Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

10 tips for recording a better interview

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 1, 2011

The most exciting power of great multimedia storytelling is the potential to give a voice to those who would otherwise go ignored.

I’m deep into teaching undergraduate students on Kingston University’s journalism program the basics of producing good video stories. They recently finished their first film, portraits of fellow students and how they feel about their job prospects in light of high youth unemployment. A dry-ish topic, and so their challenge was to tease good stories from their subjects, find specific angles and get to the nub of the issue.

The key to doing this is the interview: in most great online video stories & portraits it forms the spine of the narrative. Everything else in the story hangs off the interview.

Watching their first attempts at film making, it was clear conducting good interviews is an issue. So I put together a presentation with 10 tips for recording a better interview – I thought I’d share it here. Lots of this advice has been won through hard experience in my last 8 years of interviewing everyone from genocide survivors to David Cameron; but I’m also grateful to multimedia maestros like Ben Chesterton of Duckrabbit and Brian Storm of MediaStorm for a couple of the specific tips.

Again, there are bound to be things I’ve missed off: let me know in the comments!

10 tips for recording a better video (or audio) interview

NOTE: I’ve published the presentation under a Creative Commons Licence (attribution) – feel free to reuse and share, but please credit.

5 TV news conventions video journalists should scrap

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on March 17, 2011

Time is something TV News does not have.

It does not have much time to turn around a package (anything from 12 hours to just 30 minutes); and it does not have much time on air to explain a complex news event (usually just 90 seconds). As a result formulas and conventions were developed over the decades – which help the journalists tell a complicated story very quickly.

But rarely is online video journalism shackled by such quick deadlines. If a newspaper or magazine decided to invest in a video report, it’s usually for a diary event which they can plan in advance: the video journalist might have days to prepare for a story. Online, video stories can run as long as the streaming platform will allow.

So more time on screen, more time behind the scenes…so why do online video journalists still follow their television brethren so closely? Here are five conventions which TV news designed and VJs could leave behind.

Five TV news conventions video journalists should scrap

 

Classic framing for an interview

.01 the 3-quarter-shot interview

The 3-quarter-shot as it’s known, is the classic framing for interviews in news and documentaries. Traditionally, we see the interviewee off-centre, looking either to the left or the right, presumably having a conversation with the reporter.

It exists in TV news, because it’s quick to set up and execute. The camera-person can frame the shot quickly without needing the subject to participate.

Instead: try having your interviewee look directly into the lens. This allows them to make direct eye-contact with the viewer, and gives the audience use of the full range of their facial expressions. Michael Rosenblum explains it well here, and I’ve been experimenting with it in these films for myNewsBiz. I found my subjects very comfortable and natural looking into the lens, as they would be looking at me.

Just because TV news does something, doesn’t mean online video journalism must follow suit!

.02 cutaways and noddies

Another TV new convention to creep into online video journalism is the ‘cutaway’. It’s that shot that gets inserted to cover-up an edit in the interview you’ve recorded. It’s done so often, we’ve become very accustomed to them – but, they can still be done badly…really badly. This clip is called ‘Police typing fail’ but it should be called reporter and camera-operater, and editor and producer fail:

It exists in TV news because it’s a very quick way to splice an interview together without distracting the audience with your edits. If you were to leave the cutaway out, the audience would notice a sudden jump in the interview, and get distracted. But what TV news is really doing is misleading its viewers, suggesting the interviewee spoke in one smooth uninterrupted flow.

Instead: don’t con your viewers. Be honest with them – they’re smart enough to know interviews get edited. Replace your cutaway with a ‘flash-wipe’ or ‘flash-through-colour-dissolve’. Make it just 10 or so frames long and be sure to put in an audio cross-fade too.

Just because TV news wants to trick its viewers doesn’t mean online video journalists should too!

.03 reliance on voice-overs

In most of the Western world, you never see a TV news report which doesn’t consist largely of voice-over. If you’re not familiar, that’s the reporter’s narration over (often quickly assembled) pictures. 95% of the time it’ll start a new report, and it’ll end at least half of them, unless the reporter decides to stick themselves on camera.

Voice over exists in TV news because it is an extremely quick way to cover over gaps in narrative and explain complicated things in a short space of time, both on screen and behind the scenes. Why go to all that effort to show a story happening, when you can just pull out a biro and tell it? At its worst and most hammy, it quickly becomes a source of parody:

Instead: use voice over sparingly. It should be a last-resort, rather than something you always factor into your storytelling. If you can’t show your story happening or have the people involved tell it themselves, is it a story worth covering in video?

Just because TV news covers stories regardless of whether they’re good visually, doesn’t mean video journalists should too!

.04 skin-deep storytelling

For the same reason, a TV news report is really only trying to summarise a story as quickly as possible. It wants you to know the key development that day – just enough so you can keep up a conversation at the bar and be quickly forgotten. And let’s be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that.

But there is a large audience for more deep storytelling, more engaging explanations and analysis of our spinning rock – and that audience is online…and they’re currently dissatisfied.

So instead: don’t blow your online video skills producing shallow stories which will just bounce off the water. Use it to do what video journalism is best at: getting access to people and places the big cameras can’t go. Your small, intimate set-up will get you closer to eye-witnesses, into the homes of insurgents and weeks on the frontline with soldiers.

Just because TV news needs to quickly wrap a news story before 6pm doesn’t mean video journalists are in such a hurry!

.05 zero-transparency

Finally, if there’s something TV news is really bad at, it’s transparency.

Agency footage is never labelled, so viewers are left believing the BBC (or Sky News or CNN) cameras were on hand to catch an event when they were not. (Interestingly, US networks are far better at crediting footage to APTN/Reuters etc). It might seem a small thing, but in the Middle-East, whether footage of a suicide bombing is shot by a Palestinian or an Israeli freelancer can make a lot of difference. It also does not give credit to the crews who put their lives on the line.

We never hear where a story has come from, so people aren’t aware how much of news on television is taken from agencies, lifted from newspapers or worse still, from a press release.

So instead: set a new standard for transparency in online video journalism. Be straight up with viewers, tell them where every frame of video comes from. We can do it with graphics on screen, or in a ‘production details’ section below the embedded video. If we’ve edited an interview, tell our viewers that we have.

One more thing

Marco left a comment on this post earlier this week, raising a valid point:

…since the television formulas have worked for so long (and so successfully), shouldn’t we use them when we are producing video for the web?… I do know that television and online video are different by nature. But is the storytelling process so different as you try to show on your post?

He’s got a point. TV news works (for the most part) doesn’t it? Well, that’s something up for debate. Online video is a new medium, and should be approached as something new. There are lessons from past practitioners we can learn…but my advice is skip television and learn from the early cinematographers. Fritz Lang and Orson Wells really understood visual storytelling – they invented it.

They had the time to devise ways of explaining something visually, passing information, often without any dialogue.

Those devices are still relevant today – and should be used by video journalists when they can. TV News just doesn’t have the time.

Great online video: The Sartorialist

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on February 3, 2011

The top video pick over in the video .fu library right now is a portrait of the fashion blogger The Sartorialist.

I first saw this one over Christmas and many of you will have already watched it, but I wanted to dissect it a little more and work out its secrets. If you haven’t seen it yet, take the time to watch it through. It’s a short documentary portrait of Scott Schuman, an unassuming sort of guy living in New York. Except for the fact he created and runs one of the most famous blogs on the net.

Directed by Tyler Manson/Visibly Smart Films it’s actually a commission from Intel (you know, the core processor guys) as part of their Visual Life campaign. Like the successful Honda’s Live Every Litre campaign of last year, its success is partly down to the fact the sponsor message takes a back seat to the story.

It’s a good example of a new, but growing, genre in video portraiture, rubbing shoulders with concepts like California Is A Place, Last Minutes With Oden; and portraits of Toni Lebusque and The Mast Brothers. Its secret is in its simplicity: a single interview with a fascinating character which creates the spine of the narrative, weaved in with captured moments, evocative music and gorgeous sequences captured in a cinematic style.

So what do we like about it?

It starts with a classic film convention: someone walking somewhere. We don’t know who they are, or where they’re going, and for that reason we keep watching. The camera does a good job of keeping The Satorialist steady and in focus, and slowing the footage down adds elegance and gravitas to our heroes journey.

Films like these are made up of (I think) a few key elements, which I teach to my own video journalism students at Kingston University:

  • interview
  • scenes
  • sequences
  • and a final category of ‘visual flair’ .

The interview in The Sartorialist drives the narrative, and when we do actually see as well as hear the interview, Manson hasn’t been afraid to let Schuman’s face fill the screen. He knows this will be viewed online, on a small screen, and isn’t afraid to cut off the top and bottom of his subject’s head in order that we really see The Sartorialist’s features. He’s clearly positioned near a large window or soft light, and shallow depth-of-field focuses our eyes on his.

When we watch video online it's important to get features in close-up

The easy trap is to shoot and cut a quick interview (the easy part) and then ‘float’ some footage over it at appropriate places – or to cover the edits. As well as ignoring the visual part of visual storytelling, it’s also extremely boring.

That’s why scenes and sequences are important.

A scene is a bit of reality caught on screen; for those taught in the traditional broadcast way, I’m talking about ‘actuality’; on a documentary project at The Southbank Centre last year, David Dunkley-Gyimah used to talk to me about ‘capturing moments’. The Sartorialist is brought to life through these captured moments – where we see a bit of reality unfold, unhindered, before our eyes. For example at around 02’30 into this film, we watch as Schuman spies two women at a junction, and approaches them to take a photograph.

Seeing this action unfold before our eyes shows us how he gets his shots…far more effective than interview where Schuman tells us how he does it.

A 'captured moment' of reality, as Schuman gets a photograph. We see for ourselves how he works.

Before you choose a story to tell this way – or in anyway visually with video – you should be sure these moments happen and that you’ll be able to capture them. If you’re making a film about a cyclist, then you must show us footage of them cycling no excuses. If you’re making a film about a doctor carrying out life saving surgery in Tanzania, then we’d better see it on screen. If, for whatever reason, you don’t think you can get scenes, then ditch the project. Perhaps it’s a story best told in words, audio or stills rather than video.

Finally, sequences are the bread and butter of any good video storytelling. Certainly a convention in television and cinema, I still think they are vital for online video storytelling too. A sequence of shots showing one continuous action brings us into the film and in Vin Ray’s words ‘heightens the viewers’ involvement’ in the story.

Here, Manson devises an aesthetically pleasing sequence of The Sartorialist going to get his hair cut before hitting the streets of New York. My guess is this is something Schuman does regularly, and in presenting this sequence the film makers are showing us this truth, without telling us.

The Sartorialist's haircut is presented in a sequence of shots including wide-shots and closeups.

On top of this, there is a palette of other treatments open to filmmakers, including things like montages or straight GVs, which can be used at will. But I think without and interview, scene and sequences, a film has little to it. But as The Sartorialist shows, these three elements, as well as a compelling character and a great journey are pretty much all you need to for your online video to get viewed thousands of times.

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