Friday, July 30, 2010

Lessons from Perpignan: What We Learned at Video Camp

For most of July we taught a videojournalism workshop in Perpignan, France, for eighteen American students. It was part of a study-abroad program co-sponsored by the Institute for Education in International Media (ieiMedia) and San Francisco State University.

Here are a few tips we can pass along, based on common student errors and problems we encountered.

A. Shooting Suggestions

1. Use the tripod whenever possible. Shaky camera work is hard to watch and screams "amateur."

2. Avoid zooms, pans and tilts. The top pros almost never use them, for good reason. They're distracting, tough to edit, and the sign of a novice.

3. Focus manually when shooting close-ups. On autofocus, the camera often locks in on something that is in the background.

4. Take lots of reverse shots of subjects’ faces as they carry out their activities. If you need to, hold the camera at arm’s length, in front of the subject, and record at least 10 seconds of video.

5. Also shoot across the subject’s shoulder, from their perspective, to see what he or she is seeing.

6. Shoot overalls. If the subject of the story is church bells, shoot not only inside and outside the church, but also position the camera on a hill near the town where you can still see the church, to let the viewer understand how the sound travels over the entire region.

7. If the subject talks about the past, ask if they have old photos from that time that you can use in b-roll or cutaway shots.

8. When using a simultaneous translator or interpreter, make sure they provide word-for-word English versions of whatever the subject says, and doesn't substitute the third-person or add "he said." If the subject says, "I went to the store..." then make sure the translator says, "I went to the store..." (and not, "He said he went to the store.") Make sure you aren't just capturing the translator’s interpretation and summary of the dialogue instead of what actually was said. If the translator’s voice is crystal clear, you can use it in the final story, over the actual subject's voice. Otherwise you will need to dub in a new voice or use subtitles.

9. When possible, avoid subtitles and on-screen narrative text. People don’t like to read movies.

10. Sometimes you can capture footage on a Flip or other small camera that is not super high quality but might be better than no footage at all.

Audio suggestions

1. What you hear on the audio track you need to see on the video track, and what you see you need to hear about. When someone says something in the story, viewers want to observe what is happening. If viewers are watching something, they want to hear about and understand what they are watching. Few video images are simple and obvious enough that they don’t need supporting dialogue or voiceover. This simple principle of correlating what you see and hear is very difficult to carry out. Often students had an interview section about an element of the story but no video to accompany it. Or they did not have enough video footage to go with extensive audio passages.

2. Here is where the wireless mic can come in handy. By wiring your subject, you can overhear what they say to everyone around them, as well as observe with the video camera what they doing at the same time. One student did a story about the problems of being an English speaker and playing on a French sports team. Viewers heard only the players talking about the difficulties. The audience never got to hear an actual dialogue demonstrating the problem. Wiring a coach during practice would have let the viewer hear the challenges of communicating across the two languages, and viewers could draw their own conclusions.

Editing  suggestions

1. You need to create a road map of what steps to take once you have collected your material -- i.e. what to do first, second and third.

2. We found that by having students transcribe all their interviews (a task they detest) and also all the spoken audio collected during candid moments (a task they overlooked), they could more easily and quickly create a paper script.

3. With a paper script, students could see if they needed to write voiceover to provide information missing from interviews or dialogue. With more time, they could have gone back and done more interviewing to fill in the missing pieces, but under their tight deadline restrictions, recording a VO with the missing information became the best alternative.

4. We also had them watch all the interviews as they listened to the spoken “natural sound.” How people say things can be as interesting as what they say. Voice inflection does not show up on the paper edit.

5. We had the students lay down the audio track (interview and spoken audio nat sound) before they started to add their visual sequences. They essentially produced a radio story before they turned it into a video story. This approach assured that the story flowed and made sense.

(Of course, this is not the only way to structure the process. We're interested in hearing about approaches others find effective and efficient.)

Storytelling suggestions

In the workshop, the greatest problem was the students’ inability to recognize the theme and/or nut graph of their video story – for instance, why this pastry chef was featured and not the one down the block.

Also, they had problems sticking to the central theme once they had identified it. They had a tendency to throw in all the cool shots and off-the-wall interview comments rather than stick to the heart and soul of their mini doc.

Though the students didn't always use it, we found the following approach is helpful in establishing a theme:

a. Write a title/theme before you shoot;
b. Rewrite the title/theme after you shoot;
c. Rewrite the title/theme after you draft a script;
d. Rewrite the title/theme after you edit.

In the end, see if all your images and sound conform to your title/theme and original agenda.

Here are some examples of students' work, below. (You can watch more here.)

Keeping up with Snails

A look at an escargot farm in Estoher, France, just outside of Perpignan.

Saving the Strays

Saint-Nazaire, France resident Helen Ferrieux takes care of stray cats in her village.

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