Part 1: Class Notes on the Making of My Video
By Kathy Strauss
What is my story about? Who is my central character? These questions are buzzing in my brain as I record ballroom dancers at the Yakima senior center. The dance will end in 30 minutes and I’m fumbling with manual focus, manual exposure and a shotgun mic, while trying to identify one of these smiling, graceful seniors as a character to drive my story. The final song is “God Bless America.” As the 50 or so dancers link hands and form a large circle, I jump in and find a spot on the floor. Each time the group sings the chorus they move forward raising their hands above their heads, surrounding me in a tight circle – these are lovely images and I’m in heaven!
I’m on assignment during the 3-day intensive Northwest Video Advanced Workshop in Yakima, WA, and feeling the pressure to make a good story. Top notch coaches are here from throughout the northwest to help train others like me on how to improve our video storytelling.
The workshop is happening for the second time thanks to T.J. Mullinax, news producer at the Yakima Herald-Republic and Assoc. Director of the National Press Photographers Association's Region 11 chapter, along with a host of other generous volunteers. Intended to provide opportunities for journalists to adapt to a rapidly changing industry, the workshop is a multimedia “bootcamp” that offers trainings in interviewing techniques, field equipment handling, ethics, editing and video production workflow.
The 2007 workshop was a 2-day intro to video class with about 30 participants. This year a 3-day advanced class was added for journalists with prior video experience along with the 2-day intro class. The workshop was held at the Yakima H-R office and was sponsored by the NPPA, Canon, ThinkTank, Apple and Society of Professional Journalists. Best of all, the workshop was given at the remarkably affordable price of just $100.
I was struck by the diversity of students who attended this workshop. As the demand increases for newsroom staff to learn video skills it’s not just photographers attending these classes. Writers, editors and students came too. Clearly more collaboration among journalists is in our future and we need to learn to work together – staffs of newspapers, television and radio stations -- to make sure news stories are still covered fairly and accurately.
Advanced class begins – just 8 of us in the class! Wow, what an incredible student-to-teacher ratio. Feel so lucky I am pinching myself.
The day starts off with a lively hours-long presentation on video storytelling by TV videographer greats: Kurt Austin of KGW in Portland, OR and Adam Tischler of King 5 in Seattle. Before the multimedia explosion and demand for news videos for the web, photojournalists almost uniformly scoffed at so-called “TV cameramen,” and their use of reporter stand-ups to tell the news. But now we are running to these experts to teach us the craft. There’s still plenty of crap on TV news, but we have much to learn from great television photographers like these two.
Tips from Kurt and Adam:
1. Sequencing – shoot everything wide, medium, tight and super tight. Remember tight shots of faces. Viewers like to look at faces, and tight shots are critical in editing.
2. Whenever you record “action” remember to also record the “reaction.”
3. While shooting, be looking for your opening and closing shots.
4. Surprise your viewers if you can - don’t reveal everything about the story at once.
5. Audio is Key: Learn proper use of microphones. (Wireless mics are a must.)
6. Make sure your interview audio is strong. Car interiors make good sound studios when out in the field.
7. Listen for natural sound “pops” or “exclamation points” to punctuate your piece. These can be a giggle, a quick “yep” or “uh oh.”
8. Think about texturing sound.
Friday, 1 p.m.
We pick our story assignments out of a hat. My assigned story isn’t actually happening until Saturday and I want to start shooting right away so, with T.J.’s approval, I find my own story. I discover the senior dance in the newspaper and rush over to record the colorful crowd. Their musical accompanist is 68-year-old accordion player Gary Malner.
I capture my video with the help of friendly, peppy Danny Gawlowski, video editor at the Seattle Times. He emphasizes how important it is to have a standard work flow. Thing is, editors have different workflow habits, so best to find one that works well for you and stick with it.
Friday, 6 p.m.
Final Cut Pro Workflow with Apple trainer Jan Shvalb
Both intermediate and advanced groups together for an Ethics session led by the Olympian photographer and former NPPA president Tony Overman.
Tony says not much has changed from the world of still photography and we most importantly must tell the truth with our stories. Is the context truthful or are we changing the meaning of the story?
A core value in video is that we are compressing time and interpreting events for the viewer. Ask yourself, is it truthful? Is this what it was like at the event? Must have pictures to support your audio. Goal is to weave together a truthful representation (versus linear record) of what happened.
Colin Mulvany (Spokesman-Review) asks me to define my story and describe it in one sentence. Is it about the senior dance or is it about this accordion player? He encourages me to think about telling the story with a strong character and helps me decide to catch up with Gary the accordion player again. I head out to a retail store where Gary is playing for a holiday open house. I know music is key to this story and want to record more of his playing.
It is crowded tight quarters at the shop Fiddlesticks but as he strolls around I am able to shoot video of this playful guy while he interacts with customers. People love his music and it shows. I keep asking myself how I would work these two different scenarios into once coherent video. I hadn’t known Gary would be the center of my video when I was at the senior center. What else do I need to ask him and what else do I need to show?
Saturday, 2 p.m.
Audio session with Anna King of NPR – I miss most of this because I was shooting my story but catch some tidbits at the end during open discussion.
1. In general, instructors agree it’s very difficult to tell a full story without some kind of narration or voiceover. Definitely prefer voiceovers to text boxes.
2. Colin Mulvany says you may hate your voice at first but it will improve with practice.
3. Always record your narration with a microphone, not with built-in mic on computer.
4. Write your narration the way you talk. Anna King says she has a technique that works well – read the text as if telling the story to a friend. This will make you sound more comfortable and natural. She has a photo of a friend taped on the wall so she can “talk” to her when recording audio.
5. Remember to smile when you are recording your voice – listeners hear the smile.
Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
I saw a very similar presentation by Colin at NPPA’s multimedia immersion class last year but now that I have a little more experience, it is much more meaningful. Wow, is he good! He’s been doing multimedia for longer than most and really knows the craft. Plus he is a master editor in Final Cut Pro.
Colin starts off with an interesting thought: Though fewer and fewer people are reading books, YouTube streams 1.2 billion videos each day. Learning to make videos is worth our time!
Tips from Colin:
1. Not every story needs a video to go with it. If a video has nothing to show, it’s not a video.
2. Define your story early and be able to describe it in one sentence.
3. Avoid tangents; they can destroy your story.
4. A roll + B roll = story. A roll is the narrative spine of your story and B roll is video of what the subject is talking about.
5. Get to the core of “why” – Why does this person do what they do?
6. Keep sequencing to a quick pace in B-roll
7. Remember to shoot action/reaction over and over
8. Listen for narrative sound pops. They are little breathers from narration or interview audio.
9. Use a wireless lavalier mic
10. Try to avoid panning and zooming.
11. Keep B-roll short – be ruthless with length.
Colin continues with a Final Cut story timeline walkthrough. He has tons of shortcuts and tips for editing with Final Cut. Highly recommends Lynda.com tutorials. Practice, practice, practice. He encourages me to first lay down the A-roll (that narrative spine) and then to add the B-roll.
I take a dinner break and then work on reviewing my footage and trying to do some general organization of it all. At around 10 p.m. Colin sends us to our hotels to get some sleep and T.J. promises he’ll be there to let us into the building at 7:30 a.m. Sunday.
Sunday, 7:45 a.m.
Back to editing. Sit there for about six hours straight editing this 80-second piece. Colin moves around the room, sitting with each of us and working one-on-one, commenting on our progress and helping us fine-tune the edits. How amazing it would be to work regularly with an editor like him.
Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
Forced to finish our projects and export them to present to the group. I never did get to use those great shots of seniors circling around singing “God Bless America,” but who knows? Maybe it will appear in the revised longer version!
Here's what I end up with: "Music for the Heart":
(Here's a link to a full-screen version. And you can watch my classmates' videos here. )
Part 2: Three Most Amazing Aspects of the Workshop
1) The coachesTruly, these people are unbelievable!
2) The coaches
3) The coaches
I’ve been to a handful of these classes and workshops now. They are always staffed by the best and brightest people in the field. These are the experts in our evolving profession and they spend their weekends – sometimes 15 hour-days -- to teach the video gospel for free. They are unpaid! They use vacation days and leave their families for the weekend. Their generosity is tremendous.
I asked some of them why they did it and got these responses:
Why? Because there's a need. Journalists, regardless of the name, title, experience, need to take the growth of multimedia seriously. The ones who do, find it daunting to get adequate training. With (in my opinion) so few opportunities to learn about videojournalism in the Northwest on your own dime, I thought I should step up and do what I could for everyone who cares. It's inspiring to me when I can see others get excited about the things I am passionate about. Fortunately for me I am surrounded by amazing visual/multimedia journalists and they share that motivation to get others ready for the dawn of a new industry. Without that help and camaraderie the Northwest Video Workshop would not exist.
When I first started shooting video, I saw a tremendous need for video literacy education within the newspaper industry. Several years back, the amount of video training opportunities were limited. mostly because only a few videojournalists at newspapers were qualified to teach video storytelling. In those early days, the few of us who had experience were asked to speak at every photojournalism conference and workshop to the point of exhaustion.
Now things have changed. Video is integrated into most newspaper Websites and there are many more talented videojournalists out their producing quality video storytelling and sharing their knowledge.
When my newspaper invested in me by sending me to the nine-day Platypus Video Workshop in 2005, I came home exhausted but professionally changed. I understood video had a great future and I wanted to share the knowledge of what I learned with my co-workers.
I made a deal with myself that I would teach anyone that wanted to learn multimedia skills, such as audio slideshows, video storytelling and editing. I’ve kind of stuck with that through the years.
I had one visiting journalist tell me to guard my gift. That somehow, if I shared what I knew with others, it would be taken away from me. The idea that knowledge is power is true. I hated that; I felt in order for my newspaper to embrace their digital future, I needed buy-in from the top management all the way down to the content producers.
By taking my video storytelling gift and sharing it, I feel much better about myself than if I had kept all that knowledge bottled up. Teaching video storytelling is something I feel passionate about. It has been fun to see the seeds that I’ve sown begin to grow. Our industry is in transition. As our print products diminish, I hold firm to my belief that video storytelling will have a solid future in the digital world. Making sure that ALL newspaper journalists have some understanding of video will only do them and our industry good.