Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Improving online video journalism with layers

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on May 31, 2011

Mozilla Jam at Guardian HQ

I had a brief rest from thinking about creating online video this weekend and thought about how we consume it instead.

I spent Saturday at the Guardian HQ taking part in an ideas-jam organised by Mozilla (yes, those guys who make the web browser) in London.

Mozilla have teamed up with the Knight Foundation in the US to offer year long fellowships at big news organisations to some innovative journalists, developers and designers. Their idea-jams, taking place worldwide, invited hacks and hackers to  get together and come up with ways to make journalism better:  in particular, how do we make online video more awesome, and how to we make comments better?

It was a great chance to throw ideas around with non-journalists (very few journalists turned up, actually), and meet the other types of people innovating journalism.

Get in line

The challenge set up for online video was an interesting one: almost all other types of journalism (from articles, to data visualisations, to interactive timelines to games) are non-linear: you can jump in at any paragraph, any statistic, any year, any level and explore the story in your own way. And that’s very exciting.

But video can’t be like that can it? With its predetermined flow of 24 still pictures passing our eyes every second, video is inherently linear. You can’t jump in halfway through a documentary, then skip to the beginning, and then to the end.

I thought about whether that linearisation can be broken, but then remembered the crafting of a linear narrative is one of the most satisfying things about making video. Why lose that?

From lines to layers

The discussion in our group turned to layers instead. Can we improve video by, rather than messing with the video itself, adding translucent layers above it? It’s a bit like augmented reality, but also (in my mind) like putting sheets of OHP paper together on an overhead projector.

The idea we put together was for a layer called ‘Transparency’ which tells viewers how the video story they are watching has been made, as they are watching it. It tells you whether the video you’re watching has come from an agency, or from an in-house camera team; it also tells you where the facts you’re seeing/hearing have come from.

This diagram I drew at the event explains it a bit better.

Drawing: Adam Westbrook Photo: Henrick Mitsch

We submitted the idea to Mozilla at the end of the day (you can read more here) and there are lots of other interesting ideas up there too. I think the layers idea can be developed more though. Those of you who shoot film, photography or animate motion graphics as I do, will know the importance of building layers upon layers to create complex images.

Can we do the same to make video more useful for people?

If you have an idea for improving online video, commenting, or people-powered news and are interested in entering the Knight Mozilla News Technology Partnership, you have until June 6th 2011 to enter your ideas. 

Open source for multimedia journalists

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on July 13, 2009

I love the concept of open sourcing. It has many forms, but open source software is the most common use, when software developers make their code publicly available for all to explore and change.

It’s led to the creation of some amazing software very useful for journalists on a low budget; and of course, it’s free! Here are some highlights:

Web browsing

Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome have both revolutionised internet use – don’t get bogged down with Internet Explorer!

Writing

Open Office – is ropey in places, but otherwise a faithful and very useful alternative to Microsoft Office

Audio

Audacity is a highly reliable (if not very flexible) audio editor. And try Songbird for a free audio player.

Video

Miro is a very promising internet video player and video podcast player.

Images

With Photoshop being too expensive for many users, Gimp provides a free (and equally complicated alternative). Google’s Picasa is great for simple image edits.

3D graphics

Blender is the free tool for creating 3D animations and even whole films