As anyone who’s ever watched a great documentary knows, stories told in video can be amazingly powerful. And as anyone who has sat through home movies knows, they can be mind-numbingly boring as well. If you’re a freelance writer, a blogger or an independent journalist with a story to tell in video, there are steps you can take to make sure your story tilts more toward the powerful than the sleep-inducing. (See Sonya Doctorian’s video essays for RockyMountainNews.com.)
First, it’s about content. One of the great things about the Web is that there are so many tools at our fingertips. We can use text, animated graphics, photos, audio or video to tell a story. But that means we need to be thoughtful about which we choose. Video is experiential, immersive, emotional – it puts you at the scene, gives flavor and personality, and of course, shows motion.
Video isn’t cheap in terms of time or equipment. Shooting, editing and posting video all demand more effort and gear than text. So first you need to decide why you want to tell a video story, and then you can gather what you will need to get video on the Web.
If you’re just interested in posting video from your Webcam, this article is not for you. Check out audioblog.com or Vlog it! from seriousmagic.com. Here, we’re going to talk about taking your camera out into the world and shooting video.
A common storytelling exercise is to state your story in one sentence, using an active verb. Who is doing what? “Neighborhood garbage burner” is not a story. On the other hand, “Neighbors hate the smelly garbage burner” has real potential.
Refining your story into a sentence helps focus your idea and keeps you from shooting everything that might have only a tangential relationship to the main idea. If it’s your first time out, start small. Really small. Simple, interesting stories deserve to be told, and they won’t make you insane while you deal with the steep video learning curve.
You’ve decided video is important to your story. The next issue is the gear you need. The basic tools are a digital video (DV) camera, a microphone, a tripod, a computer with a firewire input and enough processing power to capture and edit video, and video editing software.
Cameras should be DV with firewire. If not, you’ll need additional hardware to capture video to your computer. There are plenty of good microphones available for under $100. A tripod is important because keeping shots steady is critical for Web encoded video. Every change in pixels makes the encoder work harder and makes your picture fuzzier.
A list of audio and video equipment options at several price points is available here on Visual Edge’s site. I wrote it about six months ago, so some items may be outdated, but it will give you an idea about equipment costs.
Get comfortable with your gear before you shoot anything you care about. Practice on friends and family. It’s amazing how many things can go wrong in the field. Be sure you’ve got plenty of tapes and batteries, and know how to change them quickly.
You’ve got the story idea and the gear ready to go, and you’re headed out the door. It’s time to do the interviews.
Recording interviews is a learned skill, so don’t be depressed if your first few outings don’t go as well as you expected, even if you’re a seasoned print reporter. It takes practice. A few tips to help: Ask questions that require a sentence to answer. Avoid questions that can be answered yes or no. Avoid two-part questions – most people will forget the first and only answer the second part. If you need background information, start with that to get interview subjects relaxed with you and the equipment. Then, ask questions that evoke feelings, emotions and opinions. We need to understand why this story matters to people. Use narration to tell the facts of the story.
Probably the biggest interviewing tip I can give you is something that’s harder than it seems: Stop Talking. Don’t say uh-huh, or yeah, or anything encouraging. Use non-verbal feedback – lean forward, nod, but don’t talk! Let people complete their sentences. And don’t be afraid of silence. You don’t need to jump in to fill space. People often say the most revealing things when they think you’re waiting for them to finish.
Quality sound is every bit as important as quality pictures in a video story. Be sure to use an external microphone, because even the most compelling interview is useless it’s inaudible. That means putting your microphone where the sound is. Use a lavaliere (lapel) microphone whenever possible. If your budget allows for a wireless mic, it works wonders to help your subjects forget they’re being recorded. Always monitor your sound with headphones — just watching the meter doesn’t count. A lot of things go wrong with audio that aren’t obvious from the meter.
A great resource on interviewing called “Sound in the Story” is also available at Visual Edge. It’s written for photojournalists, but it has tips valuable to anyone gathering sound.
Getting the pictures
Your images are the meat of the video. Good pictures compel viewers’ attention and are the proof of your story.
Good video is a lot of mental work. Try not to rush. Don’t be afraid to stop an interview or move to a new position to get a better picture. Since this is for the Web, remember your image will be quite small. This means you need to fill up your frame. Don’t have the subject off in the distance. Keep your composition simple and uncluttered. Get your camera in close to the subject — don’t shoot from across the room.
Be aware of the direction of your light. Position subjects with the light on their faces. Shoot with windows behind or beside you, not in front of you.
Shoot sequences of video. That means getting a wide shot, then a medium shot and then a close up (wide-medium-tight, in TV slang), and cutaway shots from multiple spots. Cutaways are essentially reaction shots, so shoot the action, then the reaction. Get video of the protest, then people watching the protest. Change your location. Repeat.
Move the camera to follow action or reveal elements. Otherwise, keep your shot steady. Let the action leave the video frame to give you transition points – let subject get up out of the chair or dance out of the picture.
Shoot an opening and closing shot. These are your most important shots, since they place your viewers on the scene and set the tone for the story. Shoot tight shots – close-ups — with strong sound for visual transitions. A baby’s crying face in a crisis nursery, a protestor shouting at a rally, a violinist tuning up before a concert — each immediately sets a scene.
Hold each shot for a minimum of 10 seconds. This seems easy, but it’s very, very hard, especially at first. Count it off in your head. You’ll be glad you did when you start editing.
Avoid pans and zooms. If you must use them, use them sparingly. They look awful on the Web. As you edit, be aware that pans or zooms should always finish before you cut to a new shot.
Shoot more than you think you’ll need. You’ll be amazed at how much you use. A typical ratio is 20:1 – twenty minutes of raw video for each finished minute of your story.
Putting it together
You’ve finished shooting and your interviews are complete. Now comes the heavy lifting: the script. Log your story by making a list of each shot and sound clip you might use. That means transcribing the sound, which is hideously tedious, but will be critical in the long run, especially if you have a lot of material. Then write your script, organizing the interviews and developing the narration, keeping your pictures in mind as you go. Poynter.org has plenty of resources for scriptwriting, including this article from Poynter.org on clear writing.
A well-shot story makes editing much easier. If you’ve given yourself a variety of shots to choose from and plenty of compelling sound, you can build your sequences and your story line together.
There’s a wide range of video editing software out there. Free tools include Windows Movie Maker or iMovie for Macs. This is heresy for Mac users, but I don’t recommend iMovie unless you’re never going to do more than very simple videos, because I think it teaches bad habits that have to be unlearned when you move to a more powerful editor.
For a little more money, you can get Final Cut Express for Macs ($300), Avid Xpress DV for Windows or Macs ($500), or Pinnacle Liquid Edition for Windows ($500). All three are powerful video editors that can be upgraded to professional versions later. If you’re a student or teacher, each has decent educational discounts available.
In this space, I can’t even begin to talk about the process of video editing, but a great step-by-step guide for all elements of video production is “Five Steps to Multimedia Reporting”.
A note on music: unless you’ve written it yourself, or have permission from the writer, performer and producer, you do not have the rights to use it. The exception is music you recorded as part of a story — a marching band in a parade, for instance. The music industry is not hesitant to sue the little guy, so err on the side of caution.
Getting it on the Web
You will probably want to post your files as QuickTime or Windows Media. Most editing software allows you to export your video directly into either format. Check with your service provider to see if they have the server-side software for streaming video. There is almost always an extra charge for this service. Otherwise, you can post them as downloadable files. Remember, the better the quality, the bigger the file size.
A few sites are making it easier for individuals to post video. The Internet Archive hosts video content at no cost after a review process. Audioblog.com has a video blogging tool in beta.
It’s still early days for video blogging, so more tools should appear over the next year. In the meantime, find a story you care about, start simple, get some experience and have fun!
Some of these suggestions originally came from a tip sheet by Rich Murphy, Director of Photography and Special Projects at WTSP-TV, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Regina McCombs is a multimedia reporter/photographer at startribune.com.