Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Your online video shopping list

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on August 20, 2012

There’s an old analogy, which I can trace back to the 1990s, that says making a film is a lot like making a meal. 

It goes like this:

“You choose your recipe (subject and angle), write out a shopping list (treatment and storyboard), get some money (you need more than you think) and go shopping for the raw materials (shoot the pictures and record the sound). Then you return to the kitchen (cutting room) and start cooking (editing). The meal is made in the kitchen; the film in the cutting room.”

Harris Watts, On Camera

I like this analogy a lot, but it’s worth unpacking for 21st century video storytellers.

Choose your recipe

The big point here is you must have an idea of what your film is going to look like when its finished. You must be able to picture the opening, the closing and perhaps some key sequences in the middle. You must be able to close your eyes and hear your  potential interviewees talking, imagining what kind of things they’ll say. You should have a feel for the pace of the film – is it fast or slow? Upbeat or sad?

Ultimately your story should have a theme – a controlling idea of some kind – which you can summarise in a single sentence. You wouldn’t make a risotto for the first time without knowing what one looks like would you?

Write a shopping list

This always finds its way into my workflow, and I teach it to students and clients as well. Before I start filming I mind-map all the elements and use it to plan the shoot. I draw out the key ingredients: the interview, the sequences, the scenes, the other b-roll and anything else like music and graphics. Then from each of these segments I brainstorm ideas for how each one could play out.

A “shopping list” I drew for a short documentary in 2011

So around the interview bit I come up with different ideas for where I could conduct my interviews; I think about what questions I’ll ask. It helps me anticipate any problems which might come up during the shoot. Your first idea is rarely the best, so try and come up with unique takes on each segment.

I’m running another online video basics course with journalism.co.uk in September 2012. Click here for details.

Get some money

The quote above was written for television in the 1990s with its big budgets. These days I’d say video can cost less than you think. Certainly the hurdles to creating and publishing video have fallen through the floor. If you’ve got an iPhone or a flipcam – or even a webcam – the power to tell visual stories is in your hand.

Shop for raw materials

Here’s the big thing: the shoot is like the shopping expedition. You are merely collecting items to edit later on. This isn’t to belittle the shoot and the hard work that goes into it (you can’t make a good meal with bad ingredients, after all). However, to get obsessed by equipment and spend ages on complex super-slick camera moves misses the point: the film is made in the edit. It is the combination and contrast of images that tell the story, rarely the images on their own.

The rules of a good shopping trip apply: have a shopping list, know your way around the supermarket and get in and out as quickly as possible. You want more than enough of each ingredient so you can choose the very best to include in your meal. That means shooting more b-roll than you think you need, and shooting a longer interview than you’ll use.

Start cooking

As I said the real flavours of your film won’t emerge until the edit. That’s the magic moment when you combine your ingredients to create something greater than the sum of its parts. In video we are talking about the combination of images to create an idea in the audiences’ mind. Why does that matter? Because then the story doesn’t happen on the screen, in happens in someone’s brain: they own a bit of it, and it draws them in.

Too often – especially in journalism – we take the inverted triangle approach and tell our audience everything, instead letting them figure it out for themselves.

Anyway, once you’ve stirred all your ingredients together, leave it to simmer for 20 mins and add salt to flavour. But not too much.

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Some things never change: 20-year-old lessons in video

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on February 13, 2012

I’ve wanted to make TV/video/films since I was a kid. That was a hugely frustrating experience back in the 90s as there were no cut-price flip cams, free editing software or platforms like Youtube to share it on. In fact, there was no way for a 10 year old to make video, so I had to settle with reading about how to make it instead.

The first book I ever read about this sort of thing was called Directing On Camera by Harris Watts, and it was published 20 years ago in 1992.

It started out as a checklist for trainee directors at the BBC before becoming a book. It’s got a matte red cover, with a graphic of an old VT countdown clock (remember them?) over it; some rather dated references to cassettes and dubbing, plus some quaint cartoon illustrations.

It seemed pretty out of date when I was reading it in the late 90s, but this week I decided to take another look at it to see how it fares in the 2012 world of online video, flipcams and Youtube. Is it still relevant today? You’d be surprised.

Lessons in video from 1992

Here’s a selection of advice from the book which I think still holds true two decades on, to a new generation of visual storytellers.

Show things happening: this is a big mistake made by many novice film makers – interviewing someone, sticking some pictures of buildings or trees or something over the top, and effectively creating a piece of radio. This is the first thing Harris Watts says in the book, so it must have been a problem 20 years ago as much as it is today:

“Television is moving pictures. So it’s no use turning up to shoot when the meeting is over, the factory is empty or the children have gone home. Whenever possible you should shoot action not inaction.There’s no point filling the screen with nothing happening – it doesn’t offer an experience for the viewer to share.” 

A useful book for editors of rolling news channels, perhaps. Twenty years on his use of the word ‘experience’ holds new meaning: we need to be creating ‘experiences’ for our audiences, not just videos.

Think in sequences: sequences are a cornerstone of strong video storytelling, and still today one of the most important things I teach my video journalism students. A sequence is most simply thought of as a single action, covered in two or more shots, creating the illusion of continuous movement from shot to shot. Watts describes them as “visual paragraphs…recording an event or sharing an idea in the finished film.”

Teaching yourself to ‘think in sequences’ – to effectively see them all around you – makes a huge difference on a shoot, when you need to get the shots in quickly.

‘Shooting is collecting pictures and sound for editing’: I remember this was the real takeaway for me when I read the book. Films are made in the edit, not in the shoot; Watts uses a cooking metaphor to explain better:

“You choose your recipe (subject and angle), write out a shopping list (treatment and storyboard), get some money (you need more than you think) and go shopping for the raw materials (shoot the pictures and record the sound). Then you return to the kitchen (cutting room) and start cooking (editing). The meal is made in the kitchen; the film in the cutting room.”

The filming part is still important of course, but visual storytelling is about the assembly of lots of juxtaposing shots to create meaning, not single shots following the action around. Hugely relevant for new film makers today.

Go for opinion, experience, anecdote: this bit of advice relates directly to interviews and what to get from them. Many interviews are very descriptive and shallow, eliciting facts from the subject alone. This rarely makes interesting watching, so good video storytellers tease specific stories, anecdotes, and opinions from their subjects. Ira Glass values the anecdote too, and you can see more interviewing tips in this post.

In the fast paced, tech driven world of online publishing, there’s an understandable push for the latest training or the most-up-to-date advice. But when it comes to video storytelling – or storytelling of any kind – the craft we’re learning is an old one.

The technology – the tools – are mostly irrelevant, which is why a book written as the internet was just being born can still be relevant to a new generation of digital storytellers that Directing on Camera‘s author could never have imagined would exist.

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!

Broadcast Journalism: a bibliography

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on November 1, 2008

Here’s a post which has been sitting in my draft folder for more than a year! No Idea why I never published it at the time…but here it is. Other journos: feel free to add your own suggestions or reviews of the below!

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