And so it ends…and so it begins

CyndyMemorial.2 I began this blog way back in 2006 as a creative vent and educational site. Over the years I’ve seen the VJ model go from the original OMB (one man band) working in a bureau and overloaded with film or tape camera, sending in their raw media via bus or driving it up to the main station for editing…to the first intrepid souls who ventured out with a laptop and dinky handycam…to today’s full blown VJs working in markets from miniscule to major.

What was once a necessity to get news from far flung regions has become a staple part of the news scene. You can argue the good, bad and ugly of the model…and trust me there are good VJs, really really bad VJs and downright don’t wanna look at their stuff ugly ones. But you can’t push back the tide. And VJs being lighter and faster are riding the waves into the future.

So this is a kind of warm farewell. I’ve said about everything I need to…although it is possible from time to time another posting may appear. Thanks for hanging in there with me. Take care.

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If I were teaching the basics…

…these days, I’d change out my old lessons plans a bit.

Used to be I’d review the camera, assign the seven basic shots, move on to a short stop action assignment, then an autobiography.  Each of these took the beginning student from nowhere through working with the camera and editing program on to more complex assignments (full bio included interviews, narration, on-camera segment, mixing music with narration).

There were mini-lessons between each of these assignments…lectures and demonstrations to edge the students towards good habits.  And I turned out some pretty darn good shooters and editors.

But now I’m out of the education game and back to working the occasional gig, in talking to producers and others on the pro side, I’m hearing (as discussed in past posts) some talk about a lack of knowledge of some of the other basics.  Plus I’m seeing an awful lot of folks searching this site for some help…it appears they know they need to learn more but aren’t sure what it is.  So here’s the new game plan…were I to be fool enough to go back to work.

One.  Always review gear before allowing students to use it.  Review and test.  What is aperture?  Where’s the lockdown on the tripod plate and how do you release it?  What’s the difference between optical and digital zoom?   Point to and name each of the manual controls on the camera.

Two.  The seven basic shots (wide, medium, close-up, extreme close-up, pan, tilt, zoom) with a kick:  require that these shots be done to create a sequence.  A sequence is a series of shots that creates a mini-scene or action in a movie or news story.  So the sequence might work like this:

  • Wide shot of students sitting in a classroom
  • Medium shot as one student stands up
  • Pan following student walking to the door
  • Extreme close-up of hand grasping doorknob
  • Shot from outside of door – close-up of student’s head as door opens and reveals him
  • Zoom out from inside classroom showing student exiting and door closing
  • Tilt down from open sky to student walking away

As with the original seven basic shots, when edited the assignment must have a title, each shot must be labelled with a short description, and there must be closing credits.

Sequencing is a critical skill…one that should be early embedded and always with the student for all future shoots.

Animation would be skipped entirely or left as an extra credit assignment once all others are done.

Three.  Now I’d add in a combination audio/lighting assignment.  Again, these were included as mini-lessons in my original teaching scheme…but again, I’m finding out that they are skills that are not always present in the newly emerging group of wanna-be videographers.  The light shots are pulled from a photography class I taught after retiring – but they apply to video as well.

  • Two shots from what I call The Hand Tip, which shows how to find the best light.
  • Then shoot ten seconds of each of the following:
    • Subject with full sun on face
    • Subject with sun coming over back (backlit)
    • Subject backlit with fill from a reflector (or white board)
    • Subject in open shade
    • Bad lighting (flare, exposure issues, whatever)
  • Test your camera for audio, as follows.  In each shot, have your subject count to five in an even, clear voice.  You can either do this outside or inside, preferably in a quiet environment.
    • Reach out and touch subject on shoulder – that is how close you will stand to them.  Shoot head shot with audio.
    • Walk back two paces or to around six feet and shoot countdown again.
    • Walk back two paces to around ten feet and shoot countdown again.
    • Finally, walk back to around 15 feet and shoot countdown.
    • Now attach a mike to subject and shoot from 15 feet.
  • Edit as follows:
    • Title page:  Light and Audio Assignment
    • Shot of hand as it reflects the sun.  When the two best lighting points are hit, put up a title that indicates the sweet spots.
    • Shot of person walking around camera, showing light changes.  When the two best lighting points hit, put up a quick title indicating sweet spots.
    • Label and place the five shots of subject in different lighting situations.  Choose one and place title explaining why you think it is best.
    • Label and place five shots with audio test.  Label with distance for each shot, then choose one and place title explaining why you choose it.
    • Closing credits

I’ve found with students that I can lecture and lecture and talk til I’m purple…but if I let THEM make all of the mistakes I made years ago, then they can see for themselves the difference between the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

Where would I go next?  Well, that all  depends on where they want to do or what you’re teaching.  Production, videojournalism, filmmaking…they all begin with the same foundation and then take divergent paths.

Four.  Sticking with videojournalism, I’d assign as follows:

  1. VO – the everyday “voice over” video story.  Cover an event such as a parade or street fair and shoot and edit a thirty-second video that allows the audience to get a feel for the sights and sounds.
  2. SOT – sound on tap.  This can either be an interview or a NATS (natural sound) story.  Keep it to a minute or less with the driving force the sound.  If an interview, it must have two segments with a cutaway shot to cover the jump cut.  NATS could be a band, ducks in a pond…an so on.
  3. VOTSOT – combines the two.  Use a combination of visuals and either an interview or NATS.  Ten seconds of VO, fifteen or twenty of SOT and another twenty of VO.
  4. PKG – the whole enchillada…the full scale package with narration, interviews, stand-up (piece to the camera), and NATS.  Telling a story in a precise and clear manner.

Students would have to adhere to the requirement of NOT directing action or characters at all.  In news you shoot what’s there and don’t direct people.  It’s real life.

I’m not getting into the details of each of the above much at this point…but if you’ve watched enough news or taken a basic class or two, you know what these are.  Maybe at some point in the future if I slow down enough to write another post there’ll be more.

And with that, I’m back into retirement and back on the road.

The lies you tell yourself…they lies they tell themselves…

As House infamously says, “Everybody lies.”

One of the “lies” of journalism is that journos are neutral – they don’t take sides.  They are objective.

Realistically objectivity is bullshit.

The difference between a professional journalist and a crazed blogger on a rant is a sense of their own weaknesses and an attempt to be fair.  

Think about it – when you tell a story.  When you delve deep into an interview to discover your character’s thoughts…you are doing it from the template of your own experiences and life.  So your questions are pre-formulated, based on your life experience and what you think your audience wants to or needs to hear.

And from the other side – if you let THEM control the story, you will get their personal take on who they are and what they do – and all the lies they tell themselves.

So a person you see as quiet and mature, may think that they are timid and inept.  Or someone you look up to as forceful and decisive may be brutally sadistic, but hide it. And others may see you as what you know you are not…it swings both ways.

Something to mull over as you head out on that next political story or while you’re shooting a rally. How much do you impose your will on reality…

Slowing down and speeding up…

Kind of contradictory terms up there. But such is life. While the metamorphosis of all things journalistic continues at a hippedy hop pace, I’ve pulled back into blissful retirement.

Too many years of wandering, searching, seeking and pushing…now is the time to take off and enjoy traveling the open roads with my life partner and love…my husband Ron.

And as we travel I’ll continue posting from time to time about our journeys or about whatever catches my interest. Life is too short to spend on a keyboard.

The importance of a presence…

20141213_094518…on the web, that is.

Lately I’ve been mentoring students and a few newbies to both videojournalism and video production.  Frankly they’re all pretty much rank beginners with the basics and a dream of getting better.  And of course, they all have a website showcasing their work.

But.

The websites are pretty much shotgun, not sharpshooter and well-aimed and focused.  They’re tossing it all out there without filtering.  The good, the bad, and the ugly are all on their sites.

Anything.

They’ve.

Ever.

Done.

Please spare me.  I don’t want to see it all – that is not only boring and a complete turn-off, but also not good for your odds of impressing a potential employer or client.  Those last two only want to see your best – what makes you stand out above the herd. What makes you the one they want to hire.

So winnow through your work.  Filter it down to your best one or two or at the most three pieces of work.  Label each story (or video) clearly, with information about your role in creating it…as well as whether it was a school project, a volunteer effort, or a paid gig.  Don’t be overly wordy (a sin I commit frequently).  Just a simple caption for each.

And speaking of writing…please remember basic English when writing.  Keep it simple, making sure your grammar and punctuation and spelling are spot-on.

Remember you are striving to work in a visual medium and everything about your site will be judged in an instant and will either attract or repel.  So stuff like color schemes and font choices do matter.  Photos do matter.  Words. Do matter.  Don’t post photos and words that are in conflict.  In other words (you know who you are) don’t say you are a journo and post a duckface and photos that imply you’d rather be in Tinseltown. Do not try to create an image that is not you…be real.  And please post your work – not just photos o you working. I honestly don’t care how you look. I want to see what you can do for me. Be who you are…a newbie with dreams.

And.

Again.

Keep it simple.

A few more items.  Don’t post your resume or all the world to see.  If asked for your resume, DO include references.  NEVER state that they are “available on request.”  Really?  So you want me to take extra steps to check you out before hiring you?

On that note – do this now, while you’re still in the prof’s mind.  Ask for (1) a recommendation letter based on what they know about you now as a student and (b) permission to use them as a reference for future gigs or employment.  If you wait two or three or more years, you’ll just be another ghostly body in their memories.  Unless you really really stood out (for good or bad reasons).  And choose who you ask to be a reference.  I gladly told all of my students I would recommend them – but they had to carefully consider what I would say about them.  Because I will not lie.  A number of kiddos really did think and back off from asking…they knew exactly how they had behaved and how much work they had done (or not).

In closing.  Have friends, mentors, teachers all check out your site and pick it apart.  Put on your rhino skin suit and take their advice as help, not hate.  While your besties might say it’s all good, they might be lying or just buying into your lies to yourself.  Listen to those who’ve been out in the big bad world and use what they tell you to fine-tune your web site.

So good luck with it and all.  And review and update your site as your skillset and experience improve.

Tah!

Addendum 3.08.2015
Wow – and just when I thought I’d seen it all – I haven’t. A local “producer” OMB (one man band) who has a great gimmick called “A Dolla for a Holla” where he pays passers-by a buck to say something in front of the camera…something positive for a program he is working on. Gets them to sign off on a model release so he can use their comments in said program. We had a discussion and I asked for his card with the intention of checking him out via his website. Um…no. No website. In fact – no web presence at all. No facebook. Googling his name, his show name, anything and he is invisible. I gotta tell ya, that if this is the new Marketing 101, then I’m clueless. As is his potential audience. (Oh – and no phone number either…apparently the ONLY way to track this enterprising young man down is through his email.)

Bite me…

So being the expert VJ and teacher, I never thought my words would come back to bite me. As in, “the only way to get good is to practice, practice, practice.”

SAMSUNG CSCIt has been a lifelong goal of mine to someday learn how to strum a guitar without scaring the livestock. My husband of many years has made that possible with a gift card – and I’m into month two of weekly lessons. It’s wonderful! I get the theory, love listening to the instructor (henceforth and in reality called Tommy) explain and expound and strum his guitar. It looks oh so very easy to do.

The truth is I’m so horrible now I’m not even good enough to be bad.

Looking back, I did a blog posting\ several years ago about keeping up with the changes in technology in visual storytelling…and the feeling you get when you can’t do something you know you can. That’s me right now with the six stringed instrument…my fingers either miss the strings or decide to take them all in. Working two hands in two directions trying to control which finger hits which string on the neck of the guitar with my left hand all the while the right hand is attempting to pick out a tune.

So I guess the advice today is to go out and challenge yourself to try something you have no clue about and see how frustrating it can be…makes me look more kindly on newbies and students who are learning how to hold the camera, manually ride focus and iris, get the sequence, correct exposure and good light and clear audio. Piece of cake for me…wish I could say the same for making music with a guitar…

Crushing dreams for being realistic?

We all have dreams. A better life. Being thinner, richer. Sometimes material things. Sometimes something else. Hopefully though we all have a way to balance our dreams with the real world and not spend life wallowing in regrets.

When I look back at my life I see that many of my dreams never materialized through either my own poor judgement or circumstances, but I don’t let it bother me. Much more than a twinge…and then I move on. I’ve been lucky enough to have two careers that totally absorbed me. Three girls who have grown into women I could never have imagined…like me they forged their own paths. And a husband who is so much a part of me that I can’t imagine life without him.

Enough about me though…here’s the rub. How do you explain to the upcoming generation how to balance reality with dreams?

I’m a cheerleader for our young people. Volunteer with high school and college age students, nudging them to excel. Mentoring more young people via the Internet, again nudging them to think about their choices. And I like to think I’ve never told a young person that they can’t do something. All things are possible. If they prepare themselves.

Now in the case of the high school students my advice is primarily take the right courses and focus on passing with a good enough grade they can move on to college and a career. In some cases I’ve actually told students they can flunk. Harsh? If you take a student who has flunked English or math or science from middle school forward pep talks don’t work. Tutoring can help but not with every student, especially if their life and home situations place barriers to becoming better. So I give them permission to flunk with the following advice.

Sure – flunk English. But you want to be an auto mechanic (or warehouseman…or beautician)? Then learn how to write a solid resume, learn how to write a business letter. Pick up a good solid workplace vocabulary…know the language of the career path you have chosen.

Sure – flunk math. But learn how to add up services and products to write a receipt. Don’t forget to include tax (a percentage of the total). Know how to write an estimate for repairs. Understand how to read your paycheck…not just the total or amount after taxes. Have a handle on all those niggling little details like FICA and state and Medicare (how big a bite those deductions take out of your hard earned money).

And now. On to college.

There are students who you know just naturally are gonna make it. They may struggle with this course or that course but they are willing to give it their best shot. Take the core hard classes and go into class with the intent not just of passing but learning. I am very proud to be acquainted with a number of these golden youth.

And then there are … the others. Those with a dream, but unwilling to be realistic. Those who just know they are going to be great but are unwilling to put in the time and effort to pay their dues at the bottom in order to earn their way slowly up the ladder to success. (Success by the way, as defined by me, is not money…but happiness in both your career and life paths.)

I run into them both on campus and the Internet. Had a discussion with a young man from India (much) earlier this morning. He tried to join a professional site I moderate which doesn’t allow students…after explaining that to him, he told me he really wanted to learn how to be a travel journalist…and after more probing, a travel cameraman. One – he is studying to be an engineer. He has no background of any kind in any phase of journalism. Not insurmountable, but his dreams are not going to happen soon.

And then more…he desperately wants to get away from home (and possibly his down-to-earth parents), travel to a foreign county (Europe or the US) and go to journalism school. And become a glamorous travel journalist/cameraman.

The implication that all a cameraman does is point and shoot. Anyone can do it. I heard that so many times over the years from folks with a home handycam…”Hey, I’ve got a Sony too. Bet I can do your job. How to I apply?”

Not. Gonna. Happen.

So more guiding…and explaining the complexity of the job. Shooting, research, scheduling, logging, transcribing, writing, logging, editing…all with the intent to pop out a concise visual story. He is much subdued but listening to the advice to consider going into engineering and working on his passion weekends. A paying job and a dream to work towards.

Meanwhile the on-campus students. The students who don’t “do” tripods. Or want to know manual controls. Just pick up a camera and wave it. Or sit in front of said camera (maybe with a shaky friend holding it) and pretend to be a celebrity interviewer. Forget about light, audio, exposure, sequencing, framing, writing, editing. It’s all in the moment.

Unfortunately that moment isn’t even their fifteen minutes of stardom. It is a momentary flash seen only by themselves and a few friends.

Yeah…the terminal termagant is crabbing today. Again…I never tell students they can’t. But also never lie to them and say they can…

Dreams are flights of hope and passion…but making them real takes dedication and work.

Afterthoughts added later…
Getting into a job as a videojournalist takes time and talent and work and to some extent luck. My crabbiness comes from seeing and listening to young people who think “anyone can do it”. Truth be told, anyone CAN do it. But to do it professionally (for pay) and in a style that compells people to actually WANT to watch you work (meanings strangers, not just friends and those who love you) takes more than a shaky hand, a dream, and being clueless.
And the journalist part is just as challenging. Knowing and understanding your legal rights. Being able to write in clear, concise English (or whatever language you own). Knowing what facts are and not “expanding” or “enhancing” them to make the story better.
Sure, I was a dreamer once. But I sweated blood and tears some days to even get in the door (which btw was pretty much closed to women in 1972 when I forged out into the work world).
Just remember all you need to do is work until you can’t move, learn until your head hurts, and aim for perfection.
Now that’s not too hard, is it?

It’s called death watch…

…the stories you go on “just in case”…

Routine almost to the point of boring.   Hop on over to Amanda Emily’s The Dope Sheet and check it out.

Addendum April 13, 2014. Just noticed how many folks are clicking through on the link above and think I’d better explain a bit. A lot of times news crews are given routine assignments that may or may not end with something on air/published. The intent is more to be present just in case something happens. There are crews routinely assigned to follow and travel with the President and other world dignitaries. Some days the images captured never go anywhere…but the crews are still there. Just in case. Think of past attempts to take down the President…those are the times having a crew on scene paid off. Think about the Hindenburg…crews on scene captured that tragedy. It’s a bet…a gamble…one you don’t even want to come true. But. Crews are there.

How do I choose a camera?

Panasonic AG-HMC150 and Samsung NX-1000
Panasonic AG-HMC150 and Samsung NX-1000

Dangerous ground…especially if you don’t know enough to know what you should be looking for.

This blog posting is for those who want to stretch their knowledge and move beyond simple P&S (point and shoot) folks who just use their cameras to take family photos or video or LAMIGABEC! (Look at me – I’ve got a big expensive camera!) types who are all about impressing folks.

This blog posting is for those of you who just know somehow you’re missing out on the real secrets of shooting and editing video…what makes the magic. As mentioned in a previous posting, it’s not the wand…it is the magician waving the wand that makes the magic. But you do, after all, need a wand…and right now it seems you’re ready to move up to a more powerful one…

Before anything…you must consider what you will be using the camera for. Are you into news video? Documentaries? Movie-making? Event videography? Although this may not affect your decision a lot, you should have some idea of where you want to take your journey.

Next – budget. Don’t even think about buying gear until you have a rough idea of your budget. The low end is not the problem – it’s the high end you need to set. And set it firmly. Once you start shopping you may find yourself wanting to stretch that budget “just a little bit more” for a slightly better camera…and then want to stretch it again…and again. I went through the same throes about three years when I set a camera budget of $3000 and found myself looking at $10,000 cameras. A quick reality check and I had to back off. Finally got a Panasonic AG-HMC150 for around $2700 and had enough left for spare batteries and cards.

Part of the reality check includes a few things you will need to budget for in addition to media and accessories. Media tops the list after the camera. Hopefully you’ve already picked up a (somewhat workable) tripod somewhere. You can get by with one battery initially. But you will need a microphone other than what’s built-in to the camera. And you WILL need to pay taxes and shipping (which can run you over budget if you’re not thinking).

Now…on to choosing the camera. Fist, think about form. The choices are pretty simple: DSLR, Micro 4/3 – basically still cameras and camcorder/video cameras. If you’re serious you want a camera/camcorder with a microphone input, headset out (to monitor audio) and some way to manually control aperture, shutter speed, ISO.

Video cameras are meant to shoot video. Prices for a camera with the features mentioned above generally start at a higher price point than the still camera choices. On the low end they have attached lens and controls accessible by menu. On the higher end the controls are located where you can see and access them on the camera body. The camera itself is meant to be hand-held (or tripod-mounted). You can monitor your visuals through either the LCD or a viewfinder (for shooting in bright sunlight). The camera has a built-in microphone/usually a shotgun or directional mike. But you can also plug in an external mike through either 3.5mm/mini-jack inputs or XLR/professional connectors. On the lower end of the price range the lenses are part of the camera…as you hit mid-range pricing (say around $3,000 to $4,000) you can get cameras with detachable lenses, giving you more options for shooting extreme wide angle or tele shots.

Still cameras are meant to shoot still photographs, but many today also shoot video. Again, you want the same features if you’re serious. Mike input, headset out, manual controls. One of the primary advantages of this category of camera is that even with the lower end cameras you can get detachable lenses or buy adapters and use old film lenses and get shallow depth of field – meaning you can selectively choose what is in focus and what is not. Although the same effect can be achieved with camcorders, it takes more knowledge and is not always as effective (until – once again – you get into being able to detach and choose lenses). The form factor of still cameras does not always lend itself to handheld…these cameras are designed to be held while following and shooting stills. It is more difficult to hold them steady for video clips. So you may need a rig – a contraption that helps you hold the camera steady while hand-holding. The built-in microphones on still cameras are not as effective as those on video cameras. You need to search and make sure you purchase a camera with both an LCD and viewfinder…preferable an orientable LCD so you can slap that camera on the ground or hold over your head and still be able to monitor your images. Still cameras with mike inputs all use 3.5/mini-jack inputs. Or (if your budget is low) there may not be an input for an external mike at all. So…more choices. If no mike input, purchase a digital audio recorder…something you can place or hold out to get clear audio. Of course you’re going to have to synch the audio and video up in editing, which adds to your production time. Next – purchase microphones with mini-jack terminals. Third, get an XLR adapter so you can use professional mikes. Regarding manual controls…still cameras tend to be menu driven, although at the higher end there are more options for external control.

Now I’ve shot with both video cameras (a lot) and a micro 4/3 (a bit) and the images are stunning on both. The micro 4/3 I have does not have any mike inputs so I’ve had to resort to holding a little DAR/digital audio recorder out the same way I would hold a stick mike to do interviews. It works fine…and for around $280 for the still camera vs. $2700 for the video camera…I can do that.

If you’re on a learning curve…look at all of the alternative affordable options and work your way up the food chain of cameras.
Happy trails!

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