Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

5 video rules you can break (and 5 rules you can’t)

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on September 1, 2009

Some people didn’t like my recent suggestion that one thing for multimedia journalists to do with their video was “break the rules”.

Offering advice like ‘Break the Rules’ doesn’t do anything to help online video journalists to improve their work” said one. “Frankly, it’s nonsense. If convergence is going to work content is key. In other words, videos have to be produced to the same exacting standards that are demanded in television, because viewers and readers are not going to make allowances for the fact they have been produced cheaply for the internet.

At one level they’re right: content is the watch word and the quality must remain high. We just need to be more specific when we say “break the rules”.

Why break the rules?

Simply: because with all the change in the media landscape, with films easier to shoot and edit than ever before, available to more people than ever before, and able to be watched by more people than ever before, it would be such a crying shame if – stylistically – the video journalism we all produce is as formulaic as what the mainstream media produce today.

And because some of the best pieces I’ve seen over the last year have trodden over all the rules.

5 rules you can break

01. vomit voice-over: if there’s one thing I’d be glad to see got rid of, it’s the overbearing reporter voice over telling us what we can already see. It is in effect telling us how to feel and we should be able to do that for ourselves. Voice overs are really only used because they’re an efficient way of pasting over the narrative cracks in a deadline driven newsroom.

02. tell your story in a linear way: your typical news story moves  from intro-to-case study-to-interview-to-context-to-other side of the story-to-look ahead/wrap up pretty seamlessly. Again it’s quick and helps beat deadline. The result? Every story looks the same.

03. use cutaways and noddies:they’re used to paste over edits in interviews, but  most of us are media savvy enough to recognise they were shot after the interview (a la Broadcast News). Why mislead your viewer? A simple flash dissolve retains some honesty in your editing while looking OK.

04. do standup piece-to-cameras: I have no problem with stand-ups when there’s some action or walk through involved: when the journalist is showing us something. But although a standup outside a building solves practical problems for mainstream news reporters, the multimedia journalist should be asking whether they are really necessary.

05. open with GVs/telling shot: again this is a technique which has remained for its ease. You can open your film with any shot, interview, graphic you chose. Be imaginative!

5 rules you can’t break

01. shoot sequences: sequences are vital to visual storytelling. They are the demonstration of an action over a series of 3 or more shots and (if used well) tell us more about the subject or story than words can. Our brains piece sequences together and engage us with the story.

02. do your white balance: and sort your focus. Even online there’s no excuse for badly framed, badly lit, badly focused shots. You should aim to be technically as good as TV but more creative.

03. don’t cut on pans or zooms: our eyes will always be distracted by a jump cut or a cut on movement. Unless it’s for a reason, you don’t want to detract your viewers from your story by having them wonder ‘why that shot didn’t look right’. Having said that, these kind of unsettling edits do create an effect you may wish to use.

04.treat audio with respect: bad audio is bad video. The hallmark of poorly produced video for the web is bad audio.

05. don’t  go overboard with your transitions: video editing software offers hundreds of different ways to move from one shot to another. In multimedia journalism as in television journalism you need but two: cut and dissolve. Even think about using some kind of rotating 3D cube? Go take a bath.