Monday, January 31, 2011

Beet.TV Videojournalism Panel Livestream

UPDATE: To see the archived videos and liveblog of this event, go here.

Watch this space on Tuesday, Feb. 1 at 9am ET (6am PT) for the livestream of Beet.TV's videojournalism panel, "Exploring the digital transformation of video news reporting and distribution."

The panelists consitute a veritable Who's Who of top execs at major media institutions. (See list here.)

On Twitter, you can follow Beet.TV via @Beet_TV . The hashtag for the livestream is #beetmeet.

See you there!

Platypus Workshop in San Jose, 3/27 - 4/2

For those who want hands-on lessons in videojournalism, the Digital Journalist's Platypus Workshop for February is sold out, but there's still time to register for the March 27 - April 2 session at San Jose (CA) State University.

Platypus founder and leader Dirck Halstead writes:

You will learn how to use your DSLR, along with tips and tricks to make it an incredible tool for you in editorial, corporate and filmmaking settings. We will teach you field sound recording, cinematic storytelling, the use of lenses, tripods, multimedia applications, and Apple's Final Cut Pro editing software.

We teach high-definition digital shooting, editing, and multimedia with an emphasis on storytelling. We have taught over 300 photojournalists since our inception in 1999. Our graduates have gone on to do television documentaries, Web videos, especially for newspapers, and even films. One of our graduates was a nominee for an Oscar in 2006. The 2010 winner of the Sundance Film Festival Documentary Award for his film "Restrepo" was Platypus graduate Tim Hetherington (currently nominated for an Oscar).
Students provide their own HD DSLR camera and lens -- all else is supplied. The cost of the workshop is $1795.

To register, contact Michael Cheers at For more information about the workshop, contact Dirck Halstead at

Pine Point is Dead. Long Live 'Pine Point'

What's the best way to tell a story about a town that disappeared?

Pine Point was a northern Canadian mining town that closed in 1988. Evacuated. Demolished. Gone. Everyone moved away.

But the residents had to go somewhere. And wherever those families and individuals are, Pine Point is still alive -- tattooed on their hearts and souls and memories.

One former Pine Point resident painstakingly built and maintains a quaint Website commemorating the dead town, "Pine Point Revisited." He intends for it to be not just a scrapbook but also a watering hole for his former neighbors to share photos, mementos, and, yes, those memories.

And now there's a slick, polished, interactive and thoroughly engaging "Welcome to Pine Point" Website devoted to the story behind that "Pine Point Revisited" Website.

Complicated? Let us explain.

"Welcome to Pine Point" -- designed for everyone, not just former residents -- is the handiwork of The Goggles, a pair of award-winning creative directors best known for their work with Adbusters magazine: Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge.

The duo have conceptualized magazines, books, television spots, and produced major international advocacy campaigns. They are co-authors of "I Live Here," a book about four of the planet's most troubled cities.

So how did The Goggles come to create "Welcome to Pine Point," an interactive Web documentary for Canada's National Film Board (NFB)?

They were initially hooked when they stumbled across the "Pine Point Revisited" Website, the quintessential exercise in nostalgia that turns out to be managed by the former town's least likely character -- a key plot point to the project.

It seemed the site acted as a kind of public album, a touchstone for the people who lived there, but also, for those of us who didn't. It was unpretentious, honest, and represented a sentiment and perspective that we felt needed sharing...It could have been a book, but it probably makes more sense that it became this.
The end result is astonishingly visual, with lots of still images and video clips, and inventive use of audio.

Is it indeed the best way to tell Pine Point's story?

KobreGuide reader Ron Smith, who was among those who excitedly called the site to our attention, remarks: "This is really amazing. I spent 30 minutes reading about this town I have never been to, a town that is longer there, and I was so moved. Really touching stuff, and a way to tell stories that I've never seen before."

Tracy Boyer, over at Innovative Interactivity, wonders whether it's too Flash-heavy.
The animations, multimedia and interactivity throughout the massive step-through documentary are impressive, to say the least. But, as I took the time to click through to the end, I couldn’t help but think to myself that the site seemed overly flashy and cluttered... My personal preference is that of a cleaner layout.

All together, this site houses nearly 50 frames of multimedia content divided into 10 chapters. Up until 2008 all of my multimedia projects were done 100% in Flash. But the more I read about HTML5 and the inability to play Flash on Apple products, I’m beginning to wonder whether producers should start experimenting with other languages for the interactive component.

The producers spent a year working on it and designed everything in Photoshop before animating it in Flash. If it takes a year to produce something of this capacity, how is an interactive Flash site going to have competitive advantage in the longterm, and withstand the quicker and more scalable programming languages that help producers make something comparable in days or weeks?
Personally, we love all the clever sights and sounds, but wonder about something else.

Because its roots are in a book-publishing sensibility, it is also text-heavy. It's a delight to look at and listen to, and even all that text is smart and quirky and fun to read. But it compels us to ask: What if, instead of non-linear interactivity, "Welcome to Pine Point" was re-created as a single video story about the aftermath of a town's demise? What happened to all those people, where are they now, and how does their former hometown figure in their current lives and sensibilities? How would that narrative best be structured? Chronologically? Or starting in the present and looking back (in medias res)? Without giving away too much, one of the richest rewards is discovering what happened to the town's characters of yesteryear -- surprises that would be spoiled if they were introduced too early in the narrative.

Imagine you had stumbled across the original "Pine Point Revisted" Website, and thought, "Hey, this would make a great video story!" How would you go about shooting and editing it? How would you go about telling the story of the town that isn't there anymore?

"Pine Point Revisited":

"Welcome to Pine Point":

P.S. Visit the National Film Board of Canada Website for more fine documentary films and interactive stories.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Learn Videojournalism Online from Top Pros

We're proud to announce that KobreGuide is officially an affiliate of the New York Video School (NYVS), an online education center created by pioneering videojournalist Michael Rosenblum.

NYVS provides anyone with a video camera an easy and affordable way to learn to make films and videos like a Hollywood professional.

As a NYVS member you'll have access to video courses, critiques, tutorials and a learning community that will help you quickly become a master at video editing, video production, videography, iMovie, Final Cut Pro and much more!
NYVS instructors have worked with PBS, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, ABC, CBS, the New York Times, and many other leading media institutions.

Among the benefits of registering for the NYVS online curriculum:

* Learn video with hundreds of online tutorials
* View the latest video news and events
* Find opportunities to use your videos
* Participate in online video contests
* Post and search for jobs and internships
* Find places to make money creating video

NYVS courses have been grouped into five categories: Storytelling, Shooting, Editing, Practical Use, Video Basics

Andre Malok, a videojournalist at the Newark Star-Ledger, took Rosenblum's popular VJ video training bootcamp two years ago. He recently produced this stellar 24-minute online documentary (below), "The Wreck of the Lady Mary." The in-depth video represents a rare high-quality blend of reporting and interviewing with shooting and editing. Remarkably Malok accomplished it all single-handedly, using techniques and skills that you can acquire at NYVS.

The Lady Mary left the Port of Cape May on the morning of March 18, 2009 on a routine scallop fishing trip. The vessel with its crew of seven traveled 66 miles to a restricted scallop fishing area. Early on March 24, the boat sank to the bottom of the ocean, and six of the seven crewman were killed. Was the boat swamped in rough seas? Or did a passing container ship strike the boat without ever knowing it? After months of investigation, the Star-Ledger explores the mystery of the wreck of the Lady Mary.

For more info on NYVS, or to enroll in courses, please go here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Doctorian to Focus on Multimedia Storytelling for Washington Post

Congrats to Sonya Doctorian, new deputy director of photography at the Washington Post. She will focus primarily on photo projects, staff development and multimedia storytelling.

Doctorian is an independent online videojournalist based in Denver who joined the Rocky Mountain News in 2003 as projects photo editor. She also worked as its first videojournalist until the paper closed in 2009, just short of its 150th anniversary. Doctorian and the video team won a regional Emmy for their online documentary, "Final Edition," which chronicled the newspaper's final weeks. After the Rocky folded, she began producing independent short-form documentaries.
Two of her video stories for AARP Online were showcased on KobreGuide to the Web's Best Videojournalism.

"Filling the Gap" documented a weekend of free dental care for hundreds of uninsured patients who showed up at the Colorado Dental Association's "Mission of Mercy."

"Silverton Saves Its Paper" chronicled how a local Colorado historical society rescued a small town's beloved century-old weekly publication on the brink of closure. It won the KobreGuide Award for Best Videojournalism Story of 2009 in the "Media" category.

FYI, Sonya was one of Prof. Kobre's photojournalism students when he was teaching at University of Missouri. She went on to earn her master's in documentary filmmaking from American University in Wash., D.C., and has held top photojournalism positions at the St. Petersburg Times, The State (Columbia, SC), The Knoxville News-Sentinel, and the Tampa Tribune. We look forward to seeing her imprint on the Post's visual journalism.

Beet.TV's Online Videojournalism Summit

Look at all these heavy-hitters who will be on the panel of Beet.TV's Online Video Journalism Summit, which will be streamed live on Feb. 1 (9-11:30 am ET).

The topic is "Exploring the digital transformation of video news reporting and distribution."


Alex Weprin
Editor, TVNewser

Andy Plesser
Executive Producer, Beet.TV

Guest Speaker:

Chris Cillizza (pictured)
The Washington Post, "The Fix" blogger


Ann Derry - Editorial Director, Video and Television, The New York Times

Steven King - Editor of Video, The Washington Post

Mark Larkin - Vice President,

Mark Lukasiewicz - Vice President, NBC News Specials and Digital Media, NBC News

Mosheh Oinounou - International Editor, Bloomberg Television

Kevin Roach - Vice President & Director of U.S. Broadcast News, The Associated Press

Anna Robertson - Director of Original Video and Social Media, Yahoo! News

Mike Stepanovich - Managing Editor, Reuters Insider

Mike Toppo - Senior Director for News Operations and Production,

Jeff Whatcott - Senior Vice President, Brightcove

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Real Mystery of the Lost Roll of Film

Todd Bieber (pictured) was cross-country skiing in Brooklyn's Prospect Park after a recent blizzard and spotted a canister of film lying in the snow.

What happens next became the subject of a YouTube video that Bieber made, which documents his processing the black-and-white images ("I was in awe of these pictures") and his so-far unsuccessful attempt to track down the photographer.

Now Bieber's video has itself become a story.

A bigger mystery than the identity of the people in the pictures (or behind the camera) is how and why Bieber made a video about it in the first place. On the surface, it seems an innocent attempt to speculate about, and locate, the rightful owner.

But there are doubters as to his motive. Is the whole thing fiction? A hoax? A film-student exercise? A blatant attempt to create a viral video? (And if so, for what purpose?)

Amateur photo sleuths have questioned aspects of the story -- beginning with Bieber's footage of him discovering the film in the snow. Surely a "dramatic" re-creation, yes? Other details are scrutinized in forensic detail -- how could there be 40 shots on one roll? And why only one shot of each image, when "film" photographers usually shoot multiple shots, at varying exposures, for safety? Why are the young men in the pictures themselves carrying digital cameras around their necks? Most baffling, what's all that business about a woman finding $26 and foisting it upon Bieber -- who ultimately uses it to process the film.

Chief among the cynics is "The Online Photographer" blogger Mike Johnston, who writes, "I have to admit that something about this story sets off my BS detectors... The video and the narrative voice seems a bit too slick, the pictures too competent. One or the other I could believe, but both together seems just a touch too convenient. Midway through the roll, the narrator breezily ascribes an esoteric interpretation to one of the photos that requires a knowledge of Russian... Looks like an exercise in 'how to make a video go viral' to me."

But then ABC World News did a straightforward report on Bieber's discovery, including a talking-head interview with Bieber via Skype, without a trace of skepticism.

You have to search no further than Bieber's own Website to see that he "writes, directs, edits, shoots, and produces videos - mostly comedy and documentary, or some combination of the two." He has extensively studied and performed improv comedy, and has worked on Onion News Network video satires. All of that would certainly suggest "spoof."

However, Bieber himself insists, "This story is 100% true. Cross my heart. I didn't realize that would even be an issue for some people. Just interested in telling my story and finding the owners."

What do you think?

We previously told you the amazing story about the young real estate agent who serendipitously discovered a treasure trove of thousands of world-class photographs that turned out to have been taken by a recently deceased nanny named Vivian Maier -- which are now being validated by fine-art photography enthusiasts and displayed in museums. (SEE: "Discovering Vivian Maier")

Comparatively speaking, stumbling upon one roll of so-so tourist snapshots of Coney Island and Central Park doesn't seem like much of a stretch.

The fact that it's stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy perhaps speaks more to the state of nonfiction video, and our increasing inability to distinguish between gradations of fact, reality and objective truth. And that's a challenge facing all videojournalists.

Meanwhile, Bieber's video has surpassed 1.1 million views on YouTube. The official ABC World News YouTube video about Bieber's adventure (which tellingly and alarmingly does not enable embedding!) has attracted only about 4,300 views. That should speak volumes right there.

P.S. Did you lose a roll of film in Prospect Park, or know anyone who did? E-mail Todd Bieber: BrooklynFoundFilm(at)gmail(dot)com .

P.P.S. Cyberhat-tip and thanks to Walter Wick, for alerting us to this story.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar Nominees for Best Documentary

Congratulations to all Academy Awards nominees for Best Documentary (feature) and Best Documentary (short subject), announced today.

Since these categories traditionally take a back seat to the more familiar and glamorous Oscar nominees for feature films, we thought we'd provide you with links to their respective Websites -- and each documentarian's short synopsis of their own work -- to give you a taste of the diverse topics that the best nonfiction filmmakers are focusing on.

We hope this will inspire you to add them to your Netflix queue, or otherwise seek out screenings at a theater or Website near you.


"Exit Through the Gift Shop," Banksy and Jaimie D'Cruz

This is the inside story of Street Art - a brutal and revealing account of what happens when fame, money and vandalism collide. The film follows an eccentric shopkeeper turned amateur filmmaker as he attempts to capture many of the world's most infamous vandals on camera, only to have a British stencil artist named Banksy turn the camcorder back on its owner with wildly unexpected results.

One of the most provocative films about art ever made, "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is a fascinating study of low-level criminality, comradeship and incompetence. By turns shocking, hilarious and absurd, this is an enthralling modern-day fairytale... with bolt cutters.

"Gasland," Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic

The largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the United States. The Halliburton-developed drilling technology of "fracking" or hydraulic fracturing has unlocked a "Saudia Arabia of natural gas" just beneath us. But is fracking safe? When filmmaker Josh Fox is asked to lease his land for drilling, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey uncovering a trail of secrets, lies and contamination. A recently drilled nearby Pennsylvania town reports that residents are able to light their drinking water on fire. This is just one of the many absurd and astonishing revelations of a new country called GASLAND. Part verite travelogue, part expose, part mystery, part bluegrass banjo meltdown, part showdown.

"Gasland" will be broadcast on HBO through 2012.

"Inside Job," Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs

"Inside Job" is the first film to expose the shocking truth behind the economic crisis of 2008. The global financial meltdown, at a cost of over $20 trillion, resulted in millions of people losing their homes and jobs. Through extensive research and interviews with major financial insiders, politicians and journalists, "Inside Job" traces the rise of a rogue industry and unveils the corrosive relationships which have corrupted politics, regulation and academia. Narrated by Matt Damon, "Inside Job" was made on location in the U.S., Iceland, England, France, Singapore and China.

"Restrepo," Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

"Restrepo" chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. The movie focuses on a remote 15-man outpost, "Restrepo," named after a platoon medic who was killed in action. It was considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military. This is an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 90-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you.

The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one's political beliefs. Beliefs are a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.

"Waste Land," Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley

Filmed over nearly three years, "Waste Land" follows renowned artist Vik Muniz as he journeys from his home base in Brooklyn to his native Brazil and the world's largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. There he photographs an eclectic band of “catadores”—self-designated pickers of recyclable materials. Muniz’s initial objective was to “paint” the catadores with garbage. However, his collaboration with these inspiring characters as they recreate photographic images of themselves out of garbage reveals both the dignity and despair of the catadores as they begin to re-imagine their lives. Director Lucy Walker has great access to the entire process and, in the end, offers stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the alchemy of the human spirit.



"Killing in the Name," nominees to be determined

Ashraf Al-Khaled was celebrating the happiest day of his life when an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber walked into his wedding and killed his father and 26 other family members in front of his eyes. Now, he is rising from that horrific tragedy to break the silence in the Muslim community on this taboo subject by speaking out against terrorism. "Killing In the Name," directed by Jed Rothstein," follows Ashraf’s quest to speak with victims and perpetrators and expose the true cost of terrorism, taking us on a journey around the world to see if one man can speak truth to terror and begin to turn the tide.

It’s a sad fact that stories like Ashraf’s pepper the news almost daily. In the last 5 years, over 88,000 people have been killed or injured in terrorist attacks worldwide. The majority, like Ashraf, were Muslims.

How can someone be so robbed of their humanity that they happily commit mass murder and suicide? It’s one of the fundamental human questions of our era, one that has haunted Ashraf since his wedding day, and what is now driving him to rise from horrific tragedy to take an unprecedented step – breaking the silence in the Muslim community on this taboo subject by speaking out against terrorism.

At times chilling and moving, terrifying and hopeful, this film is a far- reaching and necessary first step in tackling what is arguably the most pressing issue of our age. As Ashraf puts it, “If we can’t even talk about it, this terror will never end.”

"Poster Girl," nominees to be determined

"Poster Girl" is the story of Robynn Murray, an all-American high-school cheerleader turned “poster girl” for women in combat, distinguished by Army Magazine’s cover shot. Now home from Iraq, her tough-as-nails exterior begins to crack, leaving Robynn struggling with the debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Shot and directed by first-time filmmaker Sara Nesson, "Poster Girl" is an emotionally raw documentary that follows Robynn over the course of two years as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and redemption, using art and poetry to redefine her life.

"Strangers No More," Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon

In the heart of Tel Aviv, there is an exceptional school where children from forty-eight different countries and diverse backgrounds come together to learn. Many of the students arrive at Bialik-Rogozin School fleeing poverty, political adversity and even genocide. Here, no child is a stranger.

"Strangers No More" follows several students’ struggle to acclimate to life in Israel while slowly opening up to share their stories of hardship and tragedy.

With tremendous effort and dedication, the school provides the support these children need to recover from their past. Together, the bond between teacher and student, and amongst the students themselves, enables them to create new lives in this exceptional community.

"Sun Come Up," Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger

"Sun Come Up" follows the relocation of some of the world’s first environmental refugees, the Carteret Islanders – a community living on a remote island chain in the South Pacific Ocean.

When rising seas threaten their survival, the islanders face a painful decision: they must leave their beloved land in search of a new place to call home.

The film follows a group of young Carteret Islanders led by Nick Hakata as they search for land in Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea 50 miles across the open ocean.

The move will not be easy as Bougainville is recovering from a 10-year civil war. Many Bougainvilleans remain traumatized by the “Crisis” as the civil war is known locally. Yet this isn’t a familiar Third World narrative. Out of this tragedy comes a story of hope, strength, and profound generosity.

San Kamap (Sun Come Up) means sunrise in pidgin and reflects this sentiment - the resilience of the community, and the hope that’s present at the start of a new day. The Carteret Islanders have formed their own organization, Tulele Peisa, working with local leaders on the ground to relocate 1,700 islanders to Bougainville over the next ten years.

"The Warriors of Qiugang," Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon

Villagers in central China take on a chemical company that is poisoning their land and water. For five years they fight to transform their environment and as they do, they find themselves transformed as well.

Zhang Gongli is a farmer who grew up in the village of Qiugang, in Anhui Province; his house and fields lie near the banks of the Huai River. In 2004, private chemical companies took over an old state-owned enterprise that had long produced pesticides and dyes in Qiugang. As production ramped up, black waters disgorged from the plants and flooded the fields of Qiugang. Fish died, crops failed, and villagers grew alarmed by the large numbers of their own succumbing to cancer.

When his own fields could no longer be farmed, Zhang filed a lawsuit against the factory that adjoins his land. He lost. This marked the beginning of a stubborn and often dangerous campaign that spanned five years. Our film follows Zhang and his allies in the village as they draw up a petition to bring to Beijing, recruit support from the local media, reach out for help from a local NGO, and in time, make contact with environmental activists from across China.

From clandestine trips to the nation’s capital to private negotiating sessions with factory representatives, our footage reveals a rare portrait of grassroots activism in contemporary China. Far from a simple black-and-white portrait, the film tracks the villagers as they seek out the help and power of the national government to curb local businesses and local officials. The film’s intimacy leads us past the headlines and clichés about modern China to offer a memorable portrait of villagers wrestling with, and transformed by, China’s headlong rush into modernity.

Complete list of Oscar nominees can be found here. The 83rd Annual Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday, February 27, at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, and will be televised live on ABC.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ira Glass: This American Sermon

When "This American Life" host Ira Glass (pictured) talks about storytelling, we listen.

Huffington Post's religion editor Paul Brandeis Raushenbush has resurrected an interview that he conducted for in 2008: "Ira Glass, Religion and the Empathetic Power of Storytelling."


Yes -- when Raushenbush first stumbled upon Glass's award-winning radio show, he reveals, "the tone and content was so unlike anything else on the dial. For the next hour I was immersed in stories from other people's lives that were compelling, funny, tragic and -- to my religiously tuned ear -- sacred."

Though Glass was raised Jewish, he purports to be an atheist. But as you'll see in this excerpt below, he acknowledges that his goal is to create mini-sermons.

Q: What is the value of telling stories?

GLASS: The story is a machine for empathy. In contrast to logic or reason, a story is about emotion that gets staged over a sequence of dramatic moments, so you empathize with the characters without really thinking about it too much. It is a really powerful tool for imagining yourself in other people's situations.

The mission of our show [is] to take the people and present them at exactly life scale. So when we do a story about sailors on an aircraft carrier that is flying missions over Afghanistan in the early months of the war on terror, we didn't only go for the heroic gung-ho men and women who are traveling in harm's way, we go for what it is actually like for the majority of the people there. In the show we did, the first person you meet is a woman whose job it is to fill candy machines on the ship with candy. That's her job in the war on terror, which she laughs about.

Most people on the aircraft carrier don't fly planes, or shoot guns at bad guys to make the world a better place. They do laundry, they check the radar, they fix the intercom system. That's a lot of what it means to be in the military.

Q: How do you tell a story well?

GLASS: There is a kind of structure for a story that was peculiarly compelling for the radio. I thought I had invented it atom-by-atom sitting in an editing booth in Washington on M Street when I was in my 20s. Then I found out that it is one of the oldest forms of telling a story -- it was the structure of a sermon.

I actually realized it when I went home for Yom Kippur in Baltimore. We have a great rabbi. He is one of those guys whose sermons are the total entertainment package. There is one anecdote after another and then, of course, the Torah portion for that week. He then ties it all together with some heartfelt emotional moment.

So I'm with my sisters and my mother and he is giving the sermon and doing his thing, and I thought, oh, that's the structure of my radio show.

Q: Does every story that makes it onto "This American Life" have a moral?

GLASS: A moral overstates it. Every story has some thought about the world...
Read the whole terrific Q&A with Ira Glass here. There are lessons aplenty for visual journalists.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ford Foundation Pumps $50 Million into Documentaries

Some rare good news for documentary producers and fans.

This week the Ford Foundation launched a $50-million, 5-year initiative to find and support "next-generation" nonfiction filmmakers whose themes address urgent social issues.

The new project is called JustFilms. According to Ford Foundation president Luis Ubiñas: "With the growth of the Web and social networks, the potential global audience for filmed content with a social conscience has exploded. We want JustFilms to support visionary filmmakers from around the world... and help them reach and engage audiences."

JustFilms will also leverage the foundation's global network of 10 regional offices to identify and lift new talent from around the world and to strengthen emerging communities of documentary filmmakers.

JustFilms will focus on film, video and digital works that show courageous people confronting difficult issues and actively pursuing a more just, secure and sustainable world. The initiative will pursue three distinct funding paths, each receiving roughly one-third of its annual overall budget:

•Partnerships with major organizations such as the Sundance Institute, the Independent Television Service and others.

•An ongoing open application process that will help JustFilms stay attuned to fresh ideas and stories wherever they may emerge.

•Partnership with other Ford Foundation grant-making programs where the introduction of documentary film could help draw attention to an issue or advance a movement.
Directing the JustFilms initiative will be Orlando Bagwell (pictured), an award-winning filmmaker ("Eyes on the Prize") who has served as a program officer and director in the foundation's Freedom of Expression team for the past six years.

Some examples of works JustFilms is already supporting:

•"Women, War & Peace," a four-part PBS special, examines the enormously disproportionate suffering of women in today's wars, but also how they are emerging as leaders in brokering peace and forging new international laws governing conflict.

•"Higher Ground" explores the efforts of Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed to petition world leaders to save his island from rising sea levels as a result of climate change.

•"Detroit Hustles Harder" (working title) chronicles the lives of courageous individuals who have made the conscious choice to stay in Detroit to help turn the city around. Their lives and dedication represent not only what can transform the city, but what can renew America.

According to the JustFilms Website, the foundation seeks to:

•Enlarge the conversation on issues of importance by investing in documentary films that capture people’s imaginations and engage them in shaping their futures.

•Expand the community of independent documentary filmmakers and lift the voices of new and innovative filmmakers from around the world.

•Help filmmakers craft important stories, and also develop strategies for finding and building audiences across a variety of platforms.
Learn more about JustFilms here.

Explore the documentaries the foundation has previously supported here.

Making Stuff with David Pogue

For your weekend viewing pleasure, we share with you the first episode of "Making Stuff," PBS's new four-part NOVA series exploring the materials that will shape our future.

It's hosted by popular New York Times technology columnist David Pogue, with an entertaining mixture of wonder and humor. The first installment, "Making Stuff Stronger," looks at what defines strength. Among the materials explored: steel, Kevlar, carbon nanotubes, bioengineered silk, mollusk shells, a toucan's beak.

Pogue travels from the deck of a U.S. naval aircraft carrier to a demolition derby to the country's top research labs to check in with experts who are re-engineering what nature has given us to create the next generation of strong stuff.
The one-hour show was written, directed and produced by Chris Schmidt.

Upcoming installments:

* Making Stuff: Smaller
Future technologies will depend on tiny stuff—from silicon chips to micro-robots that probe the human body. (Premiering January 26 on PBS)

* Making Stuff: Cleaner
Can innovative materials help solve the energy crisis and lead to a sustainable future? (Premiering February 2 on PBS)

* Making Stuff: Smarter
Explore a new generation of ingenious materials, from clothes that monitor your mood to real-life invisibility cloaks. (Premiering February 9 on PBS)

What will the future bring, and what will it be made of? From the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age to more recent periods dominated by plastics and silicon, materials have defined the progression of humankind. Now we are once again poised on the verge of a materials revolution, as researchers around the globe push the boundaries further than ever before, using biology and chemistry to imbue materials with new qualities that are expanding our technological frontiers.
You can watch the fascinating series here.

Meanwhile, here's the first episode, in seven "chapters":

"Making Stuff" is produced in cooperation with the Materials Research Society (MRS), an international organization of nearly 16,000 materials researchers from academia, industry, and government.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Welcome to Dhaka, the World's Fastest Growing Megacity

The United Nations estimates there are now about 20 "megacities" on the planet -- urban areas where the population exceeds 10 million. The fastest growing is Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

Dhaka is the subject of a five-part multimedia series, "Rise of the Megacities," in the Global Post, a relatively new, privately funded, international online-only news publication.

Reported and produced by Solana Pyne and Erik German, the series takes a ground-level look at problems created by the world's rapid urbanization... and some solutions.

"For first time in human history," we learn, "the world has become more urban than rural. By mid-century, 80% of the world's population will live in cities, many in the exploding slums of the developing world."

Among these megacities, The World Bank says Dhaka, with its current population of 15 million people, bears the distinction of being the fastest-growing in the world. Between 1990 and 2005, the city doubled in size — from 6 to 12 million. By 2025, the U.N. predicts Dhaka will be home to more than 20 million people — larger than Mexico City, Beijing or Shanghai.
How can you get a handle on such a vast topic?

As you can see in the five narrated video reports (linked below), we don't just hear the platitudes of government bureaucrats, but we get a candid closeup and personal look at the lives of the men, women and children who populate these slums.

Only by pursuing that "ground zero" view were the videojournalists able to uncover suprising truths -- including that formerly agrarian lives are actually improved in a slum economy, and that even the most dystopian vision of the future contains as much hope as peril.

PART ONE: Dhaka: fastest growing megacity in the world

Dhaka Rising: Decoding the Chaos of Earth's Fastest Growing Megacity (video)

PART TWO: The dreams of Dhaka's garment girls

Dhaka Wears it Well: The Financial and Cultural Impact of the Garment Industry (video)


PART THREE: Disasters drive mass migration to Dhaka

The Human Race: Migrants Arrive in Masses Searching for a Better Life (video)


PART FOUR: Interview: Looking on the bright side of Earth's growing slums

The Underground Economy: Tracking the Cash-Only Industries that Form Dhaka's Foundation (video)


PART FIVE: Who can solve a problem like Dhaka?

Water Wars: The Fight Against Thirst in a Rapidly Depleting City (video)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Documentary: A Year Inside the N.Y. Times

As the 11th Sundance Film Festival opens today in Park City, Utah, one of the most anticipated documentaries is “Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times” by Andrew Rossi, who, as the title suggests, spent a year following the fabled institution's reporters and editors.

According to Kara Swisher at All Things Digital:
What is probably most interesting is that many of the stories covered by the Times in the film are about the technological forces that have put it and other traditional media organizations through the digital ringer in recent years.
One of the biggest "characters" in the film -- in every sense of the word -- is Times' media columnist David Carr (pictured, left), who can be very funny, and doesn't pull his punches.

Here's a sneak peek:

The revered institution, and indeed the journalism industry, has surely come a long way since the days chronicled in one of our favorite books, "The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at the New York Times" by Gay Talese.

Rossi previously directed "Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven" (2007) and "Eat This New York" (2004) -- both documentaries about opening restaurants in New York City.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Creative Navigation for Complex Video Projects

Here's a multimedia project with an alluring navigation scheme that shows some creative planning and thinking.

It's an interactive Web documentary produced for the Web by Australia's SBS TV that explores the lives of African refugees and immigrants living within Australia, appropriately titled "Africa to Australia."

A cyberhat tip to SBS's Matt Smith, who alerted us to the package:
"The goal of the project is to inform the wider Australian population about the issues faced by, and contributions made by, African migrants (a highly under-represented community within the Australian media). However, we also wanted the content to work for these African communities, so we have translated the whole site into six African languages.

One of the other unique features is the related content area. As themes emerge within individual videos we relate them to other stories within the site. For example, a boy in Melbourne may be talking about discrimination, and the site will suggest sections of other videos that also discuss discrimination."
Considering the slop-pile hodgepodge that normally passes for Web video pages, the effort devoted to arranging and presenting the mix of individual tales is admirable.

The first-person stories are told by the subjects themselves, and they are shot (using both stills and video) in their own natural home and work environments. One nitpick is that the personal stories could use some more dramatic flair. Some of the subjects narrate their own names and background info into the camera, without much indication that an interviewer worked hard at digging out the kind of material that would have made for more compelling viewing. (One segment begins with a boy laboriously introducing each of his family members by reciting their dates of birth -- not a great hook.) The upbeat subjects mainly talk about themselves and their jobs (taxi driver, hip-hop MC, etc.), and their perceptions of adapting to their new homeland.

And as creative as its internal navigation is, curiously it's not easy to find "Africa to Australia" on the SBS homepage -- amidst the plethora of sub-links in the Video and Documentary categories. But once you do arrive, you are drawn in by the big attractive visuals, and are enticed to scroll from one story to another -- up and down, left and right -- since they are laid out in logical but non-linear fashion. Other links lead to supplementary text material, and there are also the requisite links that enable you to share the stories via Facebook and Twitter.

Overall, a professional job of packaging and presenting a multi-faceted multimedia project. Check out "Africa to Australia," and see if you agree.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - Man of Peace in a Time of War

A rare and candid TV interview with Martin Luther King, Jr. -- unseen in 40 years -- is the centerpiece of this timely hour-long tribute, courtesy of SnagFilms. It features exclusive interviews with Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell that provide fresh insight into the life and personality of the late civil rights leader.

Newsday, News12 Join Forces for N.Y. Gubernatorial Campaign Documentary

Newsday teamed up with with local news station News12 to produce an inside look at one of the most dramatic gubernatorial contests in New York State history.

Videojournalist John Paraskevas and reporter Thomas Maier produced "Campaign Season: The 2010 Race for Governor" in seven chapters, posted throughout the course of the campaign. After Election Day, they compiled a 42-minute look at the winners and losers ... and the significance of the campaign itself.

It turned out to be a solid example of a daily newspaper and a local TV station employing their individual strengths for their mutual benefit.

Over eight months, Maier and Paraskevas filmed hours of video footage -- including exclusive interviews with candidates, party leaders and key political figures -- to track the ambitions, betrayals and behind-the-scenes influences in this race. This combination of video and print appeared in the pages of Newsday, the websites of Newsday and News12, was broadcast on special reports on News12, and presented on News12’s Video on Demand channel.

Newsday's Maier and Paraskevas previously produced "Fallout: The Legacy of Brookhaven Lab," a 9-part investigative series about survivors from an H-bomb test who were sent back to a radioactive island to be used as guinea pigs for research. It is showcased on KobreGuide to the Web's Best Videojournalism.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Videos Explore Rape in Haiti & South Africa

Two recent online video documentaries explore separate cultural perspectives on the issue of rape.

"Inside the Cycle of Rape" (PBS/Frontline) examines a warden's attempt to rehabilitate a group of perpetrators in a South African prison.

Reporter Elena Ghanotakis (pictured) went to Cape Town for the first time in 2004 on a post-graduate fellowship from Dartmouth College to do HIV awareness work with women and girls. "Through this experience, I met many women and children whose lives had been devastated by sexual violence and abuse."

Eventually, I received permission from Pollsmoor Prison, a maximum security facility on the outskirts of Cape Town, to interview dozens of men convicted of rape. The permission process to film at Pollsmoor took 2 years...

My guide inside Pollsmoor was warden and therapist Chris Malgas, who runs a counseling program for convicted offenders using groupwork and individual therapy. My follow up story is a raw look at some of those interactions between Chris and his group, a testament to why it's so difficult to stop South Africa's cycle of sexual abuse...

The perpetrators testimonies provide a grim picture of growing up in the townships and the crimes these men committed. Many talked about being exposed to violent gang culture from a young age, where rape was a rite of passage.

During my time at Pollsmoor, I learned as much about Chris, a 33-year veteran of the prison system, and his motivation to keep his voluntary program going, as I did about the environment inside and outside prison that grooms these men to commit their crimes...


"Children of Rape" ( looks at sexual violence and its legacy in post-quake Haiti. Meredith Birkett tells us, "I produced this story with the raw materials reported by Nadav Neuhaus. It was a very difficult story to report, but Nadav did a wonderful job of working with the rape victims in a sensitive way and depicting their plight with respect." The video is accompanied by a slideshow.

A year after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, women in Haiti’s still-teeming tent cities face yet another threat: sexual violence. With little protection from community or law enforcement, many have been violently raped, only to become pregnant with their attackers’ children.

Photojournalist Nadav Neuhaus traveled through Haiti’s tent cities last summer, photographing and interviewing dozens of residents in the camps that still house more than 1 million people. During a visit to Camp La Piste, home to 50,000 displaced people, Neuhaus noticed an unusually high number of pregnant women. A community organizer and a local midwife confirmed his worries: Many of the women were pregnant as a result of rape.

They came to Camp La Piste after losing parents, brothers and husbands in the earthquake, leaving them to fend for themselves in the sprawling squalor, where roving gangs of armed men terrorize residents.

In a new report, Amnesty International documents the rise in sexual violence, including at least 250 rapes reported in the first few months after the earthquake. Fueled in part by these sexual attacks, the birth rate in Haiti has tripled since the quake, climbing from 4 percent to 12 percent, according to population experts.

Most women told Neuhaus they don’t report the rapes, either out of shame or fear of repercussions. Even if they wanted to report the crimes, there's little help in a country where police and justice systems are destroyed or distracted and where resources for the powerless are almost non-existent.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Kalish Workshop for Visual Storytelling

The annual Stan Kalish Picture Editing Workshop has trained more than 1,000 journalists in visual storytelling since its inception in 1990 at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

It was launched in memory of the pioneering picture editor of the Milwaukee Journal who co-wrote the first definitive book on the subject.

Now the intensive four-day session, taught by top pros, is held at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and is known throughout the industry simply as "The Kalish."

This year's session is June 20-24, and it's called Kalish 3.0 in deference to the fact that its onetime print focus has been completely eclipsed by digital multimedia.

New in Kalish 3.0 are sessions in User Generated Visuals with discussions about recruiting the visual talents in your community, strategies for raising the level of contributed work and integrating community members as a part of your organizations' news coverage strategies. Many visual editors are now working with freelancers and community members so we're retooling our ethics session appropriately.

All the values of The Kalish remain: leadership, managing by example, and the ethical treatment of people and images. Those themes are the framework for intense, exhausting discussions about visual storytelling. Establishing narrative, selecting the media mix, editing to the narrative, and producing the story are in our curriculum. We combine a mix of lectures, hands-on exercises, critiques and group discussions to create a more complete learning experience.
Tuition is $650. Enrollment is limited to 30. Apply before May 1 here.

More info here.

Or contact director Scott Sines at 901.529.5843. Tell him Kobre sent ya.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Out My Window: 360-degree Interactive Documentary

"For most of my life, I've despised highrise buildings," writes Canadian documentary director Katerina Cizek. "It was with considerable humility that I began to examine my own relationship to the urban and the vertical."

The result is a massively ambitious multimedia undertaking that Cizek has spearheaded for the National Film Board of Canada, "Highrise." It is showcased this week on

Most remarkable about the first segment of the global project, "Out My Window," is that it almost looks and feels like a videogame. Cizek tackled the challenge of creating the panoramic environment when she crossed paths with Yellowbird, a Dutch company founded in 2009 that specializes in interactive streaming 3D video technology.

Consequently, viewers can tour highrise units, and watch first-person stories about their occupants, all over the planet: "The towers in the world, the worlds in the towers."

Concrete residential highrise buildings are the most commonly built form of the last century. On the outside, they all look the same. But inside these towers of concrete and glass, people create community, art and meaning amid the ruins of modernism.

Meet remarkable residents who look out on the world from highrise windows, and harness the human spirit.

With more than 90 minutes of material to explore, "Out My Window" features 49 stories from 13 cities, told in 13 languages.
As Telegraph21 reports:

Cizek directed the project via Skype, Facebook and email, in a collaborative process with photographers, journalists, architects, researchers, activists, digital developers and artists from around the world.

In Cizek's words, "the fragmented, non-linear stories of 'Out My Window' reflect the way we tell our stories. Pieces. Snippets. Small tales that, as they add up, create a collage of meaning, of experience. Together, subtly, gently, the stories accumulate into epic narratives about globalization, migration, poverty, environmentalism, reclamation, and the search for spiritual meaning."
Cizek's documentary work has chronicled the Digital Revolution, and has itself become part of the movement. She works across many media platforms: linear films, radio, print, television, emerging new media and live presentations. Among many other accomplishments, Cizek also created and rolled out the award-winning NFB Filmmaker-in-Residence program, an innovative partnership of media with medicine, previously showcased on KobreGuide to the Web's Best Videojournalism.

Follow the development of "Highrise" here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Clueless in Columbus

Here are five lessons the media should learn from the Columbus Dispatch's video story about Ted Williams. (That golden-throated homeless guy does have a name.)

* 1. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. The gift horse we're talking about is not Williams. By now you've probably read that the Dispatch had its video yanked from YouTube, after it had garnered umpteen million views. Why? It turns out that they didn't put it there in the first place -- an anonymous fan did. Did the newspaper thank him profusely? No, it issued a copyright infringement claim, and poof it was gone. Now of course the Dispatch has every right to protect its intellectual property. But if somebody hadn't posted the video on YouTube, you can be sure that it would have never gone viral, TV networks would have never paid attention, and Williams would still be panhandling by the off-ramp.

Incredibly, the Dispatch does not even enable embedding of its own videos. To be fair, a lot of newspapers -- perhaps cowed by their own clueless attorneys -- similarly do not allow their videos to appear anywhere but on their own Websites, essentially guaranteeing that nobody outside their own geographic area will stumble upon it. This is despite the fact that newspapers can still emblazon videos with their own logos, and attach pre-roll or embedded advertising, so that they will benefit both promotionally and financially from its broad dissemination.

By the way, removing video from YouTube is like playing Whack-a-Mole; it's gonna keep popping up all over the place anyway, so what's the point?

The Dispatch itself tried to analyze its own success story ("How the 'golden voice' video went viral") and came to this remarkably uninsightful conclusion: "There's no predicting the fate of videos posted online, experts say." Yeah, but you don't need an "expert" to predict the fate of videos that are confined to the Webpages of their own publication, and prohibited from being circulated on YouTube, Facebook and other social media.

* 2. A sound bite is not a story. Look at how much basic journalistic info is missing from that initial story -- wonderful details filled in later by TV reporters who did due diligence. We didn't get to see Williams' makeshift tent, nor the homeless man he shares it with. We didn't find out about his nine adult kids (!), his grandchildren, or his 90-something mom he hadn't seen in 20 years.

Though he alludes to past use of alcohol and drugs, and offers a cursory acknowledgement that "a few other things became a part of my life," we had no idea he was referring to serious crimes. Where's the rap sheet, mug shots, court documents? He was an "ex-radio announcer"? Where? When? Why did he quit or get fired? Basically the reporter turned on the videocamera, asked one question, and let the subject ramble. That's fine for wedding receptions, not for interviews.

* 3. Journalism requires multiple sources. Here we get one perspective -- Ted Williams' own narrative. No credible newspaper editor would allow a reporter to file a print story with only one person's voice. That's called a press release.

We need to hear from his aforementioned tent-mate, family members, even reaction from other passing drivers. And where are his former radio colleagues and/or employers? Amazingly, we still haven't seen any video on any of these people (except for his emotional reunion with his elderly mother, strategized and staged by two TV networks).

In addition to perspective, we need context. How about an interview with a top radio DJ or professional voiceover artist who can comment authoritatively on the qualities of Williams' voice that make it distinctive and commercial? How about talking to a casting agent or product-promotions specialist who can give us insight into how much Williams stands to earn in his resurrected career? What are his realistic prospects, once the novelty of his newfound celebrity has worn off?

* 4. Know what you've got. Incredibly, the videographer waited a week after he first saw Williams -- and heard his voice -- to come back with a camera. More incredibly, when he did return, it was with a cheap handheld Flip cam with its awful internal mic that doesn't filter out wind noise. Most incredibly, after he shot the video, it sat on a shelf for six weeks, waiting for "a slow news day" to make its initial appearance. (See #1: Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.) Looking at what passes for videojournalism on the Dispatch's site, we're hard pressed to figure out exactly what other stories pre-empted it during that time.

* 5. Clean up your act. And while we were looking at the Dispatch's video offerings, we were especially struck by the godawful navigation scheme -- just a complete hodgepodge of disorganized thumbnails artlessly slapped onto a Web page, with no apparent thought given to luring or keeping viewers. (Even the Ted Williams-related videos are not clustered together, nor are links provided between similarly themed videos or even to their text counterparts.) Again, to be fair, this is a common problem at newspaper Websites -- video remains a low-priority afterthought because of low viewership. It's slapped up there carelessly because "no one watches it anyway," which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Seriously, look at this page, and tell us that your average teenager couldn't have done a better job designing it.

And one final lesson for all of us, not just media pros. What if Ted Williams' sign had said, "I have a God-given gift for operating a fork lift." What if he had been a plumber or electrician who had fallen on hard times? True, much of the appeal of the video was the incongruity of a disheveled man with an unexpectedly rich baritone voice. But we've personally seen two short wiry guys carry our grand piano up steep stairs for a moving company -- that was an impressively jarring sight! What if one of them subsequently lost his job and was forced to find employment with a cardboard sign? Who would stop to video him?

Without devaluing Williams and his legitimate accomplishments, we do have to wonder about the distinctly American values system that champions and rewards those who can make a lot of money for "glamour" professions that have more to do with entertainment-related talents than manual skills. And yet in an age when we desperately need to focus on rebuilding this country and its sagging infrastructure, those seemingly pedestrian skill sets are precisely what should be spotlighted.

Something for videojournalists to contemplate when they seek subjects for their next stories.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Giving Voice to a Panhandler's Story

Everybody's got a story. You just gotta stop and ask them. That's what Columbus (OH) Dispatch videojournalist Doral Chenoweth III discovered when he asked to hear the "God-given gift of voice" that a panhandling homeless man advertised on a cardboard sign off a freeway ramp: "I'm an ex-radio announcer who has fallen on hard times."

In a short video, we learn that the man's name is Ted Williams, and he confesses that his career was derailed by alcohol and drugs. But he says he's been clean and sober for two years and is now looking for a comeback. And, yes, his deep announcer-like voice is sufficiently remarkably (and incongruous with his appearance) to have garnered 4.5 million views on YouTube.

Williams is reportedly getting lucrative job offers from radio stations and even TV networks, thanks to the viral video. Read his story here.

UPDATE (1/5 9:30 a.m.): In an appearance on the local "Dave and Jimmy" talk radio show, Ted Williams reveals he is awash in offers from national broadcast media -- even overwhelmed by the sudden courtship. ESPN reports he has been offered an announcer job by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: If a videojournalist had set out to do a roundup piece on "Hidden Talents of the Homeless," would it have been as effective, and had as much impact? On the one hand, there's the old journalism canard: "One is an example, two is a coincidence, three is a trend." On the other hand, as crusading New York Times videojournalist Nick Kristof often warns, viewers actively care about the plight of one person with a hard-luck story, and will go out of their way to help (with donations, petition-signing, etc.). But introduce their equally beleaguered family or community -- or even a single sibling -- and paradoxically the situation suddenly seems hopeless and our empathy shrinks to zero. Contemplating massacres or plagues, psychic numbing and compassion fatigue takes over. The lesson? Big numbers don't move us, but individual stories do. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Aron Ralston Redux

It's been nearly two years since KobreGuide to the Web's Best Videojournalism showcased the short New York Times video "Being Aron Ralston," about the young Colorado mountain climber trapped by a boulder for six days before he amputated his arm to escape death.

Ralston is currently portrayed by actor James Franco in the acclaimed movie inspired by his ordeal, "127 Hours."

The Times video, produced by Kassie Bracken and Michael Brick, had caught up with Ralston six years after his accident, reporting that he was struggling with finding meaning in his survival -- mainly by pursuing a career as a motivational speaker.

The Times' five-minute video portrait still resonates, and will be appreciated by those who enjoyed the film based on Ralston's misadventure.

You can find it here.

Time's Best Photos of 2010

Here are links to Time magazine's Best Photos of 2010:

* The Best Photos from the Pages of TIME
A gallery of the images that shaped our world

* Pictures of the Year 2010
The most unforgettable images of the year

* The Best Portraits from TIME 2010
A gallery of newsmakers from the pages of the magazine

* The Most Surprising Photos of 2010
Images you might have missed — but should see now

* Wire Photographer of the Year: Mauricio Lima
A selection from the work he produced on his first trip to Afghanistan

* Photojournalism at the Crossroads
Analog and digital responses to photography's changing landscape

Monday, January 3, 2011

Missing Persons: Behind the Scenes

By Eric Seals
Staff Photographer
Detroit Free Press

Shooting and producing video at the Detroit Free Press has often involved searching for features or slice-of-life stories that let me be creative and have fun telling a story, while constantly challenging myself. Sometimes, however, I like to produce stories that have a newsier edge to them, in order to mix things up and push me out of my comfort zone.

Working on this piece, "The Search for Missing People in Detroit," was another opportunity for me to try that. Here's what went into planning, shooting and editing this video.

Our police reporter, Gina Damron, had started working on a story about a new Missing Persons Unit inside the Detroit Police Department. The assignment was given to me to spend a couple of days on it, turning it into a 1:30 video piece for Web and the local CBS affiliate and stills for the newspaper. After spending the first day with the officers, based on the access I was given, the comfort level we had with each other and seeing the potential of a good story developing, I wanted to pursue it harder and work it into a longer piece.

Before I got involved, Gina had already made contacts and talked with a few victims of people missing in the city. She told me the story about Sandrew King (pictured) and how when he talked about his missing grandfather, he was riveting. The way he told his story took you into the void inside him and the lack of closure he still feels.

This is one of the benefits of working with a good reporter who also understands the power of good visual storytelling, what’s involved in the process and what it takes to pull it all together.

I sat Sandrew down in front of a plain, non-distracting background, lit him with an octagon softbox (with four 85 watt CFL lights) and we both interviewed him. We asked questions that got him to get into his feelings about the night his grandfather disappeared, the loneliness and lack of closure he and the family felt the past year. We got him to recount his search for him in abandoned homes in Detroit, as he wondered if he was still alive.

Sandrew was that type of interview for me that is usually hard to get, where a person is just so expressive, with emotion in the voice and dramatic pauses (and not the kind where you know someone is going overboard, playing to the camera). He was just real genuine in talking with us to the point where he just forgot about the softbox and all my gear around him. He was on a mission to let others know the emptiness that is still inside him. “I wouldn’t wish this kind of feeling on my worst enemy,” he said towards the end of our time with him.

The emptiness and emotion in this piece was powerful to convey and a critical element in holding the viewer glued throughout the 4:37 piece. A book I’ve read three times and recommend, talks about emotions as being an important element that can make us all better storytellers. It's called “In The Blink of An Eye” by legendary film editor Walter Murch.

Murch asks, “How do you want the to audience to feel? If they are feeling what you want them to feel all the way through the film, you’ve done about as much as you can ever do. What they finally remember is not the editing, not the camerawork, not even the story -- it’s how they felt.” He says in film editing, and I’d say in shooting as well, that emotion, story and rhythm come before anything else in the frame or the timeline.

Throughout the shooting process and before sitting down to edit in Final Cut, I was constantly thinking, asking myself what I had and what direction I was steering this piece in, and formulating its structure. Did I have enough b-roll? Did I have anything to cover when Sandrew talks about the emptiness he feels? Did I need to do more active interviewing with the police?

I’ve learned from others that the collaborative process between videojournalists and the print reporters we work with is very important and special. There’s no doubt that as visual storytellers, we have a big stake in the final outcome and the look or style of the piece. Working with Gina and other reporters at the Free Press it is always about STORY -- not my story or her story, but the viewers’ story. No matter how short or long a piece is, if we are not in tune together with structure and bouncing ideas off each other for both the written and visual piece, the work will fall apart or not be anywhere near as good as it could be.

The idea for narration didn’t enter my mind until I was halfway done shooting. There are many opinions out there about narrating. Many people don’t care for it, claiming, “I don’t want to sound like those TV guys.” Others prefer using text. For me narration can work well, especially in a complicated piece. Narration really helps tie or bridge things together, it shortens the overall length of the piece and with good (but short) script writing and enunciation, it can really help get the viewer to understand the story quicker. Good examples can be found everywhere, just look at some of the really nice work produced by Frontline, NOVA, ESPN, and HBO documentaries.

I’ve been doing video storytelling for two-and-a-half years at the Free Press. Often in the past after shooting a piece, I’d sit in front of a 30-inch monitor staring at a Final Cut timeline that just as well could have been a big table with lots of jigsaw puzzle pieces all over it. I’d usually say something like, “OK, now what the hell do I do?” I’d have no good sense of story, or structure or what I'd want to say. It was as if I was just out gathering stuff: just making pretty visuals and getting good crisp audio.

In the past year I feel like I’m just starting to understand the story structure and what I want to say before the edit. For others this might be a no-brainer, but for me there are so many balls I juggle all the time -- from a constantly changing story, the technical issues, the visuals, the learning curve -- that add up to a big commitment of time and energy. When the story arc starts to unfold in front of you, it’s a lot more gratifying than sitting in a dark video editing room waiting on an epiphany that we all know very rarely shows up.

As with many things we do in this business, we are never completely happy with the finished product. There are aspects of this video I’d love to change in hindsight, from incorporating less video at the beginning of Sandrew holding his grandfather's picture to perhaps ending it with the camera looking up at the bare trees. Those ideas and others came from seeking out opinions on my edit, keeping an open mind, and seeking and learning from constructive criticism. I’m always looking for tips from colleagues at the Free Press and others whose storytelling I respect at newspapers and TV stations across the country.

So let me ask you -- did the "Missing People" video hold your interest the whole way through? Did it leave you wanting to know more than I told you in the 4:37 piece? How do we balance the short time element of video storytelling on the Web with trying to answer questions that will be raised by the viewer? How can we stay committed to good storytelling without letting the piece drag on and on?

Do emotions (happy or sad and reflective) play an important role in the stories you tell or in the videos you watch? Just like shooting for Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment in a still image, we need people to feel something when they watch what we do. But should emotion supercede the story or the rhythm of the piece?" Let us know your thoughts.

Look for more of Eric Seals' videojournalism on KobreGuide's Detroit Free Press channel.