Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

On being a VJ for the New York Times

Posted in 6x6 series, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 10, 2010

The NY Times’ excellent Lens Blog (a must for all photo & visual journalists) has a nice piece with one of their own video journalists.

Brent Macdonald is one of nearly a dozen full time VJs at the paper (they’re supported by more freelancers too) who shoot, edit, sculpt a narrative, script and voice their own material. It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in video journalism – here are a few choice cuts from Brent:

On kit:

 I ended up in Idaho, with a Hi-Def camera, a tripod, travel cases, three microphones, three compact lights, two light stands, clamps, cables, a laptop computer and, of course, a pair of comfortable shoes.

On audio:

Capturing good sound is often as important as recording dazzling pictures. Viewers tend to forgive an interview that’s poorly framed or lighted, as long as the audio is clean. But a beautifully shot interview with scratchy or distorted audio? Forget it. Nothing will drive a viewer out of a video quicker than bad audio.

On the “shoot-to-edit” ratio:

But it is usually preferable to have too much than too little. On the one hand, the less footage you have, the less time it takes to sift through and edit. On the other hand, if you limit your shots, you risk missing something that could become important during the edit …For VJs, there are no second chances.

On creating a narrative:

Much of the storytelling happens after the shoot, when you sketch the narrative arc, knowing now what material you have to work with. Generally speaking, stories that make for captivating Web video have a strong visual and emotional payoff.

Want more?

Visual Editor’s man Robb Montgomery’s just put together a list of the five most basic things for first time video journalists to remember.

And there’s loads of stuff on this blog, including a 6×6 Video chapter and more.

Five myths about shooting video

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 27, 2010

Lets start with some truths: video is going to play a huge part in the future of journalism; it is more popular than blogging and social networking; according to the Global Web Index of May 2009, 70% of web users watch video online.

And here’s some more truths: 20 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube every minute; (and that was in May 09, so it’s probably closer to 22 or 24 hours). That’s the equivalent of 86,000 Hollywood movies being released every week of the year.

Despite this, there are still some myths surrounding video and film making; myths which stop some print reporters, journalism students and hyperlocal bloggers from trying it, and mean that those who do produce mediocre content.

Time to blow them myths wide open.

Five myths about shooting video

01. shooting video is expensive

It really is time to put this myth to bed. Yes, TV programmes cost £100,000 upwards per hour; Hollwood movies $45,0000,000 is more like the average.

But you don’t need a £20,000 camera to achieve broadcastable results. In fact, you can make high quality, high definition video for as little as £100. It’s not the kit, but how you use it.

Not convinced? Here’s how I kitted myself out with camera, tripod, sound gear and a full editing suite for £500 ($900). And watch how the Kodak Zi8 (£150) can get professional results.

02. shooting video is only for the professionals

There are lots of people who’d like you to believe you need to spend years in film school and thousands in training courses to produce professional looking video.

These are the people who have spent years in film school and thousands on training courses, and fair play to them. To an extent they’re right. If you want to produce a pitch perfect visual masterpiece every time you take out your camera then this may be the answer.

But to produce video journalism, to cover everyday news events, to record interviews, to tell exciting video stories…well, there are some basic tricks anyone can learn. White balance, framing, sequences – these three basics of visual grammar will elevate your production in no time.

Here’s how I’ve been teaching journalism students at Kingston University, London how to shoot video:

03. shooting video requires lots of talented people

Even today there’s a lot of resentment towards video journalism. Jaded hacks hate the idea of being asked to hold the camera and ask questions at the same time. They argue having a camera-person (and ideally a producer) with them means the results are better.

Now I believe in collaboration, don’t get me wrong. And two heads are better than one. But are they always necessary? No. The evidence of this comes in the scores of excellent films produced single handedly.

So don’t feel inadequate when you pitch up on your own. It is possible, and indeed not that challenging, to master your video and your sound and your lighting and your framing, and still have time to ask the questions. You will need one thing, and one thing alone to achieve this: practice.

04. shooting video is a luxury

I’m sure there are lots of journalism students, and lots of hyperlocal bloggers who would love to have more video on their website, but see it as a luxury they can’t afford. Well, I’ve already shown you it doesn’t necessarily have to be a financial luxury.

But don’t think video is the icing on the cake; the thing which makes your journalism look a bit prettier. No, the statistics at the top of this page show the audience is demanding more and more video. They don’t just want to read about an event, or see a nice photograph. They want to watch it, they want to hear the interviews.

In a short number of years video will become core to our audiences’ consumption of storytelling. So it needs to become core to our production.

05. shooting video is easy

And on the flip-side, the final myth of shooting video is it is actually easy. Well, the professionals make it look that way don’t they? Trust me, from years of frustration, anger and despair, the one thing I’ve learned is shooting video is actually ruddy hard.

At least getting it right is.

First there’s the guaranteed technical hiccups. Your camera’s battery is low; there’s interference on the mic; the tape has corrupted; the edit software keeps crashing; your video exports sound and video out of sync…all of these have happened to me at one time or another and it drives me crazy.

And secondly getting every shot right, getting the soundbite, getting a perfect sequence, getting your framing right…these are all simple to read on paper, but difficult out in the cold with an impatient interviewee.