Recording media - which do you prefer?

I recently made the switch between mini-DV tape and XDCAM solid state SxS cards.

While I thoroughly enjoy shooting with the Sony EX3 camera, there is something about not having a tape in my hand at the end of a shoot that makes me nervous. Am I the only person who has this feeling?

As a solo video journalist, I'll often be working while carrying cards in my pocket with footage on them that I have just shot. That makes me a bit concerned.

Then there is the archiving issue. Shooting in HD formats such as XDCAM EX results in very large video files. When shooting on tape, archiving wasn't such a big deal - you could just put your tape in a library.

Now with a disk - not only do you have to back up your footage at least a couple of times - you use up astonishing amounts of space on your raid drive to archive each story you shoot.

I'm interested in how my fellow one-man-band reporters view the move from tape to digital file recording media.


Creating and editing a setpiece interview

When you're a solo videographer there are often occasions when you'll want to create the impression of a two camera interview but with only one camera.

Here is a short explainer on how you can achieve this fairly easily. There are certain things you'll need to do during both the shooting and editing phases in order to create a professional result.

When shooting a "two-camera" interview with just one camera, you need to be mindful of the following things:

1) Shoot the interview subject without moving the camera too much during questions. You may want to cut to the interviewee to cover edits to the questions. 

2) That being said, you can put in some smooth pushes and pulls during questions and answers, but make sure you practice before rolling. You don't want to mess it up and miss an important answer.

3) When the interview is finished, get a wide shot of the interview scene with the interviewer talking and interviewee listening. This will be useful for editing especially if you don't have a reverse with a re-ask of a question you want to include (see point 5).

4) When the interview is finished, make sure you get a reverse shot. Do not cross the axis, ie., if the subject is looking camera left, the interviewer must be looking camera right.

5) If you are cutting an extended interview you will need re-asks. The interviewer should re-ask as many questions as possible during the reverse.

6) You should get a selection of listening shots from the interviewer - ideally some tight on the interviewer and some wide with the shoulder of the interviewee in frame. 

7) When you are tight on the interviewer during the reverse, make sure it's framed so the shot matches the framing of the interviewee. For example, it will look strange if you constantly cut from a very wide shot of an interviewer to a very tight shot of an interviewee or vice versa.

8) Remember to bare in mind what aspect ratio your final project will be in when you're shooting, and frame accordingly.

9) Ensure that when you move the camera to get the reverse that you check the white balance. Make sure the lighting and white balance for answers and questions matches.

10) If possible, use wireless microphones. Less cables will make it easier to move your camera to get the reverse. It will also make the scene look much tidier when you get your wideshot.

11) Try to match the audio levels for both interviewer and interviewee. This will save time in the editing process. It's also useful if the audio tone - including room tone - and quality is the same. It will be much more apparent that you are editing together two recordings if the ambient sound in the room is different.

12) You may need to adjust the background for your reverse shot, especially if you're in a small space. You made the background for the interviewee look good, so you need to make sure the background for the interviewer looks good too. 

Now to the editing process. Take a look at this interview I edited in Haiti: Malcolm Brown was the videographer.

In this video you will see I have deployed several techniques. 

1) Use listening shots of the interviewer, but not too many. Try to use these cutaways to break-up long answers or to cover edits. Don't over use them otherwise they become distracting.

2) You don't necessarily have to cut to the interviewer when a question is asked, assuming you had both the interviewer and interviewee wearing mics. If the question is very short, for example, you don't have to. Use your judgement. If it's a particularly important or long question, you will probably want to use that re-ask.

3) Use L-cuts (split edits). You'll see I use these on several occasions to keep the flow of the edit going. Here's a good definition: LINK

"Sometimes called an L-cut, a split edit is a transition from one shot to another, where the picture transition does not coincide with the audio transition. This is often done to enhance the aesthetics or flow of the video. For example, a conversation between two people can feel like a tennis match if you always cut the audio and video at the same time. A split edit allows the audience to see the reaction of the person doing the listening, or the aftermath of speaking, rather than simply the act of speaking."

4) It's important to be very organized in laying out your timeline or sequence when you've shot an interview and reverses with just one camera. Place your raw interview into your timeline and then grab your questions and place them in chronological order, either at the end of the timeline or in a new sequence. If your re-asks were not in order, you do not want to make the mistake of cutting a question and answer together that do not go together.

5) If you're on a wideshot where the person talking is facing away from the camera, make sure the audio matches the movement of the mouth convincingly. Pick wideshots where mouth movements, head movements and hand gestures coincide with what is being said.

6) Don't try to be too clever. You'll save yourself time and the possibility of making a mistake the less edits you include.


Keeping your skills honed: Don't always fly solo

One of the unfortunate side effects of working on your own is that the only person you have learn from is yourself! Of course, you can watch stories that other solo video journalists have produced and try to compare their work to yours. Learning from other people's mistakes is always better than making your own errors. But who can point out the good and bad parts of the other person's story? How can you learn what is good and bad without guidance from someone more experienced?

The best experience is doing. While doing, the best way to learn is from other people who have done it before. If you're working on your own all the time, who do you learn from? How do you get better? Sure, you can read blogs and forums about video production, watch other people's work and so on. But none of that is a one-hundred percent replacement for getting knowledge from a professional with lots of experience.

A one man band reporter/solo VJ, by definition, performs many tasks involved in TV news on their own with no help from someone else. Learning to combine these skills is a skill itself. That is a skill best learned by working in close quarters and talking with other solo VJs. But the best way to improve your skills in the individual fields (eg., shooting, editing, sound recording, writing etc) is to work with specialists in those fields.

This last point brings me to the thrust of this post. Once you've taken the leap towards being a one man band reporter, I think it's still critical that you maintain your involvement in more traditional methods of making TV news. Just because you are now a proud backpack journalist doesn't mean that's all you should be doing. Don't be afraid to accept work as a shooter only. For example, if someone else is doing the reporting, you have the opportunity to be more creative with the camera and editing. You also have a chance to work with another reporter and maybe pick up some reporting tips. On the other hand, if you have the chance to use a shooter for one of your reports, observe how they operate, and see if there are some camera tricks you can add to your own arsenal. 

It's a liberating experience to occasionally work with a greater focus on a smaller number of tasks. I would recommend it to any one man band reporters: work with others when possible and try to hone your skills in each individual discipline when doing so. At the end of the day, I think it'll make you a better solo VJ.


The benefits of web video when compressing

To follow up on my previous post about HD video - for those of us who shoot for web based news organizations, we know it's often possible to compress video for the web much more than for broadcast. 

Web video tends to be watched on much smaller screens than television. Smaller screens are generally more forgiving if you compress the video. Viewing a heavily compressed video on an HDTV will result in an unsatisfactory level of quality.

Above is a video I shot for Newsmax.TV. It was shot in HDV1080i60. The original file containing the native HDV picture was more than 5GB in size - far too large to send via ftp for a quick turn around. This picture was compressed using the H.264 MPEG-4 compression codec with a significantly reduced data rate. The final file size was a little over 250MB - a substantially smaller file which could be transmitted via ftp in a few minutes. 

The video appears to be high quality. It's only when you expand the picture to view in full screen mode that you notice some pixillation. 

My point is that when it comes to web video, editors have far more leeway to compress. There is a lower expectation among consumers of news on the internet when it comes to video quality. It remains to be seen how long that will last.


HD video in development

HD video is still in its infancy. It didn't get invented yesterday, but relatively speaking it's a pretty new thing. What is newer still is the increasing number of news outlets that are choosing to switch their output to HD which is posing a series of issues.

For those people that own HD television sets, you may have noticed that often the only part of a news program that claims to be in HD that is actually in HD is the anchor in the studio. There could be several reasons for this: the cameras used in the field are not HD (only the studio camera), the video is shot in HD but is not edited in HD because the editing system might handle standard definition pictures better, the video is shot in HD and edited in HD but cannot be sent back to the station in HD, and so it goes on. Often what you see is a video that has been up-converted to HD so it fits into the program being broadcast in 720p, 1080i or whatever other format it might be in.

There are several reasons that TV news outlets are finding it difficult to tackle the transition to HD. And reporters, shooters and editors are often finding that trial and error is the most common way of figuring out what system works best when creating HD news material.

From my experience currently working with several news outlets that have recently switched to HD, or are trialing ways to switch, I have drawn up a list of issues with HD that are causing consternation:

1) Many people in news, even engineers but especially journalists long used to standard definition, do not understand HD. It is fairly complicated, and this post keeps things very basic. But there are many facets of HD video which are mysterious to people, even in the business. 

I have come across journalists who believe that a 16:9 aspect ratio is the same thing as HD! The terms are simply interchangeable, I've been told. This is obviously wrong. 

I've been told to shoot in HD PAL. There is, of course, no such thing as PAL and NTSC in the world of HD - simply variants of HD expressed by frame rate (30fps/25fps) or field rate (60hz/50hz) and so on. For example 1080i60, 1080i50, 1080i30. The native dimensions of HD video do not change; for example, DV-NTSC video is 720x480 pixels while DV-PAL video is 720x576 pixels. But HDV is always natively 1440x1080 pixels.

I've been told that video was going to be shot in HDV by a camera that does not even shoot such a format. The video was actually delivered in XDCAM EX 1080i60. 

When there is such a fundamental confusion about what exactly HD is among those whose job it is to transition to HD, it is very difficult to make that transition.

2) There are too many different types of HD. Just scroll down the list of HD formats supported by Apple software. Because HD is relatively new, there has been no coalescence around a standardized format, and there is unlikely to ever be due to the intense competition between hardware manufacturers like Sony, Canon, JVC and so on. Software is required to render and convert an ever larger number of formats and compressions. And because of this it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the exact video specifications a client is looking for. The client themselves will often not know.

3) There is no consensus on which cameras should become the new standard for HD news shooting. There are a plethora of prosumer cameras on the market that do a decent enough job of shooting HD video of a good enough quality for television news. But they all utilize different types of storage - such as SxS cards, XDCAM disks, mini-DV tapes, direct to harddrives and so on. With different outlets using such a wide array of recording methods, it's becoming increasingly difficult to deliver material in a form that pleases all.

4) The latter point brings me to the issue of storage and archiving. In addition to the problems with all the different kinds of ways that cameras record, the possibly larger issue is that HD video files are simply larger than their standard definition counterparts. This can make archiving difficult. It is possible to store all the material on harddrives but those will fill up fast with HD quality video so it becomes an expensive prospect. Archiving XDCAM disks is not a bad way of storing material shot in that format, but the XDCAM disks are still substantially more expensive than the old betacam tapes, and some stations may decide they need to recycle them where they may not have felt such pressure with the beta tapes.

5) Transmitting HD footage can also be a challenge. Firstly you may need to find a satellite facility that has HD capability. If you work for an outlet that uses ftp delivery then HD files can be far too large to send from the field over often slow internet connections. I have done a lot of experimenting with different compression types [MPEG-2, MPEG-4 parts such as H.264 etc] but I haven't been able to find much of a consensus on which compression codecs result in the least amount of quality loss.

So I throw open the issue of HD for discussion. Many one-man-band television reporters are now shooting in some form of HD or another. I'm interested to hear how you all handle it and your experiences with clients who demand high definition.