Autobiographical assignment…

This is the biggie – and am I ever having problems with it this semester. I taught for several years at Middle College High School, located at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. That, apparently, was a very unique situation – one I wasn’t fully aware of til I hit “comprehensive” high school. At MCHS I began teaching using iBooks and Canon ZRs and no textbook – everything the kids learned came right out of my head. Principal Jeff Thompson, when I asked if I could use a textbook. told me he preferred I make it as up to date as I could and to find web and other resources. What did I know? I was a rookie teacher, so I did what he told me to do. That’s when I came up with my original three-part assignment grouping: Basic Shots, Animation, Autobiography. In my thinking, these lead logically from one to the next and got kids up to speed on both techology and thinking.

So here it is – the third assignment. Autobiography. Whereas Basic Shots was simply learning to point the camera, hold it steady for ten seconds, choose shots and title with definition…and Animation was a team building that teaches patience…Autobiography is the whole enchillada. Without realizing it, students are actually producing a full-scale television news package. There’s a stand up (on camera segment), narration, interview, cover shots, music/natsound and titling.

Here are the requirements.
Must have one minute of narration in which you talk about your life. (at least ten seconds of this narration will be on camera/memorized)
Must have one interview that runs ten to thirty seconds.
Must have music under narration
Eight or more photographs (or video) of yourself at various stages of life.
Title slide and credits slide (must credit anyone/everyone who helped – including music source)
Total running time (TRT) between two to five minutes.

My problems this semester have more to do with the logistics of ongoing construction on a new campus (McNair) than with students or me. It took almost four weeks to get into the studio and get cameras and computers. The students were pretty decent about it, considering more than half had been thrown in the class without signing up. So they came in with certain expectations and got lecture and DVDs of news shows and cooperative assignments – but no cameras or computers or the “fun stuff.”

So wish me and my kids luck – they don’t know it yet, but with all of the issues we’ve had getting into the studio, I’ll probably back down from my “hard guy” stance and give them extra time to finish up their work. After all, at my old school they had a lot more time and a lot more goodies.

Animation assignment…

Here’s the second assignment I hand out to my high school students – Animation (the old fashioned way). My students are called in educationese “diverse.” This means they come from an extremely wide range of backgrounds. They are young (most of my class this year is freshmen) and hormonal and very active. They are passionate about what they like and don’t like. Basically, at 14-15, they are still kids. I have to keep this in mind when I make assignments. Animation is a team assignment and is meant to be a team builder as much as teach patience. The upfront lesson/explanation I give the kids is that they need to understand that there are 30 individual still shots in each second of video and this lesson is meant to drive that home.
One second = 30 frames
One minute = 1800 frames

The actual assignment is to use a storyboard and show me their plot or storyline. It has to include a title and credits slide (we’re using iMovie). I have to approve the storyboard (for obvious reasons if you’ve worked with teens).

It usually takes a full class period for them to agree on the storyboard and a second class to shoot the assignment. Storyboarding includes noting what props they need – toy cars, dolls, clay. They are responsible for their materials (although I do try to have a supply of Play Doh on hand).

Students work in teams of three – one student running the camera shooting still frames or stills and the other two moving the props/clay.

They import the video/stills into the computer, use the fast/slow effect to speed it up, “share” or export it to the desktop, import and then speed up again. (This is one of the weaknesses of iMovie – it will only allow you to use an effect once. Then you either have to export and bring the file back or lay another effect on/like color contrast before it will let you do fast/slow again.)

Once the video is fast enough (ten seconds) students create their title slide and credits slide and add music. Their last step is to burn to a full quality QuickTime file so we can place it in a DVD at the end of the semester.

What has always amused me about this assignment is the initial resistance – the whining, the screaming: “What do you mean 300 shots?” The attitudes are completely reversed once they are done editing – they are calling me over, insisting I watch their creations. They know they have really accomplished something. (I even had a student grab his laptop once and run up to the principal’s office to show off his work.)

So there you have it – good old fashioned animation, lots of patience and learning how to work together. If you’re asking yourself how this helps you as a videojournalist – ask yourself: Do I have to work as part of a team? Do I need patience? Wouldn’t it be fun to take a few hours with some co-workers and create something silly just to show we can?

Truth be told, if you work as on a TV news crew, you must be close enough at times to read each other’s minds. When I first started, the reporters would tell me what they expected (hey, I was new)…but as time went on, it was more of a conversation about where the story was going. The more you work with someone, the more you know what they expect and the more they understand the workings of your mind. But there does need to be converstation. I remember one day I was out shooting a standup with reporter Craig Prosser (we worked together for 12 years) and he got a bit crabby with me because I wasn’t shooting the way he wanted. Then we both realized that he hadn’t even discussed it with me – we’d been working together so long that we were able to choreograph and create standups without a discussion most of the time – and in this one case we did need to talk because of the moves he needed to make as he presented his information.

I’ll try to post a student animation as soon as I can get the necessary permission slips filed.

Whither broadcast news…

I’m putting together a survey for the membership of BAPPA (San Francisco Bay Area Press Photographers Association). Our print membership is strong….and thriving. The broadcast membership has stagnated and seems to be shrinking if anything. This concerns me – I’ve always been active in my community and professional organizations. It’s part of payback – I help to return the support given to me when i was just starting out.
For some reason our television members are not coming to meetings, workshops…they do enter the annual contest, but not in the numbers seen ten years ago. I want to know why. Are they too busy with their personal lives. Do they feel the job is just a job and why bother? Where is the disconnect and what can BAPPA do to bring them back?
I’ve mentioned in an earlier post Digital Workshop that the broadcast side just didn’t seem to care. Maybe now, with the survey, I can find out why. They may not even be completelly aware of the changes going on and where the industry is heading – and that is truely frightening.
If you’re a broadcast photog – let me know your thoughts. Ditto if you’re in print. Help me find out how to reach my compatriots.

Red hot rails…

Richard Hernandez of the San Jose Mercury-News just posted an amazing multimedia story…complete with video, stills, graphics and a link to the newspaper story. Truely stunning.

Red Hot Rails

This is what the future may be, sans the newspaper. While most news sites may go with simple use of video attached to a text story, here’s an example of full use of media. I especially love the b/w interview. Keeps it real and gritty and harkens back to the simplicity of the black and white era.

Searching for nature’s moments…

I’m a sucker for features and anything that touches on the fragile beauty of nature. Kathy Newell has once again managed to capture a fleeting moment…a day of sunlight in the middle of a stormy winter in Northern California. She’s not afraid to get down low and in close. In a world too often obsessed with the harsh realities of life, she slows down and shows us what we are missing when we rush through our hectic days…too busy to stop a moment and give thanks for the small miracles.

In search of wildflowers

The hand trick…

This is my take-everywhere solution to lighting. The palm of my hand. Generally I don’t even bother to do this cause I can just look and figure out the lighting…but sometimes I find myself standing in the middle of a crowd and holding my hand up and spinning. If you watch the attached video you can see the two general areas the light looks good: when it is hitting the face of the subject/palm and when the subject/palm is backlit. Have fun and don’t worry if folks think you’re crazy when you do this. You are, but for a good cause.

Part One: some simple lighting tips…

Hey its studio day at my school…I just got a new Lowel light kit for myself and I’m spending the day at my school’s TV studio so my students can catch up with their assignments. A great opportunity to make a lighting demonstration video.

To state the obvious: you can’t see without light. Videojournalists have to know how to work with light and how to make light work for them. Light can be broken down into two distinct types, as far as VJs are concerned: natural light (you work with and enhance what’s already there) and staged/studio lighting, where you’re totally in control.

The clip below is actually a PowerPoint I use at workshops. Pretty basic – at the simplest level, just look at where light is coming from and move until it looks good. Second level is to enhance with either a flash or reflector.

What is critical is just being aware of light. Too often folks look at a scene and not at the details. If a person has bags under their eyes or if they’re squinting, often a few steps one way or another will change the light enough so that it’s more even and the shadows aren’t distracting. Or you may want to emphasize shadows…and moving to change background or how the light hits the front/back of the subject will help you.

One trick I use when setting up for an interview – I don’t tell the subject what i’m up to. Most news interviews are fairly casual. You walk up, get permission, and start shooting. I don’t want my subject self concious and nervous, so the last thing I want to do is tell them, hey this light makes you look like a hag…can you move. I make small-talk or discuss what we’ll be questioning them about and kind of move around them until the light looks good – then I set up. They may think I’m squirrelly or hyper – who cares. I’ve got my ideal lighting now. And it doesn’t take much. I remember when I was a rookie (less than a year in the field) and every time I shot an outdoor presser (press conference) or did an interview with other media alongside, one cameraman’s stuff always outshone us all. Mahlon Picht of KOVR (I was at KXTV at the time) said he always took an extra minute to check out light and position himself exactly where the light looked best. A lesson I never forgot.

By the way, two of the slides in this PowerPoint have video and they aren’t playing properly. The first is the reflector – I made it out of a piece of cardboard and aluminum foil. Crumple up the foil and then glue to cardboard – it scatters light nicely. Remember, in video you need constant light, not just a flash. The second slide is the “hand trick.” I’ll try to post it separately later, but just stand with one of your hands at arms-length away, palm pointed towards you. Observe how the light hits the palm of your hand. Now turn slowly in a circle and see how the light changes. There are two points you should see pretty nice light (unless the sun is directly overhead) – when it is near fully lit and when it is backlit.

Assignments for learning video production….

Following are the assignments I give my high school students so they can learn the terminology of video production/news and how to shoot & edit. This is for first year/semester students. There is/will be more for advanced students.

Basic Shots – Shoot a wide shot, medium snot, close up, extreme close up, pan, tilt, zoom. Capture to computer and edit in the above order. Place an opening title slide at the beginning and a credits slide at the end. Place a strip title over each clip which has the title of the clip (zoom, e.g.) and a definition of the term (a lens move in/out).

Animation – Shoot 300 still shots that follow a storyboard concept pre-approved by the teacher. Capture to computer and speed up until you have approximately 10 seconds of video. Add title slide, credits, and music. (This is a team assignment)

Autobiography – Create a two to five minute script using the two column script format. Use still photos, video, graphics, one interview, one on-camera segment in which you appear and talk, and music. Final edited video must have music under narration and use transitions. Must include title slide and credits slide.

Seasonal poem – Write or choose a poem that is appropriate to the current season (summer, winter, spring, autumn). Narrate (or have a friend narrate) the poem. Shoot visuals and edit with appropriate music and transitions to create a mood video. Include title and credits.

Data collection – Read a newspaper, watch a TV news program, listen to a news radio program for five days and collect data (I specify usually tracking the top stories, how many blocks in broadcast programs, how many sections in the newspaper, etc.). This is a team assignment…students create a poster or do a presentation at the end which explains what they learned.

Each of these assignments has a purpose. Basic Shots teaches what the most commonly used shots are – students learn them by shooting and editing them/seeing how they relate to each other. At the same time they are learning basic nonlinear editing/the basic functions of the editing program. Animation is a team project and teaches teamwork, patience, planning (storyboard plus they have to bring the right props and have music). Autobiography adds learning how to use the levels for audio, writing a somewhat complex script, planning, etc. Seasonal Poem is a bit of a repeat of Autobiography, but it allows some real creativity. Students must learn to create a mood using words, music and visuals. The Data Collection assignment makes students look at three very different mass media and see similarities and differences. I may add the Internet to that next year…still trying to find a way to make it fit into the mix.

The final (this year) will be to create a DVD using the four assignments they produced on iDVD, complete with menus which they will burn, and then create a label, which they will print onto the DVD.

Anchors away…

Andy Dickenson pointed me to Adrian Monck’s Monck’s Maxims® – four observations about online journalism. Item number one caught my eye:

No newscasters. News anchoring is a presentational trope borne of the complex organizational demands of analogue TV studios. The newscast is to online as Top of the Pops is to YouTube.

I agree with this totally, and have commented on it before.

Without the face of a reporter, news would again become all about the story…the people involved…the event…and not the reporter or anchors.

The problem with television news is that it has gone beyond selling information – it is selling image and personality. This is why anchors and some reporters can demand such high salaries and are given star status. The public likes them – it trusts them. Remove that factor and several things will occur. People will start watching the news for information OR people will search for another channel/site that has a personality because they can’t relate to news alone – they need a trusted “friend” to tell them what news is and what to think.

I’ve mentioned I used to work at KQED, on the late 70’s news program Evening Edition. This was a decade after the newspaper strike in San Francisco and the debut of Newsroom on the Air…staffed by striking staff from the papers. Until that point the job of news anchors was to read the news – there was no banter, no talk. Just the news, ma’am. Newsroom brought something new to the set – reporters just in from covering stories who talked with each other, debriefed each other, discussed the implications of the day’s news. (This also included the film craftspeople, who shot and edited the news on 16mm film.) Unfortunately this disintegrated into the newstalk we know and loathe today – bright, witty banter that has no content.

Just a reminder, I guess, that all great ideas can come to a bad end.

Basic shots assignment

I have my students working on what I call the basic shots assignment. Shoot the seven basic shots you will use frequently in video production and shooting news. These include wide shot (WS), medium shot (MS), close up (CU), and extreme close up (ECU). The camera moves include pan and tilt. The lens move is zoom.

This assignment is important on several levels. First, it teaches students to look for relationshiops – at perspective. A wide shot can be a building, medium shot the bottom of the building, close up the door, extreme closeup the doorknob. Or – a wide shot can be a person, medium shot the person from the waist up, close up the person’s head, extreme close up the person’s eye. Wide shot could be a hand, medium shot the four fingers, close up the thumb, exteme close up a fingernail. You get the picture – it’s all about relationships between one shot and the next. Pan is a left to right/right to left sideways move. Tilt is an up/down or down/up move. Zoom is in/out to get closer/further away from your subject.

At the same time students are learning some of the vocabulary of video production. Once they have the shots and put them into the editing program (iMovie in this case), they have to add an opening title (Basic Shots), place a stripe subtitle on each :08 to :10 clip that has both the name of the clip (WS, MS, CU, etc) and a short defintion of the term, ending with credits with their name. In this part of the assignment they are learning the basics of editing, which includes how to capture tape to the computer, how to create a title over black, how to cut clips to the desired size and manipulate them into the proper order, how to title over video.

My requirements are firm. I don’t give credit if the clip is too short. I don’t give credit if there is a title for the clip and no definition. This simple assignment may take from several days to a week as students struggle with their impulse to rush through it or with the concepts (remember these are your typical high school students…and in my class I have a lot of freshmen). I also have to make them understand how little they know. They’ve spent their lives watching movies and television and, while they are remarkably sophisticated about visuals, they are mentally and physically still ignorant. They need to learn the terms and patience to create professional work. They need to slow down, think, and then push the record button.

Had a problem with one of the first classes I ever taught when I couldn’t get the concepts and the need for a variety of shots across. Everyone was shooting medium shots. So I took the class (it was small) out, divided it into four groups and had them shoot (it was October) a student carving a Jack’O Lantern. First group was placed twenty feet away, not allowed to zoom or move and could only shoot wide shots. Second group was about eight feet away and could only shoot medium shots (no zoom). Third group was about three feet away and cound only shoot closeups and last group was only allowed to get shots that were extemely close up and could use the zoom. After about five minutes all of the groups were complaining – they couldn’t see anything. All their shots were the same. Once we finished shooting we went inside and I let them share shots and, using a storyboard I’d already made up, edit a final project using a variety of shots. That brought the message home. They got it. End of discussion. I’ve since learned to explain my expectations better – part of the failure initially was I was new to the classroom and didn’t realize how much support high school students needed.

How does this help you as an aspiring videojournalist? Your goal is to allow your audience to see the world in new ways. If you look at the Wyoming Cattle Drive video, you’ll see everything from expansive wide shots to ECUs of minute flowers. While the wide shots and medium shots show the setting, it is the details that draw your viewers in. You are the eyes and brain for your audience.