Wyoming Cattle Drive (3:26)

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Goodbye to news October 2002

I wrote this on the eve of my departure from television news…

Goodbye to TV news…hello to education (October 2002)
It is now official. After twenty-eight years on the front lines I’m retreating from daily news to a more reflective role as a high school teacher. The truth? After countless stories of personal tragedy and achievement, gut wrenching disasters, endlessly boring meetings, man bites dog and gets bitten back stories…I find standing in a classroom full of students more challenging and exciting than charging out on yet another story. I can remember my first live shot and how nervous – scared I was that I’d blow it. Flying over forest fires and hitting wind shear and falling. Interviews with the great and the unknown. Climbing up the side of a Liberty Ship at sea. Catching a father’s confession to killing his children. Laughing while shooting a story with a Zen master in of all places suburban Tracy. Trapped, or so we thought, in Armenia due to a shortage of jet fuel. Counting seconds and cutting corners to make deadlines. All involved moments of being on edge…pushing, driving to get the shot…to get the story. To be the first with the most accurate information – but just as important to do it with visuals that compelled the viewer to watch and feel what happened and make them understand events or lives or information with clarity. That feeling of being constantly on edge – constantly challenged has been waning, but I’ve found it again in my new job. Watching nervously the first day of school and wondering if I could actually stand there for and hour and a half daily without making a fool of myself. I’m sure I have several times, but the students seem to like the class anyway. They live with my mistakes (which I call learning experiences) and learn despite it. I have dreams again – not to teach the world’s next great video journalist – but to teach students to think for themselves and along the way to learn to love the craft of shooting and editing and thinking visually. I hope it will become part of their lives as it has mine.

Wyoming Cattle Drive

I’ve posted two Cattle Drive videos from my youtube account on this blog. One is 3:25 and the other 1:57. Both were edited using the same video and information.

When I got up at 5am, I really didn’t plan to shoot a story…I originally was just shooting anything that looked interesting along the road as I took my daughter and her friend on a road trip during fall break. They’d been promised a chance to help out on a cattle drive from my sister’s ranch if they let me drive nonstop from California to northern Wyoming.

So here I was driving along a deserted road as the sky began to color. I’m a sucker for sunrises and sunsets, so I pulled over and shot for about ten minutes, making sure one shot lasted several minutes so I could play with speeding it up later when I edited. Still no plans to shoot anything.

We caught up with the cattle drive just before noon…as we came over a rise in the road we saw the herd moving towards us several miles ahead. I drove up, tossed the girls out and turned around to pick up a few distance shots. The compressed telephoto shots of the herd coming down the hill got to me. Shooting became a compulsion. I set up and got a variety of shots as the herd moved my way…cowboys, dogs, cattle. As they passed I fooled around with low angle shots and even tried a soft focus (focused on the stalks of grass as cattle drifted by in the background out of focus). Turned around and got them moving away.
My brother in law, Winn Brown, came by and made some comments about how good the plants were for the cattle…and I began to see what covered the ground. At first glance the ground was covered with a greyish cover…but in going in close-up I saw spots of color. The tiny purple flowers, the burst of purple in some low-lying bushes.
All the while traffic was passing us by. You could tell the out-of-staters – they stopped to look at this living moving history. And the cowboys and cowgirls knew when they were being watched. They rode a little straighter.
By the time we hit a long stretch of road just after lunch, I asked Winn if I could talk to him on camera. He’s shy – and fascinating to listen to, once he gets going. The interview began with the basics…how many cattle, why and where were they being driven. We moved over to the age range of the drivers – everything from children (7 or 8 and older) to Winn. He also told me a bit about the history and politics of raising cattle.

Winn’s interview cemented it: I was actually shooting a news story for the first time since leaving news. It was a soft feature, but still I was operating in news mode. Once I knew this, I made sure I got a few more interviews. Both the little girl and the boy on horseback were more for color. Winn was my main resource, but I needed something to pull the viewer in, and kids are great for that purpose.
Once I got the interviews, I began shooting to them. Shots of kids walking and riding. More closeups of ground cover. Shots of Scott Brown counting cattle and Cowboy Will riding fancy for the tourists.

Since I can’t ride a horse and couldn’t leave my van behind, I would shoot as the herd approached and passed, then drove ahead. Also got to help out a bit with flagging down traffic and feeding the troops.

Along about dusk my sister arrived, we grabbed the girls and took off. We’d been on the road since 5am and helping with the drive for five hours. The cattle and cowboys/girls had been at it since 6am and would continue for another hour.

My mindset once I decided to make this a story was to try to give viewers a feel for what a cattle drive is about. Most of the shots were tripoded, but I walked with the herd at times too.

A week after getting home I sat down and captured and logged the tape. Total running time of video shot of cattle drive was just over 30 minutes. When writing, I try to write to the sound…examples from the three minute version:
The Brown family of Lovell leads into an interview about how the day began
Everyone helps out…even the children leads into interview about what a four year old can do…which leads to the interviews with the kids.
And right now the count is…leads to Winn saying, “Close to 200 head.”
Interviews are used for two purposes. Winn was the expert interview – the cowboy giving information about his trade. The children were used more for emotional purposes, to humanize the story.

Regarding choosing shots when editing: Start with a strong visual, use good natural sound and end with a memorable visual/nats. I try to find ways to make the viewer see the ordinary in ways they may not have seem it before. So I took almost four minutes of sunrise and reduced it down to about :05. The dog and cowboy were slo-motioned. I put the camera on the ground…walked through the herd to pull the viewer in. Closeups showed details a person driving by might not even realize were there.

Music is from a royalty free CD by Gary Lamb. If you are going to post to the Internet or use music for any commercial purposes, don’t even think about using music unless you own the rights. This music began in an almost hesitant manner then got up to speed – perfect for a sunrise leading into a working day.

Total time shooting – about a five hour period
Total time logging and writing – about an hour
Total time editing – about an hour

Low end gear can do the job

Have I worked with pro gear? Yes – cameras costing upwards of $50,000, $8,000 tripods and $2,000 mikes. Does the gear make a difference? Yes and no. If it’s going on air, yes you want the good stuff. If you’re posting to the Internet or working on a project for school or just having fun, not really. I’ve shown video from $300 cameras next to $3,000 cameras next to $20,000 cameras and most consumers can’t tell the difference. Photogs and engineers can – they look for detail in the dark areas.

If you take a look at the videos posted on this blog, you should see the two versions of Wyoming Cattle Drive – both edited with the same video & information. It’s a very simple feature story. I intentionally shot this with a low end camera (Canon ZR60 purchased on eBay for about $80), a nine dollar mike, and a thirty dollar tripod. The point is, you don’t need a ton of money to tell a story. Todays consumer cameras have remarkable quality and if you look carefully, you’ll find the features you need to get by.

Decent zoom (1:20 is nice)
Mike input (usually indicated by a small red input)
Headset out (usually indicated by a small yellow input, which also doubles as the A/V out)
Manual focus, iris, white balance (if you’re not picky, you can get by without the latter)

The ZR60 fits the bill for me – you may already have the camera you need. Once at a workshop a particpant asked why pros like manual controls. Stopped me for a moment – I had never thought about it. Just seemed obvious. Manual aperature/iris, focus, white balance all allow you to contol situations that are out of control. Try shooting an interview in checkerboard weather (sun behind the clouds, sun out, sun gone). Try following a subject from outside to inside and then into a room with strong backlighting. Don’t even try racking focus with an auto focus camera. Being in control of your camera and video means you can determine what the final images will look like. My only complaint is that the lens is not wide enough when zoomed out fully (note: my Christmas gift to myself was a $35 wide angle adapter!). I added a BP522 battery – good for up to four hours before charging.

The manual iris allows me to control shots like the one with “Whitey” the white cow – on auto iris my exposure might have “woweed” and the shot would have suddenly gotten darker or lighter. I was also able to get the wide shots with sky without worrying about losing my ground detail and exposure.

The auto white wasn’t used, but I can think of several ways to use it to improve or control video. Main one is shooting sunsets/rises. If you use manual white balance and shoot a cool white (the shady side of a white car), your sunset/rise will come out much warmer. You can use this same trick to make warmer skin tones in interviews.

Mike input is a no-brainer. Anytime the subject you are interviewing is more than twelve inches away from the camera mike, quality will deteriorate. Yep. You have to get the mike up near the sound source to get good sound. Try this. Have a friend stand about two or three feet away from the camera and talk in a normal voice while you listen on your headset. Not bad. Now have them move ten feet away. Bad. Good audio is just as essential as good video in storytelling. In the story I only miked the main interview. The interviews with the little girl and young cowboy were grabbed on the run. I was about fourteen inches away from the girl (she had a very soft voice) and four feet away from the boy. All of you who live in Wyoming say, “Yippeee!” Your state in most places is one giant sound booth – there is little overwhelming ambiant sound, so I was able to get a bit futher back than usual and still use the camera mike.

For the interview with Winn Brown I used an old tape recorder microphone I found in a box while cleaning up the workshop. I’ve since replaced it with a Sony F-V100 stick mike…it has a nine foot cable and a mini-jack terminater and allows me more freedom to move away from the camera.

Headset? Any cheap set that covers your ears so ambiant noise doesn’t bother you will work. Mine are an old set belonging to one of my daughters. (Am I cheap? Maybe. Maybe not.)

I got the tripod (a Velbon Videomate 601) on eBay for $14.95. Might cost you $20-30 in a store. I tripoded nearly everything. This one is light enough so I can easily carry it and the camera with one hand, slap it down, adjust and be shooting in seconds.

Manual focus? The ZR has it…and I do use it, but it ain’t easy. I have to move the shooting mode from auto to manual and then push the focus button on the side of the camera and then focus using the little tiny dial on the side of the camera (and I need my reading glasses to boot cause the screen is so small). There’s one shot in the cattle drive story of some blades of grass in focus with cattle moving behind out of focus – that was done with the manual focus.

Stay posted – I’ll shoot another story over winter break and we’ll see how it goes. Again, the point is it is not the gear that makes the story – it’s all in the mind of the videojournalist. Once you know the process and have the basic gear, you can do nearly anything.

Videojournalist Etiquette: Microphones Part One

Put yourself in the position of one of your subjects. There’s a cameraman coming at you – both hands out – holding a microphone. He’s aiming at your chest. Time to panic, especially if you’re female. What IS this guy up to?

Face it – we’re in a strange business. We ask personal questions, get answers from people that they might never confide to family members, and we constantly invade personal space. And there are times we may forget how strange our actions really are. We walk around with thirty pounds of technology on our shoulders, sometimes forgetting how it looks because it is so much a part of us. And we try to draw others into our fantasy world.

Nowhere does it get stranger than when we mike an interview. We need good sound, but the fantasy side of the business requires that we hide the mike so the viewer can watch our stories without seeing cables. So in my time I’ve reached up the backs and fronts of both male and female subjects, dropped cables down the backs of their pants/skirts and retrieved cables from said locations.

Obviously I prefer shotgun and stick mikes, but they really don’t allow freedom of movement like a well-concealed lav (clip on) mike. So how do you tell someone you are about to really invade their personal space?

My first preference is to avoid personal contact – this works if the subject has a jacket or suit. Just clip the lav to the inner lapel and run the transmitter and cable down and clip on the waist. But sometimes circumstances require you to place your gear under the subject’s shirt or other clothing – where you have to get personal.

First have the right attitude – be objective. As I walk up to the subject, I say, “Excuse me, but I have to attach this mike to you. We need to conceal the cables, so may I drop it down the back of your shirt?” Generally I am ready to perform the act at this point and most of the time I get the nod of consent. As I begin my maneuvers, I explain what I am doing at each step, so that there are no suprises. And here it is:

I’m pulling the back of your shirt away and dropping the wireless transmitter (or cable for the mike). It may feel a bit cold.
Now I have to reach under the bottom or your shirt to retrieve the transmitter/cable. Next I’m going to have to clip the transmitter to your pants (or put in a pocket or whatever action I need to do).
All right, now I have to adjust the mike. Let me clip it on your collar and hide the cable. I may need to use a bit of tape to make certain it doesn’t slip.
Great – that’s it. Could you talk for a minute so I can get a sound check?

Get the idea? Talking the subject through the process educates them and tells them exactly what you are doing as you do it and there are no surprises. Keeping your voice objective removes any tension they might have that you have other motives. Kind of like a doctor as she does an intimate exam. You have a job to do and you’re a pro.

Sometimes the subject may not be comfortable with you placing the mike – so you have to let them do it. Just explain why you need to hide the mike and cable and tell them what to do. You’ll probably have to position the mike before doing the sound check.

Retrieving the mike is pretty easy – tell your subject you are going to pull the transmitter cable out and then either unclip the mike and gently pull it down the back of the shirt or pull the transmitter up the back of the shirt.

Why not have the subject do it every time? First – they are amateurs and I don’t want them damaging my wireless gear. It’s expensive. If they place the mike, most of them won’t place it properly and I have to put it where it needs to be once they’ve placed the transmitter. I can do it in half the time or less than they can. This is especially important in news – time is critical.

News photogs all have at least one fun story about wireless mikes. I’ve found that people who are “professional interviews” – politicians and others who are interviewed frequently, often begin unbuttoning their shirts when they see the mike coming.

Shotgun mikes and stick mikes require a different approach. More on that later.

Videojournalist Etiquette: Cover Shots

Everyone has personal space – the space around you in which you feel comfortable, even in a crowd. This may vary from a few inches with close friends and family to several feet or more with strangers.

Videojournalists (VJ’s) are constantly invading personal space – whether to get in close and get a shot or to put on a mike or to ask a question. Forewarning is the key to good etiquette.

In the future I’ll get into mike etiquette, talking with strangers, saying no politely. Today I’ll begin with shooting cover shots. As a videojournalist your job is to get candid visuals – not staged shots. Generally once a subject knows why you’re shooting they tend to act up for the camera. Let’s say I’m trying to get shots of someone in their front yard raking leaves….I might be half a block away when I first spot them. My first shot might be a tele shot. As I work my way down the street (camera AND tripod in hand) I’ll get a variety of shots, occassionally getting more of my subject. If the subject keeps working, I keep working my way towards them.

Stangely enough I try not to make direct eye contact when shooting my cover shots. If I can pretend I’m not there as I approach my subject, often they don’t know what to do and try to pretend I’m not there either. It might be people skating, dancing, working in the yard – whatever. Sometimes brief eye contact and a curt nod, then I go back to work, moving around and getting my shots. The purpose here is to not disrupt the mood of the subject…if I tell them I’m shooting a story then they might begin acting or even walk away. The brief acknowledgment lets them know I see them. Once I turn my direct attention away from a subject, they are curious but don’t know what else to do, so they continue with what they were doing. When I am through shooting I walk over and explain my intentions.

This method works well in many situations. If a subject walks over and asks me what I’m up to, then I explain the story in general terms and that I might be getting some shots of them as I get in their vicinity. When the subject leaves (or not) I’ll get other shots I need until they wander off or go back to what they were doing. As long as they think I am not focusing on them alone, most people are comfortable with a camera in the area.

Editing your way to a story

Editing begins the moment you decide you want to do a story. As you sift through ideas, you are constantly editing out those you don’t like. Finally, you settle on one story. Now you edit even more: you choose an angle to the story. Remember to think visually as you brainstorm.

Season: Autumn
* windy day (people blowing in the wind, kites, leaves and debris blowing)
* leaves (fall colors, raking leaves, problems leaves cause, children’s leaf art)
* weather (clouds, rain, change in moods)

Once you choose your final angle, start thinking about where to find your visuals. Hopefully you chose based on images you have already seen or know your can find. Let’s use leaves and the problems they cause as an example.

Grab your camera and tripod and start shooting. In this second stage, you continue to edit by only shooting shots that relate to your story.
For this story I know several places in my area where leaves block up drainage from streets and street crews or residents are out during rainstorms trying to unblock the drains. Keeping in mind the need for wide shots, medium shots, closeups and good natural sound, here is what I would shoot:
WS of streets littered with leaves and storm debris
WS of streets with flooding
MS of people working to unplug drains/natsound
CU of rain coming down in puddles/natsound
CU of leaves drifting in water
MS of leaves in piles
MS of leaves blocking drains
CU of drain as it is unblocked/natsound
CU of leaf hanging on in tree
MS of leaves in trees
MS of bare tree limbs
Long WS of sky (if not raining) to show clouds passing overhead
Low angle shot of leaves as they are blown by wind
MS of someone looking out car or house window at rain
You get the idea. As I am shooting I’d grab interviews, first asking people if I could talk with them on camera (I’ll post a videojournalist’s guide to etiquette eventually) and explaining briefly how the video would be used. Questions might include:
State your name and spell it
What is the best part of autumn?
How do you feel about fall and what it leaves?
Is there a problem with leaves?
Could you do without fall leaves? Why or why not?

Now the story is pretty much in the can (this is a reference back to the days when news was shot on film, which came in a metal can). What I have is a basic reaction story to the leaves and problems they cause. If I want this to both educate and entertain, I’d go a step further and try to interview a city worker and get some statistics: what is the leaf season; how many tons of leaves fall in this city every year, what kinds of problems do these leaves cause, how much does it cost to clean up leaves, etc.

Now the story I want IS in the can. Time to capture to the computer and log (write down) all of the information I’ve gathered.

Logging is an essential part of the editing process. During this process you will choose which information you will use in your story (editing even more). Your information must be accurate. As I log (this means playing back the video in the computer, noting the time code for shots or interview segments, and transcribing information I plan to use) I keep an eye open for catchy sound – well worded informative sound bites, funny soundbites, biting soundbites. I will use these to build my story.

Time to write – and to tell the truth, this is the hardest part for me to explain. Ernest Hemmingway once said that, “Writing can be learned, but not taught.” Wow. Let me try anyway.

When you create a visual story you need to catch and hold your viewer’s attention. Memorable sound and visuals help you do this. A good rule is to grab them with a strong visual or sound segment and leave them with a memorable shot/sound. Here is how I might put this story together (in script form, more of less):

Nats heavy rain hitting leaves floating
Nats water draining as drain is unplugged
Interview/comments about rain & leaf problems
MS leaves in trees, sound of wind or rustling leaves
Narrator: When autumn leaves combine with autumn weather, problems ensue. The canopy of bright colors that once clung to tree limbs carpets the streets and clogs storm drains.
Interview/city worker comment on current problms with leaves
Narrator: The city of —– has —– trees which provide shade in the summer. Autumn weather creates a rainbow of red, orange, and brown. When this rainbow disintegrates, leaves pile up on lawns and in streets. (Name of public works person) says that the annual cost to the city to haul off the —— tons of leaves is $—– annually.
Nats of resident raking/unplugging drain
Interview/comments from residents about how they love autumn
Narrator: But most feel this is a small price to pay for the annual beauty that marks the passage of seasons.
WS: nats of car driving down rainy street with strong forground shot of leaf floating in water

Once the script is written and tweaked (read over it a few times and reword and edit), we’re ready to edit the video. This is the final stage of editing – you may have shot as much as thirty minutes to an hour of video. Once you are through editing, you may only have a story that runs two to five minutes. Ideally this final product will have your strongest visuals and audio.

SFBAPPA Digital Workshop

Saturday was a bittersweet day. More than a hundred still photographers jammed into the Journalism building at SF State, all excited about learning how to create stories using still images and video as part of the SFBAPPA Digital Workshop. From my perspective they were brilliant visualizers on a steep learning curve with a long path ahead. They can already “see” – they need to learn how to move from seeing in space to seeing in time, as most videojournalists do.

Until recently, still news photography was all about space – how much space on the page is allocated for the photos. How much space on a website. The new paradigm is time – how long can a story be and still hold the viewer’s attention. How long will it take to show the photos/video. How long should each visual remain on the screen.

The questions were almost shoved at me during my workshops. How to begin creating a story. Which software program is best for editing. Everything from technical to aesthetic.
The bitter portion: few television news photographers in attendance. The two media (still and broadcasting) are on a collision course with the final implosion destined to be on the Internet. Newspapers are already claiming the future, with the old “electronic” media trailing behind.

As readers shift from hard copy and television screens to computer screens and the Internet, the media must find ways to keep up and hold their audiences. The danger is not so much in losing readers/viewers as it is in the audience losing a reliable and trustworthy resource. The old ethics must shift to the new media or we will all eventually be living in a fantasy world where nothing is real and whatever we want to believe can be validated by lies.

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