he’s right on the money. Click here to visit his website.

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Journalism posts: a summary

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on April 26, 2009

Here’s a summary of some of the practical journalism posts I’ve written this year.

Image: LynGi (Creative Commons Licence)

Multimedia journalism

Great free apps for multimedia journalists :: the most popular one by far, covering some online sites to aid journo production

Shooting multimedia-a lot to juggle :: the challenges of covering stories in multimedia in the field; in this case, Iraq.

Video Journalism

The ultimate budget film making kit :: a guide to how I kitted myself out for video journalism on a £500 budget

Broadcast Journalism

The radio emergency survival guide :: how radio newsrooms should prepare for major news events

Making the most of your network :: a good example of how to use other journalists in your group

Three ways to instantly improve your newswriting :: a quick guide to broadcast writing

Five even quicker ways to improve your newswriting :: more tips

Covering court cases-the questions you were afraid to ask :: everything from what to wear in court, and where to sit

How to avoid being THAT annoying PR person :: advice for those unfortunate PR professionals

9 questions for newsreaders :: a checklist for newsreaders

Multimedia Journalist: statistician and computer nerd?

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 11, 2009

Multimedia journalists: expected to be film makers, radio reporters, photographers,  interviewers, web designers,  independent researchers, graphic designers, idea generators, legal eagles not to mention just your average text-hack.

Phewf!

But I got two more to add to the list now-statistician and computer programmer. Why? Well look at this brilliant piece of interactive journalism by Grace Koerber at the University of Carolina (Hat tip: Innovative Interactivity)

Energey Interactive by Grace Koerber

Energy Interactive by Grace Koerber

Click on the picture, go to the site and play with it yourself.

Writing on Innovative Interactivity, Grace says:

Completing this interactive took somewhere around 120 hours. A lot of this time was spent learning how to use Flash’s drawing API and use PHP to communicate between Flash and a MySQL database, both of which I had never done before. The amount of research was also particularly time-consuming.

Could the image of a street savvy, scruffy alcoholic hack bashing away at a typewriter be replaced with a street savvy, scruffy, alcoholic computer geek bashing away at XML?

Journalism students at UNC are actually taught things like XML and MySQL; these extra skills make them hugely more versatile, hugely more valuable to employers – and preparing them for a brand new way of story telling.

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.