Space coverage beyond the shuttle

Today, as a correspondent with responsibility for covering America's adventures in space, I'm reporting on NASA's latest exploratory endeavors. 

The US space agency today launched a spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center here in Florida destined for Jupiter. It's unmanned, of course, but it's hoped it'll provide valuable scientific data on how the first planet in our solar system was formed. This, in turn, could be very useful in discovering more about the origins of our own planet. 

Here's an audio report I filed a little earlier for Australian Independent Radio News

According to my reporting, many space policy-makers - as well as officials within NASA itself - see this kind of exploration as the key to NASA's future now that the space shuttle has gone. Sure, private companies are working on taking Americans back to the International Space Station within the next few years, and NASA has the long-term goal of manned flight to the Moon, Mars or an astroid. But the real nitty gritty of space exploration and scientific discovery is often done far away from the media glare and the glory of manned programs.

I hope to cover this aspect of the space program more in the future, with a focus on the huge challenges NASA faces, not only in terms of its budget, but also in terms of focus, direction and mission. It's a big-budget agency. Scruitiny of it should not go away just because the shuttle is now history.


This election will be broadcast in HD

Reporters are constantly in the field these days gathering pictures of the various Republican candidates/potential candidates in the 2012 Presidential election.

Videojournalists are now called on to shoot HD footage of the main contenders on a regular basis, mainly for library purpouses, as primary season draws inexorably closer.

With more broadcasters than ever before requiring pictures in high-definition, the coverage of this general election will be one of the first I've shot almost entirely in HD.


Writing a key skill for solo video journalists

For video journalists, the art of shooting great looking video is often the number one priority. Sometimes the traditional elements of journalism can be sidelined. 

For me, when producing a story for a TV client, writing a good script should be one of the most important aspects of doing a standout job. It's often going to be the first tangible thing the client sees of your story. Assuming there is some sort of script editing process, they'll see your words before they see your pictures.

The most critical part of news writing is the lead - the top line! In the document below, Judith Smelser of NPR affiliate WMFE gives a great overview of lead writing.

For veteran reporters who have come from a background of focusing on writing and producing, learning the skills associated with shooting and editing is key. But for younger reporters who have cut their teeth with video cameras, the subtleties of journalism - whether it be writing, law or ethics - can easily be overlooked.

Learn how to write a strong script and you'll be a better all-round reporter.


Making the MOS-t of shooting vox-pops

Shooting M.O.S. (Man On the Street) is something you'll often have to do as a video journalist. M.O.S., sometimes called vox-pops from the Latin 'vox populi', is also one of the more difficult tasks when working solo. You'll often be working in a crowd and will need to be ready to get people's comments very quickly - negligible set-up time.

Here is a list of ten points I put together that I think are important to remember when shooting M.O.S. in the field:

1 - Use a tripod. M.O.S. shoots look really dreadful when you're trying to hold a camera in one hand and a mic in the other while looking the interviewee in the eye. 

2 - Because you are using a tripod, try to pick a location where you do not have to move around too much. Pick an area to shoot with plenty of foot traffic. It is best if you can get people to come to you, rather than having to carry your camera and tripod to a different spot each time.

3 - Select a significantly different backdrop for each M.O.S. It will look strange if the background is the same each time, but the person on camera is different. Remember, you will probably be editing these together into a sequence. You can often achieve a different backdrop just by swinging the camera around.

4 - Be mindful of the sun in the sky. Cloudy days tend to be easier… the light remains constant so the temperature of the shot doesn't fluctuate between interviewees in your M.O.S. sequence. Otherwise, try to pick an area of shade where the background isn't too bright either.

5 - Use a wireless lav microphone that you can pin on someone quickly. If you are trying to hold a microphone in front of the interviewee, it'll be very tough to ensure they remain in frame because you will need to be in front of the camera too. If you use a wireless lav, you can clip it on them and stand where you can see the viewfinder. You can also have the subject stand further away from the camera, allowing you to make more use of the full range of the lens, achieving more depth to the shot. In addition, make sure you hide the cable connecting the mic to the transmitter unit by either framing it out of the shot, or tucking it under clothing.

6 - Try to frame each person approximately the same. It doesn't matter if some are framed slightly tighter than others. But if you have a mix of super-wide and super-tight shots, it will look very disjointed when you edit them back-to-back. If you are shooting in a high enough definition format, it's possible to adjust the framing in post-production by cropping and zooming.

7 - Mix the direction that you have the interviewees looking - some camera-left, some camera-right. When you edit your footage together, you should alternate between left-looking and right-looking shots. This will help guard against jump cuts. You can also make use of functions such as Final Cut Pro's 'flop' tool to reverse shots if necessary. However, be very careful to take note of anything framed in the shot that would be inaccurate when flipped, such as writing. 

To help illustrate this point, here is an example of M.O.S. I gathered at the recent NBA Finals in Miami for AFP Television. The vox-pops are part of a sequence of shots sent out to AFP client broadcasters. This is my own upload with my own lower-thirds. If you wish to see additional footage from the shoot, you can do so here.

8 - Make sure you color balance your camera before you start shooting. If you shoot in auto-mode you may end up with soundbites with wildly varying color balances. This, of course, varies according to which camera you are using. Save yourself time in post-production by setting your camera values ahead of time. Setting picture profiles for cloudy or bright days can save time.

9 - Get the name of your subjects on tape. Use that to set audio levels. People have dramatically different tones of voice and speaking volumes. You don't want to boost your levels for a quiet speaker, then end up with distorted sound for the rest of your shoot.

10 - Never take your eyes off your camera. You're in a busy place. Never trust anyone you don't know around your gear - not even for a second.


Video tutorial on shooting interviews

There aren't many good websites that take solo videographers through, step-by-step, the best ways to set up and film an interview.

Filming interviews while operating on your own is always a tricky proposition, particularly if you're looking to achieve depth and distance from the camera.

Dr Lisa Mills - Assistant Professor of Film at the University of Central Florida - has put together a series of video tutorials for students involved in a project to collect stories from military veterans.

Below is a grab from one of my recent interviews. I chose it because I filmed it in a hurry on a tight deadline. It illustrates that, with a few very simple steps, you can make your interviews look polished without very much pre-production. 

As Mills describes in her instructional videos, you need to chose somewhere with appropriate natural lighting, space to achieve depth, and a background that isn't boring but, at the same time, does not detract from the interviewee's words. 

Her pointers are basics for beginners, but certainly worth watching if you're new to the game.

Mills teaches documentary film-making at UCF. You can check out her YouTube channel here