Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Why video journalism is ALL about the story

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 12, 2010

Last year I blogged about the winner of the Concentra Video Journalism Award, an international prize for excellent self-shot films.

The winner in 2009 was the superb Alexandra Garcia (currently producing a gorgeous fashion series for the Washington Post) with her film the Healing Fields.

I’ve used it lots of times to teach storytelling and sequences to my students.

Well, last week the 2010 awards were held and there’s a new winner: Adam Ellick from the New York Times.

So what makes this an award winning piece of journalism?

For me, it shows one thing and one thing alone: video journalism is about the story. The buck stops there. Here’s why.

Technically, this film is far from perfect. Some of the shots are badly framed, the voice over is stodgy, and the sound on some of the interviews is below par. Other contenders for the award were technically much stronger – for example, Vaughan Smith’s film made during a firefight in Afghanistan.

The pictures aren’t all that, either. There are some nice show-don’t-tell moments in the piece, but a little bit too much b-roll of traffic and rooftops for my liking .

And there is a narrative, but other contenders showed how it could be done better.

But Adam has one thing: the story. An amazing story: two entrepreneurial brothers, in the middle of Pakistan, supplying a large part of the world’s gimp masks and fetish wear. And he has access to it all: he has the brothers opening up, being frank and revealing on camera. He has the company’s designer, saying she’s partial to a bit of leather in the bedroom.

And he has the surprise. Watch the film and you get a rare “no way!” moment when you find out what’s going on.

Lesson: it’s the story and the story alone.

Is there an Atlantic divide in digital journalism?

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on September 16, 2009

The past year has seen some remarkable pieces of multimedia journalism.

From a stunning biography of a drug addict turned boxer, to a fluent and comprehensive look at the drugs trade in Mexico, to a mind-blowing flash based project on the Great Lakes.

And that’s just the professionals.

Look at the journalism students and you have memorable stories like Maisie Crowe’s film about a boy with a rare genetic condition and Chris Carmichael’s portrait of a family losing their home.

Here’s the thing: they’re all coming from journalists and newsrooms – in America.

US produced multimedia journalismClockwise from left: ESPN, Boston Globe, NYTimes, Chris Carmichael

A quick visit to the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR and ESPN reveal a plethora of enticing, exciting and well produced multimedia projects. Go more local and you can find stunning multimedia from the Boston Globe and the Roanake Times.

More and more have their own designers who work with flash to give them an asthetic appeal as well as journalistic clout.

So what does the UK have in response? The Guardian’s multimedia page has a healthy selection of new videos and the occasional audio slideshow, not to mention some worthy experiments in data sharing, for example this attractive interactive on UK public spending. And there is some nice video pieces – including this excellent alternative look at exam results by John Domokos.

But there are few interactive flash stories, and nothing on the scale of War Without Borders or One in Eight Million (both NY Times).

The BBC News website is (for obvious reasons) packed with original video and audio, and on big stories you’ll find a decent interactive map. But nothing with the ambition and groundbreaking attitude we see over the pond.

You’ll find the occasional audio slideshow, for example this tidy piece marking the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers collapse, but again they are left as slideshows alone and not developed into something bigger.

And it gets worse when you leave London, with some worryingly unimaginative pieces, in small windows; you see pieces like The Fallen (NY Times) and think “in a different league”.

So come on, UK newsrooms, where are you?

Of course it’s all about money, or the lack of it. It is not as if UK media don’t have the talent. But can money really be an excuse? American papers afterall have been hit harder than British ones with more big city closures and layoffs: almost all UK papers that were in print a year ago are still in print today. And of course there are many talented freelancers and independent producers making great stuff, but even that is hard to find.

So what else is it? A lack of ambition? We just don’t get multimedia? Or are we just not interested?

The postcard below awaits your thoughts…

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!

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