Covering crowds, traveling light

When you're a one-man-band reporter, traveling light is essential. This is especially true when out covering events with large numbers of people, such as protests, vigils etc.

I have included a story here that I produced for the Pan-Asian satellite network, Channel NewsAsia, on the Michael Jackson memorial in Los Angeles. I covered the event for several international radio outlets too. Clearly, the footage from inside the Staples Center is from the pool feed, but the material shot outside among the crowd is my original b-roll.

In the piece I use a couple of wide-shots filmed from an elevated position. This gives a reasonable idea of how big the crowd is (not very big), followed by mostly tight-shots of faces. The key to this story is the color - trying to demonstrate to the viewer the colorfulness of the characters there.

In cases like these, there is no need to insert into the script one's own views of the Jackson fans. Let the pictures tell the story. It is what it is. This is always a good lesson, plus helps keep down time.

For this shoot, all I took with me was a stick mic, camera, tripod and reflector - that's it. It was a sunny day so no need for lights. It was also a quick turnaround for air so there was no time for a major production.


Using tight shots as illustrations, avoiding unnecessary moves

I've written in the past about how I dislike wide-shots. Well it wont come as surprise to those of you who read that post that I enjoy using tight or close-up shots.

While a wide variety of shots is usually required in a news piece, most times a package can be made significantly richer with the incorporation of close-ups whenever possible.

I've watched many news packages on television - mostly, it has to be said, on local shows - that use virtually no tight-shots at all. Such shots often take time and patience to construct and frame properly which may be one reason why they're not used.

I'm going to use a piece that I just produced for AFP Television on cowboy churches in North America. AFP's usage policy does not allow me to embed the video here, so to see the piece you will need to click here and it will take you to the relevant YouTube page.

You'll notice that the story starts with a mid-shot rather than a typical wide-shot. The barn was nothing to look at and would have made a really tedious opening picture. But immediately after the opening shot, I get into the tight-shots - firstly of the preacher himself, then his congregation.

Throughout the piece, I use tight-shots. Other than a handful of mid-shots, most every other picture is a close-up. When a story is rich in color, which this one is, tight-shots take the viewer much closer to what you're trying to show. It adds character to the story. People's faces are expressive - you get a much better feeling for who the people are that you're shooting than you would if you simply used a series of wide-shots. I think it makes it personal, in a good way.

Here are a few keys to shooting and using tight shots effectively:

1) Make sure you have something to show. Random close-ups of not very much wont work. Close-up shots for the sake of it are silly. Use them when you want to illustrate something, like the expression on someone's face, or what they're wearing. Here you will see I used a tight-shot of a pair of boots to illustrate the Western clothing that people had on.

2) Frame it up correctly. Because you are using the whole screen, make sure you're thinking about the dimensions of your finished project. If you're shooting in 16:9 but producing a 4:3 project (as was the case with this story), be sure to shoot 4:3 safe when doing tight-shots, otherwise part of your subject will be lost.

Also, be creative with your framing. Don't always assume you have to shoot the subject of the tight-shot so that it appears in the middle of the screen. Use your judgement about what looks good. You'll see that most of the face close-ups that I use are on either the right or left third of the screen. Make sure you use a mixture of left and right so you can cut them together easily during editing and avoid jump cuts.

Get imaginative with your framing and you'll soon figure out what you like.

3) Use a shallow depth of field. You're using a tight shot to show something to the viewer. Don't distract the viewer with lots of surroundings. Open the iris fully and adjust light using filters, shutter speed and gain. If your shots are a little over-exposed due to the wide iris setting, you can fairly easily adjust during editing. Blurring the background really helps the subject of the shot to pop out of the screen.

4) Tighten up your interviews. You'll see I use fairly tight framing for the interview subjects too. This is a personal preference of mine, but I just really don't want to see a whole lot of the person speaking, except their face - the bit that the noise comes out of! Generally, wide interview shots look messy. But if you do go tight like I do and you're shooting your own interviews, make sure you keep checking the viewfinder - your interviewee may only move a couple of inches, but that's enough to completely screw up your framing.

If you watched this piece closely, you might have noticed that I didn't use any moves such as pans, pushes and pulls. I don't mind moves if they actually illustrate something or are used to break up the monotony of really boring b-roll. But just using moves for the heck of it is dumb. In my humble judgement, this piece just didn't need it. You have to ask yourself; 'what am I pulling out to reveal?' or 'when I pan over there, what am I panning to?' Don't just use a move for no reason.

There are lots of ways to bring what you see first hand to the viewer as effectively as you can, but the tight-shot is one of my favorite tools. If you're a journalist, you're a story teller, so tell a story. If you're a videographer too, you get to use the power of pictures to tell a story. What could be better than that?


Taking a teleprompter on the road

As a one-man-band reporter there are many pieces of gear that you simply must have to do your job. But there are other things that you don't necessarily need to have, but might be useful. One item that might fall into the latter category is a teleprompter.

I've helped jerry-rig a teleprompter to an HDV camera on the road in the past. It's not necessarily easy. In any case, I think that a good and experienced reporter should, usually, be able to work without this particular aid when in the field.

That being said, there is an interesting article on this subject over at called "Prompting on the Go: Tech Options for Mobile Teleprompting."

In it, the author James Careless writes: "Showing reporters and anchors in the field delivering news as confidently as in the studio adds a cachet professionalism to any news broadcast. Today, this technology has been miniaturized to work with DV and other small-format cameras and is appropriate for more than just newscasters. The polish offered by teleprompter-supported presentation is now within the grasp of anyone shooting video in the field."

It would interesting to hear the experiences of any solo journalists/videographers who use a teleprompter when traveling.


How to create the illusion of a large variety of shots

Because some readers come to this blog for tips and techniques, I thought it might be helpful if I occasionally posted some news videos that I have produced for TV outlets. So from now on when I complete a story that merits talking about, I will post it here.

Today I'll talk about a piece I produced just this week for Voice of America. It's on US immigration benefits available to rich foreign investors. You can read the text story and download the video here at the VOA website.

This story is my favorite kind to do because it was pretty much, what I call, a one-shot deal. Those are the stories you can put together in one location at one time - no need to keep going back, no need to travel to multiple locations to shoot interviews or gather b-roll. I did do one additional interview in a different place, but very nearby. When you're a one-man-band who makes money according to how much you produce, these are the best kinds of stories to knock out because they're quick.


In this story, the bulk of the b-roll was of a resort - and not particularly visually compelling. So against my instincts, I opened the piece with an edited-down sequence from a promotional video made by the resort. I chose to do this because the upsound really said what I wanted to say right at the top.

There are interviews with two spokesmen for the resort. I did not need to interview both as they both said the same things, but using clips of two different people to make separate points can really keep the pace going on a short to medium length piece.

The interview locations were fairly challenging. In the first soundbite, you will notice that the speaker is inside. In the second, outside. This is just to keep up the variety. For the inside interview I simply used a fairly plain kitchen backdrop with a short depth of field to blur it. For the outside interview it was a very sunny day and the subject was in the shade. To remedy this I used a powerful light on his face, and boosted the mid-range spectrum in post production to bring out the subject without burning-out the background. In my experience, it's better to focus on keeping the background under control during the shoot, and lightening the face in post-production, rather than trying to darken a background in post-production while keeping the face illuminated.

To set-up the third soundbite (the lawyer), I use a lot of establishing shots in his office. Generally, I dislike boring office set-up. In this case, I didn't have many pictures from elsewhere, so I made sure I had a variety of set-up shots and cutaways to chose from.

Because the resort itself was not televisually that interesting, I was forced to use some file to cover part of the piece; generic GVs of Shanghai and Beijing, and fairly recent b-roll of immigration lines at Houston international airport. I prefer not to use library shots, but in this case there simply wasn't enough original AND interesting b-roll to sustain a 2:30 piece, even though I shot well over an hour of material.


The one-man-band salesman

On this blog, I focus a lot on the technical side of being a one-man-band reporter. However, most of us in this field also need to be journalists in the traditional sense. We have to find stories and we have to write them.

I've had several emails recently asking for some tips in this area, so I thought I would tackle one of the most useful skills to have involving writing - pitching story ideas to editors.

If you're a freelancer this is a particularly helpful skill to have. But even for those of us who work for news agencies, being able to pitch up stories to commissioning editors at client networks is important.

This post is not to going to suggest the types of stories you should be pitching. This will always vary from client to client. You should be aware of the kinds of stories and video your customers are interested in. But what I am going to do is list a few suggestions that might help you get a higher number of pitch acceptances.

1) Give the pitch a catchy title of about two or three words - a sort of headline. It's a nice teaser.

2) One of the crucial things to remember before you pitch a story is that news directors and those who work on assignment desks are often very busy. They are not going to have time to read something lengthy from a stringer sending them a story idea. For this reason, it is absolutely critical to get to the point immediately in your pitch. Think of your pitch as a lead-in to a story, complete with top line to hook the reader/viewer in. In this case, the audience you are writing for is the person you want to commission your story. Spell out the story in the first line - in fact, spell it out in the first few words.

Here is an example of a top line to a pitch I recently wrote:

"A police force in Florida has begun deploying paragliders in its fight against crime." It is short and to the point. Don't try to be clever and dance around the subject. Write it just like a script - hitting the story should be the first thing you do.

Secondly, keep the pitch very short - no more than four very short paragraphs. No busy commissioning editor is going to read more than that. Think of how journalists in newsrooms look at press releases. They will look at the top two lines at most. Sell the story quickly. If the interesting stuff is far down your pitch, noone will see it.

3) Include in your pitch something that will make a journalist interested. This is the NEWs business, so generally the stuff you try to sell should be NEW: Point to why it's new, how it's different from other stories that have already been done, explain how your story will highlight a new trend, talk about how it applies more broadly - say, on a national or international level. Usually, these basics apply to any type of story you are trying to sell.

4) Your pitch should include a brief line talking about what you plan to include in the piece. Don't promise specific interviewees unless you already have them lined-up. But talk generally about which elements you will include, such as the b-roll you plan to shoot or pull from your library. In TV, making clear that you plan to use interesting pictures is absolutely crucial.

Here is an example:

"The story will look at how the Cuban-American community is receiving the shift in policy from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. The story, which will include lots of footage shot by FSN inside Cuba, will look at how Cubans on both sides of the debate in the US are greeting the possibility of talks between the two nations."

5) Pitch stories that are easy to shoot. The first stories you should try to sell are the ones that you can complete quickly, preferably in one shoot. These are the most economical ones to do because they take less of your time, and will probably net you the same income as a piece of the same length that took a week to produce. Give an indication in your pitch of when you might be able to deliver the story. Make it a realistic target date. Don't promise something you can't deliver.

6) Make clear that you are open to suggestions. An editor may like a story idea, just not your proposed treatment of it. Show willing to work with the person who commissions items, and offer to be flexible on how you go about tackling your story.

7) Give it a shot! Even if a story doesn't particularly interest you personally, pitch it anyway - within reason. Whoever looks at your pitch may like it. If it's an easy story to do, it's worth pitching. I have lost count of the number of times I have suggested stories that leave me cold, only to have them enthusiastically commissioned by clients.

These are the general rules I go by. As ever, they're not the bible. If anyone else has any useful advice to add in this area, lets hear from you.